“We’re less than five minutes out from the Piqus system. No sign so far that we’ve been detected,” said the captain of the mercenary vessel Lead Belly from the bridge, her face displayed prominently on a vid screen mounted in the common room.
Although she had referred to the mission they had embarked upon as almost certain suicide, she had still not relented on giving any of her passengers access to the bridge. Michael understood the need for restricting access to sensitive areas of a ship better than most, but even he considered this overly paranoid considering what they had already been through together.
“I suppose those access codes are holding up so far,” she said.
“I’ve lost four of my best people getting my hands on those,” said their newest passengers, the man who went by the name of Lif Culsten in this universe. “They should be able to get us all the way to Piqus VII without raising any suspicions.”
But Donners didn’t look all so convinced. “These codes are fooling long-range sensors if we’re lucky, but they won’t do much for us under closer scrutiny. And there is zero chance the Lead Belly will pass as an Outlander vessel on visual inspection. I really hope you have some other ace up your sleeve, otherwise, this will be a very short infiltration.”
Michael turned to consider the resistance fighter but it didn’t look like he had thought that far ahead.
It was his counterpart who spoke up instead. “If this Piqus system is anything like ours, there should be an extensive asteroid field between the outer planets and Piqus VII. It might just be dense enough to allow us to approach undetected.”
Garla nodded along, clearly very familiar with the asteroid field herself.
“I’m sorry, I get confused with the two of you,” said Amaya on the screen. “Which one are you again?”She grinned and then quickly continued. “It doesn’t matter. Sensors are showing the asteroid field. I should be able to drop us out of warp right at the outer edge of it. You better start crossing your fingers that we won’t register on any Outlander sensors. And find something to hold on to, I’ll have to drop us in hard. Lead Belly’sinertial dampeners aren’t what they used to be.”
Michael quickly found that Amaya had greatly exaggerated the state of her ship’s dampeners when he was nearly thrown right out of his chair even while holding on tightly to its armrests.
“By the Creator, this bucket isn’t fit for space travel, it belongs to the scrap yard,” Garla moaned as she picked herself off the deck, having been less successful in holding on to her seat.
The moment she had managed to make her way back to her chair, the ship lurched abruptly again, nearly flinging her right back to the deck and Michael feared for a moment that Amaya had miscalculated and smashed them into an asteroid.
“We’re at a full stop and we’re not going anywhere,” she said, as she glared angrily from the screen.
“What’s the problem?” Michael asked.
“The problem is that I just carried out a perfect warp jump right into an asteroid field and all the thanks I get are vicious insults,” she said, her ire clearly directed at the sentinel.
“You cannot be serious,” Garla said, easily countering the other woman’s scowl.
“I may have mentioned that we’re a bit on a timetable here with the fate of universes depending on us,” said Michael as calmly as he could. “We really do not have the time to--“
“Listen,” Amaya interrupted him. “I’ve put up with a lot of crap from you people. Hell, I’ve already been chased and shot at and nearly killed without even seeing so much as a slip of latinum. I will not tolerate insults directed at me or my ship. That’s where I draw the line. So, we’re staying right here until I hear some genuine remorse.”
The room practically fell dead silent as all eyes turned toward the Krellonian woman.
“This is insane,” she said.
“My ship, my rules.”
Michael shot her an instance look. “Garla,” he urged.
She shook her head but then took a breath of air. “I apologize,” she said under her breath.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”
“I said, I apologize for insulting your fine vessel, all right? Now, for the love of the Infallible Creator, can we please quit these silly games and go back to saving the universe?” she said, much louder now, although the venomous look in her eyes didn’t quite match the sentiment.
The ship trembled again slightly which Michael took as an indication that they were on the move again.
“It’s a good thing you’re so handy in a fight, lady because you suck at apologies.”
Michael was certain that she didn’t get much practice in saying sorry in her career as a sentinel.
Amaya effortlessly switched gears. “If I may direct your attention to the master console you may all marvel at my impressive navigational feats. We are not far from Piqus but we’ll need more than great piloting skills to get us to that planet undetected.”
Michael and the others stood from their seats and reassembled around the table-like console that was currently struggling to show a stable image, flickering on and off instead.
“We’re experiencing some technical difficulties down here,” said Michael, doing his best not to sound judgmental so as not to incur the ship master’s rage once more.
“Just give it a few good whacks, it’ll be fine,” she said.
Garla rolled her eyes but Michael shot her a censuring look to hold her tongue.
The other Culsten did as Amaya had suggested and after hitting the console a third time, the image indeed stabilized to show a tactical view of their position amid the asteroid field, as well as the nearby planet Piqus VII.
“The planet has a strong magnetic field around the northern pole that should help us stay undetected for a while,” said Prime Culsten and quickly received a nod in response from Garla.
The sentinel drew a curved line from their position toward the planet with her finger. “And an indirect course will allow us to use the asteroids as cover while avoiding the orbital installation,” she added.
“Sounds like you’ve been here before,” said the other Culsten.
“This just might work,” said Amaya. “To reduce the chance of being discovered, I’ll have to initiate a high impulse burn the moment we’re free from the asteroid field. You’ll want to hang on. You know the drill by now.”
This time everybody took her instructions seriously as they returned to their seats.
Michael got another taste of what he thought early space flight must have felt like, before the widespread use of intelligent IDF systems that constantly adjusted the internal conditions of a starship to keep its occupants comfortable. A high-power impulse burn that he would barely have registered on Eagle, pushed him back hard into his seat and made his organs feel as if they were being turned to jelly as Lead Bellyaccelerated to eighty-thousand kilometers per second.
The transition back to regular speed came with another hard rattle.
“I don’t think I can get used to this,” moaned Matthew Owens, who likely had the least outer space experience in the group.
Prime Culsten on the other hand couldn’t quite suppress a large grin on his face.
“All right, we’re here. And judging by the fact that nobody has started shooting at us, I think we’re in the clear for now. But I do suggest we do whatever needs to be done quickly and then haul ass out of here.”
“Agreed,” Michael said and stood. He walked over to the queasy-looking Matthew to try and help him out of his chair but the other man waved him off.
“I can manage.”
Michael nodded and joined the others who had assembled around the master display again.
“I’ve brought up a map of the planet,” Amaya said.
Indeed, the display now showed the slowly rotating globe of Piqus VII with a topographical map superimposed.
Michael glanced at the other Culsten. “Where is the sensor monitoring station?”
“First we have to get my people.”
Michael didn’t like it but he knew he needed his help to shut down the sensor net protecting Cygni-98. “Very well. Where are they being held?”
The Krellonian studied the digital globe for a moment, frowning as the image began to tear and distort again. He gave the console a few more hits with his open palm.
“Quit trying to destroy my equipment,” Amaya said sharply. “That’s interference from the magnetic field. Nothing to be done about it.”
“Sure makes this harder,” said the resistance fighter as he used his fingers to spin the globe. “The detention complex is a hidden location somewhere on the northern continent.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have?” said an incredulous Garla.
“I’m lucky I’ve got that much,” he shot back. “Good men died to get me that intel.”
“I don’t know if I’d call that intel,” she said.
Matthew, however, took the news far worse. “You made us risk all our lives by going deep behind enemy lines without a clear notion as to where we even need to go? We might as well be trying to find the proverbial needle in a barn filled with haystacks.”
Culsten took this feedback in stride as he kept studying the globe, zooming in on the northern-most continent. “It shouldn’t be too far from the capital city.”
“What are those blank spots?” Michael said, trying to avoid a headache from the distorted image he was looking at. There were a lot of large white spots littering the map.
“My guess,” said Amaya from the bridge, who was clearly looking at the same data, “those are shielded locations passive sensors cannot penetrate.”
“Restricted areas,” said the other Culsten. “It must be one of those.”
“Only problem,” said Frobisher, “there must be over a dozen of them just in the northern hemisphere. We don’t have the time to search them all.”
“Wait,” said Garla and then zoomed in on one of those sensor holes. “This looks familiar,” she added and then exchanged a knowing look with Prime Culsten.
He shook his head. “It couldn’t be.”
“Why not? Would make for a good location for a hidden prison.”
Michael wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. Although it had only been a few days since he had been to Piqus, with everything that had happened since it felt more like months. And, of course, he hadn’t spent any significant time there, hadn’t even set foot on the surface. “Would you like to clue us in?”
“The quarry, sir. It’s on the northern continent and in relatively close proximity to the capital. And according to this,” he said as he pointed at one of the dark spots, “it’s heavily shielded.”
“The location where we set up the field hospital?”
He nodded. “We keep going back to that place in different universes but that seems hardly like the most unusual repeating theme we’ve seen.”
Michael considered the resistance fighter. “What do you think? Could that be it?”
“If Garla believes so, I’ve no reason to doubt her,” he said and looked at the sentinel. “Will you do us the honor of joining the mission? Your mere presence will help inspire my people.”
“Fine,” she said. “Lif, I suggest you come along as well. Having two of you could give us a tactical advantage.”
“I was afraid you’d say something like that,” he said but then, apparently, remembering the chain of command he regarded his captain. “Unless you wish me to stay behind, sir.”
“She’s got a point,” he said nodding, and then found Amaya on the screen. “We could use some assistance down there.”
“Oh no,” she quickly said, shaking her head. “My fee does not include risking my neck, or that of my crew, for foolhardy rescue missions. I can spare some weapons, which I expect to be returned if you survive, but I’m staying right here, thank you very much.”
“Weapons would be good.” He found Matt and Frobisher next. “You’ll stay on the ship as well.”
“You couldn’t pay me to go down there,” Matthew said in response while Frobisher just nodded.
“Sir,” said Prime Culsten. “I think it’s my duty as your highest-ranking officer present to point out that you should stay behind as well.”
“I second that,” said Jon Owens who Michael hadn’t even realized had joined the group. He was leaning by the door, still looking far too pale to be on his feet “In fact, as the most senior Starfleet officer on board this vessel, I’d like to remind you that the captain does not join away missions.”
“While you figure out what you want to do, I suggest the rest of us get suited up,” said the other Culsten to which Donners quickly provided instructions on where to go to find weapons before he, his counterpart, and Garla left the room to find their armaments.
“You should be resting,” Michael said pointing at Jon Owens and taking a few steps toward him. “And you should also realize by now that I no longer recognize your authority.” He had sounded harsher than he had intended and his words made the older man visibly recoil slightly.
“I need to go,” he added, softening his tone. “I have to make sure we shut down that monitoring station. It’s our best chance to get back to Ring in one piece.”
“It’s too dangerous, son.”
Michael let the faux pas go. “I may spend most of my time on the bridge these days but I’m a trained Starfleet officer. And my security chief is very diligent about making me join weekly combat drills. I can look out for myself. As far as you are concerned, I need you to get back to your quarters and gather your strength. We’ll need you again before all this is over.”
“Just be careful. Promise me that.”
He nodded. “I will.”
With that Jon Owens reluctantly left the room. It didn’t escape Michael’s notice how he needed to steady himself along the wall as he walked away.
He spotted Matthew in the corner of the room and joined him there. “Listen, I know that you’re still mad at me and Jon, and you have every right to be, but I need you to keep an eye out on him.”
“He’s not my responsibility.”
“No, he isn’t. I’m not asking because he may look like your father. I’m asking because it is the decent thing to do as a human being. I know you’re not the Matthew I knew, but I like to believe that at the very least you share his sense of decency.”
Matthew didn’t have words and Michael decided to leave it at that and then followed the others to get ready for what he was sure to be a foolhardy mission he knew he had no business being any part of.