<USS Peacekeeper, Day 349, 1354>
Lange was napping fitfully on the couch of his former ready room. Every few minutes he’d doze off, then moments later start awake. All of his attempts at sleep had gone this way since he’d entered Romulan space. Finally he was startled to full alertness by an alert klaxon.
“Computer,” Lange muttered, rubbing his eyes, “Report.”
“Starfleet vessel entering sensor range,” came the deadpan response.
Lange rolled his eyes. Computers were oh so helpful with details. “Specify.”
“USS Albatross, Aerie class diplomatic courier vessel. 7 lifeforms aboard.”
That was at least better. Lange massaged his temple as he stood up and looked out the window. There was little to see but stars and Cherenkov radiation streaks. If he recalled correctly, the standard complement of an Aerie class ship, when equipped as a courier, was around 4 or 5. Manley would be one of the extras. But who had he brought with him?
Shaking his head, Lange walked out onto the bridge. It seemed so… empty. The sensor display he’d left on the main viewscreen indicated that he was only a couple of hours from his goal. Lange lowered himself into the command chair with a soft grunt and waited.
After another few minutes the computer bleeped an alert. “Warning. Tachyon field detected.”
“Tachyons?” Lange exclaimed. That was going to put a wrinkle in things. A moment later the ship rocked with a nearby, low-yield torpedo detonation. Lange sighed. Apparently Manley wasn’t going to be content with being led to the action.
Another alert and the display in the screen showed a phaser blast passing across the port bow. A moment later an incoming hail sounded. “USS Peacekeeper, this is the USS Albatross. You are ordered to disengage cloak and drop out of warp. Please respond.”
“Computer,” Lange said, “Open a channel.” There was an acknowledging beep. “Albatross, this is the USS Peacekeeper. You’re a bit early, Tom. I don’t quite have dinner ready, but you’re welcome to come aboard. I think I’ll maintain my speed for the time being, though.”
Manley glanced back at Faith as the Peacekeeper’s cloak disengaged. He noted that Mills and the Albatross’s normal pilot had joined them on the small bridge. “Well, he’s not blowing us out of space.”
“Not yet, anyway,” Faith replied. “But then, he knows he’s already in trouble; he may not want to risk it.”
Manley nodded. “True. Let’s just see what happens.” He keyed the communication channel open. “If you really want to try docking at warp speed, I’m game. But this would be easier at Impulse.”
Mills shifted uncomfortably at the idea of docking with another ship at warp. Docking two large masses at low speed was a difficult enough task, trying to do the same while managing intersecting warp fields was simply courting disaster. He had no doubt that any of the pilots aboard the Albatross, himself included, could manage the procedure, but he also had no desire to needlessly test such skills.
Faith didn’t need to read Mill’s mind to figure out what he was thinking. “I’m no pilot, but I think you’re both mad. Or suicidal. Or both,” she remarked. She didn’t get an answer, nor was she expecting one. All she could do was wait for a response from the Peacekeeper.
There was a brief hesitation in the reply. Finally, the sound of Lange clearing his throat came across the channel, followed by his verbal response. “Alright, Tom, you win. Slowing to Impulse in 30 seconds. Mark.”
“Acknowledged,” Manley responded immediately, tapping a quick command into the panel. He mentally counted down the time and was relieved to see the Peacekeeper begin to slow at the promised time. Manley quickly adjusted the Albatross’s speed to match the larger ship’s and kept pace through the deceleration.
Faith narrowed an eye as the deceleration process began, anticipating deception. “What if he changes his mind and goes back to warp?”
“Then we call in the big guns,” Manley replied as he maneuvered the Albatross towards the Peacekeeper’s port side docking port. “At least, I assume your brother is still lurking about somewhere.”
Faith gave Manley a “don’t be stupid” look. “Yes, Shamek is out there. About 1000 kilometres off starboard, according to the last blip I got. I just have a bad feeling about this.” If Lange did something stupid, Shamek would definitely shoot, and Faith didn’t want to know what that would set off.
“I’m pretty sure Lange will cooperate, though. He should know me well enough by now to know that I’m not going to drag him home and leave his family stranded out here if I can help it.” Manley tapped in a few commands and looked over at Uch’Thal. “Lieutenant, I assume your starboard airlock has an extendable docking collar long enough to clear the nacelle.”
“Um,” Uch’Thal stammered, “Of… of course. We haven’t used it in… as long as I’ve been aboard.”
Manley rolled his eyes. “Of course you haven’t. Time to test the durability of the design, I guess. Extending docking collar. Computer, coordinate with the USS Peacekeeper and match shield modulations.”
There was an acknowledging beep followed by a shuddering groan as long disused equipment was pushed into service. Manley kept an eye on his panel, making sure to keep enough range from the Peacekeeper to not run the relatively fragile tube slowly extending from the Albatross’s side into the larger ship’s hull. After a moment the groan ceased and a slight ‘thunk’ sound indicated that the collar had locked into position.
Manley cracked his knuckles and tapped in another series of commands. A few taps of the thrusters later there was another thunk as the docking collar latched onto the docking hardpoints on the Peacekeeper’s outer hull. Manley quickly tapped in a few commands to secure the ships together and extend umbilical cables to the larger ship’s ports. Another command sequence and the Albatross computer requested refueling from the Peacekeeper computer. From there, unless someone in Engineering on the Peacekeeper actively overrode the process, it would be completely automated.
“Shall we?” Manley asked Faith as he rose from the helm.
Faith gestured towards the door. “After you, sir.”
Manley sighed as he headed towards the door. “Don’t call me that. It makes me feel old.”
Faith shrugged. “Just using proper protocol. You are the superior officer, after all. And you are old,” she remarked. “You grew wrinkles. And greys.”
“Just because in your species you’re barely more than a child doesn’t make me old,” Manley retorted. “I’m 42. I could easily live another eighty to hundred years.”
“Yes, I know how old you are. And I could easily outlive you by another fifty to seventy years, assuming we don’t die today. Sir.” She tightened her lips to keep herself from giggling.
Manley muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, but had to fight off a smile as he did so. He turned right at the corridor junction, heading for the ramp down to the next level. The Albatross was small enough that the turbolifts were little more than glorified elevators, with no lateral tubes. There were also only a few of them, which meant that the spiraling ramp aft of the bridge was the closest access to the lower decks.
“So...what’s the plan? Wine, dine, and kick pirate arse? Not necessarily in that order?” she asked as she fixed her ponytail. Just because they were in Romulan space didn’t mean she could look frumpy.
“Something like that,” Manley said. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that Mills was walking just behind them. He started considering the best way to assign their limited personnel, but there really weren’t that many options. Mills was the most familiar with the Peacekeeper’s helm, Faith was by far the best Tactical officer. Lange had a background in Engineering, and that would leave Manley with either Ops or piloting the Albatross if her pilot wasn’t up to the battle maneuvers. “To be honest, I need more information about what we’re facing before I come up with anything that could really be called a plan.”
“We’re in the badlands. There’s nothing here I’d called remotely civilised: the pirates and smugglers in the area are ruthless and desperate. Their ships are just a ragtag of parts, but the people inside are surprisingly clever; they’ve been known to come up with ways of hooking up incompatible tech and making it work. I wouldn’t underestimate them,” she explained. “Oh, and, um…” she hesitated, trying to be tactful about what she was going to say next.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Manley said. “And what?”
“His family members may be sold as slaves, if they haven’t been already.” There really was no way around it; it was a known fact that the Rihannsu still practiced slavery, much to Faith’s embarrassment.
“And they call the Klingons barbarians,” Manley muttered as they reached the airlock. He keyed the command in to open the door. “Alright, so we’ll assume we’re going to be outnumbered, but it is unlikely that any individual ship will be a match for the Peacekeeper. But, we may need to use the Albatross in some way, though she’s really not designed for battle at all. And we’ll hope that Lange’s family is still being held here.”
“Use her as a decoy. She’s small enough that they might just underestimate us. Were I in their shoes, I’d be drooling over having Federation technology on my little pirate ship. Instant status upgrade,” she stated, waiting for the door to fully open before walking through it.
“And if they could take her whole, that would just make them even happier,” Manley mused. “Alright,” he continued as they walked through the docking collar towards the Peacekeeper’s airlock on the other end, “the tentative plan is we have the Albatross fly in like she’s the rescue ship, then retreat after taking a couple of hits… but slowly enough so that she doesn’t outrun her pursuit. Hopefully that will draw a few of them off to try and take her. And if not, it should distract them enough that they’ll be slow to react when the Peacekeeper and whoever else we can convince to help decloaks inside their defense line.”
“The Shiarrael is a Norexan class. She’s small, but with twelve pulse disruptor cannons and six torpedo tubes, she does pack a punch.” Little pirate ships were no match for the Tal Shiar anyway, according to her brother.
“That’s an impressive armament for a ship that size, though ‘small’ is relative,” Manley commented. Romulan ship designers tended to favor designs that used up a lot of space without having a lot of internal volume. They looked impressive and fierce, of course, but by comparison, a Federation vessel would pack the same equipment into a more compact frame. “How exactly do you know that?”
Faith gave him another of those looks. “I asked. And yes, I got a straight answer from a Tal Shiar agent. Don’t ask.”
“Right. Don’t ask.” They had reached the Peacekeeper’s airlock, which hissed open, releasing a burst of warm air into the docking tube. As Manley stepped inside he saw Lange standing inside the cargo bay beyond the airlock, arms crossed.
“Hello, Tom. Mister Mills, good to see you,” Lange greeted them calmly. He looked towards the third officer entering and paused. “Commander, I don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m Captain James Lange… at least until Starfleet gets ahold of me.”
“No, we haven’t. Lieutenant-Commander Faith Reed, sir,” she stated, immediately going into full uptight Rihannsu/British mode. “A pleasure, I’m sure .”
“It would be, normally,” Lange answered with a smile. “But, I’m assuming that mister Manley conscripted you to help apprehend me. Probably because you’re part Romulan, I’d guess. Or are you a Vulcan that’s less uptight than most?”
“He did, partly because I’m the former. Mainly because I have resources.”
“No matter,” Lange said. “I was hoping I might be able to reach where my family is being held before you caught up, but you seem to have come across a faster ship than I planned… and sooner than I expected. Do you want to drag me off now, or can we at least try to bring some good out of this excursion, since we’ve come all this way?”
“We’re willing to help,” Manley said calmly, “but we’re going to need whatever information you have… and one hell of a battle plan.”
Lange nodded, letting out a breath. “I think we can manage that. Maybe the Conference Lounge would be the best place for this?”
“Indeed. And the less time wasted, the better. Who knows what the pirates might have done by now,” Faith replied.
“Probably. We might also have some company joining us,” Manley said, looking at Faith with a question in his eyes.
“Commander tr’Danrinillieu, the mercenary, or both?” she asked, taking special care not to call Shamek her brother. Despite being in Rihannsu space, she didn’t want more people than necessary knowing he was alive.
Manley pondered that while Lange led them to the nearest turbolift. Finally, as they reached the lift, he decided. “Both. The firepower will help. And they’ll both be able to provide information that could be useful.”
“I’ll need a secure channel and ten minutes, at most,” Faith answered as she entered the lift. “I might have a harder time convincing the commander.”
Manley snorted. “Of course you will. He hates me. But, Captain, do you think you can accommodate Commander Reed’s request?”
Lange looked quizzically at his XO and the half-Romulan officer he’d brought aboard. This was... odd. Mills, he noted, was his usual quiet self. “As soon as we reach the bridge, she’s welcome to use the comm system as the pair of you see fit.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, bringing her hands together. Getting Marahil wouldn’t be an issue, but Shamek… Since his defection, he wanted to be seen on a Starfleet vessel as little as possible, so the best she may be able to do was get him on-screen for the duration of the meeting. But then, stranger things have happened.
A moment passed before the lift came to a smooth stop. “I’ll be with you shortly,” she told the other officers as she headed in a different direction. As soon as they were out of sight, she dropped her mental guards and isolated Lange’s voice through all the others she could suddenly hear. She didn’t trust him. Maybe she was being paranoid, but if he was lying through his teeth, Manley would surely want to know.
Lange, Manley, and Mills continued on to the Conference Lounge. Lange walked towards the head of the table out of habit, but stopped before he reached it and instead took the seat on the port-facing side of the table, at the end. Manley circled around and sat in the chair opposite Lange. Mills, not feeling entirely at ease, chose to stand along the back wall of the room, near enough to speak up if needed, but far enough that he didn’t feel like he was intruding on what was certain to be a very intense meeting.
“So,” Lange said after the silence had stretched into awkwardness, “I suppose you want to know why.”
“No,” Manley answered. “I know the why. Hell, I’d be doing something similar myself if I were in your place. I want to know why you didn’t talk to anyone. Your crew are a loyal bunch, we would have done anything in our power to help you deal with this WITHOUT getting arrested.”
Lange sighed. “I know. I guess partly I wasn’t sure who I could trust when Starfleet refused to take immediate action… And partly… Partly I didn’t want to drag anyone else down with me.”
He looked at Manley. “Especially you. You’ve had a hard enough career as it is.”
“I appreciate the thought,” Manley replied, “but let me worry about my own career, Captain.”
“Sure. As soon as we finish this mission, I promise to never interfere in your career choices again.” Lange smiled. He realized it was probably the first genuine smile he’d shown in weeks. “I would like to know how you got into Romulan space in that little packet runner?”
“Faith… Commander Reed,” Manley corrected himself, “Has connections in the Empire. Most of them were on Romulus, and I won’t go into the others. But, the remaining ones are well-placed enough to ensure us safe passage this far.”
Lange could tell there was something being left unsaid there. He’d read Manley’s Starfleet file more than once since the man had been assigned to his command, and each time he’d taken a moment to wonder at the sudden leave of absence that immediately preceded his assignment to 386. Manley had survived the loss of a ship during the Dominion War, then survived a court martial a year later, and then survived the loss of another ship within three years of that, then followed that up with action against the parasitic hive race that had twice tried to infiltrate Starfleet and caused the destruction of Lange’s first command, the USS Dragonfly. Through it all, no break in his Starfleet service.
But Lange knew that he wasn’t going to get an answer to that minor mystery just now. Maybe eventually, if he wasn’t shipped off to a penal colony, but not today. He contented himself with a nod and a simple, “I see.”
About fifteen minutes later, Dedriana appeared. She still moved like an assassin, she still carried her daggers. “I heard we’d be killing pirates,” she said, grinning. She quickly took a seat and set her feet on the table.
Faith arrived soon afterwards, followed by her brother. “I’m terribly sorry. I had a bit more difficulty convincing the Commander he was needed,” she explained. “Did I miss anything?”
“Idle chit chat, mostly,” Manley answered. He looked over at Lange, who had his eyes locked on Marahil. “Although I think the Captain might have seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost, Commander, just not someone I expected to see in person again,” Lange said, finally looking away from the Orion woman. After a moment he glanced back at her. “I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that you can beam straight onto my ship so easily.”
“I’ve got my own. Say hello, Draco.” Her small ship’s AI woke up. “Hello, Draco,” it responded. The Orion mercenary rolled her eyes. “Humour subroutine. Not my design.”
Faith cleared her throat. “This is Commander tr’Danrinillieu, from the Shiarrael. They’ve been, um, kind enough to grant us safe passage through the Neutral Zone.”
“Some of those connections you mentioned, hmm?” Lange murmured to Manley. Manley ignored him. Lange shrugged and looked towards the Romulan commander. “Welcome aboard. Thank you for not blowing me out of space.”
“It wouldn’t be in my interest to do so,” Shamek replied. “We’re in no position to start a war, as I’m sure you know, Captain.” He fetched two cups of tea from the replicator and set one before his sister before taking a seat of his own. “Shall we?”
Lange nodded and looked toward Manley. “I’ll leave the tactical planning to those with better minds for it than me. What I know is pretty simple: my family and their ship, the freighter Byzantine, have been taken captive by a group of pirates in this area. I believe their group name translates as roughly ‘The True Empire.’”
Lange stood and walked to the display panel along the portside wall. With a few quick taps he pulled up a star chart of the area showing the Peacekeeper’s current position and the rough position of her destination. They were not very far away, mere hours at even low warp. “Thanks to Ms Marahil, I was able to get ahold of intelligence reports from various sources that have pinpointed the pirate base as an asteroid or dwarf planet in this system. I have to assume that my family will have been removed from the ship and locked up in the base itself, if they are still here.”
“They’ve been known to have secondary bases here and there,” Shamek stated, “By the size of this one, this could be one of their main ones. An illicit trade depot, perhaps.”
“This far out?” Faith asked, then understood. “Of course. Slave trade. Wouldn’t want to be seen trafficking people, now would we?” She saw her brother shrug. A quick probe of his mind reassured her that her family hadn’t owned any, thank karma. She would have put an end to that rather quickly if it had.
“Anyway, did any of your sources conveniently have the base’s blueprints on hand?” she asked Lange, taking her first sip of tea.
“If only,” Lange replied. “We’ll probably have to get that information the old fashioned way. All I know is that the base is built under the surface of the planetoid. Saves them from having to shield the thing, but may give us an in, depending on what kind of transport inhibitors they’re employing.”
Manley rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then looked at Shamek. “I assume your willingness to help us doesn’t include an army to storm the base with, Commander tr’Danrinillieu?”
“Regardless, we want to keep this action as small as possible anyway. The less noise we make, the easier it is to claim it never happened.” Manley paused, looking at Marahil for a moment. “Any idea how many people would stay on the base if the pirates were trying to capture a ship full of really desirable technology?”
Dedriana put up her hair in a loose ponytail. “A skeleton crew, probably a bit more to guard current cargo and inventory. Their best will be on the ships. However, pirates aren’t usually stupid, they’ll smell a diversion a million miles away. The bait will have to be pretty sweet, Goldilocks-style. Too small, they’ll allocate as little resources as possible. Too big, they’ll know it’s a fluke and just run.”
She pointed at Shamek. “Your ship is too big, too obvious. Besides, in the situation the Empire is in, who would care to raid a pirate base? Mine is too small, you’ll be left with too many people to go through. Which leaves,” she said, pointing a finger at Lange, than at Manley. “Your ships. Flip a coin, boys. Pirates in these parts would kill for Federation tech anyway.”
It’s not even a question,” Manley said. “The Peacekeeper is the more tactically capable of the two and the Albatross can run away faster. And she’ll be seen as an easier target for the pirates, since they won’t know she’s rigged for high speed over long periods.”
“We use the Albatross to draw out most of the pirates… sneak the other ships in close under cloak,” Manley continued, becoming thankful that Lange had procured a cloak for the Peacekeeper. “Once the pirates are far enough away for us to have a viable window, we decloak and drop a small team to the base on a runabout while the ships handle any remaining defenses and fend off the pirates if they return rearly.”
Manley’s eyes flicked to where Mills was standing along the back wall. “We’ll leave the Albatross with her normal crew. Lieutenant Uch’Thal won’t like being chased halfway home, but he’ll be happy to be the first one headed back to Federation space and free of all this business. Mister Mills will pilot the Peacekeeper. I’ll pilot the runabout to the planet. The question is, who will come with me to storm the castle?”
“I’ll go,” Faith, Shamek, and Dedriana replied at the same time, then looked at each other, smirking. Faith continued. “It makes the most sense, really. We’ve got someone who knows how pirates think, and two people who know how the Rihannsu think. And we’ve all done this kind of thing before.”
“I’m coming too,” Lange added. “They’re my family; I can’t stay behind. Even if all I can do is guard the runabout, I have to come along.”
“Alright,” Manley said. “I guess Mills gets his first command today. Anyone have anything else?”
“It sounds like a good preliminary. It’ll need some fine-tuning before or once we get there, but it’ll do for now,” Faith remarked. She nervously tapped her fingers on the table. There was so little room for improvisation, it was ridiculous. Anything, and everything, could go wrong. She couldn’t help but think of the catastrophic consequences should this operation fail.
Manley looked around the room again and didn’t see any signs of the others speaking further. “Alright, Captain Lange, Mister Mills, we need to get the Peacekeeper set for battle and ready the Doohan for launch. Ms Marahil, Commander tr’Danrinillieu, Commander Reed, I’ll let you make whatever other preparations you see fit. We resume course for the pirate base in 1 hour.”
Commander Faith Reed
Commander Thomas Manley, Jr