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Eventually he must have slept. The comm woke him.
"Ladies and gentleman, I regret to inform you we have a situation ahead." Considering there were now no persons of the female persuasion aboard, Stripes had evidently not lost his black sense of humour. "All hands to stations."
Jag tumbled out of his bunk and pulled on enough clothes to make him pass as respectably clad. His mouth tasted like a sow had farrowed in it and he had the devil's own headache. Automatically he shoved a pistol into his pocket. He'd feel more naked without that than without trousers.
He ran to the bridge, where the transport crew were studying the long range scanners. He interpreted the readouts without difficulty. A freighter, rather larger than their own – and probably a legitimate one – was under attack. Two smaller ships were harrying it, most likely with the intention of forcing it to jettison its cargo pods. If it did so, they might let it escape. There again, they might not. Dead boomers tell no tales.
"It's out of our way." Leo straightened up. "And bottom line is, it's none of our business."
"Pirates are our business." The black hatred spoke. Everyone looked at him. They understood very well.
"We don't know what armaments they have. By the time we get close enough to check, they'll see us." A shrug. "If those are Nausicaans, they pack some punch. Two of them against us is not good odds."
"If the other freighter can hold out it'll be two against two."
"That's a big 'if'. Looks like their drive is down." Spots was watching the readouts. "They're dead in the water."
"But they're still firing." The way the attackers veered away told him that. He wanted to believe it. He could still taste the blood in his mouth.
"Chances are, they'll see us anyway." The transport captain spoke up laconically. "Might be best to take our chances now."
Leo exhaled. "Let's get there."
They scattered. Jag moved to the weapons array, began checking the settings with feverish haste. They'd had upgrades for this mission, in the light of where it was headed; the chances were strong that they wouldn't get to the base without being attacked. They'd been lucky – the attacks had come, but they'd been beaten off with relative ease. The ship still had most of the original complement of armaments, ready and waiting. He watched the lights come on, steady and strong, showing him the torpedo tubes were loaded. He thought for a moment of what Enterprise would offer him, better even than this; some of the stuff the NX was packing was straight off the development boards. Still, he'd make do with what he had. It would do what he wanted it to.
The deck plating vibrated. Low in the background he heard the engine note change. Not many freighters could hit Warp 3. The bastards wouldn't be expecting that.
They came out of warp into a battleground. The freighter was still giving fire; they were gutsy, and they weren't surrendering easily, even though the hull was scarred and one or two of the pods were breached and venting cargo that floated in space as so much scattered debris. Cases and canisters of all shapes and sizes bled out into the vacuum, creating their own miniature asteroid field. The two attacking ships were small, slender and fast. They hadn't been expecting company in this area of space. One of them didn't even notice they had any until a torpedo took out the warp core, and that probably gave them all the notice they needed. The oxygen from their life support provided the basis for an explosion that even made the stricken freighter shudder.
Stupid bastards. He grinned, as mirthless as a shark. The stars and the freighter twirled in the viewscreen as the transport executed a fast roll to evade the other pirate, who was quicker on the uptake and now realised that the odds had turned against him. Blasts rattled the hull plating, but it was polarised and absorbed the punishment. It would continue to do so – up to a point. A quick scan of the armaments told him that point was not far away if the enemy got a decent shot at close range.
His fingers danced over the switches. Missiles streaked away from the transport's underbelly, but the fighter corkscrewed away from them. One glanced off the very tip of one of its fins and scored across the freighter's upper hull, but luckily didn't explode there. A part of his mind noticed the name: Horizon. Trading out of Earth. Good job they'd come to the rescue. That's if they didn't end up being part of the casualty list...
"Get us closer!" he yelled.
"What, close enough for them to blow us to bits?" growled Spots, crouched over the scanners. "I'd rather keep my distance."
More blasts rattled the hull. Decompression sirens went off, and the shake of the plating said emergency bulkheads had closed. That was too close. Bastards. The pirate went past the viewscreen, on his way to let go another blast at the freighter, which had taken a pot shot at him in the meantime. Brave, but not particularly helpful in the circumstances. They'd do better to play dead.
"Mind keeping the house in one piece?" Stripes' voice yelled over the intercom. "These engines work so much better when they're still attached!"
"Just hold them together for two more minutes!" Jag was watching the readouts. The flight of the pirate ship was starting to build up a pattern. He was starting to understand how the pilot was thinking. Starting to get an idea...
He punched codes into one of the missiles. Directing it seemingly into empty space. Then as the transport rolled back into firing range, he loosed a deliberately wide cannon blast across the fighter's bows.
The pilot reacted. Pulled the craft into another of those clever, tight loops, showing off how manoeuvrable the ship was.
Right at the apex of the loop, the torpedo armed itself.
Eat that, bastard.
The viewscreen blanched with light. The transport was travelling too fast to turn, and ploughed through the blazing debris. Pieces banged and bounced off the hull, setting off more decompression sirens. Over the comm link Stripes achieved new heights of abuse; by the sound of it he was hanging on to the warp core with his fingernails to stop it floating off into space.
"Aw, calm down. The fun's over." Leo yawned. "You get so worked up over the small stuff."
"I suppose I'd better go down and see what he's so all-fired-up about." Spots stood up without haste. On his way to the exit he passed the weapons station, where he dropped a hand briefly on the shoulder of the man who sat there unmoving. "Nice work, Jag. We're going to miss you."
I'll miss you too. He couldn't bring himself to say it. Would there be a place for him aboard Enterprise as there had been one for him here? Would there be people who could accept him for what he was, as the pride had done, without question?
Respectable at heart. They wouldn't think so if they knew, those as-yet unknown people who it would be his job to protect. They knew nothing of who he was, what he'd done, what he'd been. They never must know either. He had to keep them at arms' length, where both he and they would be safe.
Working for the Section for so long had made him adept at camouflage. The persona he'd have to use was ready and waiting: the one that he might actually have been, if the world had been different. The self he'd had to tear asunder to be and do what he had for these past years, the years spent carrying out the dirty tasks of covert ops. The self he'd projected so successfully during the interview boards. Upper-class English to the core, stiff and snotty and superior; worse than a bloody Vulcan, someone had said back in his Academy days.
So be it. Five years to spend exploring space, protecting eighty-odd men and women from whatever was waiting out there. Hopefully the captain would be willing to take advice, though the man he'd studied across the table at his final interview had a quality about him that boded ill for the future – idealism. Still, it was a captain's job to run the ship and a tactical officer's to advise him on the safest way to do it. Archer wouldn't have hired him if he didn't mean to listen to what he had to say.
He listened with half an ear to the communication coming in from the freighter's Captain Mayweather. The shouted praise for his shooting sank into the coldness where Pard had been and left no mark; he responded only with a curt nod, leaving Leo to do the social niceties. Killing was his job. There were two fewer pirate ships to prey on the shipping lanes, that was all; there were still three puncture marks on the body in the hold. He had his vengeance, but Pard was still gone, the one person who had anchored him to the human race.
It took the best part of half a day to repair the damage to the freighter's engines. Spots and Stripes and the rest of the transport's engineering crew managed to set their own vessel's ills more or less to rights in slightly less, but they hung around anyway till the other vessel was spaceworthy again, just in case any other opportunists showed up. Jaguar stayed at the weapons console, drinking black tea and humming Rule Britannia. Undoubtedly recognising the dangerous glitter in his eyes, Leo kept his distance. Nobody else spoke to him.
The Horizon was heading back towards Sol. In the circumstances, two was company, at least until they reached safer regions of space. The two ships matched course and speed, while in his cabin the soon-to-be Weapons and Tactical Officer of the USS Enterprise carefully reconstructed himself, piece by piece. He wrote family letters, to be despatched on his return to Earth. He had leave owing; he'd contact Madeleine. He already had a cover story ready, with a wealth of convincing detail. She had no idea what a gifted and convincing liar her beloved brother had become. She'd swallow it hook, line and sinker, glad only to know he was alive and well. In her presence the jaguar could sleep, if only lightly.
He put the comb through his hair one more time, to make sure it was absolutely in order, and looked at himself in the mirror.
An impeccably neat and well-groomed starship officer looked back at him. The two pips gleamed beside his collar, but were no harder than his expression.
His preparations were complete. He'd burned his boats; the chances were that he'd never see Spots, Leo or Stripes ever again. Their farewells had been brusque, though much was understood that wasn't said. Now, today was the first day of his new career. From now on he was a British officer, and he was going to live by every one of the precepts that had been beaten into him since he could walk. He would be a Royal Navy officer in all but name.
Very deep inside him a half-forgotten pain stabbed. There had been no reply to either of his letters. He hadn't truly expected one. The move to Malaysia would have provided enough of an excuse. Despite the fact that he was now a ship's officer, the fact that the ship he was serving on was the flagship of Starfleet instead of the Royal Navy would never be forgiven. There would be no photograph of him resplendent in his uniform for visitors to admire.
He was worse than a disgrace. He was a failure.
Well, so be it. Ite, missa est.
His chronometer beeped softly. The flitter was waiting to take him to the shuttle port. At the final briefing the day before, there had been issues raised about the weapons readiness of the ship that had filled him with dismay. The diplomatic emergency meant Enterprise had to leave dock before she was fully prepared; it was hardly going to be the showcase launch he'd imagined. And what if they ran into some situations where they actually needed those weapons that weren't fitted?
He was going to get some proper organisation going here. By all the evidence, they bloody well needed some already. What did the brass think they were going to do out there – pick daisies?
His flight bag was sitting ready on the stripped bed. He dropped the comb into one of its pockets and shouldered it. All his other luggage, such as it was, had already been beamed on board; technically at least, it should be waiting for him in his quarters, its molecules safely unscrambled.
There was a small vanity mirror just beside the door. He glanced into it as he reached for the door handle. Lieutenant Malcolm Reed, Tactical Officer of the Starship Enterprise, glanced back at him.
Far back in the storm-grey eyes, Jaguar snarled in chains.
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