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But powerful forces within the Klingon government are determined to keep the shameful secret of the hostages' existence, even if it means obliterating every last trace of the prisoners -- and anyone who comes to save them!
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Even as the order to raise shields left her mouth, Captain Gralev knew she'd given it too late. On the main bridge viewscreen of the USS Gagarin, the Klingon K'tinga-class battle cruiser had barely finished emerging from under cloak as her first pair of torpedoes spat forth.
The ship shuddered as the torpedoes tore into the Gagarin's hull. Gralev gripped the arms of her command chair as the bulkheads and floor plates protested the attack and artificial gravity wobbled momentarily.
"Break orbit, evasive starboard. Where are my shields?"
Commander Stephen Garrovick, the ship's first officer, said from behind her, "One torpedo impacted on the secondary hull. Engineering reports heavy damage to the shield generators and life-support. The second torpedo damaged the port nacelle." His eyes locked with hers. "Captain, we can't go to warp."
Gralev could see the Klingon ship veering away on the bridge's main viewscreen, a sliver of gleaming metal contrasting against the dark curtain of space. She knew only seconds remained until their attackers would be in position to launch another strike. With warp drive unavailable to them, her options were dwindling rapidly.
"Stand by weapons," she called out. "I want to smack him across the mouth this time." She glanced over her shoulder to the communications station. "Transmit a general distress call. We don't have a big enough stick to go up against them alone."
As her crew worked around her, Gralev ignored the alarm signals coming from nearly every station on the bridge. Her people knew their jobs, but it was up to her to provide the calm and control they would draw from to guide them through the next few minutes. Despite her anger at having been ambushed for reasons unknown, a display of her legendary Andorian ire wouldn't serve her crew too well just now.
At the forward tactical station, located just to the left of the main viewscreen, Lieutenant Commander Dorthan nodded in her direction. The Bolian, one of the first to graduate from the Academy, was also a proven tactical officer. He'd served previously on the Bozeman, his assignment there having ended only weeks before that vessel's mysterious disappearance near the Typhon Expanse the previous year. As a border patrol ship, the Bozeman had seen its fair share of scrapes, giving Dorthan plenty of opportunity to sharpen his skills. Gralev for one was grateful for his presence.
"And you told me survey duty was boring." His attempt at humor fell flat. "Where the hell did they come from?" It was a question Gralev was pondering herself.
One moment, the Gagarin had been orbiting Nuvidula IV, a barren and unexplored planet situated a mere three-hour cruise at warp two from the Klingon Neutral Zone. The region was only sporadically patrolled, but unmanned sensor probes of Nuvidula had detected trace amounts of dilithium near the planet's surface. It was the Gagarin's job to determine whether or not greater quantities of the valuable mineral were indigenous to the planet's makeup, thereby justifying the establishment of a mining operation as well as greater security. After all, one couldn't be too careful this close to Klingon space.
But the enemy cruiser's torpedoes had decimated the Gagarin's quiet, uneventful survey mission, and if Captain Gralev didn't take action her ship would soon suffer a similar fate.
The Klingons had been uncharacteristically quiet of late, without so much as hostile words exchanged over subspace. Monitoring stations along the Neutral Zone had reported only sporadic ship movement on the Klingon side of the border for months. Rumors had run rampant, theorizing everything from a virulent plague ravaging the Empire to an unknown alien race attacking them from the other side of Klingon space. Gralev, like many seasoned veterans, believed it to be something simpler. In all likelihood, the Klingons merely hadn't had a reason to be bothered with the Federation.
Dilithium was just as valuable to the Klingons as it was to the Federation. Unfortunately for the Empire, there were fewer planets rich in the ore within its borders than there were in the Federation. Inevitably the Klingons would have to branch out beyond their territory in search of additional resources. It made sense for them to target remote planets on the fringes of neighboring regions of space.
"They're coming around again," said Lieutenant Linda Parker from the helm, indicating the main viewer. She checked her small tactical display to confirm the Klingon ship's position relative to the Gagarin. "Port side forward."
Gralev studied the viewscreen where the Klingon ship had arced around in its flight path and was maneuvering for another pass. The viewer relayed every detail of the enemy ship's hull as it approached. Light glowed from various portholes, and Gralev briefly imagined she saw Klingons in some of those portals, all waiting in anticipation for the opportunity to storm aboard a Federation starship, lay waste to its crew, and plunder its contents.
For an odd instant, she wished that the sensor imaging systems weren't quite so refined.
At the communications console, Lieutenant Sinak turned in his seat. "Captain, we have received a response to our distress call. The Protector is the only vessel in any position to render assistance, but they are three hours away at maximum warp," the Vulcan said, maintaining his typical stoic expression.
Gralev grimaced at the news. She knew that her Oberth-class science vessel on its own stood no chance against the Klingons. In fact, Gralev had to wonder why they were still here as the enemy ship was capable of destroying them in a single attack run. Without warp drive, the Gagarin had no hope of outrunning their attacker, either.
Maybe she couldn't run, but she could still get her licks in before they took away her ability to fight back.
"Torpedoes locked," Dorthan called out from tactical.
"Fire!" Beneath her feet, Gralev felt the nearly imperceptible vibration in the deck plating as the torpedoes were fired.
Twin hellstorms of orange energy erupted from the Gagarin's forward torpedo launchers, followed almost immediately by a second pair. Everyone on the bridge watched as the first two torpedoes slammed into the Klingon cruiser's forward shields, energy clashing as irresistible force met immovable object.
As the third torpedo impacted, Gralev watched the defensive screens flicker, blinking while the Gagarin's fourth strike passed through the barrier and continued on until it found the cold metal of the cruiser's hull.
The rest of the bridge crew cheered when they saw the result of Dorthan's strike, though the Bolian himself didn't pause to admire his handiwork. His fingers were moving across his tactical console, already firing the ship's phasers and ordering up another spread of torpedoes.
"We're too close. Get me some room, Parker," Gralev ordered. On the screen, the Klingon ship was coming about, already recovering from whatever slight damage Dorthan's attack might have done. Then the stars shifted violently as the Gagarin clawed for maneuvering room, her hull plates groaning in objection to the abuse. The vessel simply wasn't constructed for combat. Compared to a battle cruiser, her vessel was a lethargic slug even when functioning at full efficiency.
Gralev saw the cruiser's forward torpedo launcher already glowing red as it prepared to fire in retaliation. Her eyes darted to the tactical status display on the helm console, realizing with horror that the upper section of the Gagarin's primary hull was facing the enemy. At this distance, the Klingons' next strike would be devastating.
"Stand by for impact!" Once again, Gralev knew it was too little too late.
Without shields to protect it, the Gagarin was vulnerable as another torpedo slammed into the saucer section. On the bridge, anyone without a secure handhold went flailing as the ship rocked under the assault. The overhead lighting flickered, monitor screens across the bridge blinked, alarms wailed; the noise on the compact bridge was deafening. The acrid smell of smoke assailed the captain's nostrils, followed almost as quickly by the odor of fire-suppressant chemicals as they were automatically discharged to fight console fires.
Sparks and shrapnel erupted from the helm console as it exploded. Gralev twisted her chair around and threw her arms up to protect her head, gritting her teeth at the sudden, intense pain of hot metal tearing through the material of her uniform and into her skin. She could hear other impacts across the side of her chair and even the bulkhead at the back of the bridge as debris from the explosion searched for unwitting targets.
Good God. Parker...
Ignoring her own wounds, Gralev vaulted from her chair to kneel over the form of the fallen helm officer, who had been thrown savagely to the deck by the explosion. Her fingers moved to find a pulse but she stopped them as she looked into Parker's open, unseeing eyes.
The captain felt her face flush with rage. Hadn't she been talking to Parker not fifteen minutes ago, discussing the lieutenant's upcoming wedding? The helm officer had been planning to take leave in the coming weeks in order to return to Earth for her marriage ceremony.
Gralev angrily forced the thoughts away. There wasn't time for this.
Garrovick had already jumped down into the command area and had taken over the helm, trying to coax cooperation out of the damaged console.
"I'm rerouting systems, but she's sluggish, Captain."
Gralev didn't have to hear his unspoken addition. They weren't going to be able to maneuver to defend themselves against the next attack. When the Klingons swung around again, the Gagarin would be dead in the water.
"Here they come!" Dorthan shouted over the wailing of the alarms. He jabbed the firing controls as the enemy ship grew larger on the main viewer yet again.
Another pair of torpedoes hurtled away from the Gagarin, impacting on the Klingon cruiser's shields as the enemy vessel fired. Gralev held on to her chair as her ship was pummeled once more.
"Warning," the ship's computer reported with its emotionless female voice. "Outer hull breach, deck seven, section eighteen."
Gralev pulled herself into her chair. "Have we hurt them at all?"
Dorthan shook his head in disgust. "Not enough." Suddenly he pounded his console with his fists. "Weapons control is offline!"
That's it, then.
Without weapons, without shields, without the ability to maneuver, the Gagarin had run out of time. The next attack from the Klingons would likely be the last.
"Captain," Sinak said from communications, "I am receiving an incoming hail from the Klingon ship. They are ordering us to surrender and prepare for boarding."
All eyes on the bridge turned to Gralev. She studied the haunted faces of her crew and wanted to say something, anything to comfort them. She wanted to reassure them that they would get out of this, that they would get home. But she knew it was a lie. So did they.
"They're after something." Only with effort was she able to keep her voice steady. "If they'd wanted us dead, we'd be vaporized by now." She considered the possibility that the Klingon ship commander was simply calling to gloat before he delivered the final killing blow.
The image of a Klingon officer replaced that of the enemy ship. Obviously the captain of the vessel, the Klingon was a large male, with dark skin and narrow eyes that Gralev immediately found menacing.
It took her a moment to realize that this was a variety of Klingon that she hadn't seen in quite some time. He, along with other Klingons she could make out on their bridge, didn't possess the high cranial ridges she'd seen with increasing frequency during the past several years. Instead of the long flowing hair and full beard she'd come to associate with Klingons, this captain kept his hair cut fairly short. A thin goatee and a long, drooping mustache surrounded a wicked smile, full of teeth reflecting the dim illumination offered by the ship's bridge lighting. It was the expression of one who knew he had his prey cornered, and Gralev wanted to plant the heel of her boot squarely in the middle of it.
"Federation ship, I am K'lavut, commanding the Imperial cruiser Vo'taq. Our scanners show that you are crippled. However, I must commend you on withstanding my attack better than I anticipated."
Gralev rose from her chair, glaring at the image of the Klingon commander. "This is Captain Gralev of the Starship Gagarin. Why have you attacked us in Federation space without provocation?"
The smile disappeared from the Klingon's face. "By the right granted to those with the power to conquer the weak, Andorian. You would be wise to hold your tongue and restrict your responses to simple acknowledgment of my orders. Stand down what remains of your pathetic defenses and prepare to receive my crew. If you do not comply, I will destroy you."
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.