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Captain
Join Date: Jul 2012
Posts: 579
# 20 Homecoming
07-02-2013, 11:01 AM
Personal log: Tylha Shohl, officer commanding, Task Group Hipparchus

T minus 336 hours

"It's an antique." Admiral Semok's tone is... definitely disparaging.

"It's a design classic," I say. "Sir," I remember to add.

Semok takes another slow look around the bridge of the IGV Spirits of Earth. The portly Vulcan looks rather out of place on the cramped bridge of the Andorian Charal-class escort. "It is not quite what I had envisaged, when I contemplated the next generation of Starfleet warships," he says.

"Learn from the past, sir." I hand him the PADD with the ship's specs. "We've incorporated the latest fruits of the Romulan Republic technology exchange... and I think we've learned lessons from other sources, too. The Charal's design is - compact, highly efficient, specialized for combat -"

"There seems to be an error in your figures." Semok frowns as he studies the PADD.

"Where?" He points. "No, sir, I don't see any typographical errors there."

Semok's eyes widen as this sinks in. He's looking at the readouts for structural integrity... and they're telling him that this fragile-looking Andorian antique has a durability that compares very favourably with a Federation dreadnought. "Fascinating," he says. "I will confess, then, to being somewhat impressed."

"Thank you, sir."

"Further study is, of course, required. In this context, there are some matters I wish to discuss with you. We are both agreed, I think, that actual combat experience is the best way to gather this data?"

"I'm more than ready to take Spirits of Earth into combat, sir."

"I do not doubt that." Semok looks around. "I am unfamiliar with the deck plan. Would you accompany me to the transporter room, Vice Admiral?"

"Of course, sir."

Semok still seems out of place as we walk down the corridors of the ship. "I have arranged for an addition to your crew complement," he says. "I believe this new officer will prove of value - and, in some sense, it is an experimental assignment."

"Experimental?"

We are at the transporter room. One thing about the Charal, it is a lot easier to navigate inside than the King Estmere. Semok goes to the console, keys a communications frequency, and says, "Ready to energize."

"Confirmed," says a musical female voice. Semok operates the controls. A column of blue light shimmers on the pad, dims, resolving into -

The being on the transporter pad looks, at first glance, like a human female: but only at first glance. At the second, I notice the eyes, blank and silvery-grey, and the cheeks, where transparent panels in the human-seeming skin show the circuitry beneath. The android steps off the transporter pad.

"Vice Admiral Shohl," it - she - says. "I am...." She pauses in apparently human confusion. "My serial number is HSM-0012471 XM-981," she says, "but, for social purposes, my name is Amiga."

The android is wearing science division uniform, with a commander's rank pips. I come to a quick decision, to take this... being... at its own estimation. "Welcome aboard, Commander Amiga," I say.

"Thank you, sir." The android's lips move in a mathematically exact smile.

"I believe," Semok says, "that Commander Amiga will prove a valuable additional asset in a... forthcoming project." The admiral has a PADD of his own in his hand, now. "There is a military operation being proposed for the very near future," he says, handing me the PADD. "We considered that you might wish to be involved."

I look down at the device, my gaze racing over the text. From the first glance, it doesn't take me long to read it. And when I've read it, I say just one word.

"Yes."

---

T minus 273 hours

The stolid, handsome blue face on the screen breaks into an unaccustomed smile. "Vice Admiral, good to see you."

"Captain Izini. How's life on Starbase 193?"

My former chief engineer smiles wider. "Quiet. They keep me occupied, of course, but it's quiet. Not that that's a bad thing."

"Oh, come on, Shrin, you know you long for the good old days."

Shrin Izini gives me a quizzical look. "Being chief engineer on the Sita - well, it wasn't quiet, that's for damn sure. I'm not sure my idea of good old days involves quite so much shooting, though."

"Think you could still find your way about the Sita?"

"I know that old bucket inside and out. What's the problem, Tylha? Did you break your shiny Tholian carrier?"

"Not yet." I let my face turn serious. "I'm putting together a multi-ship task force, though, and I'll be taking the Sita as well as King Estmere. Shrin... you know that ship, like you said. How would you feel about taking centre seat on her?"

Shrin's jaw drops at that. "On a combat mission?"

"You could do it, I know that."

Shrin blinks. "Combat command - even as a one-shot deal, it'd be...." Shrin is, of course, Andorian. Do we Andorians glamourize combat too much? Possibly... but I can tell that glamour has a hook in him now. "What's the deal, sir?"

So I tell him what the deal is, and where we're going. And, being Andorian, he understands that, too.

---

T minus 244 hours

The conference room on the Spirits of Earth looks like some sort of refugee convention. One way or another, a number of officers from outside the Federation have attached themselves to my crew. The statuesque Orion science officer, Kluthli, sits at one end of the table; next to her, and possibly the only person completely unaffected by her presence, is the Breen, Jek the Apostate, enigmatic in his environment suit. Then there are our friends and allies from the Romulan Republic - Temerix, with his Reman gargoyle face, and the taut, alert Romulan tac officer, Tallis, her dark eyes intent and watchful. Next to her, Three of Eight, our liberated Borg; next to him, the only other regular Starfleet officer besides myself, the Rigelian Dgy-coosh, his face mask-like and unreadable to me.

"The task group will be centred around the Spirits of Earth, and King Estmere with her fighter complement," I tell them. "However, in order to project more firepower, we will need flanking support from heavy cruisers... I've arranged for the USS Sita to join us already, and her armament is more or less consistent with that of the Bleak Midwinter." I look at Jek's metal mask. "Commander Jek seems the appropriate choice to fly a Chel Grett cruiser."

"Thot Jek, that has a good ring to it. Shame I can't have an all-Breen crew, and turn the heat settings down to something liveable," Jek remarks. "So, two battleships and two cruisers? The opposition science vessels will run rings round you." He shifts in his seat. "Will it be quicker to sell you out now, or should I wait till they're shooting at you?"

Breen humour. It gets old fast. "Commander Dgy-coosh will be supporting us in the Boar's Head," I say. Dgy-coosh looks faintly startled at that. Well, I know the Rigelian's record, he can handle the Mirror Universe science vessel as well as anybody and better than most. "Kluthli, Tallis, you'll be taking chief science and tactical slots on that ship... work with him. I've taken Boar's Head out myself on test flights, she's a fine ship."

"You should still have at least one more science vessel running support," says Jek. "Damned if I'm running a suicide mission for the Federation, and the opposition we'll be facing -"

"We'll have more support." I flourish a PADD at him. "Let's start by going over the mission parameters."

---

T minus 206 hours

The soft knock on the door of my ready room reminds me that I've lost track of time. "Come," I say.

The door hisses open, and Anthi Vihl steps in. "Sir," she says.

"Oh, come in, Anthi," I say. My antennae are wilting with fatigue. "Still working through the mission plans - we need to figure out a fallback if Klerupiru and Amiga can't hack it. As it were." Semok knew what he was doing, giving me the android; still, a lot of the plan rests on her and on the Ferengi computer expert.

"Sir," Anthi says, again. Normally so precise and professional, my exec seems worried and uncertain all of a sudden.

"What is it?"

"It's - about your assignments, sir." Anthi takes a deep breath. "Specifically, the commander of King Estmere for this operation."

I stare at her. "What's the problem?" It seems obvious to me; I run the task group from the Spirits of Earth, so my second in command takes King Estmere. Surely Anthi can't think she's not up to the job - ?

"I - I would prefer it, sir, if Dyssa D'jheph took battle command of King Estmere for this operation."

I blink in astonishment. "Dyssa?"

"She can handle it, sir. I think you know that as well as I do."

I'm still blinking. I must look an idiot; I force myself to stop. "But - Anthi, it's your natural place. Your - your right, almost. Why - ?"

"My place, sir," says Anthi, firmly, "is as your executive officer. At your side. You know I'm an expert in Andorian-style military equipment - the tac slot on Spirits of Earth is practically made for me."

"I was thinking Thires Entonav -"

"He's good, sir. He would be the natural choice, if I wasn't available."

I look at her, hard. "Anthi, don't you want a combat command?"

She grimaces. "I - yes, sir. More than almost anything." Her voice drops; her eyes are troubled. "But, sir... I know what this mission means to you. For this one... I think I need to be at your side."

I carry on looking at her. She's been my right arm ever since my first ship command... I have never known anyone more steadfast, more dependable. But I've also never known a better officer. She needs a command of her own, and soon.

But there is a naked appeal in her eyes, and I think to myself: soon, but maybe... not now.

"All right," I say. "Tell Dyssa she has centre seat on King Estmere."

Anthi relaxes, visibly. "Thank you, sir."

"Privately," I say, in my best official voice, "I think you're being a sentimental fool, Commander Vihl." And then, in my normal tones. "But... it'll be good to have you around."

---

T minus 197 hours

"Little Tylha!" The big Andorian chan smiles at me through his grizzled beard. "Come sit on your old uncle's knee."

"I'll pass, Uncle Kophil," I say. I look around his office. "How's the Academy treating you?"

Kophil Phohr laughs heartily. "Fine as ever! I just love correcting cadets' homework. What are you up to, girl?"

Technically, I outrank the old war-horse by several pay grades now. My zhen-mother's brother has never let things like that worry him - which is one reason, I guess, why a tactical commander of his brilliance is riding a desk at Starfleet Academy.

"I'm here on business. And I didn't come alone. Commander Amiga?" The android steps into the office as I raise my voice. "Commander Amiga, this is Commander Kophil Phohr... who happens to be my uncle."

Kophil's measuring gaze sweeps up and down her. "My, my," he says, "aren't they making these entertainment devices fancy these days?"

"I am fully functional in all respects," says Amiga. "I will not demonstrate this functionality... a male of your advanced age would likely not survive the encounter."

Kophil laughs uproariously at that. "Oh, she'll do, she'll do," he says, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Then, those eyes narrow at me. "She'll do for whatever it is you've got planned, little Tylha." I'm taller than him, too, but I will always be little Tylha to him, just as I was in those old days, when the occasional visits from my Starfleet uncle brought a welcome glimpse of adventure and exoticism into my life.

"You're one of the few people we've got," I say, "who're fully checked out on Wells-class science vessels."

"Oh, yes," says Kophil. "Nice ships. Nice ships.... Of course, from four centuries in the future, they damn well ought to be. Don't tell me they've given you one of those to play with?"

"The USS Indra," I say. "Unfortunately, it's not exactly playtime. Think you could take her?"

"Think I could?" Kophil exclaims. "Damn right I could!"

"She's got to be ready," I say, "for a combined op, as part of a task force, in a little over a week. The time scale is impossible, and the odds are horrendous." I grin at him, the scarred side of my face aching. "And when I tell you where we're going, Uncle, you'll say yes."

"Will I, now?" Kophil's eyes are narrower, now, and serious. "Where are we going, then, little Tylha?"

"Gimel Vessaris."

And, just as I did, Kophil says, "Yes."

---

T minus 4 minutes

"Four minutes to firing range." Anthi's voice is level.

My ships - officially designated Task Group Hipparchus - have been trailing their coats around the fringes of the system for hours, now. The science vessels have been fuzzing sensor scans, letting little details leak through. Details like the sheer mass of Sita and King Estmere... the low temperature of the exhaust from Bleak Midwinter's Breen drive... the antique radiation profile of Spirits of Earth's engines....

All this, we hope, will add up in the Nausicaans' minds to this: a commercial convoy, gone off course, packed with big ships, slow, and weak. In short, easy prey. We have set ourselves up as bait, to draw the light pickets off the outer rim of the system.

And, judging from the red dots now filling my tactical display, we've done exactly that. Three groups of Syphon frigates, each with a destroyer escort in the lead, arrowing in, hard and fast, eager for the killing and looting that's the hallmark of the Nausicaan pirate empire.... Coming in too hard and too fast to turn back now.

"Come about," I order. "Prepare to engage." We are already at red alert, have been for some minutes now.

"The Nausicaans are tightly bunched," Anthi observes. "Sir, this might be an opportunity to -"

"Confirmed," I say. "Deploy wing cannon platforms." The free-flying satellite cannons add significantly to Spirits of Earth's already substantial firepower. "Target the centre group for wing cannon overload." Anthi has been positively itching to try that trick.

"Incoming transmission, skipper," says F'hon Tlaxx from the comms console.

"Audio only," I tell him. No point showing the Nausicaans an Andorian warship bridge.

A guttural voice sounds. "Convoy. You are trespassing in Nausicaan space. Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded."

"Say again, please," I say, trying to keep an anticipatory tremor out of my voice.

"No stalling," the voice snarls. "Cut your engines."

"Really," I remark, "I should give you an opportunity to surrender. Would you like to do that?"

"No stalling!" the voice repeats. "No tricks!"

The tac console lights up green; they are within range. "Anthi," I say, "show them a trick."

The whole spaceframe of the Charal escort shudders as the cannons fire. A phenomenon from the earliest Andorian experiments with phaser weapons: fired in concert, the cannon pulses set up a resonance which affects just about everything in a wide area... including sensors. The tac display whites out in a blare of visual noise.

When it clears, two of the Nausicaan frigates are gone, nothing but smears of glowing vapour in space. A third is a burning, useless hulk; their destroyer companion, though, is still active, still a threat. After that barrage, the cannons are in power cycle, unavailable for a few seconds - so, all Spirits of Earth has left is the Romulan plasma array, the rear-mounted turrets, and the hyper-plasma torpedoes.

It's more than enough. The plasma beam burns through the destroyer's tattered shields and tears one warp engine to shreds, and then the torpedoes kick it skittering through space like an empty tin can, spitting out burning debris and escape pods as it tumbles. My attention goes to the rest of the map.

King Estmere met one group with a scatter volley from her forward disruptor cannons, punishing them hard... but the carrier's main weapons are her Scorpion fighters, streaking out of the launch bays now, spitting green-hot murder from their plasma weapons. The Boar's Head is supporting the carrier, some piece of info-warfare witchcraft paralysing a Nausicaan destroyer while the science vessel's own polarized disruptors rake across its hull. King Estmere's plasma torps are on rapid fire, balls of green lightning screaming towards the fleeing Syphon frigates. In short, Dyssa has everything well in hand.

The third Nausicaan group is doing, if anything, even worse. The frigates closed in at first on Bleak Midwinter, and then the survivors fled - directly into a phased-tet barrage from Sita. The elegant, leaf-like shape of the Indra circles the fray, picking off Nausicaans neatly with her exotic beam weapons. The last destroyer escort is swinging around -

"Sir!" Addie van Benn calls out from the science console. "The Nausicaan is trying to get behind the Sita!"

Anthi and I spare a moment to exchange grins. Of course, Addie wasn't with us on the old Sita....

The Nausicaan gets into position, ready to unleash his weapons on Sita's weaker aft quadrant... and a torpedo streaks out from Sita's aft launcher towards him, just as the mine, deployed from the cruiser a minute or two before, wakes to life and darts towards the Nausicaan from the other side.

Suddenly caught between the blast fronts of two terrific explosions, the destroyer hangs, burning and battered, while Sita's aft beam arrays finish the job.

"Nice to see old Shrin still remembers how to make a tricobalt sandwich," F'hon Tlaxx remarks cheerfully.

"Neatly done," I say. "Indra, Boar's Head, do you read any stragglers? Scan for cloaked ships in the vicinity."

"Scans negative," Dgy-coosh reports.

"We concur." Kophil's voice is crisp. "What we saw is what we got."

And we got them all - if there are more picket ships, they are way out on the other side of the system, and play no part in my strategic calculations. "Signal Task Group Aristotle. Phase one complete; moving in-system for phase two."

Semok's larger task group is logistic support; they will close in, pick up the Nausicaan survivors, follow us up as we move in.... We are the point of the spear; Semok's people are the shaft.

Task Group Hipparchus reforms, falling down the gravity well, towards the star I once called my sun.

---

T plus 5 hours

The planet, Gimel Vessaris, is close enough to show as a blue-white ball on the viewscreen. My hands are claws on the armrests of my command chair. I force myself to relax.

The tactical problem is... interesting. Having destroyed the outlying pickets, we need to move in and defeat the heavier ships in orbit around the planet. The problem is the defence grid. The Nausicaans have swathed the planet's low orbitals in automated weapons platforms, hundreds of them, semi-autonomous and self-replicating. We have to engage the enemy battleships, without getting into the effective envelope of that globe of firepower....

And, if I can believe the tac display, we can do it - just. We have dog-legged around the sun, coming in on a trajectory outside the plane of the ecliptic, hooking around the planet and the much larger sphere of death surrounding it... and now, the Nausicaan capital ships, riding in higher orbit, can't reach the safety of the defence grid without crossing our range of engagement. We can fight them.

Whether or not we can win, though, is another matter. Scans show three Talon battleships, three Guramba siege destroyers, two Scourge destroyers, and a massive Ravager dreadnought, with fighter groups scattered around them. The one thing in my favour is that they are spread out, slightly, in a high orbital - my guess is, resupplying from a shipyard built into one of Gimel Vessaris's three small asteroid moons.

"Skipper," says F'hon, "I'm getting a hail - Imperial civil administration frequency. I'm guessing it's the Nausicaan governor."

My lips thin. "All right. Let's talk. On screen."

The Nausicaan is thin-faced, red-eyed, gold decorations winking on his leather uniform, his hair worn in an extravagant bush. His fangs show as he glares at me. "I am Gvochkorr, military governor of this colony. You have committed an act of aggression in Nausicaan space," he says without preamble. "Withdraw your forces now, or face destruction. We will not permit Federation incursions on our territory."

I had a dignified answer prepared, but I forget it as sheer fury drives me to my feet. "Save it for J'mpok's propaganda broadcasts!" I snarl at the screen. "I was born on Gimel Vessaris! This is a Federation world - and today, we are taking it back!"

My blue eyes bore into his red ones, hatred burning between us brighter than a phaser beam. He cuts the channel. I sag back into my command chair.

"I'm guessing the diplomatic option's off the table, then," F'hon says.

"I don't think it was ever on," I mutter. "Anthi, time to engagement?"

"The lead ships will be in our weapons envelope in... two minutes," Anthi reports.

"Okay." I key inter-ship communications. "Sita, Bleak Midwinter, Indra and Boar's Head, engage and neutralize the Talons. King Estmere and I will keep the others off your backs - then, we regroup and go after the dreadnought." I say it airily, as if it's not a big deal.

It's... possible. I think.

Spirits of Earth and King Estmere go to flank speed, sweeping past the lumbering Nausicaan battleships. Behind us, space flares blue as the cruisers open up their phased-tet barrages. Cannon platforms fly out from my ship's wings; the fighters launch from Dyssa's bays. A wing of Stinger fighters closes to engage us. Some of them live long enough to flee.

The destroyers are in range, now, the Gurambas changing configuration -

Fire smashes into our shields. Status lights turn amber across my control panel - but the Romulan-made shields hold, none of the lights turn red, and the Charal is firing back, giving as good as she gets. I study the tac display, trying to hold the curving movements of my opponents in my mind. The Charal shudders as the cannons fire again -

One of the Gurambas has blundered; his course takes him at an angle that crosses both my and King Estmere's cannon range. Dyssa is already altering course to take advantage: I do the same. Cannon fire erupts from both ships; the Nausicaan's shields go down in an instant; his hull shatters. Not a mistake you get to learn from. King Estmere and Spirits of Earth yaw in opposite directions, away from the hulk, as his warp core goes up.

Space is full of Stinger fighters, but they're more a nuisance than a threat, just now; King Estmere has a plasma array mounted on her aft facing, and where that green lightning touches the Stingers, they burn. Some of them are trying to dogfight King Estmere's Scorpions; again, not a mistake you learn from. My aft turrets are yammering, constantly, swatting down the swarming fighters as they come in range. They are not the threat, though -

Sustained fire from the Scourge destroyers; our port shield is weakening. "Come about, hard!" I order, and the Charal moves in a tight turn, her cannons lashing out at the nearer destroyer. Plasma torpedoes spill out from our launcher, targeting the Nausicaan. Green flames bloom across the dark.

And green - something else, too. The second destroyer is moving in, spilling a sickly cloud of theta radiation. Too close, no chance to evade it. Spirits of Earth plunges into the glowing fog, and everything turns giddy, painful, nauseating. I can taste the foul stuff in the air with my antennae, feel it inside me, picking at the very cells of my body, trying to pry it and my ship apart.

Spirits of Earth fires, clean blue-white cannon bolts cutting through the Nausicaan murk.

The Scourge's shields hold for a moment, then flicker, then fail. Phaser bolts smash into the hull, metals and superdense ceramics boiling away into nothing beneath their onslaught; fires billow in the rush of escaping atmosphere. Our next volley cuts deeper, into the guts of the Nausicaan ship, exposing the warp core -

It blows.

Too close.

The blast front smashes into Spirits of Earth's forward shield, bringing it down, sweeping across the ship's hull with million-degree heat. The lights flicker, the artificial gravity wavers, making my stomach lurch. The Charal's spaceframe screams in protest. Damage lights sparkle on the consoles, and there are explosions and flames on the bridge as surges run through the EPS system. Something strikes my forehead, a fragment of an exploding console. "Damage control!" The tac display is a jumble of jagged lines, meaningless. There is a thin scream in the air, an atmosphere leak, somewhere on the ship. Blood is running down my forehead.

The ship steadies, the display clears.

The other Scourge is limping away, battered, engines damaged by our initial assault. Amazingly, the only weaponry we've lost is one cannon platform. No time to roll a replacement now; I send a volley after the fleeing destroyer with everything I've got. The Nausicaan blows up, this time at a safe range.

Somehow, Addie van Benn has got the forward shields back up, and engineering has restored some structural integrity. I make a mental note to write up the science officer and the Jolciot engineers for a commendation, if I get through this. "Support King Estmere!" I yell. "And someone dog down that damned air leak!" The scream in the air is bothering me.

King Estmere is tangling with the remaining Gurambas, all three ships trailing burning streamers of debris, the Scorpions buzzing around the Nausicaan ships, harrying them viciously. I swing Spirits of Earth around, and take the time, now, to launch that replacement cannon platform. The full force of our forward cannons smashes into one Guramba, stripping off its weapons spines, like a child pulling limbs off an insect; the battered hull tumbles away, impotent. That leaves us and King Estmere against one Guramba. That fight doesn't last long.

A few kilometres away, the battle between the cruisers and the Talon battleships... is finishing. One Talon is already gone, a second shatters in crossfire between Sita and Bleak Midwinter even as I watch, and the last one is lumbering, shields, weapons and engines cutting out as the two science vessels hit it with every special weapon they have. Something indescribable comes out of Indra, a dazzling point of light that hurts the eyes to look at it, and darts over to the Talon, which staggers and yaws wildly, air gouting from its wounded sides. A temporal instability device; I haven't seen one in action before. Then the two cruisers come up, and blue fire blazes from their phased-tet arrays, and the wounded battleship is a dead one.

"Get me a read on that dreadnought!"

The Ravager dreadnought has stayed clear of the action, and I don't know why. It is floating free, surrounded by a patchy cloud of trailing lights; the engines of the few surviving Stinger fighters. I look at it, and I feel more confident. My force is still - mostly - intact... and the six of us should be able to take the dreadnought, even if it's fresh -

"Skipper," says F'hon. "Incoming transmission -"

"Let's have it."

The Nausicaan face that appears on my viewscreen is wide-eyed, panicky. "This is the dreadnought Zlatchko! Federation forces, do not fire! We surrender! Do not fire!"

I snarl. Every part of me wants to blast this ship out of space - but one part of me is Starfleet, and that part's in charge. "Drop your shields, power down your weapons, eject your warp core!" I snap at the Nausicaan. "Offer no resistance to our boarding parties, or you will be destroyed!"

"We will comply! We will comply!" The link goes dead. An instant later, the ship's warp core drops out of its belly, and the Nausicaan dreadnought is no longer a threat, just an abstract metal sculpture hanging in space. "Must have had a systems problem we didn't know about," I muse.

"Or a backbone problem," suggests F'hon.

"Either way, lucky for us." I draw a deep breath of the smoke-filled air. That air leak is still whistling at me. "Signal Task Group Aristotle to send boarding parties as well as SAR crews," I say. "And let's take stock."

---

T plus 6 hours

The faces of my senior officers appear on the half-circle of screens on my console. "Status," I say.

"We're fine," Jek says in urbane tones. "Took a couple of hits during the fight, sure, but our damage control teams have everything locked down and straightened out. Want me to send them over to you?"

"Not necessary, thank you."

"You sure? It seemed to take ages for you to plug that air leak -"

"Not necessary. Thank you." I turn to Shrin Izini. "How's Sita?"

"Operational." Shrin's face is grave. "We took some penetrating strikes - there was a plasma fire in the torpedo bay which had me worried for a while - but we're not significantly damaged; all main systems are intact and fully powered."

"Same for King Estmere," Dyssa chips in. The carrier's gleaming hull is sadly scorched and marred, now, but I can see from my own readings that Dyssa's right, the damage is purely cosmetic. "Ready when you are, sir."

"Spirits of Earth is ready," I say. The smoke has almost cleared from the air of the bridge, even. "What about the science vessels?"

"Boar's Head sustained only light damage," Dgy-coosh reports. "The capital ships drew most of the enemies' attention away from us, of course."

"And they never laid a glove on us," Kophil cuts in from the Indra.

"Commander Phohr's handling of the exotic beam weapons was intriguing," Amiga's voice adds. "I have had to revise my estimates of their capabilities."

"That's experience at work, robo-girl," Kophil laughs. "You'll learn these tricks in time."

"I must study you carefully, then, and quickly, before your experience gives way to senility."

"Oh, she's good, Tylha, can we keep her? Or get one in blue?"

"I'll ask Admiral Semok," I say. "OK. we're operational - now, how does the defence grid look?"

Kophil's manner turns professional. "Our scans confirm the layout suggested by the long-range probes. The control station is in low orbit, beneath the grid... in optimum position about thirty minutes from now."

I nod. "Then we will be ready in thirty minutes. Signal Admiral Semok," I order F'hon, "Phase Three commencing on schedule."

---

T plus 6 hours 30 minutes

Six starships can't conquer a planet by siege. Gvochkorr knows this. With his space forces neutralized, all he has to do is sit tight while we chip away at his defence grid... and a larger Klingon force comes in to relieve him. He has the full resources of a class-M world, he can wait forever if need be.

So we're not going to chip at the defence grid.

Below the network of battle satellites, but circling above the planet itself, is the control station. The grid is semi-autonomous, but it must be monitored, serviced, held under control... and, of course, the station is a natural place to keep battle forces in reserve, ready to drop onto the planet and quash any mutinies or rebellions.

And, because the station is a nexus of military power... there is only one station. More than one, and the Nausicaans would risk division, a fragmented power base, commanders vying with each other for position in the hierarchy. That's the way the Nausicaans work - and it's a weakness.

One single station is a vital spot. And it's the one I'm aiming for.

"In position," Anthi reports.

"Fire," I order.

Phaser and disruptor cannons erupt into life, torpedos hurtle out of the launch tubes... and, from three of my ships, isometric charges shoot out, captured Klingon weapons that send devastating electromagnetic disruptions across space.

Beneath us, weapons platforms die in a flurry of fire. The autonomous systems compensate, neighbouring satellites replicating replacements to fill the gaps... but, such is the intensity of our assault, that for a few minutes, there is a gap in the grid, one big enough to fit my ships through.

Exploding satellites, and the hurtling lightnings of the isometric charges, combine to make a storm in space.

Task Group Hipparchus drops, through the eye of the storm.

---

T plus 12 hours

The Nausicaan station is an ugly conglomeration of modular parts, five kilometres at its longest point, nearly three at its widest.

There is room, in among all those modules, for all my ships to slide in... and, now, they are protected from the defence grid by the shadows of its own control centre. All we have to worry about is boarding actions by spacewalking Nausicaan marines... and there have been several attempts at those, so far unsuccessful.

Meanwhile... we have been busy.

The hangar bays of the station were laden with assault shuttles, meant for ground actions. King Estmere's Scorpion fighters swept in, turning those shuttles into a tangle of burning metal - and establishing the beachhead for our own boarding action. Now, our assault teams are fighting their way through the station, making for several precisely established targets.

I pace the bridge of the Spirits of Earth. The fighting aboard the station is savage; the Nausicaans outnumber my forces considerably, but it's a question of deployment and positioning; we have control of bulkheads and accessways that prevent the main mass of the enemy from getting to grips with us. If we can win control of the station's power and life support systems, it doesn't matter how many of them there are....

Or if we can reach another control room -

"Lolha's requesting more backup," Anthi reports. The Tellarite's assault teams are nearly at central control... but resistance, there, must be at its fiercest. I make a decision.

"Ready our remaining reserves," I order. I look towards Three of Eight. "I'll be doing this one. Three, you're with me. Bring that tactical weapons prosthesis we... found." The former Borg nods, minimally.

Anthi fails to repress a sigh. "Formally, sir, I object to your placing yourself in jeopardy like this."

"Duly noted."

Anthi sighs again. "Be careful, sir."

---

We move down the station's hallway line abreast. Three of Eight anchors one end of the line, plasma fire spitting from the captured prosthetic; I am at the other, a Romulan-made plasma minigun in my hands and the light of battle in my eyes.

Disruptor fire from the scattering Nausicaan resistance sears the air around me, stray bolts slamming into my personal shield; but that shield was designed for conditions on Nukara Prime, and it holds. The cryo immobilizer on the minigun was built for Nukara, too... when its cryonic beam combines with the intense heat of a plasma bolt, the temperature gradients have a spectacularly messy effect on Nausicaan flesh.

I stalk down the hallway, sending streams of death ahead of me, and I find myself gripped by the cold battle-lust that is the heritage of my species; the urge to destroy, to see my enemies fall before me and feel nothing more than the simple joy of killing....

We are barbarians, at heart.

And what I must look like - what we must look like, the disciplined Starfleet line of battle strung between two striding figures out of nightmare.... I can feel the rictus snarl on my face....

We reach the end of the hallway, and link up with Lolha's squad. I begin to feel the stiffness of the death-trance drain out of me. Disruptor fire scorches the air above me. "I don't suppose it's any good telling you you shouldn't be here?" Lolha asks in caustic tones.

"Not much." The snarl has frozen on my face.

"Well, don't get your fool head blown off on my watch," says Lolha. We crouch behind a barricade, and she calls up a PADD display of the situation. "They've had time to dig in here," she says, pointing. "Set up cover screens and some heavy disruptor turrets - we're hammering at their defences, they're hammering back, nobody's getting anywhere."

I study the map. "What's that there?" I ask.

"Viewport, behind the Nausicaans," Lolha grunts. "Been trying to get a space-side drone behind it, to get a look at their position."

"Never mind that." I think furiously for a moment, then open up the plasma minigun and start making adjustments. I turn up the collimation on the plasma generators to the maximum, then tune up the cryo immobilizer to maximum output and tight focus. I'm exceeding the design specs, but with luck it won't be for very long.... "I've got an idea," I say. "Pass the word: brace for decompression."

"Oh, sweet mercy, you can't be serious." Lolha looks at my face, sees I am, and passes the word.

I send a seeker drone out from beneath the barricade before I poke my head - and my gun - over it. The disruptors scream and yammer, bolts passing close enough to singe my hair. I sight the minigun and hold down the firing stud. It makes a harsh screaming noise.

Even transparent aluminium will shatter, if you subject it to the right stresses. And, fortunately, I know a lot about thermal stresses.

The Nausicaans used a poor grade of material; it shatters very satisfactorily.

The viewport explodes outwards. Even braced as I am, the impact of the torrent of air nearly knocks me off my feet. The Nausicaan troops, caught by surprise, are hurled outwards into space. The air rushes around me, howling and battering, pulling at me, deafening me with its bludgeoning noise -

Then the emergency force shield sparkles into life, and silence hits me as hard as the noise did.

There's a wet feeling on my face; I wipe the back of my hand across it, see rich cobalt-blue blood. The depressurization has given me a nosebleed... and I think the cut on my forehead has reopened, too.

"Don't do that again," Lolha moans.

I grin at her. "Make a note to patch that hole, later. Now, let's move."

---

T plus 14 hours

The technicians in the main control room fought and died with unexpected bravery. But they died.

"Pattern enhancers," I snap at Lolha.

I stand there, fretting, as the columns are set up. This is the point where we find out if the whole costly plan is going to work... and there is very little I can do, now.

Colourless light spills from the tips of the enhancers. "Energize," I order. I'm taking no chances with a random energy spike scrambling the rematerialization of my critical personnel.

Blue sparkles coalesce into two shapes; Klerupiru, tugging nervously at her collar, and Amiga, looking... inhumanly... imperturbable.

"Main control console is there," I say, pointing. "Three, help them if you can."

Three of Eight lumbers over to where the Ferengi data-warfare expert and the android are already starting to work.

They talk in a low, quick undercurrent of technicalities, one that rapidly reaches a level beyond my technical education. My hands clench on the stock of my gun, and I have to force them to relax. In many ways, this is the decisive battle of the whole campaign - and it's one where I can't fire a shot. I feel useless, helpless.

The orange-red holographic interface for the Nausicaans' computer flickers, steadies, flickers again. Klerupiru is talking about stack overflows, corrupt core dumps, recovery cycles, other stuff I can't follow. Amiga's hands are a blur, moving as fast as the control interface can handle her input. I don't know how they're doing, I can't distract them by asking. Minutes tick by.

The end is a complete anticlimax. Klerupiru simply turns towards me and says, "We did it."

"We have control?" I can scarcely believe it.

"We got it. Full root-level access."

"Uplinking to Spirits of Earth now," says Amiga smoothly. "We will download Starfleet data protection and encryption protocols - the Nausicaans will not be able to do to us what we have done to them." Almost as an afterthought, she adds, "We have full capabilities for orbital strikes against ground targets."

The feral grin comes back onto my face. "Get me a map," I say, "and get me a comms channel to Gvochkorr."

It takes them only a couple of minutes. The Nausicaan's face appears on a viewscreen, and I smile at him. He looks the same as he did last time we spoke. I am singed and bloodstained and, I realize, very, very tired. But I'm still smiling.

"Governor Gvochkorr? Are you at your gubernatorial residence? Then look out the window." And, as I say that, I hit the button.

He doesn't answer me, but he doesn't need to. I can see the reflected light in his red eyes; the reflection of one of the columns of dazzling light that have just lanced down from the sky to blast white-hot craters into the ground around his mansion.

"I have complete control of your satellite defence grid," I tell him, flatly. Nausicaans can't turn pale, their capillaries don't work that way. Gvochkorr clearly would if he could, though. "I can destroy your ground forces at will. And I will begin now, unless I receive your unconditional surrender. Right now."

The satellites have excellent ground imaging capability. I'm picking out targets already.

Gvochkorr finds his voice. "We have Federation personnel on the surface," he says, "workers in our mining camps -"

Trying to play the hostage card: any shred of respect I might have felt for him dies, right then. "We know. As the planetary administrator, you will be held accountable for their condition."

My eyes lock with his, again. I am giving him no choice. He knows it.

His grating, grudging, Nausicaan voice is music to my ears. "We... surrender."

---

T plus 22 hours

The formal surrender takes place outside the biggest of the labour camps. I have had time to catch a couple of hours sleep, to clean the blood off my face and change my uniform... I still look shabby compared to the Nausicaan's display of leathers and furs and medals. It doesn't matter. I won.

Samantha Beresford charges towards the camps, leading her medical teams, laden with medkits and food and who knows what else for the liberated prisoners. Elsewhere, disarmed Nausicaans are forming up into dejected columns, under the eyes and the phaser rifles of alert Starfleet security.

"What is to become of my people?" the former governor of Gimel Vessaris asks me.

"Those accused of abuses will stand trial under Federation law. As for the rest - repatriation via prisoner exchange, I suppose. I gather the current rate is five Nausicaan civilians for each UFP civilian, twenty Nausicaan warriors for each Starfleet officer." It never hurts to sow a little dissension, so I add, "Chancellor J'mpok doesn't appear to value your people highly."

The Nausicaan turns away with a suppressed snarl. I ignore him.

The labour camp is a dismal huddle of grey barracks and tents under a clear blue Gimel Vessaris sky. In fact, I'm not too worried about abuses of prisoners - even Nausicaans realize workers can only work if they're healthy, and the mines on this planet were meant to be productive. Still, Samantha and her medical teams will undoubtedly be needed....

Something catches my eye.

Somebody, somewhere in the camp, has found a Federation flag, and run it up a staff. Even more extraordinarily, someone has found an old Andorian flag, too, and its faded colours are fluttering in the breeze beneath the Federation one.

The breeze grows stronger, and there is a rumbling in the sky. A shadow falls over me, then is gone in an instant.

Spirits of Earth sweeps across the sky, making a low pass over the camp. Her sleek sides are still battered and scorched from the battle in space, but she moves swiftly and gracefully, her engines glowing as she streaks to the horizon.

And, from a thousand throats in the liberated prison camp, a cheer goes up, loud enough even to drown out the thunder of my ship's passage.

For a moment, my heart feels very full.

---

T plus 30 hours

"Sir?" Anthi's voice, behind me.

I turn around. She and Kophil are standing there, a short way away, in front of the pile of rubble that was once our colony's meeting hall. The years have not been kind to the remains of our settlement. "I didn't hear you beam in," I say.

She steps forward. "We thought you shouldn't be alone, sir," she says.

"I'm in no danger. The Nausicaan forces in this area have all been accounted for."

"Not quite what we meant, little Tylha," says Kophil.

I look around the ruined streets. "I'm fine," I say.

"Is this where -?" Anthi starts to ask.

"My fathers were at the trading post." I gesture towards a calcined pit, where whatever remains of them must still lie. "I'd gone over to the meeting hall to catch a video broadcast. The first pass from the Nausicaan destroyer wrecked most of the buildings...."

One minute, happy expectancy; the next, the night was a chaos of flames and screams and sick green disruptor light -

"When I picked myself up, I didn't realize what was happening. I saw one of the militia guards shooting at something, I couldn't see what. Then whatever it was shot back."

Bolts of green light streaking out of the dark, lifting him up, letting him drop back down with that terrible limpness only dead things have -

"I just stood there. Then I thought, whatever was happening, I couldn't just - I had to do something."

I couldn't die, at least, without a weapon in my hand.

"I went for his phaser. Stupid, really, I'd never handled one before, wasn't sure I could even get it to work. Never got a shot off, anyway. It was then that I saw my first Nausicaan. I don't think he saw me, he was just spraying fire at random."

A nightmare figure, all leather and fangs, weapon spitting flashes of sick light, and then the light drowned out everything, and turned into a black hell of pain and nothing -

"What was left of the militia rallied, managed a counterattack, held them long enough to get evacuation ships offplanet. I still don't know who found me and threw me on board one of those ships. I woke up two months later, in a hospital on Andoria."

I remember my left eye opening, seeing the white room about me, seeing my mothers by my bedside... knowing, even then, there could only be one reason why my fathers weren't there -

"So that was it," I say.

"You haven't talked about it before, sir," says Anthi in a small voice. "Not in that sort of detail, at least."

"It was never... appropriate." I look once more at the ruined streets. "It happened. I had all the standard post-trauma stress counselling, don't worry about that. It was all a long time ago, now...."

"This was the colony's administrative hub," says Anthi. "What about your family home, sir? Are you going back -?"

"It's gone." I shake my head ruefully. "We tried so hard to exploit resources sustainably! - The Nausicaans strip-mined that region. They left scars on this continent that won't heal in a millennium. If ever." Some scars don't heal.

"How do you feel, Tylha?" It's Kophil who asks. Anthi looks vaguely worried.

I look around, past the ruins, at the grey whale-backed mountains shining in the pale light of afternoon sun. I was born in this gravity field, grew up breathing this air... oh, it feels familiar. But it doesn't feel right any more.

"It was all a long time ago," I say. "Before the war officially started - the Federation Council made stern protests, I'll give them that, but -" I shrug.

"How do you feel?" Kophil repeats.

I raise my eyes to meet his gaze. "I'm... all right. I suppose I don't feel as much as I should... but I'm all right. I cried all my tears a long time ago," I add, in a voice so soft only another Andorian could hear it.

This place... was home. It isn't, any more. It hasn't been for a long, long time. How long, I hadn't realized, until now.

"Anyway," I say, "we've accomplished something, haven't we?"

Kophil nods. "Admiral Semok told me to tell you," says Anthi, "that a couple of hostiles showed up in the system. A squadron of frigates escorting a pirated T'lonian convoy, and a Klingon carrier looking to put into dry dock to fix a nacelle problem." She smiles, briefly. "Task Group Aristotle arranged appropriate receptions for both."

There will be a few more of those, before the word spreads. "Well," I say, "it's all a victory, isn't it?"

I breathe in. I have to get back to the ship, really; to fill out the after-action reports, to go over the cost - in materiel, in Federation lives - of this victory. But it is a victory... and we can build on it, towards the next one, and the next.

I take one last breath of Gimel Vessaris air. "Let's get back to the ship." I touch my combadge. "Shohl to Spirits of Earth. Three to beam up."

The transporter sparkles in the air around me, and the ruins dissolve into light as the beam engulfs me.

Taking me home.