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
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 4
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 5
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 6
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 7
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 8
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 9
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 10
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 11
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 12
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 13
Especially now, since this is the FINAL chapter–and it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger…
“Shock wave!” Data shouted, half a second before a wall of superheated plasma slammed into the ship. It smacked the primary hull like an uppercut to the jaw, hitting almost dead on at a flat angle, straight through with no shields standing in the way. Data held on as hard as he could, his fingers digging holes in the sides of the ops console, while his positronic brain handled navigation directly. With no way to tell where Enterprise was heading, though, Data was flying blind—and with no human intuition at his disposal, all he could do was hazard a guess.
Until he heard Captain Picard’s voice rasping at him from behind.
“Roll twenty degrees to starboard!” he ordered.
Data complied. The maneuver reduced Enterprise’s profile relative to the wave, reducing some of the shearing stress—but just barely. In fact, the android fully expected the dome of the bridge to crack wide open and cast them into space.
“Integrity fields at residual power only,” Data warned. “It is unlikely the ship can bear that kind of load, sir.”
“Impulse at full, Data!” Picard repeated. “Get us clear!”
“Full impulse, aye.” The sound of the main engine heaved sickly through the deck, which picked up a heavy vibration that quickly became a violent shudder. Picard managed to crawl back into his chair, pinned there by the sudden acceleration—a sure sign that the inertial dampeners had also failed. Data made sure that he kept Enterprise on a straight line, knowing that at impulse speeds even a slight turn could crush them all in an instant.
If the ship doesn’t tear herself apart first, he thought.
Data hoped that if it happened, for the sake of his crewmates, that it would be quick.
Barclay yelled, and kept yelling until his throat almost burst. The effort was useless, his voice swallowed up by a primal roar as the atmosphere in the hell hole got sucked into vacuum. The wind was worse than he could have imagined, drowning everything else out as it reached around him like some gigantic hand and dragged him toward oblivion. It had already forced the access hatch wide open, even as La Forge had tried to keep it closed, the temperature plummeting to subzero in mere seconds.
“Commander!” Barclay called out again, but couldn’t even hear himself. Even worse, he could barely see through the blizzard of debris and ice blowing past his face. Turning away from the wind, he wiped his eyes and managed to find the escape hatch within reach. He pulled the locking pin and gave the wheel a hard spin to the open position, then turned back to give La Forge a hand—but when he did, he found himself alone.
La Forge was gone.
Barclay’s breath came in short, rapid gasps now. His lungs refused to inflate fully, even with his oxygen mask on, as if his chest was hollow and his insides were seeking a way out. He knew the negative pressure would kill him in a matter of seconds, the freezing cold didn’t get him first, but he kept on peering through the maelstrom and searching for La Forge.
Barclay spotted him near the end of the access tunnel, just outside the open hatch, trying to claw his way back inside. His face and hair were covered in frost, cut by rivulets of blood from the burst capillaries beneath his skin. Beyond that, the empty warp core chamber loomed like some gigantic maw, waiting for La Forge to fall in so it could devour him.
“Hang on!” Barclay shouted, and stepped into the slipstream.
The wind caught his body like a sail, nearly yanking him through the hatch. Barclay grabbed a handhold on the ceiling and held on, allowing his legs to go through first. He bounced around until he finally found a place to plant his feet, but by then they had gone so numb he barely felt them making contact. He then tried to move on to the next handhold, but couldn’t get his fingers to budge. They stuck like glue, nearly frozen solid against the bare metal.
Crying out for strength, Barclay ripped his hand free.
He felt the skin peeling from his fingers in sickening slow motion, like strips of wet tissue paper. The wind did the rest, sweeping him into the access tunnel where he inched his way down toward La Forge. The fingers of his ruined hand felt like glass, splintered and poised to shatter, but Barclay managed to get them wrapped around a nearby pipe. His other limbs jerked convulsively, muscles constricting as they began to shut down. Already half a corpse, it wouldn’t be long before the rest of him went the same way.
But he would be damned if he ever gave up.
La Forge raised his head at the sound of his name, leaving a ragged patch of his own frostbitten cheek behind on the deck. He looked up and saw Barclay there, reaching for him. At first La Forge waved him off, his face an agonized plea for him to get the hell out of there while there was still a chance—but Barclay would have none of it.
“I’m not leaving you!”
La Forge, trembling, reached back toward him.
“That’s it! Take my hand!”
Barclay made a swipe for him but missed. He tried again, this time brushing against La Forge’s fingertips, but still came up with a fist full of nothing. Summoning the last reserves of his will, Barclay stretched out his arm—farther and farther, the bone seeming to pop loose from its socket, pain seeping through the numbness and breathing new life into him. And with that effort a roar escaped his lungs, precious breath spent in one final supplication that God Himself couldn’t ignore.
La Forge jumped. He reached out with both hands, with nowhere to go but down if Barclay failed to catch him. Barclay clambered to get a hold of him, his own grip slipping—and for one horrifying moment, it seemed as if both of them would tumble together into the void. He dug in, though, hooking his fingers around La Forge’s sleeve and hauling him up.
He motioned toward the hatch.
La Forge nodded. Barclay gave him a push while La Forge grabbed hold of the opening. Grimacing, the commander kicked madly for traction as he pulled himself through. Barclay, meanwhile, watched his vision grow dimmer as he drew the last of his oxygen from the pack. It was a strange sensation, really—not unlike drowning, but without the panic. More like going to sleep, now that he thought about it, unconsciousness slipping over him in a warm cascade, dulling all the pain and making him forget why he fought so hard against it…
His eyes flew back open, lungs gasping for air where none existed. Barclay tore his mask off, his throat constricting against the falling pressure and vicious cold, and looked over to see La Forge waving at him to follow.
“Your turn!” he shouted.
Barclay didn’t hesitate. In the next five seconds he would either live or die, and at this point he didn’t care which—he just wanted it to be over. He let go of the pipe, his fingers snapping like dry twigs, and flopped down on the frozen deck. La Forge grabbed him the instant he hit, stopping the slide straight back into the hell hole, but had no strength left to drag Barclay inside.
“Push! That’s an order!”
Moving on autopilot, Barclay did as he was told. His legs felt like rubber, his feet a distant memory, but he kept on kicking until he inched far enough forward to reach the open hatch. La Forge took off his mask and gave him several last gulps of air, then cast the empty tank aside. As the commander looked at him, even with his VISOR on, Barclay understood the message behind that expression.
This is it. No more time.
Barclay hurled himself through as if the devil were chasing him.
He crashed through the tiny space, banging his head and his elbows against every hard edge that presented itself. The thickening clay of his mind didn’t even register it as he kept plodding through—though he remained keenly aware of La Forge at his side, the only thing that seemed real to him now. Crawling together, they reached the sealed escape hatch on the opposite side of the room, its locking pin still dangling from when Barclay had pulled it.
La Forge gave the wheel a final half turn, and the hatch popped open.
Fresh oxygen, so hot it burned them, blasted their faces before getting sucked down into the hell hole. Barclay drank it in so fast that his lungs seemed to burst, making him double over and gag, but he kept breathing. La Forge slapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to go first, and at this point nothing could stop him. The need to get away from the cold, to reach that warmth, to live was so primal he could not resist.
La Forge went in behind him, a tangle of arms and legs. Both of them then grabbed the hatch, pulling and fighting against the vortex that howled past, like a beast that meant to have them no matter what. That was when the terror descended in Barclay in full, and his limbs trembled more from panic than the ice that blistered him: knowing that death was right outside that door, and that it refused to be cheated.
Then the hatch closed with a clang. La Forge spun the wheel back and locked it.
Blessed silence descended, along with a welcome darkness.
Head sliding against the bulkhead, Barclay fell into sweet unconsciousness.
“Reduce power!” Picard ordered.
Data gradually bled off speed, taking Enterprise down to one-quarter impulse. At the same time, the deep shudder that reverberated her decks tapered off into a more benign thrum. Up ahead on the viewscreen, Picard watched the pocket of superheated gases that had enveloped the hull dissipate into the blackness of space, the outer reaches of the Bezzeret atmosphere left behind. The ship was finally clear—though the screeches and groans that still penetrated her frame reminded her captain of how badly she had been hurt.
Picard took in the bridge around him.
He stared through a smoky haze, while sparks erupted sporadically from smashed consoles and a cracked bulkheads. One set of turbolift doors had warped in the middle from where the frame had buckled around them, while the viewscreen itself hung askew, large swaths of dead pixels leaving jagged holes in the image it projected. To Picard, the bridge was almost unrecognizable. That it had all had happened in the space of seconds seemed incomprehensible.
Aside from Data, not a single crewman was left standing.
The android unplugged himself from ops and came over to assist his captain. Picard waved him off, motioning for Data to check on the others while he quietly assessed his own condition. His spine hurt like hell, and as he tried to straighten up in his chair it only got worse—probably a compression fracture, though his main concern was for the rest of the crew. Picard kept an eye Data as he checked on Lieutenant Worf first.
“How is he?”
Data felt for a pulse. “Alive,” he said, before moving on to the others.
Picard winced. “Is the rest of the ship like this?”
“With the limited diagnostics at my disposal, I cannot accurately asses the full extent of our condition,” the android replied. “The damage, however, is catastrophic—most likely beyond the ability to repair.”
“You mean her back is broken.”
“In so many words, sir.” Data finished with the last of the injured, and stood up to face Picard. “Two of the bridge crew are dead. The rest are unconscious and in need of medical attention. We should get them down to Sickbay immediately.”
If we even have a Sickbay, Picard thought grimly. He tried the intercom button on his chair, but got nothing. He then tried his comm badge, which answered with a storm of radio traffic: voices on top of voices, jamming every available frequency with status reports and calls for help. Cutting through it all was impossible.
Meanwhile, at the corner of his vision, Picard noticed some movement near the edge of the viewscreen. It appeared from the starboard—just a glint of silver so small that he could have just as easily missed it, had he not been suddenly gripped by a singular question.
Where was Dauntless?
The entire time Enterprise’s orbit had been decaying, when precious seconds could have made all the difference, she was nowhere to be found. Even with the vast difference in size between the two ships, there was nothing to prevent Dauntless from slapping a tractor beam on her wounded sister and attempting a rescue—and yet she had maintained her distance.
All while Quintax watched Enterprise burn.
“Data,” Picard said, pointing at the screen. “Can you augment that?”
Data looked at him curiously. “I believe so, sir.”
The android returned to to ops, plugging back in and making several attempts before the screen responded. The image blacked out completely for a moment, then blurred, then decomposed into static. When it finally cleared, the distinctive shape of an Excelsior-class vessel filled the screen, executing a hard turn on an approach vector.
Her forward torpedo tubes glowed bright red.
“Dauntless has activated her weapons,” Data said, telling Picard what he already knew. “Closing to point-blank range.”
You murdering bastard.
“Emergency evasive!” Picard snapped.
“Impossible. With inertial dampeners down, we can maneuver on thrusters only.”
“What about our weapons systems?”
“Unavailable. Fire control is directed through the main computer.”
Dauntless positioned herself on Enterprise’s flank, a perfect firing position. From that distance, Quintax couldn’t possibly miss—and all it would take was a single shot. Defiantly, Picard glared at the viewscreen, knowing there wasn’t a thing he could do about it; but if pure, unbridled hate could sear the space between the stars, he wanted to make damned sure that Quintax felt it before he pulled the trigger.
“All right,” he seethed. “Finish it, then.”
Enterprise shook, her unprotected hull taking the advance wave of a tremendous energy release. Picard closed his eyes for only one moment, preparing himself for the inevitable, then opened them again to face the same. He fully expected to see a salvo of torpedoes bearing down on his ship, perhaps phaser fire as well—the overkill of a pathetic man who couldn’t destroy them through sabotage, and now had to do the dirty work for himself. Except that there were no torpedoes closing in, and the fire that lit up the night over the Bezzeret home world did not consume what was left of Enterprise’s battered frame.
Instead, it exploded from the enemy vessel’s shields.
“Captain,” Data reported. “Another ship is firing on Dauntless.”
USS Thomas Paine
“Federation starship, Excelsior-class,” Ensign Nomuri shouted from ops, his voice a tangle of apprehension and eagerness as he read from his console. “Distance from Enterprise—five thousand meters, closing fast!”
Captain Rixx remained inscrutable in the center seat, though the heart that pounded against the inside of his ribcage was anything but. Having dropped out of warp only moments before, he barely even had a handle on the scene unfolding in front of him—except that it was bad, and that the next few seconds would bring an end to his life as he knew it.
Even so, he never flinched.
“Red alert,” he ordered. “Execute course to intercept.”
“Aye, sir,” Lieutenant Marlowe replied from the conn. She poured on speed, aiming for that quickly narrowing gap between Enterprise and the other vessel. “Calculated time to intercept, fifteen seconds.”
“You have a make on that ship?”
“NCC-2577,” Marlowe said. “USS Dauntless.”
“Raise her. Find out what the hell she’s doing.”
“No response to any hails,” the comm officer reported. “Universal friend or foe isn’t transmitting either. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a rogue.”
“Weapons are hot,” Nomuri added. “Detecting a lock on Enterprise—Jesus Christ, I think she means to shoot, skipper.”
Gods, Rixx thought, seeing for the first time the beating Enterprise had taken—worse than anything he had seen since the carnage at Wolf. She valiantly tried to make way against Dauntless, but the best she could do wasn’t nearly good enough.
“Full power to the phasers,” he said. “Forward banks, stand by for max range.”
“Phasers, aye,” Marlowe affirmed.
“Target enemy vessel’s upper shield grid.”
Marlowe bit her lip as she fed in the numbers. “I have a solution.”
Rixx lowered his voice to a snarl.
Thomas Paine roared in on full impulse power, skipping off the Bezzeret atmosphere as she swung around to flank Dauntless. She then cut loose with a single blistering salvo, the upper and lower banks on her primary firing simultaneously. Two bright orange beams tracked and converged on the exact same spot, focusing their energy like a blow torch punching through steel. For less than a second, they opened up a hole barely ten centimeters wide—little more than a pinprick, but more than sufficient to allow a hard-hitting particle beam to get inside and touch the shield grid on Dauntless’s hull.
Duranium vaporized on impact. Dauntless’s shields momentarily bottled the explosion, keeping the blast wave confined and magnifying its effect. A firestorm quickly spread across the dorsal side of her saucer section, engulfing her bridge before the rest of the grid shattered and her shields collapsed. From there it escaped into open space, flaming out in an instant but leaving behind the dull glow of rapidly cooling metal.
Dauntless started listing to port.
“Reading partial failure of enemy vessel’s deflectors!” Nomuri said, his tone echoing the bizarre mix of adrenaline and astonishment that surged across the bridge. “Her primary hull is wide open!”
“Bring us about,” Rixx ordered, watching as Dauntless began a powered turn. She rolled at the same time, presenting her shielded ventral side to Thomas Paine’s line of fire—but sluggishly, as if her helmsman was slow to react. “Phasers, one-half power. Lock on enemy vessel’s impulse deck.”
“Coming to course one-eight-zero, mark ten,” Marlowe said. “Target bearing matches, range one thousand meters.”
Marlowe expertly piloted Thomas Paine into a deadly arc, swooping over Dauntless like a bird of prey with its claws outstretched for the kill. A quick series of bursts erupted from her lower bank in passing—three consecutive shots that punched holes through the unprotected casing around Dauntless’s main impulse engine, just aft of her bridge. The shots missed the fusion reactors—deliberately—but tore into the exhaust vents, setting up an explosive backwash that ripped through her already damaged primary and nearly tore her impulse deck clean off.
Thomas Paine drew away from Dauntless as she started to burn for real. She made a listless turn on thrusters only, firing a single torpedo that careened into the Bezzeret atmosphere before detonating harmlessly. Rixx didn’t return fire. Now that he had Dauntless’s attention, he had something else in mind.
“Enemy vessel breaking away from Enterprise,” Nomuri reported. “Matching course with us to pursue.”
Just as I knew you would.
“Should I increase speed?” Marlowe asked.
“Negative,” Rixx snapped. “Stay ahead of him, but keep him close. Signal Enterprise and tell her to give us some room.”
But a quick look at the viewscreen told Rixx that Picard had already guessed what he was going to do. Enterprise was already limping away on reverse thrusters, giving Thomas Paine enough space to insert herself between the two other ships. It was a dangerous maneuver, one that squandered their initiative—but a necessary one to prevent a stray shot from taking Enterprise out once and for all.
Dauntless’s commander, getting wise, saw what Rixx was doing and took advantage.
“Torpedo lock!” Nomuri shouted, his panel lighting up.
Boxed in, Thomas Paine had nowhere to go.
“Phasers!” Rixx ordered, already too late. Dauntless fired three torpedoes that closed the narrow distance between them in an instant, slamming into Thomas Paine amidships. The impact came so hard that it knocked them sideways, nearly out of control. Marlowe wrestled with the conn to right their course, while the bridge groaned and shuddered all around them.
“Position of enemy vessel!”
“Bearing zero-seven zero, mark five!” Nomuri answered, “He’s trying to slip past us, skipper!”
“Increase speed to flank. Course: zero three zero, mark two.”
Dauntless hurled another torpedo in her wake, grazing Thomas Paine’s starboard nacelle just as her impulse engines spun up to maximum speed. Rixx gripped the sides of his chair, watching as the Excelsior-class loomed larger and larger on the viewscreen, even as she tried to circle around and get a clear bead on Enterprise. At the same time, Marlowe executed a series of evasive moves, trying to make herself a hard target.
“Don’t give them another chance, lieutenant,” Rixx told her. “Fire at will.”
Marlowe didn’t hold back. Releasing a torpedo spread, she forced Dauntless into an evasive course of her own, driving the other ship exactly where she wanted it to go. There, Marlowe waited with every phaser bank charged to the hilt. She fired them off one at a time, concentrating on the crippled primary hull, landing one hard punch after another. Explosions lit up all around Dauntless’s bridge, smacking the ship back and forth, while her thrusters fired off at random trying to find a way out.
Marlowe ended it with a final torpedo shot.
The weapon struck Dauntless in the support pylon above her main deflector dish. The resulting explosion crushed the dish entirely, blowing large pieces of it out into space. After that, Dauntless fell still, the lights on her decks flickering on and off as she began to drift.
“Cease fire!” Rixx said.
Marlowe disengaged, but kept an active firing solution. Thomas Paine then reduced speed, leveling herself directly off of Dauntless’s bow. Rixx kept a cautious distance, waiting for the other ship to make another move—but she just hung there, ensconced in the mists of oxygen that vented from the openings in her hull.
“Sensors,” he said.
Nomuri ran through a quick scan.
“Indeterminate,” he reported, looking up at Dauntless on the viewscreen. “She’s still got power, but weapons have gone to standby mode.”
“Shall I open a hailing frequency, captain?” the comm officer asked.
“Negative,” Rixx said firmly. “Let him sweat for a while. What’s Enterprise’s position?”
Nomuri checked his console again. “Coming in on our six, holding station there.”
“Good. Keep an eye on Dauntless. If she so much as twitches, finish her off.”
Marlowe smiled tersely. “Yes, sir.”
Rixx turned back toward communications. “Can you raise Enterprise?”
“On screen, sir.”
The image that appeared there was pocked with static, but clear enough for Rixx to get a small measure of what had happened. EMTs crawled all over Enterprise’s bridge, carting out at least one dead person and a whole slew of wounded. He recognized Worf, the Klingon security officer, who had a bandage wrapped around his head but still remained at his post. He also spotted the android Data, who moved from station to station trying to piece together what was left. From what Rixx could see, it wasn’t much.
Jean-Luc Picard stood at the center of it all. Rixx had never seen a man who looked so close to the breaking point—and yet there he was, still giving orders, trying desperately to run a ship that was falling apart around him.
Gods help the man.
“Captain Picard,” Rixx said
Picard turned around and greeted him with a weary nod.
“Captain Rixx,” he replied. “Thank you for coming as I asked.”
“I’m sorry for being late. What happened?”
“Our computer system was sabotaged. We lost antimatter containment, but my engineer was able to dump the warp core before it blew.” Picard steadied himself against his chair, his face in obvious pain even as he attempted to hide it. “Captain Steven Quintax is at least partly responsible. Have you spoken with him yet?”
“Only with phasers and torpedoes.”
Picard’s nodded again, with some satisfaction.
“I want him on the line,” he said. “He has some explaining to do.”
“As you wish,” Rixx acknowledged. “Open frequency to Dauntless. Patch it in with the current transmission.”
“Aye, sir,” the comm officer said, routing the message through his console. After a few moments, it beeped back at him affirmatively. “Dauntless is answering our hail—it’s Captain Quintax, sir.”
All right, Picard, Rixx thought. It’s time to have your say.
The last time Picard met Steven Quintax, he thought the man arrogant beyond redemption. Now he just appeared broken: slumped in the center seat, leaning to one side and with his uniform smeared with blood that Picard suspected was not his own. A glimpse at the edge of the viewscreen confirmed Picard’s observation, in the form of a crewman sprawled on the deck who stared at the back of his former commanding officer with wide, dead eyes. From the look of things, the rest of the bridge crew had suffered a similar fate.
“Captain Picard,” Quintax said formally.
He held a phaser in his right hand, which he twirled absently. His expression, though stoic in the extreme, quivered on the verge of cracking.
Picard was direct: “What is the meaning of this?”
Quintax’s lips twisted into a semblance of a smile.
“You presented a problem,” he said. “This was my solution.”
“That’s what you call attacking and nearly destroying my ship?”
“It wasn’t anything personal,” Quintax explained, and in his madness he almost sounded as if he believed it. “I was only doing my duty—that’s what they train us to think, isn’t it? King and country sometimes require sacrifice, right?”
Picard narrowed his eyes.
“I’m not certain your crew would agree.”
Quintax blinked, and the crack opened wider.
“That’s tough talk coming from the beast of Wolf 359,” he said. “How many of your own did you kill that day, Picard? Compared to your record, mine pales in comparison.”
Picard wanted to reach through the viewscreen and throttle him, but held himself back.
“I’ll ask you one more time,” he said. “What is the meaning of this?”
Quintax contemplated his phaser, waving the barrel in front of his own face.
“You were warned to stop,” he told Picard. “I did everything I could to lead you off. All you had to do was look the other way. But you had to keep digging, didn’t you? You had to know the truth, no matter the cost.”
“The truth about what? The Bezzeret?”
“You think you know, but you don’t.”
“Then tell me.”
Quintax shook his head—right as he heard an insistent pounding against the turbolift doors behind him. He turned halfway toward the sound, listening to the shouts of his crew from belowdecks as they shouted to be allowed in. When Quintax didn’t answer, a bright light bored through the seam between the doors, followed by a shower of sparks that spilled down on the deck. It wouldn’t be long before the torch finished its work and they made it inside.
Picard pressed even harder: “Tell me.”
Quintax looked back at him, with an expression akin to pity.
“Some things are better left alone, Picard.”
“You know I can’t do that, Quintax.”
“No,” Quintax said, “I suppose you can’t.”
He then got up and wandered back to the science station, sitting down on the side of the console and activating relay to the ship’s computer. Picard knew what he was doing even before he uttered the words, but even then they seemed distant and unreal.
“Computer—destruct sequence one, code one, CHARLIE-TANGO.”
“Quintax—” Picard stammered. “Quintax, don’t do this!”
Quintax ignored him.
“Code seven-six-seven,” he continued. “Destruct seven.”
“Think of your crew!”
“I am,” Quintax said, and returned to the center seat as the computer started its countdown to self-destruct. He looked at Picard in earnest this time, a glimmer of sanity coming through in his final moments. “You’re a dead man too, Picard. You, your ship, your crew—he will see to that.”
“Captain,” Rixx interrupted. “We’re reading a back flow of energy within Dauntless’s warp engines, on a path to overload. We need to get out of here now.”
Picard kept his gaze on Quintax.
“Who?” he demanded. “Who will see to it?”
Quintax smiled again, just as the turbolift doors were yanked open.
“Just tell Zeus, when you see him—SHADOW PRIME is still in effect.”
He cut the transmission.
USS Thomas Paine
“One hundred and eighty degrees about!” Rixx ordered.
Up ahead on the screen, Dauntless spun out of view while Enterprise settled in. She was already underway, pouring on reverse thrusters and trying to break orbit.
“Distance to Enterprise.”
“Five thousand kilometers,” Nomuri said. “Borderline safe distance.”
“Let’s give her a little help. Stand by tractor beam.”
“Tractor beam, aye.”
“Parallel course,” Rixx told Marlowe. “One-eighth impulse power.”
She programmed the flight path. “Ready.”
Thomas Paine nudged forward—slower than Rixx would have wanted, but as fast as he dared given Enterprise’s condition. She overtook the Galaxy-class effortlessly, passing over the dorsal of the huge starship and taking a position just ahead of her.
The emitters fired away, releasing a wave blue energy that enveloped Enterprise stem to stern. The ship groaned under the stress of the sudden increase in mass. Nomuri compensated by lengthening the tractor beam, stretching it out to its operational limit and then some, keeping both hands on the control so he didn’t accidentally cut Enterprise loose. Rixx, meanwhile, watched as the other vessel gradually matched Thomas Paine’s velocity, quietly praying that she had enough structural integrity so that she didn’t fly apart.
“Come on,” he said. “Just a little more.”
Dauntless, however, couldn’t wait.
“Enemy vessel’s engines reaching critical,” Nomuri said. “She’ll blow any second.”
“What’s our distance?”
“Distance to Dauntless.”
“Eight thousand kilometers.”
Rixx closed his eyes and hoped it was far enough.
For the second time in a day, a supernova filled the skies above the Bezzeret home world.
Picard watched it engulf Dauntless and spread outward, like a man watching a killer wave come onshore but with no way of outrunning it. In that state of mind, with his anger sublimating into acceptance, he waited for the wave to engulf him and finish the process of destroying his ship. He could expect no more of her. She had already given her all.
And so it was that Enterprise shook. Picard felt the shocks reverberate through her decks, starting aft and quickly racing forward, like a wildfire infection that ravaged her frame from the inside out. He heard the screech of rending metal, the bang of breaking struts, the clear dome that covered the bridge splintering with a crack that sounded like the end of the world. To Picard, this was the crescendo that would end his life: the final movement of a violent symphony, with only the curtain left to fall.
But then the shaking subsided, slowly withdrawing and slipping away beneath his feet, howling in protest one last time at having been cheated. Up on the viewscreen, what remained of Dauntless consumed itself in holy fire, flotsam cast out upon the expanding clouds of white-hot vapor until it was no more. Picard, almost transfixed by the sight, watched the fire extinguish itself—even as it rekindled inside of him, burning his heart black with its intensity.
Zeus. Shadow Prime.
You’re a dead man too, Picard.
“Not yet,” he muttered to himself, then spoke up: “Get me Thomas Paine.”
“On screen,” Lieutenant Worf said.
The channel, still choked with static, cleared enough for Picard to see Rixx and his bridge crew. All of them shared the same expression: stunned, vacant—as if they had emerged from a severe beating but with no scars to prove it.
“Once again, Captain, Rixx, you have my thanks,” Picard said.
“It is my honor to help,” Rixx replied. “But this is by no means over.”
“No,” Picard agreed, understanding fully what Rixx truly meant—that they were totally alone, with the various powers of both Starfleet and the Bezzeret High Council arrayed against them. As if on cue, the alarm on Thomas Paine sounded to remind them of that stark fact. Rixx’s crew immediately jumped back to their stations, rigging the ship to answer the new threat—though Picard’s instincts told him that they were overmatched.
“Detecting three vessels dropping out of warp—make that four!” Nomuri called out. “Bearing two-five-nine, mark zero!”
Rixx sat back down in his chair. “Identify.”
“Bezzeret battleships,” Marlowe said, reading from her panel. “Configurations match Ursad’vree-class. Assuming attack formation.”
“Maintain red alert.” Rixx then paused before a moment before adding, “Stand down weapons.”
Marlowe shot him a look of disbelief. “Sir?”
“You heard me,” Rixx snapped. “Shields at full, but no phasers or torpedoes. Let’s see what they want first.”
Picard stood by, feeling helpless but admiring Rixx’s calm. The Bolian was playing it exactly as he would, knowing he was outgunned ten to one. Best to let the Bezzeret make the first move, rather that provoke them into a fight that Thomas Paine couldn’t win. Rixx patched the visual from his own screen over to Enterprise’s bridge, so Picard could see for himself the approaching battleships. They were graceless and utilitarian, the antithesis of Federation starships, but formidable—almost savage in their design.
“Are you getting this?” Rixx asked.
“Yes,” Picard answered. The Bezzeret assumed perfect firing positions, boxing in the two starships and cutting off any avenue of escape, their phaser banks fully charged and glowing bright orange. “It appears as though they mean business.”
Whatever that business may have been, they weren’t forthcoming. The battleships only held station, pinging Thomas Paine and Enterprise with active sensors, louder and louder until the sound itself seemed on the verge of pulverizing them. Then, in the space of a second, the pings stopped—utterly, ominously, the silence that followed even more unbearable.
Until Worf’s panel beeped.
“Receiving transmission from the planet surface,” the Klingon said.
Picard saw that Thomas Paine was getting the same signal.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“Unknown. It appears to be an automated message, audio only.”
The captain frowned. “On speaker.”
The message opened with a crackle of static. After a few moments, a familiar voice came through: steady, measured tones meant to convey an aura of control, but laden with heavy implications of disaster. Picard recognized it immediately.
“This is Prime Minister Darelian of the Bezzeret High Council,” the voice announced. “An large explosion of unknown origin has occurred in the skies above our capital city, inflicting serious damage and loss of life. As of this time, we have not determined the cause of this explosion—however, with the presence of Federation starships within the same orbital proximity, our military high command has placed all forces on alert status until the possibility of a deliberate and unprovoked attack can be conclusively ruled out.”
My God, Picard thought, the scale of Darelian’s deception becoming crystal clear. First she murders Dalton, then she conspires to destroy my ship—and now she blames us for everything.
“Effective immediately,” the prime minister continued, “I have declared a planetwide state of martial law. This is in direct response to the events in our capital city, which have led to large scale riots against Federation facilities and personnel. Among these facilities was the scientific research station, which was in the process of being evacuated when it came under assault by protestors.”
Picard felt his heart stop.
“It is with deepest regret that I inform you that all Federation personnel were killed during this incident. There are no survivors from the compound. I repeat, there are no survivors. Every effort will be made to return their bodies, but given the state of relations between the Federation and the Bezzeret people, and the unacceptable risk of further loss of life, to do so now is impossible. Under no circumstances will any Federation ship be allowed to approach the Bezzeret home world, nor any Federation national be permitted to set foot on Bezzeret soil.
“As to the starships that remain in orbit, you are hereby ordered to leave the Bezzeret system. If you do not comply, you will be subject to immediate military sanction. It is my fondest hope that our peoples will find a way to resolve our differences before an open state of warfare exists between us—but do not put us to the test. Our resolve is strong and our will is great, as is our desire to see justice done.
“This transmission will be repeated continuously.”
Picard motioned for Worf to cut off the message.
“Open a channel to the away team,” he said.
Worf tried, but shook his head.
“No response, captain.”
Picard turned back toward the viewscreen, to the sight of those battleships hovering off of Enterprise’s bow. At this point, nothing was beyond the realm of possibility—and they would not wait much longer, of that he was certain.
“Captain Rixx,” he finally spoke. “Are you in any condition to tow Enterprise out of this star system?”
“We won’t make any kind of speed,” Rixx replied, “but we can do it.”
“Then make it so. Also alert Fleet Command of our situation. Give them the coordinates of our rendezvous point as soon as you have a course plotted, and request that they render all measures of assistance.” He took a long, resigned breath. “With any luck, we can hold together long enough for them to reach us.”
“It will be done,” Rixx said. “For what it’s worth, Picard—you did what you could.”
With that, Rixx severed contact. Picard settled back into his chair, feeling the eyes of Lieutenant Worf and even Lieutenant Commander Data weighing heavily on him. He knew what they were thinking, because he already hated himself for it; but if leaving the away team behind was the price of saving his ship, then he would pay it—and him alone.
But that didn’t mean that he believed, even for one second, that they were dead.
For now, however, the fight was back on Earth, where the shadow fell.
And Zeus awaited.
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