Joseph Warren dropped to one knee, his grip on his phaser tight but relaxed, his aim steady. The first two Klingons were dropped by stun beams before they could so much as draw their disruptors. The other two, seated at their stations at the front of their bridge, leaped to their feat and drew their own weapons, roaring for their fallen comrades.
The two closed on Joseph quickly, forcing him into cover with disruptor fire, while they readied their curved daggers - called mek'leth - in their other hands. Joseph thanked fortune that they weren't carrying bat'leths. He'd be content in life if he never faced those.
One of the Klingons cursed as his disruptor overheated and let out plasma with a loud hiss. Joseph quickly ducked out from the support pillar he was hiding behind and fired his phaser straight into the warrior's face. The last Klingon rushed forward and drove his knife at Joseph, who rolled backward just before the blade was driven into his neck. The Klingon fired a disruptor shot that missed him by inches, giving Joseph the chance to drop him with one last stun beam.
Panting, he stood up and surveyed the four disabled Klingons with accomplishment.
"Computer, end program."
The bridge of a typical Klingon warbird dissolved around him, replaced by the grid walls of a Starfleet holodeck. Cadet Joseph Warren holstered his phaser and walked toward the main doors, where Captain Masc Taggart and Cadet Elisa Flores were waiting for him.
"Well done, Cadet Warren," said Masc Taggart, a Denobulan with dark red hair. "You're not going to break Miss Flores' record anytime soon, but your score was more than satisfactory."
Joseph afforded himself a quick glance to his right. Elisa Flores, a short woman with dyed red hair, smirked at him in pride.
"Thank you sir," he said, standing at attention. "May I ask what my assignment is?"
"You're to be my first officer for this training cruise," Taggart explained. "Regardless of your Engineering background, I'm sure you'll be up to the task. I trust there are no objections?"
"No sir," said Joseph. "I won't let you down, Captain."
"Of that, I have no doubt cadet," said Taggart. "I'd love to stay for the party but our ship has some last-minute refits due. I'll meet you on the bridge at 1800 hours, cadets."
"Yes sir," said Joseph and Elisa in unison, snapping to attention and saluting. Taggart returned the salute and strode off toward the holodeck.
"First officer!" Elisa exclaimed once Taggart was out of sight. "How does a nerd like you end up first officer on a training cruise?"
"Obviously the captain recognises my greatness," Joseph said smugly.
"Well at least now you've got permission to boss us around."
"I've been doing that for four years without anyone's permission, Flores."
"Don't get too comfortable, Warren. A few years in the real world and I'm gonna leave you in the dust."
"'I'm gonna leave you in the dust, sir'," Joseph corrected. "Now, unless you can beat me to the turbolift, I'm afraid rounds are going to be on you."
If they even had money in the 25th century, Elisa Flores would have indeed been buying everyone's drinks that night. Elisa may have been the better shot out of the pair, but Joseph could easily lap her in a race.
"Just...promise me...one thing," she panted as the turbolift took them to the observation deck. "During...your speech tonight, say something heartwarming. Make T'Vrell cry."
Joseph rolled his eyes. "Give it up, Elisa. That girl is an exemplary Vulcan. I'm pretty sure she feels nothing."
"Now I know that's not true!" Elisa told him as the turbolift door slid open. "Remember that one time she walked in on us-"
"God, keep your voice down!" Joseph hissed, looking ahead to the group of cadets waiting for them. All of them were watching their approach, but none of them showed any sign of hearing that last part of their conversation.
"Alright people," Joseph told the crowd. "Drinks are on our out-of-shape tactical officer tonight!"
Elisa glared at him while the other cadets laughed, T'Vrell excluded of course. Joseph gave her his best attempt at a pained smile, as if to say, throw me a bone please? T'Vrell gave him a shrug and a look that was almost smug.
"Why don't we quiet down and let the nerd talk?" Elisa said loudly, handing out synthahol to each member of the group, finishing with Joseph, who cleared his throat.
"Alright, Elisa challenged me to make T'Vrell cry tonight, so please enjoy my half-hearted attempt at being personal tonight."
Before he could see if the joke landed, T'Vrell said, "Since Joseph persuaded me to retake the linguistics final, I may just indulge him."
That got laughs, especially from Flores.
"Well thank you, T'Vrell," he told her. "Humor aside, I don't think words can express how much the last four years have meant to me. I know a lot of us, myself included, had our moments where we wondered if walking away was the better option. Now that we're past those moments, I'm glad we could all stop each other from making the biggest mistakes of our lives."
Most of the group murmured their agreement.
"I don't know where we'll all be once this training cruise is finished, and I'm going to miss seeing all of you each and every day, but I'm grateful for the four years we've had and I know that our best years are ahead of us. So here's to the class of 2409, and to the future."
A fleet of shuttlecraft departed from Starfleet Academy's hanger bay a few hours later, just as the sun was beginning to set over San Francisco. The fleet made a beeline for the drydock stations adjacent to Earth Spacedock, one of which was occupied by a small, compact Miranda-class cruiser, the other by a sleek, long, modern-looking vessel.
"The USS Vesta," said Flores in awe, staring at the latter vessel through the shuttle's viewport. "The first of her class."
"Little too big for my taste," said Cadet Anne Potter, the best pilot in their class. "Bigger ships are slower, they're harder to control, and they're an easy target. An escort ship's the best place to be in a one-on-one fight."
"Some of joined Starfleet to explore, Potter," Flores teased. "Escort ships aren't much use outside of combat. And most don't have holodecks. Where's the fun in that?"
The shuttle fleet stayed clear of Vesta's drydock and proceeded toward the smaller, Miranda-class ship.
"That small enough for you?" Joseph asked Potter.
"I'm glad this is only a training cruise," said Flores, shuddering. "I'd hate to be stuck in those crew quarters with T'Vrell."
"Don't let Taggart catch you saying that," Joseph told her. "I hear the Athens is his pride and joy."
"Of course you're not complaining," said Flores, pouting. "First officers get their own quarters, don't they?"
The shuttlecraft docked in one of the two shuttle bays aboard Athens, both of which were big enough for only three shuttles apiece. The occupants, all of them cadets from Joseph's graduating class, lined up near the exit doors to recieve their assignments. Joseph and the other bridge officers - T'Vrell, Flores, and Potter - cut past the lines and reported straight to the duty officer, a short, grey-haired woman with Commander's rank insignia.
"Name and position?"
"Cadet Joseph Warren, Acting First Officer."
"Cadet T'Vrell, Acting Communications Officer."
"Cadet Elisa Flores, Acting Tactical Officer."
"Cadet Anne Potter, Acting Helm Officer."
The Commander nodded, glancing at the PADD in her hands to check off each name. "Alright, take the corridor left and take the turbolift to the bridge."
Captain Taggart stood to greet Joseph when he and the other bridge officers arrived. The others gave quick salutes before making beelines for their stations, while Joseph stood at attention.
"At ease, Number One," Taggart said.
Jason relaxed and said, "Number One?"
"A habit I picked up during my time on the Enterprise," Taggart explained. "Capt- I mean, Admiral Picard, always called his first officer that. I always liked the habit."
"Understood sir," said Joseph. "Are we ready to depart?"
"First things first, Number One. We need to get clearance from Spacedock to depart, then close the shuttlebay doors and clear all moorings. I take it you know the procedure?"
"Yes sir. T'Vrell," he said, his gaze snapping to the Vulcan at the comm station, "get clearance from Spacedock for Athens to depart."
"Working," said T'Vrell. A moment later she added, "Clearance to depart granted, sir."
"Flores, close the shuttlebay doors," Joseph told Elisa.
"Shuttlebay doors closed and locked."
"Potter, disable all tractor moorings."
"Tractor moorings cleared, sir. We're ready for departure."
"Very good, Mr Warren," said Taggart. "Helm, ahead one-quarter impulse."
Joseph was in the process of settling into the first officer's chair when he stopped. "Captain, I believe regulations specify thrusters only while in Spacedock."
Taggart grinned approvingly. "Glad to see you're paying attention. You heard him, Potter. Ahead, thrusters only."
On the viewscreen in front of them, the edges of drydock receded away as the ship glided forward on thrusters.
"Cleared from drydock, Captain," Flores reported, giving Joseph an excited grin.
"Good. Let's start with something easy," said Taggart. "Helm, set a course for Vulcan, Warp 3."
"Course laid in sir."
Warp 3 was more than halfway to Athens' maximum speed, but even Warp 5 was hardly fast by Starfleet standards. Halfway through their four-hour journey, Captain Taggart retired to his ready room and left the bridge to Joseph.
"Feel free to try out the chair, Number One," he told Joseph, halfway to his ready room. "Don't worry, it doesn't bite."
"Come on Warren," Elisa prodded after Taggart had left. "Even nerds like you dreaming of sitting in the center chair."
Joseph bristled as if in outrage. "That is hardly professional conduct, Miss Flores."
"You're one to talk," Anne muttered from the helm console."
"Sir," said T'Vrell, one hand pressing against her earpiece, "I'm receiving a distress call from the freighter S.S Break Even. Audio only."
Joseph tapped his combade. 'Captain Taggart to the bridge. T'Vrell, put the distress call on speakers."
"This is the freighter Break Even!" came a raspy voice shrouded in static. "Our warp core is failing. We're in need of assistance!"
"What's the situation?" asked Captain Taggart, stepping onto the bridge.
"A freighter, the Break Even, says their warp core is failing," Joseph explained.
Joseph looked to Flores, who said, "It's just outside the Pollux system, Captain."
"Helm, lay in a rendevouz course with the Break Even, maximum warp," Taggart ordered, settling into his seat.
"Course laid in, Captain. ETA, three minutes."
"Captain," said Flores, "sensors can't read anything in the vicinity of the Break Even."
"Communications are out as well," T'Vrell reported.
"Keep trying to hail them again," Taggart told her, then turned to Joseph. "Number One, you've heard the distress call. What do you suggest?"
"Is this part of the test, Captain?"
"Trust me, cadet, this is real," said Taggart.
"Well, it's odd that the distress call is audio only. A warp core malfunction shouldn't affect communications," said Joseph.
"I thought the same thing," said Taggart. "What do you advise?"
"We go to Yellow Alert," said Joseph decidedly. "Pollux isn't far from the Klingon border, and it's lightly defended. We don't want to be caught off-guard."
"Raising the shields does seem to be a good precaution," Taggart admitted. "Very well. Flores, ready our shields and weapons. Mr Warren, go down to the transporter room and coordinate the rescue efforts."
In Athens' transporter room, Cadet R'raak's combadge chirped. He tapped it and said, "R'raak here."
"The Break Even should be in range," said Joseph over the comm. "Give me an update."
"I'm trying to get a lock on the survivors now," said R'raak, his fur-covered hands flying over the transporter controls. "There's some odd readings I can't make out."
"Stay calm and remember your training. You'll do fine, R'raak."
"Almost got them sir."
On the transporter pad, several confinement beams appeared, stretching from the ground to ceiling. Within the hazy, swirling lights of the transporter beam, humanoid shapes came into focus. The first thing R'raak could make out was the hard, bony ridges on their foreheads.
"Klingons!" he shouted, before a disruptor bolt took him down.
"Klingons!" he heard R'raak shout before the sound of disruptor fire overtook the comm.
"R'raak?" Joseph said as the comm went dead. He tapped his combadge again. "Transporter Room, come in."
No response. Joseph tapped his combadge again and said, "Warren to bridge, someone fired a disruptor in the transporter room. I can't raise anyone."
"It's the Klingons," said Captain Taggart, "just as you predicted. Security's getting Klingon transporter signatures all over the ship. I need you to unlock the armory. Use your personal command codes. Report in once you've gotten the deck secured."
"Yes sir. Warren out."
As soon as the turbolift doors opened, Joseph jogged down the corridor until he came across two of his classmates standing outside the armory door.
"Joseph," said Cadet T'Kira. "We need your command codes to unlock the armory."
Joseph pushed past the pair and quickly typed his codes into the door's control panel.
"Everyone grab a rifle," he said as the door slip open. "We're retaking this deck, starting with the transporter room."
R'raak held one hand to the bloody wound on his leg, and with the other he fired his phaser blindly. But there were three of them in the transporter room and only one of him, and as one lay down fire the other two stalked forward, blades ready.
The doors slid open and Joseph, T'Kira, and Cadet Bryce blanketed the room with phaser fire, dropping the three Klingons in a second.
"Hold still, cadet," said T'Kira, kneeling down next to him and pulling a dermal regenerator from her pocket.
"What's happening?" R'raak asked Joseph as the wound closed.
"The distress call was a ruse," Joseph informed him, looking mean and intimidating with a phaser rifle in his hands. "We've got Klingons all over this deck. We're on our way to clear Engineering. You up for some payback?"
R'raak stood up slowly and tested his leg. "Bit sore, but I'll live. Let's go."
The four officers stalked quickly through the main corridor, picking off any Klingons they encountered before they had a chance to fire back. Joseph was thinking back only to the countless training simulations in which he'd done the very same thing. Those were usually pretty convincing, but Joseph wasn't feeling the same confidence he'd felt during them. This time, a direct hit from a disruptor would mean death, not a black mark on his grades.
"The number of Klingons in this area is surprisingly small," T'Kira noted.
"They're probably focused on taking Engineering," said Joseph. "Pick up the pace, people. We can't let them damage the warp core."
To no surprise, Engineering was alive with phaser and disruptor fire. Zarva, a Bolian and Acting Chief Engineer, was smart enough to have drawn their fire away from the towering warp core, but it had a cost: several of their fellow cadets, lacking proper cover, had fallen to disruptor fire. Joseph fought back the urge to check them for life signs and opened fire on the swarm of Klingons, dropping to one knee just as a disruptor bolt soared over his head. Cadet Bryce went down screaming, one arm bloody, but most of the disruptor shots, fired while dodging phaser fire, went wide.
After what was only a few seconds, Engineering was secured and people scrambled to check on the wounded.
"Zarva," said Joseph. "What's our status?"
"We've taken a beating sir," she reported. "Warp engines are offline and shields are weakening. Plus...we lost two people sir. Cadets Morris and Reilly."
"Don't think about that now," Joseph said softly, then tapped his combadge. "Warren to bridge, we've secured Engineering."
"Good work cadet. We're doing our best up here, but this battle cruiser is crippling us. Any help from your end would be much appreciated."
Joseph thought fast. "I might be able to reinforce our structural integrity field. I'll see what I can do. Warren out."
He sped past the group of cadets and toward the power transfer station in a corner of Engineering. His hands flew over the controls as he diverted power from everything non-combat related and sent it into the structural integrity field. He spotted several hull breaches over the ship and made sure to prioritise those areas, as well as the bridge, Sickbay, and Engineering.
"Warren to bridge," he said. "It's done. I've patched up the hull breaches as best I could and put stronger fields around key areas."
"Good work," said Taggart. "Security tells me most of the ship is secured. Meet me back on the bridge. We're finishing this."
"There's a gap in their aft shields, captain," said Flores as a phaser beam impacted on the hull of the I.K.S Chot.
"Fire torpedoes, full spread!"
A hail of photon torpedos sped toward the ship's hull, blasting through a section of their lower hull. Taggart smiled triumphantly. "Good shot, Flores."
"Damn!" Flores hissed. "Klingon transporter signatures!"
Disrupter fire blanketed the bridge before anyone could draw their phasers. Elisa ducked behind the tactical console as two Klingons seized Captain Taggart by the arms. She heard them bark some order in Klingon, before the three of them disappeared in a red transporter beam. A moment later, Joseph walked out of the nearby turbolift.
Elisa drew her phaser and began firing at the remaining Klingons, but Joseph's rifle took down most of them in seconds. The stragglers, content with their prise, beamed back to their own vessel.
"What happened here?" Joseph demanded of nobody in particular.
"They took the captain," Elisa said quickly, her heart racing. "They transported aboard and beamed out with him before we could do anything."
"Alright," said Joseph. "Just relax. What's the status of the Klingon vessel?"
"They've taken some moderate damage," Elisa told him, her hands shaking madly, "but their weapons are fully operational. Plus, they've cloaked."
"Sir, they're hailing us," said T'Vrell, nursing a bruise on her forehead.
Joseph turned to the viescreen, his face stern. "On screen, T'Vrell."
The screen became filled with the image of a Klingon crusier's bridge, with a bruised, bloody Captain Taggart held by his arms by two Klingons. A third, clearly the captain by the decorative cloak he wore, smirked at the Starfleet crew.
"This is Captain Kadek of the I.K.S Chot!" he said triumphantly. "You may have forced my boarding parties off your decks, but my ship is still cloaked and you have no hope of finding us! Surrender now or I will destroy your ship and its crew!"
"Never," said Joseph bluntly.
Kadet gave a dark smile. "Then perhaps your captain will change your mind!" he said, turning to Taggart. "It's your choice, Captain. Do you want these children to die?"
Taggart raised his gaze to the viewscreen, to Joseph's waiting look.
"Mr Warren," he said, coughing up blood, "you're the captain now. Your orders...are to lock onto my combadge and fire!"
Kadet swore, and before Joseph could react, he pulled a dagger and thrust it into Taggart's stomach.
The scene felt like a gut punch, and Joseph froze as the viewscreen blinked off.
"We...we have target lock, Captain," said Flores, staring at her console blankly.
Joseph snapped back to reality, and forced out, "Flores, fire."
A single photon torpedo found it's mark just beneath the ship's bridge, briefly illuminating its outline in a bright explosion as it turned and made a retreat.
"They're still cloaked," said Flores, choking up. "No sign of them sir."
Joseph sighed, and wandered back to the captain's chair. Flores had been right earlier that day; even he'd fantasised about having his own command. But now, all he wanted was to be back at the Academy. That place was easy compared to this.