“All hands, prepare to drop out of warp. Raal, system scan the moment we’re out of warp; make sure we’re alone with the freighter. Mayfield, weapons on standby, and raise shields.”
“Aye, sir.” Brian took his position at a console on the wall to the left of the main viewer. He worked the controls, quickly raising the shields and putting the weapons in standby mode; the moment the ship dropped out of warp, they would be activated and charge up in case the ship was flying into an ambush. He glanced to his right; one of the tactical displays on the edge of the viewer turned red, and then green, and finally blue to show that the shields had been activated. He checked his own console to make sure the readings matched. Satisfied, he faced the viewer again, watching the bright tunnel of light that was the warp effect scream past at unimaginable speeds.
“Five seconds. Three, two, one, mark!”
There was a flash; the warp effect was suddenly replaced with the vast darkness of open space, stars too numerous to count filling the black field. Brian lurched forward in his seat as the inertial dampers on the old ship struggled to bring it to a halt while not pasting her interior with her passengers. An unsettling scream of metal reverberated through the hull as the engines disengaged.
“Now reading all stop.”
“We’re at the rendezvous point, Captain.”
Harrison stood from his chair, gazing out the viewer. He searched a moment before turning to his right. “Raal? Where are they?”
Raal was bent over one of the science station’s displays, analyzing the sensor scans. He reached up on his panel and tapped a series of controls. The bridge crew turned back to look out the viewer.
The scene distorted as an image began to be projected on the transparent wall. It zoomed in, then panned right, and zoomed again. “There she is, sir,” the Caitian purred. A white square framed the small freighter as she continued moving off, slowly continuing her trek.
Harrison nodded, then turned behind him to the communications officer. “Schmidt, hail them. Let them know we’re here, and transmit code Victor-Uniform-Lima-five-three-niner.”
Schmidt nodded, pressing the communications device in her ear with one hand and opening the communications channel. “ECS Horizon, this is the Federation Starship Whiston. We are here to render aide - confirmation code transmitted. Please respond.”
Brian turned back to his console, taking the firing controls to manual. He liked to do what he called “floating the targeting”: he would keep targeting sensors tracking in a circular motion around a fixed point in space - in this case, the Horizon - so that if there was an ambush, there was a better chance of him locking on and firing quicker than the computer could. It had worked enough times in small skirmishes with the Klingons and their cloaking devices, so he utilized it as much as possible now.
The Horizon continued to steam ahead. “ECS Horizon, this is the USS Whiston, please, respond.” He heard Schmidt go out again. Another few, tense seconds passed in silence.
“Something’s not right.”
Brian turned his head enough to look over his shoulder at Tyler. “Way to jinx it, Shipman.”
“Just saying, sir.”
“He’s right.” Harrison stood from his chair and walked around to where the communication station was. He leaned over the console next to Schmidt, watching her sensors as she went out over the channel again. He frowned. “They’re definitely receiving. Mayfield, tactical scan of the freighter.”
“On it.” Brian stood to reach the controls that were above him. He glanced at the viewer; the screen was projecting a rotating image of the cargo ship. As it rotated, red lines began pointing at areas on the ship, and boxes with text appeared at the end of each line, describing what the tactical sensors were reading. “She’s got a lot of hull stress, nothing consistent with weapons fire, or at least not very recent weapons fire. There we go.” He stopped the rotation and highlighted a specific area. “Their comm system is old as sin; they can hear us, but I don’t think they can respond to us. We’re going to have to move closer.”
Harrison’s jaw dropped. “You have to be joking. How did they send the general broadcast?”
“Different comm channel. We’re broadcasting on short-range subspace right now. Their short range comms have a much shorter range, probably just large enough for a small convoy, but nothing substantial for cross-system communication like this.” Mayfield smirked a little. “False alarm.”
Schmidt sighed. “I’ll switch communication channels to something they can respond to.” She pressed a few controls on her panel. Then, pressing her earpiece again, she repeated her call. “ECS Horizon, this is the USS Whiston, now transmitting on medium range subspace. Please respond.”
“Whiston, this is Horizon, Mayweather here. We’ve been hearing you, glad we can talk now.”
Ricky began clapping, which brought some laughter from Tyler and a few other officers on the bridge. Brian shook his head, smiling; he noticed Schmidt’s ears go bright red, and he could only imagine how red the young woman’s face had gotten.
“We read you as well, Horizon. Confirm you received aide code.”
“Confirmed, Whiston. Glad you made it. Not exactly the best place in the galaxy to break down with this cargo.”
“Mayweather, this is Captain Harrison. We can begin transporting over supplies and personnel to render repairs once we are within transport range.”
“Negative on the transport, Captain. Horizon’s been modified with transport inhibitors to prevent fast raids from pirates. You’re going to have to come along side and board.”
“Smart,” Brian said. “They’re not joking around with this.”
“Indeed.” Harrison turned to the helm station. “Crusher, bring us alongside the Horizon and begin boarding protocols. Captain Mayweather, we’ll be there soon.”
“Understood. We’re going to hold this position for now; I’ll get the drinks ready.”
Harrison laughed. “I might take you up on that. Whiston out.”
“Well, this should be interesting. I’ve never been on a freighter before.”
Ricky looked over at Tyler. “You’re joking. Not even at the museum above Earth?”
Tyler shook his head. “Come on. No one goes there for the freighters. You go there to see Enterprise or Phoenix, not some old cargo ship that -"
“That ‘pioneered our first steps into the great expanse of our destiny - outer space.’ You poor, poor -"
“Shut up, Rick.”
Brian rolled his eyes as the trio reached the airlock, where Harrison and Raal were waiting for them. Hadley was walking up from the opposite corridor, an engineering kit slung over her shoulder for preliminary scans of the damaged systems. She caught sight of Mayfield and grinned; Brian couldn’t help but smile back, like he had always done, out of courtesy. One of these days, he thought, I need to just stop being so damn nice to her. The thought of being tossed into a plasma injector, or having a power conduit unexpectedly burst in his quarters squashed the idea in a heartbeat. As far as stalkers went, an engineer was a bad one to have.
“Are we all ready?” Harrison glanced around. “Where’s Abuela?”
Rebecca turned around, then back again, sighing. “She was right behind me.”
“I’m still right behind you, Becca.” The doctor came around the corner, smiling softly. “I could use a little help, though.” She was carrying seven medical kits, three slung over each shoulder and one in her hand.
Harrison glared at Hadley. “You didn’t think to help her?” He moved to the doctor, pulling three of the kits off one shoulder. Brian stepped forward as well to take the other three.
Hadley shrugged. “I brought my own equipment.”
“I can see that.”
“It’s ok, really. I actually went back for two more; I wasn’t sure how many I would need. That’s why I wasn’t right behind her.” De la Reina smiled again, her face betraying no hint of annoyance at the engineer. She looked past her at the navigator and helmsman. “Boys, why are you here?”
Harrison turned to face them. “Hmm, she’s right. I didn’t call for you to come.”
Crusher’s face fell. “I was just hoping to see the ship.”
Raal purred softly. “This isn’t a peep show, gentlemen. Let us establish contact first; you’ll get a chance to come over later, I am sure.”
Tyler nodded, then turned around and took Ricky by the elbow. “Back the bridge, kid.” He didn’t look at all disappointed in not boarding the Horizon. Ricky turned around without argument and followed his partner back down the corridor.
Brian watched them leave, then turned back to the assembly. Harrison gave Hadley one last glare as he turned to the airlock guard. He gave the man a nod.
The guard pressed a glowing red button on the wall next to the airlock. There was a hiss of air, and then a chime as the light turned green. He reached below the panel and pulled on a lever that was recessed in the wall. The large doors opened, sliding into the walls and revealing the passage from the Whiston to the Horizon.
The opposite doors opened, revealing the interior of the freighter. In the doorway stood three people. Two were smiling; the third simply regarded the Starfleet crew passively, a pointed eyebrow rising in curiosity.
“Welcome to the Horizon, ladies and gentlemen! I’m Captain Paul Mayweather the third; this is my brother and first officer, Jordan.” He motioned to the man standing next to him; it was easy to see that the two dark skinned men were related. “And this,” he motioned to the third man standing to his right, “Is Talak, the refugee ‘mayor.’”
Talak lifted his hand, separating his fingers in the traditional and familiar greeting. “Peace and long life. It is most fortunate for my people that you have come.”
Captain Harrison returned the salute to Talak. He turned to the side to introduce his officers. “This is my first officer, Lieutenant Commander Raal. My chief medical officer, de la Reina; chief engineer Hadley; and my chief of security, Lieutenant Mayfield.”
The Mayweather brothers smiled, perking up at the similar name. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Starfleeters. Come on, welcome aboard.” Paul Mayweather began waving them forward as he turned and began to walk down the corridor. “There’s a lot to talk about.”
The officers began to follow Mayweather. De la Reina paused for a moment. “If it’s alright, Captain, I would like to go see the refugees. I’m not very helpful in a briefing.”
Captain Mayweather nodded, turning to his brother. “Jordan, take her to the hold. You can meet us later.”
Jordan nodded, then motioned for the doctor to follow him. “This way, ma’am.” As they walked off, Brian could hear de la Reina laugh lightly, as she always did before correcting someone younger than her.
Sure enough, he heard her say, just before they rounded the corner, “Please, Mr. Mayweather, call me ‘Abuela.’”
“To be honest, my brother wasn’t big on calling for Starfleet to help. If we could have had it our way, I would have kept this in the ECS or with the High Command. As luck would have it, no freighter would have gotten here in time, and most of the Vulcan ships that are left are busy rounding up as much of the remaining population as they can find.” Paul Mayweather sipped from his mug. “The fact that my grandfather was Starfleet did help my decision though.” He winked at Harrison.
Harrison laughed, putting his own mug of beer down on the table. “I thought the name was familiar. Decided not to follow in his footsteps?”
Paul shook his head. “Even gramps had that longing to be a boomer again. Dad tried, for a bit, but it didn’t work very well for him. He bought this ship when he left Starfleet and joined up with the ECS. The Horizon-2; it was the name of the Mayweathers’ ship a century ago, before she was finally retired.”
Brian sipped his glass of water, listening. He knew the game the captains played; drink, establish a good camaraderie, and then get to business. He didn’t mind it; the fact that both captains seemed to be on equal levels of casualness helped the conversation not be awkward, as it so often did when Starfleet and the cargo service had to work together.
Mayweather finished his beer, putting his mug on the table. He motioned to Harrison. “Another?”
Harrison finished his own, then shook his head. “No, thanks.” He put the mug down as Mayweather stood to refill his own, then turned to Talak, who had been silently watching the exchange between the captains. “Sir, how many survivors are on board?”
“There are five hundred twenty-three of us on board.”
Hadley let out a slow whistle. Brian shook his head; it was hard to imagine there being five hundred people on the Whiston, let alone on a freighter a quarter of her size.
“We are some of the first ones who evacuated after the battle over our planet. Nero did capture a few of our ships, and destroyed many others that were attempting to flee. I believe, as you would say, we were the ‘lucky ones.’”
“How many families do you have in your city, Mayor?”
“There are thirty family units, as you would see them, of four to fifteen members. Many of us escaped in personal shuttle craft; the larger ships were easier for the Romulans to destroy.” Talak paused, and Brian noticed the stoic man seemed to shrink a little in his chair; it was the most emotional response he had seen for a Vulcan. “Why do you ask, Captain?”
“I can’t imagine a cargo hold has very good conditions - no offense, Mayweather.”
The other captain shook his head. “None taken. We’ve had to do a lot of modification to the Horizon to protect our guests, but the cargo hold isn’t designed to have gravity plating running 24/7. And it’s very close quarters in there.”
Harrison nodded. “As I said, I can’t imagine the quarters are good, even for your people. We can move most of your families to the Whiston; conditions will be spartan at best, and some families may need to share suites, but it’ll be better in the long run.”
Talak nodded. “Your hospitality is…appreciated, Captain Harrison. I can give you a manifest of the families, smallest to largest, in order to maximize room on both ships.”
“That would be good. Forward it to Lieutenant Mayfield here; he’ll be in charge of reassigning crew quarters.” Harrison looked over at Mayfield.
Brian nodded, standing up a little straighter. “Aye sir, I can get on it right away.”
Harrison grinned a little, and Mayfield could tell how bad he wanted to reach out and smack him for coming to attention; Brian was thankful they were in company.