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PRIORITY ALERT

ATTEN: ALL SHIPS

U.S.S. RAFALE, NCC-93017

Rafale has positive sensor contact on four unknown contacts near the Omar system. We are moving to intercept. Any available ships in that area, please standby to assist.

Captain Mal'kon

===


Chapter 4

"We're about six minutes out, Captain."

Jessica turned her head to see the rest of the bridge behind her. Captain Mal'kon and the first officer had both arrived on the bridge the moment the unidentified ships had been located. Mal'kon was seated in the command chair, staring ahead at the viewer as if he would be able to see the ships that were still a few light years away.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at Seymour, who had stayed standing behind her. He motioned with his head for her to move. "I should take my post." Jessica could tell he was all business; the awkwardness from earlier was gone, replaced with a confidence that Jessica could almost see radiate from him like an aura. He gave her a small smile as she stood up, then he slipped into the chair and immediately set up the console to his specifications. "Engineering is transferring all available power to shields and weapons, Captain," he called from his post, bringing up status reports from around the ship. "Doctor S'Tel is reporting sickbay ready. Torpedo and phaser control are ready. Engineering...ready."

Jessica wasn't sure what to do now; she'd been on the bridge plenty, pulling duty as needed. But she had never been on the bridge in an engagement, no matter how small. She found herself very suddenly out of her element, and she nervously looked around the small bridge as the rest of the bridge crew manipulated their controls, preparing the Rafale for the worst. She clasped her hands behind her back and turned on her heel, ready to clear off and get out of the way.

"Lieutenant, where are you going?"

Jessica stopped dead in her tracks, then slowly turned around to meet the first officer's dark, intense eyes. The Vulcan raised an eyebrow in curiosity, waiting for Jessica to answer. When she didn't, he nodded toward the science station in the back. "Take you post, Mister St. Peter."

Jessica blinked a few times, then managed to reply with an "aye, sir" before turning to the station. Her stomach knotted with excitement and dread. What if she messed something up? What if she wasn't quick enough with her information? What if she missed something?

She tapped the controls on the table-like station, logging in and setting up to be on duty. She glanced out the side of her peripheral vision; the first officer had moved off to check on the rest of the crew. She brought her focus back down to her readings. An alert flashed, and she gasped. "Captain, short range sensors picking up three contacts, intercept course. Unknown build!"

Mal'kon swiveled his chair around to face Jessica. "How close?"

Jessica opened her mouth to respond, mentally hitting herself for not giving that tidbit of information, when the deck rocked under her feet. She grabbed her station as the red alert klaxon blasted overhead and the lights on the bridge turned red. "Right on top of us, sir!" It was a stupidly obvious thing to say, she realized after she had closed her mouth, but she had gotten the message across.

The captain turned his chair forward again. "Tactical analysis, Lieutenant! Wirstowx, evasive pattern Echo!"

There was a low hum that grew louder as the ship executed the maneuver, and Jessica could feel the inertial dampers barely keep up with the ship. She held onto her station with one hand while she worked her controls, trying to get a clear reading on the small ships.

The deck shook again, and a display on the wall in front of Jessica blew, showering sparks down on her. She raised her arm to shield her face as she shouted in surprise. The smell was disgusting, like burning plastic and tobacco, and she coughed as she inhaled the dark smoke. Her arm burned from the pieces of melted panel that had rained down on her.

She was surprised when she realized she had finished the analysis. She quickly ordered the readings to display on the tactical console as well as a display to the right of the view screen. "Analysis complete. Erratic readings...heavy damage already. Weapons are a disruptor and plasma hybrid. No communication system to speak of; it's possible it's been damaged." She frowned. "Captain, I'm not picking up any lifesigns."

The ship rocked again, and another panel exploded at another bridge console, filling the bridge with more smoke. Jessica held on as she felt herself carried forward by momentum as the ship was violently thrown from warp. Alerts blared at every console due to the sudden change in speed.

She pulled herself back up, gritting her teeth as she focused on her job. She could feel her heart racing, and she could see everything around her in sharp detail.

This certainly is different, she thought.

===


The deck rocked underneath her feet, causing the Trill to stumble out of the turbolift and onto the cramped bridge of the Rafale. She managed to get to the science station at the rear of the small command center, and grabbed hold of a support strut to balance herself. There was another echoing boom through the frame of the ship, and the ship rocked again.

"The first four contacts are now dropping out of warp, joining with the other three."

"Where did they come from?"

"They all look the same!"

"Shields are up and holding, but we only managed to get them to 68 percent!"

"Computer unable to identify them, Captain, but they're all definitely of the same origin!"

Nizeri looked up and caught a glance from the other science officer on duty. She was gripping the console tightly to keep herself steady, and she had already begun to perspire. "Jess, what happened?"

"We had picked up four unknown ships and changed course to intercept." She wiped her forehead with her hand, coughing a little. "We were steady at warp, and then out of nowhere we took a plasma bolt to the starboard nacelle. Wirstowx got the shields raised, but by then most of the system had been taken out."

Sano manipulated her own controls, performing every scan she could manage of the enemy ships. Most of the Akira-class ship's sensors were unavailable while the ship was in combat, but she could get a good enough idea of what the enemy ship was. She raised her voice over the chaotic din of the bridge.

"Captain, sensors indicate the ships have incredibly complex autonomous systems..." She paused, finishing the assessment silently in her head. It's not possible, she thought. It has to be an error.

The captain turned his head just barely to the side to look at Jessica as the ship rocked again. "Anything useful?"

Jessica pressed more controls, manipulating the sensors further. "Routing results to tactical. Minimal shielding located in the center of the probe, probably to protect the power plant or the central computer." Jessica gasped, causing Nizeri to look up. "Captain, these are the same type of probes that attacked the Merveille just the other day!"

Captain Mal'kon jumped out of his chair and hurried to the back to see her scans. "You're sure?"

"Yes, sir. Same readings, same build. These probes are identical to ones that have been attacking ships for the past month in this region of space."

Captain Mal'kon turned to face the view screen as a bright green lance of plasma and energy spewed from the probe on the screen. A moment later it collided with the Rafale's shields, causing the ship to shake again. "Ensign Wirstowx, there's your engagement authority. Weapons free; fire torpedoes, full spread."

There was no acknowledgment from the front tactical console. Nizeri heard the familiar sound of a full spread of quantum torpedoes as they were expelled from the torpedo launcher, and turned to look at the view screen in time to see the five blue objects fly out and slam into the black mass of twisted metal that had attacked them. The spherical probe, which had been steadily rotating during the attack, stuttered before exploding in a giant ball of green gases.

"Captain, the other probes are moving off."

"Fire at will, Wirstowx."

===


The Rafale chased after the retreating probes, phasers lashing out mercilessly. Torpedoes launched again, and another probe was obliterated.

"Wirstowx, that was too close!" Mal'kon dropped into his chair and pulled the restraints over his lap. Around the small bridge, everyone at a console sat in their chair and held on.

Jessica's eyes widened, and she looked up at Nizeri. The Trill was equally frightened, and tightened her grip on the science console, the only station on the bridge that didn't have chairs. Both women closed their eyes as Mal'kon's voice shouted at the last moment to brace for impact.

The probe erupted on the view screen, and the shock wave slammed into the Rafale's already weakened shields. The starscape went spiraling upward on the screen, and the rest of the bridge followed. Jessica felt herself lift off the deck plating as the inertial dampeners struggled to keep up with the explosion. There was a thunderous explosion that resounded throughout the ship, and in an instant the bridge was thrown backward. Consoles exploded and lights flickered off. Jessica lost her grip on the science station and was thrown over the captain's chair. She felt the artificial gravity catch up with the inertial dampening system, and she screamed as she landed, slamming into the helm station.

Then, darkness.


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