Star Trek: Nullabor

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Page 13

Walker emerged from the holodeck in a calmer state of mind. This was not due to the program itself, although it had kept the Captain entertained. Walker found that the program had distracted him sufficiently to allow his mind some breathing space. As he solved the puzzles laid out for him, he was assembling the problems in his head with a similar pace.

It wasn't that he was finding answers, rather that he could assemble the problems and prioritize them. It was something that he realised he had done so many times before as a First Officer, it was simply a matter of keeping himself occupied. Commanders and lower ranks had their hands full. So did Captains of course, but not in the same way. By putting himself in the thick of things, albeit a set of contrived puzzles, he found himself reverting to the thought processes he had used in the past. Being a Captain was good for him, but he would have to do something about being so reliant on others. Walker knew he had a long way to go before being a trusting man.

He knew he had a good crew however. He had no intention of watching over their shoulders, he used to hate it when he was stationed under a CO who did that. Dammit he thought, why can't those bastards just strike and get it over with? That was what really ate at him, once combat was joined h would be fine. The waiting was so much more difficult now that it was his responsibility to protect his ship and crew.

When he thought back, the best Captains under whom he had served were the same. They all took the responsibility a little too seriously. It was better than the reverse, a cavalier CO was far more likely to get you killed. Walker found himself with a greater appreciation for the command officers who had shown this trait, he had never realised just how difficult it could be to live with.

He stepped from the holodeck into a quiet corridor. The noise that had been emanating from Engineering had not reasserted itself, in fact the ship seemed much quieter than he could ever remember it. He decided to do some exploring. It would be good to keep his staff on their toes anyway, but he really wanted to know what they were working on.

Dr Eritt greeted him professionally as he entered the sick bay. He noted that all but one of her patients had now left sick bay, all treated as it turned out. He asked to see the records and Dr Eritt provided them immediately. They were all in order and filed according to Starfleet regulations. Walker was impressed by how thorough the records were. In some cases there was so much medical detail that Walker found himself browsing, not really taking the information in.

The remaining patient was one of the scientists who had been seriously injured during the attack on the outpost. He was regaining health rapidly now, Dr Eritt assured her Captain that the man would make a full recovery. A short conversation soon revealed that the scientist was eager to join his colleagues, it was a promising sign for the ship if the others were as eager as this one.

Walker decided to stop at the science lab next. It was time to see how Glir was handling the little chat they had shared earlier. Dr Eritt had turned out to be a pleasant surprise although it had been sheer luck which had brought her past Glir's path in the first place. She was a good doctor and he would miss her when she left the ship at DS2. Maybe something could be done about that, he thought to himself. He had told himself when she first proved to be a valuable member of his team that he could take no part in the hearings covering her asylum request, but that had been many patients ago. He began to wonder just what action he could take as he entered the science lab.

Glir had dropped the pretence altogether now. He wore his blue uniform but Walker noticed immediately the two pips on the neck. He could hardly be expected not to considering his cover was blown. Right now his rank would help him more than his abilities and Walker knew it. As he walked in, Glir had been directing a couple of scientists through a task he needed completed for the team in the hold. Gone completely was every trace of the clerk. This man was a leader, a hunter.

Glir looked over as the doors slid back and smiled. "Captain, I was heading up to see you soon myself. We have come up with some ideas that might interest you." He tossed a padd at Walker, who caught it and started looking over the text displayed.

Seconds later, one of Walker's eyebrows raised involuntarily. There were some incredible ideas on this padd, most of which he doubted could work in a practical environment. "It's impressive, Glir, but just how much of this is pipe dream?"

Glir was in the middle of barking a fresh string of orders at the people wearing scientific corps uniforms. He turned back to the Captain as he finished. "You might be surprised, Captain. I'll admit that there are entries in that list that have seen no practical tests as yet, and it might be that some of this will never work. Still, the majority has been tested already on the outpost. Some of it is as simple as installing the components."

Walker shrugged. "Maybe, but how will it all work together? What we need here is a big bang, not a thousand firecrackers. If we can't knock out a fleet, I don't think we have anything. Interceptors and modified probes won't get us out of this, and the weapons we have installed on the Nullabor are not going to make a dent either. This is good, but we will need better."

Walker was confused as he saw the Lieutenant smile. He thought he had just given the Science Officer a dressing down, not a compliment. Glir spoke once more. "Captain, I think I have just the thing. Step this way, I'll show you something I was working on prior to being assigned to this mission. It's still a drawing board project at the moment, but we can run some trials within hours if necessary. What do you really know about cloaking, Captain?"

===

Voraak found himself marshalling the efforts of the scientists working in the hold. As a systems engineer he was required to handle the interfacing of their equipment and the ship. He had handled more challenging assignments in the past, but as a Vulcan it made no difference what the assignment was - it was an honour to serve.

Voraak had always found scientists intriguing. For a group who prided themselves on their ability to employ logic to solve their problems and accept peer review, they always seemed so egotistical to the Vulcan. It wasn't so much that they were arrogant or anything like that, it was just that they always spoke to outsiders as if they were incapable of understanding their life's study. On observing others, he realised that in the vast majority of cases this was a valid assumption. He had often toyed with the idea that it was emotion creeping into his consciousness which made him view scientists in the light he did, but he had always dismissed this idea out of hand.

He found himself dismissing it once more after he had asked about a power relay to a module lying near the scientists' main computer core. "Of course it is correct, Commander. I checked it over personally."

The outposter's response did not encourage Voraak. "Dr, I merely wish to point out that the power relay connection appears to be reversed. If you engage the unit in it's current state you will vaporize most of it before you can feed a single set of simulated data into it."

The outposter smiled. "Thanks for your concern, Cmdr but I think we can handle it." He turned to one of his colleagues. "Okay, fire it up."

The colleague engaged the power feed to the unit. Voraak had moved away as he was doing it and escaped without a scratch. So did the others, but it gave them an awful fright. The scientist to whom Voraak had spoken had been closest to the unit and he had literally leapt in the low-G environment to the top of the industrial replicator as the top half of the module disappeared in small plasma explosion.

The fire suppression system did it's job efficiently. As soon as the plasma ball erupted, a containment field was engaged around the flame and the oxygen was beamed out of the field's area. Ten seconds after the power was engaged, the lower half of the module was a smoking corpse on the floor of the hold.

The scientist was standing there staring at it when he got down off the replicator. He glanced over at Voraak who was staring back blandly. The scientist realised that he was fortunate that the operations officer was a Vulcan, otherwise he would be laughing his head off right now.

Voraak walked over to the young scientist, it was time to get things sorted out. "I appreciate that you are an expert in your field, Dr, but I am an expert in this ship. Can I suggest that we work together from here on? I think you will find that I have a reasonable scientific knowledge and superior knowledge of the systems on this ship."

The outposter nodded. The suggestion made sense. If they were going to get anything done, they would have to work together. Voraak walked over to the replicator's console and hit some keys. The transporter pad materialised a new module. "Can I suggest we start again?"

===

Walker was interrupted mid-sentence by an alarm sounding on the Chief Engineer's console. Botha turned to it, examined the report, and killed the alarm, turning back to his Captain.

"What the hell was that?" Walker didn't like unexplained alarms, especially in Engineering.

"Just a fire alert in the hold, Captain. Voraak has sounded the all clear in there, no damage. They are conducting some rather volatile experiments and they are taking all the necessary precautions, but I still have the monitor turned on in there, just in case."

Walker shrugged. It sounded sensible, but it also heightened his curiosity about what they were doing. He knew better than to interrupt them, the time remaining was limited enough as it was. Still there was a nagging feeling within him that someone should have been reporting to him. He was the Captain after all. He was quickly brought back to the present by a request from Botha to continue. "Oh. Yes of course. As I was saying, Glir seems to think that there is a high chance that both he and Voraak's team will have some new tricks ready for deployment by the time that we reach DS2, but this time we won't be able to stop like we have before to do the refits. Do you think you will be able to find a way to handle this at high warp?"

"We have no choice, Captain. We'll find a way for you. My chief concern right now is being able to maintain this speed over the coming days and still have the ship at battle readiness when we find ourselves in the middle of a fight on arrival."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that one as well." Walker looked concerned and Botha realised that he knew more about Engineering issues than he let on. One of the primary problems facing an engineering crew on a starship was dealing with the fact that warp fields were quite harsh on the ship and it's equipment. Wear was inevitable at the speeds and distances they travelled, and that left the ship in a weakened state. If you found yourself in combat after a week's hard travel, you were in a much worse position than the ship which had been there two days earlier. Botha was pleased he had a Captain who understood this, but it didn't make the problem go away for either of them. Walker turned to his Chief Engineer. "Come up after your shift is complete. We'll have a drink and talk it through. There may be something obvious that we're missing."

Botha doubted it, but he appreciated the gesture. He knew full well that his Captain was not hopeful of such an easy resolution, it was all a pretext to get Botha to take a break and think it through with a clear mind on his next shift. It was an invitation he would have been sure to take up if he hadn't already planned an evening with the doctor. A thought struck him and he asked his Captain on impulse "Do you mind if I bring Luci along?"

"Not if you don't mind Alexis being there."

The two of them looked at each other, their secrets shared but unspoken. Botha knew he could come to like this man, not just as a Captain but as a friend. He smiled as he nodded his assent.

Walker smiled back. "Good. See you then." His face darkened slightly as he moved onto the next topic. "Botha, I want to apologise to you by the way. My outburst in here earlier..."

"...Was entirely warranted." Botha cut in on his Captain. "You were right, you do have enough on your plate and that little fracas wasn't designed to inspire confidence in any of us. Everybody realised that when you walked out."

"So what happened?" The question had been eating at Walker since emerging from the holodeck. The change had been so extensive he was beginning to wonder if he was even on the same ship. "All the departments seem to be operating smoothly and work is going on the way it should have been. What changed?"

"Well, Captain. Your little talk set the crew in motion, and I guess you could say we just put our foot down with the scientists. A death sentence has a strong motivational force behind it, and we just took advantage of that to make them toe the line."

"Death sentence? What the hell did you tell them?"

Botha chuckled, but it didn't hide the discomfort he felt over saying any more. "It's not so much what we said to them as what we showed them that made the difference. While you were in the holodeck we failed them through the sick bay and showed them the crew members who had died. That struck home with them."

"That's sick, Botha." Walker was showing revulsion on his face.

Botha's face turned harder than granite in response. "It was also necessary, Captain. You should know better than anyone that we have to do whatever it takes to survive out here. That was the only way we could think of to bring the scientists to heel quickly so we did it. It will save their own lives as well as ours. I'm not proud of it, but I would do it again."

Botha was right. Walker had done some terrible things in his time as well, although never that personally. He realised that he had been seemed callous all along to most people, but he had hidden his actions behind the mask of equipment. It was much easier to tell yourself you have destroyed a Breen Warship than it was to tell yourself you have just taken three hundred Breen lives. The very thought shocked Walker for a moment, but then he realised that just like his Chief Engineer he would do it again. If the choice came down to kill or be killed, Walker would choose to kill every time.

He nodded to his Chief Engineer. "You did the right thing, Phillip. I guess I just wasn't prepared for it is all, but you definitely did the right thing and if there are problems over it, I will back you up on it."

Botha accepted the apology gracefully. "Thank you Captain. I should keep working here, see you after the knife class?"

Walker nodded. "That sounds fine."

===

The knife class had gone well, even some of the scientists from the outpost had joined in. Walker, Kelsey, Botha and Eritt were all talking about it over some bourbon in the Captain's quarters afterwards. There was a social air to the occasion, chatting and laughing to be heard inside the room. There was some soft music playing and everyone in the room seemed relaxed.

"Captain, I have to thank you for this evening." Botha had changed the subject. "I haven't had a rest for a while, and I think it will do us all good."

Walker nodded. "You're right, Phillip. I just wish we could give the whole crew a break. We're going to need them rested soon enough."

Botha chuckled and Alexis added "We're going to need more than that, what we need is some sort of miracle technology that can even the odds we will be staring down at DS2."

Dr Eritt spoke up next. "Dealing with the first issue, we still have the remote padds that Lt Cmdr Voraak built. I don't know about the other stations, but the medical padd is quite comprehensive. I could be anywhere on the ship and if something was going wrong, I could tell you what it was in an instant. If the other padds are as complete then we could possibly drop the alert manning to normal levels with an officer to have the padd on him or her at all times. Let's face it, if they were able to make a move against us in Warp they would have by now."

Walker thought about it for a moment. The idea made perfect sense. Why wind up the crew until they were really needed? He could step down the alert now that they were well underway and no-one would think it an indecisive move, it made sense when starting a pursuit to be at alert in case the pursuers had ways of sowing them. It was clear now that they didn't, and Dr Eritt was right about one thing. His Operations Officer had indeed done a good job with the padds. It would be better to get the ship back into a normal swing now, so the crew had time to prepare for what was coming. "Agreed. I will stand down the alert as soon as we are finished for the night. Normal knife classes, normal dinners, and hopefully a confident and rested crew."

There was an air of relief among those present after the Captain had announced his decision. Walker noticed it immediately. It struck him that even after such a short time together his crew had formed an idea of what constituted normal for them. Even he had been affected by this, thinking about normal knife classes and dinners. It was as if they had spent years together aboard this ship, not weeks. The feeling was one that was welcome, a good ship and a fine crew was all he had ever wanted in Starfleet, now that he had it he knew he would be unwilling to give it up at the end of this mission. He had to find a way to keep his team together.

Botha had been deep in thought during his reverie. "You know Captain, I think..."

Walker laughed. "Phillip, we're all off duty and there are no crewmen around, I think you can call me Thomas under the circumstances."

Phillip Botha smiled at his Captain, then shrugged. "Thomas it is then. anyway, I was thinking about the second issue we have mentioned, namely the technology. We have surprised our pursuers several times so far, I think they might just be ready for us to do anything now. We are losing the element of surprise."

Walker nodded. "I have to say I agree, but we can be sure that they will escalate the fight as a result, I think if we have the chance we should do the same, just to give us a chance of succeeding."

Botha shrugged again. "Maybe, but I for one don't think we have many more rabbits to pull from the hat. It worries me, Thomas. I think we have played all our cards."

"Come on Phillip, I've spoken to you about that before. You have to have a little more faith in yourself. I know that you can do anything you wish in this universe, I just wish you could see that yourself."

Walker stared at Lucifrelle, astounded. He was ready to encourage his Chief Engineer, and here was the doctor chastising him for showing weakness. His would have been a more positive approach, but Lucifrelle's matched his personality more. He decided to wait for Botha's response before entering the fray. He found himself thinking that Dr Eritt might have been the best thing to happen to the man.

Botha brooded for a moment. "That's all well and good, Luci. I just don't have any more ideas. We've already advanced Starfleet technology by more than twenty years in this one brief trip, I'm not sure I can see past that into what else we are capable of."

Dr Eritt did not seem impressed. "So you're not sure, Phillip. Well I am. I know for a fact that we can beat these bastards, and that you still have ideas left. Don't keep putting your ideas or yourself down, Phillip. You have so much to give."

Phillip Botha looked very uncomfortable. He was not used to being spoken to like this in front of other people, that much was sure. This was the point where Walker knew he had to decide. He could either step in now and protect his officer from this onslaught, or hold back and see if Lucifrelle could push past the barriers he had set up. Either way was dangerous and Walker did not like the idea of getting it wrong. Botha was too good an officer to lose because of emotional turmoil.

In the end the time he had taken to think about the correct course of action forced him to hold back. Just before Walker had made up his mind he saw Botha's resolve harden and he knew that his Chief Engineer would make it through the exchange. He turned on Dr Eritt. "Luci, what I have are dreams. There are no practical means to apply my ideas at the moment, if we try them we will end up destroying the ship in the process. It's not like we have a margin for error here, we're talking about solid engineering constraints."

Walker spoke softly, knowing that all Botha required was the gentlest of nudges. "Phillip, this ship will be destroyed when we drop out of warp if we don't come up with some fresh ideas. As your Captain I will tell you that I have no problem with high risk solutions right now."

"It's not that simple Thomas. Even if we can get the ideas into a prototype phase in time without destroying the ship, there is the possibility that they could backfire when deployed, and badly. We're talking about multiple black holes within the space of a single solar system, subspace rifts, anything could happen. Anything."

Walker was intrigued. He hadn't pegged Botha for a theorist. One of the reasons he was on the ship was that his practical nature was so strong. That was the crux of the problem of course, Botha did not trust his own theories. Still if he was on to something they could always run it past Glir or Voraak. He was no slouch himself in certain areas. "What the hell do you have, Phillip?" Walker couldn't keep the awe from his own voice. The thought of something that could cause such problems as a side effect was incredible. It was also exactly what they needed right now.

In response Botha walked over to the terminal and called up a secret file that was keyed to his voice only. He turned the terminal to face the room. "Have a look for yourself Captain."

Walker stood and walked to the terminal. The first few screens brought a smile to his face. Thirty seconds later he was chuckling softly. After several minutes he was laughing so hard he had to walk away from the screen for a moment. Botha had no idea if this was a good sign or a bad sign. He didn't know that the quiet smile on Alexis' lips was a reliable indication.

===

Walker sat in the centre chair on the bridge, content that his ship had returned to it's peculiar version of normality. The manning levels of the key sectors was back to it's usual levels, but every officer on the ship now carried the remote padd constantly. It was a compromise, but Dr Eriit had been right. The enemy ships were following, nothing more.

The other thing that Walker thought contributed to normalcy on the ship was the fact that both Glir and Botha were working together on a special project with about half the scientists. Voraak was also working on some of the more mainstream work in conjunction with running operations, but both he and Alexis were taking some of the load for that department. Everything Walker had wanted to achieve personally had been done on this trip, there were no more pet projects he could bring to fruition. Alexis just wanted to command ships, and had been very good about taking the strain while he was engaged earlier, but it was now his turn to be a Starship Captain. The chair he belonged in was the one in which he was sitting. Still, he could not even conceive of the Nullabor being devoid of research and engineering projects anymore, and having a significant proportion of the crew busy on them made the ship feel more like home.

What had amazed him the night before was how close theory and practice could get to each other under pressure. Botha was on his crew because he was the most practical engineer Walker had ever met. The fact that he had helped build the ship was only part of the reason he had asked him along. Over the weeks that they had served together Walker had built up an image of the man in his mind which had been shattered when he had reviewed the ideas Botha had brought up on the screen. Walker had seriously underestimated the man.

Walker knew that his regard for his Chief Engineer should not preclude the idea of him having a brilliant understanding of the principles behind the mechanics he worked with every day, but he had never suspected that Botha would be capable of manipulating those principles in the subtle ways of the theorists. Botha hated the theorists, and Walker had thought that it was because they were not conversant in the more practical aspects of designing technology. Now he suspected it was because he knew more than them in their own field. The ideas the man had put together were simply incredible. He had only ever seen equations that subtle once before, and it had been earlier the same day.

That was the one part of the situation that Walker could not take as coincidence alone. Glir had shown him some preliminary work on cloaking theory that would make a brilliant delivery system. Then Botha brings him a payload. The true irony was that the systems they were devising were based on similar engineering principles. They even had equations that were identical across both pieces of work. If Walker was a school teacher, he would have suspected cheating. They were really just climbing opposite faces of the same mountain.

To their credit, both men had realised that as soon as he put them together. as soon as he had recovered from his laugher he dragged Botha with him to Glir's quarters and had both sets of plans and ideas on the terminals for them to peruse. They were an odd pair, one a career theorist in field technologies, the other a Starship Engineer hardened by the realities of space travel. Despite that, they had between them formulated complementary ideas that could be united into a single theory with some obvious applications for their present predicament. Walker had watched the pair stare at each other incredulously for a moment before getting to work. Walker had left then, sure that the project would be complete by the time they needed it.

The odds of this happening were so low that Walker didn't buy the coincidence story. He trusted them both (more or less) and in any case had faith in their sense of ethics to the point where he knew that neither had stolen the work off the other. There were still some unanswered questions, though. Who else knew that these men had these theories locked away? Why was Glir put on board with them, and who gave the order? The more Walker thought about it, the more pieces started falling out to play with. Did Sai's design have any bearing on his assignment? Was this more than a simple but dangerous courier mission? The ship was becoming more of a mobile research lab and Walker could not escape the thought that it may have been by design. It would go a long way to explaining the coincidences, including all the raw material in the hold and the authorisation to use it.

It smelt like a conspiracy to Walker, but a conspiracy to do what? The same question came up time and time again, but it always came down to the one point - there was no reason why they should be in this mess. Starfleet Command could have sent a Starship with the cargo, it would have been much safer and a couple of Defiant class escorts would have meant that the cargo would have been guaranteed a safe delivery. It would have been obvious to anyone observing, but secrecy would only be a consideration in a wartime manoeuvre. These were not Romulans they were fighting, but a crime syndicate. Walker knew that transporting the cargo openly but with a strong escort would have sent a clearer message than sneaking around the way he had been ordered to.

"You are always missing that one piece when you play with that puzzle. Why not leave it alone? You have always wanted to be a Captain, enjoy it now that you have it." Alexis' advice entered his mind as it usually did now. She was right, but that didn't appease him. He didn't like being played with. "But you don't mind being played with by me, do you?"

Walker had to grin at that. He conceded to his First Officer and lover. He had what he had always wanted, now it was time to savour it. If the chasers had anything to do with it, he wouldn't get many more opportunities. But what to do? Everything was under control, there were no emergencies or crises that needed his personal attention. What could he possibly do to celebrate his command?

"You are already doing it, Thomas. Just sit in the centre chair for a while, it's where you belong." Walker knew that this was the answer. The reason it was just hitting him that he had achieved his goal was that he was always insisting on being in the middle of the action. It was time to sit back and do the job he had been assigned, leaving the research to the people he trusted, while they left the command decisions to him.

There would be enough to keep him occupied, and he would still conduct the blade classes. The days would pass, and when he was most needed he would be ready. He knew that if there was a point where he would need to be at his peak, it would be on arrival at DS2. What they would find there was the true unknown quantity, but the ship would be as ready as it could be. He started formulating a schedule in his mind, it was important that the ship was made ready enroute, but as far as engine performance was concerned there was not much that could be done. The weapons and shielding systems could be optimised however, and then there was always the loading of the new weapons they were designing...

An hour later the extra shifts were announced, with full work assignments. No-one complained, it was necessary and they knew it. Morning meetings of the senior staff were organised, at which there would be daily progress reports. It was time for the Captain to take charge, and there were a few hidden smiles among the officers as the changes were announced. Botha commented to Lucifrelle in private that night that his Captain had finally made the transition from one of the officers to the commanding officer. Lucifrelle mentioned that it suited him.

===

The days passed quickly as they neared DS2. There was so much that needed doing, and everyone on board was kept so busy that it was difficult to notice the days drift by. They were three hours out when the short range scanners picked up the armada ahead of them.

"There are at least thirty ships, most of them under cloak Captain. They have DS2 surrounded, but the station is intact. It would appear to be some kind of siege, but they are also in contact with the ships behind us. We have detected a large number of coded signals between the two fleets." Voraak was on the bridge once more, his project assignments now complete. He delivered the news in his usual dispassionate voice.

Walker thought for a moment before responding. "How many ships behind us now?"

Voraak checked the scanners for several seconds before providing the answer. "Eighteen, Sir."

Forty-Eight ships. Most of them Warbirds. It should have been a massacre, not only for the Nullabor, but for DS2 as well. Where did the Orion Syndicate get such a large stash of Romulan technology? Walker could not imagine even the Romulans dealing with the Syndicate for that much military hardware. Walker now knew for sure that there was another factor which he had not counted on - The Syndicate was now an industrial power.

It all fit. They would trade something with the Romulans for a two ships, a Warbird and a Scout. They would set up an industrial shipyard somewhere out of the way, and started replicating the designs. The problem was they didn't have their own academies, and their mercenaries were not experienced Starship combat veterans. This whole enterprise represented a new shift within the Syndicate, and Walker doubted they had the expertise required to pull it off on the scale they were reaching for.

Walker turned calmly to face his Operations Officer. "The turret modules installed okay?" Voraak nodded. It hadn't been easy, but they had rigged the two flanking access hatches so that there were full phaser and torpedo launching capability within the airlock, rigged to remote consoles which could roll bar the weapons arrays via a simple rolling mount. Two chiefs had been trained to operate the special targeting and firing systems, but the end result had not been tested. Still, it gave them flanking fire, something he was sure the ships they would battle were not expecting.

Walker tapped his commbadge. "Walker to Botha, how are the final adjustments going?"

"Fine, Sir. They will be complete within the hour. Lieutenant Glir also tells me that the special torpedoes are ready for use at your command."

"Excellent." Walker stood and surveyed his bridge. Sai sat at the helm, a quiet and confident pilot. Voraak sat at Ops, ready to unleash the most formidable and exotic array of weapons ever to grace a starship. To his side sat the woman he loved, his First Officer. He could feel her itching for a chance to lead the away team into the fray in one of the interceptors they had built along the way. They were ready. All that was left was for the battle to be joined.

"Sir, we are receiving a coded signal from DS2." Voraak delivered the news dispassionately as usual.

"On screen." The forward viewer shimmered as the streaking stars dissolved and the features of Admiral Parker appeared in their place.

"Captain Walker, my Comms technicians will not be able to hold this link open for long, we are being jammed so I need you to listen. We are under siege by some cartel using Romulan technology. The Sixth Fleet is on the way in, and we have defences enough to hold out if they start firing before the fleet gets here. What we can't do is defend your ship. You are effectively on your own and without weapons you will be slaughtered. We can't get a clear fix on numbers, but there is at least fifteen ships orbiting us. You are ordered to get the hell out of here and save your ship and crew while you can. We will make the stand here, there is nothing on your ship that we really need, you were a decoy and you have served your purpose. Lay in a course for the incoming fleet, the coordinates have been sent with the message. Don't try and be a hero, Walker. Parker out."

The screen resolved the star field once more as the message ended. Walker looked around once more and found himself staring back at three expectant faces. He was gad that his bridge was so small and only a handful of people on the ship could have heard the message. Still, he was now faced with a dilemma. Admiral Dekker had sent him out knowing that the Romulans had nothing to do with the incursions. They had been bait, and had performed in that role very well. They had distracted the enemy sufficiently to allow a full fleet to be brought to bear against the bulk of the new Syndicate forces. Now he was being ordered to let the whole mission drop. He had been played just like he always expected, but he was now faced with a dilemma.

Walker was an officer who was used to bending the rules, but he never actually broke them. He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve his mission objectives, only they had now changed. Instead of delivering his cargo to DS2, he was to tuck tail and run. it went against every instinct he had within himself. Still, he was a Starfleet Officer and he prided himself on that. Whichever way he went now would be a compromise, the trick was to find the one which was the least repulsive to him.

"Captain, your orders?" Alexis spoke the question gently. She could feel the turmoil within him but she also knew that right now the crew needed decisiveness. She softly thought a sentence in that part of her mind she knew he could hear. "This above all: to thine ownself be true."

Shakespeare. Walker smiled, his decision made. Alexis was right, if he was being lied to from the start he could trust nothing. It was time to play his way. He turned to Sai. "Hold course steady, Mr Sai. We're going to engage the enemy."

Sai smiled as he turned to the console in front of him once more. "Aye Sir." The acknowledgement was quiet and confident. Walker could not help but see how much the young man had grown during this mission.

"It's not just him, Thomas. It's all of us, especially you." Walker no longer doubted that. He simply hoped that they would all survive long enough to let it show beyond the hull of the Nullabor.

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