The Price
by John R. Plunkett


"Anything of note on this sweep, Mr. ne Veda?" Lieutenant Commander Darkstar inquired in a mild, almost jocular tone. One corner of hir mouth quirked up slightly, as if shi were smiling.

"Yes sir," Lieutenant Kelanway ne Veda promptly responded. "There's space out there," he reported in the tones of one revealing a great secret. "Lots and lots of space."

Somewhere behind Darkstar someone snorted, in the manner of a repressed giggle. From the source of the sound Darkstar guessed it to be Lieutenant Isaac "Izzy" Venner, at the engieering station. Darkstar didn't look to see; hir gaze remained fixed on the back of Lieutenant K'vali, at the navigation console.

At the moment K'vali's back was stiff and straight. She didn't make a sound, nor the slightest motion, but nevertheless contrived to radiate indignation from the tips of her ears to the end of her tail, which lay in a relaxed position but hovered slightly above the floor. She did not approve of such jocularity in the control room. Moreover, she did not approve of Lt. Cmdr. Darkstar, whom she saw as bucking Captain Chi'bali's authority at every turn, with an aim to showing him up and ultimately assuming his position as Officer in Command of the Federation Star Ship Illustrious.

The corners of Darkstar's mouth turned up more, but no one seeing it would mistake the expression for a smile. It was more in the way a predator would bare its teeth just before the final strike. There was a certain amount of truth in K'vali's convictions; Darkstar really was bucking for promotion as hard as shi could. Shi wasn't doing it to make Chi'bali look bad; she liked him far too much for that. Though the truth perhaps wasn't so much better.

All officers wanted to be promoted; it was a mark of recognition and success. But for Darkstar it ran much deeper. Other officers had interests outside of Starfleet that diluted their ambitions to a greater or lesser degree. Families, at the very least. But since the accident Darkstar had none of that: no family, no home. Nothing but Starfleet, which had become hir family and her home. Shi was a lifer in every sense of the word: shi would continue serving until shi died, one way or another: in the line of duty or of old age. In the meantime shi bent every iota of hir being to hir career. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

"Excellent," Darkstar declared. "We can reassure command that it hasn't gone anywhre."

This time the control room crew chuckled openly, except for K'vali, who remained pointedly silent. One or two of the chuckles were merely polite; people laughing because their commanding officer had made a joke. Most were real enough, for all that the humor was pretty mild at best. The crew liked Darkstar, more than not.

Darkstar's expression morphed into an actual smile, but one that K'vali in particular would not have found at all reassuring.

************

K'vali understood none of that. Not the least because Darkstar had never told her, but also because she hadn't the perception to work it out on her own. Now Darkstar did smile, but it was not an expression K'vali would have found reassuring. K'vali knew none of Darkstar's secrets

************

"Sir, all scans are clear," Lieutenant Kelanway ne Veda reported. He lifted his face so his voice would carry but his eyes never left the sensor displays on his console.

"Very good." Lieutenant Commander Darkstar nodded, in acknowledgement both of the report and Kelanway's professionalism. On the colonial fringe myriad dangers awaited the unwary. "Steady as she goes, Mr. K'vali," Darkstar added after a short pause.

"Aye aye, sir," K'vali responded with only the merest hint of an edge in her voice. She ached to remind the commander that they were almost two minutes overdue for their next jump.

Darkstar resisted, with an effort, the urge to snap out a tart rejoinder. As if shi didn't know that shi was stretching hir discretion to the limit, risking a poor fitness report that might jeopardize hir entire career. Hir face tightened; shi clasped hir hands behind hir back so shi wouldn't clench them into fists.

Captain C'habali did not believe that a small gang of pirates flying an in-system attack ship retrofitted with warp drive would ever dare to attack a Federation cruiser. Starfleet Command felt the same way; that's why they'd ordered the Federation Star Ship Illustrious to patrol the area in a very open, forthright manner. Her mission was to show the flag; to be seen on patrol, thus reassuring the traders and colonists that Starfleet had their interests at heart... and to scare away the pirates by the threat of her presence.

Darkstar gripped one arm of the command chair. Shi couldn't sit in it because it had been designed for humanoids so shi sat on the floor just to the right of it. Though it seemingly defied reason, shi was absolutely certain that the raider would attack. A thorough review of pirate activity in the sector led hir to conclude that this commander was both courageous and intelligent. He knew that neither he nor the illicit colony his depredations no doubt supported would long survive if the flow of booty were cut off. Which left him two basic choices: pack up the colony and move elsewhere... or force Illustrious to leave the area.

The safest alternative would be to leave. If the pirate leader cared anything about his people it was the only choice. Any other would expose them to unnecessary, and severe, danger. He would acknowledge the check mate and resign. Darkstar's eyes narrowed, hir ears laying back and hir lips drawing back from hir teeth. All of Starfleet, from the Admiral of the Fleet down to hir own captain, might think the pirates would flee but Darkstar knew that they'd attack, with an absolute certainty that could only be called religious. Yes, shi'd read all the reports and analyses. Shi even agreed with them: a quiet withdrawal was the only logical choice. Which, in hir opinion, only meant that Starfleet Command was completely missing the point. Shi looked at the reports and marvelled at the chutzpa of a person who'd plop an unlisted colony smack dab in the middle of a sector the Colonization Authority had slated for development. This person had to know that Starfleet would keep extra close watch on the area, precisely to stop this sort of thing. Yet here they were, stealing their livelihood from right under the lion's nose. Darkstar couldn't help wondering: would a person like that slip quietly away when the lion came sniffing after him?

"No," Darkstar said aloud, but so quietly no one else heard. Shi didn't believe for an instant that this pirate would fade out, any more than Darkstar would in his place. Even a snake in the grass could kill a lion, if it were lucky... and bold enough to make the attempt.

But the attempt had better come soon, or Darkstar would have some serious explaining to do. Which may or may not be survivable, from a career standpoint-

"Sir, we have an-" Lt. Kelanway began.

"Shields up!" Darkstar snapped. "Red alert!"

"-unmatched particle burst," Lt. Kelanway concluded, the rest of his report lost as the alert siren blared.

"General quarters, general quarters, all hands to general quarters," Lt. Henry Basingstoke said into the one-MC, the ships public address system. He spoke briskly but clearly, somehow managing to sound somewhat bored.

Darkstar tried to swallow but couldn't; hir throat was bone dry. Shi wasn't bored; she'd just stepped over the line. The unmatched burst only meant that a ship had changed the parameters of its hyper-space jump mid-course and was dropping out at some location other than what had been planned for at insertion. There were any number of entirely legitimate reasons for doing that; it didn't mean that the ship now de-folding in Illustrious' vicinity had to be a raider preparing to attack. If it wasn't, Darkstar's career had just ended.

"Sir, new contact Alpha two at-" Lt. Kelanway hesitated, unable to believe his own instruments. "Eight point six kilometers!"

Darkstar drew a breath. Everything was happening exactly as shi'd imagined it.

Darkstar's first emotion was intense relief: shi hadn't thrown hir career away after all. Better yet, Of course shi still had to survive the encounter, and what would inevitably come after. "Interceptors on maximum defense, launch all ready torpedoes," shi commanded briskly. At this range the engagement would be long over by the time Illustrious' power beam batteries came online.

The interceptors started firing almost at once as the raider launched four torpedoes. The small beams wouldn't hurt a star ship and inflict only moderate damage on a fighter, but there were enough of them and they cycled quickly enough to at least have a chance of shooting down an incoming warhead. They did so now, destroying two of the raider's torpedoes. The other two failed to track; they'd been launched without a target lock. Interceptors destroyed them while they hunted.

"Contact is inserting," Lt. Kelanway reported, more or less in his normal voice.

Darkstar nodded. Exactly as I would have done. A ship that size wouldn't have interceptors and electronic countermeasures wouldn't be any use this close in. They'd pinned their lives on the hope that they could emerge, attack, and insert before Illustrious could respond.

Just before the icons representing Illustrious' torpedoes merged with that representing the raider, it disappeared. Darkstar bit hir lip, wondering if they'd got away. Shi couldn't help feeling a surge of pride, though things would go hard on hir-

"Sir, contact Alpha two destroyed," Lt. Kelanway said. "They randomized on insertion."

"Acknowledged." Darkstar nodded; shi'd half expected something like this. Whatever cobbled together drive the raider had installed in his ship wasn't up to the strain they'd placed on it. Performing an immediate insertion after a crash de-fold would blow even the best built warp engines about forty percent of the time. Darkstar would have hesitated to try it even in a brand new strike fighter... but just like the raider captain, shi would have tried it if the situation demanded. "Scan for any more contacts. Lt. Basingstoke, notify the c-"

"No need," a voice cut in. Captain C'habali twitched his uniform tunic into place and strode onto the bridge. "Call Lt. Arroway to the bridge."

"Aye aye," Kelanway and Basingstoke responded, almost at the same time.

No one said a word until Lt. Arroway arrived. "Take the bridge," the captain informed him. "Commander Darkstar, you will proceed at once to my ready room and deliver your after-action report."

"Aye aye," Arroway and Darkstar said, also almost simultaneously. "Lt. Arroway has the conn," Darkstar said.

"I have the conn, aye," Arroway responded. He moved up and stood beside the command chair.

Captain C'habali nodded, then left the bridge. Darkstar followed. This would be the unpleasant part.


To Be Continued