"Mr. Gombe, can you identify the ship types?" said Janeway.
"Fifteen are similar to the battleship Predator. One is larger. Judging by the number of sensor emitters on its hull, it appears to be some kind of surveillance or electronic warfare ship."
"They're looking for us," said Janeway. "Janeway to engineering: what's the status of our defensive systems?"
"Not good, said Carey. "I can get you thirty percent shields and phasers. Photon torpedoes are ready."
"We could hold them at bay with photon torpedoes," said Gombe. "Three full-yield shots should be enough to disable one battleship."
"What's our loadout?" said Janeway.
Gombe grimaced. "Thirty, captain."
"What will phasers do to their armor at 33%?"
"Ruin the paint," said Gombe.
"And the engines don't work," said Janeway. We can't fight, and we can't run. She looked up at the viewscreen. Planet Hell, the ugly yellow ball, was floating serenely, silent and abandoned, as it had been for ten millennia.
"Engineering, this is Janeway. How long could our shields hold up in the planet's atmosphere?"
"Zero, Mr. Carey."
Has she gone crazy? thought Carey. "Twelve hours, but that's not the biggest problem. We can't dump our internal heat into subspace because the heat dissipation system is still down. Even if the shields could block out every bit of heat from the air and ground--and they can't--we won't be able to shed our internal heat. We'll be roasting in half that time. And if the shields fail, even for an instant, we'll get crushed like a bug."
"What about the structural integrity field?
"The SIF could hold up against the pressure if the outer hull was intact, but it isn't," said Carey. "And there's no internal bulkhead or forcefield designed to withstand 90 atmospheres."
"How fast can you get the warp drive online?"
"Six hours, minimum," said Carey.
"Then we have no choice. Prepare the ship for landing. Do whatever you have to do to reinforce the shields and ensure they stay up no matter what. You have five minutes."
"Five minutes!" said Carey. "Captain, you have no idea--"
"Five minutes! Janeway out."
Rodriguez stared at Carey. "What?" snapped Carey.
"What are you going to do?" said Rodriguez.
"What do you think I'm going to do? Reroute all available power to the shield generators, and put every backup generator and battery we have on standby."
"Yes sir," said Rodriguez. Beat. "She's going to get us all killed," he said.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," said Carey.
"Captain, I'm detecting a subspace particle beam coming from a point source in the Kuiper belt," said Ensign Wildman, working at the bridge's makeshift Science station. "It looks like some kind of crude subspace sensor."
"That e-war ship," said Janeway. "It has to be from there. We need to take it out."
"It's guarded by fifteen Kazon battleships," said Gombe. "And we can't reach it."
"We can't, but the aeroshuttle can," said Janeway. She stood up. "Mr. Gombe, get a pilot, an engineer, a transporter operator, and as many antimatter bottles as you can carry. Get down to the aeroshuttle, start prepping it for launch. Everyone else, blue alert. We're landing in Hell."
Voyager descended into Planet Hell's atmosphere. They were already through the sulfuric acid clouds and could see, through heat shimmers, the ruined surface.
"We only have ten more minutes of cruising before we have to either land or return to space," warned Carey.
"Mr. Gombe, are you ready?" said Janeway.
"Yes ma'am. Aeroshuttle ready for launch in two minutes."
"Mr. Gombe, does the shuttle have a name?" said Janeway suddenly. She'd heard sending a ship without a name into battle was bad luck. She'd never believed it, but now she needed all the luck she could get.
Janeway thrummed her fingers on her armrest. "How does Earhart sound?" said Janeway.
"I like it," said Gombe.
"We'll give her a proper christening when you get back," said Janeway. She stood up and, fighting the bucking of the ship as it pushed through the thick air, walked to Wildman's science station.
"We need to find a landing spot now," she said.
"I've got one," said Wildman. "Thirty kilometers north-northeast, there's an old submarine trench that's just wide enough for us and deep enough the Kazon would have to be almost directly overhead to see us. And the best part is, it's less than a hundred kilometers from one of those towers. Hopefully our magnetic signature will be lost in the background."
"It's the best chance we've got," said Janeway. "Helm, take us down."
"Bridge, this is Earhart. Pre-launch sequence complete; we are ready for launch."
"Release the docking clamps," said Janeway. "Earhart, don't ignite your warp core until you've cleared the atmosphere. We don't want to give the Kazons any clue we're down here."
"Yes ma'am," said Gombe.
"Good luck and good hunting, Earhart," said Janeway.
Kazon battleship Wrath
"Nothing," said Jabin, reading the display. "No sign of Voyager on subspace sensors. If they're here, their warp core is offline."
"What of Val Jean?" said Razik. Wrath was his flagship, and he maintained a throne on its bridge.
"It's in an eccentric orbit of the star, six AUs out and well above the plane of the ecliptic."
"Is Voyager still on visual sensors?"
"Yes. Right in the same place Predator found them. But those images are five hours old. If they restarted their warp drive, they could be anywhere by now."
"None of our observation stations have detected Voyager," said Razik.
"I think we should consider the possibility our observation stations couldn't detect Voyager," said Jabin.
"Perhaps," said Razik. "But perhaps not. Dispatch scouts to inspect Ocampa to see if Voyager is still there or not."
"I obey, First Maje," said Jabin. And then: "I have heard the Halkonnians have subspace sensors which can detect realspace mass, not just warp fields. It would be nice to have those."
"After this incident is taken care of, I will make acquiring them my first priority," said Razik. "The Halkonnians are overdue for a raid anyway."
"What about Val Jean? They're undoubtedly observing us on behalf of Voyager."
"We'll never catch them with a battleship," said Razik. "And they outgun our scouts. Leave them alone for now. When we locate Voyager, Val Jean will be forced to rush to assist, and then we'll engage them both on our terms."
Voyager elapsed time on the surface: 10 minutes
Lieutenant Obayana Gombe glanced at the crate full of antimatter bottles and tried to make the sour feeling in the pit of his stomach go away.
"We've cleared the atmosphere, sir," said Ensign Baytart, Voyager's senior surviving helmsman, now part of Earhart's five-man crew.
Gombe toggled the communicator. "We're ready, captain," he said.
"Good," said Janeway. "Is the relay link operating?" Her image and voice was staticky, with weird pops and whistles in the background.
"The link is working, but your signal is coming in poorly," said Gombe.
"There's an electrical storm nearby causing interference," said Janeway. "Welcome to the wonderful world of radio. Unfortunately, we can't risk a subspace transmission. Make sure you keep close to us. If you wander too far, lightspeed lag will start causing problems, too."
"Understood, Captain," said Gombe, after relaying Janeway's last order to Baytart. "Everything is ready here."
"Well," said Janeway. "No time like the present. Hail the Kazon."
"Lord Razik, we are being hailed," said Wrath's communications operator. He turned to look at the First Maje directly. "It is Janeway."
"Well by all means," said Razik, "greet her."
"The signal is audio and visual," said the operator. "The video format is new to me, but...it looks like it has its own decoding instructions built into signal." The operator, who had to be a certified electrical engineer to serve on the First Maje's ship, was plainly astounded. "Stand by."
"These Federations are very clever, aren't they, Maje Jabin?" said Razik.
"Too clever by half," said Jabin.
A picture appeared on the central viewscreen, of a blue starfield encircled by two branches of some sort. "I have the signal, Lord Razik," said the comms operator.
The stars-and-branches card disappeared, replaced by an ashen-skinned Kazonoid sitting in what looked like a starship's control room. His--her?--forehead was smooth and his hair seemed to be composed of straight strands wrapped tightly about his head. He wore a simple blue tunic with a gold badge and small metallic pips on his collar.
The alien smiled. "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. With whom do I have the pleasure of conversing?"
Female, then, thought Jabin. He made no attempt to contain his revulsion. The alien looked like a giant, talking Kazon fetus. Other aliens in the background shared the same appearance, with minor differences. Maybe this one is an albino, he thought, noticing a dark skinned alien sitting beside her, though that one had pointed ears, so maybe it was a different species or subspecies. He looked away; the smooth foreheads were making his skin crawl.
"I am Jal Razik, First Maje of the Kazon Ogla. It is my distinct pleasure to welcome you to the Ocampa system."
"I believe Jal Jabin already formally welcomed us to Kazon space," said Janeway.
"Oh dear, yes," said Razik. "You have caused me quite a bit of trouble, Captain Janeway."
Janeway's signal was poor quality. Hisses, pops, and whines contaminated the audio, and occasionally the colors of the image would invert or the picture would 'ghost'. Jabin quietly slipped over the comms operator.
"Can't you clean that up?" he said.
"I'm trying," said the operator. "It's coming from their end, though."
Jabin scowled. "What's the signal source?"
"It's coming from the planet. Low orbital altitude, though strangely the source doesn't seem to be actually orbiting."
"I can't tell, Maje Jabin."
Janeway was speaking. "Maje Jabin caused me trouble first. However, I'm willing to set aside the whole incident as a...misunderstanding."
"A misunderstanding?" hissed Jabin. "She killed--"
Razik gestured for him to keep quiet. Jabin did.
"In fact," said Janeway, "I'm even willing to compensate you for the damage to Maje Jabin's ship."
"Oh?" said Razik. Most Kazon, let alone most aliens, wouldn't have been able to read more than mild interest in Razik's voice, but Jabin, who'd known the First Maje since they were shitting their diapers, heard the surprise and excitement. Greedy fat fuck, thought Jabin, resigned. He's going to let Janeway buy her way out of her punishment. He knew it was going to end like this. He'd be lucky to see a farthing of whatever Janeway paid--Razik was going to stick him with a wrecked ship and no chance to restore his honor.
"In our part of space, several civilizations once issued currency backed by antimatter," said Janeway. "Does that sound familiar to you?"
Now Razik couldn't hide his excitement from anyone. "As a matter of fact, the Chalcernodonian crown is backed by antimatter. How ever did you know?"
"A lucky guess," said Janeway.
Neelix! thought Jabin. He checked the sensor readout. Sure enough, his warp field was active, in the L5 junk field. Picking fleas out of his ass, sorting through garbage, and humming show tunes, totally oblivious to the Kazon fleet in the system. "I'll take care of you, too," muttered Jabin.
"A lucky guess indeed," said Razik.
"I'm willing to offer the Kazon-Ogla fifty kilograms of anti-deuterium as payment for the damage inflicted to your ship."
Razik's entire face shined with avarice. Even Jabin was given pause. Fifty kilos, an absolute fortune....
"There are two conditions," said Janeway.
"Name them," said Razik.
"First, you withdraw your fleet from this system until we leave. Second, we know you've been in contact with the Caretaker in the past. We want to know every detail of that contact. Every word."
"I can send you all our files on the Caretaker right away. But leaving the system...for that, we might need something more," said Razik.
"Such as?" said Janeway.
"Such as the secret of your teleporting bombs. Or subspace sensors small enough to fit on a ship the size of Val Jean."
"I'm afraid I can't offer that," said Janeway. "The laws of my people forbid exchanging our technology."
"How unfortunate," said Razik.
"I can offer you more antimatter," said Janeway.
"How much more?"
"Another fifty kilos," said Janeway. "Fifty now, and another fifty we'll leave behind when we leave. You can leave one or two ships to monitor us, but not the entire fleet."
"How will you deliver the first fifty kilos?"
"As you have probably seen, we're out of the system. I hope you understand that after the arrival of fifteen of your battleships, we thought it might be...prudent if we left."
"An understandable precaution," said Razik.
"However, the starship USS Earhart can ferry the antimatter to you."
Several officers in the control room looked around in confusion, but Razik kept his cool. "That would be acceptable," said Razik. "Perhaps we could meet at the fifth planet?"
"We can meet you in the Kuiper belt," said Janeway.
Jabin was only half-listening to the conversation. He was looking for patterns in the static. He eased over to the comms operator again. "Have you seen interference like that before? Solar flares, perhaps?"
"I don't think it's being caused by solar interference," he said. "Look at these static spikes. That looks like nearby lightning strikes."
"An electrical storm?" said Jabin.
"That would be my guess."
"They're in a planetary atmosphere," said Jabin. "Could they...Ocampa?"
"I don't know, Maje Jabin. The pressure on the surface...but I'm no mechanical engineer. And who knows what these aliens can do?"
"Can you tell if it's a gas giant storm or a terrestrial storm?"
"Perhaps. Give me some time to analyze it."
"Quick as you can," said Jabin.
"There's no need for you to come all the way to the Kuiper belt," said Razik.
"We would hate to trouble you," said Janeway.
"It's no trouble at all," said Razik.
"I insist," said Janeway.
Razik leaned back and chuckled. "As you wish, Captain. We eagerly await Earhart's arrival."
"I will dispatch them immediately," said Janeway.
"I will give them our files on the Caretaker as soon as they arrive," said Razik.
"Excellent," said Janeway. "If we have no further business...?"
"We'll be in contact. Janeway out." The screen went blank.
"That woman must think we're idiots," said Razik. "All ships, prepare for battle."
"What are we doing, First Maje?" said Jabin.
"They're hiding somewhere in this solar system," said Razik. "I trust you are working on that problem already?"
"Yes, First Maje."
"Good. Do you think you can discover where they're hiding without using scouts?"
Jabin looked to the comms operator. The operator indicated he could. "Yes, Maje Razik," said Jabin.
"Good. No need to spook them, then."
"What about the scouts we've already dispatched?"
"Hmm," said Razik. "Send them to pay Mr. Neelix a visit...that rattrap ship of his could use a safety inspection."
"Yes, Maje Razik," said Jabin.
"We'll wait here for Janeway's generous 'gift' to arrive. I was unaware they had a third starship in the system," he said, giving Jabin an icy glance, "so we will take care of it first. By then, we should know where Voyager is. We'll use the scouts in the inner system to keep them pinned in place, and then when the battleships arrive, we will flush them out and engage them. We will capture them if possible, but if necessary, we'll destroy them. And then, Maj Jabin, we will have a discussion with the Caretaker. I trust Predator is ready?"
"It is, my lord," said Jabin. "What about their teleporting bombs?"
"Randomly vary the power-up and firing timing on your coilguns," said Razik. "The trick depends on them predicting openings in our shields ahead of time."
"You're betting they can't teleport through shields," said Jabin.
"If they can teleport through shields, we have no chance against them no matter how many ships we bring," said Razik.
"That fact would seem to warrant caution, my lord," said Jabin.
"Ah, but Maje Jabin," said Razik, "If they could teleport through our shields, why would they be hiding?"
Jabin considered that. When he realized he had no good answer, he smiled.
"My lord," said the sensor operator, "the Spyglass is detecting a new warp field in-system, near Ocampa. Configuration unfamiliar, but similar to Val Jean. It's coming this way at ten times c."
"Half an hour, then," said Razik. "Excellent. All ships, prepare for battle."
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves…We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.--Ada Louise Huxtable, "Farewell to Penn Station", New York Times editorial, 30 October 1963X-Ray Blues