Roger Smith watched quietly from his seat beside the ship's Vulcan science officer, his journalist's Personal Access Display Device in hand. As one of the first reporters allowed access to a ship in wartime as part of Star Fleet's experimental embedded journalist program, he knew that his seat here on the bridge was precarious. It had taken him most of the long trip here to convince Guderian's young captain, Commander Jake O'Donnell, to allow him to sit here, not in the backwaters of auxiliary control where he would have been subject to the whims of Guderian's executive officer. The XO was an Andorian who had made it clear in their first meeting that he had little respect for the embed program, less respect for Smith's profession, and no respect at all for Smith.
The XO's opinion was undeserved of course. He stroked his stylish, square-cut goatee slowly. While he knew some of the stories he wrote might seem to have an anti-military slant, he felt that overall his record of reporting on the industrial-military colossus was clearly unbiased. It's not my fault that the public ignored the series of reports I did that highlighted the Fleet's humanitarian response to the Wacuri disaster, or the report on the Medivian crisis, but the public loved it when I wrote the exposé on the Martian Mafia that thinks it runs Star Fleet, and that retired commodore turned lobbyist.
His fingers traced behind the goatee and he winced unconsciously when they trailed across the bumps of the chin implant. That thug that had sought to enlighten him on what he could and could not say about the "alleged" link between the commodore and the Martian Mafia had failed miserably in forcing him to throw away his story. He had his integrity. Thankfully, that undercover police agent stumbled upon our little session, or I might have needed more than a new chin.
He dropped his hand, suddenly aware that the O'Donnell's gaze was upon him. He flashed a disingenuous smile, knowing that the dark tan he had acquired from doing stories on a dozen frontier worlds and the goatee gave him a rakish look that sometimes did more harm than good when he needed to gain someone's confidence. The captain briefly looked confused then turned away quickly to the main viewscreen. Smith felt his smile fade away, and looked down at the blank screen of his PADD. He had a deadline to meet, and so far he did not have a real story. But at least out here on a ship, I'm in a better position to get one. Unlike those talking heads back at Network Control who don't have an opinion unless someone in management tells them what it is.
Of course, part of the story was the embed program itself. He knew that programs like this had been tried over the centuries with varying degrees of success, but he doubted if the Star Fleet he knew would have allowed a journalist within half a parsec of a ship's bridge if it wasn't for one cold hard fact. They were losing the Klingon War and public support for its continuance was becoming more vital every day.
The Federation had been attacked by the Klingons two years ago. Initially, they had lost as much as half of the territory between the core Federation worlds and the Klingon border. Star Fleet had finally stopped the tide against the merciless invaders, but had yet to keep its promise to push them back. The Klingon War had begun to look like a grinding war of attrition, the kind the Klingons lived for and the Federation voters would not tolerate.
Star Fleet had agreed to accept embedded reporters, but had sent the first ones to the Romulan Border, where there was no action other than random privateer attacks. In theory, if the program worked, reporters would be allowed into the real war zone.
Then providence had dropped a Pulitzer into his lap as the Romulans invaded. Maybe the Romulans smelled an opportunity, maybe the Klingons had offered them a bribe - of Federation territory.
Now it seemed to Smith and the rest of his media friends that Sixth Fleet was running away at the slightest glimpse of a Romulan task force, nothing like the dogged retreat Third Fleet had conducted against the Klingons, or the heroic defense of Starbase #15. Star Fleet didn't want to admit that it had stripped the Romulan border, and everywhere else, of ships to stop the Klingons, leaving behind older ships, ships that had never been upgraded, and one-of-a-kind experiments like Prometheus. Star Fleet was trying to sell "consolidation of forces to prepare for a counter-offensive" and Smith was too smart for that.
Even so, he figured his chances of surviving the patrol were pretty good, despite the proximity of Romulan forces and the near certainty of engaging them. He didn't think that O'Donnell would endanger his precious command for more than a phaser pass or two at long range. Probably for the best. This idiotic flak vest they make us embeds wear won't protect us nearly as well as the standard Star Fleet uniform. He fingered his flak vest dubiously. It might protect him from shrapnel, but it wasn't good for much more than that.
The science officer beside him who had been staring into her library viewer for a good ten minutes, straightened and turned to face O'Donnell. He straightened up also, clicking the record button on his PADD. You never know when something out of the ordinary will occur, and at least if something does happen, I'll have it on record for the public to see. Well, whatever the military censors don't cut out. He gazed at the Vulcan expectantly, not for the first time noting that her alien features, framed by a square-cut, black mane of hair, had a kind of exotic beauty to them that he had never before seen in a Vulcan. He had never really liked Vulcans though. When she spoke, she was not addressing him, but her captain.
"Sir, sensors indicate that a ship is orbiting the rendezvous point ahead. Logic indicates that it should be Rommel, but this is unconfirmed." The female Vulcan's voice had a dry, monotonous quality to it. It somehow reminded him of an injured animal he had once seen on a colony planet, wasting away in the high desert at midday, with every molecule of moisture being blasted out of it by the fierce desert sun. He shivered. No wonder I never cared much for Vulcans.
"Lieutenant Mbolov, send the standard challenge," O'Donnell ordered his communications officer, a dark-skinned man. Smith had learned from an interview with him that he was a Namibian from the United States of Africa.
O'Donnell turned back to his science officer. "Ensign T'Chira, keep trying to get a firm identification on the frigate, and keep a sharp eye out for Romulans trying to sneak up on us while we run through the formality of assuming the patrol station."
Smith grinned. He could almost see the wheels turning in the Vulcan's head as she tried to figure out the sharp eye order. He saw her stifle a question with an almost imperceptible click of her jaw. He lost any chance for further amusement as she placed her face against the extended viewscree of the tactical intelligence station and returned to her work.
A few moments later they were close enough to positively identify the contact as Rommel. Surprisingly, he felt himself relax at the news. Hard to believe I can still get a little keyed up.
"Slow to warp two, Johnson."
Smith felt an inertial shift as the frigate slowed in preparation for its rendezvous with its sister ship.
"Sir, Rommel is reporting that they have two electronic ghosts that their sensors cannot resolve," Mbolov reported.
That's never good. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. The old sixth sense that had got him through many a dangerous situation was trying to tell him that something was about to go wrong in a big way, and there was nothing he could do about it. He fingered the flak jacket again.
"Mendolow, energize and begin charging phasers," he heard O'Donnell order. "But let's hold off on arming photons until we get more information."
"Commander, distance to Rommel, one hundred thousand kilometers. Rommel's speed is warp one point eight." The Vulcan paused and twisted a knob on the side of her station. "Sir, I have a new sensor anomaly, bearing 120, inclination ten."
"Put our nose on the contact, Mr. Johnson."
The Vulcan straightened suddenly beside him and turned to O'Donnell.
"Romulan ship uncloaking, sir. Destroyer class." Her voice was as calm and measured when she spoke as if she faced this sort of thing every day. If anything, her voice was even dryer than before.
"Encrypted video link established with Rommel, sir." Mbolov's voice sounded at least an octave higher.
"Johnson, full acceleration, no change in course! Mbolov, put the feed on the main viewscreen," O'Donnell ordered.
Expectantly, Smith looked at the main viewscreen, just in time to see the SkyHawk destroyer replaced by the visage of Rommel's commanding officer, who, like O'Donnell, was another human with the rank of commander. The human started to say something, but paused to listen to what one of his officers was telling him. What the officer was telling him immediately became apparent as T'Chira took the opportunity to report two more Romulans, a destroyer and a light cruiser, were coming out of cloak on the far side of Rommel. Looks like the Romulans were attempting to encircle us. We've got to run. There's no way to win this if we stay here. Well, running away makes as good a story as any.
"Ron, looks like we may have interrupted a surprise party the Romulans were planning for you. Do you have any problem with us joining you?"
"Not at all, Jake. In fact, I'll give you first dibs on that SkyHawk you're charging, as long as you don't mind us following your trail out of here."
"Sounds like a plan, Ron. Just like old times in the simulators at the Academy."
The two commanders had been roommates at the Academy. While the best of friends, they were also the most fanatic of rivals. They dated the same women, who inevitably married someone else. O'Donnell had made full lieutenant a week before McGilland, and while this was a clerical error later corrected, O'Donnell never let McGilland forget it. Their promotions to lieutenant commander and commander, and their assignments to command the famous pair of frigates, had come simultaneously, although McGilland insisted he was senior due to the list being in alphabetical order. Both learned later that Star Fleet always picked lifelong friends, often Academy roommates, to command the pair of ships. History was behind that. Guderian had invented tank warfare, while Rommel, once his student, had been the best-known master of it, as much by the historical fluke of who he was fighting as anything else. The two generals had been rivals, and so were the two frigates.
"Didn't I win most of those battles, Jake?"
"Yeah, but only the ones I wasn't in." The other human laughed at that.
Smith suddenly had a hollow feeling inside his chest. Has the fleet found its backbone? Or were we just mistaken about them retreating at the first glimpse of the enemy? They seem to actually think they have a chance to win this. Are they both insane, or just reckless? Why aren't we leaving at top speed?
"Jake, don't forget a little negative tractor when you blow by that destroyer. If they slow you down any, it might make the party a little too interesting."
"Already thinking about it, Ron. And if you don't mind, can you make sure you fire on the same shield I do?"
"You were always the joker, Jake." He saw the grin on the face of Rommel's commander and realized the two men must have been fierce rivals and fiercer friends back in Star Fleet Academy. The grin suddenly vanished.
"Pity we never got the refits," McGilland said. Ships on the Romulan border were almost the last to get anything, including the refits that would have added a missile rack and a power reactor, improvements the ships could use.
"No point crying over beer they never poured," O'Donnell sighed. "They never promoted us to command cruisers, either."
"After we break out, want to try a Thach Weave?"
"Just what I was thinking," O'Donnell replied. "How is your fuel state? Are we going to have a problem, there?"
"Fuel is fine," McGilland said. "Rommel has enough to run all the way to any of the plausible bases, and enough for a breakaway if we have to give it up and get out of here."
"If we have to do that," O'Donnell said, "there will be hell to pay. If the Romulans get to the convoys, or the repair dock..."
"We're not going to save our own ships at the cost of a hundred others. Good luck, Jake. Don't forget to rearm phasers every time you fire them."
"Good luck, Ron. I hope your photon crew can actually hit something today." Before the other man could reply, O'Donnell pointed at Mbolov, who cut the channel. The smiling face of the other human was replaced by that of the destroyer they were attacking, which was steadily growing larger on the viewscreen. O'Donnell swiveled around to take stock of his crew. He stopped when his gaze fell upon Smith. He grinned.
"I certainly hope you get a chance to file your story, Mister Smith. I wouldn't want your death to be misconstrued as an attempt by the military to censor you."
"Me neither, Commander, me neither," he said, forcing himself to return O'Donnell's grin.
"Auxiliary Control reports that they have sent a contact report to Sixth Fleet," the weapons officer reported, "as you directed." O'Donnell nodded. He had signaled the XO to make the report while he focused on the immediate tactical plans. He hoped that Ron was on top of his game. Both of their lives, and both of their ships, depended on that.
Commander Ronald McGilland leaned into his ship's turn as they arced in behind their sister ship. They were eighty thousand kilometers behind them now. He watched intently as Guderian closed steadily on the Romulan destroyer. Anytime now... anytimeŠ There it is... plasma torpedo launch number one... and number two. Now let's see what kind of guts he has. Will he turn off and cloak, or will he go head to head with O'Donnell?
Evidently the SkyHawk captain had plenty of guts. There was no sign of a waver in its course as it continued to accelerate behind its two torpedoes, straight toward the two Federation ships. Its two torpedoes were barely ten thousand kilometers apart as they burned along the frozen way toward their target.
Of course, the fact that the other ship didn't turn off didn't mean that both plasma torpedoes were real either. Since the relatively long reload times for plasma torpedoes made ships that carried them vulnerable until they were armed again, both the Romulans and Gorns had developed pseudo-plasma torpedoes. He grimaced at the thought of them.
Pseudo-torpedoes simulated the real thing so well that they were indistinguishable until the moment of impact. Plasma torpedoes had a helluva punch, but actually hitting an enemy ship with one could be very tough, especially if that captain was skilled in anti-plasma tactics. He smiled. Star Fleet hadn't posted either O'Donnell or himself to Sixth Fleet because they needed to brush up on those tactics. They had both shown a solid understanding of the maneuvering required to defeat ships of the Romulan Star Empire. Both had spent their entire careers on the Romulan Border.
O'Donnell wasn't short on guts either. Rommel plowed into the first torpedo without slackening its acceleration. He half expected to see the ship's forward shield flare as it strove to absorb the enormous destructive energy of the torpedo, but there was nothing. O'Donnell had guessed right. The first torpedo was a fake. McGilland forced himself to relax the death grip he had on the command chair. The elaborate guessing games required for battles with plasma ships did nothing for the nerves.
"Guderian is firing point-defense phasers at the second torpedo, Sir," Callaway reported. "Warhead strength is down 26 percent." McGilland nodded. There were only three ways to deal with plasma torpedoes. The simplest way was just to run from them, because the torpedoes lost strength the farther they traveled. But to do that required speed because plasma torpedoes were able to attain the highest speeds a ship could manage in tactical combat. With Guderian accelerating from low warp speed; it would take time before they would be able to use their speed and maneuverability to run the plasmas out.
The second way was to pack a shuttlecraft full of deception gear which made it a decoy for the launching ship. The relatively unsophisticated guidance packages on the torpedo would readily accept the shuttle, which was commonly known as a wild weasel, for its target. McGilland, and every Star Fleet officer, knew that the name was mis-applied; it originally meant an aircraft equipped to attack antiaircraft defenses, but the name had stuck long ago. The main drawbacks to using such a distraction shuttlecraft were the severe restrictions it placed on the ship. The worst was that you had to slow to a speed of less than warp one point six to keep the torpedo's electronic systems fooled, and that would allow the noose to tighten even closer around them. If they tried a weasel while being outnumbered three to two against a cruiser and two destroyers, the outcome would only be certain capture or death. He had already ordered preparation stopped on the one that his shuttlebay crew was working on.
This only left firing at the warhead with phasers. It was an inefficient method of dealing with plasma torpedoes, as phasers did not so much as damage plasma torpedoes as degrade them, due to the complex interaction between the two energy systems. At least they could damage the warhead and soften the blow somewhat. To his knowledge, phasers were the only weapons that could reduce the warhead of the plasma torpedo.
"Guderian is maneuvering to take the second torpedo on its left front shield, Sir." Callaway's calm voice dragged him back from his mental review of anti-plasma tactics. The shield flared with the torpedo's impact and he found himself wincing. The torpedo wouldn't penetrate the shield, but it was bound to shake things up quite a bit.
"Shield down 61 percent. Guderian still accelerating, but is turning hard to port to take that shield away from the enemy. SkyHawk Alpha is turning to pursue, but at current rates of acceleration, they will not reach tractor range before Guderian can slip by them."
McGilland nodded. He had surmised as much by watching the tactical display, but it did no harm for Callaway to voice the information. It was likely that he was doing it for S'Loden's continuing education anyway.
"SkyHawk Beta and the SparrowHawk are behind us, accelerating at maximum rates, sir. They sprung their trap too soon." Callaway paused while S'Loden murmured something and pointed to one of her sensor displays. "We have another plasma torpedo launch from SkyHawk Alpha, the one ahead of us."
"I bet that one's real," McGilland said. "Mister Romulan is trying to slow O'Donnell down, but he's too late. Pearce, take us across the rear of SkyHawk Alpha at fifty thousand kilometers, heading zero-zero-zero, inclination seven. Jonesy, fire bearing phasers at moment of closest approach. No farther than that. Pearce, after we fire, get us at least one hundred and forty thousand kilometers clear of the SkyHawk. Then set and maintain a course parallel to Guderian's base track until we manage to get the photons armed. Maybe that will take their mind off of Guderian for a moment. I just wish I had the photons armed now. Once we break free, we'll see if we can spare the energy to arm them.
That will be the trick. Moving at maximum tactical engagement speeds while trying to arm weapons and simultaneously keeping the Romulans far enough away to stay alive will be a delicate balancing game. There is only so much warp energy to go around. He knew it was going to take every bit of skill that the crews of both Federation ships had to hold the Romulans back. Maybe more than we have if we are to see the morrow.
Whatever happened, the Romulans would know that they had been in a fight. Of that, he was very, very sure.