Tazla was looking over Alendra’s shoulder as she sat at the mission ops station in the aft section of the main bridge. So’Dan Leva, Xylion, and Elijah Katanga had joined her for this impromptu meeting.
“What exactly am I looking at here?” said the veteran doctor as he considered the three-dimensional representation of what looked like an oversized missile on the mission ops screen. “Is this supposed to be the illegitimate child of a shuttlecraft and a photon torpedo?”
Despite their rather grim current circumstances, the analogy made Taz smile since it seemed quite apt.
“It’s called a UWCV,” said Alendra. “An unmanned warp-capable vehicle. It’s essentially an AI-controlled weapons platform that can be deployed over long distances.”
“Just what we always needed, computer brains with firepower,” said Katanga, unsurprisingly not very fond of the idea.
But Taz nodded. “I remember we took a couple of these on board while we had our refit at Earth,” she said, vaguely recalling having read up about these devices and now silently berating herself for not having paid more attention to the matter. In her defense, Eagle had undergone several changes and the drones had not been considered a priority addition to the ship’s arsenal.
“They are quite ingenious, really,” said Leva who seemed better briefed on the UWCVs. “They can be deployed at a moment’s notice and can seek out and destroy a target autonomously without the need to be remotely controlled.”
Alendra shook her head. “Can’t see anything going wrong with that idea.”
The tactical officer didn’t seem to appreciate the tone in her voice. “They were developed during the Dominion War and at a time when we had to face the possibility of being overrun by the Jem’Hadar. Considering what we were up against, these drones made a lot of sense.”
The Bolian lieutenant was clearly not in the mood to back down. “So the idea was to create computer-controlled weapons that could keep on fighting after we were long gone? For what purposes? To avenge us?”
“It was war, Lieutenant. We were looking at any advantage we could get our hands on and to ensure our survival,” he shot back hotly.
“Because all is fair in love and war,” she muttered.
“All right, I have to ask,” said Eli as he glanced first at Alendra and then at the half-Romulan tactical officer “What is it with the two of you today?”
But the two officers quickly diverted their glances as if embarrassed at having let it come to a near shouting match on the bridge.
Elijah shot Taz a little, knowing smirk.
But Tazla was not nearly as amused by the outburst. “I appreciate we’re all feeling the pressure here but we’ve been in tough spots before. Let’s all keep our heads, shall we?” she said, her voice sharp as an edge as she considered her two officers, both of whom offered quick, chastised nods.
“Lieutenant,” Xylion said, clearly eager to get everyone back on track. “You suggested the use of the UWCV. What are you proposing?”
The Bolian needed a second to recompose herself again and then turned back to the computer station to bring up more information on the drone. “Technically, Starfleet has never deployed these things in a real combat situation before, and the two we have onboard are prototypes designed for testing purposes but theoretically they should operate just like the real thing. Seeing how the Jem’Hadar reacted to our probe, I figured these would make a great distraction to allow us to slip out of the system.”
“Interesting,” said Xylion before regarding the Trill first officer. “Although I am not entirely familiar with their design, from everything I understand of their function, this plan may have a chance to succeed.”
Tazla nodded. “Definitely worth a shot,” she said and looked back at the Bolian. “How long until we’re ready to deploy them?”
“I just need to make a few modifications to their shields to ensure they are able to escape the gas giant’s atmosphere. Maybe an hour.”
“I’ll assist you,” said Leva.
“Thanks, but I think I’ve got it covered,” she shot back.
“Now, now kids, let’s remember to play nice,” said Katanga.
A pointed look from Tazla made Alendra reconsider as she nodded at the tactical officer. “If you could liaise with Lieutenant Hopkins to provide compatible transphasic shield emitters, that would be of great help, Commander.”
He nodded tersely. “I’ll do that,” he said as he stepped back to his tactical console while Alendra headed toward the turbolift.
Taz led Katanga and Xylion back to the command area of the bridge where they took their seats.
“No, seriously, what’s the story between those two?” he said quietly.
“Honestly? Beats me. And I don’t have the time to figure it out. They better just get their heads right quickly.”
Alendra’s estimate turned out pretty accurate even if in the end she relied much more heavily on Hopkins’ assistance than that of the tactical officer. After just a bit over an hour, the two drones had been modified sufficiently to give them a major shield upgrade while Leva had put together a plan of engagement to attempt to lure the Dominion forces away from the system.
“We are ready to proceed,” said the Bolian after she had returned and had once more taken a seat at mission ops.
Taz nodded. “Let’s do it.”
“Launching UWCVs,” she said as she operated her console.
“Dee, can we get a visual?” Taz said.
The Tenarian at the forward operations station nodded. “Tying us into their visual sensors now.”
Within moments the main screen shifted to show a split-screen of the visual feed from both drones. Presently all they could see was the murky atmosphere of Arkaria V as they climbed toward deep space.
“Shield readings for both drones are stable,” said Alendra.
After a few more minutes, the autonomous drones pierced the veil of the gas giant’s dense atmosphere and entered the dark void of space.
“They are programmed to locate and engage targets of opportunity,” said the Bolian. “The idea is to cause maximum damage without being destroyed and then retreat into separate directions at high warp.”
“Hit and run,” said Katanga.
“As long as the Jem’Hadar take the bait,” added Leva.
Taz nodded as she watched the screen attentively. It didn’t take long at all for the drones to sniff out their prey. The one on the left changed course first and not a moment later the one on the right followed suit, heading in a slightly different direction.
“Targets located,” said Leva.
Both drones went to warp suddenly which took Taz a bit by surprise. In-system warp jumps were not unheard of but were generally not very common. Eagle had performed one earlier to get away from the incoming Dominion forces, but even that had required precise calculations and a few moments of anxious trepidation.
The jumps lasted mere seconds and deposited both drones within striking distance of Jem’Hadar ships.
“Almost as if they’ve studied Picard,” said Deen who was watching from her station.
Both drones unleashed phaser fire and volleys of quantum torpedoes almost instantly on the unprepared targets. The one on the right was a single Jem’Hadar fighter while the drone on the left was bearing down on a trio of ships.
The left drone was a little bit too successful. The entire assault lasted less than thirty seconds until the bug-shaped Jem’Hadar ship had been turned into space dust.
“I thought the plan here was to try and get their attention, not outright blow them to smithereens,” said Elijah, not entirely able to hide his displeasure at seeing the destruction the drone had caused, even if it was against the Dominion.
“The engagement parameters must have been misaligned,” said Leva quickly. “Adjusting parameters now.”
“I suppose that’s what you get when you let computers fight your battles,” said the doctor.
Taz felt herself agreeing with him in principle. There was a moral issue here somewhere, she was certain of it, but at present, she could not afford to ponder it. Not while all existence was at stake.
While the left drone was moving out again to find another target. The right drone was still engaged in battle with the three Jem’Hadar ships. It had noticeably wounded one badly, knocking it out of the fight, but now seemed to have trouble evading the other two which were coming after it with a vengeance.
“I could be wrong,” Taz said, “but it doesn’t look like it’s going all that well for Drone Number Two.”
Xylion agreed. “Based on the data feed, it is unlikely the UWCV will survive the encounter.”
Alendra had stood from the aft bridge station and moved to the tactical console and next to Leva. “I suppose these drones aren’t very good in a dogfight. The upgraded shields will be able to take some punishment but it won’t last long.”
“The UWCV were primarily designed to deliver a payload, not fight other spacecraft,” said Leva.
“You may have wanted to mention that earlier,” said Alendra.
“This was your plan.”
Taz reached for her temples. “What can we do to avoid losing--“
She stopped herself when the feed on the right abruptly terminated. She had a good idea of what it meant.
“We’ve lost one of the drones,” said Leva.
“I think we know,” said Katanga.
Tazla stood from her chair and turned her back on the screen to look right at Leva and Alendra, her eyes dark and piercing. “You two need to stop whatever it is you’re bickering about and get your heads back into the game. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” they both said in unison.
“Now, we’re down to just one drone. What do you suggest we do?”
“I may have an answer to that,” said Deen from her station, causing Tazla to turn back her way. “The drone’s sensors are showing that all Jem’Hadar forces are now moving to intercept it. Seems to me we’ve got their full attention now.”
Taz nodded and regarded the Bolian and the half-Romulan again.
Alendra spoke up first. “We need to get the drone out of here and get the Jem’Hadar to follow.”
Leva was already working his console. “I’m sending the command now,” he said but then began to frown. “Something’s wrong. The drone is not responding to the new orders.”
Alendra began to work the control panels as well. “It looks as if the AI is overriding the new command and staying with its core objective to deliver its payload.”
“I’m no tactician,” said Katanga as he continued to watch the visual feed of the drone that now showed it heading toward an encounter with half a Jem’Hadar fleet. “But am I right in saying that if the drone gets destroyed by those ships--which seems likely--we are back to square one with no plan B?”
Xylion glanced at him. “Your tactical acumen is quite accurate in this instance, Doctor.”
Taz was still facing the tactical console as she watched the two officers working there with a growing frown. “You need to fix this now.”
Alendra shook her head in frustration. “I don’t understand. The onboard AI should accept new orders instantly. But it refuses to even acknowledge them.”
“It may be malfunctioning,” said Leva.
“Or we’ve triggered some sort of lock-out safety. I knew I should have read the damned manual,” she shot back, her fingers flying over the panel.
“We’re trying to give it new orders,” said Leva.” Perhaps we just need to amend its primary objective.”
But the Bolian shook her head. “I can’t gain access to the parameter file.”
“Twenty seconds until the Jem’Hadar will be in weapon’s range of the drone,” said Deen.
“What if we disable the AI altogether?” suggested Leva.
“Yes. Switch to remote control,” she said. “That could work,” she added as she jumped back to the mission ops station to make the change.
“Whatever you’re doing. Please expedite it,” said Star, forcing her voice to remain calm as she turned her attention back to the main screen. With only one drone left in operation, the entire viewer was now displaying its visual feed and the UWCV bearing down on a showdown with a dozen or so warships. An encounter it was guaranteed to lose.
“There are a couple of authentication protocols I need to run to allow for remote control,” said Alendra as she feverishly worked on the control panel.
“The drone has reached weapon’s range,” said Deen.
Not a second later the screen lit up as the UWCV unleashed its awesome weapons; bright red phaser fire, interspersed with blue bolts of quantum torpedoes and even two tri-cobalt devices.
The lead Jem’Hadar ship was incinerated almost instantly.
“Got it,” Alendra nearly shouted
On the screen, the drone just stopped dead in the water.
“Then, by all means, get it out of there,” Taz said.
“Setting course and engaging warp.”
The drone changed its orientation in an agonizingly slow fashion as far as Tazla was concerned.
“The Dominion ships are opening fire.”
She held her breath.
And then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the droned jumped to warp.
“The Dominion fleet is pursuing,” said Deen.
“Too close,” she said as she sat back down in her chair.
“I don’t know if I can take this kind of excitement in my old age,” said Katanga.
“How long until the Jem’Hadar will catch up with our drone?” said Taz.
Xylion had that information ready. “At the UWCV’s current velocity and energy reserve, it will be able to remain ahead of the pursuing vessels for three hours and twelve minutes.”
Taz nodded. “Let’s give them an hour and then we make a run for it.”
The next hour passed in an uneventful fashion. The drone was keeping its slim lead on its pursuers and there were no signs that the Jem’Hadar were abandoning their chase, likely seeing the unmanned ship that shared an energy signature with Eagle as their best chance to try and locate their real prey.
Tazla gave the order to leave their hiding spot and shortly thereafter they emerged from the gas giant’s protective yet turbulent atmosphere, allowing her to breathe a little easier for the first time in hours.
“As ship crews have been able to attest since the earliest days of the age of sail,” said Katanga. “There’s nothing quite like transitioning from rough waters to calm seas.”
“No argument there,” she said and then glanced at the helm where Ensign Aliris of Risa had taken over for the injured Srena. “Ensign, set a course for Cygni-98 at warp seven. Dee, keep an eye on long-range sensors, we may need to evade more Jem’Hadar or Outlanders on our way there, which means we just may have to duck back into the Moebius Cluster for cover.”
“Oh, what joy,” mumbled Katanga at the prospect of more turbulence.
The two officers acknowledged and they were off once again toward the Amargosa Diaspora.
As expected, their journey did not come without complications. Within just a couple of hours, sensors identified a possible problem.
“Jem’Hadar?” Taz asked once Deen had informed her of a sensor contact.
She shook her head. “No, definitely not a Dominion signature. This is very different. Wait, I recognize the pattern and -- this can’t be right.”
The tone in her voice sent a chill down Taz’s spine. “What is it?”
When Deen didn’t immediately respond, Xylion consulted the computer station next to his chair. “Sensors indicate the presence of a transwarp conduit in the vicinity.”
“But that would mean--“ Taz didn’t get to finish.
Katanga had stood suddenly as he stared wide-eyed at the screen. “Holy Mother of God.”
Taz’s eyes followed slowly, the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach told her what she would find before she had laid eyes on it.
Elijah Katanga was not a tactician as he had pointed out earlier. But then again, there wasn’t a Federation citizen alive who wouldn’t have instantly recognized what he had spotted on the viewscreen bearing down on them.