Welcome 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 installments, you can find them here:
Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Prologue
Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 1
Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 2
Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 3
As I mentioned before, if you like this book and want to see it in print, ping Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books on social media and let them know!
Federation Outer Marker, Sector 512
“Forward scan,” Commodore Rigby ordered. “Give me a full local sweep, confirm there’s no remaining debris on the flight path.” He folded his arms, the image of the frigate Thomas Paine floating in a fine mist on the holographic display in front of him. It lapsed into static a few times, casting shadows in a pale blue glow off his hardened features. “Tractor fields at one half power—and carefully, people, carefully. We’ve got one tender bird to bring home for roasting.”
“Good gods,” someone called out. “How bad a shape can this thing be in?”
“Bad enough,” the commodore grumbled. Normally, something the size of a type 9A shuttlecraft would have been secured on Thomas Paine’s flight deck—but the shuttle had sustained so much damage during the Bezzeret attack, Rigby didn’t want to chance it. That meant towing her all the way back to the station, a delicate balancing act in itself. “Just keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Telemetry on holo, please.”
The display complied, generating streams of data that floated beneath the image. Rigby’s eyes narrowed, scanning the numbers for anything that might push the shuttle past her very narrow limits. For now, everything looked nominal, but he couldn’t help a tinge of apprehension as he watched Thomas Paine, which inched toward him slowly. She was a fine ship, and by outward appearances she had a solid captain—but Rixx, fairly or not, carried with him the stigma of doom. Taking stock of his crew, Rigby could tell they were thinking the same thing: How long until something bad happens? That was prejudice, of course, but that was also the man’s reputation. There had simply been too many whispers at his expense.
In spite of everything, though, Rigby knew what it was like to be undermined by someone higher up—and he wasn’t about to do the same thing to Rixx. He’d done a capable enough job securing the shuttle in the first place, and taking on a Bezzeret scout with superior firepower showed more guile than Rigby had given the Bolian credit for. That, in the commodore’s view, had more than earned Rixx a shot at finishing the job—even if there were those who disagreed with his assessment.
Like the officious wank standing watch behind him.
“Is everything proceeding as planned?” the man asked. His eyebrows had a way of moving up and down with every word, wrinkling the skin on his domed forehead. His very existence irritated the hell out of Rigby. “No deviation from specified parameters?”
“None that I can see, Mister Reynolds,” Rigby sighed impatiently, turning around to face him. Reynolds wore a Fleet Staff uniform, with a gold leaf insignia on his right collar—more a political hack than a bonafide officer, though that hadn’t stopped him from treating everyone in the CIC like platoon grunts at a short arm inspection. Rigby had half a notion to bust the man for his effrontery—but staffers had connections, and there were much worse assignments than this. “My people have done salvage ops before. Believe me, you’re in very capable hands.”
“You won’t mind if I verify that for myself,” Reynolds sniffed, taking a step closer to the display. “As that shuttle is the only hope we have of unraveling this business, there is absolutely no margin for error. Fleet Command wouldn’t have sent me if they didn’t consider this to be a top priority.”
“Which you’ve already made abundantly clear.”
“Have I?” Reynolds asked, tossing him a disdainful glance before returning his attention to the feed. “To be frank, I was beginning to wonder. Perhaps if I had been more forceful in my objections, you would have assigned a different field officer to complete the mission.”
“Captain Rixx recovered the damn thing in the first place,” Rigby grumbled, restraining himself from using even harsher language—a heroic effort on his part. “He brought her this far. He’ll bring her the rest of the way.”
“Let’s hope so,” Reynolds said. “This is, after all, the same Captain Rixx who was involved in the deaths of several Starfleet officers—including one on the Naval Staff.”
Rigby caught stares from his own people, who waited on him to respond.
“He was never accused of wrongdoing,” the commodore said, mustering a weak defense. “Besides, the circumstances of that incident remain classified.”
“Not for everyone.”
Reynolds left it at that, allowing the implication to take hold. Rigby tried to dismiss it, and instead rely on his own impressions of Rixx’s character; but as much as he detested Reynolds, the doubts still rang true. Fleet Command kept a tight lid on what had happened, revealing only what they couldn’t cover up—and even those details were scarce, just bits and pieces about some alien conspiracy to infiltrate Starfleet. Rixx never talked about it, and had lived in the shadows ever since. Reynolds, of course, would have known, with his security clearance and his access to state secrets. But if Rixx was guilty of wrongdoing, why had he been allowed to keep his billet?
And why would Fleet Command let him stay with the recovery?
That last question bothered Rigby the most. Reynolds had operational jurisdiction here, and could have easily refused the commodore’s request to keep Rixx on. Instead, Reynolds had told him that it was his decision—a move that at first appeared to be a CYA in case things headed south, though now Rigby wasn’t so sure. Whatever was going on here, Rigby got a nasty feeling that he didn’t know the half of it.
“Open telemetry channel to Thomas Paine,” he said, having no other choice but to proceed. “Correlate our readings with their sensors. Report immediately if there’s even the slightest deviation.”
“Tractor fields at fifty percent. Keep a close eye on the shuttle’s stress points and be on standby to reduce power if the load exceeds point-eight-five maximum tolerance.” Rigby took a breath, muttering a quiet prayer. “Stay sharp, everyone. Let’s hope the physics are kind.”
He then stepped away, leaving Reynolds behind and making his way to the upper deck. There, he stood before a large bank of windows that encircled the CIC and peered out into space —an old predilection of his, even with all the high-resolution imaging at his disposal. To Rigby, it wasn’t real unless he could see it with his own two eyes. After a few moments, he spotted Thomas Paine making her painfully slow approach, her profile illuminated against the black tapestry of night by the faint glow of her tractor beam.
“Positive lock on sensors,” Reynolds said. “Fourteen hundred kilometers to frontier.”
Below Thomas Paine and slightly aft, a tiny fleck glinted in the dead of night. It followed in close formation, the shuttle matching its escort with slow precision: nice and easy, just as the mission profile stated. Rigby, however, now felt his heart pounding, as if this was a white-knuckle ride instead of a lazy maneuver—and it wasn’t going to stop until Rixx parked that shuttle safe and sound.
It’s just another run, he tried to tell himself. The same as all the rest.
But Rigby knew trouble when he saw it coming. Except that this time, there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
USS Thomas Paine
Within an hour of beaming back from the shuttle, Rixx got the call he knew would come. Someone at Fleet Command had placed the wrecked ship under immediate quarantine—someone high up, if all the yelling and the threats were any hint—which meant that nobody, but nobody, was allowed to touch the thing until a forensic team arrived to secure the scene. Rixx, of course, complied; he had never disobeyed an order in his life. But he also made a point to omit his inspection of the shuttle from the captain’s log, and advised his senior staff not to mention it either. At best, they might avoid a formal inquiry into their actions—and at worst, a sanction far more severe and far less official.
That had been two days ago. In light of the situation now, Rixx was even more convinced he had made the right call.
It started when the forensic team arrived. Instead of the two or three people Rixx had expected, more than twenty showed up: engineers, systems analysts, evidence technicians, and a Fleet Staff supervisor who oversaw the whole operation like a raptor scoping out prey. Rixx suspected that her Starfleet uniform was merely cover—he knew a section spook when he saw one, having been grilled by several over his involvement with Jean-Luc Picard—and made it a point not to run afoul of the woman, even when her team was tearing his ship apart in their relentless search for clues.
His crew, however, didn’t take the arrangement quite so well.
Lieutenant Marlowe stood next to the captain’s chair, glaring at the Rigellian manning the conn. Like all critical stations, it was now occupied by a member of the forensic team—insurance against any problems that might occur during the recovery, or so the supervisor said. It got so bad between Nomuri and his replacement at ops that Rixx had dismissed him from the bridge entirely. Apparently, morale was not considered a huge priority.
“How can you stand for it, Skipper?” Marlowe fumed.
“I’m not,” Rixx replied drily. “I’m sitting.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you locked up the armory. If I had a phaser handy, I just might use it.” Marlowe shook her head in disgust. “I can’t believe I’m futzing around like Seaman Jones while a couple of deck apes fly the ship. It ain’t right, sir.”
“Right or wrong has nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe not, but it’s damned irregular. We’ve had goons running around for two days doing God knows what from stem to stern. Engineering is still a mess after all the rerouting they did down there—and don’t even get me started on the port-side computer core. I thought Chief McJames was going to kill somebody after they took that down.”
“That would not have been helpful.”
“Might have blown off some steam.”
Rixx brought Marlowe back down with a menacing look.
“I’m just thinking of the crew, sir.”
Marlowe smiled. “I assumed the Bolians had their own lingo for that.”
“We do—but our term is far more colorful.” A burst of chatter then poured in through the overhead speaker, piped over from the Outer Marker. Rixx turned to his communications officer. “Status?”
“We have telemetry acquisition, Captain,” the comm officer replied. “Base reports we are go for final approach.”
“Base, acknowledge. Engineering, release tractor control to ops.”
“Tractor ops, aye.”
“Conn, rudder amidships. Thrusters at station keeping.”
“Thrusters, aye,” the Rigellian said. “Relative forward velocity at zero.”
Rixx steadied himself, hands on the arms of his chair. From here on in, he was in the hands of the experts—for all the good it would do him.
Outside, in the silent vacuum of space, the RCS pods at the rear of Thomas Paine’s two engine nacelles spurt out superheated helium plasma. The ship responded tentatively to that gentle nudge, slowly at first and then gradually accelerating until she finally coasted as fast as the thrusters would allow. At the same time, pods at the forward end of the primary hull—now under computer control—fired off in a series of microbursts, each one making tiny course corrections that kept Thomas Paine on an absolute vector toward the Outer Marker’s frontier.
Slow and true, the frigate overflew her smaller companion, tricking out the distance between them while sensors maintained an active lock on the shuttle. With the risk of an accidental collision negated, Thomas Paine reengaged her tractor array. At only minimum power, the pale glow of the beam barely registered in the black of night; if anything, a mere ghost of is presence reached out for the shuttle, crawling along its warped lines before enveloping them completely. The beam held the shuttle motionless at first, then started to drag it along ever so gradually: a precise maneuver, much like tugging a rope in calculated slow motion.
On Thomas Paine’s bridge, everything was quiet—save for the sound of people breathing, and the steady reverberation of her engines through the deck. Rixx kept his eyes glued to the screen, with Marlowe radiating tension beside him. The forensic team, meanwhile, kept their faces buried in their panels, their features aglow in a live data stream.
“How are we doing?” the captain asked.
“Good catch,” the one at ops replied. “Shear levels borderline, but holding.”
“Length of beam?”
“Increase to seventy-five, aperture at sixty degrees arc.”
“Approaching frontier,” the Rigellian reported.
“Viewer ahead,” Rixx ordered. The image of the shuttle disappeared, replaced by the giant, looming form of the Outer Marker off in the distance. Encircling the station in a tight orbit, streams of energy churned like rings surrounding a gas giant. Their chaotic patterns appeared threatening, but in reality they were nothing more than capture fields designed to ensnare floating cargo—what the commodore called “cold storage,” containing items too big or too volatile to store on board. Rigby had cleared the area so they could use the fields to coax the shuttle into one of the receiver bays. “Time to perimeter?”
Rixx settled back in his chair. Marlowe inched in closer to him, as if their combined force of will would guide the shuttle to safety. All things considered, this was the easy part. The trick would be finding out what Starfleet was really up to—once the forensic team had the shuttle locked down and hidden away from prying eyes. That Rixx didn’t know who he could trust with what he already knew seemed like the least of his problems.
One crisis at a time, the captain thought.
“Approaching release point.”
“Stand by for cutoff,” Rixx ordered. “Impulse power ready.”
The ops man’s hand hovered over his panel.
“Release in five…four…three…two…”
Rixx took a breath.
Fingers mashed the button.
And nothing happened.
“Mother of God,” someone muttered, just before the alert Klaxon began to wail. Alert lights clicked on, washing the bridge red as Rixx bolted up from his chair and leaped over to the ops station.
“I said release!” he shouted.
“I’m trying,” the ops man said, his hands frantically working the panel. “Tractor control not responding to commands. I’m totally frozen out.”
“Then bypass through the auxiliary!”
“Oh no,” Rixx heard Marlowe whisper, and looked up to see her eyes riveted on the viewscreen. He quickly followed her stare, only to find a horrible scene rendered in brutal detail for everyone to watch. The shuttle, caught between Thomas Paine’s tractor beam and the Outer Marker’s capture field, started to warp and twist, her hull plates buckling as if they had suddenly turned to liquid.
“Shearing stress past super critical,” the Rigellian barked. “Structural failure imminent.”
“Engineering!” Rixx yelled. “Pull tractor mains off line immediately!”
But even before he finished the order, Rixx knew it was too late. The tiny ship split right down the middle, ripped in half by opposing forces, her contents spewing into space like blood hemorrhaging from an open wound. The starboard engine nacelle, holding on by a thread only moments before, easily tore loose from its pylon and impaled the wreckage. Jagged edges mangled the housing around the warp coils, which suddenly flared up from an overload of energy, a mere precursor to the larger explosion that followed. Confined to the space within the capture field, the fireball quickly devoured what was left of the shuttle—right before it sought escape in Thomas Paine’s direction.
Rixx stumbled back, groping his for his command chair when the concussion hit. The force of the explosion, confined to the narrow column of the tractor beam, slapped Thomas Paine like a phaser bolt, catching her broadside and knocking her into a slow spin. The ship lurched violently before her inertial dampeners could compensate and the deck finally settled—but the flickering image on the forward viewscreen warned Rixx of an even greater danger. There, looming closer and closer, the Outer Marker’s capture field churned with spent plasma and burning debris—while Thomas Paine careened straight toward it.
“Impulse power!” Rixx ordered. “Reciprocal course! Get us out of here!”
The surge of engine power took hold of Thomas Paine like a firm hand. Immediately, the ship righted herself relative to the Outer Marker, snapping out of her uncontrolled drift and back into a rigid course. The maneuver came too late to prevent a collision, bright plumes of static discharge erupting from the starboard as the primary hull scraped against the capture field. The hull groaned loudly against a glancing blow, shaking and shuddering until Thomas Paine finally tore herself away. With one final shriek she broke free, her path smoothing out as she gained speed.
Up on the screen, the Outer Marker withdrew into the distance.
Rixx punched the intercom on his chair. “All decks, acknowledge status.”
As the reports poured in, Marlowe stormed over to the conn and shoved the Rigellian aside. “We’re at one-quarter impulse,” she said, resuming her old post. “Heading two-two-five, mark three—safe distance and then some, skipper.”
“Stand down from impulse.”
The engines throttled down, bringing Thomas Paine to a dead stop.
“Thrusters at station keeping,” Rixx said. “Hold position here.”
“What’s our condition?”
Rixx directed his question to the man at ops, who remained in a daze. Marlowe reached over and engaged the screen for him, leveling an acid stare as she did it. “Minor to moderate structural damage in sections seven and eight,” he finally stammered, reading from the torrent of data on his panel. “Inner hull is secure—no indications of atmospheric loss.”
“Engineering has taken warp drive off line as a precaution,” the science officer said from the back of the bridge. “We’re still free to move on impulse, but I’d recommend taking it easy, captain. It’ll be a while before we know the full extent of the damage.”
“Very well,” Rixx announced. “We’ll remain on thrusters until the carpenter can sound the ship. Comm, advise Commodore Rigby of our situation and request instructions.” Gathering himself together, he then stood up from his chair and approached the two forensic specialists. They seemed to wither under his gaze, which he maintained for several tense moments.
When he spoke again, it was to utter but a single word: “Explain.”
The specialists looked at each other. When they looked back, it was the human who answered. “The core subroutine that controlled the tractor interface must have malfunctioned,” he said. “Probably a hardware fault.”
Rixx turned to Marlowe.
“Impossible to verify,” she said, checking her panel. “I can’t retrieve the logs.”
“Could be damage from the explosion,” the Rigellian suggested. “Perhaps if your information officer had properly shielded the core components—”
“So now this is our fault?” Marlowe interjected.
“My colleague is not assessing blame,” the human specialist said. “However, if your crew had been more cooperative in letting us do our jobs, perhaps this accident might have been prevented.”
Marlowe bristled at their insinuation. Rixx, however, remained calm.
“I trust that your team will conduct a full investigation,” the captain said—even as Marlowe looked on, incredulous at his reaction. “Rest assured, you will receive whatever cooperation you require from both me and my crew.”
“We appreciate that, Captain.”
“Of course,” Rixx said. “In the meanwhile, I imagine you’ll want to report to your supervisor. You may do so now.”
Rixx made it plain from his tone that he had just dismissed them from the bridge. The two exchanged another glance, but decided not to challenge him further. Everyone stared as they walked to the turbolift, not concealing their hostility—but also unsure of what to make of the captain, and his supposed willingness to roll over for them.
Then the lift doors closed, and they were gone.
Rixx returned to his chair, giving the bridge crew no clue to his intentions. Eventually, one by one, they returned their focus to their stations—but the air of anxiety remained, even as Rixx resolved to ignore it.
He punched the intercom again. “Mister Nomuri, report to the bridge.”
When he closed the channel, Marlowe stood next to him. Rixx expected another accusing look, as was her custom when he did something she didn’t quite comprehend—but this time, her demeanor was quite restrained. Determined, to be sure, but restrained.
“So what’s the plan?” she asked quietly.
“You’re assuming that I have one.”
“You got rid of those guys pretty fast—and I’ve learned that you never do anything without a reason.” Marlowe gave him a moment before prodding him with her conclusion. “You don’t think this was an accident, do you?”
Rixx raised an eyebrow. “Why would you say that?”
“Because I don’t think it was an accident either.”
He returned his attention to the viewscreen. “And they call me paranoid.”
Marlowe persisted, though quietly so as to not draw any more attention. “They were all over that shuttle for the last two days, Skipper—and you know there was nothing left on board that could have caused that big of a bang. They rigged it—the same way they rigged the core to fail at the worst possible second.”
“That’s a lot of conjecture, Lieutenant.”
“You already thought of it yourself. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
Rixx turned back toward Marlowe, suddenly remembering her reputation as a card player. Seeing the way she scrutinized him, he finally understood why.
“You don’t want to be part of this,” he warned. “I’ve been down this path before, and believe me—there is no going back.”
A corner of her mouth ticked up into a smile.
“I’m already on board,” she said. “So’s Nomuri—and a lot more people. We’ve all got your back, skipper.”
Rixx considered her offer. Selfishly, he welcomed her help. And realistically, there was no way he could face what was to come without the support of his crew. He believed what Marlowe told him, because if he had her trust then it was all but certain the others would follow. Somehow, Rixx had inspired their loyalty—and it had been a long time since he had seen anything like that.
“The mission was doomed from the start,” he admitted.
Marlowe nodded slowly. “So we’re being set up.”
“It’s more than that,” Rixx intoned. “Ever since the Bezzeret attack, I’ve known something was wrong. The only question was how deeply Starfleet was involved.”
“And now we know.”
“Yes,” Rixx drew out. “Clearly, there are elements at Fleet Command who do not want any evidence to tie the Bezzeret back to whatever it is they’re trying to conceal. For them to arrange an operation like this, the order must have originated at a very high level.”
Marlowe’s eyes darted back and forth as she contemplated what Rixx told her, and the full implications of it settled in. She then looked at the bridge crew, each one of them going about their jobs as always—except that now, she saw them the same way Rixx did, like a platoon leader about to lead them into a hopeless battle.
“We’re screwed,” she asked, “aren’t we?”
“Probably,” Rixx said. “But we are not without allies.”
She blinked at him, hopeful and fearful at the same time.
“I’ll explain in due time,” Rixx said, not wanting to reveal his connection with Jean-Luc Picard—not until all the wheels had been set in motion. “Until then, we need to be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“To do whatever is required of us.”
Marlowe shook her head, like a player dealt a hand so bad she couldn’t even bluff. “It’s hard to know what that is when we don’t even know who we can trust.”
Rixx answered the only way he could.
“We start by trusting no one,” he said. “Especially Starfleet.”