Louise Hopkins, down in engineering, was doing her level best to earn the miracle worker moniker that was so often bandied around when talking about the ingenuity of Starfleet engineers who occasionally seemed to be able to bend the very laws of physics to pull off the impossible.
Michael was very much aware of this as his chief engineer had somehow managed to wrestle eight hundred thirty times the speed of light, or about warp seven point five, out of Eagle’s damaged engines in order to get them to the Moebius cluster before a squadron of Dominion fighters and likely hostile Krellonian ships would be able to catch up with them.
After all, even while trying to stay well ahead of a pack of hostiles out for blood, the woman was equally busy trying to keep the damaged ship in one piece and find a way to get the transphasic shields up and running at a moment’s notice since those shields would be the only thing that would keep them alive once they reached the cluster.
She had the assistance of Commander Xylion, who had been given special dispensation to be released from sickbay to head down to main engineering to do whatever he could to ensure the shields would work, over the vocal objections of Doctor Katanga.
Michael had decided that inviting the wrath of the cantankerous physician would be a small price to pay to ensure all their survival.
“How much longer until we get to the cluster?” Tazla Star asked from where she was sitting by his side.
Culsten had retaken the helm, although he’d not had the chance to replace his lavish Krellonian robes for a Starfleet uniform yet. He answered without looking up from his instruments. “Technically, we’ve been inside the Moebius Cluster for the last eight minutes. But we won’t reach any parts containing significant gravimetric shear for another twelve minutes.”
Deen spoke up next. “We’ll need those shields to be up and running in eleven or we’ll break up like a raw egg hitting the pavement once we get there.”
Star glanced at him. “And we won’t be able to keep at warp while the shield is deployed.”
He nodded, fully aware of that limitation. Even when not operating at full strength, the super-powered shield grid required a significant portion of warp power to operate efficiently.
“The Dominion ships are still closing and will be right on top of us as soon as we drop out of warp,” said Leva from the tactical station behind him.
“How sure can we be that they won’t be able to follow us?” he asked.
Deen offered him a glance with a shrug. “At the moment it’s not much more than a hypothesis based on the fact that very few known ship designs in our universe would be able to withstand the conditions inside the cluster.”
“But things could be different here,” said Star, and Deen nodded before she turned back to her instruments.
It was a gamble they had to take, Michael understood this. In fact, it was their only gamble at this stage. Get to the outer edges of the cluster’s hazard zone as quickly as possible, and then drop out of warp to activate the transphasic shields, theoretically powerful enough to keep the ship from being shaken apart by the destructive energies of the stellar cluster. And all that before a squadron of Jem’Hadar warships could catch up with them and turn them into a flaming husk of space debris.
He spotted Star’s growing frown and not a moment later, Leva explained what the first officer had apparently already realized. “The Dominion ships have managed to increase speed. They’ll intercept us before we can reach the hazard zone.”
Michael glanced toward the helm. “Can we coax any more speed out of the engines, Lieutenant?”
Culsten shook his head without turning from his station. “I’m giving it all she’s got, sir,” he said and then turned his head. “Maybe Louise can work some more miracles.”
He was loath to disturb their chief engineer, knowing full well that her plate was already overflowing. “Owens to Hopkins.”
“Engineering here,” she said without much of a delay and sounding expectedly harried.
“How are we doing with those shields? We’re going to need them any minute now.”
“To be brutally honest, I would give my left leg for another hour to calibrate the emitters. We’ve barely had enough time to mend the damage from our latest transition. This whole thing could end up blowing up right in our faces without the proper alignments.”
“Time is the one thing we don’t have,” he said. “In fact, we seem to be having less of it than we thought. Can you give us any more power to the engines?”
There was a short pause and Michael wasn’t sure if it was because she wanted to laugh or cry. For a second, he worried that he had finally asked too much of his young chief engineer and finally broken her. And in doing so validating the naysayers who had long ago warned him that Louise Hopkins, her undeniably brilliant technical mind notwithstanding, had never been ready for the responsibilities he had bestowed upon her when making her one of the youngest chief engineers on a Starfleet ship of the line.
“Our new warp drive is currently churning out four thousand one-hundred twenty-five teradynes per second. We’ll need at least three thousand five hundred teradynes to initiate the transphasic shield and our shield emitters cannot handle a transfer rate higher than five hundred teradynes per second when they are perfectly calibrated which, at the moment, they are not. And that’s not even taking into account that our brand new class-IXb drive is only rated for a maximum theoretical throughput of four thousand teradynes per second.”
Michael exchanged a glance with Star.
“I believe what you’re trying to tell us, Lieutenant,” said the Trill at his side, “is that the answer to our question is no.”
“With all due respect, sir, the answer to your question is ‘hell no’. Unless, of course, you can change the laws of physics.”
Michael nodded slowly even if she couldn’t see it over the audio channel. “Understood, Lieutenant. Carry on and focus on giving us the transphasic shield when we need it. We’ll find a way to make do. Bridge out,” Michael said and closed the channel.
“When did she get so feisty?” Star asked.
“It must’ve been right around the time you started to ask the impossible,” said Deen from ops, clearly having overheard the conversation.
“We’ll reach the hazard zone in less than five minutes,” said Culsten from his station beside her and refocusing everybody’s attention.
“Not soon enough,” said Leva behind Michael. “Jem’Hadar ships will be in weapons range in under three.”
“Do we stay the course and take the beating or do we drop out of warp and try to fight?” Star asked
“Neither is appealing,” Michael responded.
“I do not recommend we slow down,” said the tactical officer. “Right now, we have four enemy ships on our tail. As soon as we lower speed, the rest will catch up with us before we reach the hazard zone and we won’t be able to survive that.”
“I also do not recommend activating the transphasic shield early,” added Alendra who was helping out Leva at the tactical board. “It is powerful, but we’d be asking too much of it to protect us from their directed energy weapons until we make it to hazard zone on sub-light.”
Star seemed to be of the same mind, nodding along. “And we can’t afford it to fail once we’ve made it inside or it’ll all have been for nothing.”
Michael could see there was no choice. “Maintain course and speed.”
Not soon after the pursuing Jem’Hadar ships made their presence violently known as the ship shook hard enough that Michael was nearly thrown out of his chair.
“Direct hits to our rear shields,” said Leva among the wail of the red alert klaxon. “Shields holding at eighty-nine percent. For now.”
“Divert all available shield energy to the rear,” said Michael. “But keep an eye out on those emitters. We’ll need them once we reach the hazard zone.” He knew that yet another concern on their quickly growing list of worst-case scenarios was that they’d lose their shield emitters due to overloading them as they tried to absorb the incoming fire and thereby lose their ability to activate the transphasic shield.
Eagle shook again, hard enough that Michael had to grab hold of the armrests of his chair so tightly, his palms were beginning to hurt.
“One could get the impression they don’t want us to go this way,” Star said as she pushed a strand of loose red hair out of her face.
“Mister Culsten, any piloting tricks you may have been holding back would be much appreciated right about now,” Michael told his helmsman.
The Krellonian nodded with a growing smirk. “Evasive maneuvers at high warp inside a super high-density star cluster? I suggest everybody find something to hold on to.”
Deen shot him a sidelong look. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re already clinging on for dear life here.”
“Right,” he said. “Here goes.”
Michael could feel the gravitational forces on the bridge shifting as the inertia dampeners designed to keep the crew from ending up as smudges on the bulkheads at velocities exceeding a few thousand times the speed of light, struggled to compensate for Culsten’s new and even more extreme maneuvers.
He was happy to accept the discomfort of feeling his heart pressing against his throat if it meant that the enemy was equally finding it difficult to keep up and get a clear shot at them.
He heard Star gasp where she sat but he was being pressed so hard against the side of his chair that he found it difficult to even look her way.
“We are headed straight for a Bok globule,” Deen managed to rasp as the ship seemed to level out again. “We hit that at warp and we’re history.”
“I should be able to get us around that,” Lif said.
The ship took multiple hits in quick succession as if the Jem’Hadar behind them were expressing their frustration of this difficult chase through their weapons. An energy conduit running along the port bulkhead ruptured from the impact and damaged some of the panels on that side of the bridge.
Michael winced when he watched the ship’s dedication plaque come undone and unceremoniously drop onto the floor. Always a bad omen.
He looked down at his armrest display. DeMara’s announcement had given him an idea.
Eagle was currently heading directly toward a Bok globule at high warp, a particularly dense cosmic cloud chock-full of dust and gases. Stellar clusters were packed with these kinds of dark nebulae that functioned like incubators for brand new stars and that made regions like the Moebius cluster near impossible to navigate conventionally.
DeMara was right, of course. Attempting to enter one of those clouds at high warp would go about as well for them as it would for an egg being thrown at a brick wall. Even at impulse and with their deflectors at full strength, he doubted it was a journey they could survive.
“Could we make it through the cloud with the transphasic shields?”
DeMara turned to look at him. Her expression was not one of incontrovertible confidence. “Possibly.”
He decided to take the chance. “Lif, drop us out of warp right outside that globule. Then cut all engines and let our momentum ride us inside.”
He offered a sharp nod. “Warp cut-off in twenty-five seconds.”
“We’ll make contact ten seconds after that,” said Deen, studying her instruments intently, no doubt making sure her calculations were as precise as they could be.
“Star to engineering.”
“Lieutenant, we’ll need the transphasic shield up and ready in thirty seconds. Not to add any undue pressure but if it won’t go up, we’ll all die,” the Trill said with a voice that remained so even and calm, it betrayed nothing of the anxiety she and the rest of the bridge crew felt. To Michael, it sounded as if she was securing dinner reservation rather than discussing the fate of the nearly eight hundred souls that would be decided by their actions over the next half minute.
“You get us out of warp and you have your transphasic shield. Just remember, the maximum transfer rate is five hundred teradynes per second. Any more and we lose the emitters.”
“That gives us what? A three-second contingency,” Star said and then glanced at Michael. “We’ll be cutting this damned close.”
Michael just nodded as the words of a famous starship captain rang in the back of his head. ‘Risk is our business’, he had said. He wondered at what point exactly risk turned it nothing more than blatant recklessness.
Eagle took another hit.
“Shields down to forty-eight percent,” Leva said from tactical.
Michael knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. If they got better. He hit a control on his armrest computer. “All hands, this is the Captain speaking. Brace for significant incoming fire.”
“Ten seconds to warp cut-off,” said Culsten, his eyes now locked on his instruments, his fingers hovering over the right controls with anticipation.
Seconds that lasted an eternity was a well-worn cliché, Michael knew. And yet he thought an entire lifetime could have been lived in the time it took to get to the point of no return while his mind punished him with seemingly endless doubt. Had he just made a decision that was going to cost them all their lives? Would he be responsible for the destruction of his ship, his crew, and perhaps even the entire multi-verse?
Anxiety be damned, he cherished the arrival of the moment of truth and for fate to give him his answer, one way or another.
“Dropping out of warp.”
The viewscreen instantly changed from a view of streaking stars to one entirely devoid of any. It took him a moment to realize that the Bok globule they were now bearing down on was so close that it obscured anything beyond it.
“The transphasic shield is powering up,” said Alendra.
“Jem’Hadar ships dropping out of warp,” said Leva.
And they wasted no time at all to let everybody know.
Eagle trembled mightily under their wrath, leaving no doubt at all that they meant to destroy her before they could try to lose them inside the dark nebula. Explosions erupted all across the bridge while smoke and the acrid smell of burned polymers filled the air to such a degree it made him want to gag.
He thought he heard Leva shout that the shields were collapsing which meant that the very next thing that would go would be the shield emitters themselves. And once they were gone, so went any chance for them to survive.
He heard Deen call out a warning but he couldn’t quite make out her words over the sound of the ship breaking apart around him and he had lost all sense of time, unsure if five, ten, or twenty seconds had gone by since they had cut the warp engines.
An invisible force, sudden and powerful, grabbed him and slung him forward and onto the deck so hard, he thought he had broken his arm upon making contact with the floor.
Dazed he slowly attempted to make it back to his feet.
He stopped and smiled when he felt almost intolerable pain shooting up his right side.
Pain was good, he realized. Pain meant he was still alive.
And so were the people around him.
He felt a strong arm reaching out for him and pulling him up and found it belonged to his first officer. Star’s hair had come loose again and hung into her face, but that, along with a slightly bloodied lip seemed to be the extent of her distress.
“Are you all right, sir?” she said, apparently somewhat confused by what must have been a rather inappropriate smile decorating his face.
“Looks like we made it,” Michael said, trying hard to regain his composure, as he looked around the bridge, mindful that his crew needed to see him as they were accustomed to. A man unquestionably in control of himself and his command.
There was nobody he could see who wasn’t banged up in some way or another, but nobody had suffered any serious injuries.
The deck plates rattled steadily under his boots but nothing like what they had experienced over the last few minutes.
Leva at tactical helped Alendra back to her feet and tried to tend to a cut that was oozing blue blood from her forehead until she waved him off, apparently intent on dealing with it herself. He hesitantly left the Bolian to her own devices to focus on the tactical station for the latest readings. Then he looked up to make eye contact with him. “Transphasic shield is active and holding within tolerances,” he said with a reaffirming nod.
A sudden bump threatened Michael’s balance yet again but he caught himself in time. He found his tactical officer again. “What was that?”
“Not us,” said Deen and Michael turned to look at her but caught sight of the viewscreen instead.
There, within the dark cloud, he saw what was quite obviously debris floating somewhere behind them.
“It’s what’s left of at least one Jem’Hadar ship,” she said.
“They must have tried to follow us inside,” said Star.
“And got crushed in the process,” added Culsten from the helm.
Michael’s eyes lingered on the sight only a moment longer, not wishing to dwell on the thought of how close they had come to end up just like that.
“Damage reports coming in from multiple decks,” said Leva. “Crew has sustained various injuries according to sickbay. Life support has failed on three decks and evacuation procedures are underway. Weapons and long-range sensors are offline. Impulse engines are operating at reduced capacity.”
Michael walked over to the port side bulkhead while Leva gave his report. He took a knee to pick up the dedication plaque, taking a moment to feel the heft of the metallic plate containing the ship’s name, registry details, and motto. ‘Peace has its victories but it takes brave men and women to win them’.
He stood back up and handed it to Star who had followed him, offering her a smile. “I don’t believe there can be any doubt about the bravery of this crew.”
“None whatsoever,” she responded in kind.
“Let’s get repairs underway,” he said and pointed at the plaque. “Start with that.”