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Authors: Diane Duane

Tags: #science fiction, #star trek

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BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
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“Let’s worry about the hat later,” Jim said. “How many of the Grand Fleet personnel
are
likely to be from this system?”

“Captain,”
Ael said,
“not nearly enough, or we might not now be in this position. The Hearthworlds always have the advantage in placement and promotion in Fleet. To get past the barriers set in their way, commanders must be most extraordinary—and all too many of those are winnowed out early.”
Now it was she who sounded bitter.
“No one at command level in these ships comes from Artaleirh. No ships with such command would be sent here in the first place, the suspicion being that they would likely revert to their outworld allegiance.”

Jim found himself suddenly having uncomfortable thoughts about some things Commodore Danilov had said to him about his own relationship with Starfleet—or rather, Fleet’s perception of it—and he pushed them aside.

“Captain,” Sulu said, “
Elieth
and
Moerrdel
are on approach. High and low.”

“Got anything ready for them, Mr. Sulu?”

“Full spread and hot conduits, Captain,” Sulu said.

Kirk nodded. “Save the rock-throwing for a little later. No use in showing them the rest of the cards in our hand until later.”

“A little slow on the approach,” Sulu said. “
Elieth
edging ahead a little. Her scanners are hot. She’s looking at the processing facility.”

Looking for the same shield waveform as on the planet,
Jim thought. “Don’t let them pursue that line of inquiry, Mr. Chekov. Fire at will!”

Enterprise’
s phasers lanced out and splashed against
Elieth’
s shields.
Elieth
veered away from both
Enterprise
and the dilithium processing facility, and Chekov sent a couple of photon torpedoes after her for good measure. “
Elieth’
s shields down five percent,” Spock said, looking down his
viewer. “Torpedo hits on her shields. Shield integrity down ten percent.
Moerrdel
is firing—”

Jim gripped the arms of the center seat as
Moerrdel
flashed past, firing en passant. “Our shields down three percent,” Spock said. “Reinforcing. The small ships are giving pursuit.”

A hail of little vessels, maybe fifty of them in the first wave, burst out from hiding behind various asteroids in the belt and went after both
Elieth
and
Moerrdel,
firing small chemical-explosive missiles and low-level energy weapons after the cruisers. Jim thought it was probably galling for relatively heavily armed ships like the two cruisers to be chased at sublight speeds by little vessels that a cruiser would normally disdain to use even as a gig.
But which of those is carrying, secretly, whatever it was that took down the first flight of Romulan vessels into this system?
Jim thought.
Have to give them a chance to get the job done.


Bloodwing,”
Jim said. “The smaller ships aren’t going to do any good until the cruisers’ shields degenerate a good deal.”

“I hear you, Captain,”
Ael’s voice said.
“Let us deal with it, so long as the supercruisers stay out of it. They may not do so for much longer.”

“Let’s see if we can increase their enthusiasm,” Jim said, casting a glance back at Spock and not waiting for a reaction. “
Bloodwing,
we’re going to take them for a little ride and soften them up a bit, while letting them think that what we use on them is all we’ve got.”

“An admirable suggestion, Captain. We will be doing something similar.”

“Don’t get too far out of range of the processing facility, though. I wouldn’t like them to strike at it while we’re out of range. Mr. Sulu—”

“Captain?”

“The roller-coaster scenario, if you please. I want whoever’s
directing this engagement to get the idea that even without our aces in the hole, it’s going to take a lot more firepower to handle us than they’re using at present—and that they’re going to have to come in here and do it, not just coast around outside the belt and take potshots at us. Mr. Chekov, gunnery at will.”

“Aye, sir,” Sulu said.

“Aye, Captain,” said Chekov.

Jim settled himself as securely as he could in his seat. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the artificial gravity—like any other wise captain, he had ceased to trust it long ago. But his inner ear would occasionally betray him at odd moments when his body insisted it was sitting still, and the viewscreen, on which he was having to concentrate most intensely, insisted that he and others were doing anything but. Every now and then, in such situations, Jim had to remind his stomach just who was running this show, and being well settled in place was always a help.

The view in the main screen lurched and spun to starboard as Sulu’s hands began to dance over the helm controls, and he threw
Enterprise
away from the dilithium processing facility and directly toward the nearest large rock.
Elieth
had come about and was firing at them again, but Sulu had already evaded the first spread of phaser bolts and was now in the process of evading the second, lurching from side to side but always heading for the same asteroid, a big one that was rapidly getting too big for Jim’s liking in the viewscreen. Sulu hit another control and tactical view came up to overlay the live image, outlining the asteroid, showing the tag number that he and Chekov had assigned it, with wireframe gridwork showing any unusual mass concentrations inside the asteroidal body. There were several, but at the moment this wasn’t an issue. Sulu threw
Enterprise
around the ragged curve of the asteroid’s limb at an acceleration that was probably nothing her designers had
anticipated, to judge by the way the ship’s substructure started to groan.
Elieth
came after, still firing, but she came more slowly.

Enterprise
dove and twisted away from that asteroid, flashed past a smaller one, and headed for a third, a big, tumbling, potato-shaped chunk of nickel-iron, flickering here and there in Artaleirh’s sun with the violet or red-violet of dilithium ore. Over it Sulu sent the ship, and past it and “down,” at right angles to the ecliptic and the orbit of the asteroid belt; and
Elieth
came after them, narrowly missing the asteroid as it tumbled.

“They must think we’re suicidal,” Jim said.

“There’s a home-field advantage in every engagement,” Sulu said, not looking away from the viewscreen, his hands roving over the helm console like those of a pianist sight-reading a score. “If they’d been here before we were, they could have had it.”

He selected another of his tagged asteroids, one shaped like a lumpy letter
L
or
V,
and headed toward it. This asteroid was tumbling far more unpredictably than the last, its wireframe tactical image showing a number of irregularly distributed concentrations of mass inside it, probably pools of heavy-metal ore or pure lanthanide metals such as were frequently associated with dilithium in the natural state. But the tumble wasn’t unpredictable for Sulu: readouts in the tactical display, three sets of swiftly changing six-digit numbers, were showing exactly what the asteroid would be doing by the time Sulu got close to it.
Enterprise
was diving straight at the corner of the
V,
a spot that did not seem from this angle to be moving at all. Behind her, the other side of the split tactical display showed
Elieth
getting closer behind, and closer still, gaining confidence in her pursuit of this foe who would not stand and fight.

Sulu grinned and pounced on the helm console.
Enterprise
shot through the angle of the
V,
then to port and down,
groaning in her bones. Behind her, the asteroid skewed in its tumble, and one of the legs of the
V
was abruptly coming straight at
Elieth.
She frantically threw herself sideways, and in so doing came out directly above
Enterprise’
s present position.

Chekov’s hands had been hovering over controls on the weapons console. Now it was his turn to pounce. First a full spread of photon torpedoes went out, leaping away from the ship in the tactical view. They struck
Elieth
in the belly, right where the bird-of-prey shadows would have concealed a heart; and as the ship’s shields flared with their simultaneous impact, Chekov fired all
Enterprise’
s forward phasers at the spot.

Elieth’
s shields flared brighter, then flickered in a sickly way. Chekov ceased phaser fire instantly. “Her shields are down,” Spock said from his station, straightening up from peering down his viewer.

Enterprise
veered away to port and “upward” through the asteroid belt. In her wake came about twenty of the little ships, which began peppering
Elieth’
s nacelles with explosive torpedoes.

“Not a bad start, Mr. Sulu,” Kirk said, sitting back in the center seat again. “Let’s see what
Bloodwing’
s up to.”

Sulu pitched the ship forward a hundred eighty degrees to orient the main sensors back toward the dilithium processing facility. In the distance, past the facility, the tactical display showed the small red light that was
Bloodwing
as she twisted and dove among asteroids there, some thousands of kilometers away.

“Mr. Sulu,” Jim said, catching sight of one particularly hair-raising maneuver that
Bloodwing
executed in and out among the bulbous projections of a particularly large asteroid, with
Moerrdel
in pursuit but rapidly dropping behind, “you really have been corrupting Antecenturion Khiy, haven’t you?”

“Didn’t take much corruption, Captain,” Sulu said, rather absently, as he pulled
Enterprise
around the pocked limb of yet another asteroid, one that for just a second, to Jim’s eye, had about the same shape as the state of Ohio, and then lost it as they dove past. “He has a natural talent. I just encouraged it....”

“Uhura,” Jim said. “Response from the other ships?”

“They’re not pleased, Captain,” Uhura said, sounding grim. “Engagement command on
Esemar
is ordering
Elieth
to self-destruct.
Elieth
is responding that—” She broke off, listening. “Their comms have gone down, Captain.”

“A malfunction secondary to the damage?” Jim said.

Uhura shook her head. “I don’t think so, Captain. But there’s nothing further from
Elieth—”
She broke off and glanced over at Kirk, one hand to her ear. “
Esemar
has ordered the other ships to go silent, Captain.”

“Getting ready to come in and deal with us themselves,” Jim said. “Good.”
I hope!
He was still uncomfortable about what kind of weapons those supercruisers might have on board. “Mr. Sulu, when the big ships start firing at us, I want to be elsewhere whenever possible. Make them show us what they’ve got.”

“Yes, sir!”

Jim’s insides jumped again as Sulu accelerated
Enterprise
to just under half impulse, weaving and darting among the asteroids that lay in their path. He almost wanted to protest. It would be simpler to take
Enterprise
up out of the asteroid belt for a short straight run, but more hazardous. They would be giving up both cover and advantage.
My stomach is just going to have to like it,
Jim thought as Sulu hurled
Enterprise
at another asteroid.

Jim’s stomach leapt again. It did
not
like it. “Mr. Sulu, you could miss some of these rocks a little more widely.”

“I’d hate anyone watching to get the idea this wasn’t easy for us, Captain,” Sulu said, sounding cheerful.

Jim sighed. “As you were. Just don’t get overexcited and go relativistic on me.”

“No need, Captain,” Chekov said. “No one in the belt is exceeding one hundredth
c.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Jim said. In particular, phasers and other energy-based weapons behaved very oddly when you got up into near-relativistic accelerations, and he had no desire to be anywhere near such events should they accidentally occur. “
Bloodwing?”

“One moment,
Enterprise.”

They watched her curve and weave among the tumbling asteroids at speeds that would have made Kirk uncomfortable even were Sulu handling them.
Moerrdel
came after
Bloodwing,
as fast as she dared, but not fast enough.
Bloodwing
vanished around the curve of one asteroid, blocked from
Moerrdel’
s sensor view.
Moerrdel
continued along the course that
Bloodwing
had been pursuing, realized her quarry had vanished, but realized it too late, as
Bloodwing
came whipping back around the asteroid to a position directly behind
Moerrdel,
and fired both disruptors and photon torpedoes at
Moerrdel’
s rear shields, point-blank. The shields flared and went down, and as
Bloodwing
arced away, another flotilla of the system’s smallships came boiling in from all directions and began to attack
Moerrdel’
s nacelles.

It was impossible, with all the Romulan ships now keeping silent, to tell whether the same loss of communications that had afflicted
Elieth
was now affecting
Moerrdel.
If, as Jim thought, it was a symptom of what had happened to the first vessels into this system the last time Artaleirh was attacked, then the ships were probably in the hands of Ael’s allies already. Certainly neither of them had yet self-destructed. “Two down, seven to go,” Chekov said.

“Hurray for our side,” Jim said, his eye still on the supercruisers, now slowly moving in toward the dilithium processing facility. “
Bloodwing?”

“My apologies, Captain, we were busy,”
said Ael.

“So I see. Nice shooting.”

“I agree, though Khiy much desires to do something to our enemies besides shoot.”
Ael’s voice was amused.

“Not just yet,” Jim said. “Why tip our hand? But he’ll have his chance pretty soon, I think. The big ships are moving in.”

BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
5.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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