USS Heinlein Captain's log Captain Daniel Hawthorne reporting:
Two hours ago, the Heinlein came across an alien device. We had been sent to investigate some anomalous readings from Subspace Communications Relay 38114. This was especially puzzling when we found the relay missing on our arrival, but diagnostics still reported it present and in working condition.
We might have run smack into the alien device if not for the exceptional sensor work of Ensign Shimada. Scanners were barely able to find it, and even then only because of a chance occlusion of background celestial bodies. For an object so small, even with the Heinlein's sensors, we got lucky. We otherwise were unable to get sensor readings of any kind from the device, and beamed it to stasis quarantine in science lab three for analysis.
Preliminary reports have concluded from its position that the device has likely been intercepting secure Starfleet communications for some time, masquerading as the relay itself while somehow able to mask its own presence. We are now resuming course to
"Captain!" Ensign Shimada's raised voice interrupted. "Contact at port-side Five kilometers! it's holding station with us. A ship!"
Hawthorne's face went pale with shock. As a science cruiser, the Heinlein had some of the best sensors in the fleet. How did a ship, even cloaked, get that close without being spotted? First that alien device, and now this. It couldn't be a coincidence.
"Shields up! On Screen."
On the main screen appeared a ship. It was small, dagger-like in appearance. Sleek with no visible windows, ports or propulsion, its hull dark. Sensors could only discern the ship's physical dimensions. It was certainly no more than 80 meters in length, smaller even than a Federation escort or corvette, flat and narrow besides. Aside from being right there as real as life, it may as well have been a mirage.
"Open a channel. First contact protocol is in..."
"Captain, we're being hailed. Audio only."
Hawthorne sighed at yet another interruption. "Very well," He replied, "Put it up."
"Comms are yours, Sir."
Captain Daniel Hawthorne straightened the neckline of his uniform out of habit, despite the non-visual nature of the connection. He would have been an imposing figure, tall and fit for his 50 apparent years, with graying hair and wise eyes, the picture of Starfleet competence and composure.
The comm channel came to life with a gruff voice masked in a layer of obvious distortion. Hawthorne was not familiar with the language, but the computers quickly gathered enough data to provide real-time translation. "You have something that belongs to us. You will beam it into space and you will leave. Refuse to comply and we will come get it ourselves. You have four minutes. There will not be a second warning."
"USS Heinlein to unknown vessel. We..."
The channel cut off abruptly, leaving the bridge crew to stare in stunned silence at the small, dark-hulled ship on the viewscreen in front of them.
Communications officer Lieutenant Nichols saw the Universal Translator was working normally, his attention drawn to the displayed language base. Seeing it made his eyes go wide, the revelation causing the young officer to forget his discipline in momentary panic. "Shit! Sir, that’s Hattoran!"
Hawthorne turned to the shocked comms officer with a glare, but his expression quickly eased. He certainly understood the stress and worry his bridge crew were under right now. There were plenty of unsettling rumors about the Hattoran, if this was indeed one of their vessels. "Calm down, Lieutenant. We'll get to the bottom of this." He had to keep an air of authority and control, even if his own mind was aswirl with new and unsettling possibilities, reviewing in his head what little information he had on the mysterious race.
Counting today, Starfleet had encountered the Hattoran all of five times in the last two hundred years. Only twice before were they spoken to. The first of these was the reason their language was in the Heinlein's databanks at all.
Through reports collected and compiled from all the races the Federation had friendly and unfriendly contact with, all they knew of the Hattoran was that they were an untrusting, secretive race, superficially similar to Karrians in that they were bipedal, scaled and draconic. They displayed markedly superior technology, and all encounters so far were before or after great catastrophes or to firmly warn a traveler away from a particular sector of space. The location of their home world was not known, but was believed to be somewhere in Delta Quadrant, and they did not seem to enforce political boundaries of any sort.
Hawthorne hoped this would not be one encounter of the calamitous variety. At any rate, the strange ship seemed far too small to pose a real threat, and they weren't detecting any energy surges. Worryingly, they weren't detecting much in the way of energy emissions at all.
"Scan that ship, Ensign. I want to know what I'm looking at. Nichols! Open a channel." the comm channel bleeped to life, still linked through the Captain's badge. Hawthorne glanced down at the chronometer. They had three minutes left in the ultimatum.
"Hattoran vessel, This is Daniel Hawthorne, Captain of the USS Heinlein. We have reason to believe this device has been involved in eavesdropping on secure Federation communications. Please explain your demands."
Ten seconds crawled by, feeling like fifty to the captain. Was it an empty threat? Perhaps not, if the reports and speculation were true. A ship that small... No, he couldn't underestimate it. His crew came first.
"We owe you nothing." The reply came through, sudden, louder and sharp. "This is not a negotiation. Return the device immediately."
Hawthorne gritted his teeth. They destroyed Starfleet property, in Federation space, replaced it with a device clearly meant for espionage, and were now demanding its return? He scarcely believed what he was hearing. Did they even know that it was a potential act of war against the Federation?
"Please reconsider. Meet with us, and we can find an arrangement satisfactory to..."
"Signal lost, Captain."
On the main screen, the small dagger-ship's attitude changed dramatically. It pivoted sharply in place, red lights flaring along its knife-like edges. Two minutes. Were the Hattorans looking to make a show of their vessel's capabilities now?
"Hattoran vessel is coming about, Captain. Still no power surges detect... Wait! She's firing!"
Hawthorne clutched tightly at the railing. A blind, drunken Klingon couldn't miss at this range. "All hands, brace for impact! Full power to shields and..."
The Heinlein was suddenly rocked by the impact of a dozen brilliant blasts from the small vessel in a third as many seconds, and the lights suddenly went dark. Backup lighting took over in just a few seconds as terminals and displays flickered to life, leaving the bridge crew scrambling to bring control systems back online.
"Damage report!" Hawthorne barked, getting more annoyed by the moment. Reports came in quickly from around the ship. Phaser banks down. Power relays damaged. Main propulsion disabled. Worrisome fluctuations in the warp core. A dozen injuries, amazingly no one was killed. Unimaginably intense beams had burned straight through the Heinlein's shields as if they were as insubstantial as smoke.
In the confusion and brief sensor blackout, an important detail had been missed. The main screen was showing empty space. A sinking feeling growing in his stomach, Hawthorne narrowed his eyes accusingly at the empty display.
"Ensign, find that ship!" Accentuating his order with a slam of his fist against the rail, it struck at the very moment the ship jumped and lurched, the sickening sound of tearing, groaning metal echoing through the structure. Captain Hawthorne was thrown to the floor, caught off-guard.
"Hull breach on levels seven, eight and nine! We've been rammed!" Shoulder throbbing, Hawthorne dragged himself back to his feet, locking eyes with his second in command.
Further words weren't necessary.
"Aye Captain. All available security to decks eight and nine! Marine squad, meet me at Science Lab Three."
Commander Layton was tough and smart, always eager to go 'hands on' with any problem, and Hawthorne considered him command material if he could moderate his gung-ho attitude just a bit. He preferred to lead from the front, and right now that attitude was just what he needed. Hawthorne was willing to play nice, work it out and negotiate a settlement that would benefit both Starfleet and the Hattoran, but these aliens seemed bound and determined to force a conflict. If they wanted one, they would get it. Hawthorne refocused himself on managing damage control and getting his ship up and running again as soon as possible, knowing he could trust Layton to take care of the rest.
The deck-9 corridors were still hazed with smoke, the air purifiers working furiously to clear it. Within the smoke, two dark figures moved with smooth precision. Bounding cover, scooting from edge to edge.
Wearing sensor-masking suits, they were covered head to toe in a layered, dull gray material. An unremarkable 1.6 meters tall, tapered snouts, digitigrade legs, thick, long tails and bat-like wings, tucked tightly to their backs.
Checking a wrist-mounted display, one gestured to the other, thumbed back towards a bulkhead. Without pause, an energy lance was ignited, brilliant blade kicking up fiery sparks as it cut through with ease, the pair stepping through the smoking hole, moving on quickly.
"Barricades over there! I want clear fields of fire down these two corridors."
Commander Layton directed the preparations like the seasoned tactical officer he was, stepping back a moment to tap his comm badge. "Layton to security. Report."
The chief's feminine voice came in distorted, crackly. The damned Hattoran ship, whatever it was emitting, it was interfering with communications and completely suppressing portable and security shields. "No contact yet, sir, it's a damned mess up here! We followed them through a hole they burned in the floor to deck 11. They're staying one step ahead of us! We can only track them by what they break."
Layton sighed in frustration. They were unable to create choke points without the use of bulkhead shields, and sporadic computer reports of deck breaches showed that whoever it was, they were on the move, and fast, directly towards deck twelve's science labs. He was determined to be ready. "Affirmative Chief. Keep up the pressure. When they run into us we'll catch them from both sides."
The two alien figures were now past the need for hand gestures, In sync now that they were fully involved in their task, their movements so coordinated, they flowed as if one entity with two bodies. They were directly above the surrounded Lab three. The slightly shorter figure tapped its wrist display, looked up, and shook its head. The taller broke silence suddenly, with a gasp in native Hattoran. <"What do you mean they MOVED it? Shit! I know Shrike's sensors don't work well buried guts-deep in a starship, but how hard can it be?">
The other shrugged, and pointed down, as the taller sighed in exasperation. <"I know it's a stealth-probe, smartass!"> A sigh, and they both activated shining blades, cutting through the deck in a shower of sparks.
Commander Layton was keeping busy organizing the defense, when a specialist's tricorder gave a shrill signal. "Sir, high energy discharge directly above Lab three!"
Layton's brows furrowed in a scowl as he considered the actions of the invading aliens. "So, the direct approach. Marines! Displace for containment!" He hadn't expected the move, but he had planned for its possibility, the gray-suited Federation Marines quickly shifted from their defensive positions to aggressively covering the science lab, which was quickly filled with sparks and stinging, thick smoke from burning duranium. A flash of movement, then nothing. Phaser rifles set on maximum stun wavered, their scopes showing nothing useful through the hot smoke.
"Who do I have to choke to find out where our probe is?" The sound came from inside the lab, in amplified, un-accented if disturbingly informal Standard.
Layton's blood boiled. Of all the arrogant... no, he took a deep breath and re-centered himself. He had a job to do, and couldn't let himself get angry over juvenile taunting. "You have committed an unprovoked attack and boarded a Starfleet vessel. You will stand down and surrender immediately or we will open fire!"
A pause.. five seconds. The same voice from inside, flip and dismissive. "Never mind, we found it!"
Layton had moved the probe across the hallway to Lab two, putting himself and his marines between the Hattorans and their goal, and Chief Haller with her security detail would hit the lab from the other side any minute now. Commander Layton allowed himself a smug smirk. With all the stories, he had thought these aliens would be a little harder to trick. Though something definitely sounded, well, strange about them.
"Just surrender and we can all talk this out like civilized bei... COVER!!" Layton yelled as a pair of small marble-like spheres flew towards their line, detonating on contact with the bulkhead behind.
Stun grenades, releasing a wide-angle pulse that wasn't enough to force unconsciousness, but could deliver a splitting headache at ten meters. Reeling from sudden attack, the Marines were unable to counter the sudden, aggressive rush of the Hattoran pair.
Blinking hard to clear his vision and the ringing in his head, Layton saw a marine flung past his shoulder and eight meters down the corridor behind. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Everything that is except the two aliens. His knees felt weak, his heart racing like he was a freshly graduated ensign in his first fight, and not the seasoned senior officer he was. Was this part of their attack too? Some psychic component? It was having an effect on the marines too.
Inaccurate, panicked phaser fire was countered with rapid blasts from forearm-mounted weapons, their fire invisible but for the violence and sparks of the impacts blowing fist-sized craters in the bulkheads and keeping the marines from returning accurate shots. A round energy shield sprung up from one of the aliens' forearms, screening phaser fire while the other leapt the distance to Lab two's door, sending the pair of marines there sprawling.
Layton's gaze dropped to a hand phaser at his feet. He didn't remember dropping it when the stunners went off. He quickly knelt, grasping the weapon and bringing it up in one smooth motion towards the further alien, who was pinning his marines with a withering volley of fire from both forearm blasters while it sidestepped towards the door.
Depressing the thumb stud, Layton's phaser beam lanced out, striking the alien right between its wings. He didn't get to see the result, as he was instantly lifted up off his feet, and slammed roughly to the battered door of Science Lab two, the wind knocked out of him.
He was held there seemingly without effort by a gloved hand around his throat, connected to a being more than two heads shorter than himself. A voice rough and angry, growling. "What're you, some kind of damned hero?"
Layton stared into the green lenses of his assailant's null-suit. It wasn't even breathing hard, after neutralizing half his marines by hand. Then in an amplified voice, it spoke over its shoulder to the remaining marines. "Drop your weapons now and I won't spread your commander's insides over three hallways! We're here for just one thing!"
The sounds of battle paused abruptly. Layton chanced a glance over, and saw that the second alien who he had shot had been momentarily knocked over, but was not otherwise any worse off from the full power stun blast, having already recovered with weapons pointed at any Starfleet marines who still appeared capable of resistance.
Back on the bridge, things were not going well. Whatever energy field the Hattoran ship was using, it was playing hell with comms and slowing coordination of damage control teams. The starboard nacelle was going to be a loss from uncontrolled plasma leakage, and the warp core was looking unhealthier by the minute. Even worse, the damage from the impact had warped the superstructure, and the core ejection mechanisms were solidly jammed. Captain Hawthorne had to prepare for the worst.
"Nichols, broadcast a wide-frequency distress signal." He tapped his comm badge, hoping to get through the sporadic interference. "Engineering! Give me some good news."
"No can do, sir." Came the reply, amid a maddening warble of background noise and distortion.
"She's had it, reaction is steadily going out of control, can't bypass the cooling, can't eject the core! I hate to say it Captain, but I can give you four minutes tops. After that the matter-antimatter reaction cascades and we're all expanding gases."
Hawthorne brought his fist down, which just aggravated his injured shoulder, making him wince. He paused to gather his breath, a lump forming in his throat. "You've done all you can, Mike. Get your people out of there and to the lifeboats. Don't make me have to tell your family you died a hero, you understand me?"
There was a slight pause, then, "I understand. I'm sorry Daniel. Engineering out."
"All hands. Abandon ship. All hands. Abandon ship."
Warning klaxons sounded throughout the stricken cruiser as the Captain made the announcement.
"Well, shit." Came the voice of the alien, holding Commander Layton pinned to the door. "Must be your lucky day." The suited alien let him go with a shrug. Toe to toe, its snout barely came up past his chest.
After a moment, the alien's mask and hood melted back. Some sort of nanotech memory material, revealing a maned, horned head, mobile ears, a grey mane, cropped up off the shoulder and a youthful-looking, draconic face under dark scales that shimmered with a green-purple iridescence, with slitted, bright green eyes.
The Hattoran dragon sported a lopsided, toothy smirk. Her ship, Shrike, had done an excellent job manipulating their stricken target's warp core to mimic the symptoms of an inevitable containment failure. "G'wan, Hero. Don't go disobeying your Captain." It really couldn't be easier.
Shaking and a little nauseous from the after-effects of adrenaline, those stun grenades, and his sound defeat by these two aliens, the veteran commander kept his anger to himself as he stumbled off to gather his marines and get everyone to the lifepods. To his surprise, not one body was left on the pockmarked, smoking deck. Marines were battered, injured, some were unconscious or certainly needed medical attention, but all were able to make it out either on foot or carried, and most importantly, breathing. Why were these aggressive, arrogant aliens showing restraint? He didn't have time to ponder on it, there were more pressing needs now.
<"OH, your back is numb. Want me to kiss it and make it better?"> the unmasked Hattoran quipped at the other. They certainly didn't need sensor transparency anymore. The other turned and gave a withering stare back through its mask.
Arashi laid her bare forehead against the 20 cm thick transparaluminum separating her from the probe. <"You know we almost got it? Godsdammit. I hate losing."> Layton had pulled one final trick, he had initiated emergency lockdown on Science Lab two, sealing it off securely enough that it would take the two Hattorans considerable time to get through it from here. Time they now had no more of.
<"Let's go, Fuyu, I've had enough of this. We just needed to destroy it anyway, and it's not going anywhere."> She tapped her wrist display with a clawtip, and her expression changed from almost boredom to shock as their ship, Shrike, displayed what it had been trying to communicate to them while the pair was distracted with fighting. The warp core failure wasn't a carefully planned ruse. It really was about to go critical.
<"Lifepod! Now! Run!!"> Scrambling, she grabbed her brother roughly by the shoulder and bolted with him down the corridor, cursing up a storm the whole way.
Shrike's AI had been monitoring the situation the whole time, and had come to one unerring conclusion.
It was well and truly jammed up within the USS Heinlein's innards.
It could have freed itself with a few well-placed particle blasts, but it was not authorized to take sapient life when acting autonomously, and regardless, its two charges were still inside.
As it monitored the secure beacon of two Hattoran null-suits entering one of the escape pods, the last remaining life-signs on the stricken Starfleet vessel, new, overriding orders came through on a priority channel that the ship wasn't even aware of the existence of until just now. Orders which it had no choice but to execute.
Running. Running then an unceremonious pile into a lifepod. Clunk. A sickening crunch and a lurch of acceleration accompanied its blasting free from the hull.
Arashi looked back at the Heinlein as it seemed to fall away on the pod's small display. <"Hey, the damage doesn't look so bad from out here. Well now Shrike can blast itself free and pick us up and we can finally go...">
A searing explosion suddenly washed out the viewscreen, and it wasn't a warp core containment failure. A sharply defined sphere a kilometer wide briefly flared like a miniature sun before going dark nearly as quick.
Shrike's self destruct insured that there was absolutely nothing left of the espionage probe or of either vessel save heat and rapidly fading light, the massive explosion rocking the tiny lifepod and sending it into a tumble, warning bells going off everywhere.
<"What a piece of shit!"> Arashi continued to curse vehemently as the two held on for dear life while the pod slowly self-stabilized, its main thrusters ruined by the wavefront's impact.
Deactivating his own mask which caused his long white mane to tumble free, Fuyu sighed and glanced up at his sister, sending her a concise mental image. She growled in annoyance. <"Don't start that karma crap with me again, I swear.."> The Hattoran girl was on a slow boil, anger burning through the pain of losing the ship and AI that had been their guardian, teacher, trainer and friend for as long as she could remember. And for what reason? Even a starship warp core breach would have just shunted off Shrike's phase shields, not concentrated enough a blast to pierce through. Just what happened out there?
She softened after a moment, looking to her only clutch-sibling, white scales and blue eyes clearly denoting his leucistic albinism. Incredibly rare, they said. A side-effect of triumphs and sins millennia past. Well-developed telepathy, instead of the mundanely low-grade stuff common to most Hattoran, at the cost of both color and voice.
<"How are we going to get out of this one?"> Arashi mused, while her brother silently suggested a few very inappropriate things, making her snicker and, at least for a moment, forget their unfavorable situation. They never noticed the ping on the lifepod's meager and damaged sensors as a Federation heavy cruiser dropped out of warp. They did notice its wide-band broadcast, lingering radiation from the explosion causing the words to crackle and pop.
"This is the Starfleet Cruiser USS Relentless. Please stand by. Recovery operations are underway."