Qniverse
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER THREE

Streaking through the darkness of space punctuating by the brilliant staccato of phaser fire, the Defiant lashed out with defenses of its own, torpedoes barking angrily from their bays and slicing toward the Voronese Lances. The lead triangular craft ducked to avoid the first barrage, but William Riker knew precisely what he was doing, the second wave of torpedoes he had ordered tearing through the aliens' shield technology and buckling their ships' outer hulls.

"Three more Lances detected in high Earth orbit, captain!" Christi Henshaw announced from the helm, her fingers fluttering quickly across the main drive console.

"Understood," Will replied, his voice steady with resolve. "Maintain course and speed."

She looked up from her post and glanced back at the captain of the vessel, fixing her eyes on him as if they were targeting locks. "But, sir, their vectors indicate that they're on precise headings to intercept the Defiant!"

"That should come as no surprise, Miss Henshaw."

"No, sir," she agreed, "it doesn't! But, once they arrive, that'll put us up against seven Lances instead of four!"

"Let's just hope that we're long gone before they do arrive, miss."

Confused, she flashed him a look.

Taking a moment to study the feverish expression on the young helmsman's face, Will smiled. He had faithfully served his entire life with Terran Opposition, as did his father, Kyle, all in service to 'the Old Man.' He had faced, literally, hundreds of combat encounters against the Voronina. He had studied their spacecraft. He had familiarized himself with all of their defensive maneuvers. He had even obtained and committed to memory some highly classified data on Voronese command structure, as well as the names, ranks, and histories of their legion of staff assigned to the occupation of Earth.

'Occupation.'

The word rolled over and over in his mind's eye.

'Emancipation,' was the word he preferred.

"The three Lances have just entered weapons range, sir," Christi confirmed.

"Understood, Miss Henshaw," he stated, a wry smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"We're still going through with this, sir?"

"As I said, maintain present course and speed."

Huffing to herself, she turned back to her instruments. They were displaying new challenges and new tactical suggestions, but she trusted that he would ignore them all ... for the sake of the mission. The idea of being killed on her first trip to Earth wasn't appealing, but she guessed her wouldn't find much interest in that subject either. Gritting her teeth, she spat, "Yes, sir."

Suddenly, the main viewer filled with the image of the three new Lances, and Will - for only a moment - thought twice about his decision. Perhaps Christi was right. Perhaps retreat was the better course of action. Confident, he shook off the second guessing as easily as he had so many times before.

At his post at tactical, Sergey Rozhenko noticed the indicator flashing, red pulsing at a very face pace. "Mr. Riker!" he called out, peering in the direction of the main viewer. "We are almost in position for data retrieval."

"Thank you, Mr. Rozhenko."

"But, sir!" Sergey tried, turning away from the sight of the approaching craft just as another phaser barrage shook the Bridge. Nearly falling out of his chair, he reached out and steadied himself by grasping tightly the edge of his console. The rumbling shock of the ship under attack filled his ears as he pulled himself upright, steadying himself. "We'll have to lower our shields to receive the encrypted -"

"I'm aware of the maneuver, Mr. Rozhenko."

"Sir," Sergey tried, "with all due respect, I have all of the specifications of the Defiant at home. I've studied them at great detail. Based on my professional opinion, I cannot advise-"

Quickly, William Riker stood, ignoring the trembling of the Defiant in favor of reinforcing the chain of command, a necessarily evil when supervising 'new blood' to the Opposition Forces. "Mister Rozhenko, I'm not looking for your advice. I'm looking for you to follow my orders ... to the letter." Will paused and glanced around the Bridge, studying the nervous faces of his untried crew. "Am I making myself clear? To all of you?" He paused, taking several strategic moments for his words and his intent to sink into his shipmates, his crew. "If I'm not, feel free to abandon your posts now." He straightened the burgundy cloak he wore, trying to hide his feelings of disdain from them. "I'll be more than happy to take over for you."

As another bolt of energy crackled against the Defiant's shields, the bridge crews' faces fell sullen, and, in unison, they turned their collective attention back to maintaining control of the ship.

An alert chimed on Sergey's console.

"We're in position, sir."

"Signal the surface."

"Ship's automation has already done so, sir," he answered. "We've received the reply." Concentrating on the task at hand, Sergey tapped a few keys. "It's encrypted, and the computer is decoding." A beep sounded the affirmative. "It's our Shadow, sir."

"That's good news."

"Shadow is standing by to transmit the information," Sergey announced.

Sitting back down in the command chair, Will sighed.

"Lower shields," he ordered, "and everyone brace yourselves for the inevitable greeting from the Voronese welcoming committee."

From the helm, Christi confirmed, "Shields lowered, sir."

To everyone's surprise, a moment of eerie silence fell across the Bridge.

A negative tone sounded on her board, and Christi announced, "Sir, the Voronina have moved into attack formation -"

Before she could finish, an earthquake erupted on the Defiant.

Christi lashed out, taking hold of her console with both arms and planting her backside firmly in her chair. Conduits built into the flooring before her ruptured violently, shooting yellow and crimson fireworks into the air, obscuring the image of the Voronese Lances on the main viewer. She knew that the Voronina would have detected the Defiant lowering her shields. She trusted that, in that instant, the Lance commanders would've ordered a volley of destructive phaser energy to rip the Opposition craft into space debris. Her body convulsing as the Bridge suffered the effects of a massive phaser bombardment, she momentarily lost control of her senses and screamed. A wave of heat washed over her, flames fed by the conduit lapse, and she brought one hand over her head, fearing her hair or shirt would catch fire. In mortal fear, she screamed even more loudly.

Suddenly, she felt a hand on her back pulled her free of her grip on her console, forcing her back into her chair. A massive chest immediately fell across her arms and face, embracing her, shielding, protecting her from danger. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around it, shutting her eyes, silencing, ignoring the deckplates trembling beneath her feet and instead concentrating on the solidity, the firmness, the sanctity of being held in the sheltering arms of a fellow human being.

"Data stream received!" Sergey shouted at the top of his lungs from the tactical station. "Re-engaging shields!"

"At once!" she heard, words fueled by lungs hidden within the chest her arms were currently gripping.

She was being held by William Riker!

A whine of protest rang across the Bridge, but the ship's protective bubble came back on line, still rocked by the phaser energy released by the Voronina.

Slowly, she released her hold, and he pulled away from her. Cautiously, uncertain of what to expect, she glanced up into the eyes of the ship's captain.

"Are you all right?"

She never understood the possibilities of chemical attraction between the sexes. Even though she had listened to her mother talk endlessly about her unflinching affection for her father, Christi Henshaw was admittedly baffled by the apparent human need to seek and find acceptance in the form of a fellow human being. In fact, she had written off her mother's adoration to displaced feelings of loss; entire generations of people, in fact, had lost an entire planet ... Earth ... and the need to belong simply shifted elsewhere. In dark times like this, it grew far easier to invest, spend time with, or fall in love with another person than it was to win back an entire planet. It was natural. Perhaps, even, it was human ... but she had never understood it.

Instead, Christi Henshaw had committed herself, her efforts, and her livelihood to serving as the best pilot in the resistance. There were rumors of others out there with the same intense drive; her mother, in fact, had told her that some rebel named Tom Paris could seriously give Christi a challenge for the center seat at the helm, but Henshaw had yet to meet this Tom Paris, so she convinced herself to belief that she - a woman - was easily the finer of the two pilots.

Now, sitting in her chair at the helm, she stared up into the open, deep, intoxicating eyes of William Riker, and she - arguably one of the best pilots this side of the Voronina - couldn't remember how to engage warp engines.

"Miss Henshaw?"

"Hmm?" she asked.

"Are you all right?"

"What?"

"Are you okay?"

Still, the ship shuddered from the attack of the alien craft surrounding it. One of the tremors shook her back to her senses. She blinked, releasing her hold on her commanding officer, and casually brushed him aside to lose herself and her thoughts to the comfort and safety of the helm controls.

"Yes, sir," she finally replied, composing herself. "Thank you, sir. I'm fine now."

Righting himself, Will turned toward tactical. "Report, Mister Rozchenko."

"As I said, captain, Shadow's encrypted data stream has been received and uploaded into the Defiant's logs," Sergey confirmed. "The stream suffered no interference from the surface or from the Voronese Lances." Smiling, he concluded, "The Old Man should have no problem reading the updates on the alien activity taking place on the Earth's surface."

"Understood."

Surprised, Christi felt a hand on her shoulder.

Cautiously, she glanced up again into those unexplainably mesmerizing eyes.

"Miss Henshaw," Will said to her, "get us as far away from here as fast as these engines can possibly take us."

Swallowing hard, she tapped the thruster control. "You can count on it, sir."

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