Welcome back to the next exciting installment of Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I. If you’ve ever wondered what Star Trek would be like as a modern, Tom Clancy-esque techno-thriller, you’ve come to the right place. Just in case you’ve missed the previous installment, you can find it here:
“That the Vulcans are a tremendous asset to this Federation there can be no doubt. The contributions they have made in the fields of science, art, diplomacy—all are innumerable. But I can’t help but wonder how it might have gone had we just known more about them from the start.
The same question now faces us with the Bezzeret.”
—Fleet Captain Gregory Quinn,
on the admission of the Bezzeret
to the United Federation of Planets
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
THE FALSE FLAG
Federation Outer Marker, Sector 512
“Reading subspace anomalies again,” the officer at tactical reported, swearing under his breath—but not so quietly that the man in the center seat couldn’t hear him. Realizing his mistake the second it came out of his mouth, he girded himself for the reprimand sure to follow.
Commodore Rigby didn’t disappoint. “Keep monitoring, Lieutenant,” he snapped, making his displeasure known—but mostly for show. He knew his reputation among the junior officers and maintained it as a point of pride. Old enough to remember the Big Bang first hand and twice as mean. You just didn’t let something like that go to waste. “And secure the attitude, if you please. There’s no room for that kind of language on my bridge.”
“Aye, sir,” the lieutenant replied, chastened.
Rigby let it go at that, turning his watchful gaze on the rest of his people, carefully noting how each of them performed under the pressure of a yellow alert. The “bridge” he spoke of was actually nothing of the sort—at least in comparison to the great starships that the commodore liked to equate with his station. Much larger than that, the Outer Marker’s combat information center (CIC) occupied two full decks and required a staff of two dozen officers and crew, all of whom manned their posts in a state of tense readiness. The commodore observed them from his perch on the upper deck, which looked down on all the other stations, and had a direct view of a large holographic display at the center of the room. Overhead lights dimmed to a cool blue as a 3-D map appeared over the display, stretching from floor to ceiling and showing the various grids that comprised the entire sector.
Those who could turned anxious faces toward the map, watching carefully—as if their lives hung in the balance—for what the tactical officer had only implied: evidence of an incursion into Federation space. Rigby drilled his people constantly for this kind of scenario, but for most of them this marked the first time they faced it for real.
“Look sharp, everyone,” the commodore told them. “This is what we get paid for.”
The tactical officer jumped as his panel beeped again. He hunched over the display, his hands working the interface as he sifted through a mass of conflicting returns. “Definite contact this time,” he said, applying a filter to the background noise. “Also detecting a residual subspace trail—I think he just dropped out of warp, sir.”
The tactical officer hit another button and sent his console to the main display, while everyone else waited in total silence. Nothing appeared for several moments—until a tiny dot flickered on the holograph, shooting across the grids like a comet.
And then it disappeared.
Tactical pounded on his controls. “Damn!”
The commodore was unfazed. “Cartography, wash contact through enhanced sensors. Extrapolate position from last tracking.”
Another one of the officers—fresh out of the Academy like most of the people assigned here—ran a quick check through her computer and overlaid the result on the holograph. “Contact bearing zero seven nine, mark eight.”
“Within five grids, Commodore.”
“Match bearings from last three contacts and project a course.”
“Aye, sir.” Within moments, the holograph drew a straight line across the grids that ended up at the center of the display.
“Headed right toward us, sir,” the cartographer spoke, turning a grave stare in his direction. Rigby didn’t like it much either—especially with the Cardassians a scant two parsecs away. If they were going to make trouble, this would be as good a place as any to start.
“Red alert,” he ordered.
Security activated the alarm, its dreadful wail filling the corridors of the entire station. Voices chattered across the CIC as different sections reported in.
“All stations confirm red alert,” security said. “Standing by.”
“Ready battle stations.”
“Battle stations, aye.”
“Signal all patrol ships to go hot on active sensors,” Rigby finished, taking in a deep breath. The sideways glances of his crew told him what he already knew: that banging away with active sweeps ran a tremendous risk. If this turned out to be a ferret mission, Rigby would be giving the enemy exactly what it wanted—the position and routes of all his starship assets. At this point, however, he had no choice. “Tell them I need a location on the intruder.”
“Aye, sir,” the comm officer replied. After a few moments, he reported back: “All patrols acknowledge go on active sensors. Spreading out in a search pattern now.”
Rigby nodded, watching the holograph with intense interest. His own fleet of ten ships had taken positions encircling the Outer Marker, their sensors sweeping across the grids like ripples on the surface of a lake. Rigby winced at the thought of it. Aside from leaving huge gaps in the search area, the sensor trails were an open invitation to a weapons lock. It was all part of this dangerous game they played out on the frontier—one the commodore knew only too damned well. But he also knew that sometimes, dumb luck worked just as well as strategy and tactics. Especially when dumb luck was all you had.
“Acquisition!” tactical shouted. “Signal’s strong as hell!”
Rigby tuned out the excitement because he could see it for himself on the display. The contact screamed out to be noticed this time, a pulsing dot that hurtled across the grid on an erratic course. Except that this time, there was more than one contact.
A second one trailed the first, matching it move for move.
“What the hell is that?” Rigby demanded.
“Unknown,” tactical said. “Unable to get a precise configuration on either vessel.”
“Where’s this feed coming from?”
“Thomas Paine, sir.”
Rigby felt his heart skip. Thomas Paine always gave him pause—especially the cold and distant style of her current command.
“Any other ships in the immediate area?” he asked as a matter of caution.
“Escobar is the next in line.”
“Damn,” the commodore muttered. Thomas Paine was three grids closer, and closing in on the contacts already. Escobar would take at least three more minutes to get there.
A whole lot can happen in three minutes.
“Thomas Paine is cleared to intercept,” Rigby decided. “Tell Captain Rixx to use whatever means necessary to halt the intruder.” After a long pause, he added: “If the intruder refuses to comply, Rixx is authorized to splash him.”
The comm officer passed on the order.
“Thomas Paine, acknowledged,” a raspy voice boomed on the overhead speaker. It was the most the commodore had heard Rixx say in the entire time he had been stationed at the Outer Marker. The finality in his tone made Rigby nervous, though there was little he could do about it now. Command was about making choices, and Rigby had made his. He just hoped to God that it wasn’t a mistake.
It’s all in your hands now, Rixx. Don’t start something that I can’t finish.
Especially a war.
USS Thomas Paine
The conn officer, Marlowe, bit her lip nervously while her eyes remained glued to the viewscreen ahead. Working the controls by touch, she made the delicate adjustments to the ship’s heading and speed, bleeding off power to avoid overshooting the target.
“One-half grid distance from last contact,” she announced in a subdued tone. “Executing parabolic course to conform with our initial IP.”
“Active sensors, extended pulse.”
“Aye, Skipper,” ops replied. Nomuri, who had the station, spoke in a deep, reassuring voice—although his face betrayed a certain apprehension, the same as everyone else on the bridge. A single beep sounded off on Nomuri’s panel as he sent another invisible wave of sensor energy into the void ahead of them.
Within moments, the science station lit up with the return data. Crakta, the executive officer, read the display and hardly knew where to begin. “Reading all kinds of disruption in the subspace field,” he stammered, raising his voice as he tried keep up with all the changes. “Like some kind of directed energy trying to break through!”
“Keep your wits about you, Commander,” Captain Rixx said, his voice a low growl. It was his trademark tone, intimidating without being loud, but even that couldn’t compare to his eyes. A blazing red, they seemed to burn inside their sockets—typical for a Bolian, enough to scare the hell out of everyone else. “Just analyze.”
“Yes, sir,” Crakta replied, immediately calming down. “One contact is coming in as clear as day—one-eighth parsec and closing. The other one, it’s. . .well, it’s almost like it’s not really there, sir.”
Heads turned toward the science officer, then toward the captain.
“Must be interference,” Marlowe suggested. “Maybe jamming.”
“That would be a real trick at superlight speeds,” Rixx grunted. “Run signature through the tactical computer. Try to find a match.”
Nomuri sent the command to Thomas Paine’s computer core. Within seconds, it processed the request returned with an answer. Nomuri shot a glance back at his commanding officer when he saw what it was.
“It’s an FTB, sir. Verified as a type 9A shuttlecraft, registry CDC-15792. That’s a civilian bird, Captain. The way they’re hauling ass, they must be under attack.”
“Sound general quarters,” Rixx ordered.
Nomuri hit the alarm Klaxon, flooding the bridge with red alert lights as crewmen strapped themselves in at their stations. Rixx sat back in his own chair, listening to the chatter as it came in over the various comms and speakers. Outwardly, his expression never changed from its cold and calculating norm—though inside, his two hearts raced to keep up with the accelerating pace of events.
“All decks answering general quarters,” Nomuri reported. “All hands at battlestations.”
“Phasers online,” Marlowe added. “Torpedo bays loaded.”
Rixx nodded. “Speed of intruder?”
“Warp 4.5,” Crakta answered. “Gods, the pilot must be flying that shuttle apart.”
“Match speed of intruder and plot course to bring us around his flank. Make sure that he knows we mean business.” Rixx gripped the armrests of his chair, feeling the subtle changes in his vessel as she answered his commands. “Recalculate time to intercept.”
“Estimated twenty seconds.”
“Establish a target lock as soon as she’s in range. Comm, open up hailing frequency.”
“Stand by,” Rixx said calmly.
The shuttle appeared on the viewscreen first, little more than a blurry smear against a backdrop of night. As it moved in closer, Rixx finally got a better look at the tiny ship—and from what he could see, it was a wonder that the thing held together. Coolants vented from the widening seams in her hull, multi-colored swirls that fell in and out of the subspace field and distorted her flight path. Rixx couldn’t even imagine how the pilot maintained control, though one thing was for certain: it wouldn’t last much longer.
“Five seconds to IP.”
“Ready tractor beam,” Rixx said. “On my mark—”
“Belay that!” Marlowe shouted, cutting him off. “Detecting weapons lock, second contact, bearing zero-seven-zero!”
“Disengage!” Rixx ordered, but by then it was too late. As the shuttle roared past, a blistering salvo of incoming fire made a line directly for Thomas Paine.
A blinding flash overloaded the viewscreen. In that same moment, the entire bridge seemed to explode around Rixx, the deck heaving violently beneath his feet. It was as if the hand of God had smacked his ship, sending her into a spin as her inertial dampeners fought to compensate. Then the overhead lights went dark, casting the bridge into a hellish stop-motion strobe, with sparks flying from consoles and debris raining down from the ceiling. For a few terrifying seconds, Rixx genuinely believed Thomas Paine had been mortally wounded. But then, just as quickly, she managed to right herself, the bridge lights flickering back on as the force of impact faded to a distant rumble.
The air, thick with smoke, stung Rixx’s eyes as he took it all in.
“Damage report!” he barked. Hearing no answer, he jerked his chair toward the science station. There, he found Crakta, slumped over a ruined console. The half of his face that Rixx could see was smoldering, charred beyond recognition.
“Sweet Jesus,” Nomuri whispered.
Rixx cut him off with an icy glance, punching the intercom button on his chair.
“Sickbay, dispatch EMTs to the bridge immediately,” he said. “Mister Nomuri, route engineering and science through ops. I need to know our condition.”
“Aye, Skipper,” he coughed, his own console battered but still working. “Shields are functional, but down 21 percent. Moderate damage to the warp coils—drive still available through warp factor five.”
“What about the hull?”
“Minor breach in section ten. Sealing off now.”
All that through the shields, Rixx thought. What did they hit us with?
He ignored his own question, instead fixing his attention on his chair’s tactical display. It showed the second contact continuing its pursuit of the shuttle. Clearly, whoever had fired on them wasn’t interested in Thomas Paine.
“Best speed,” he ordered. “Advise base we are in pursuit of hostile contact and request all available assistance.”
Comm relayed the message while Marlowe steered the ship into her new course. She watched her panel closely as Thomas Paine accelerated, a menacing shudder reverberating through her decks. Rixx didn’t like it one damned bit—but he wasn’t about to back off either. The intruder had violated Federation space and drawn first blood. Now Rixx had to make sure they paid dearly for it.
“Coming up on firing range,” Marlowe said.
“Sierra dispersal on torpedoes. Plot a solution.”
On the main viewer, the intruder dogged every move the shuttle made, trying to position itself for a clean shot. Amazingly, the shuttle managed to keep other ship in its baffles, its vapor trail confusing sensors enough to prevent a weapons lock.
“Mister Nomuri,” Rixx said. “Can you identify hostile vessel?”
“Checking now,” the ops officer replied, his display rolling through dozens of configurations and trying to find a match. “I’ll need a few seconds to run a comparison against the registry.”
“We don’t have a few seconds,” Rixx informed him, his eyes narrowing as he studied the intruder. It swooped down on the shuttle like a hungry raptor, a dangerous maneuver that brought the two ships suicidally close. Aiming on visuals alone, it let loose with another salvo that went wild and careened off into the darkness. Rixx had to smile at the shuttle pilot’s turn of good luck, but knew it wouldn’t hold.
“I have a solution,” Marlowe announced. “Torpedoes locked and loaded.”
I don’t know who you are, Rixx, thought, but you’re about to find out who I am.
“Fire,” he said.
Marlowe reached for the fire control, set to mash down on it—until Nomuri grabbed her arm and yanked it back.
“Hold fire!” he shouted, looking back at the captain. “She’s a Bezzeret!”
Rixx, ready to pounce on his ops officer for countermanding him, felt his jaw drop open. Nomuri might as well have identified the intruder as another Federation starship—and for a moment, he simply couldn’t accept the truth of it. That vessel had fired on them, attacked a civilian transport and killed at least one member of his crew. According to the rules of engagement, Rixx had every right to blow him out of the stars.
“It’s verified, sir,” Nomuri implored, reading the captain’s intent. “Scout class, engine signature confirmed. Records list her as Ursad’kaa.”
Rixx dropped back into his chair.
“She’s one of ours, Captain.”
A deathly still descended on the bridge. One by one, expectant faces turned toward Rixx, hoping to find some kind of solace—but Rixx had none to offer them. This was more than some errant Cardassian straying over the border, more than some fleeting political incident. Rixx had just landed them in the middle of something much bigger—and now it had escalated into a full-blown crisis.
Gods only knew where it would go from there.
“Captain—” Marlowe interjected. “Sir, the shuttle appears to be losing power—it looks like she’s falling out of warp. I think her engines have had it, sir.”
Up on the screen, the shuttle started to shimmer in and out of reality as her subspace field began to collapse. Marlowe brushed Nomuri aside and planted her hand back over the fire control, then waited on Rixx to make his decision.
“What do we do, sir?”
Rixx didn’t have a lot of choices. He couldn’t engage the Bezzeret without explicit permission, but he couldn’t let their action stand without a challenge. With the situation deteriorating, he needed a middle ground—and he needed it fast.
That meant finding out how far the Bezzeret were willing to take this.
“Put us between the intruder and the shuttle,” Rixx said. “Match speeds to follow them down to sublight. If he wants that shuttle, he’ll have to go through us first.”
Marlowe, realizing the implications of that order, nodded gravely.
“Aye, Skipper,” she said, and kicked Thomas Paine into a warp burst that slung her straight over the other ships. Marlowe then piloted them into a z-spin, spiraling downward before dropping out of warp altogether. Appearing in real space just ahead of the scout, Thomas Paine swung about to keep the shuttle astern, offering a measure of protection.
Until the scout burst out of warp, and faced off against them.
The bow of the Bezzeret vessel loomed large in the view screen, like a cobra poised to strike. Her captain, testing their resolve, tried a breakneck turn to get around Thomas Paine, but Marlowe stayed right in the scout’s flight path—chess pieces positioned against one another, knight versus queen.
If we’re that evenly matched, Rixx thought.
“In the line of fire,” Nomuri muttered, staring down the Bezzeret ship. A rounded command section tapered back into smooth lines that ran the length of her frame, which swept back into a delta formation, with a single engine nacelle mounted to her dorsal—an harsh design, both intimidating and deadly. “If they decide to fight…”
“We won’t stand a chance,” Marlowe finished.
Rixx had heard about Bezzeret weapons technology, and knew Marlowe was probably right. A Galaxy-class would have a run for its money with this fearsome vessel—and Thomas Paine was only a frigate. If the Bezzeret had meant to kill them, they would already be dead.
But that’s not what he’s after. He’s more shrewd than that. The attack was only meant to confuse us—to give him enough cover to finish off the shuttle and then get out before we knew what hit us. Except it took a little longer than he anticipated…
Rixx never blinked, his eyes locked on the view screen.
“Your move,” he intoned.
A leaden silence descended over the bridge, the air still rife with smoke and ozone, the undercurrent of Thomas Paine’s impulse engines and the creaking of her decks magnifying the tension that everyone felt. During those moments, with life and death balanced in perfect equilibrium, Rixx let nothing slip—not to himself, not to his crew, nor to the enemy that faced him down. With backup only minutes away, he could afford to wait.
If he’ll let me.
Then Nomuri’s panel beeped, and the game was on again.
“Skipper,” the ops officer began, reading the display on his console. “Alien vessel just engaged her tractor beam. She’s targeting the shuttle, sir.”
Slippery bastard, Rixx thought. He doesn’t want to start a war after all.
“Can we extend our shields around the shuttle?” he snapped.
“Negative,” Marlowe said. “Not with the damage we sustained.”
Rixx scowled, though he admired the sheer audaciousness of it. The Bezzeret had found a third way—and put the ball right back in his court.
Nomuri’s panel beeped again. “They’re hailing us, Captain.”
“Now he wants to talk,” Rixx muttered, not at all surprised. “Mister Marlowe, what is the condition of the shuttle?”
“Don’t ask me how,” Marlowe replied, “but she’s still holding atmosphere. Indeterminate life signs—but the readings are consistent with a single human passenger.”
The hail sounded again, goading for an answer.
Rixx paused a moment—deliberately—then hit the comm button on his chair. “Transporter room, lock on the life form aboard that shuttle and stand by to beam out as soon as we can lower the shields.” Then, finally, he told Marlowe: “Open channel.”
The Bezzeret ship dissolved off the view screen, replaced by the image of her captain. He appeared humanoid, though considerably taller, with light orange skin and large black eyes that made him difficult to read. That alone set Rixx on edge. Sizing up strangers—especially dangerous ones—had become an obsession for him in the last four years. It was the one thing that kept him alive when so many people wanted him dead.
“This is Captain Rixx of the Federation frigate Thomas Paine,” he said, angrily preventing the Bezzeret from getting the first word. “Identify yourself.”
The Bezzeret remained calm and detached, as if addressing Rixx was beneath him.
“I am Tyrian, in command of the Bezzeret vessel Ursad’kaa.”
“Ursad’kaa, be advised that you have intruded on Federation space and fired on a Federation ship. You are hereby ordered to stand down and immediately cease any and all hostile action.”
“Captain,” the Bezzeret replied, unimpressed, “please be advised that we are also an allied Federation vessel accorded full rights and access to all sectors of Federation space. We are currently engaged in a lawful action to arrest and detain an individual who has committed high crimes against the Bezzeret people. Do you wish to render assistance?”
Rixx could hardly believe it.
“Assistance?” he shot back. “Ursad’kaa, you fired on a friendly vessel. I demand that you power down, lower your shields, and escort me back to base.”
“It is not the habit of ours to fire on allied ships,” he said diplomatically—but without the hint of an apology. “The Bezzeret have been a productive part of the United Federation of Planets for many years. But this unfortunate situation has placed us all in the most grave of circumstances.”
The turbolift doors opened at the rear of the bridge. A pair of EMTs emerged, running over to where Crakta lay—dead or alive was anyone’s guess. Rixx made sure the Bezzeret got a good look at their handiwork before addressing them again.
The Bezzeret captain stiffened—a crack in his inscrutable demeanor. He leaned over and consulted with one of his officers, the two of them trading murmurs while Rixx thought: He’s deciding which lie to tell.
“I’m not at liberty to reveal details,” the Bezzeret finally answered, “except that it involves the highest levels of state security. The occupant of that shuttle is a dangerous individual. It is imperative that he be returned to my home world for questioning.”
“That still doesn’t justify your actions.”
“I mean to avert a disaster, Captain Rixx.”
“Then alert Starfleet Command,” Rixx growled. “Let them sort it out.”
“We cannot allow that,” the Bezzeret captain said, looking to somewhere off screen and giving orders in his native language. When he returned his attention to Rixx, his expression hardened—enough for Rixx to know that negotiations were over. “Not when this matter involves a possible Starfleet conspiracy.”
Conspiracy… Just hearing the word brought back a flood of memories, the pain of loss—and the paranoia that had followed Rixx ever since.
“My government truly regrets this incident,” the Bezzeret finished, “but at this point we have little choice.”
“Skipper—” Nomuri reported, as his panel sounded another alert. “I’m reading activity on board the shuttle—some kind of energy surge, now dissipating.” He then looked up at Rixx with an ashen face. “Sir, all life signs are now gone. They must have beamed him out.”
Gods damn it, Rixx thought in disgust. Starfleet had upgraded most of its ships with nodal transporter relays, but Thomas Paine had not yet been scheduled for her refit. That meant Rixx couldn’t use the transporter while his shields were up. The Bezzeret, apparently, didn’t have the same problem.
“Tractor beam at stop,” Nomuri said. “They’re cutting the shuttle loose.”
“Of course they are,” Rixx muttered, feeling utterly defeated. “They don’t need the ship. They already have what they want.”
Up on the screen, the Bezzeret captain nodded as another one of his officers confirmed the capture. He then turned back to Rixx, rattling off a statement as if it had been prepared for him—his voice echoing across subspace on an open transmission, broadcast to the Outer Marker and all points beyond.
“This is First Commander Tyrian, Bezzeret Fifth Fleet, in command of the vessel Ursad’kaa,” he announced. “I hereby alert Starfleet Command that as of this stardate, I am officially taking custody of a Federation national on the charges of espionage. The prisoner will be taken aboard this ship back to the Bezzeret home world, at which time we will provide you with the details of his identity and the nature of his crimes. Until that time, you will take no steps to interfere with rendition. Any such action will be declared hostile by the Bezzeret government and met with extreme sanction.”
On that cold threat, the transmission ended.
Rixx sank into his chair, the Bezzeret scout returning to the main viewer. She veered to port, thrusters nudging her away from Thomas Paine before she came about, her impulse engines glowing bright red as they engaged.
“Target is moving to withdraw,” Marlowe said. “Shall I plot a course to follow?”
Conspiracy, Rixx pondered again. It was a subject he knew all to well. The last person to raise the possibility of one with him was Walker Keel, when he believed his beloved Starfleet to be in mortal danger. That revelation had cost Keel his life and Rixx the better part of a career. He wasn’t about to go through that hell again—not without arming himself first.
“Captain?” Marlowe prodded. “Do we pursue?”
“No,” Rixx answered flatly. “Let her go.”
Nomuri was astonished. Marlowe was incredulous.
“But sir,” she protested, “we can’t just—”
“Let them win?” Rixx asked reflectively. “A harsh lesson of command is knowing how to pick your battles, lieutenant—especially when the outcome has already been decided.”
Marlowe’s eyes narrowed at him, defiant and angry—but finally lowered, her head shaking ever so slightly in disappointment. Rixx knew what she was thinking. He saw the same thing in the rest of the bridge crew: that subtle loss of confidence, slipping only by degrees—but enough to break the illusion of infallibility. Ordinarily, such things were poison on board a space vessel. The alternative, however, was worse. There were much bigger things at work—and Rixx wasn’t about to play the game until he understood the rules.
If there are any.
Everyone resumed their duties without saying a word. The EMTs, meanwhile, loaded Crakta onto an antigravity stretcher, carting him out through the rear turbolift. One of them stayed behind and approached the captain’s chair, her own face streaked with soot and sweat. “Sickbay’s full, Skipper,” she said. “Mostly burns and a few broken bones. It could have been a whole lot worse.”
Rixx nodded. “What about Crakta?”
“Touch and go, sir. We got the burns under control, but he suffered some severe neural trauma. We’ll need to put in as soon as possible and get him to a real facility.”
Rixx affirmed her request and sent the EMT on her way. Up on the viewer, a distorted flash of light marked the appearance of another frigate as she dropped out of warp. The vessel quickly pulled up alongside Thomas Paine.
“Escobar is hailing us, Captain,” Marlowe said. “They’re requesting damage report and ask if they can render assistance.”
Fine timing, Rixx thought.
“Negative,” he replied. “Just have them take the shuttle in tow back to base. Signal the other ships and inform them that the intruder has withdrawn.”
“I’m reading something else, Captain,” Nomuri interjected. “It must’ve gotten lost in all the radio noise—that’s why I didn’t pick up on it before.”
“What is it?”
“A low-frequency transmission, cycling itself every few seconds.” He paused for a moment while he tracked it on his panel. “I think it’s coming from the shuttle, sir.”
“Maybe it’s a distress beacon,” Marlowe suggested.
“It’s broadcasting on the same channel,” Nomuri said, “but this is a voice message.”
Rixx frowned. “Put it on speaker.”
The message was garbled, punctuated with bursts of static and reverb that made it sound like a ghostly voice from another world. And the words, though cryptic, chilled Rixx to the core of his being.
“Under attack…all dead…they must know the truth…I’m so sorry, Jenny…”
Over and over again, the crew listened—looking to one another, their faces drawn, wondering what it all meant. The message grew weaker with each cycle, until after a few minutes it ceased altogether.
“The shuttle’s dead, Captain,” Nomuri said. “That was the last of her power.”
“Escobar reports she’s ready to link up,” Marlowe added. “Moving into position now.”
“Belay that,” Rixx ordered abruptly. “Tell Escobar to stand by to receive a medical emergency. They’ll be transporting Commander Crakta back to base. We will remain behind and secure the shuttle ourselves.”
“Escobar acknowledging, sir,” Marlowe said. She then looked back toward her captain, more curious now than angry. “Forgive me if I speak out of turn, sir, but is there a reason for this change?”
Rixx wasn’t really sure about that himself. With nothing else to rely on, all he had were his instincts—and right now, they warned of an even greater danger. He was involved now, as was his ship. As much as he wanted to, he could not escape that path.
They must know the truth.
Until Rixx knew what that was, he couldn’t trust anyone outside his command.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” he said.
A transporter beam flooded the cabin with a brilliant blue, depositing a single passenger on the deck before retreating into pitch black. Rixx quickly turned on his helmet lights, trying to orient himself in the sudden onset of zero-g, his environmental suit making it difficult to maneuver in such a tight space. It was a bulky thing, with a thruster pack just in case he needed to do some unscheduled EVA activity—an unlikely scenario, but under the circumstances Rixx thought it best to take no chances.
Especially since he was beaming in alone.
Marlowe, of course, had objected—especially since Rixx had made her acting XO, which made it her job to second guess him. Rixx, however, wanted to make sure he could lay eyes on the shuttle before anyone else could mess with it. He knew from personal experience that evidence had a habit of disappearing—and if he was right about this, the firestorm with the Bezzeret had only gotten started.
Rixx steadied himself against the bulkheads, taking in the small but dense surroundings. His helmet lights stabbed through the darkness, sweeping across small pieces of flotsam: a pen, a computer PADD, a glove that tumbled lazily in front of his faceplate—eerie relics of missing persons, their fates unknown. He ducked under a tangle of exposed wiring, and noticed the carbon scarring that ran from floor to ceiling—angry black swatches that made it seem as if the entire cabin had burned before the air finally leaked out. With the pounding the shuttle had taken, it was a miracle she hadn’t broken apart.
What made the Bezzeret come after you like this?
Rixx proceeded forward, into the crew compartment. Counting the seats, he saw that the shuttle had been modified to carry eight to ten people. Clearly the pilot, flying solo, hadn’t gone out alone. He had only returned that way.
Rixx opened up a channel and hailed Thomas Paine.
“Marlowe here, Skipper.”
“The ship is secure,” Rixx said, perusing the area around him as he spoke. “No signs of additional passengers or crew, even though she looks to be fitted for light to medium transport.”
“Maybe they abandoned ship.”
“I don’t think so. Wherever he came from, the pilot left in a hurry. My guess is that the others—whoever they were—never made it back.”
“Pretty cold to leave your crew behind like that.”
“Not if they were already dead. Stand by.”
Rixx closed the channel. As he peered through the murky vacuum, his helmet light fell upon some personal items—pictures mostly, tacked throughout the cabin as mementos of lives that no longer existed, along with several pieces of clothing. Rixx searched through them, trying to find anything that might identify who had been on board. The pockets yielded nothing of value, and in frustration Rixx cast the clothing aside—all except for a jacket draped over one of the chairs. From the size, Rixx guessed it had belonged to a woman. At first glance, the light fabric didn’t appear to conceal anything within—but Rixx picked it up anyway, turning the jacket inside out and giving it a hard shake.
A single object glinted in the darkness as it came loose, catching his attention. Rixx reached out and grabbed the thing before it could float away, his fingers wrapping around a silver chain. He brought it back and examined it closely, turning the delicate piece of jewelry over in his gloved hands. Tethered to one end was a locket—an ancient one, from what Rixx could tell, with intricate patterns carved into the surface.
Rixx fumbled with it for a few moments, finally managing pop it open. Inside, he found the pictures of a human male and female, both smiling in that alien way that Rixx had never quite grown accustomed to. And each had a tiny engraving at the base of the photo.
J underneath the man. J2 underneath the woman.
Rixx bagged the locket, then moved all the way into the cockpit. The instrumentation was mostly ruined, burned black from a massive overload, the forward windows cracked and caked with ice crystals. Squeezing himself into the co-pilot’s position, Rixx checked where the pilot had been sitting and found the chair matted with frozen blood. Splatters extended over to the flight panel as well, with smears in the shape of fingertips all over the control stick.
And, even more ominous than that, a name scrawled in the very same blood:
The last letters were only half there, as if the pilot had been in the middle of writing his name when the Bezzeret transporter caught him.
“Rixx to Thomas Paine.”
“Aye, skipper,” Marlowe answered.
“I found traces of blood here. It looks pretty bad, but the pilot was definitely alive before he was beamed out. I also have a name: Dalton. See if you can make a connection between that and the shuttle’s registry.”
“Running it now. Anything else?”
“Use your superstition and wish me luck. I’m going to supply power to the ship’s computer.”
“That could be dangerous, sir. With the ship in that kind of condition—”
“I’m not taking her into warp, Mister Marlowe. I just want to check her logs, if that meets with your approval.”
Marlowe paused for a tense moment.
“Of course, captain,” she said. “Standing by.”
Marlowe was correct, of course. Any application of power had the potential to short out a fuel cell or ignite one of the thruster tanks, either of which could cause an explosion—but Rixx had to take the risk if he wanted to download the shuttle’s data. Unplugging the battery pack from his suit, he connected it to a receptacle below the flight panel and started feeding in energy. The cockpit lights flickered on and off for a few moments, along with what was left of the interface panels, the displays pouring out a stream of gibberish to the sound of screaming alarms. Rixx closed his eyes and steeled himself, then reached over to the master switch, his hand hovering over the red flashing button.
Gods be with me.
He pushed down hard, and all at once the alarms stopped. Rixx savored the silence for a few seconds before checking his battery pack. There was a steady flow into the shuttle’s computer, but power levels were dropping fast. At best, Rixx had about three minutes before the cells depleted and he had to get out of there.
He jumped onto the console, wiping away soot from the face of the display and trying to read the splintered image. The isolinear chips at the heart of the shuttle’s computer were heavily shielded, and designed to take all kinds of punishment—and from the look of things, they remained at least partially functional. That meant all or a portion of the automated logs would be readable, including navigation. Wherever this bird had been, Rixx should have been able to track her every move.
Except that he couldn’t. Rixx tried again, cross-checking the navigation logs against telemetry and monitoring, and found all of the other data intact—but not a thing related to the shuttle’s destinations. The memory in those areas had been wiped completely clean.
There was no way it could have happened by accident.
For the second time today, Rixx experienced a cold brush of fear—an emotion that did not settle well with him, because it contained far too many unknowns. He imagined Walker Keel must have felt the same way, back at the beginning when all he had were vague suspicions of a conspiracy within Starfleet but no solid evidence. The difference was that Keel had managed to find Rixx, someone he could trust, and together they had identified their real foe.
But Keel was gone. And Rixx needed an ally.
There was only one man whom Rixx could even begin to trust. Whether or not that man would listen was far from certain—but Rixx knew how to apply pressure when he needed to, and would do whatever it took to be heard.
After all, Jean-Luc Picard owed him one.
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