Chapter Five

T - 48 hours

Dalton and Vympel watched silently as Alkesh flashed by their hiding spot.

"He didn't see us." Vympel reported in an obviously relieved tone of voice.

From the back, Wilson and Sheppard crowded up toward the front. Wilson was a tall, lanky combat veteran who mentored some of the younger men, while Sheppard was a boyish-looking young man with a history of disciplinary problems, but whose connections to the Orion crime syndicate were instrumental in procuring weapons for the colony.

"I hate just sitting here." Sheppard complained. "We should have loaded up a torpedo. Let 'em have it as soon as they pass."

"For what?" Wilson retorted. "To knock a few points off their shields and then have 'em turn around and vapourize us?"

"OK, then we load up some Omega torps." Shep said, grinning widely.

Wilson's expression betrayed exasperation. "Shep, in case you hadn't noticed, the Omega torp-"

"That's enough, you two." Dalton gruffly interrupted. From their vantage point, they watched Alkesh continuing to flee, with the occasional green bolt flashing in its general direction. Vympel started moving to the tactical station to track the fleeing ship, when the ship was suddenly jolted by a tremendous impact. Everyone was sent flying and the ship tumbled end over end, flung like a toy, as if it had been struck by a great hammer. Unbenownst to them, one of the blasts had struck a glancing blow off the far side of the asteroid. Dalton felt himself flying up into the roof, and then being flung just as abruptly toward the back of the ship, only to slam into a bench with a sickening crack. The world seemed to explode into light and sound, and then everything faded into darkness and silence.

He awoke with a start, and looked around in a daze. He couldn't tell if he'd been out for minutes, hours, or seconds. Blood was oozing from a wound on his head, he couldn't tell where. It was in his eyes, and he couldn't see. He tried to wipe his eyes clear, but could only make out vague shapes moving around. A loud hissing sound announced the loss of atmosphere to space through a crack somewhere in the fuselage, and the hull-breach alarm was blaring stridently.

"Vympel!" Dalton shouted. There was no answer. "Anybody! We're venting! Get the emergency forcefields up!"

"Sir, Vympel's down!" Wilson shouted over the noise. He tried to access the control panel, but it was dark. He kicked open the access panel and fumbled with the restart, but to no avail. "Shit!" he screamed, slamming his fist against the panel in frustration. "System's dead! Ahh, to hell with it- that seam can't be too big or we'd all be dead already. I'm gonna try to find it and weld it, sir!" he said, stepping toward the back of the ship with his tricorder in hand.

Dalton tried to help, and struggled valiantly to his feet. But an excruciating pain shot through his leg the instant he tried to put weight on it, and he crumpled to the floor. He heard Wilson shouting instructions, and he could also hear someone screaming. As he slipped out of consciousness once more, he realized the screaming was his own.

Separator

Alien Ship

Lucet held the protocol droid by the neck, angrily spitting out words like venom. "How do we stop it? TELL ME!"

"Stop what, sir?" the droid asked innocently.

"The countdown, you idiot!" Lucet hissed, trying to squeeze the droid's neck harder but with no effect. "How do we stop the countdown?"

"I'm afraid I can't help you until my mobility is restored, sir." the droid responded calmly.

Lucet's grip on its neck did not seem to cause it the slightest discomfort, and he was beginning to feel rather foolish, so he relented. "Is there a self-destruct we can activate?"

"No sir."

"Is there any way to get off this ship?" Lucet said slowly, enunciating clearly as if for emphasis.

"No sir, not without security clearance."

"What if we try to cause as much damage as possible? Is there a way to slow down this start-up process?" Lucet's voice grew more strident.

"Sir, if you cause any kind of significant damage, the computer will automatically change the start-up sequence, and the security droids will be activated early." the droid replied calmly.

"How do I know you're not lying?"

"You do not. But I assure you that you will discover the accuracy of my statements soon enough, sir. If you would reattach my legs, I could possibly try to help you use one of the communications terminals in order to call for help. I am a protocol droid, sir."

"We don't KNOW how to reattach your legs!"

"If you like, I can give your men instructions on the procedure, sir." the droid replied without missing a beat. "I believe I may be able to communicate to them in your native language, if you would prefer. From what I have overheard, it has rather predictable syntactical patterns, and many of the root elements are already in my database."

"Fine. FINE!" Lucet growled, feeling vaguely insulted by the android's evaluation of the Cardassian language. "We'll reattach your legs, and then you will help us find a communication terminal and get off this ship. But don't try any tricks or I'll pull you apart piece by piece." He leaned in close to the droid's face. "Do we understand each other?" he said.

"Perfectly, sir." the droid replied in its infuriatingly calm voice.

Lucet gestured to his men to begin working.

Separator

The Maquis Raider "Starlight"

T - 45 hours

Dalton heard voices in his head, and tried to wake himself from a nightmare about being trapped on a burning ship.

"Captain?" it was Wilson's voice.

He opened his eyes to see Wilson and several other crewmembers hovering over him. He groaned and tried to move.

"Take it easy sir, you broke your leg and split your head open pretty good. Stravo's trying to fuse the bone."

"Uhhhhhh ..." Dalton groaned. "Report." he said hoarsely.

"The asteroid shifted, sir. Must have gotten hit by something on the far side. Smacked into us pretty hard and sent us flying. We sealed the hull breach but warp drive is out and I don't think we'll be able to field-repair it. There's a lot of other damage too; to make a long story short, we have no warp core, no weapons, no shields, and no impulse power. That gaylord is still hanging around. He ran until the derelict stopped firing at him, then he stopped, and now I don't think he knows what to do. He's holding station a few million klicks away."

"How long was I out?"

"About 3 hours, sir."

"Casualties?"

"Mostly bumps and bruises, sir. A couple of the other guys broke a few bones and we're patching 'em up. Vympel's got a concussion, he's still out but Stravo says he'll be OK. But Lars ... he broke his neck."

"Is he ...?"

"He's dead, sir." Wilson answered in a flat tone of voice.

Dalton closed his eyes, and couldn't help but wish this were all just a bad dream. "Understood." he said quietly. He tried to steel himself, to make himself seem authoritative and confident in front of the crew. "OK, forget the core, forget weapons, forget shields. We run off the battery for now. Our first priority is to get propulsion. Any kind of propulsion. I don't care if you give me full impulse, half impulse, or a thruster and a pair of oars. Get on it."

"OK, boss."

Dalton watched them work for a while and then laid back and tried to rest, shifting his leg into a less painful position. He couldn't help but reflect that this was as bleak a situation as he had ever encountered in his time with the Maquis.

Separator

Alien Ship

T - 43 hours

"Sir, your translator devices should all be able to interpret the necessary languages now." the protocol droid said, handing a Cardassian universal translator to Lucet.

"Excellent. You just bought yourself another hour of life. Now show us how to use this comm panel."

The android walked stiffly on its damaged but workable legs to the communications panel and activated it. The viewscreen lit up and displayed some cryptic messages in an alien language.

"What's that?" Ando asked.

"The computer is saying that it cannot locate any compatible transceivers." the droid answered, seemingly befuddled. "Oh my," it exclaimed, "I apologize sir, but I forgot to input those peculiar communication protocols you described earlier! I will endeavour to solve the problem."

"Hurry up, android. I don't have all day." Lucet grumbled.

After a few minutes of adjustment and reprogramming, the droid was able to send a Cardassian hailing signal. Much to Lucet's relief, Gul Tain's face appeared on the viewscreen.

"Lucet? If this is your idea of a joke ..."

"What joke?" Lucet said, taken aback.

"You fired on my ship! I don't know how you managed to seize control of that vessel, but it belongs to the people of Cardassia. If you are planning to take it for yourself-"

"You don't understand-" Lucet tried to interject.

"Understand what? That you tried to kill me just now?"

"Just shut up and listen to me! I'm not in control of the ship! You have to get us out of here now!"

"You're not in control?"

"I'm not in control! The ship is controlled by androids!"

"Then ... why did it fire on us?" Tain asked slowly, his brain seemingly unable to process this information.

"It's the androids! They've got at least one weapons array working, and I think they'll shoot at anything that looks hostile. I already told you, I'm not in control of the ship!" Lucet spluttered, frustrated by Tain's apparent stupidity. "We have 43 hours before this ship goes on-line, and I don't know what it will do. We have to destroy it before that happens. Call for reinforcements immediately and get us out of here!"

"All right, I'll see what I can do in 43 hours. But it's too dangerous to approach the ship right now, Lucet. Unless you can disable its weapon systems, you're on your own. Tain out." he answered. The viewscreen darkened, and was replaced by a diagram of the ship. Lucet moved to turn away but something caught his eye, and he looked carefully at the diagram. Most of it was blacked out, except for a region near the bottom of the ship, one at the bridge, and a lonely bright dot in the midst of the superstructure.

"Android, what is this diagram?"

"Oh, nothing interesting, sir. Just the locations of active communications terminals on the ship."

"These ones down here at the bottom, that's where we are now, correct?"

"Correct, sir."

"And this spot up here at the top?" he said, pointing his finger. "That's the bridge, correct?"

"Also correct, sir."

"And what's this last one? This bright spot in the middle of nowhere?"

"Sir, that would be the Captain's quarters, of course." the droid replied snappily, apparently unaware of Lucet's interest.

Lucet's eyed widened, and he and his men exchanged glances. The potential importance of the captain's quarters did not need to be said aloud.

He immediately turned back to the android. "Take us there. Now."

"If you insist, sir."

Lucet gestured at two of his men. "You two stay here, guard the prisoners and wait for our signal. The rest, come with me."

"Wait," Ando said. "You might need our help."

"Why?" Lucet was in no mood to play games with Ando now. "Your friend there is wounded. He can't travel."

"You heard the android. He knows humans, and he was expecting human officers. Don't you think there's a chance that whoever's up there might react better to a human?"

"Yes, perhaps." Lucet said with a barely perceptible smile. Despite his loathing for humans, he couldn't help but be impressed by this man's ability to think clearly under stress. "Very well, you come with us. I'll leave two men here to guard your friend, and we'll check in when we get to the comm panel in the captain's quarters. Let's go."

Separator

The Maquis Raider "Starlight"

T - 42 hours

"We've got maneuvering thrusters, sir." Wilson reported. "Manual on/off control only."

"That's it?" Dalton replied.

"Best we could do, sir." Wilson said apologetically. Makeshift wiring connected the ship's working thrusters to control buttons at the front of the ship, and parts of the ship's instrumentation had been cannibalized to make it possible. Dalton looked around, and thought to himself that the ship looked like hell. He couldn't help but feel a swell of pride that his men had somehow been able to scavenge anything useful from this wreck.

"All right, good work. How about sensors and navigation?"

"Nothing, sir. We've only got part of the computer core up, so we're stuck with optical and infrared. I can get you a nice view of that alien ship, but that's it."

"Anything else?"

"Comm system's working, sir. We even managed to pick up a transmission between the Cardies. Open data stream; looks like they managed to commandeer the comm system on the alien ship but luckily for us, they couldn't set up encryption. Anyway, it looks like the ship is controlled by androids and there's some kind of countdown until everything comes online. 42 hours left, and the Cardies are scared as hell of what it's going to do when that happens, so they want to get out of there."

"OK, let's move around this rock so we can get a look at that ship."

"No need, sir." Wilson punched the controls, and the ship promptly appeared on his tactical display. "We've already got a line of sight."

"Shit, they can see us?"

"Yes sir. The impact knocked us into the open. They don't seem to care, though. Must be our cold engines. We look like debris."

"Heh heh." Dalton tried to laugh. "Wilson, we are debris." He tried to struggle to his feet, but felt a hand on his shoulder pushing him back down. It was Stravo, wearing a look of concern on his face.

"Sir, I'm sorry but you've suffered a head injury." Stravo said, leaning in closer to inspect the gash on his head and scanning him with his medical tricorder. "You need to stay off your feet for a while, sir."

Dalton grudgingly sat back down on the floor and leaned back against the wall of the ship so that Stravo could continue to work. He tried to see what he could see from his vantage point.

"Wilson, can you get IR?"

"Yes sir." One of the bridge console displays presently showed an infrared view of the ship.

"What do you see?"

"Sir, it looks warm enough to support a habitable atmosphere inside. And there's a huge heat bloom in the middle of its belly. Must be the main reactor."

In the back of the ship, Sheppard fidgeted restlessly. The near-destruction of the ship and the death of a fellow crewmate had severely shaken the young man's confidence, and he was having difficulty focusing. His cocksure airs had vanished, to be replaced by fear and uncertainty. Without technical training on the Raider, he was not qualified to help out with the repair work, and he found himself simply sitting next to Lars' body and staring at it.

"We're fucked, aren't we?" he mumbled to no one in particular.

"We're not fucked until I say we're fucked, soldier." Dalton growled. "And you don't see me breakin' out any lube, do you?"

"No sir." Sheppard replied, with a trace of a smile. It was much as could be hoped for, and the young man's melancholy expression did seem to brighten. He got up on his feet as if shaking off cobwebs, walked toward the front and took a look down at Wilson's infrared display. "What's this dot?" he asked, pointing toward a hot spot on the superstructure.

"Some kind of gun turret." Wilson replied. "Here, if we switch to visual and zoom in, you can see it pretty clearly." he said, his hands flying over the controls.

"Must be what they were shooting at the Gaylord with." Sheppard commented, beginning to feel more at ease with something other than death to occupy him. Wilson nodded in agreement.

Dalton heard the nickname but was too tired to berate anyone over it. "How many of these turrets do they have?"

Wilson panned around the ship with his display unit, and let out a long, slow whistle. "Sir, these things ... shit, they're everywhere. They must have a hundred of 'em. And they're the small ones! There's a bank of huge turrets flanking their topside superstructure, I don't even want to think about what kind of firepower they're carrying. No doubt about it sir, that thing was built for total war."

"And it goes active in 42 hours." Dalton muttered. "I wonder what it'll do first."

"The Cardies are pretty sure it'll go on a rampage, sir. They want to call in reinforcements and destroy it before that happens."

"Amen to that." Sheppard muttered under his breath.

"Typical Cardassian mentality." Dalton snorted. "How do we know these androids won't be interested in negotiation?"

"Sir, that thing was built to negotiate with guns, not words." Wilson answered flatly.

"But only one of those guns is online." Dalton retorted. "The rest are all cold, and it looks to me like if we just move a bit more to the right, the ship's superstructure will get between us and the hot gun. Then we can approach the ship."

"Approach the ship?" Wilson asked incredulously. "Sir, won't they just fire up another turret?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. And we don't know how long it takes them to do that. Remember, the Cardies said the ship isn't online yet. If it's only partially functional, they might not be able to fire up more than one gun. And their sensors are probably just partial like everything else. If we go to full burn on the thrusters and then coast the rest of the way, they might not even notice us." Dalton replied.

"Sir, are you serious?" Wilson asked.

"Have you got any better ideas? Remember, we used thrusters in plain sight of it once before without drawing any fire." Dalton said.

Sheppard laughed fatalistically. "Things can't get any worse, can they? I say we might as well go for it. Take our chances with the aliens."

Wilson looked from Sheppard to Dalton and sighed heavily. "I hate to agree with our resident loose cannon here, but at least the aliens will probably kill us quickly. That's more than I can say for the Cardies, sir."

"Stravo?" Dalton asked.

Stravo kept working while he answered. "Sir, all I know is that I have to make sure you don't get a brain hemorrhage."

"OK, get everybody up here for a board meeting." Dalton said. He never could bring himself to call these crew consultations "conferences", as was customary when he was in Starfleet, so he had taken to using the old 20th century business term "board meetings". He'd brought that habit to the Maquis, and it seemed to have caught on.

"Board meeting!" Wilson stood up and barked toward the back of the ship. "Bring your own donut!"

The other men dropped their work and filtered toward the front of the ship so that Dalton could address them.

"OK men, here's the deal." Dalton began. "There's an alien ship in front of us, there's Cardies behind us, and our warp drive is history so there's nothing but a slow death in every other direction. We have only two real choices: surrender to the Cardies or try to board that ship and hope we can negotiate or commandeer it. The Cardies will probably kill us. The ship ahead is full of androids who just tried to kill the Cardies, and who might try to kill us too. So what do you say, gentlemen? Everyone in favour of surrendering to the Cardies, say aye." He was met with deafening silence. "Nay it is then. We go for it. All right Wilson, bring us in."

Wilson moved to get into the pilot's seat, but not before Vympel stirred from his spot beside Dalton on the floor. "I- I can handle it, sir." he mumbled groggily, shaking off Stravo's ministrations and trying to sit up.

"You've got a concussion, pilot." Dalton said firmly. "Stay down and let Stravo work on it. That's an order."

Vympel slumped back to the floor, and Wilson dropped himself back into the pilot's seat. He jabbed at the controls, and the ship was roughly nudged and bumped each time the thrusters fired. This was not like normal flight at all; it felt more like being a soccer ball and getting kicked across a field. But it got the job done even if it had to be done in fits and spurts, and they were soon coasting in the direction of the alien ship.

"What do you think?" Dalton asked. "Are they doing anything?"

"No change in their status, sir. If they saw us, they don't care."

"Good. Let's hope it stays that way." He turned around to address the crew. "Cross your fingers, gentlemen. We're in Sir Isaac Newton's hands now." He turned back to the cockpit window and said a silent prayer as their battered little ship coasted silently toward the alien behemoth ahead.

Separator

Alien Ship

Lucet and his men walked down a corridor lined with what appeared to be doors leading to various crew quarters. Most of them were pristine, but as they approached their destination, the pattern began to change. They could see pockmarks in the walls, and bits of debris laying on the deck. They walked farther, and began to see bloodstains on the floor and walls.

"Looks like a firefight, sir." one of the men piped up, checking his tricorder. "No lifesigns, but I'm picking up some organic matter ahead."

Lucet nodded and then turned to the android. "What happened here, android?"

"I'm afraid I don't know, sir. Droids are normally not permitted here."

They continued to walk on. The signs of a firefight became more obvious, and they could see that one of the doors had been blown apart by weapons fire. The tension level immediately skyrocketed and they moved to the door, one man bursting into the room with his weapon up.

"Report!" Lucet hissed.

"Sir ... I think you'd ... better come see this." came the reply.

Lucet and the others moved to the doorway and peered inside. It was a medium-sized room, with a bunk and some shelves and a desk. But their eyes were drawn inexorably to the sight of an apparently human body on the floor, laying in a pool of blood. It was a male, perhaps in his 40s. His features were fine and his hair was brown. He had been eviscerated by what appeared to be an energy weapon of some sort, his abdomen torn open and its innards splayed out in all directions.

Ando immediately began to scan the body with his tricorder, and was hesitant to report his findings.

"Well?" Lucet asked impatiently.

"He's human, Lucet. Pretty well preserved too."

"How long has he been here?"

"Impossible to say. The ship was too cold for his body to decay. All I can tell you is that he must have been dead for at least a few weeks before the ship went cold and the body froze up."

"What happened here?" Lucet asked, speaking to no one in particular. "Are there any other rooms open?"

"Just one, sir." one man reported from outside in the hallway. "The one at the end. Door looks blown open, but from the inside."

Lucet came out into the hallway immediately. "Android, is that one the captain's quarters?"

"Why yes it is." the droid replied brightly. "May I go now?"

"No." Lucet answered brusquely, shoving him towards the end of the hallway in front of him. "Let's go." he said, motioning to his men. One of them roughly pulled Ando away from the body they'd found and dragged him along. The group moved to the wrecked door and burst into the room.

Ando peered around the room, which was in total chaos. Trinkets and various pieces of technology lay strewn about the floor, the desk had been dragged to the centre of the room and turned on its side, and there were innumerable pockmarks in the walls, floor, and ceiling. Several weapons lay on the floor which Lucet's men immediately began to inspect, and there were bloodstains, but there was no body.

"Over here!" one of the men called out, motioning the others to a doorway leading to a second room. Ando and several others rushed to the doorway and saw through into what was obviously the captain's bedroom. There was a large bed, pictures and holographic displays of what appeared to be the captain's family, and the captain himself, sprawled over the bed with half of his skull missing. His brains had been largely evacuated, with blood and viscera sprayed onto the walls. There was a pistol in his right hand, and the wound appeared to have been self-inflicted.

"Holy shit ..." Ando whispered. "What the hell happened here?"

"I was hoping you could tell me, human." Lucet muttered under his breath. His air of superiority was gone, and he was clearly feeling rattled by this discovery. Something had killed these men, and his fervent desire to get off this ship was slowly becoming desperation. There was an almost palpable sense of menace in the air. He cast a glance at his men, and they all showed the same unease in their eyes that he felt.

"What's this?" Ando said as an object in the captain's left hand caught his eye. It was a small palm-sized object with a switch on one side. He gingerly pried it from the dead man's hand and pressed the button. The device immediately projected a holographic image of the captain himself, briefly startling both Ando and Lucet. All of the other men stopped what they were doing to look at the image of the ship's long-dead captain.

"It's here! It's here!!" the ghostly image of the captain said, his face contorted with anguish. "I tried to stop it. Tried to fight it. But it's here. I don't know if anyone's ever going to find this. I don't know where it took my ship. The men ... my men ... they ... " he said, and then he broke down in tears, sobbing.

Ando and Lucet shared looks of alarm as the holographic image continued to weep, tears streaming down his cheeks. "You can't kill it ..." he whimpered. "It won't die ... it gets into your head, and ..." Suddenly, the image of the long-dead captain seemed to stiffen with resolve, and he faced the camera. "I'm putting the ship into hibernation. Perhaps ... perhaps the Emperor will find us someday. Perhaps He has the power to kill it. But ... it is too late for me." he said. "What I do now, I do for the Empire! Long live the Emperor!" he shouted, saluting smartly and then putting a pistol into his own mouth. There was a flash of light, and the projection ended.

There was a stunned silence in the room. And suddenly, Ando felt very, very cold.


To be continued



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