Author: Brendan Chris
Admiral Edward Tunney stepped into the Operations Center of Starbase 45. He usually tried to avoid the place, as every time he stepped out of the turbolift some junior functionary would shout ‘Admiral on the Bridge!’, thus disrupting everybody’s work routine and royally getting on Tunney’s nerves. The starbase didn’t even have a bridge! It had an operations center! After that, Captain Brown would come rushing out of his office to greet him, offer him a coffee and start chatting about pointless starbase business. In the end, it would take about an hour for him to accomplish a task that would take less than ten minutes if he’d simply called up over the comm system.
But today was a bit different. As he stepped into Operations, the senior staff was watching the huge viewscreen that dominated the far wall of the multi-level command complex. On it, a shaky view of a large, marble-columned building was on display. Reporters were crowded around the entrance, which was just opening and disgorging a stream of politicians. Tunney was only slightly surprised to see several white Starfleet dress uniforms mixed in.
“And so time will tell whether or not Federation membership will be a burden or a blessing,” a narrating voice said, “But one way or another, the Matrian Council of Governors, in an emergency session late yesterday, approved Matria Prime’s membership in the United Federation of Planets. Federation President Dillon himself welcomed all Matrians to the interstellar community, while promising aid against the Qu’Eh. Whether or not that aid can be counted on remains to be seen,”
“Admiral on the bridge!” a junior officer cried out, spotting Tunney out of the corner of one eye. Tunney sighed.
“Admiral!” Captain Brown greeted him, the shorter (much shorter) man gesturing at the screen, “We were just watching the feed from the Matrian Sector relay,”
“I guessed,” Tunney said dryly, “What’s the status on the ship movements I ordered?”
“Four ships, just like President Dillon promised,” Brown replied, “The Montreal, the Vendome, the Elfman and the Stallion departed for Waystation this morning,”
“Those are all Operation Salvage ships,” he said, “I thought I’d requested at least one Sovereign-class ship!”
“Fleet Admiral Ra’al turned that request down,”
“Shit!” Tunney fumed. He had no idea what he’d done to annoy that woman, but she’d been an unholy bitch when it came to any requests he made involving Operation Salvage.
“We could send the USS Champlain,” Brown suggested. The Champlain was a ninety-year-old Proxima-class vessel. Back in the day, it had been classified as a battleship. Now…
“Our President just promised those people that help was on the way,” Tunney fumed, “And that’s the best we can do?”
“Beggers can’t be choosers,”
Tunney glared at him.
“The Federation is supposed to take care of its members, regardless of who they are or why they joined,” he said sharply, “That’s what we do!”
They stared at the screen for a few more moments, where Lieutenant Yanick was being introduced as Starfleet’s Public Relations Officer for Matria Prime.
“Lieutenant,” one reporter was asking, “What’s the first thing you plan to do to improve Matrian/Federation relations? Do you think the upcoming battle will be a problem?”
“First, I’m going to paint my office yellow,” Yanick giggled, “As for the battle…well…we creamed you guys the first time. I’m sure we’ll do OK against the Qu’Eh,”
“I thought part of the reason you sent those guys out there was to get them out of the media?” Brown asked as Tunney started rubbing his temples.
“It was. But who would have guessed that Stafford would be stupid enough to get his crew involved in planetary politics?”
“Doesn’t sound like he had much choice,”
“No,” Tunney sighed, “I suppose not. And that’s the worst part. I should have expected this,”
“Well, sir, look on the bright side,” Brown offered, “Maybe they’ll fight off the Qu’Eh and things out there will get nice and boring,”
“Yeah,” Tunney said, watching as the Matrian news reporters starting tallying up how many Qu’Eh ships were coming vs. the number of Matrian and Senousian ships available, “And maybe the Qu’Eh commander will dance around my office in a pink tutu.” He sighed again.
“Send the Champlain,” he said, “And the Haldimand. And any other ships we can spare.”
“It’s going to take them over a month to get them to Matrian space,”
“I know. But after Silverado gets blown to pieces, somebody has to go bring back the bodies…” he looked around nervously, the swallowed, “Er, I meant ‘survivors’ .” Matria Prime:
“Ohhh!! My very own office! I’m so excited!” Lieutenant Trish Yanick giggled, skipping merrily along next to Stafford as he walked quickly through the halls of the Matrian Defence Headquarters.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Stafford said, “Hopefully, it won’t last long,”
“What? Why? You don’t think I’ll do good?” Now Yanick was looking hurt.
“No, it’s not that,” Stafford said. He suddenly became aware of the large number of Matrian officials surrounding them, “Come on,”
He pulled her into his own office, waving at his guard, a Starfleet security officer, and closing the door firmly.
“Trish, you see what’s happening here, right?” he demanded.
“Sure,” Yanick said, hopping into the guest chair and giving a sound of delight upon discovering that it spun around on its base, “It’s like we got promoted! Only we didn’t. And Jall has to go fight the Qu’Eh guys, but T’Parief doesn’t get to fire the weapons cuz he’s stuck underground. He’s going to pissed about that!”
“No, it’s not like we got promoted!” Stafford snapped, a bit more harshly than he meant.
“Why not?” Yanick asked, spinning around now in the chair, “Aren’t you, like, in charge of the whole Matrian Defence Force now?”
“Well, yeah. But that’s not a good thing! Don’t you get it?”
Yanick continued spinning.
“If things go wrong, it means that the Matrian government can pin it all on me!” he went on, “And I don’t want to be here! I don’t want to be stuck in some room on some planet while my ship and crew is up there fighting!”
“Yanick, are you even listening to me??”
Yanick spun to a stop.
“Yeah,” she said, “You’re feeling left out and lonely. Is that why you assigned me here?”
Stafford’s mind did a little flip. How the hell could Yanick be so blond and oblivious about the most obvious of things, then suddenly turn around and say something insightful?
“Maybe,” he replied, “But mostly because Queen Anselia, Admiral Verethi and I all have the press on our backs and we need somebody to be the liaison. For the moment, that’s you.”
“Uh huh,” Yanick said, “And Ensign Burke?”
“He’s needed in the War Room. He’s better with the kind of space sensor technology that the Matrians are using to track the battle than they are. Even though the frickin’ Matrians built the damned things.”
“And the Hazardous Team?”
“They’re preparing the Matrian forces for ground assault. Such as they are.”
“And Ensign Naketh?”
“Is working on getting the Matrian defensive satellites up and running!”
“And all the civilians and non-essential personnel?”
“Are better off on the planet,”
“And the guy guarding your door-“
“Trish,” Stafford cut her off, “Are you going to go through every Silverado crewmen that I reassigned? Because we don’t have time! The Qu-Eh are dropping out of warp in less than three hours!”
“Chris, I’m just saying that so many people have been moved around that Silverado is starting to get a bit empty. No, make that a LOT empty! Do you really think that’s is a good idea?”
“What do you want me to do, Trish?” he asked, “I’m trying to do what’s best for the whole planet here,”
“Well, yeah,” Yanick said, “But, I mean, it’s like the crew’s getting…broken up. Y’know?”
“Yeah,” Stafford said, eying the Matrian clock on one wall (which he still hadn’t figured out how to read), “I know.” Something started tugging at the corner of his mind. Yeah, Yanick was right. His crew was being split up, moved to where they would best fit. Some of them were still trapped, but safe, deep in an underground Matrian installation. He had to make sure that each person was in position to help out when the Qu’Eh arrived.
“Yanick, go start…liasoning,” he said suddenly, “I have something I have to do before I’m due in the war room,”
“OK, ladies, let’s get a run-down. Get me caught up on all the up-and-up!” Commander San Jall ordered, seated again in what was normally Stafford’s chair. Lieutenant Travis Pye was manning the conn, Lieutenant J’Rar Day was at operations and Ensign Tabetha Bith was at tactical. Except for Burke, the entire second-string bridge crew had been suddenly pushed into Alpha shift, what with missing persons, reassignments and the general chaos.
“Are you asking for a status report, or a gossip update?” Pye asked.
“Well, mostly a status report,” Jall said, “But if you know anything about that cute Lieutenant in the geology department, I’m all ears,”
“Another Matrian cruiser is just dropping out of warp,” Lieutenant Commander Quintaine reported, having temporarily taken over sciences.
“Oh, goody,” Jall said, “So far, that brings us to a grand total of twenty-three scout ships, nine Matrian cruisers, six fighter squadrons,”
“Fiiiive quantum torpedos!” Pye suddenly sang out.
“Four phaser banks,” Day sang.
“Three shuttlecraft,” Quintaine added.
“And a starship without a warp core!” everybody sang out together.
There was silence for a moment as everybody exchanged confused looks.
“Was that a moment of collective good cheer, or are we about to have another adventure involving mind-control?” Jall asked calmly.
“Let’s all hope for the former,” Day noted.
Ensign Pysternzyks ran his hands over the transporter controls, sliding the light bars up. As he did so, Stafford materialized on the pad.
“Ensign,” he said warmly, “It’s so good to see you! I could just…cut your head off and kick it around the room right now!”
“Captain,” Pysternzyks bowed, “It would be an honour to die by your hand,”
“Good stuff, good stuff,” Stafford grinned as he stepped into the corridor. Ahh, Andorians were good people. You just had to know how to talk to them. He hopped into a turbolift, surprised at how good it felt to get away from the Matrian government complex, even for a few minutes.
“Stafford to Jall,”
“Jall is on the line, it’s time to sing my rhyme, if I don’t get-“
“Jall, I need you to meet me in Sickbay in about ten minutes,” Stafford said.
“Aren’t you going to yell at me to stop singing first?”
“Not really. I actually sort of missed you while I was on the planet. You know, in a professional kind of way,”
“Huh. Weird. I’ll be down shortly. Jall out.”
Chuckling, Stafford stepped off the lift, then turned into Sickbay.
“Be with you in a minute,” a voice called from the ICU. Stafford poked his head around the corner, only to see Dr. Wowryk and Nurse Veeneman operating on a patient. At least, he thought it was a patient. Most patients he’d seen didn’t have half of their insides sitting next to them.
“Uh, doc,” he asked, “Is that person supposed to have his entrails on the medical cart?” His stomach turned as what looked like a liver slipped off the tray and fell to the floor with a loud ‘PLOP!’
“When the patient is dead? Yes,” Wowryk said. She picked up a saw.
“Doc, what are you-“
Stafford winced as Wowryk promptly began sawing through the patient’s skull.
“For crying out-“
“Doctor, just forget it. We’ll do this again later,” Veeneman sighed, “I have to get Sickbay prepped for battle anyway.
“Very well. Computer, end program,”
The body, entrails and tools vanished in a holographic fizzle.
“I was teaching Nurse Veeneman how to do an old-fashioned autopsy,” Wowryk explained, leading Stafford to her office, “She wants to get her advanced nursing qualification,”
“I see,” Stafford said, massaging his stomach, “Still, I don’t think I’ll be eating anytime soon.
“What can I do for you?” Wowryk asked, taking a seat, “Tea?”
“Uh…sure…” Stafford sat carefully. Something about Wowryk’s super-nice attitude was starting to make him uncomfortable.
“Are the Matrians well prepared for the coming attack?” she asked.
“As much as they can be,” Stafford shrugged.
“Well, at least there aren’t any space stations sitting around for them to blow up this time,” Wowryk sighed.
“Well, look on the bright side,” Stafford said, “It it hadn’t been blown up then, it definitely would get blown up this time!”
Wowryk did not look amused.
“If you’re finished with the part of the conversation where you try to be funny, what can I do for you?” Wowryk was sounding more like her regular self now, much to Stafford’s relief.
“I have a…a job for you,” Stafford said, “Something that I need you and only you to take care of,”
“Yes, I thought as much. Blessing, consecration or exorcism?”
“None of the above. I’m calling more on your talents as a Starfleet officer,”
“Circumcision?” Wowryk started rummaging around in her desk, “Not exactly my specialty, but I think I have a pair of scissors in here,”
Wowryk look up at him, her face turning white.
“You know the Matrians are keeping me down on the planet,” he said, “And Jall’s running the ship right now. I need to make sure somebody’s watching his back. I also want somebody who has a better understanding of the Matrians and their mindset. That’s you,”
“But…but…” Wowryk stammered, “I am a doctor!”
“Call in the night shift guy,” Stafford said, “I need you up on the bridge. Look on the bright side. It will piss the hell out of Jall,”
“Chris,” Wowryk said suddenly, “You…you know what happened the last time I was up there, right? It was a disaster!”
“Nope,” Stafford said, getting to his feet, “You ran the show. The Qu’Eh were pushed back and the ship survived. You did good. Now I need you to do it again,”
“Hello, kids,” the door hissed open and Jall poked his head in, “If you don’t mind, we have a gruesome death coming up in about two hours, so can we make this quick?”
“Sure,” Stafford said, getting to his feet, “Wowryk’s your new First Officer. At least until all this blows over. Have fun!” he walked out the door.
Jall looked at Wowryk for a moment, then shrugged.
“Took him long enough. Come up to the bridge as soon as you’re finished handing things over to Dr. Krenton. Gotta jet!”
He turned to leave.
“Hey!” Wowryk snapped, “This is supposed to be annoying you, you heathen!”
“Oh, it’s annoying me,” Jall said, sashaying his way out of Sickbay, “But we’re probably all going to die soon anyway. See you on the bridge, sweetie!” he blew her a kiss.
“Ohhh!! Wowryk exclaimed, “I hate that man!”
T’Parief sat on a stairway in the underground Matrian command center. There were six such stairways: Three leading from the central turbolift column and what had been quickly dubbed an ‘observation gallery’, up to the ring-shaped walkway that ran the outer circumference of the pod, interrupted in several locations by what might be office doors. The other three led up from this outer walkway to an elevated command deck that sat atop the turbolift column. With only a few exceptions, the control panels in the command deck were dead, the displays lining the outer walkway were dark and six huge lower windows that Fifebee believed looked down into a cavern were pitch black. T’Parief had started by standing guard over the three turbolifts that appeared to be the only way in or out of the command center. Standing had led to pacing. Then to more standing. Then, after a few hours, he simply sat down and stared. Above him, Fifebee, Jeffery and Valtaic were all trying their own methods of tapping into the Matrian computers. Fifebee had seated herself at one of the few consoles that wasn’t completely dead and had attempted to access the computer systems. Unfortunately, she’d found that access was as limited as it was in the smaller control booth they’d found in one of the buried hangers. Jeffery was halfway through dismantling another console, carefully examining each piece before setting it aside. Considering that he was doing this completely without tools, aside from a Matrian scanner that he needed Fifebee’s help to translate, T’Parief rated his chances at success low. Valtaic had started examining every object in the room, starting from the top and working his way down. So far, he’d found an empty cup, an unidentifiable chunk of polymer and what he claimed were the decomposed remnants of textile products, possibly paper towel or a tissue.
“I think we need to get out of here,” T’Parief said, breaking the silence.
“Aye, Ah’m all for that,” Jeffery agreed, tossing a crystal of some kind over one shoulder.
“Then you wish to take the turbolift down the tower, retrace our steps to the transit hub, attempt to make our way to the entrance hanger and then fight out way past several armed Matrian rebels using only the few weapons we have managed to obtain?” Valtaic asked.
“Well, when ye put it that way, it sounds like a lot of walking,”
“Our orders,” Fifebee reminded him, “Are to discover the purpose of this place, hopefully in time to aid with the coming battle.”
“And do ye see that happening?” Jeffery demanded.
“Well,” Fifebee admitted, “My progress has been limited, but I believe we can at least track the coming battle,”
“Ye have access to the orbital sensors?”
Fifebee tapped a command. In the center of the command deck, a holographic display snapped to life. A hologram of the planet hovered over the central display table. In orbit, they could see tiny holograms of Silverado, the Matrian ships and the Senousian cruisers.
“Neat,” Jeffery said.
“I thought you said you had made progress?” Valtaic said.
“Eh?” Fifebee frowned at him.
“You had access to the sensors previously. They are one of the systems that was not locked down,”
“Well,” Fifebee cleared her throat, “We have a nicer display now,”
Growling to himself as the bickering continued, T’Parief stood and started another round of the lower walkway. He peered out the dark windows, trying to make out any detail that could be helpful. Squinting, he thought he could make out a dim shape, but it could have been his imagination, or a reflection off the window. He’d almost turned away when something caught his eye. Something was wedged in the bottom corner of the window, half hidden by the walkway edge. Bending down, he fished it out.
It was a data padd. It must have fallen from one of the upper levels and slid down the window, T’Parief reasoned. He activated it. He couldn’t understand the text, but the image needed no explanation.
“Lieutenant Commander Fifebee, your assistance please,” he said.
“What is it, dear?” Fifebee asked, abandoning her argument with Valtaic and rushing down the stairs. T’Parief handed her the padd.
The image displayed was that of an explosion. A very, very large one. It was hard to make out the object that was exploding, but one curved edge caught both their eyes. The curving shape, starting to tumble as the explosion pushed it away, bore a strong resemblance to the piece of space debris they’d explored only days before.
“Men Destroy Matronus,” Fifebee breathed, translating the headline. Jeffery and Valtaic had joined her on the lower level, “It is a news report. It says that yesterday night at 2100h, a team of men sabotaged the power reactor of Matronus, resulting in an overload that destroyed the entire city and killed over two million Matrians. The Queen and the Council of Mistresses have declared a state of emergency, and all men are ordered to return to their homes immediately.”
“City?” Jeffery asked, trying to get a closer look at the image.
“It appears Matronus was indeed an orbital habitat,” Fifebee said, “An extremely large one. This is it. This was the start of the Gender Wars,” she looked at the padd with an expression that bordered on awe, “We are holding what may be the only uncorrupted report of those early days on the entire planet!”
She quickly started paging through the other data files on the padd.
“There is more here,” she said, “Intelligence reports. Material requests. News reports on male rioting. And orders…” she trailed off as she read.
“There is a message here, possibly to the commander of this installation, ordering an immediate evacuation and lockdown,” she said.
Something was bothering Valtaic.
“Commander T’Parief,” he said, “You say you found this report on the floor?”
“Well, wedged into a window frame, but as the window is the floor at this particular-“
“And the Gender Wars lasted about a century?”
“Then,” Valtaic said, “That means-“
“This place was abandoned over a hundred years before the war ended,” Fifebee suddenly interrupted, “Look at the timestamp on this message!”
Valtaic’s energy field surged with irritation. So much for deductive reasoning!
“It was not Mistress Laurette that removed this facility from the Matrian database! It was the Old Matrians! They took steps to hide this place when the Gender Wars broke out, and they succeeded beyond their expectations! If there had not been an intact data core in the wreckage of Old Matronus, this place could have remained hidden, possibly for all time! And there is more…” Fifebee continued reading. She stopped.
“Come with me,” she said, “I believe I have found something worth investigating.
It was time.
Rotating serenely around its star, Matria Prime looked like a jewel set into a velvet backdrop. Granted, the scars of ruined cities and impact craters marred its beauty somewhat, but they were minor overall. Noticeable, but not enough to turn you away. Orbiting the planet was a mixed fleet of ships and satellites. The incomplete satellite defence system had been activated and hung in geosynchronous orbit above the current city of Matronus. Positioned further out, the Federation starship Silverado sat directly in line between the approaching Qu’Eh ships and the planet. Her hull had been fully repaired, her weapons fully charged and her jury-rigged Matrian reactors had been pumped into overdrive. Flanking her to both sides as well and above and below were the Matrian cruisers. These same ships had survived Silverado’s attack against the Matrians over two years ago. Augmented with improved technologies and the few additional cruisers that had been built in the meantime, they were still smaller and less powerful than the Starfleet ship. A scattering of scout ships flew between the larger vessels, and squadrons of Matrian and Senousian starfighters, just launched from the planet surface, were quickly making their way to the fleet.
Commander Jall sat in Silverado’s command chair, snapping orders left and right as the final preparations were made. Next to him, Dr. Wowryk was on the comm with the repair teams, being updated on likely weak points. Both of them knew that without Stafford, Sylvia, T’Parief or the other absent officers and/or artificial life forms, this was not going to be Silverado’s finest battle.
Deep beneath the Matrian Defence Headquarters, Stafford stood next to Admiral Verethi, carefully watching the holographic display. Ensign Burke was manning the sensor controls next to the pretty Matrian technician, Lieutenant Yanick was supervising the Matrian communications technicians and Lieutenant Commander Stern was standing by to command the Matrian ground forces, various HT members helping out the area commanders in their respective command posts. Ensign Naketh was manning the panel that had been linked to the planetary defence satellites. Their Starfleet uniforms made Stafford feel a bit better…a bit more at home. But then his eye caught the tiny hologram of Silverado, hovering next to the planet.
“This is Matrian Defence Headquarters to all ships,” he said, tapping his comm-badge. “The Qu’Eh fleet will drop out of warp in thirty seconds. Stand by for Phase One,”
He exchanged glances with Admiral Verethi.
“Let’s hope this works,” he said.
“We ready for this?” Jall asked.
“Everybody seems to say we are,” Wowryk said, looking at the status reports streaming by on her chair panel. She wasn’t really sure why the Arboretum was sending battle readiness reports, unless somebody in the botany labs had been doing some unauthorized experiments on the trees. This lead to a brief chain of thought where Wowryk considered the possibility of engineering shrubbery that would punish any who attempted illicit intercourse in the bushes, but was quickly brought back to the moment when Stafford’s voice rang through the bridge.
“Stand by for Phase One,”
Wowryk straightened up ever more in her chair, her stomach clenching, her eyes darting to the empty void displayed on the viewscreen.
“Are you ready for this, doc?” Jall asked softly.
“This wasn’t exactly my idea,” Wowryk said, gripping the armrest.
“You’ll do fine.” Jall said, “Just take a deep breath and imagine the Qu’Eh attacking us in their underwear,”
Wowryk giggled a bit despite herself.
“The Qu’Eh fleet is dropping out of warp!” Quintaine called from Sciences.
“On screen,” Jall ordered.
On the bridge display, Wowryk saw nothing but stars. Then, at the exact center of the screen, a small green dot appeared. Then another, then another, until there were over two dozen dots clustered on the screen.
“They’ve dropped out of warp between the orbits of Matria IV and Matria V,” Ensign Bith reported, “They are scanning the planets and their moons. No sign of aggressive movement against the fleet, as of yet,”
“Why do they care about the moons this time?” Wowryk asked, “Didn’t they go right for the planet in the first attack? Wait, that didn’t sound very confident or commanding. I know they did.”
“Uh-huh,” Jall said, “But there’s a little something there this time that wasn’t there the last time,”
“We’re detecting energy reading from the third moon of Matria IV,” Assistant Sub-Manager Crennis reported, “They definitely weren’t there the first time,”
“Full sensor sweep,” his commanding officer, Sub-Manager Dukar ordered, “Advise Chairman P’tareck that we may have found something,”
“Sending now,” Peon Furden reported. “Sir, the flagship advises that the fleet will hold at station keeping until we’ve identified the source of the emissions,”
“Very well,” Dukar nodded, “Take us to the planet,”
“This is the Matrian Cruiser Velance to Defence HQ. They’ve taken the bait, Admiral!”
“Minister,” Verethi walked briskly around the central display table, her boot heels clicking on the polished stone floor, “The Qu’Eh have-“
“I’m not deaf, Admiral,” Stafford said, musing for a moment that it was really nice to be able to say that rank with annoyance to somebody’s face for once, “Commence Phase One,”
“Launching PAWNs, you smug Starfleet bastard,”
The Qu’Eh Cruiser Resource Management eased into orbit of the third moon of Matria IV, its small scout-class escort ships flanking it to either side. The moon had once been colonized by the Matrians and used as a mining outpost. Several abandoned pressure domes dotted the surface, some still containing viable, if very stale, atmospheres. As the Qu’Eh ship loomed closer, four Matrian Duchess-class scouts launched from the surface. The Qu’Eh ship bathed the planetoid in sensor beams, taking no action against the scouts.
“They’re not firing on the scouts, sir,” Quintaine reported.
“That’s OK,” Jall said, tapping his console, “This is Commander Jall to PAWN Leader. Hold your fire until fired upon,”
“Hold my what?” a confused sounding male voice came back.
“I mean don’t shoot yet!” Jall snapped.
“Oh. I already knew that. It was in the mission briefing,”
“I know that, but it’s more dramatic if I remind you!”
“What, is that some kind of silly human custom?”
“It is, as a matter of fact, you little-“ Jall bit his lip, “Look, just wait for them to fire the first shot!”
“I know, we just discussed-“ the voice was cut off as Jall leaned on the ‘disconnect’ button.
The four PAWN ships kept their distance from the Qu’Eh ship, careful to stay clear of its weapon’s ports as the boxy ship hovered over the moon. Its main section was dotted in lights from open portals, while the broad, thin upper section was dotted with sensor arrays, weapons ports and shield generators. The scans continued for several moments, then stopped.
The ship continued to sit there.
“This is ridiculous!” Stafford snapped, staring at the holo-display, “We don’t want to shoot first, they don’t want to shoot first, but we all know damned well we’re here to have a battle!”
“It’s like going clubbing,” Yanick chirped, “You know she wants you, you know you want her, but you’re both too chicken to walk over and say hi!”
“No, it’s not like…” Stafford trailed off, “Well, yes, it’s exactly like that,”
He stared at the holo-display for several moments, mentally daring the Qu’Eh to make the first move.
“Open a channel,” he said.
Aboard the Resource Management, Sub-Manager Dukar watched the screen as the alien commander appeared on screen.
“This is Capt, er, Minister Christopher Stafford of the Fed…uh, Matrian Defence Force. Matria Prime is a Federation member world, and as such is defended by the full strength of the Federation. Any attempt to approach Matria Prime or to interfere with Matrian vessels will be seen as an act of hostility and dealt with accordingly. Um…please go away?”
There was a pause of less than a second, then Chairman P’tareck appeared on the screen. Dressed in a smart bluish suit and swirling red cape, he sat comfortably in his wing-backed leather armchair.
“Minister Stafford, is it? Hmm. Well, it’s nice to hear that your Federation was so welcoming to the Matrians, especially after the way you so nicely decimated their defence force the last time you were here. And now you’re in command? Isn’t that interesting?” He leaned forward, “The Qu’Eh do not take kindly to your attempts to annex planets in our part of the galaxy. Let me give you this opportunity to depart peacefully. I can, after all, show mercy once every 2.75 years.” He turned to his assistant, “Betheria, please note that down in my calendar. I would hate to be merciful again before I was due,”
“Yes, Mr. Chairman,”
“Thanks,” Stafford said dryly on the screen, “But you don’t seem to understand. The Matrians invited us here, and they voted to become part of the Federation. We have reinforcements on the way, and let me tell you, we’ve got some much, much bigger ships than you do!”
“Minister, perhaps you don’t understand.” P’Tareck leaned forward, “I do not care! The Qu’Eh have targeted the Matrian Republic for auditing, and we will audit! As for your mighty Federation, I see one ship. Thank you, but we’ll take our chances.” He gestured and his assistant cut off the transmission.
“That went well,” he mused to himself. He turned to his Fleet Commander.
“Destroy those scouts,”
“We’re taking fire!” PAWN Leader cried, stabbing at his controls. The small scout, barely the size of an Oberth-class starship, darted to the side as Qu’Eh energy beams skimmed over its shields.
“Return fire!” Stafford’s voice came over the command channel. Not wasting a moment, PAWN Leader immediately commanded his ships to open fire.
“We’re denting their shields a bit,” he reported, “But their disruptor beams are taking a toll on us!”
His ships concentrated their fire on one of the Qu’Eh escorts. There was a flash of light as the small vessel exploded.
“FIRST BLOOD!” announced the holo-display table as one of the tiny Qu’Eh holograms blinked out. A small counter beneath the projection read ‘Matrians: 1, Qu’Eh: 0’.
“What the f**k?” Stafford asked, “Did the table just talk?”
“I dunno,” Verethi shrugged, “And since whoever designed this system has been dead for about two hundreds years, I doubt we’ll ever find out,”
“Meh,” Stafford shrugged, “Is our little present ready?”
In one of the empty pressure domes on Matria 4’s third moon, the MDF had found an interesting relic: a planetary defence cannon. The technology was nothing special: pretty much any planet inhabited by a space-faring race had the things. Nothing more than a disruptor bank much like those mounted on the Matrian ships, the planetary versions was bigger, heavier and usually hooked into much bigger power reactors. The Matrians had been able to get one of the old things on-line, but hadn’t seen any real use for it, seeing as how it was on an abandoned moon far from their homeworld. A small team of Matrian and Starfleet technicians had been sent to make sure the cannon and the ancient geothermal energy tap that powered it were up, running and giving off enough energy readings to make the Qu’Eh curious.
Now, as the PAWN vessels lured the Matrian ship into position, a panel next to one of the domes slid open, and the blunt snout of the cannon eased into firing position.
“I’m getting a power spike on the planet!” Assistant Sub-Manager Crennis called out.
“Lock weapons and-“
The ship pitched over as a brilliant beam of energy stabbed out from the planet, hitting the Qu’Eh cruiser square in the main section.
“Shields are down to 20%!” One of the Peons called.
“Move us out! Move us out! Call for additional assets!”
The Resource Management turned quickly, struggling to shake off the PAWN ships that were still harassing it, their weapons breaking through the larger ship’s weakened shields. Plumes of gas started to vent through hull breaches. The moon’s cannon fired again and the Qu’Eh ship exploded, the shock wave knocking the PAWNs off course.
They’d barely regained control when six Qu’Eh cruisers and their support ships swept in, obliterating the PAWNs, the disruptor cannon and the abandoned mining facility.
“Well, that went about as well as we expected,” Stafford said, watching as Matrian icons blinked out on the display. The tally now read ‘Matrians: 3, Qu’Eh, 6’, with a sub-display giving a breakdown of destroyed assets by ship class and structure type.
“YOU HAVE LOST THE LEAD!” announced the voice.
“Defense HQ to PAWN leader,” Admiral Verethi called, “Report. Did the idiot Starfleet plan work?”
In Silverado’s main holodeck, PAWN leader sat in the command chair of his simulated scout. The displays had all frozen shortly before PAWN-1 had been destroyed, the remote feed used to transmit commands to the unmanned ship and receive telemetry back severed as a Qu’Eh weapons blast took out the subspace transceiver. As the simulated bridge faded, he joined the other PAWN crewmembers as they jogged out of the holodeck towards the Matrian fighters waiting for them in Silverado’s shuttlebay.
“Affirmative, HQ,” PAWN leader reported, “Silverado should be transmitting the data momentarily.
“Mr. Quintaine?” Jall asked, turning to gaze at the temporary science officer.
“Got it!” Quintaine reported triumphantly, “Weapons frequencies, torpedo modulations and some pretty detailed readings on their ships’ capabilities!”
“Perfect. Send then down to Burke. Make sure he sends them to the entire fleet,”
“You know, we could just send them to the entire fleet,” Pye suggested from the helm. So far, with the actual fighting taking place far from Matria Prime, he hadn’t had much to do.
“We could,” Jall said, “But that’s why we have a central headquarters in a very secure location. They get to do that kinda stuff, we don’t have to worry about it, and when we get blown to pieces the fleet still has a leader,”
Wowryk watched the exchange with interest. Most of the time, when Silverado had gone into battle, she’d been down in Sickbay, tending to the wounded and generally wondering what idiotic stunt the command crew had pulled to cause the current predicament. Her last battle had, through a series of flukes, found her in command of the ship and she’d learned the hard way that it wasn’t always your own idiotic stunts that caused the problem. Now, acting as first officer, without the chaos of direct battle, she found herself watching her colleagues closely. It helped her keep her mind off the thought of imminent failure; the thought that one mistake on her part could lead to the destruction of the whole ship.
What she found most interesting was the change in the bridge officers as they monitored the Que’Eh fleet and the destruction of the PAWN vessels. Lieutenant Pye, typically full of mindless chatter, was being relatively quiet. Lieutenant Day was almost completely silent at the operations console, and the lack of filthy lust she felt when her gaze fell on him told her that his Deltan endocrine systems was all but inactive. Ensign Bith was running tactical scenarios on her console and programming Silverado’s shields to provide extra protection against the weapons frequencies being used by the Qu’Eh. Lieutenant Commander Quintaine was running scan after scan, carefully cataloguing the ships in the Qu’Eh fleet and reconciling the data collected by the Matrian planetary sensor array with Silverado’s more refined readings.
But the biggest change was Commander Jall.
He sat in the command chair like it was an armchair, one leg curled under the other, leaning back in the leather cushioning and sipping a Vanilla Latte that had been brought up by a terrified-looking Guinanco waiter.
Well, OK, so that wasn’t much of a change.
What astonished Wowryk, however, was the change in his attitude. Oh, he was still the same flippant, flamboyant and, in her opinion, far too immature officer he’d always been. But where before there had been arrogance, now there was an almost frightening confidence. Jall looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. He wasn’t dreading the Qu’Eh attack, he was waiting for them to come close enough for him to swat them. And if he happened to get killed in the process, oh well. Can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?
As she flipped through the flight recorders, ensuring that each was running properly, she came across the video feed from the bridge. She couldn’t help but notice that, next to Jall, she looked terrified as she clutched her chair, tapping on her console, her eyes darting around to see if anybody else had noticed.
And she was supposed to be First Officer?
“Sir, Silverado just transmitted the Qu’Eh weapons frequencies,” Burke reported from the Matrian sensor station, “At least, I think they did. My Universal Translator’s acting up…they may have just sent us the dimensions on Playmate of the Month,”
“Hmmm?” Stafford frowned.
“Well, it either says ‘27.4 tera-hertz’, or ‘D-cup’,”
“It’s the weapon’s frequency,” Yanick piped in, “If Jall was sending info on Playmate of the Month, it would be in inches. And it would be either bicep size or the length of-“
“TRISH!” Stafford whined, “We’re going into battle, and in front of the Matrians, too! Can we can the sexual innuendos for now?”
“But sexual innuendo about Jall is so much fun!” Yanick giggled, “Nothing makes you more uncomfortable, not even that time I came into your quarters instead of T’Parief’s by mistake, wearing that chocolate lingerie-“
Around him, the Matrian women were giving approving looks while the men were looking at Stafford like he was some kind of pervert.
“I didn’t look,” he grumbled, “Honestly,”
“If you’re finished behaving like undisciplined fools,” Admiral Verethi snapped, “Could we get the status of the Qu’Eh fleet?”
“They’re advancing very slowly,” Burke replied, squinting at his console, “I’m picking up intense sensor scans from their leading ships. Either that, or I just won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes,”
“Somebody get him a fresh translator,” Stafford snapped.
“Still advancing slowly,” Quintaine reported.
“Any new orders from HQ?” Wowryk demanded.
“Nope. Not since the last time you asked, about two minutes ago,”
“So we’re back to staring at each other,” Wowryk grumbled, “That was pointless,”
“We gained some valuable intel,” Jall reminded her.
“Right, right,” she agreed.
“C’mon, doc,” Jall said, getting out of his seat, “Let’s go have a coffee,”
“Excuse me? Aren’t we about to do battle?”
“Sure,” Jall shrugged, “That’s why we’re going to the ready room instead of Platterheads.” He thumbed the comm button on Stafford’s chair, “Jall to Officer’s Dining Hall, bring two Jall Specials to the ready room,”
“This isn’t a cheap drive-through, you know,” the voice of Patsy Horton came back over the comm.
“Send them up, or I’ll tell Stafford what your wait staff and I have been doing in your storage room,”
Silence for a moment.
“On their way,” Horton replied.
Wowryk glared at him, her lip curling in disgust.
“What?” Jall shrugged, “It’s not my problem if she thinks a game of pool is disgustingly lower-class,”
Suppressing a small giggle, Wowryk followed him into the ready room. To her surprise, Jall took a seat in one of the chairs facing Stafford’s desk, leaving the Captain’s usual seat empty. He gestured for Wowryk to sit on the couch. A cute, Brazillian waiter brought their drinks: Beanus espresso with steamed milk and a sort of a sweet, nutty flavouring.
“I thought you could use a bit of First-Officer type advice,” Jall told her.
“I don’t think I ever considered that I’d be getting advice from you,” Wowryk said. There was, she found with some surprise, no disdain or annoyance in her voice. With the upcoming fight, and the realization that they could both be dead in less than a day, she had found that her hatred of the Trill had faded, replaced by something else. It wasn’t affection, it wasn’t quite respect…but it was a close call. A sort of realization that he’d been part of her life for nearly four years and that he would be missed, badly, if anything happened to him.
“Well,” Jall admitted, “Most of the time, the only advice I would have given you would have been to take that stick out of your ass and to unlock that chastity belt before your womanly parts rust off, but we’re in a different sort of situation now, aren’t we?”
OK, maybe she wouldn’t miss him that much.
“You were pretty surprised when Stafford made you First Officer, weren’t you,” Jall said, sipping his coffee and looking her in the eyes.
“Yes,” Wowryk nodded.
“I wasn’t,” Jall said bluntly, “See, Stafford has a lot of flaws. A LOOOT of flaws. Oh, sweetie, he’s like the poor deluded soul wearing spring colours after the fall line-up has been released. But one thing I’ll say for him is that he’s been putting people where he thinks they can do the most good. Well, this thing with Fifebee, Valtaic and them is a long shot, but it seemed like a really good idea at the time. Anyway, he felt that in this situation, you’d do the most good,”
“I don’t understand that at all,” Wowryk said, setting her cup down, “I’m a doctor. I heal. I save. I don’t command!”
“Please, doc,” Jall chuckled, “Ask anybody who’s been through Sickbay…you command. You’re assertive and when you want something, you go for it. Big time.”
“Well, OK,” Wowryk admitted, “But Quintaine knows a lot more about commanding a ship in battle than I do!”
“He does,” Jall said, “But that’s not everything. We have Quintaine on the bridge if we need him. And you’ve got little old sexy me. But what Quintaine and I don’t have is your image,”
“If this is about my breasts again-“
“It’s not,” Jall stood up and turned to look out the window, where Matria Prime slowly spun, “I mean, they are nice. But, Noel, the Matrians think very highly of you. You’re the woman who stood up to their entire half-brainwashed ruling council for gender equality. You went deep into the heart of their empire to get the man you loved back, and you’re an important part of why this crew put their entire society back on course.” He leaned over the back of his chair, “Do you know what it means to the Matrians on those ships when they hear your voice over the comm?”
Wowryk said nothing.
“It gives them hope,” Jall said, “It gives them drive. And that’s something that’s going to be very, very important, considering how badly outnumbered we are,”
Wowryk still said nothing.
“So here’s my advice,” Jall said, standing again, “Go out there, and be the same old Wowryk we all know and…er…love. Don’t give a shit about what other people think! You’re calm, confident and in control. If you screw up some of the little things like which repair team has to go and plug a whole in the hull, don’t worry about it. Quintaine and I are out there too.” He giggled, “This one time, when we were in a fight with these Orion pirates, Stafford hit the wrong button and almost blew Repair Team Delta out of a cargo bay.” He continued giggling for a few more moments, then swallowed, “But, anyway, you get the idea,”
“Yes,” Wowryk said calmly, “I do.
As she stood, she took a deep breath, gathering around her the ice-cold confidence and power that she drew from her unfalteringly belief in God. All would be well. She was but an instrument of the Lord, and whatever happened was His will.
“Did it just drop a few degrees in here, or is it just me?” Jall muttered as he followed her back onto the bridge.
“Movement!” Burke snapped, staring at his sensor readouts, “The Qu’Eh fleet just pushed it up to half impulse!”
“Here we go,” Stafford muttered. He consulted briefly with Verethi, then turned to Yanick, “Deploy the fighters. Let’s see if we can wear them down a bit,”
“Fighters,” Burke chuckles, “What a weird idea,”
“Starfleet’s used Peregrine-class fighters before,” Stafford said, “But they seem to be pretty rare,”
“Because they suck,”
“Am I to understand that you have no experience commanding fighters in battle?” Verethi demanded.
“Well, I dunno about ‘no’.” Stafford shrugged, “Not much, but…well…”
“Idiot Starfleeters,” Verethi mumbled again.
In orbit of Matria Prime, hovering around the cruisers and scouts, were several flights of Matrian Countess-class star-fighters. An equal number of Senousian Penetration-class fighters were launching from the Senousian cruisers, forming a screen between the oncoming Qu’Eh ships and the Mantrian/Senousian fleet. The fighters were similar in capabilities, though the Senousian fighters were newly built while the Matrian fighters had been sitting almost forgotten in storage hangers since the end of the Gender Wars. Each had high-powered impulse engines, disruptor cannons and micro-torpedo launchers. Their weapons couldn’t begin to measure up against a full sized starship, but their ability to distract was excellent, and in numbers they could do damage. Unfortunately, they were still outnumbered by the Qu’Eh fighters.
In the lead were two Starfleet Denube-class runabouts, followed by three Class-9 shuttles. Less manoeuvrable than the star-fighters, their warp cores allowed for more powerful weapons and shields.
“Stingray Leader, this is Silverado,” Wowryk’s voice came over the combat channel, “Commence strafing runs,”
“Ohhh, goody,” Ensign Menzies muttered as he ran his hands over the console of the runabout Asessippi, “Isn’t this going to be fun!”
“You enjoy star-fighter combat?” Commander Hures, the Matrian officer designated Stingray Leader asked.
“Oh, sure. I just love when I get to fly around in a tiny, fragile little ship and get shot at by a much larger ship,”
“Good,” Hures nodded, “I love it too. At least, I hope I will. Stingray Alpha, Stingray Beta, come to heading 238 mark 8. Make runs on the Qu’Eh cruisers designated Cutie-1 and Cutie-2. Probe Leader,” he addressed his counterpart commanding the Senousian fighters, “You want to take a couple cruisers off their port flank?”
“Confirm, Stingray Leader,” replied the Senousian officer from her station on the runabout Niagra.
Impulse engines flared as the delta-wing shaped Matrian fighters and the ridged, phallic-shaped Senousian fighters broke free of the defending fleet and darted towards the Qu’Eh fleet. As they approached, weapons fire started streaking in from the Qu’Eh.
“Evasive manoeuvres!” Stingray Leader called over comm, “Don’t make it easy for them!”
The fighters broke into their separate flights, each targeting one of the Qu’Eh cruisers on the flanks of the fleet. Firing beam weapons and micro-torpedoes, the fighters did as much damages as they could in one pass before darting out of the larger ship’s weapon’s range.
“We took their shields down 8%,” reported Stingray Alpha-1.
“Coming around for another run,” Probe Alpha-2 added.
“Belay that!” Stingray Leader called, “Head back for Matria Prime immediately.”
“What the hell?”
“Those are our orders,”
“Idiots!” Stingray Beta-1 snapped.
There was a flash of weapons fire from the Qu’Eh ships. Stingray Alpha-3 was caught in the crossfire, exploding into a fireball.
“Try and lead them into firing range of the fleet!” Probe Leader called.
The fighters pulled in tight turns, heading back towards the planet. They hadn’t even reached the orbit of Matria II when the Qu’Eh fighters, now in hot pursuit, started to pepper them with fire. All of Probe-Gamma, lagging behind as they were, was caught by Qu’Eh torpedoes, all six fighters exploding like firecrackers.
“Incoming!” Bith called from tactical.
“Man, what I wouldn’t give to have Sylvia on the bridge right now,” Jall muttered, “Fire as soon as they’re in weapon’s range.”
“That was about ten seconds ago,”
“Then fire!” Jall snapped. Next to him, Wowryk was parroting his orders to the rest of the fleet.
“They’re coming in too fast!”
Outside the ship phaser fire flashed out, searching for the oncoming Qu’Eh fighters. But the fighters, coming in as such high speed, darted right past the fleet before they had the chance to get off a few pot shots. The Matrian/Senousian fighters broke hard to port and starboard, killing their speed and darting back towards the protection of the larger ships. The Qu’Eh fighters, caught off guard, hit the brakes in an effort to turn around and follow.
And wound up as sitting ducks for the defence satellites.
The instant Burke reported the fighter’s drop in speed, Naketh started stabbing attack commands into his control panel. Automated systems on those satellites that were functional targeted the Qu’Eh ships and opened fire. Over a dozen Qu’Eh fighters were destroyed before the rest could scramble out of range.
“YOU ARE IN THE LEAD!” announced the holotable.
“Not bad,” Verethi admitted grudgingly.
“It’s a start,” Stafford grumbled. On the holo-display, the tiny icons representing the Qu’Eh fighters were now making strafing runs on the Matrian ships. But unlike the Qu’Eh, the Matrian/Senousian force had been told to hold formation, not to split up the way the Qu’Eh ships had. The fighters were moving too quickly for the targeting scanners on the Matrian cruisers, but the fighters and scouts began scoring kills. On Matria Prime, the half-dozen planetary defence cannons that had been repaired were trying to track the tiny ships, but couldn’t fire for fear of hitting the wrong fleet.
Suddenly, the Qu’Eh fighters broke off; abandoning their attack runs and high-tailing it back to the Qu’Eh fleet.
Aboard Silverado, Jall was leaning over the engineering station.
“Our phaser recharge rate is still too low,” he muttered.
“Well, we don’t exactly have a warp core to work with here,” Lieutenant Sage responded from main engineering.
“The fighters are withdrawing,” Bith reported, “And I even managed to hit a couple!”
“Oh that’s good news,” Jall said,
“And the Qu’Eh fleet is increasing speed,” she added.
“And that’s bad news,”
“But we’ve finished the shield adjustments.” Quintaine reported, “We should have a bit of extra protection from their weapons,”
“And that’s good news,” Jall nodded.
“Oh, by the way,” Day called from Operations, “Jeffery’s half an hour overdue on his check-in,”
“And that’s bad news,”
“Qu’Eh fleet is arming weapons,”
“They’ll be in weapons range in thirty seconds.”
“And,” Jall said, settling back into his chair, “With that one, I think we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Deep under the surface of Matria Prime, Jeffery, Valtaic, Fifebee and T’Parief crept out of the poshly padded turbolift they’d ridden and into yet another lofty corridor. Holding the Matrian padd, Fifebee paged through the various entries as she walked.
“I can’t find any mention of what exactly is down here,” she said, “But their are instructions to lock it down and keep it prepared for long-term storage,”
“This better be the part where we finally find the big, secret weapon that we get to use to defend the planet,” T’Parief said angrily, “I am hungry, and there is a battle starting in orbit that I wanted to be a part of!”
“With all our luck, the door’s going to be locked anyway,” Jeffery grumbled, massaging his empty stomach, “Can we go lookin’ for a replicator after this?”
Fifebee led them into a smaller corridor. Unlike the first, which had high ceilings, polished floors and paneled walls, this one was cramped and utilitarian. Carefully examining the markings on each door, she continued leading them through the complex.
“This one,” she said, pointing at an unassuming doorway.
“Superweapon.” T’Parief muttered, crossing his clawed fingers, “Superweapon…superweapon…”
“It’s not locked,” Jeffery said, tapping at the panel and opening the door.
“Uh-oh,” Jeffery muttered. T’Parief poked his head in the door.
“ZHAVHARGETHENZ!” he screamed, slamming a fish through the opposite wall.
“Fascinating,” Fifebee exclaimed.
It was a laboratory.
Nearly a dozen stasis tubes lined the walls. In each one lay a male Matrian, each motionless, deep in suspended animation. Their naked limbs were slim, and lithe. Their features were delicate and fragile. None of them had seen Matrian men like these.
In the center of the room sat a thirteenth pod. It also held a Matrian male, but this one more closely resembled the Matrians they were used to dealing with.
“Growth accelerators,” Fifebee muttered, examining the equipment on the work benches, “Gene sequencers. Genetic replication vats,”
“This is not a superweapon,” T’Parief complained, picking pieces of the wall out from under his claws.
“No,” Valtaic said, carefully examining the central stasis pod, “But if this is what I think it is, it could be a great deal of trouble.”