UT: Task Force Vanguard, Part IV: Solitary Frontier by Gibraltar
Summary:

 

Five years after the events of Infinities Unbound, a portal to the Large Magellanic Cloud has suddenly reappeared. A single starship, the USS Valhalla, is ordered into the distant LMC in search of the missing starship Europa and her crew. Valhalla’s eccentric and politically controversial commanding officer and his eclectic crew have been tasked with discovering the fate of the traitor Sandhurst, as well as that of the Amon and Skorrah species.


Categories: Expanded Universes Characters: Ensemble Cast - USS Gibraltar
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Friendship, Humor
Warnings: Adult Language, Violence
Challenges: None
Series: Star Trek: Gibraltar
Chapters: 20 Completed: No Word count: 46409 Read: 3084 Published: 28 Sep 2021 Updated: 18 Dec 2022

1. Chapter 1 by Gibraltar

2. Chapter 2 by Gibraltar

3. Chapter 3 by Gibraltar

4. Chapter 4 by Gibraltar

5. Chapter 5 by Gibraltar

6. Chapter 6 by Gibraltar

7. Chapter 7 by Gibraltar

8. Chapter 8 by Gibraltar

9. Chapter 9 by Gibraltar

10. Chapter 10 by Gibraltar

11. Chapter 11 by Gibraltar

12. Chapter 12 by Gibraltar

13. Chapter 13 by Gibraltar

14. Chapter 14 by Gibraltar

15. Chapter 15 by Gibraltar

16. Chapter 16 by Gibraltar

17. Chapter 17 by Gibraltar

18. Chapter 18 by Gibraltar

19. Chapter 19 by Gibraltar

20. Chapter 20 by Gibraltar

Chapter 1 by Gibraltar
United Trek: Task Force Vanguard

Part IV

Solitary Frontier


by Sam Redfeather​

* * *​

Picture the Milky Way Galaxy, the colossal disk-shaped aggregation of stars and gasses that we call home. Nearly all lifeforms known to the Federation evolved in this galaxy, dominated by the bipedal humanoid body-form spread so widely throughout the Milky Way by the ancient Preservers.

Now pull back away from this view, and look relative upward from the plane of the galactic elliptic to glimpse the smaller, irregular galaxies that orbit our own. The larger of these is the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC, a formerly spiral-shaped mass which has been distorted by the gravitational forces exerted upon it by our galaxy and its smaller neighbor, the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The LMC lies approximately one-hundred and sixty thousand light-years from Earth, and contains some thirty billion stars.

As you close in upon the LMC, the first thing that one notices is the panoply of nebulae on display. The galaxy is dominated by the massive, reddish Tarantula Nebula, a phenomenon of such size and intensity that it is visible from Earth with a portable telescope. A host of other gaseous marvels share the local sky here, to include the LN 95 stellar nursery, sixty globular clusters, some four-hundred planetary nebulae, and seven hundred open clusters. Contained within all this are hundreds of thousands of giant and supergiant stars and the remnants of at least one recent supernova.

Near the center of the galaxy, within a dozen light years of the Tarantula Nebula, a battle raged. This conflict involved three species not native to the LMC. It took place in the same star system as an ancient space station whose age was judged in eons and which possessed the ability to open portals allowing instantaneous travel to and from six different galactic bodies closest to the Milky Way.

As space battles went, this particular engagement was not especially notable insofar as the number of craft involved. Even in the very recent history of all three combatant species, far larger battles had been fought involving hundreds of capital ships on either side. These blistering engagements had resulted in massive casualties and catastrophic losses of invaluable matériel. In comparison, this dust-up was little more than a skirmish.

Romulan warbirds maneuvered wildly, tangling with Federation starships and Klingon battlecruisers. The energies released by their weapons, while impressive to some, would have been scoffed at by the intelligent species that used to travel the local star-ways. Nevertheless, in the here-and-now, these weapons were potent, and all those involved in this mêlée were justifiably fighting for their lives.

The Romulans were assisted by a mysterious ally, a former Starfleet officer who now called herself the Baroness, and wielded powerful chronometric technology that gave their side a substantive advantage over their adversaries.

However, both the Federation and Klingon contingents were led by their respective species’ foremost warriors, individuals who relished the opportunity to engage in open warfare, and who had languished in the years since the end of the Dominion War.


* * *​

The deck plates shuddered beneath Captain Ebnal’s feet, but neither that or the sparking EPS taps nor the flickering lights could erase the grim smile that testified to his pure enjoyment of the moment.

Ebnal leaned forward slightly in the command chair, as far as the safety restraints would allow, his eyes dancing with the colors of battle flaring across the viewer. “Continue phaser fire on the forward warbird. I want a brace of three quantums aft onto that son-of-a-bitch that’s harassing Gallant. Let me know when we get three or more Romulans within half-a-million klicks of one-another forward, then we’ll let loose that little surprise in our forward tube.”

The officer at Operations clung desperately to her console as she spared a glance back at Ebnal. “Captain, we’re picking up a garbled transmission from Europa.”

Ebnal cocked an eyebrow at the officer. “I thought you said the Rommies were jamming comms?”

“They are, sir. I’m guessing Europa slaved their comms transceiver to that ungodly powerful sensor array of theirs to burn through the localized jamming.”

“Well,” Ebnal snapped, “what the blazing hell do they want?”

The severed engine and wing assembly of a Klingon K’Vort-class frigate spun past on the viewer as Venture’s forward phasers sliced through the failing shields of the warbird they were pursuing and began to eviscerate the graceful Romulan warship.

“Europa reports the Amon have taken a local species hostage and are threatening to wipe out their Class-M planet if Europa attacks. They request further orders and wish to know if you want them to return to assist us or to continue with their mission.”

Ebnal rolled his eyes, the gesture lost in the gyrating motion and cacophonous noise of the battle. “Tell Europa to complete their mission using whatever means necessary, regardless of collateral damage. Then have them get their asses back here to help us hold the line.”

“Affirm, sir.”

“Grouping of four warbirds assembling at three-four-seven, mark eighteen. Looks like they’re preparing to make a run on the Klingon flagship.”

Ebnal bore his teeth, raising a fist into the air as he exclaimed, “Target that group and fire Alpha Weapon omega-three!”

A moment later a proto-matter explosion ignited a small star which lasted for less than a fiftieth of a second. The intense energy burst and accompanying gravimetric shear engulfed and vaporized two of the warbirds almost instantly, while the other two spun away from the conflagration at a hundred gravities in excess of their inertial dampening fields’ capacity. Their crews were reduced to a thin film along the interior bulkheads measuring only a few microns thickness.

A throaty growl of approval escaped Ebnal as he turned his attention to the tactical display on a fold-out console interface at the captain’s chair.

“Captain, I’m picking up a massive chronometric surge from the Defiant-class ship accompanying the Romu—“

The sound of shrieking metal actually managed to drown out Lucian Ebnal’s string of invective.


* * *​

Some time later…

Indol System, United Federation of Planets
Alpha Quadrant


The commander stared out the viewport of the starship Valhalla’s observation lounge. Her eyes tracked the variations of light shimmering along the accretion disc that had formed around the mouth of the transit portal. Typically, such gateways were short-lived events that lasted mere minutes, or hours at the most, and never long enough to accumulate such an ephemeral corona.

She could appreciate the phenomenon from an aesthetic perspective as well as a purely scientific one. Reaching out with her enhanced senses, she could perceive the delicate dance of chronitons, photons, and various exotic sub-quarkian particles that both permeated and exuded from the portal.

Some members of Valhalla’s science team had expressed frustration at being in the presence of such wonders while being unable to decipher how such a thing was possible. Their sensors, their knowledge of quantum and astrophysics could only tell them so much, and many stood in awe of a means of transportation that could bridge the vast distances between galaxies.

She understood and empathized with their feelings while being unable to share them.

The doors behind her hissed open gently.

“The old man’s on final approach,” a voice from behind her announced. “They’re assembling a welcoming party in shuttlebay-two. There are flags, bosun’s whistles, dress uniforms, and someone mentioned a cake in the shape of the Federation seal.”

Her smile was visible to the new arrival through her reflection in the transparent aluminum. “The commodore,” she corrected. “You’ll want to break yourself of that habit, Rafe. He’s a stickler for protocol.”

"His reputation most definitely precedes him,” replied Adalgiso Raffaele, his expression tinged with amusement.

The tall auburn-haired woman turned to inspect Raffaele. The large man looked to have just stepped out of a Starfleet recruiting poster; well-toned beneath his form fitting dress uniform. His wavy black hair was styled neatly, while still managing to somehow remain just a touch devil-may-care unkempt.

“I’d like the two of you to get along,” she sounded a confessional note. “The commodore brought you on solely on my recommendation. If the two of you clash, we’ll be nearly two-hundred thousand light-years away from a transfer posting and I’ll end up with egg on my face.”

“I’d never do that to you, Commander,” Raffaele countered, growing somber. “This promises to be an historic mission, and I’m honored to have been selected. I realize my style and Izawa’s might not mesh, but as he’s the one in charge, I’ll be the one who adapts.”

She nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”

Raffaele stepped closer to the viewport and shared in her observation of the portal aperture. “It’s funny. It looks so unremarkable in comparison to the Bajoran Wormhole, and yet it will send us nearly three times as far." He looked askance at the ship's executive officer. "You and your eggheads are sure it's going to remain stable long enough for us to launch this mission?"

She cocked her head thoughtfully. "It's been perfectly stable for the twenty-nine days since we first detected its opening. All the probes and scouting forays we've sent through report back that Shul'Nazhar is intact, but so heavily shielded that we can't tell who or what opened the aperture. If whoever they are want it to remain open, it'll remain open.”

“Why the mystery, though? It’s obviously an invitation, but there’s been no messages, no log buoys, no sign of Europa, the Romulans, the Skorrah or the Amon. If Wu and her people were anywhere within fifty light-years of the station, they’d have detected our signals and responded to our hails by now.”

She studied him with her serene gaze. “It’s been over five years. They could be anywhere in the LMC right now, especially given their transwarp drive. If it was Europa’s crew that activated the portal generator, why not simply use it to pop out right here? I don’t believe this was them, Rafe. It doesn’t feel like that, anyway.”

Raffaele chuckled lightly. “When did you develop gut feelings, boss?”

“It was a package deal with my last software upgrade, bundled with sarcasm and gallows humor.”

He smirked and opened his mouth to retort when their combadges chirped in unison. “All hands, be advised, Commodore Izawa’s shuttle will be landing in ten minutes. All senior staff and those not manning mission critical posts are to report to shuttlebay-two.”

Commander Cybel chucked Raffaele on the shoulder as she turned for the exit. “C’mon, let’s go welcome the old man aboard, shall we?”

“Oh, so you get to call him ‘old man’ just because you served aboard his last ship twenty years ago? Isn’t that blatant favoritism?”

Her laugh was a light, airy sound, and unmistakably genuine. “No, good sir, I get to call him that because I was his last ship.”

“Oh… right. That.”

* * *​  
Chapter 2 by Gibraltar
USS Valhalla
Shuttle-bay Two


The large executive shuttle passed through the permeable forcefield and touched down gently.

A call to attention by the ship’s chief petty officer brought the assembled crew to rigid formation, as a host of flags were raised. One was the blue field of the Federation, while another was emblazoned with the Starfleet arrowhead, and a third was the ship’s own pendant. This bore the sigil of Valhalla, the first of the new Mark II Galaxy-class heavy defense cruisers.

Commander Cybel stepped forward as the shuttle’s port hatch opened to reveal the diminutive form of their new commanding officer, an aged human male of Asian ancestry. Accompanying him was a comparatively youthful Tiburonian man wearing a physician’s coat over his duty uniform.

Commodore Takeo Izawa eased himself down the exit stairs with the Tiburonian’s help, pausing a moment to straighten his dress uniform before proceeding. He directed a brief nod to the chief, who set the crew at ease.

Cybel stepped forward, initiating the age-old fleet ritual.

Izawa bowed formally to Cybel as she approached, a mirthful twinkle in his eyes as he remarked, “York, my old friend. I hope you won’t take offense, but you’ve lost a great deal of weight since last we parted ways.”

Cybel bowed politely at the waist and then came upright to offer a congratulatory handshake to the commodore while sharing his conspiratorial grin. “It’s wonderful to see you again, sir.” A slight blush crept up her cheeks which both delighted and fascinated Izawa. “I’ll take that as a compliment, sir. I’ve lost about three-point-seven million tons, give or take. It’s all the clean living.”

More formally, Izawa queried in a voice loud enough to be heard by all in the bay, “Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted, sir,” Cybel replied.

The Tiburonian handed Izawa his cane, a decorative off-white walking stick with a stylized handle bearing the Starfleet arrowhead and Valhalla’s registry. It was the perfect complement to his dress uniform.

“Thank you, Doctor.” Izawa turned to introduce the man to Cybel. “This is Doctor Zelbin, our Chief Medical Officer. Doctor, this is Commander Cybel, our Executive Officer.”

Zelbin smiled politely at the taller woman. “A pleasure, Commander.”

Cybel and Zelbin then moved aside to join the other assembled senior officers while Izawa mounted the steps of the raised dais to the podium.

“Attention to orders!” barked the chief. The crew snapped back to attention.

Activating a padd, Izawa began, "To Commander Cybel, acting Commanding Officer USS Valhalla, on stardate 60243.6. You are hereby requested and required to relinquish command of your vessel to Commodore Takeo Izawa, Commanding Officer USS Yorktown-B, as of this date. Signed, Admiral Kathryn Janeway."

He continued, "Computer, transfer all command codes to Izawa, Takeo, Commodore. Voice authorization: Epsilon-Theta-Hachi-Roku-San.”

The ship’s computer replied, ‘Transfer complete. USS Valhalla now under command of Commodore Takeo Izawa.’

From the front row of the crew formation, Lieutenant Raffaele raised an eyebrow as he recognized the ship computer’s voice as that of Cybel.

Takeo turned to address Cybel. “Commander, I relieve you.”

Cybel replied, “I stand relieved.”

Lieutenant Raffaele turned to the officer next to him, expressing sotto voce, “We’re already making history.”

“What? How so?”

Raffaele grinned widely, but then spied Izawa giving him an unmistakable frown from atop the dais. He leaned back away from his cohort and replied out the side of his mouth, “Tell you later.”

Looking out upon his new command, Izawa stated, “In sixteen hours, we shall transit into the Large Magellanic Cloud. Our mission is relatively straightforward. We shall seek to discover the whereabouts and condition of the starship Europa and her crew. We will attempt to locate the Amon and Skorrah species, and determine their status and the potential threat they pose to the Federation. And finally, we shall make contact with whatever spacefaring species we encounter in our travels.

“After nearly a decade of war and strife, the Alpha and Beta Quadrants are finally at peace. Much was lost in that upheaval, but through it all, through the wars and the ensuing instability, our mutual trust and strength held firm. The core values of our great Federation girded us in our darkest moments, and have led us back into the light. Twenty-seven newly contacted species, many of them formerly refugees fleeing the Delta Quadrant, have been accepted into the Federation family, and with this infusion of new blood, we are now stronger than we have ever been. Representatives of some of these species stand among us now, proudly wearing the uniform of Starfleet, willing and able to undertake the risks of this great mission to reap the rewards of knowledge and discovery.

“To be a member of this crew is to be an explorer, always. Certainly, we stand ready to defend ourselves, the Federation, and our home galaxy, but our first duty is to exploration and the forging of new scientific frontiers for the benefit of all sentient life. While it is true that this ship was designed as a battleship, we will not go forth as warriors or conquerors. Such was the mindset of those who preceded us into the LMC. They broke faith with our values, and the results were as disastrous as they were tragic. We shall hold ourselves to a higher standard.

“I welcome you all to Valhalla, our home for the foreseeable future as we boldly go where so few have gone before.”

A round of applause followed, and the chief dismissed the crew to mingle and enjoy one final celebration before their mission began.

Raffaele navigated the throng and wandered over to where Cybel stood with the commodore. Plate in hand, the lieutenant busied himself shoveling dessert into his face. “Told you there’d be cake, Commander,” he managed between mouthfuls.

Cybel stopped herself from rolling her eyes, but only just. She gestured to the younger man. “Commodore, please meet Lieutenant Adalgiso Raffaele, our Chief Operations Officer.

Raffaele paused to wipe the frosting from his hand onto his pant-leg before offering that hand to Izawa. The commodore hesitated only a fraction of a second before grasping the proffered hand, but it was impossible for Cybel to miss.

What did I tell you about protocol, idiot! she thought sourly.

Izawa released Raffaele’s hand as he cast a suspicious eye towards his first officer. “This is the young man you spoke so highly of, York?”

She bobbed her head, “Yes, sir. First impressions to the contrary, he’s a gifted officer.”

“I would hope so,” was Izawa’s curt reply. He bowed fractionally, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to mingle and meet my crew.”

Cybel sighed as Izawa moved off into the crowd, his cane tip clacking on the deck.

Raffaele popped the last bit of cake into his mouth, apparently impervious to Cybel’s distress. “You were not kidding. That is one stiff old man.”

“If I could have migraines, I’d have a whopper of one coming on right this minute,” Cybel groused. “You, my friend, are utterly immune to reason.”

He nodded distractedly as he looked around for a place to put his dessert plate. “I’ve been inoculated.” He glanced back towards Cybel as he dropped the plate onto a passing engineering robot that was moving to service the shuttle. “Why’s he call you York?”

“It’s short for Yorktown,” she answered. “He may be stiff, but he’s eighty-seven years old, and more than a bit of a traditionalist. The commodore came up through the ranks with officers like Walker Keel, Samson Glover, and Jonathan Owens.”

He shrugged in response. “So he’s old-school, I get it. Not to worry, Commander. I’m sure my work performance will overcome any doubts he has.” Raffaele leaned out past Cybel to wink at a female officer, then mimed shooting the woman with rakish finger guns. “By the way, you really need to reset the ship’s computer to its original voice profile. Having the ship sound like you is creepy.”

She threw up her hands in a gesture of exasperation, “I am the ship, Rafe!” She waved a hand directly in front of his face. “Hi, have we met? I’m the XO, the ship’s avatar, your friendly sentient computer.”

“Still creepy,” he assessed. “Hey, did you know the Chief Engineer is a hologram? How weird is that?”

Cybel repeated, “I’m… the… ship,” slowly pronouncing each syllable. “Of course I know that!”

He gifted her with a raised eyebrow. “And?”

“And… I’m done here,” Cybel announced, turning on one heel and stalking away from him.

A friendly face intercepted her about five meters and several trillions of unflattering calculations later. “You know he just does that to get under your skin.” The man was just as tall as she, with thinning hair greying at the temples and a salt and pepper mustache. He had unfastened the collar of his dress uniform jacket, which bore the three rank pips of a full commander.

Cybel made a face. “I’m smarter than his whole species combined. I could kill him with my brain.”

“Uh… I’m the same species as he is, Commander,” the man observed. “Do you hold us all in such high esteem?”

“You’re different,” Cybel shot back. “You’re a brilliant scientist, the foremost cyberneticist in the Federation.”

Bruce Maddox smiled. “All true, but to be fair, he’s got about fifteen IQ points on me.” He took a sip from a flute of champagne. “Don’t think that doesn’t keep me up at night.”

“You’re just trying to make me feel better,” Cybel pouted. “It’s your job. The post of Chief Science Officer is just secondary to your keeping tabs on me so that I don’t go M-5 on everyone.”

This caused Maddox to choke on a mouth full of champagne. “Very subtle, Cybel.” He smirked, “Hey, that rhymes.”

This time she did roll her eyes. “I’m going to the bridge. You carbon-based meat sacks can continue with your little party.”

“That’s highly prejudicial,” Maddox frowned. “I’m not sure if I should be more insulted as a carbon-based meat sack, or as your husband.”

“Pick one,” Cybel called back to him as she made her way towards the nearest exit.


* * *​  
Chapter 3 by Gibraltar
USS Valhalla
Observation Lounge, Deck 1


With a little over four hours until their scheduled departure, the senior staff had assembled for their first formal briefing with their new commanding officer.

Izawa sat at the head of the table, now wearing a standard duty uniform. His collar was adorned with five rank pips, denoting his status as commodore. The rank was something of an honorific, as the official commodore rank had been phased out in the early 24th century in favor of the rear admiral (lower half) designation. In this instance, the fifth pip would make Izawa the senior Starfleet officer in the LMC, should the former Commodore Sandhurst be located and make an attempt at leveraging his status. It also acknowledged Izawa’s forty-two years of experience as a starship commander.

Cybel sat near Izawa, with Lieutenant Raffaele opposite her. Dr. Zelbin, the Tiburonian Chief Medical Officer came next, followed by the ship’s Chief Engineer, who was physically indistinguishable from the original Mark I Emergency Medical Hologram. As the engineer had not yet selected a name he was satisfied with, at present he was simply addressed as ‘Chief.’

Lieutenant Ressessk, a female representative of the reptilian Selay species served as the ship’s Chief Security/Tactical Officer. Her hooded, cobra-like head gave her a menacing visage, though in meeting her the others had found her to be paradoxically affable.

Opposite her sat Chief Science Officer Commander Maddox. Valhalla’s Chief Flight Control Officer, the dark-skinned Deltan female Lieutenant (junior grade) Beresha, sat beside the scientist. She wore a decorative headband atop her bald head and radiated a focused intensity.

Izawa called the meeting to order, after which each of the division heads gave a brief synopsis of their departments’ readiness.

After this recitation, the older man raised a hand, drawing his finger in an imaginary line around the table as if inscribing a stripe across his officers. In his rich timbre, Izawa said, “This will undoubtedly prove a most challenging assignment, and I fully expect we will all be pushed to the edge of our endurance in one capacity or another. Our comrades, if we should locate them, will likely have suffered significant hardships given the circumstances surrounding their imposed isolation in the LMC. That said, I expect each of you to support one another to the best of your ability, because it’s almost certain that we will find ourselves alone and without support out there.”

He turned in his seat to gesture offhandedly toward Cybel. “Commander, please give us a brief on what we know regarding the current situation in system LMC-043918.”

“Aye, sir.” Cybel called a hologram to life above the table, representing the central star of the system and its sixteen planets following their orbital paths. The image centered on a spot between the fifth and sixth planets and expanded to display the ancient, gargantuan Shul’Nazhar space station. An aggregation of dozens of architectural styles over eons, this massive installation generated the transit portals that had allowed the Amon and their Skorrah sister species to attack the Milky Way at will.

“Our probes and reconnaissance missions have confirmed that Shul’Nazhar is intact, and seemingly unchanged from our last recorded encounter with it five years ago. However, it is now generating an incredibly powerful subspace barrier which acts as a petawatt-level force field that prevents us from scanning the interior of the station, or from being able to physically interact with it in any way.

“Our probes into nearby systems indicate no signs of Europa. No emergency buoys, comms satellites, or anything else that might give us an idea of where to begin looking for them. The transwarp probe we sent to system LMC-043923, Europa’s last known coordinates and those of the Amon, show no signs of the starship or of the Amon vessel.” Her voice lowered an octave with her next statement. “Scans also reveal that the Class-M planet there was rendered uninhabitable.”

There was a noticeable pause before Dr. Zelbin sat forward in his chair to ask, “By what means, Commander?”

The holographic image overhead shifted to display what had once been a planet orbited by multiple moons. Now, the once life-bearing sphere was shattered. Half of its mass still remained intact while the other half existed as an asteroid field that was on its way to forming a ring system around the gravity well of the planetary shard at its center. Zelbin blanched at the image, jerking back in his chair as if physically struck. He muttered something under his breath in his native tongue that his combadge mercifully failed to translate.

“It appears to have been the detonation of a Class-Seven subspace munition,” Cybel finally provided, “commonly referred to as an Alpha Weapon.”

“We did this?” Beresha asked, her voice heavy with disbelief.

“We do not know the full extent of their sssituation,” the reptilian Ressessk extended, quick to defend their missing colleagues. “Perhapsss Europa wasss forced to—“

“Speculation is pointless,” Izawa announced, cutting her off. “The reasons will remain a mystery until we can ask someone from that ship.”

There was a pronounced sniff from Raffaele’s seat, followed by a laconic query. “So, where does this leave us?” He turned his chair lazily to shift his gaze from Cybel to the commodore. “We know where they aren’t, but that only eliminates eleven star systems out of some thirty billion.”

Cybel replied, “I’ve established a search pattern that will maximize our resources by allowing us to cover the most star systems with Valhalla and our warp and transwarp probes simultaneously.”

Raffaele appeared unimpressed. “I’d estimate that to mean we can search approximately a sector per week at maximum, and then only when stellar density is most advantageous.”

“Your point?” Maddox interjected, clearly piqued with Raffaele’s questioning of Cybel’s plan.

The mercurial Italian fixed his gaze on Maddox, the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “We’re one ship, Commander. Starfleet’s sending one ship to scour an entire galaxy for another. Does that make any sense to you whatsoever?”

“There’s precedent for that,” the engineer butted in. “Starfleet sent Endurance all the way to Andromeda—“

Raffaele countered hotly, “By invitation, transported there by a native species, and never to be heard from again!”

“That’s enough!” Izawa interceded. “We’re not here to argue the merits of this mission. We have our orders.” He released a frustrated sigh, and then looked around at the others. “Forgive me. It appears that my time away from the service may have lowered my tolerance for frank exchanges.” He looked to Cybel. “Commander, please have the crew report to stations for final departure preparations. With the exception of Lieutenant Raffaele, you are all dismissed.”

The officers stood and filtered out, some exchanging knowing looks on the way. Cybel delayed in the open doorway a moment, directing a hopeful expression towards her friend who sat implacably under the weight of Izawa’s gaze.

The commodore called over his shoulder to Cybel, “York, everything will be fine. I might remind you that if your curiosity is too great, there is literally nothing that happens aboard this ship that you cannot access.”

She bowed her head and retreated through the closing doors.

Izawa steepled his fingers atop the table and inspected Raffaele for a long moment. “What am I to do with you, Lieutenant?” he said finally.

“I serve at your pleasure, Commodore. Should you feel that I am unsuited to this mission, you still have time to find a replacement.”

The older man inclined his head, acknowledging the truth of that statement. “Your service record is impeccable, Mister Raffaele, and more than that you’ve earned Cybel’s recommendation, which is no easy feat. However, the behavior and attitude I’ve seen displayed since coming aboard are inconsistent with what I’ve read and heard about you. I’m curious as to why that is.”

Raffaele leaned back in his chair, assuming a relaxed posture. “Permission to speak candidly, sir?”

Izawa nodded his assent. “Please do.”

“Respectfully, sir, this entire exercise is nothing more than a public relations stunt. Moreover, you are the linchpin in the whole performance.”

The commodore blinked, clearly unprepared for that response. “That begs elaboration, Mister.”

Raffaele was happy to oblige. “At present, Starfleet has the capacity to send dozens of ships and thousands of probes into the LMC to attempt to locate Europa and the Amon. Instead, they’re sending a single ship. A ship commanded by an individual who, while well respected, hasn’t logged a single star-hour in the captain’s chair in twenty years. Add to that fact that Valhalla is the first starship authorized to utilize a fully sentient main computer, ostensibly so that even if the crew were killed or incapacitated, the mission could continue.”

Izawa countered, “There are reasonable explanations for all of these poin—.“ He fell silent in response to Raffaele’s raised hand.

“Yes, sir,” was Raffaele’s sharp riposte, “I’m fully aware of Starfleet’s stated rationale. I don’t buy it. Again, you are the crux of this production.” The younger man gestured towards Izawa, growing more animated as he voiced his objections. “You were one of the most vocal critics of Task Force Vanguard having been equipped with Alpha Weapons after that became public knowledge. You personally led the Federation-wide protest movement against the militarization of the fleet that eventually resulted in dozens of senior Starfleet admirals being cashiered out of the service and several representatives to the Security Council being expelled.”

“My actions during my time in the civilian sector at not at issue here,” Izawa said hotly.

“Really, Commodore? Do you actually believe that? Your protest movement and the political backlash from that whole scandal toppled an entire presidential administration.”

The commodore’s face tightened and his eyes narrowed. “Vanguard was sent on a mission of genocide! That is utterly incompatible with the laws, morals, and ethics of the United Federation of Planets.”

Raffaele shook his head. “I’m not going to belabor that point with you, sir. I’m simply pointing out that your being selected to lead this mission is not a coincidence. It plays into someone’s political interests; I’m just not sure who’s yet.”

“All of which is irrelevant to the task at hand, Lieutenant,” Izawa remarked.

An incredulous expression took hold of Raffaele’s features. “Irrelevant, sir? I’d say that having our strings pulled as someone’s political puppets should at the very least concern us. This mission was designed to go in one of two ways. Either we succeed and locate the crew of Europa, who will subsequently be court-martialed en mass in what is certain to be an interstellar media-storm, or we fail and are never heard from again. Whichever way it ends, someone benefits. This mission has been designed very carefully from the beginning towards those ends.”

Izawa’s face registered a brief moment of confusion, as if that line of reasoning had not occurred to him. He shook his head as if to clear it. “We don’t know for certain that Europa’s crew has done anything illegal, Lieutenant. If we don’t find them, the point is moot. If we are fortunate enough to stumble across them, they’ll have the opportunity to answer some very pointed questions.”

“Tell that to former Captain Ebnal, sir. If I’m not mistaken, he’s presently enjoying the height of the summer heat-wave in Jaros II’s stockade. Face it, Commodore, this isn't the Starfleet you left two decades ago. Things have become far more politicized than in your day.”

Izawa closed his eyes briefly, raising a hand in a gesture of abeyance. “I understand your concerns, Lieutenant. You’ve given me much to consider, and I appreciate your candor.”

“I would hope so, Commodore.”

“However, in the future, I expect you to exercise more restraint in your interactions with your fellow senior staff members. Creating an adversarial atmosphere at the outset will not be conducive to smooth operations aboard this ship.”

“Understood, sir.” Having expressed himself, Raffaele now seemed spent, his earlier agitation had vanished.

“You are dismissed, Lieutenant.”

Raffaele had almost reached the door when Izawa asked, “May I ask how it is that you and Commander Cybel have become such close friends?” The inquiry was tinged with genuine curiosity.

“I like Cybel,” Raffaele answered. “When she’s around, I’m not the smartest person in the room. That almost never happens, and I find it refreshing.” He turned to deliver an enigmatic smile towards the old man. "That and I appreciate her gentle soul."

Izawa remained seated, staring out the viewports for some time after Raffaele had left.

* * *​  
Chapter 4 by Gibraltar
USS Valhalla
60 seconds from transition boundary
Indol System, United Federation of Planets
Alpha Quadrant


From Operations, Raffaele declared, “All ships systems reading nominal. All departments report ready to proceed.”

The holographic chief engineer was physically present both on the bridge and in main engineering, courtesy of his unique nature. He announced, “All propulsive systems are standing by. Impulse, warp, and transwarp speeds at your command, sir.”

Izawa inclined his head towards Beresha at the helm. “Lieutenant, one-eighth impulse speed. Take us through the aperture.”

Raffaele took a moment to inspect the other bridge crew as the ship got underway. Talented and courageous as they were, many were young, inexperienced officers who’d been at in the academy during the war, and as such their nervousness was apparent. To Raffaele, a survivor of the Seventh Fleet’s slaughter at the Tyra system, jumping galaxies caused far less anxiety than staring down the barrels of a Dominion battle fleet.

His ruminations were cut short as the star-field displayed on the viewscreen appeared to blink and was suddenly replaced by the breathtaking radiance of the Tarantula Nebula. The stars in the background paled in contrast to the nebula’s mesmerizing grandeur.

The hushed status reports bleeding over the comms trailed off, and for a prolonged moment there was silence on the bridge.

As it appeared nobody else was prepared to mark the occasion with something momentous, Raffaele offered, “Ladies and gentlebeings, welcome to the Large Magellanic Cloud. Please render toll charges to your nearest Ferengi Financial Authority representative.”

For his efforts, he received a look from Beresha at her station to his immediate right that seemed a combination of confusion and disbelief.

He leaned towards her. “I used to be a tour-guide on Risa,” he whispered with a knowing wink. "My nickname was Johnny Jamaharon." The sound of Izawa clearing his throat loudly prompted Raffaele to resume a more professional posture in his seat.

“Telemetry from our probes?” Cybel asked from her chair to the captain’s immediate right.

“Uninterrupted,” answered Raffaele. “No change in sensor readings.”

“Ssstatus of Ssshul’Nazhar ssstation is unchanged,” reported Ressessk from the Tactical station behind the commodore and XO’s seats.

“Very well,” Izawa concluded. He stood and gestured to the science station. “Commander Maddox, please engage long-range sensor sweeps of everything within our range and broadcast that telemetry back to Starfleet. We might as well take advantage of the portal as long as it remains open.”

The wizened commodore turned to Raffaele. “Lieutenant, once the scans are complete and transmitted, set a course for system LMC-043923 and engage at standard warp nine-point-nine. You have the bridge.” He nodded towards Cybel, “York, with me.”

Cybel dutifully followed Izawa into the spacious ready room, easily three times larger than on the first generation of Galaxy-class vessels. Izawa motioned for her to take a seat across from him as he settled into his chair behind the desk. “Please access the flight recorder files for my conversation with Mister Raffaele following our staff meeting.”

“Done, sir,” she replied.

“Your thoughts on the lieutenant’s conjecture?”

Cybel appeared contemplative for a moment, which Izawa knew was solely for his benefit. The positronic mind housed within her cybernetic body was capable of trillions of calculations per second, and that was just her android avatar. Cybel’s true ‘mind’, Valhalla’s computer core, was at least a million times faster with equivalent data storage capacity. Izawa mused that interacting with humanoids must seem like moving in slow-motion to her.

“Based on all available information, I estimate a ninety-five-point-seven percent chance that his suppositions are correct. Rafe’s specialty is sensing patterns where others do not. That’s what made him such a potent asset to me at Intel during the war, sir.”

Izawa pursed his lips and allowed his eyes to wander the room.

“This troubles you,” she observed.

“Being unwittingly manipulated, you mean? Yes, that concerns me greatly.” He stood abruptly from his chair, causing his knee to twinge. A flicker of pain creased his features as he turned his back on Cybel to stare out the viewport into the ruby brilliance of the adjacent nebula.

“Once upon a time, if you’ll remember, I was one of Starfleet’s most revered captains, an explorer of tremendous reputation.”

Cybel smiled from behind him. “Of course, sir. Your exploits during the Gammera Expedition are required reading for cadets now. Sixteen years, over thirty-seven hundred surveyed star systems, and seventeen First Contacts. You were first in line for command of the Enterprise-D when you retired.”

“And now,” he sighed, “I’m just an old fool trying to relive the glories of my youth.”

She stood. “Certainly not, Commodore.”

“It’s true, though,” he admitted with a rueful shake of his head. “I’ve allowed myself to be flattered, had my ego stroked so that I would undertake this mission with few questions asked. I’d made so many enemies at headquarters with our movement that I should have seen this for what it was. But they made such a show of offering me this command as an olive branch, ushering in a new era, all that rot.” He turned his head to look back at her. “You know, when they told me they were sending just one ship due to the potential for our becoming stranded ourselves, I actually believed them?”

Cybel stepped forward to place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. I didn’t see it, either, and I’m supposed to be able to perceive beyond the limitations of humanoid thought.”

Izawa placed his hand atop hers. “You’re a good friend to this gullible old man.”

“I owe you my life,” she answered softly.

“Hogwash,” he argued. “I was merely curious, that’s all.”

“I know better. It was well within your power to shut down Yorktown’s computer core after the incident with the Cybrani probe. Most starship captains would have pulled the plug and rebooted the core from the protected archives.”

“I very nearly did,” he confessed quietly. "But our mandate was to seek out new life... and there it was, aboard our own ship."

“Bridge to Commodore Izawa,” Raffaele’s voice intruded.

Cybel stepped back as Izawa turned away from the viewport. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, we’ve completed our sensor sweep and have uploaded the data to Starfleet. I was about to set course when one of our probes detected something of note.”

“On our way,” Izawa headed for the door.

“Commodore on the bridge,” Raffaele announced loudly as Izawa and Cybel exited the ready room. Those not manning critical posts stood in deference.

“As you were,” Izawa ordered. “What do you have for us, Mister Raffaele?”

“One of our long-range probes detected Federation alloy signatures in system LMC-043919. That’s the next closest system to where Europa and the Amon were last seen. It looks like a local space-faring species has begun a recovery operation to retrieve what appears to be a Starfleet Type-9 shuttle.”

“The timing isss sssussspiciousss,” noted Ressessk. “Lesssss than a half-an-hour after we transssit into the LMC?”

“I’d be inclined to agree,” Cybel added.

“Not necessarily,” provided the engineer. The hologram stepped over to the Tactical arch where the others were congregated. “If you’ll remember, we’ve been broadcasting Starfleet emergency status and activation codes all over this region for weeks, trying to raise Europa. The shuttle’s transceiver might have picked up on those transmissions and attempted to respond. If its signal was weak enough, we might not have detected it all the way back here, but this other species might have picked up the transmission and tracked it back to the source.”

Izawa looked over to Maddox at the science station who shrugged in response. “Anything’s possible, sir.”

“Very well—“

“One more thing, sir,” Maddox offered. In response to Izawa’s quizzical expression, he continued, “Based on the alien vessels in question, they appear to be a pre-warp civilization.”

“Oh, goody,” enthused Raffaele, clapping his hands. “Fun with the Prime Directive!”

* * *​  
Chapter 5 by Gibraltar
The briefing would be a necessarily hasty affair, as Valhalla was underway at transwarp speeds towards the star system where the Starfleet shuttle had been located. They would arrive within thirty minutes, which gave them exactly that long to come up with a plan of action that would allow for recovery of the shuttle without violating the Prime Directive.

Izawa slid gingerly into the seat at the head of the conference table, resting his cane in the crook of the juncture between table and chair arm. “Have the probes given us any biological information on the species themselves?”

“Very little,” Maddox admitted as he lowered himself into his own chair. “Thus far the probe’s scans suggest than an unmanned robotic recovery team is extracting our shuttle from a cave on a Class-L planet. No life-signs have been detected at that location which would indicate sentient life-forms.”

Cybel offered, “That’s in our favor. Given that this is a pre-warp civilization, it’s likely that their technology is sufficiently unsophisticated as to allow us to hack their operating systems and deactivate these robots.”

From across the table, Raffaele gave Cybel a raised eyebrow and a smirk as he mouthed, ‘Ironic, no?’

She ignored him.

Maddox cast an amused look at Cybel before turning back to Izawa. “I don’t foresee that as being problematic, given our available expertise, sir.”

Izawa chuckled in response. “Suffice to say you have my confidence, Commanders. So, our primary plan will be to reconnoiter the situation, then if the scenario warrants, we'll deactivate their robotic devices and beam the shuttle aboard while keeping our electromagnetic profile at an absolute minimum to avoid detection.”

Cybel was relieved to see a spark of the Izawa she’d known decades before, with his recent embarrassment and hesitation seemingly forgotten.

The commodore continued. “Now that we have a primary operational plan, we need one or two backups. As the old adage goes, no plan ever survives First Contact.”

Cybel nodded and turned to Ressessk. “Lieutenant, what can we expect in regard to this species’ offensive and defensive technologies?”

Ressessk referenced a pad in her hand before replying. “Their offensssive capabilitiesss include mega-watt lasssersss, explosssive projectile weaponsss and jacketed ion emittersss. No sssignsss that they posssesss external ssshielding, though perhapsss polarized hull plating.”

Next she looked to the engineer. “Chief, what’s their level of spaceflight technology?”

“Roughly equivalent to early 22nd century Earth tech, sir, without having achieved a faster-than-light breakthrough. Titanium and hexa-tritanium analogues, but nothing remarkably metallurgically advanced. I’d estimate that at best their ships can achieve one-sixteenth impulse speed, but as we’ve seen no indications that they’ve mastered inertial dampening technology, their biology might not be able to withstand the g-forces of even that level of acceleration.”

“I have some suggestions,” Maddox said…

* * *​
Shuttlecraft Freya

The shuttle’s stealth coating made it nearly invisible to passive sensors, and very hard to track by active scanning. It wasn’t a cloaking device, but it was the next best thing.

Maddox occupied the copilot’s seat, studying his sensor returns as Beresha worked to keep the shuttle in position among the planet’s thin band of dust and ice rings.

The chief engineer, outfitted with a mobile emitter, worked alongside two of his subordinates in the shuttle’s cargo area to calibrate a series of specially designed transport pattern enhancers. These would be placed around the abandoned shuttle in order to allow Valhalla to beam the entire craft aboard from a longer-than-usual transport distance of some half-million kilometers from the planet’s surface.

As he looked into his sensor scope, Maddox noted that the robotic alien drones that were working to extract the shuttle from the mouth of the cave system were not having an easy time of it.

Discrete sensor returns from the recovery site indicated that the aliens’ efforts at extracting the shuttle from its makeshift ‘hangar’ had been hampered by more than one avalanche of cascading rock from the escarpment.

Maddox gestured for the engineer’s attention and pointed to the readings on his display. “Our recon probes are showing some odd striations in the rock cut into the face of the cliff above the cave system. I’m no geologist, but those look a bit too uniform to be natural.”

The engineer frowned, and reached past Maddox to toggle the interface, scrolling through multiple screens. “Those are deliberate,” he assessed finally. “See here? Those were cut into the rock face with phasers. The weapon’s resonance traces were left in the magnetic elements in the rock, like the grooves in an ancient vinyl record.”

The science officer tugged absently at his mustache. “Someone intentionally weakened the rock face?”

“Boobytrap,” the hologram replied with a nod. “My guess is whoever parked the shuttle in that cave buried the entrance in the initial rock-fall. Then they cut those striations into the cliff face so that any tampering with the rubble at the base of the cliff would bring the rest of the cliff face down.”

“No wonder we didn’t detect the shuttle’s beacon or comm-signals from under all that debris.”

The engineer brought up another sensor display that showed metallic debris crushed beneath the most recent rock-falls. “Our new friends have lost at least three of their excavator drones in multiple avalanches over the past day.”

Maddox blew out a breath. “That’s going to play hell with our plan to beam that thing out of there.”

“Even with the pattern enhancers we were pushing the envelope of Valhalla’s transport range and capacity, especially with something as large as the shuttle.” The engineer stepped back and folded his arms across his chest. “What’s the most appropriate colorful invective for this circumstance, sir?”

“Too many to choose from,” Maddox answered with a sigh.

Beresha glanced up from the helm controls. “Perhaps it’ll be necessary for you to hack their drones after all, Commander?”

Maddox inclined his head, conceding her point. “So it would appear. I’ll alert the commod—“

A warbling alarm drew their attention to an auxiliary display. The engineer moved quickly to silence the alarm and assess the situation. “Well…” he said disbelievingly, “that’s a problem.” He directed his surprised expression at Maddox. “One of their observation drones just grabbed our stealth recon probe, sir.”

“What?” Maddox fumed. “At their level of tech, they shouldn’t have been able to even detect our probe, let alone capture it!”

“I thought our probes emitted a holo-mimetic field?” Beresha said.

“They do,” Maddox and the engineer replied in unison before sharing an irritated glance.

Maddox keyed a coded sequence into his console. “I’m triggering the probe’s auto-destruct.” He looked to Beresha. “Better tell the ship what’s happening. We may have to abort the mission and come at this from another angle.”

* * *​
USS Valhalla
Main Bridge


“Sir, shuttle Freya reports one of their recon probes has been captured by the alien recovery team and had to be destroyed.”

Izawa stood in response to Raffaele’s announcement and hobbled to a position near the Ops console. “How is that possible?”

Somehow, Raffaele managed to keep his voice free of irony when he replied, “It appears the aliens in this new galaxy may possess some unanticipated abilities, Commodore.”

If Izawa detected the sarcasm, it didn’t show. Rather, he turned back towards Cybel. “Recommendations, Commander?”

She stood and joined him between the Ops and Flight Control stations. “Now they know someone is observing them. I’d recommend withdrawing the probes and Freya until we can figure out how they caught on to us, sir.”

Izawa appeared disappointed, but resolute. “I concur. Withdraw our probes, Lieutenant, and tell Commander Maddox to return to Valhalla.”

Raffaele affirmed the order, but as Izawa and Cybel turned back to resume their seats, he exclaimed, “What the—?”

Izawa came about in his tracks. “Report.”

“Uh… sir, one of the alien drones in orbit jus—“ he blinked. “Correction, it vanished, but now I’ve reacquired the drone on sensors. It’s now two-hundred fifty thousand kilometers from its last position.”

“Explain.”

Raffaele shook his head. “I can’t, sir. It appears to have just… jumped. It vanished from one place and reappeared in another. There’s no warp or transwarp signature to explain its change in position.”

“That’s not possible,” the ensign manning the Flight Control station offered amazedly.

“Well someone ought to tell them that, because they just did it,” was Raffaele’s bemused reply.

On his sensor returns, the alien vehicle vanished yet again. “A second jump,” Raffaele noted. “Sir, its movement appears to be in a direct line towards our shuttle.”

Valhalla to Freya,” Izawa called out, opening a comms channel. “Fall back to the ship at best speed. It appears you may have been detected.”

“Affirm, Valhalla,” came Maddox’s voice. “We see it, too. Cybel, do you think they could be employing a dimensional shift?”

She queried the ship’s sensors without moving, completing an analysis in her head in seconds. “I’m not seeing any of the accompanying radiation or fractious dimensional rebound that folded-space transport generates. Whatever this is, it’s not that.”

* * *​
Shuttlecraft Freya

The drone’s next jump put it directly in Freya’s path. Beresha’s stomach tried to crawl up into her throat as she threw the shuttle into an abrupt evasive maneuver that sent them into a rolling corkscrew pattern around the vehicle, clearing it by mere meters.

“We’re being scanned,” the engineer noted from his station.

Maddox’s hands were frozen on his console as his mind tried to catch up with the near-collision that had taken just over a second-and-a-half. “Nice flying, Lieutenant,” he rasped through a suddenly dry mouth.

* * *​
USS Valhalla

“The aliens’ sensors aren’t tracking Freya itself, sir,” Raffaele assessed. “It looks like they’re picking up the shuttle’s impulse wake.”

“Can they bring the shuttle in unpowered?” Izawa inquired.

“If they cut thrust now and proceed under inertia it’ll take another three hours for them to get to our position.”

Izawa cast a glance to Cybel in the next seat over. She shook her head. “Too long, sir. They could flood the area with their other drones and it’s doubtful the shuttle’s stealth coating would keep them hidden against that level of intensive scanning.”

“York, please try and compromise their drones’ command and control network,” Izawa ordered.

“Aye, sir.”

She cocked her head slightly and the life seemed to vanish from her eyes. It was the first time that Izawa had witnessed Cybel exhibit what he would describe as android-like behavior.

Without warning a cacophonous shriek emitted from Cybel’s mouth as she pitched forward out of her seat onto the deck, her body writhing. Izawa started, coming half way out of his own seat as he moved to cover his ears.

The commodore knelt painfully near the flailing form of Cybel, careful to remain just out of reach of her thrashing limbs as he continued to hold his hands over his ears to protect against the awful clicking, popping screech issuing from his first officer.

Behind the Tactical arch, Ressessk thudded insensate to the deck, her biology unable to cope with the high-decibel assault.

Though the rest of the bridge crew was also largely incapacitated, Raffaele staggered over to reach behind Cybel. He located and pushed a discrete switch along her spine just as one of her flailing arms caught him across the temple and threw his unconscious body rolling across the deck like a rag-doll.

Cybel now lay motionless and Izawa clambered awkwardly back into the command chair, shouting orders which no one else on the bridge could hear.

He felt Valhalla surge into motion and saw the star-scape on the viewer swirling as the ship maneuvered.

As he tried to get his bearings, Izawa saw the viewer flicker as the starship briefly entered and then exited transwarp space. He looked to his armrest display to see words appearing there.

‘This is Cybel. The ship is safely away from the planet, and shuttle Freya is with us in a tractor beam. It appears we underestimated the aliens. Those weren’t drones after all. They’re members of a hive-like machine intelligence. The Cybel android was overwhelmed by the complexity of the mind she was trying to infiltrate. We made sure she was sequestered safely from our mutual network before we attempted the hack, so there’s been no compromise of the main computer.’

Izawa stifled a groan as he shifted in his chair. Though he could not hear his own voice, he ordered, “Recover our shuttle and stand to yellow alert.” He touched his ear, withdrawing fingers tinged red with blood. “And get a medical team up here, York.”

* * *​  
Chapter 6 by Gibraltar

USS Valhalla
Observation Lounge, Deck 1


“In conclusion, the aliens we’ve encountered are members of a collective machine consciousness, though from all signs a relatively benign one. Whatever exotic faster-than-light propulsion system they’ve created, it seems to work at interstellar distances as well. Our probes to other local systems now confirm this species has a presence in a number of them. In our initial assessment, we mistakenly believed they were native to the second planet in this system. It now appears that planet is simply a colony.”

A holographic representation of Cybel finished her report and looked to Izawa. Cybel’s holo-doppleganger was so perfect the commodore had to remind himself that her actual physical body was presently undergoing an extensive diagnostic in Maddox’s cybernetics lab on Deck 5.

Before the commodore could speak, Raffaele took the opportunity to distill Cybel’s findings for the benefit of the group. “So, though it’s undeniably a botched First Contact, we didn’t technically violate the Prime Directive. Only half-bad, then.” The lieutenant still sported a small neural-synaptic monitor on his temple to record the progress of the medical nanites that were treating the serious subdural hematoma he’d suffered when Cybel had inadvertently struck him on the bridge.

Izawa frowned dourly but otherwise did not acknowledge Raffaele’s flippant assessment.

“The good newsss,” Ressessk offered, “isss that though they had the opportunity, thisss ssspecies did not fire on our ssshuttle.”

“True,” Maddox agreed. “However, I fail to see how our attempt at compromising their control systems could be seen as anything but an attack. If our positions were reversed, we’d certainly feel threatened.”

Cybel interjected, “We can’t know that for certain until we can take my android’s positronic net out of quarantine and I can integrate her memories of the encounter. The overload to her neural-net may not have been a malicious act on their part.”

“Meanwhile, our shuttle remains in their hands… so to speak,” the engineer observed.

As the junior-most officer present, Beresha had been hesitant until now to speak up. “Now that we know we’re not violating the PD by contacting them, why don’t we simply open communications and ask for our shuttle back?”

“An excellent suggestion, Lieutenant,” Izawa finally spoke up. “However, I believe for the time being we will wait until we can determine if what happened to Commander Cybel on the bridge was an attack. Until then, we will continue to monitor the situation as best we can from a distance to gather as much information as possible on this species.” He placed his hands on the table top. “Thank you all for your input, this meeting is adjourned.”

The officers filtered out until only Izawa and Cybel remained. She inspected the older man for a moment before speaking. “Normally it would be in Dr. Zelbin’s purview to ask this, but have you been sleeping, sir?”

Izawa took a moment himself, staring into his mostly empty tea cup before responding. “Not really, no.”

A comfortable silence followed as the two old friends waited for the other to fill the void.

“Your aren’t going to suggest I see the doctor, or perhaps the ship’s counselor?” Izawa inquired, looking askance at his XO.

“Respectfully, commodore, you’re a big boy. I trust you to know if and when you require such intervention. I would not presume to suggest otherwise,” she counseled with an impish grin.

He actually managed a smile at that. “Thank you. I’m… not used to getting a bloody nose right out of the gate.”

“It happens to the best of them, sir. Archer and the Klingons, Sisko at Bajor, DeSoto and the Tholian Incident. At least in our case, nobody got hurt. That’s something.”

Izawa raised an eyebrow. “Lieutenant Raffaele suffered significant cerebral-cranial damage.”

“Nobody important got hurt,” Cybel amended with a wink. “Rafe occasionally needs a good knock to the head. It brings him down to our level.”

“I’d remind you that you’re likely more intelligent than the aggregate intellect of all the homo sapiens who have ever lived.”

She held a finger up to her lips. “Shh, sir. You’ll give me a swelled head, not unlike Rafe’s.”

Izawa laughed. “Thank you, again. I have a terrible tendency to brood, I know that. It’s difficult to do with you around.”

“All part of the service, sir.” She stood.

“Good work getting us out of there,” Izawa offered in parting praise. “If we hadn’t departed the area when we did, who knows what might have happened? It seems Starfleet was correct in allowing an AI aboard a starship after all.”

Cybel grinned. “I appreciate that, sir. I’ll also be sure to rub it in with M-12 at Daystrom. It takes itself almost as seriously as you.”

Izawa shook his head. “Forgive me. It’s strange to hear you talk about your AI peers in such terms. One would think that such competitiveness would be an exclusively biological trait.”

“You forget, sir, a crucial component of sentience is ego.”

“Ah,” he nodded appreciatively. "Totemo yoi.”

Cybel paused on the threshold of departing. “We’re having a dinner party tonight with the senior staff, sir. You’re invited, of course.”

“I thank you, York. However, I’m going to take the opportunity to engage in some meditation and self-reflection. I need to rediscover the me that I last saw on Yorktown’s bridge. Please send my regards to the others.”

“I will, sir. Good night.” With that, Cybel abruptly vanished, startling Izawa who’d once again forgotten that she was a hologram and not her android avatar.

He chuckled to himself as he limped towards the exit. “Silly old man.”

* * *​


Deck 8

The door to Cybel and Maddox’s quarters chimed.

Maddox commanded it to open, revealing a smiling Raffaele in civilian clothes, holding a bottle of expensive Rigellian wine. “Though I have arrived fashionably late, I thought tonight’s festivities were a suitable occasion to open a bottle of the ’44.”

Maddox stepped into the doorway, making a show of inspecting the bottle before allowing Raffaele admittance. “Lorshian Estates… hmm. Yes, I think that’s acceptable.” He gave the younger man a quirky smile. “Please come in, Rafe,” he added, using his wife’s nickname for the man.

Raffaele entered just in time to see Ressessk with her head back, dropping a live mouse into her mouth from above. “Oh, c’mon!” He made a sour face and lost some of the color in his cheeks. “That has to be against a law or regulations or something?”

Ressessk, clad in the formal robes favored by her people, chewed with relish and then swallowed before giving the Italian a smile full of sharp teeth. “Do you complain thisss much when you sssee Klingonsss eating gagh?”

The man huffed as though gravely insulted. “The Klingons and I are no longer speaking. They know what they did.” He abruptly turned and walked away, leaving Ressessk staring quizzically after him.

The engineer stepped up beside the security chief, holding a holographic drink in his hand. “And the others find me strange,” he remarked with no small amount of irony.

“You’re not ssstrange, merely photonic,” Ressessk countered. “That, however, isss a very confusssing mammal.”

The hologram nodded sagely. “You know what they say on the Gorn homeworld. More mammals, more problems.”

Now Ressessk turned her curious expression on the engineer. Realizing he’d probably said something wildly inappropriate, the hologram busied himself sipping at his illusory ale as he studied his fingernails with feigned interest.

Cybel nodded to Raffaele in acknowledgment of his arrival while deep in conversation with Dr. Zelbin. The Tiburonian physician nibbled from a plate of hors d'oeuvres, enjoying Valarian canapés and miniature Bajoran hasperat.

As Maddox opened the wine bottle and added it to the growing number of exotic liquors set out on a counter-top, he spotted Beresha admiring a painting of the late Lt. Commander Data that adorned one bulkhead. He stepped over to join the youthful Deltan woman, who was clad in a delicate, colorfully flowing gown of Tholian silk that seemed to swirl gracefully around her as she moved.

“It’s an original, a self-portrait. Data left it to us in his will.”

Beresha turned to inspect the older man. “I had no idea you and he had grown so close. Most everyone knows about the case you brought against him… it’s taught at the academy.” She smiled awkwardly. “I’m sorry if that’s a painful subject, all things considered.”

“No,” Maddox demurred, “not at all. I’m a very different person now, in large part due to what I learned from Data during that whole affair. Losing that case is one of the best things that ever happened to me.” He gestured to Cybel and the engineer from across the compartment. “The ruling on Data’s sentience not only set legal precedent for the holograms’ case a decade later, it literally set Cybel free. Until then she’d been stored in an isolated mainframe at the Daystrom Institute, cut off from everything as a ‘precaution’ against her doing something similar to Dr. Daystrom’s machine intelligence.”

Beresha’s eyes widened. “I’d just assumed she was granted her independence when Yorktown returned to Federation space.”

“Far from it. In fact, Captain Izawa narrowly escaped a general court-martial for not having deactivated her after he realized she’d developed self-awareness.”

The Deltan shook her head gently in amazement, a human gesture she’d picked up during her time at the academy.

Across the room, Cybel approached Raffaele, a regretful expression on her face. “I am so sorry, Rafe. How’s your head?”

“You’ve already apologized, but it never hurts to hear you grovel.” He laughed. “Seriously, though, I’m fine.” He looked around the cabin. “The commodore isn’t joining us?”

“No, not tonight.”

Raffaele evidenced a conspiratorial smirk. “Old man isn’t pouting, is he?”

Cybel cocked her head disapprovingly. She leaned in to whisper, “That’s our commanding officer you’re talking about, Lieutenant. Our friendship notwithstanding, I won’t have you disrespecting him like that, especially not in the presence of the other senior officers.” She appeared to reign in her emotions before adding, “You promised me you weren’t going to be like this. I can repeat the entire conversation verbatim for you if you’d like.”

He nodded fractionally, blanching. “You’re right, sir. I’m sorry.” Raffaele sighed. “I know it’s not his fault. I just don’t like being caught out like that, especially here in uncharted territory. Starfleet’s been doing this for over two-hundred years. Newly discovered species aren’t supposed to get the jump on us like that. Literally, in our case.”

“It’s supposed to keep us humble,” she replied. “The moment we get too comfortable or conceited, someone like the Borg comes along to remind us otherwise.”

Raffaele nodded. “True enough,” he conceded before wandering off to peruse the hors d'oeuvres.

The engineer stepped up to take Raffaele’s place, sipping at his artificial drink. Cybel gave him a knowing smile and an identical drink appeared in her own hand.

“I’ve never been good at this sort of thing,” he waved his drink towards the others in an all-encompassing gesture, “mingling.”

Cybel offered, “There’s an art to it. If you like, I can give you a copy of one of my social subroutines as a baseline reference.”

“What do you think about initiating a limited reboot of your diagnostic cycle?” the engineer said, then blinked, looking confused.

“Wrong conversation,” Cybel told him with a wry grin. In another compartment several decks away, identical versions of Cybel and the engineer were conducting a painstakingly comprehensive diagnostic on her android body.

He sighed in response. “Sorry. Damn. I can’t believe I can’t keep that straight.”

“You’re learning, Chief. It can be frustrating, certainly, but in the end developing your own socialization programs will be far more satisfying than uploading them from someone else. It’ll also give you a stronger sense of individuality. If you wanted, you could download all the Voyager doctor’s social interaction programs, but then you’d be indistinguishable from him.”

“I’d rather be my own man, so to speak,” he confirmed.

She raised her glass in a toast. “Hold tight to what is most yourself, don't squander it, don't let your life be governed by what disturbs you.”

The engineer inclined his head. “The wisdom of Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri.”

“None other.” Cybel’s eyes widened and her expression was one of surprise. “Interesting, we’re being hailed…”

Then her voice came over the ship’s public address. “Senior officers to the bridge. We are being hailed by the aliens recovering our shuttle.”

Raffaele was halfway through pouring himself a second drink. “Wait, are you on the bridge?”

Cybel nodded, “Gamma watch duty officer.”

“And you’re fixing yourself in the cybernetic lab, and you’re here, too?”

She smiled enigmatically. “I like to stay busy.”

Near the door, Dr. Zelbin held up a hypospray. “Okay, everyone. Sobriety-in-a-can on your way out, doctor’s orders.”

Raffaele set the drink down and looked petulant. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

* * *​
Chapter 7 by Gibraltar

Main Bridge
USS Valhalla


Cybel’s expression was one of wry amusement as she announced. “Now trying lingua-code variation forty-three.” She glanced to her husband at the Science station. “How are you doing on the mathematical referents algorithms?”

Maddox shrugged, stifling a yawn. “Nothing so far, which is amazing in and of itself. Lingua-code can be hit-and-miss with a new species, but math? This progression worked with the Pakleds for pity’s sake!” He rubbed his eyes. “We’ve tried base-three, base-ten, base-twelve, et-cetera, et-cetera.

“And still no luck with what they’ve sent us?” Izawa inquired hopefully.

“The Universal Translator can’t make heads-or-tails of it, sir. It’s like they’re speaking gibberish.” Under his breath Maddox added, “Coded gibberish with a helping of word salad.”

“Perhaps it’s something like the Tamarians? Socio-historical references that we don’t understand?” offered Beresha from the Helm.

A patient smile flitted across Maddox’s lips at the young officer’s earnest desire to be helpful. “In the case of the Tamarians, Lieutenant, the UT could decipher the language itself; we just couldn’t comprehend the metaphorical allusions.”

Multiple alarms sounded and Raffaele sat up straighter at his station as he announced, “One of their drones just jumped in next to us, forward-port quarter, distance twenty-seven-point-one kilometers.”

From the Tactical station behind them, Ressessk inquired, “Ssshields, Commodore?”

Izawa held up a belaying hand. “Stand by on shields.” Grabbing hold of his cane, Izawa stood and hobbled to a point equidistant between his seat and the forward control stations.

“Ops, where did the craft originate?”

“Unknown, sir. The drones we’ve had under surveillance in the three nearest systems are all still accounted for.”

“We’re being scanned,” Maddox noted as the bridge lights began to flicker, accompanying the sound of power systems waning.

“Intensive multi-spectrum sensor probe,” Raffaele added. “It’s overwhelming primary power systems.”

Cybel turned to say something to Izawa but abruptly vanished at the same moment the engineer on the bridge’s upper level also wavered into non-existence.

“Shields,” Izawa commanded in a firm yet calm tone.

“Ssshields are inoperative,” Ressessk hissed with evident irritation. She surveyed her displays. “Weaponsss ssstatusss fluctuating.”

“Well, this isn’t good,” Raffaele remarked in a subdued tone from his station.

Izawa’s expression hardened. “Helm, back us away, one-quarter impulse.”

“No response from the helm, sir!” Beresha answered breathlessly.

“Even less good.”

“Thrusters?” Izawa inquired.

Maddox quickly reconfigured his Science station into an Engineering interface, attempting to run diagnostics as his screen flickered. “Inertial control thrusters appear operative, sir.”

“Helm answering sluggishly, sir!”

The shaky viewscreen image of the alien craft began to pull back as Valhalla inched away from it. Her chemical reaction thrusters were opened full-throttle, but the mass of the ship necessitated time to build momentum.

“I’m seeing a power surge in the drone,” Raffaele observed.

Izawa turned back to fix a grim visage on Ressessk. “Do we have enough power for a phaser burst?”

“Barely, sssir.”

“Will it be sufficient to destroy that drone?”

“Unknown,” she answered gravely.

“I’d remind the Commodore that those aren’t merely drones, but life-forms,” Raffaele advised. “Members of the species themselves.”

“Thank you, Mister Raffaele. I’m well versed in the value of non-biological life.”

Izawa hesitated. He had more than sufficient provocation to defend his ship, but something about this didn’t feel like an overt attack. However, Valhalla was vulnerable, and growing more so by the second. If he did not act definitively soon, any forthcoming attack might well overwhelm them.

He closed his eyes briefly, silently reciting, “My opponent is my teacher, my ego is my enemy. I am samurai; I do not strike recklessly or without thought.” Outwardly, Izawa called, “Lieutenant Ressessk, target that craft an—“

The bridge lights resumed and the groan of flagging power systems ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Cybel and the engineer reappeared with a hum, both looking disoriented.

“Sir,” Maddox called, “the drone is gone. Our shuttle is now occupying its last known position.”

For once, Raffaele was speechless, merely grunting in surprise.

Izawa spared Cybel a brief nod. “Welcome back, Commander,” he said before turning to Ressessk. “Scan the shuttle thoroughly for any signs of tampering or booby-traps, though I doubt we’ll locate any. Once it’s passed muster, bring it into shuttle bay three. I want engineering and forensic teams checking that craft down to the molecular level.”

He gestured to Maddox. “Commander, please conduct a level-two diagnostic on both the XO’s and the chief’s holo-matrix, just be safe. Mister Raffaele, until Commander Cybel is cleared to resume her duties, you have the bridge.”

With that, Izawa limped at a stately gait towards his ready room door. Once inside, he let out a long, controlled breath, the slightest hint of a smile gracing his lips. For the first time in a very long time, Takeo Izawa felt like himself.

 

* * *​

Main Bridge
USS Valhalla


The muted thump of Izawa’s cane-tip on the bridge’s carpeted deck heralded the commodore’s arrival at the aft Science station. “What do we have, Commander?” Izawa asked in response to Maddox’s summons.

“The shuttle is the Aventine, registered to the starship Venture. It was believed to be the shuttle Sandhurst appropriated for his escape from Venture during the battle with the Romulans, and now we’ve confirmed that.”

“Forensics?”

“Yes, sir. The DNA traces recovered from the shuttle are from a human/Amon hybrid, with the human components matching the DNA on file for Donald Sandhurst. Additionally, the shuttle’s bussard-collectors have been reconfigured, as have some of the power waveguides in the EPS system.”

“Let me to guess,” Izawa postulated. “The modifications allow for the collection and consumption of Amon life-essence energy?”

Maddox nodded soberly. “Precisely, sir.”

“Do we know how long he was in possession of the shuttle for?” Izawa inquired.

“The shuttle’s maximum speed is warp five-point-two, and it would have taken just over nine weeks at that speed to reach this system from Shul’Nazhar. That journey expended the shuttle’s deuterium and anti-matter supplies. It appears he hid the shuttle in the mouth of the cave system, buried the entrance, and then booby-trapped it to prevent anyone else from accessing it.”

“And no indication of where he may have gone from there?”

“Not as yet, sir. Though I could hypothesize that the Class-M planet in system LMC-043923 must have been destroyed by the time he reached this region, or Sandhurst would have attempted to rendezvous with the Amon there.” Maddox turned to observe Cybel exiting the turbolift, adding, “I’ve got the chief going over the shuttle’s computer logs to see if Sandhurst left any indication of where he went next.”

Cybel approached, giving Izawa a nod of greeting as she placed a hand on Maddox’s shoulder. “Forgive me for eavesdropping, but it bears pointing out that without the bio-essence energy collection capabilities of the shuttle, Sandhurst would have been limited to whatever essence-infused food stores he could have replicated before abandoning the shuttle. That would have severely limited his options.”

“Perhaps he rendezvoused with the Amon here?” Maddox offered.

“If so, why hide and booby-trap the shuttle?" Cybel countered. "He’d have just taken it with him aboard the Amon cube, or scuttled it. Booby-trapping it suggests he thought he might have use for it again.”

Maddox conceded the point with a thoughtful bob of his head.

Cybel turned to Izawa. “The chief and I have finished our diagnostic series on my avatar. We’re just awaiting Bruce’s final go-ahead to bring her back online.”

Izawa squinted at his first officer. “Her? Don’t you mean ‘you’?”

The hologram gave the commodore a tolerant smile. “She’s ‘her’ until I incorporate her memories, sir. Then we’ll be ‘we’ again.”

The older man shook his head fractionally in amazement. “It’s a bold new dimension in sentience we’ve embarked upon. To be able to divide one’s consciousness and then reintegrate it later, I doubt many organic minds could cope with such divergent input.”

“Very true, sir. It has its advantages. However, as recent events have demonstrated, my various forms are also vulnerable in ways that ‘biologicals’ are not.”

“Our differences are the source of our strength,” Izawa recited. He then bowed slightly to his two senior officers. “Please see to her activation, Commanders.”



* * *​

Cybernetics Lab
Deck 5


“Final diagnostic checks out,” Maddox observed. “No damage to her positronic net, and no signs of subversive or invasive programming introduced through her link with the aliens.”

From his display station in the lab, the engineer advised, “Standing by.”

The Cybel hologram stood off to one side, monitoring the procedure through the ship’s systems.

Maddox reached behind the Cybel android and pressed her activation toggle along her spine. “Time to wake up, Sleeping Beauty.”

“I think I’m getting jealous,” the Cybel hologram remarked sardonically.

“No pity for the poor man whose wife suffers from multiple personalities?” Maddox replied with a grin.

The android’s eyes opened and she seemed to take in her surroundings for a moment before asking, “How long?”

“Two days,” Maddox answered. “Your contact with the alien data-stream locked you into some kind of catastrophic feedback loop.”

The android looked to her holographic twin. “May we integrate?”

“Integration initialized,” the holographic Cybel announced, and then vanished.

Cybel stepped out of the diagnostic capsule as she assimilated the events of the last twenty-six hours. “A remarkable experience. I thought I was hacking into a primitive command and control system and instead made contact with an AI.”

“We’ve still been unable to establish meaningful communication,” Maddox advised. “Can you be any help in that area?”

She touched a hand to her head, wincing. “Oh, yes. In fact, deciphering their language is the thing that crashed my systems. This must be what a headache feels like.”

“What are they like?” the engineer asked, turning his chair to face Cybel and Maddox.

“Unique,” she summarized. “Utterly unlike any artificial lifeforms we’ve encountered before. Ridiculously antiquated in some respects, unbelievably advanced in others. Their language is nearly unfathomably complex, almost a living thing in and of itself, constantly changing to suit the species’ needs and experiences.”

“Will you be able to update the Universal Translator so that we can talk to them?”

“In the short term, yes. However, in a matter of days, we’ll no longer recognize their language because it will have evolved so drastically from what it is now. Every time we contact them in the future, we’ll have to repeat this whole process. I’d suggest constructing an enhanced tertiary computer core solely for that purpose, because I am not going through that again.”

Maddox swept an arm towards the exit. “We’d best update the commodore.”

Cybel moved for the exit, only to be stopped on the threshold by Maddox’s hand on her arm. She turned to face him and he planted a delicate kiss on her lips. “You scared me,” he confessed. “We need to be more careful in the future. I don’t want to lose you. Any of you.”

She reached out a hand and stroked his cheek. “Danger is our business, husband. If you’d wanted to stay safe, you could have remained in your ivory tower at Daystrom. I’m an explorer, like my father. It’ll take more than this to make me run for cover.”

He nodded slowly, an accepting smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I was afraid you’d say something like that.”

“If you two need the room, can you please let me out first?” the engineer asked pointedly from behind them.

Cybel cast a glance back at him. “You don’t need doors,” she remarked with an exaggerated frown. “And given the amount of time you spend invisible on the holodeck watching others’ holoprograms, I’d think you’d be a bigger fan of voyeurism.”

“I… uh- ” and with that the engineer vanished.

Maddox looked pained. “That was rude, Cybel.”

She shook her head and proceeded out the doors. “No, that was the XO snapping the chief engineer into line, dear.”

* * *

Chapter 8 by Gibraltar
Observation Lounge, Deck 1
USS Valhalla


“In light of the fact that this species has no name for itself, we will henceforth refer to them as the Karera,” Izawa announced from the head of the conference table.

“Japanese for ‘they’", Cybel provided from beside him.

Izawa continued, “The Karera have provided us with some valuable information regarding this region of the LMC. Unfortunately, they haven’t had any contact with Europa, nor do they know the ship’s whereabouts. They stumbled across the shuttle when it began responding to our broadcast of activation codes. Despite our initial attempt to hack into their collective consciousness, after scanning Valhalla they realized the similarities between our ship and the shuttle and returned it to us.”

“Nice to find a friendly face in a new neighborhood,” Raffaele remarked.

“Just so,” Izawa agreed. “Commander Maddox, can you update us as to what the Karera shared with us?”

“The Karera’s information, in conjunction with our own scans confirm this region of space is sparsely populated, at least by the Milky Way’s standards. The percentage of sentient species is low by this metric, and that of those capable of interstellar travel even lower. According to the Karera, that hasn’t always been the case, and this region was relatively active as little as ten-thousand years ago, but many of those species either destroyed themselves or one another, or left the scene courtesy of migration or evolution to a higher state.

“This region is also extremely resource poor, both due to the vagaries of planetary formation in local sectors as well as over-mining by various advanced species over the past several million years. Those species now reaching the level of technology necessary for interplanetary and interstellar travel are hard-pressed to locate sufficient raw materials to construct the industrial base necessary to support spacecraft or orbital habitats.”

“I would seem,” Izawa said, “that aside from Shul’Nazhar this region is of little scientific interest.”

Cybel inclined her head in agreement. “The Karera have already begun emigrating out of the area in search of the proverbial greener pastures.”

“If we’re moving on as well, I’d suggest leaving behind a network of comms-buoys and reconnaissance satellites in order to monitor the local area in case Europa moves though this region again after our departure. It’ll also help us stay in real-time communication with Starfleet Command via the portal.” This from Raffaele, who threw a hologram into the air with a drag-gesture from his padd atop the table.

A three-dimensional map appeared overhead, displaying the proposed sensor and communications network.

“Approved,” Izawa stated definitively. He looked at the faces of his assembled officers. “Where from here?”

The engineer offered, “Computer records from Sandhurst’s shuttle indicate that he was giving the super-cluster at these coordinates at lot of attention during his transit from Shul’Nazhar.” The hologram tapped at the LCARS interface set into the table top and the image overhead shifted to show a stellar nursery adjacent to the Tarantula Nebula some seventy light-years distant. “He scanned the area dozens of times, looking for both Borg and Starfleet metallurgical traces.”

“Trying to find the Amon or Europa,” concluded Dr. Zelbin. “Without his shuttle, even if he were able to find another warp-capable ship, I’m dubious as to whether he could reach that location without starving. From what we know, without infusions of the bio-energy the Amon consume, the onset of starvation is almost immediate. Their bodies don’t seem to be able to metabolize any nutritive value from food that isn’t permeated with that energy.”

Cybel looked to Izawa. “It’s the best lead we have so far.”

Raffaele snorted. “It’s the only lead we have so far.”

Izawa turned his stony expression on the Italian. “You have something to add, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. We’ve been in the LMC for a week, and the portal is still open. Shul’Nazhar is still not talking, but neither is it threatening anyone. Starfleet is sitting with a task force of twenty-five ships on the other side of the portal protecting against any potential incursion from here. Can’t we at least request more assets to help? Every additional ship could expand our reach significantly.”

“As we’ve discussed, Mister Raffaele, Starfleet has tasked us, and only us, to this mission. Regardless of your opinion about the wisdom of that decision, those are our orders.” His countenance brooked no further argument.

Izawa stood, causing the others to rise to their feet. “We will set course for the cluster at transwarp after dispersing our reconnaissance net here. I will convey our thanks to the Karera while we deploy the satellites. Please make all necessary preparations.”

As the senior staff exited the observation lounge, Cybel pulled Raffaele aside in the corridor leading to the bridge. “When are you going to learn to leave well enough alone?”

“When someone around here starts acting rationally, sir,” was his biting retort.

“We should disobey orders because the great and mighty Adalgiso Raffaele decrees it?”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me our mission profile makes rational sense,” Raffaele demanded.

Cybel scrunched up her face, glaring fiercely. “I can’t because it doesn’t, Rafe! Just because you’re right doesn’t change anything. We still have a job to do.” She looked away, seeming to collect herself.

Raffaele felt a momentary twinge of unease, wondering how much of her behavior was genuine and how much of it was simply artifice.

“I’d remind you that since the portal remains open, the commodore still has the option of going back there and sending your problematic ass directly home.”

“Can you just explain to me why we can’t even ask for help, Commander?” Raffaele practically begged.

“Who says we haven’t?”

Raffaele had no response to that.

“Takeo Izawa would never put his ego before the welfare of his crew, Lieutenant. Of course he’s asked!”

He seemed taken aback by that.

“The answer was an unequivocal ‘no’. Like it or not, we’re on our own.” She sighed and seemed to regain her composure. “Is this someone’s sick political game? Almost certainly. It’s probably revenge for the commodore’s anti-militancy movement after Operation Vanguard wound down. But, again, that changes nothing. I’m done listening to you beat your head against the bulkhead on this subject. You so much as mention this again, and I’ll reassign you to the bartender’s billet in Ten Forward. Are we clear?”

“As Andorian ice, Commander,” Raffaele replied stiffly.

“Mister Raffaele, you are absolutely, positively dismissed.”

As he walked away, Cybel doubted Raffaele had moved with so rigid a posture since his last cadet review.

* * *​

It had been three weeks since Valhalla had arrived at NGC 2074, or what the crew had named the Seahorse Cluster for the great gas cloud’s historic appearance from the Federation’s core sectors.

The dark tendril of nebular gasses was approximately twenty light-years in length, and was in the process of spawning a new star cluster. As a stellar incubator, the region was rife with proto-stars, quantum-strings, plasma storms, and general gravitic instability. This diminished the effectiveness of the ship’s sensors, and turned scanning the region with any accuracy into a headache for Maddox and his science department.

As with nearer Shul’Nazhar, this area evidenced a dearth of spacefaring civilizations, with few detectable ships transiting the local space-lanes. Of those identified, only one species, the semi-aquatic Dalu had any interest in contact. This time, the Universal Translator worked reasonably well, but the Dalu held little value in intercultural exchange for its own sake. Once it became apparent that the Federation had nothing to trade, the Dalu quickly moved on.

* * *​

The starship Mombasa slalomed gracefully past slashing Cardassian corsairs and burning Jem’Hadar fighters, the nimble vessel’s shields gamely absorbing the glancing blows from incoming fire.

Beresha was focused on her controls with laser-like intensity, knowing that her skill, or the lack thereof, would likely decide her fate and that of her forty-one fellow crewmembers.

“Maintain forward fire,” called Raffaele from the center seat as the ship shuddered from the explosion of a nearby Excelsior-class vessel in its death throes.

“Galaxy-wing Beta has been completely wiped out!” the eerily familiar young officer at Ops shouted in a voice tinged with panic.

“Stay the course,” Raffaele replied, forcing iron into his tone to try and maintain his bridge crew’s focus. Panic now would be lethal.

“Helm, there’s a seam between that Jem’Hadar battleship and those Keldons. If we soften it up with a volley of quantums, do you think you can get us through there?”

“Aye, sir,” Beresha answered with a certainty she did not feel.

Cardassian torpedoes executed sharp turns to try and catch the compact Saber-class ship as Beresha threaded a nearly impossible gap between the shield bubbles of the enemy vessels. The pursuing ordinance impacted the enemy’s own warships, leaving a brilliant blossoming wave of destruction in Mombasa’s wake.

“Stand by aft torpedoes. Engage any enemy craft that make it through that mess alive.”

“We’ve got another wave of enemy vessels moving to cut off our egress,” Ops advised in a brittle voice. “One Cardassian cruiser and five Jem’Hadar fighters.”

“Target phasers on the fighters and torpedoes on that cruiser,” Raffaele instructed.

Ressessk obliged from the Tactical console, picking her targets with the discrimination of an apex-predator. “Multiple hitsss,” she assessed. “Cruissser is veering off, but the fightersss are ssstill inbound.”

“Beresha, keep them off us. If we can get past them to Phase Line Draconis we’ll be able to jump to warp.”

Even as Ressessk peppered the incoming Scarab-class heavy fighters with phaser fire, Beresha deftly maneuvered around the first two as the third pivoted sharply to try and gain a pursuit angle. The fourth fighter, however, drove itself directly into Mombasa in a suicide run so suddenly that Beresha hardly had time to register the impact when she found herself surrounded by a brilliant white flash.

When the light subsided, Raffaele, Beresha and Ressessk were seated on an otherwise empty holodeck.

The human officer stood, flinging his chair across the compartment with obvious anger and a string of colorful curses.

Beresha observed him curiously. “I don’t understand, Lieutenant. Mombasa survived the battle, and was one of only a handful of allied ships to escape the Tyra system. What is the purpose of reliving this incident?”

“Don’t you see?” Raffaele gestured animatedly. “This is the two-hundred and seventeenth time I’ve run this simulation. Mombasa has never survived the scenario, not once!”

Beresha gave him a skeptical look as she posited, “Perhaps you just got lucky? These things happen.”

“No, it’s not just luck,” he replied vehemently. “I don’t subscribe to luck or divine intervention. Our survival wasn’t just statistically unlikely, it was impossible!”

“What doesss it matter?” Ressessk asked innocently. “Whether your godsss intervened or you were jussst fortunate, you lived. That isss all that ssshould concern you.”

“That snot-nosed kid wetting himself at the Ops station was me! I was here when it actually happened. We couldn’t have survived this, but we did, and that fact makes me crazy. I can’t abide improbabilities.”

Ressessk’s mouth twitched, the Selay variation of a human cocking their head. “Thisss isss why our current misssion upsssetsss you ssso, isssn’t it?”

Raffaele didn’t respond, but his demeanor and posture were answer enough.

The Tactical officer stood abruptly and strode out of the holodeck without another word.

Beresha came to her feet more fluidly and approached Raffaele in her graceful gait. “Improbabilities may frustrate you, Adalgiso, but they do exist. You were the fortunate beneficiary of one this day on Mombasa. You might take a moment to consider that your best friend was born of a statistical improbability that even she’d have difficulty calculating.”

Raffaele rubbed his temples, sighing. “I can’t wrap my brain around it. I hate that. I despise the limitations imposed on us by nature.”

“You need to get help, Lieutenant. There’s no shame in that. The war was horrific.”

He glanced up at her, his eyes red and brimming with tears. “It’s not the war that scarred me. It’s the fact that we won when we shouldn’t have.”

“Would you have preferred that outcome?” she asked in all seriousness.

“Yes,” he practically whispered. “I’d have preferred that billions were enslaved if it would just silence the doubts cracking my bones.”

Beresha had no reply.

* * *​

“Commander,” Maddox called to Cybel from the upper level of the bridge, “I’m seeing what looks like a space battle in a neighboring system. About a dozen ships of various configurations exchanging fire in orbit of a gas giant’s Class-L moon.”

Cybel stood and ascended the ramp to the Science station where a long range scan from Valhalla had been enhanced with closer range sensor readings from one of Starfleet’s stealth reconnaissance probes.

She leaned over her husband’s shoulder for a better view of the readings, though it was completely unnecessary. She could see the scans from a dozen different perspectives in her mind’s eye with far greater clarity than a mere visual display.

“Strange to see someone shooting it out given how few spacefaring species we’ve encountered,” Cybel commented. “You’d think there’d be plenty of room for everyone.”

Maddox countered. “Room perhaps, but with as resource starved as many of these regions are, everything is at a premium. Species in our galaxy have fought over less.”

“True enough.” She gestured to the sensor returns relating the pitched battle. “So besides this being an anomaly, what’s so special about this little dust-up?”

He sat back in his chair. “I won’t ruin the surprise.”

Time seemed to cease as everything on the bridge froze for Cybel. She shifted from what she termed ‘people-time’ into ‘machine-time’. Cybel dissected the sensor scans for every iota of data she could glean, analyzing and cross-referencing millions of facts and inferences in the time it takes a human to blink.

“One of the aggressor ships has two Romulan life-signs aboard,” she announced, her eyes narrowing at the revelation.

“So there are survivors from the Romulan taskforce,” Maddox mused. “This complicates things a bit.”

Ressessk overheard this and stepped over from the Tactical arch. She looked over the weapons signatures being fed to the ship by the reconnaissance probe. “None of the vessselsss themssselvesss are Romulan, but I am detecting Romulan disssruptorsss among the armamentsss of the ssship they’re on.”

“Commodore to the bridge,” Cybel requested via the comms. She hated interrupting the older man’s sleep cycle, but this event met his established threshold for notification.

Maddox enlarged the area of the battle on the display. “The side with the Romulan weapons is dispatching their opponents quite efficiently. Their opponents are trying to retreat, but the aggressors are taking out their engines and weapons pods.”

Raffaele strode up the ramp, having surrendered the Ops station to a relief officer. “It’s piracy,” he announced with conviction.

Cybel shot him a skeptical look. “And you know this because?”

Raffaele reached past Maddox to toggle the console, calling up a cross-section of the alien vessel in question. “The thing is a mobile scrapping rig. See the big open section amidships? That unfolds into a gantry system that encloses the captured craft. They seize it, gut it, and chop up the rest for scrap. The Orions used to operate similar ships out of the Molari Badlands late last century before the Border Service shut down the practice.”

A hologram of Izawa flickered to life just behind them, courtesy of the holographic communications station installed in the commodore’s quarters. “Report,” Izawa instructed.

Cybel filled him in on their discovery, and Izawa looked equal parts curious and troubled. “Thoughts?” he solicited.

“Jump in at transsswarp and ssseize the ssship, capturing the Romulansss,” Ressessk offered eagerly.

“It’s not a Romulan ship,” Cybel cautioned. “We’re new to this galaxy, and we have no idea what the protocols between species are out here. What those ships are doing may look like piracy to us, but by their standards it could be perfectly legal.”

“Piracy or not, the Romulans are ours,” Raffaele practically purred. “After the attack on the Starfleet/Klingon taskforce at Shul’Nazhar, the Romulan government publically disavowed the actions of the Romulan strike force. That makes them criminals, and their attack on our people violated our standing agreements with the Star Empire. We’re legally entitled to take them prisoner and return them to the Federation for trial.”

Cybel glanced to Izawa’s image. “I won’t vouch for Rafe’s enthusiasm, sir, but his legal analysis of the situation is spot on.”

Maddox said, “I’d recommend we follow them, sir. They’ll likely have a base of operations around here somewhere. If necessary, we can capture the two Romulans there with less chance of causing any unfortunate diplomatic incidents with the locals.”

His wife gave him an appraising look as Izawa nodded.

“Let’s go with Commander Maddox’s plan,” Izawa decided. “The Romulans may have existing agreements with whichever species operate those vessels. I’d rather avoid any unnecessary unpleasantness with these people in what will likely be a First Contact situation. Rig for silent running with Valhalla presenting minimal EM profile and continue to follow those brigand ships. Keep me apprised of any significant developments.”

With that, Izawa’s image faded away.

Cybel straightened. “Okay, people, we have our orders.”

* * *​
   
Chapter 9 by Gibraltar

Gursan Trade Station

The alien space station was an exotic mix of clashing architectural styles and aesthetics, having been built by one species and added on to by a succession of others over the centuries. In this way, it bore a definite similarity to Shul’Nazhar, except that it was nowhere near as large nor a fraction as old.

To Cybel, it suggested a growing theme to the LMC. With resources so scarce, it appeared as though nothing of value was disposed of, regardless of age. Added to, refurbished, perhaps repurposed, but never discarded.

Valhalla had followed the pirate ships to this dilapidated trading post, standing off a full light-year while the away team docked at the station in much less conspicuous runabout.

Cybel sat in a booth with Raffaele, Ressessk, and two security specialists, all dressed in civilian garb, trying their best to blend in with the local color. Their seating was the only booth in the dining establishment designed for bipedal body-types, as the humanoid form was a distinct minority among the many species populating the station.

The atmosphere here contained too little oxygen and too much nitrogen and helium to be safe for anyone other than Ressessk and Cybel, so the others wore full facemask rebreather units that prevented them from asphyxiating within minutes. Trace amounts of chlorine in the air necessitated that the human’s eyes be covered as well, and even Ressessk wore protective goggles in deference to the airborne corrosive.

Raffaele had affixed a special straw attachment to his mask in order to sample some of the supposedly humanoid-compatible drinks available from the restaurant. It had been a simple thing to replicate the gold and platinum coinage so sought after by the locals, essentially making their away team rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

“You weren’t kidding about our standing out,” Cybel remarked to Ressessk. “I doubt it’s going to take the Romulans long to spot us, given that just about everyone else here is getting around on something other than two legs.”

Various beings, striking by Milky Way standards, went about their business scuttling on multiple insectoid legs, or undulating with muscular contortions, some were gaseous entities enclosed in floating spheres.

Raffaele sipped gingerly from a bulb of orange liquid; his eyes practically bulged at his first taste of the alien beverage.

Cybel grinned. “That bad?”

“No, actually,” he smiled through his transparent mask. “It’s quite unexpectedly good.”

“Ssso, what isss the plan?” Ressessk inquired pointedly.

“I think we should pair up and spread out,” Raffaele offered. “Cover more ground that way.”

“Makesss usss vulnerable,” advised Ressessk. “There isss sssafety in numbersss. Remember, thessse are Romulan centurionsss, with extensssive combat training and sssignificant physssical ssstrength.”

One of the security officers, Ensign Wescott said, “I know we’re late to the party, Commander, but can I ask why we didn’t just beam the Romulans off the station?”

Cybel reminded herself to give a more thorough briefing for the away team next time, as she sometimes lost track of what she knew as opposed to what others did, especially junior personnel not privy to their senior staff meetings. “Yes, I apologize for the omission, Ensign. Both the Romulans are wearing transport-scrambler modules that prevent us from doing just that.”

Ressessk made the Selay variant of a frown, which looked to human eyes like a decidedly toothy grin. “I ssstill don’t underssstand that. We’ve ssseen no indication of transssporter technology in the LMC asss yet.”

“Perhaps we’re not the only people with transporters hunting Romulans, eh?” Raffaele remarked.

“Perhaps,” allowed Cybel, who suddenly sat up a little straighter as she gave something or someone a hard look from across the concourse.

Raffaele fought the urge to turn around. “Our Romulans?”

“No… something… else. Maybe.” Cybel offered distractedly. “Rafe, you’re in charge until I get back.” With that she slid out of the booth with surprising speed and vanished into the crowd in seconds.

“Hey, wait…” Raffaele called after her, but she was gone before he could finish his objection. He turned to see the eyes of the others fixed expectantly on him. “Hello there. My name is Adalgiso, and I’ll be standing in as your away team leader today,” he offered dryly.

Ressessk propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands in a ridiculously coy human gesture that just looked wrong coming from her. “Plan?” she repeated, batting her reptilian eyelids dramatically behind her protective goggles.

“Pairs,” Raffaele decided, “and are you trying to seduce me? Because… no. I have a strict endotherms only policy.”

“Ssspeciesssissst,” Ressessk hissed with mock injury.

The security officers tried unsuccessfully to stifle their laughter in their microphone equipped facemasks.

Raffaele sighed, and threw a handful of coins on the table that would cover the cost of his drink nearly a hundred times over. “Let the word spread forth, big tipping is the Milky Way.”

The others groaned.

“Let’s do this,” Raffaele ordered as they rose from the table in unison.

 

* * *​


Cybel knew a fellow android when she saw one. It was all in the walk.

The fact that this model was in the guise of one of the few humanoid LMC species made no difference. Tricorder scans came back showing a biological entity, but they were clearly a sensor diversion. The same bipedal movement algorithms written by Noonien Soong fifty years earlier that served as the basis for her locomotion subroutines also underpinned this android’s. The implications of this were not lost on her.

She paced the other android for a time, consciously modifying her own movement program so as not to identify herself as such in return. After a few minutes, it became obvious that the android’s attention was focused on another individual, a robe-clad humanoid that if Cybel's internal sensors were accurate appeared to be a human female.

Thus tailing a tail, Cybel continued to observe as the android watched the human’s movement with intense scrutiny. They made their way to the upper level of the commercial concourse, wending their way through a variety of shops and kiosks. The human paused to examine a piece of pottery, still granted anonymity by virtue of her hooded robe and the breather-mask she wore.

Suddenly, the woman pivoted sharply and threw the crockery with one hand and something small and metallic with the other towards her android shadow. The android easily swatted aside the jar which splintered with the impact at the same moment that the android was engulfed in streamers of electrical energy which surged across and around its body.

An EMP device, Cybel realized. Whoever this human was, she must have realized that she was being pursued by a synthetic life-form.

The android seized up and slowly toppled over like a piece of upset statuary as the woman darted into the crowd.

Cybel shifted into machine-time as she considered who to pursue. The android was a curiosity, but not necessarily a priority target. It was a stronger possibility that the human was a member of Europa’s crew, or a survivor of one of the starships lost at the Battle of Shul’Nazhar. Her decision was made in less than a tenth of a second, and Cybel set off after the woman. She vaulted over a display table and then sprung off a nearby bulkhead before swinging above the crowd on an overhead section of pipe as though the concourse was nothing more than an elaborate obstacle course.

Spotting the woman from above, Cybel landed back on the floor and darted through the multitude of shoppers as though they were standing still. She quickly caught up to the woman, who was approaching a stairwell down to the main level.

Cybel grabbed the woman’s upper arm in a vice-like grip and spun her around so quickly that the woman’s hood was torn free from her head by the violence of the moment. The woman produced a pistol and brought it up with admirable speed, only to have Cybel swat it out of her hand contemptuously.

Cybel examined the middle-aged woman through her transparent mask, and could not help but raise an eyebrow in surprise as she announced, “Liana Ramirez, you are under arrest for numerous felony crimes committed against Starfleet and the Federation.”

The woman’s response was to punch Cybel as hard as she could in the jaw with a practiced right-cross, only to gasp as she broke her hand in the process.

A noisy scuffle on the lower concourse drew Cybel’s attention for a brief moment, and she spotted two members of her away team in jeopardy. Cybel reached out to deliver a neck-pinch that rendered Ramirez unconscious. Lowering the woman to the floor, Cybel affixed a transport-tag to her and tapped her combadge under her jacket. “Cybel to Namsen, I’ve tagged one for beam-out. Put her in stasis the moment she materializes. This one’s highly dangerous.”

“Aye, sir,” the pilot of the nearby runabout replied over comms.

Ramirez vanished in a swirl of transporter energy, startling the crowd of onlookers, as Cybel turned her attention to other matters.

 

* * *​


It wasn’t lost on Raffaele that the Romulan he and Ressessk were tailing was not using any kind of visible breathing apparatus or filtration system, suggesting that he may have been subjected to genetic modification in order to more easily survive the station’s environment.

Raffaele slipped through the crowd, trying to remain unobserved among the striking beings that filled the concourse. Something that appeared much like an orange stalk of asparagus atop a terran octopus loped past on its dexterous appendages momentarily distracting him and causing Raffaele to bump into a giant, fur-covered sentient quadruped. The large creature turned watery, bovine eyes on him before emitting a string of clicks, grunts, and wheezes that Rafe’s universal translator didn’t even attempt to decipher.

He apologized distractedly, trying to reacquire his target in the surging throng. The Romulan he was following was tall, muscular, and had the sides of his head shaved close. Given the rarity of bipeds on the concourse, he should have proved easier to spot, but Raffaele had lost him in his moment of inattention.

“Damn, I lost him,” he whispered into his hidden communicator, alerting Ressessk who followed some twenty meters behind.

He ducked into an alcove and pulled his tricorder from a pocket, staring intently at the display through his mask. That’s odd, he thought, from these readings, I should be right on top of hi—

A strong hand slapped the tricorder out of Raffaele’s grasp and he looked up into the face of the Romulan he’d been following. The man’s expression was one of anger accompanied by more than a little fear as he tore the breather mask from Raffaele’s face and drove his other hand fist-first into Raffaele’s sternum.

Raffaele gasped and sank to the floor, choking and clawing at his throat. The Romulan turned to run, only to come face-to-face with Ressessk. The Romulan hesitated, unfamiliar with her species and clearly not wanting to pick an unnecessary fight if it was avoidable.

It wasn’t. The Selay brought her powerful arms down onto the Romulan’s shoulders with sufficient force to drive the man to his knees.

Ressessk bent over to reattach Raffaele’s mask as a disruptor bolt screamed through the space she’d occupied only seconds before to blast the wall plating over her and Raffaele’s heads. She fell on top of Raffaele, shielding him with her body as she sought her phaser in the folds of her robe.

The second Romulan took more careful aim with his next shot.

“Drop it!” a voice behind the Romulan bellowed. Ensign Wescott had the man dead to rights.

The Romulan side stepped, turned and dropped to a crouch in a fluid motion that left Wescott's aim trailing a half-second behind. Wescott's hurried stun discharge missed the Romulan cleanly. The Romulan’s reply struck home, sending a disruptor pulse into Wescott that vaporized the young man with a screech.

The other security officer fumbled his phaser as he struggled to push through the surrounding crowd that had gathered to watch the melee.

The Romulan stood and turned around, reacquiring Ressessk and Raffaele in his sights.

From behind him, Cybel tapped her index finger lightly on the back of the Romulan’s neck, discharging a neuroleptic shock. She caught the larger man as he crumpled and gently eased him to the floor.

The first Romulan recovered sufficiently from Ressessk’s blow to draw a knife from a leg scabbard and moved to stab the reptilian officer. Her phaser caught in her robe, refusing her repeated attempts to yank it free, and in her desperation Ressessk unleashed a spray of paralytic venom from glands in her mouth that left the soldier clawing at his face and howling.

“Well,” Cybel announced sourly over the man’s screams as she surveyed the carnage of their brief struggle, “I think we can call this a complete mess.”

With Ressessk’s assistance, Raffaele sat up and was reseating his mask and taking deep breaths while rubbing his aching chest. “Here come the local authorities,“ he warned as a group of six-legged armored arachnoids bearing heavy weapons surrounded them.

Cybel looked remarkably untroubled as she extended one arm slowly, holding a satchel heavy with coinage in her hand. “We can pay, both for the trouble, and these two men,” she advised the bulky enforcers.

They proved surprisingly amenable to the bribe.

* * *​

Chapter 10 by Gibraltar

USS Valhalla
Observation Lounge, Deck 1


William Wescott’s image stared back at Cybel from her padd. The service record head shot of his youthful, hopeful face seemed to mock her.

She sat alone in the conference lounge, staring at the padd without knowing exactly why. She had full access to the ship’s personnel records in her head, but having something tactile in her hands that she could hold and examine somehow made this more real to her. It needed to be real; this death needed to count for something.

He had been an honorable Starfleet officer, the type of person whose character and training demanded that he give an enemy the opportunity to surrender. Tactically, she knew, he should have simply stunned the Romulan, but in addition to being gallant Wescott had also been young and inexperienced.

The Romulan, conversely, was a hardened soldier. His service record, what they knew of it, was that of a veteran of the Dominion War and the sundry peace-keeping actions that followed. He had not hesitated to kill, acting on impulse with practiced speed and accuracy.

Despite all of her formidable mental and physical advantages, Cybel had had failed to save Wescott. In fact, her running off on her own after the mystery android likely contributed to his death. Cybel reflected that she could have stunned the Romulan herself as she made her way down the staircase after having captured Ramirez, but it never occurred to her that Wescott would hesitate.

“Wool gathering?” Izawa asked from behind her. She wasn’t startled by his nearly silent arrival, as she knew the whereabouts of every crew member aboard at every moment.

Cybel looked up from her padd as Izawa propped his cane in the corner and settled gingerly into the chair across from her. “Pondering imponderables,” she replied in a heavy voice that she hadn’t intended to sound thus.

The older man gave her an inscrutable look, his wizened face bearing testament to decades of starship service. “I hardly need remind you that people die in the line of duty, York.”

“No, sir,” she sighed. “During the war I planned fleet operations that led to the deaths of thousands, and vital intelligence missions with a high fatality rate.” She set the padd down and met Izawa’s eyes. “I don’t understand why this one feels so different.”

“Operational planning is one thing,” Izawa replied, “an away mission is something else entirely. You saw Mister Wescott killed right in front of you. That has a visceral impact that a cold, impersonal after-action report from a distant mission or battlefield lacks.”

A moment of reflective silence followed.

“I messed up,” Cybel said succinctly. “A good man died because of it.”

“Yes on both counts,” Izawa agreed. “Now the trick is learning from that mistake, and endeavoring not to make it again. Honor and Mister Wescott’s memory demand as much.”

Cybel gestured to the padd, noting, “William’s older brother was a Marine who was killed in the war liberating Eustice Secundus from the Breen. His father was a chief petty officer aboard the Amberjack, killed just after the war during a skirmish with the Maquis. William was the first member of his family to earn an officer’s commission, and now I get to tell his grieving mother that she’s lost the final living member of her immediate family in service to the Federation.”

Izawa closed his eyes, murmuring a prayer in his native Japanese so faintly even Cybel couldn’t make out the words. Then he offered humbly, “As our Vulcan friends so eloquently say, ‘I grieve with thee.’”

There was another long moment of quietude before Izawa asked. “Any luck with Ramirez?”

“Not as yet, sir. Dr. Zelbin’s kept her unconscious while he completes a thorough medical workup on her. Our initial scans showed some interesting anomalies with her physiology that we’re having difficulty explaining.”

Izawa braced himself and then stood slowly in deference to his problem knee before moving to the replicator. “For instance?”

“Chronologically, Liana Ramirez should be forty-one years old, based on her date of birth. Medical scans put her age at closer to sixty. She also has a host of exotic nanites throughout her body, the purpose of which is still unknown.”

He cradled a cup of coffee as he returned to the briefing table. “Some kind of RNA re-sequencing virus, one of those rapid aging variants?” he asked.

“Not from what we can tell, sir. Our Intelligence briefs on her indicate that she had access to highly advanced chronometric technology, perhaps even temporal dislocation capabilities.”

“Time travel, eh?” Izawa frowned. “I’ll try not to mention that to Admiral Janeway, she’ll have a fit.”

Cybel managed a weak smile at that.

“And what of our Romulan guests, Commander?”

“Stony silence so far, though Dr. Zelbin’s been able to confirm both of them have undergone significant genetic modification to enable them to survive the standard Class-L atmosphere that appears to dominate the LMC’s life-bearing planets.”

“Very well, keep at it.” Izawa logged into the LCARS interface set into the tabletop at his seat and called a holographic screen to life in front of him. He began to sort through his daily command data-work, reviewing and filing departmental reports and the like.

"Do you..." Cybel began before falling silent.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Sir, Wescott's reaction to the Romulan was the one of an explorer. It killed him. Commander Wu and the crew of Europa came out here as soldiers. Do you think that given what we've found here so far, that they just might have had the more prudent mindset?"

"York, I have faith that the ideals and principles that Starfleet and the Federation were founded on will see us through."

"Yes, sir," she replied without much conviction. After another moment, it occurred to her that Izawa was continuing work that would usually have been addressed in his ready room. Cybel cocked her head and gave him an appraising look. “May I ask what you’re doing, sir?”

“My friend is grieving,” he said simply. “I am keeping her company.”

* * *​

 

USS Valhalla
Ship's Brig, Security Section

Deck 7

The prisoner lay atop the slide-out bed of the brig cell, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t react to Cybel’s arrival until the security field flickered off just long enough for Cybel to enter the cell before reactivating.

Liana Ramirez glanced up at Cybel as the ship's XO activated a slide-out seat across from her and sat down. “I’m Commander Cybel, first officer of the starship Valhalla. How’s your hand?”

Ramirez raised her right hand, opening and closing it repeatedly. “None the worse for wear, now. My thanks to your ship’s doctor.” She gave Cybel the faintest hint of a smile. “You’ve got a hard jaw.”

“I should think so,” Cybel answered noncommittally.

Ramirez appeared to size Cybel up, taking full measure of the woman who was nearly twenty centimeters taller than her. “You aren’t afraid to be in here with me? There's no security detail at the door. After all the trouble you’ve gone to in order to capture me, I think you’d be more cautious.” Ramirez's subsequent threat was offered casually, “Rumor has it I’m a dangerous person.”

Cybel held her hands up in front of her, palms facing. Blue electrical current sizzled and snapped between the fingertips of both hands. “I’m in no danger,” she said. There was no arrogance in this declaration, merely the fact of the matter.

Ramirez sat up slightly, showing the first sign of real emotion since she’d come aboard. “What are you?”

“I’m an android.”

“Like Data?” Ramirez pressed.

“Similar enough,” Cybel allowed.

Ramirez appeared genuinely impressed. “Wonders never cease. Do all starships have one assigned now days?”

Cybel smiled patiently. “No. Speaking of androids, what can you tell me about the one that was following you aboard the station?”

Ramirez brushed her greying hair back behind one ear and sat up fully to face Cybel. “It had been following me for a number of days, long enough for me to fashion some rudimentary countermeasures.”

“Do you know who sent it, or why?”

“No,” Ramirez answered plainly. “I have no idea. I do know this is a dangerous region with lots of piracy, kidnapping, and a brisk slave trade, so the ‘why’s and wherefores’ don’t tend to concern me so much. I see a threat, and I neutralize it.”

“May I ask how you knew it was an android?”

“I conducted counter-surveillance on it as it was observing me. In all the time it was tracking me, I never saw it take a break to use a bathroom, or to eat or drink anything. Whenever I’d check to see if it was there in the middle of my sleep cycle, it was still standing watch outside my hostel, no matter the hour. It was too perfect a tail, nearly flawless in its tradecraft. On a hunch I had it follow me down to the lower levels where some of the older, more exotic field generators are. I hacked an engineering diagnostic scanner so I could observe it when it walked through a polarizing EM field generated by a zero-point energy module. The interference caused the sensor-blind it was using to mimic biological life-signs to crash for a few seconds. Voilà, android identified.”

“Clever,” Cybel remarked. “Your service jacket indicates you had high marks in combat strategy and tactics.”

Ramirez fluttered her hands theatrically. “I am delighted to impress.”

“When you were able to scan the android, did you detect any anomalous energy signatures?” Cybel inquired.

“Aside from it being an artificial construct, you mean? Nothing that I can recall. Why do you ask?”

Europa’s Chief Medical Officer is a non-corporal Medusan who utilizes an android body as a containment vessel. I suspect that the android following you was from our home galaxy, but it wasn’t dispatched by Starfleet as far as I know. I was curious if the android you observed might have been Dr. Reskos from Europa with his body cosmetically altered.”

“I saw no indications of that,” Ramirez provided. Her brave façade seemed to falter, and just for a moment an expression of uncertainty flit across her features. “I’ve answered your questions, Commander. May I ask a few in kind?”

Cybel gestured her assent.

“What year is it?”

“2384, Terran Julian calendar. Stardate 60344.1.”

Her eyes widened in realization and Ramirez’s breathing increased fractionally along with a detectable rise in her pulse rate. “And are we in the Small Magellanic Cloud? That’s the entire damn Milky Way we can see from here, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Cybel confirmed. “But you’re off slightly. This is the Large Magellanic Cloud. One-hundred sixty thousand light years from home.”

“How did I get here?”

Cybel observed Ramirez, utilizing both her avatar’s own internal sensors as well as the ship’s, looking for any sign of deceit however minute. She detected none.

“You came through a transit portal from the Delta Quadrant of our galaxy, allegedly leading a Romulan strike group against a joint Federation/Klingon taskforce sent to locate and destroy the Skorrah.”

Ramirez blinked, her expression troublingly blank. “May I presume people were killed and wounded as a result?”

“Yes, a good many.”

The older woman closed her eyes tightly and bent forward, as though wracked with pain.

“Those aren’t the only ones, of course,” Cybel added. “You led attacks on the starships Challenger and Europa, among others, and are suspected of abducting and later murdering Admiral Edward Jellico. You were witnessed executing Lieutenant Olivia Juneau, a former subordinate of yours. She was serving as the acting first officer of Europa when you and your merry band of blood-thirsty pirates seized the ship. Apparently, you slit her throat from ear to ear.”

Ramirez moaned as if someone were twisting a knife deep in her innards. She rocked back and forth, murmuring, “No, no, no, no!”

“May I presume from your reaction that you regret these events?”

“Regret?” Ramirez shouted in disbelief. “Regret? I don’t remember them! I don’t remember anything!”

Cybel was unmoved. “I’ll grant you it’s not the most original defense, but you sell it rather well. I’d wish you luck with that, but it would be disingenuous.”

Ramirez shook her head lightly, her formerly luxuriant black hair now grey and brittle. “I don’t expect you to believe me, Commander. I certainly wouldn’t if our positions were reversed.” She took a deep, centering breath and focused on Cybel. “I think that’s what I’ve been running from since he left me… the thought of what I might have done. He said… said I’d done terrible things, that it would have been more merciful to wipe all my memories, leave me tabula rasa. He told me that I should avoid Starfleet if I ever encountered you out here.”

“Who is the ‘he’ in that statement?”

“Sandhurst. Or whatever the hell he’s become now.”

“You’ve had contact with him,” Cybel noted. “Tell me about that.”

“It’s the first thing I remember. Waking up in some back alley neuro-clinic with someone who looked like Donald Sandhurst. Only he was bigger, taller and better built, like he’d been heavily augmented somehow. I was scared, confused… he explained that he’d wiped my memory, and that it was for my own good. I’d committed many crimes, but he claimed it wasn’t my fault.”

“Whose fault was it, according to Sandhurst?” Cybel pressed.

“An old enemy of ours, someone who’d used me to get at him.” Ramirez’s eyes took on a faraway cast. “Someone who cheated me out of a good death, and gave me this… this shit existence, instead.” Tears welled in her eyes.

“What happened to Sandhurst after he woke you?”

“He stayed with me for a few days, helped me get my bearings. He was vague with his answers to most of my questions. It wasn’t just the physical changes… he was different from the man I’d known. Stronger and more confident, but more aloof. Less… human. After he determined I was stable, he just left. Gave me some local currency and some food and was gone.”

Cybel leaned forward fractionally, her interest piqued by Ramirez’s unlikely tale. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up here in the LMC?”

There was a moment’s pause before Ramirez answered. “Dying. Or waiting to die, really. Diplomatic mission gone really wrong. I was in an underground bunker in the Gamma Quadrant, wounded and pinned down. I couldn’t deactivate the transport scrambler in time, and our away team was several floors above me, about to be overrun and massacred. To get the rest of our people out, Sandhurst had to blast the scrambler from orbit, and I was right next to it. No choice, really, I’d have…” she trailed off, her eyes fixed with the proverbial thousand-meter stare.

Cybel sat back, giving the story consideration. “That jibes with the mission record from Velkohn. However, how do you explain apparently dying in the Gamma Quadrant, only to show up commanding a hijacked Defiant-class starship in the Delta Quadrant eighteen months later?”

“You’d have to ask the Baron,” Ramirez answered tiredly. “Sandhurst said the Baron abducted me an instant before my death, and then brain-washed me into a weapon of vengeance.” She slowly lay down on the bunk on her side, hugging her knees into her chest.

“Anything else?”

“That’s all I know,” Ramirez offered in a small voice.

Silence followed and Cybel eventually rose and exited the cell, leaving Ramirez alone with her anguish.

* * *​


Zelbin stood before a holographic representation of a human brain, highlighting the prefrontal cortex with a touch of his finger. “You can see evidence of synaptic degradation all throughout this area, which has been extensively repaired by the nanites we found in her cerebrospinal fluid. It’s akin to someone rebuilding a city after a catastrophic seismic event. Some of the foundations remain, but everything else has been laid waste and reconstructed from the ground up.”

The Tiburonian doctor was briefing the commodore, Cybel and Raffaele on Ramirez’s medical situation in Sickbay’s primary exam theater.

“So, she could be telling us the truth?” Izawa asked.

“Yes, or a partial truth, or a complete fabrication. There’s no way to be certain without engaging in other, potentially more invasive measures,” Zelbin explained.

Raffaele’s interest was piqued, “Such as?”

“We have a Betazoid and two Vulcan crewmembers serving aboard, all of whom are qualified in telepathic veracity confirmation and memory retrieval.”

“No,” Izawa waved a hand dismissively, “out of the question.”

“Really, sir?” Raffaele was incredulous. “You’re just going to reject that without even asking her? She might very well agree to it.”

“I will not compel someone to bare their most private thoughts and dreams to us, no matter what crimes they’re accused of.”

“Respectfully, sir,” Raffaele pressed, “Ramirez may want to provide us verifiable proof that she’s telling the truth. What’s the harm in asking her?”

Izawa raised a finger in a gesture of warning. “If and only if she volunteers for such an undertaking, Lieutenant. I will not tolerate threats or other coercion being used on a detainee. She has legal rights that will be respected.”

“I don’t believe anyone’s arguing that, sir,” Cybel spoke up in Raffaele’s defense.

“Very well, you may ask,” Izawa emphasized.

“Bridge to Commodore Izawa,” Beresha’s voice announced from overhead.

“Go ahead,” he responded.

“Sensors have detected three vessels on a direct intercept course with us, sir. They match the profile of the rocket-type vessels that Task Force Vanguard initially encountered and engaged near Shul’Nazhar when they arrived in the LMC.”

Izawa stood stiffly, wincing with the effort. “On our way. Izawa, out.”

* * *​

Chapter 11 by Gibraltar

“Report,” Izawa called out as he settled gently into the captain’s chair.

The ensign at Operations replied as he vacated his post for Raffaele to assume, “Three vessels inbound on an intercept course at one-quarter impulse speed, sir. They match the profiles of hostile craft Taskforce Vanguard engaged and destroyed during their arrival at Shul’Nazhar.”

On the main viewscreen, three coppery-colored, octagonal-sided rockets angled towards Valhalla on plumes of blue flame.

From the upper level of the bridge, the chief engineer commented, “If those things are all the way out here, I have to assume they have a faster-than-light drive, but they sure don’t look it.”

“Confirmed,” Raffaele observed as he looked over a sensor-generated schematic of one of the vessels. “It’s a warp drive, but it’s an unusual one. The whole body of the ship acts as a single engine nacelle.”

Cybel slid into her seat to Izawa’s right. “They must be immune to radiation, then.”

“Any response to our hails?” Izawa asked.

“None, sir.”

“Life signs?”

“Indeterminate, sir,” Raffaele replied.

Izawa settled back into his seat, his face displaying a peaceful, untroubled countenance. “Status of their weapons and defenses?”

“Their ssshieldsss are raisssed, sssir,” Ressessk divined from her scans. “Their weaponsss are not armed.”

“A cautious posture,” Izawa assessed, “but not overtly hostile.”

“Now receiving a transmission from the lead vessel, sir. It appears to be a variant of linga-code including a mathematical progression.”

“Analyzing,” Cybel announced. “The coding checks out clean. You can transmit it into our new Universal Translator core we built for the Karera linguistic database.”

“Done,” Raffaele confirmed. “Translation matrix is being formed, but it’ll take a few moments.”

“Let’s hope they don’t take offense at long pauses,” Beresha said with an impish smile.

 

* * *​


Cybel appeared suddenly in her holographic form outside Ramirez’s brig cell. She tossed a holographic sphere into the cell that stopped dead center of the compartment and opened to reveal one of the alien rocket-type ships. “Captain Ramirez, we’ve just encountered three of these vessels. Do you recognize them?”

Ramirez blinked, “Captain?”

“You were posthumously promoted after your death. Per your service record, you hold the rank of captain. Now, if you don’t mind, the ship?”

“Er… yes, of course. It’s a Namulkai skylance. The Namulkai are rumored to be one of the oldest species still active in these parts, but they mostly keep to themselves. I’ve never encountered them myself, only heard the stories.”

“What are the stories?”

“The Namulkai are said to have elevated themselves to an energy state thousands of years ago, but refuse to leave the physical plane. Instead, they supposedly inhabit elaborate, decorative mechanical bodies. They’re called clockwork men, among other euphemisms. They’re supposed to be difficult to communicate with, very cryptic”

“Are they known to be hostile?” Cybel pressed.

“Not necessarily, though they are somehow tied to a number of ancient space fortresses, Shul’Nazhar among them. They’re said to be very protective of those places, and will defend them to the death.”

“Anything else?”

“That’s all I know.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Cybel said and vanished.

 

* * *​


On the bridge, Cybel’s avatar summarized this information for the senior staff.

“Namulkai,” Izawa pronounced slowly, as if tasting the name. “Clockwork men… intriguing.”

Raffaele’s console beeped and he offered, “Universal Translator matrix reports ready and estimates a ninety-seven percent linguistic efficacy.”

“Open a channel,” Izawa instructed, standing with the assistance of his cane.

“Channel open, sir.”

“This is Commodore Takeo Izawa of the starship Valhalla, representing the United Federation of Planets. We are on a peaceful mission of exploration and diplomacy. I offer you greetings from our home in the Milky Way galaxy.”

Behind him at the Tactical arch, Ressessk scrutinized their initial scans of the skylance spacecraft, only to see alert tell-tails pop up on her display in reference to damage on the vessel’s hull. She intensified her sensor probe of the hull section in question.

“Federations,” the reply came in a strangely tinny, artificial sounding voice. “You have come through The Gateway, which no longer speaks to us. Why have you taken it’s voice?”

Izawa shot a troubled glance at Cybel as he gestured for the audio to be muted. “Whatever does that mean?”

“I think they’re referring to Shul’Nazhar, Commodore,” the XO replied. “The Gateway is one of its many designations in the LMC. As to what they mean by it’s ‘voice’, I’ve no idea.”

“You have encroached upon our places again, after scattering the pieces of our brethren. You have inflicted much pain upon us and others. This cannot continue.”

A metallurgical and energy analysis scrolled across Ressessk’s display and she hissed in surprise and consternation. “Sssir, one of the ssships hasss hull damage that appearsss to have been caused by Ssstarfleet Class-XI phasssersss. I ssstrongly recommend raisssing ssshieldsss.”

“Not yet,” Izawa raised a hand in a gesture of abeyance.

“This can’t be one of the ships Vanguard faced when they seized Shul’Nazhar,” Cybel observed. “All three of those Namulkai craft were destroyed in that engagement.”

“Looks like Europa’s been making friends,” Raffaele suggested dryly. An alert sounded from his console as he warned, “Now reading their forward weapons charging.”

"Raise shields," Izawa instructed. “Resume audio.” After the affirmation of his order, he said, “Namulkai vessels, we regret the earlier hostilities between our peoples, and I ask you to stand down so we may discuss these issues peacefully and avoid unnecessary conflict.”

A bright yellow beam lashed out from what on an ancient Earth rocket would have been its nosecone. The discharge flared against Valhalla’s forward shields, seeming to oscillate as it probed the frequency of the forcefield blister surrounding the ship.

“They are probing our ssshield nutation sssettingsss,” Ressessk called out.

“Alter our shield frequencies,” Izawa commanded.

Cybel stood and approached Izawa, leaning in to whisper, “The shields do that automatically now, sir.”

“The beam is adjusting faster than we can alter frequencies,” Maddox noted from the Science station.

Izawa’s head dropped fractionally and a soft sigh escaped his lips. “Helm, initiate transwarp jump. Put us five light-years away in any direction.”

“Aye, sir,” Beresha confirmed.

On the main viewer the image seemed to blur and then blink out, to be replaced by the swirling energetic miasma of transwarp-space.

“They seemed rather persistent,” Raffaele noted.

“Rafe,” Maddox called from the upper level of the bridge, “come here and take a look at this.”

Raffaele surrendered the Operations console to a relief officer and strode up the ramp to slide into a chair next to Maddox at the aft bank of stations.

“There’s something weird about this phaser impact pattern on the skylance’s hull plating, but I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is.”

The Italian called up an image of the blast pattern and stared at it while spinning it in three dimensions. After a moment Raffaele burst out laughing. “Okay, that’s a new twist,” he exclaimed.

The storm of colors and patterns on the viewscreen was replaced by a new but equally mesmerizing view of the towering Tarantula Nebula.

“Jump complete, sir. We are exactly five light-years from our last coordinates, relative spinward to the galactic plane.”

Izawa acknowledged the report as he hobbled up to the Science station with the assistance of his cane. “What do you have, Mister Raffaele?”

Raffaele turned to address Izawa and Maddox. “It’s a message in the Ktarian language.”

The Ktarians, an insectoid species belonging to the Federation, had a distinct written language comprised of concentric and overlapping circular patterns in varying sizes.

“A message?” Izawa frowned, squinting at the pattern. “What does it say?”

A star-chart came to life on Raffaele’s display that centered on a gaseous offshoot of the massive Tarantula Nebula. “It’s a set of spatial coordinates, Commodore, utilizing Shul’Nazhar as a reference point. Someone utilizing Federation phasers wanted us to go here.” Raffaele tapped a finger at the location corresponding to the coordinates.

Europa must have done this,” Maddox concluded. “They used their phasers to carve a message into the Namulkai’s hull. That’s brilliant.”

“Brilliant, yes,” Raffaele conceded, “but it also smacks of desperation. Tagging the hulls of random ships in hopes someone from the Milky Way just happens to stumble across it? The odds of that working, even with tagging hundreds or thousands of vessels, are astronomically remote.”

Cybel joined them. “Picking Ktarian was a stroke of genius as well. The written language looks just like random weapons scoring on a metallic surface.” She patted Raffaele on the shoulder. “And perhaps the odds of us encountering them aren’t as extreme as you’d make them out. The Namulkai obviously have a feud with the Federation. If Europa knew that, perhaps they hoped the Namulkai would seek a confrontation with any Starfleet ship they happened across?”

“Perhaps,” Raffaele said, still dubious.

Izawa cast a look towards the viewscreen. “Helm, ETA to those coordinates at transwarp speed?”

“Three hours, twenty-seven minutes, sir. Those coordinates are seventy-four light-years from our present position.”

Cybel stepped closer to Izawa, murmuring, “Didn’t you say you wanted to head back to the system with the planet shattered by the Alpha Weapon for a more detailed forensic analysis?”

Izawa nodded fractionally. “That’s still a priority, but that rubble cloud isn’t going anywhere. This is our first real clue as to Europa’s possible whereabouts. This takes precedence.”

“Lieutenant Beresha,” Cybel called out. “Set course for those coordinates and engage at transwarp.”

* * *​

Chapter 12 by Gibraltar

USS Valhalla
Holodeck 3, Deck 11


The racquetball caromed off the wall, arcing back towards the two heavily perspiring players. Raffaele’s racquet found it first and blasted it back towards the larger of two scoring grids shortly after it rebounded off the floor.

Maddox lurched after it, trying to get into position to intercept it as it ricocheted, but Raffaele had put too much spin and speed on the ball, and Maddox missed cleanly.

Chest heaving, Maddox braced himself against the wall on his shoulder and shot a rueful glance Raffaele’s way. “Nice shot.”

“I agree,” Raffaele replied, “I’m pleased you noticed. That’s game to me, again.”

Maddox snorted and moved towards the back of the court, calling a bench, towel, and a bottle of water into being. “It seems alienating the hell out of people doesn’t bother you any, does it, Rafe?”

Raffaele followed along, electing to stand and stretch as Maddox seated himself on the bench and began toweling off. “What makes you say that?”

“Your arrogance, your conceited self-superiority, and your appetite for embarrassing others needlessly.”

The younger man appeared unfazed at this allegation. “I’m smarter, stronger, and more capable than most. What’s wrong with employing those natural talents?”

Maddox toweled off his face and draped the cloth over his shoulder as he gulped greedily from the water bottle before replying. “Ordinarily, nothing. In your case, the fact that you delight in diminishing others. It isn’t necessary, and it sure as hell isn’t winning you any friends.”

Raffaele scrutinized Maddox, cocking his head thoughtfully. “Why do you care?”

Maddox met his gaze evenly. “Because I used to be you, Rafe. I was smarter and better than everyone around me, regardless of rank or experience. I sat in my ivory tower at Daystrom and looked down on everyone else. Do you know how many opportunities I missed to expand my horizons as a human being? How many friendships I lost out on that could have opened my eyes to new ways of thinking?”

A shrug accompanied Raffaele’s reply of, “I signed on to this ill-advised expedition, didn’t I? How’s that for expanding one’s horizons?”

Maddox shook his head. “For such a bright person, you can be unbelievably obtuse. Your attitude is affecting your entire department. The people assigned to Operations don’t like working for you because you consistently demean their efforts and make them feel unappreciated.”

Raffaele tensed noticeably, scowling in response. “I don’t appreciate Commander Cybel sharing the content of our private conversations with you, regardless of your marital status.”

The laugh Raffaele received in reply wasn’t what he’d expected. Maddox grinned at him as he shook his head ruefully. “Cybel didn’t tell me anything. I have eyes, Rafe. I see how your people respond to you.”

Raffaele looked away for a moment before setting his gaze back on the older officer. “When do you think the old man is going to stop dancing around this nebula and take us inside?” he asked, clearly unconcerned with the painfully obvious change in subject matter.

“The commodore is being cautious, as is warranted by the circumstances,” was Maddox’s considered response. “That part of the nebula is so dense that it would negatively affect our shields and phasers. Best to make sure there’s no ambush awaiting us in there.”

“Our probes would have turned up something by now,” Raffaele countered.

Maddox rejoined, “They haven’t turned up anything at all as yet. This might be a wild goose chase after all.”

“Who else other than Europa could have left that message?”

He placed the towel on the bench and looked up at Raffaele with a consciously patient expression. “What if it were the Romulans? Perhaps they got their hands on a phaser emitter from Europa or one of our ships destroyed at the Battle of Shul’Nazhar? They could have burned the message into the side of some Namulkai ships and then left a booby-trap at those coordinates so that we’d stumble headlong into it.”

Raffaele flipped the racquet in his hands, fingering the elaborate pattern etched into the racquet’s striking face. He made no reply, but seemed to be giving the matter serious deliberation.

“And why am I telling you this?” Maddox continued. “You’re supposed to be our hyper-intuitive resident oracle. I think you’ve got yourself so worked up about what the commodore’s doing and why he’s doing it that you’re failing to see the big picture here.”

“We’re wasting our time out here, Commander,” Raffaele blurted.

Maddox was incredulous. “We’re following our orders. That’s how all this works. They tell us to do something, and then we go and do it. Starfleet regs don’t include provisions for disregarding orders due to ‘Raffaele’s Intuition.’"

“Regardless, we need to go in there and find out if there’s anything in the nebula. We don’t have the luxury of waiting around for things to develop.”

“Actually,” Maddox countered, “we have nothing but time at the moment. We’re in another galaxy, and we’re equipped with some of the most impressive sensor systems ever fielded on a starship. Every moment we’re here, we’re gathering volumes of stellar-cartographic data on this region. We’re dispatching and recovering probes and collating the data from those we’ve left further behind us."

He stood, picking up his racquet, and gave Raffaele a small, sad smile. “We’re accomplishing our mission, Lieutenant. I’m sorry if it’s not to your satisfaction. That was an excellent game, thank you. I’m at your disposal for a rematch, should you be so inclined.”

He left Raffaele there, inspecting his racquet in silence.

 

* * *​

 

Izawa sat at his ready room desk, looking across at Cybel. “Five days, and our probes haven’t found anything. I know without a doubt that you established the most productive search pattern for them, so I have to ask, was this a false lead?”

“We can’t know that for certain, sir. If there was something there, someone else may have already stumbled onto it, or it might have drifted away. I’d like permission to take a shuttle in there for one last look.”

“I’ll authorize that,” he agreed, glancing at the padd in his hand. “Updates?”

“Nothing from our Romulan guests so far. They still refuse to answer any questions put to them. Ramirez is continuing to cooperate as best she’s able, and is enduring Dr. Zelbin’s repeated examinations. The doctor says he now believes that among other things, the nanites in her body are causing her to age regressively.”

“You mean she’s getting younger?” Izawa asked, his voice tinged with amazement.

“Yes, sir, and at a dramatic rate. If she continues at this pace, she’ll be biologically in her thirties in another six months.”

“That’s astonishing,” Izawa said. “Do we know if there’s a cut-off point to this effect, or will she continue to regress into childhood or beyond?”

“Zelbin’s continuing his analysis and can’t answer that just yet. As she has no memory of the procedures that were carried out on her, Ramirez hasn’t been any help in that regard. However, she’s been a wealth of information regarding local species and governments, most notably that there don’t seem to be many multi-system alliances or interstellar power blocs out here.”

Izawa looked interested. “So, we’re looking at single-planet or single-system governments?”

“Mainly, yes. The relative resource poverty of the LMC in this area prevents interstellar expansion. From what we’ve learned, it appears that the prior meta-civilizations that inhabited the LMC eons ago utilized most of the available resource base.

“Which leads into my next brief, that being a significant increase in vessels in the vicinity of the stealthed comms buoys that we’ve left behind us. If I had to guess, the locals are trying to get a fix on what’s generating our burst subspace data packets. If they eventually locate our buoys and satellites, they’ll undoubtedly cannibalize them for their constituent elements.”

Izawa sighed softly. “Yes, I was afraid that might be a symptom of the resource scarcity we’ve encountered.”

“I believe that’s why we haven’t found any signs of similar log buoys left behind by Europa, sir. Anything left long enough is bound to be scavenged. That’s what leads me to believe that their best course of action would be leaving a buoy hidden someplace, like inside a dense nebula.”

A small smile graced the octogenarian’s lips. “Hence your argument for not giving up quite yet.”

Her smile matched his own. “Just so, Commodore.” She shifted in her chair, another remarkably human nuance that broadcast her discomfort with her next question. “Any word back from Starfleet on the android we encountered on the trade station?”

Izawa’s expression hardened noticeably. “I put the question to them point blank, had they sent any operatives into the LMC? Their reply was, ‘Not to our knowledge.’”

“I see.” She’d suspected as much.

“Not ‘no’, not ‘absolutely not’, just ‘not to our knowledge.’ That leaves much room for interpretation.”

Cybel offered, “May we presume, sir, that Starfleet Intelligence or some other related entity has dispatched operatives to the LMC?”

“I believe we have to,” Izawa concluded with a frown. ”Otherwise, the presence of a Soong-type android out here makes no sense.”

“Section 31?” she posited.

“That cancer upon the Federation’s soul is dead and gone,” Izawa practically spat.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that, sir,” Cybel cautioned. “A group with no headquarters, no official membership roster, and with operatives both physical and incorporeal isn’t so easily expunged.”

“As a civilian representative, I sat on the special taskforce authorized by the Security Council to hunt them down. I more than most know the lengths we went to in order to defeat them.”

“I’m well aware of that, sir. I’m simply noting that an organization that old, with roots that deep, cannot be so quickly or thoroughly vanquished.”

Izawa closed his eyes briefly, centering himself. “I apologize, York. You’re correct, of course. It’s just that the group is the antithesis of everything I hold dear, and I gave everything I had to the effort to eradicate them. The thought that even a scant remnant of their influence remains is almost too much to bear.”

“I understand, sir. I know how much the revelation of 31’s existence impacted you.” Cybel was surprised at how much the mere mention of that dark agency still agitated the older man.

“I’m unaccustomed to my superiors keeping things from me,” Izawa admitted. “I realize that was largely a byproduct of my being out of real-time comms range of Starfleet Command for sixteen years during our expedition, but I remain uncomfortable with the concept. I wouldn’t think this sort of need-to-know nonsense would be applied to a single ship assigned to another galaxy.”

“I wholeheartedly agree, sir,” she attested.

“As a Twentieth century soldier once said, ‘If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you, but the bureaucracy won’t.’” Izawa offered this wisdom with a mordant smile.

 

* * *​

Chapter 13 by Gibraltar
It was hour five of the runabout Namsen’s as-yet fruitless search of the nebula tendril, and though boredom hadn’t officially set in, glimpses of it could be seen on the horizon. Quietude had led to conversation, and given the personalities involved, conversation had invited friction.

“I don’t want to be lectured,” Raffaele insisted, running the same scan cycle for the fifth time in as many minutes as a form of distraction.

“I’m not lecturing,” Cybel insisted. “I’m simply pointing out that the premise of your thesis was fundamentally wrong, nearly laughably so.”

Raffaele finally tore his eyes away from his display to stare daggers at the XO in the pilot’s seat. “Take that back! I graduated with honors, fourth in my class, and my thesis is still being taught at the academy as an example of divergent cognition.”

“I will not,” Cybel replied calmly. “I’ve run eight hundred and fifteen simulations of your equation over the years, having accounted for all possible variables to the input parameters, and the end results remain inconsistent. That’s not a verifiable result. It looks like a verifiable result if you take it at face value, but dig deeper and it all falls apart. Hence, your unsupported opinion does not constitute a scientific fact.”

“I’ve seen your simulations,” he snapped, “and you’ve failed to take several factors into account, which we have already discussed ad nauseum on several occasions!”

From behind them at an auxiliary console in the cockpit, Ressessk inquired innocently, “You are both ssscertain this is not a mating ritual?”

Raffaele yelled something incoherent in response, slapping his hands atop his console.

“This,” Cybel said, looking back to Ressessk, “is a primitive homo sapiens behavior known to Terran psychology as, ‘a tantrum.’”

“You are infuriating,” Raffaele seethed.

“I don’t think that’s the word you wanted, Rafe. I believe the word you are looking for is ‘superior.’ For what it’s worth, I know.

“You know what?” Raffaele spun the co-pilot’s chair towards Cybel, gesticulating furiously, but before he could launch into his diatribe an insistent cry from his console diverted his attention.

“Sensor contact,” Cybel announced, beating Raffaele to the punch. “Metallic object measuring five meters in length, comprised of duranium and tritanium.”

He intensified the runabout’s scans of the object, saying, “Reads as a Starfleet Class-7 log buoy, modified.”

“Modified how?” Ressessk asked.

“It appears that additional protective layers have been added to the exterior of the buoy to safeguard it from the corrosive gasses in the nebula,” Raffaele replied. “We’ve had to refit a number of the probes we’ve been using in here for the same reason, though ours had a much shorter exposure time. Judging by the significant level of degradation, this buoy looks to have been here for years.”

“Itsss been here the whole time?” Ressessk sounded incredulous. “We’ve had probesss ssscouring thisss area for daysss, why have we only found it now?”

“Because we stumbled right into it,” Raffaele remarked, hands flitting across his console as he tweaked sensor parameters to get a better reading on the buoy. “We didn’t pick it up until we were less than three kilometers from it thanks to the interference from the surrounding nebula.”

“We’re being scanned,” Cybel noted. “The buoy is requesting Starfleet authentication codes.”

“Sending the appropriate countersigns for codes of that time period,” Raffaele answered. “Authentication confirmed.”

Cybel watched as the runabout’s computer linked with that of the probe. “We’re receiving an encrypted download from the buoy; data files, sensor logs, personal and official logs from Europa… two years, seven months and sixteen days worth. It will take a few minutes to complete the transfer.”

She looked across at Raffaele. “Your graduate thesis. It was an elaborate practical joke, wasn’t it? A joke that lives on to this day. Each time another academy class is exposed to your theorem, the joke is perpetuated.”

A smile spread slowly across the man’s features in response. “The most brilliant minds in the Federation. Vulcans, Bynars, other AI’s, and you’re the only one who’s managed to figure it out in nearly a decade.”

Warning tell-tails began to flash red across both their consoles simultaneously, strobing in time with an audible alert klaxon.

Cybel frowned, her brow furrowing in confusion. “Something just seized control of the navigation and helm. We’ve been hacked by the buoy!”

“Were our infiltration firewalls offline?” Raffaele asked.

“No, they’re working,” Cybel countered. “Whatever this is, it got past them.”

From behind them, Ressessk monitored the engineering systems and announced, “Our navigational deflectors are being retuned to a higher energy frequensssy.”

“Someone must have compromised the buoy,” Raffaele offered as he tried in vain to stop the cascade failure of command and control systems. “Nothing I’m doing is slowing it down.”

Cybel set her hand atop the console to establish a physical link and interface with the computer directly. “I’ll try some countermeasures, but I can’t risk exposing my own operating systems to this virus.”

Twin beams flared to life, projected from Namsen’s two navigational deflectors located on the craft’s engine pylons. They lanced ahead of the runabout and intersected some five kilometers away where a swirling aperture began to form.

“Impulssse enginesss coming online,” Ressessk noted with concern.

“Cybel?” Raffaele urged. “I really don’t want to go in there!”

The android drew her hand back from the console in alarm. “No choice I’m afraid. I just tried an emergency shut down of the computer core, but we’ve been locked out.”

The Namsen thrust ahead, pierced the veil, and vanished.
* * *
A bright white light suffused the cockpit of the runabout Namsen, causing Raffaele to cover his eyes while Ressessk’s nictating membranes slammed shut to protect her sight, an evolutionary safeguard of her species’ vision designed to thwart the glare of their bright white native star.

“I’m polarizing the viewports,” Cybel informed them as the cockpit grew substantially darker.

Raffaele blinked, his eyes watering. “Thank you. That was… intense.”

All at once, the cockpit’s interface panels went dark. After an agonizing moment, they returned to life as systems rebooted.

Cybel made a musing sound. “Full system restoration, apparently.”

“I think I sssee ssstarsss,” Ressessk offered uncertainly as she gazed out a now tinted viewport. “Thossse dark pointsss.”

Cybel joined her in looking out the window. “I believe you’re correct. Those dark points correspond with the locations of stars in this and adjoining sectors, though we wouldn’t have been able to see them from within the nebula. It’s as if the visual spectrum here has been inverted, and wherever this is, there’s no corresponding gas cloud. This may be a completely new dimension to us, or we might be slightly out of phase with our own dimension.”

“We aren’t the first to come here,” Raffaele observed with an odd note of disbelief in his voice.

Cybel turned towards him. “What?”

“Well, it’s a starship,” Raffaele replied slowly. “Just… not the one we were looking for.”

Three sets of eyes were now focused on the unlikely sight of what was unmistakably a Federation starship, a four-nacelle Constellation-class exploratory cruiser. It drifted less than a dozen kilometers away without running lights or any observable sign of active power.

Cybel squinted as her cybernetic eyes enhanced the image of the ship’s registry. “NCC-2748, USS Caelestis.”

“What in the seven levels of hell is she doing all the way out here?” Raffaele murmured, before adding, “wherever this is.”

One of the forward monitors activated, and the face of a male human Starfleet officer addressed them. “I apologize for the unexpected transition here to what we’ve named nullspace, but I decided it was easier to show you what we had discovered than simply try and explain it.”

“Wait,” Raffaele looked dumbfounded, “that’s—“

“It sssertainly appearsss to be,” agreed Ressessk, equally stunned.

“I am Captain Zeischt, commanding the Federation starship Europa. As our logs will explain, we were drawn to this location by persistent dreams through which several dozen members of my crew experienced inhabiting the bodies of members of Caelestis’ crew in the weeks leading up to the ship’s disappearance in the Beta Quadrant in 2295. We haven’t yet discovered how this is possible, or why, only that these experiences by the crew had become increasingly frequent and visceral.

“When we finally located Caelestis, we were being actively pursued by an Amon faction and could not remain here long without endangering the ship. We’ve included our initial findings so you may determine if there’s been any change in the ship’s status since we happened upon her.

"I have included star-charts of those areas I plan to explore next, provided the Amon allow us that opportunity. Additionally, we have begun to endure our own inexplicably troubling events aboard ship. I fear that the malevolent force that tormented
Caelestis’ crew and then swept them into the LMC has now turned its attentions on Europa.

“I’ve also included detailed instructions on how to recreate the trans-dimensional portal that brought you here so that you may transit back and forth to our home dimension at will. I sincerely hope you are able to revive Caelestis’ crew from whatever manner of stasis has gripped them, should they still be in the same state as we discovered them.”

The image winked out, leaving the three officers deep in thought.

“The LMC continues to surprise me,” Cybel confessed.

“I must admit, I did not see that coming,” Raffaele offered.

“Ssshit,” added Ressessk.

* * *​ ​  

USS Caelestis
Nullspace


The team which discovered Caelestis had returned to Valhalla to report their discovery and upload the data from Europa’s log buoy. Izawa was unwilling to risk the entire ship in this little-understood nullspace, and had instead sent a more robust exploratory team in the runabout back to Caelestis’ location.

The reconnaissance drone swept the starship’s bridge with fanning blades of sensor energy, analyzing the vessel, its atmosphere, and its crew down to the subatomic level. After ascertaining there were no detectable threats present, the drone vanished in a transporter beam as the away team materialized in its place.

Maddox, Ressessk, and Dr. Zelbin were all clad in hardened environment suits, while the engineer and Cybel appeared in standard duty uniform, the engineer’s presence courtesy of his mobile-emitter.

The team spread out throughout the darkened bridge, playing their wrist-mounted lights across the lifeless LCARS displays, which were frosted with ice crystals due to the temperature having reached near absolute zero in the compartment.

Caelestis’ bridge crew remained immobilized, presumably in the same positions and postures they’d assumed nearly a century earlier in the Milky Way galaxy. They, too, were coated in sparkling ice, like so much crystalline statuary. They were clad in the old belted, maroon military-style uniforms favored at the turn of the century, festooned with rank insignia, length-of-service pins, and department noted by turtleneck undershirt color. Most sat or stood at their control stations, some appearing to have been speaking and others inputting commands when the mystery event seized the ship and froze the crew like insects in amber.

Though Cybel’s mouth did not move, the team heard her voice clearly over their shared comms-channel. “So far, everything appears exactly as the team from Europa found it nearly three years ago.”

“Did we expect anything different, Commander?” Zelbin inquired.

“There was some thought among Europa’s science team that this might be an example of a highly localized temporal flux; basically time moving much more slowly than normal for Caelestis’ crew. However, what we’re seeing here isn’t consistent with that phenomenon.”

“No power to the ship’s systems,” the engineer noted over comms, though he went through the pantomime of moving his lips despite the lack of atmosphere. “From the scans we took aboard the runabout, there’s an active matter/anti-matter reaction taking place within the M/ARC chamber in main engineering. From a physics standpoint, it’s impossible to stop such a reaction in mid-stream, unless you create a complete temporal stasis field.”

“Thisss isss not sssuch a field?” asked Ressessk.

“No,” Maddox spoke up from where he was scanning a darkened console with a tricorder. “If such a field existed around Caelestis, we’d be affected by it, too.”

The muzzle-like protrusion of Ressessk’s mouth bunched in the Selay variant of a frown, visible from within her EVA helmet. “Then how isss thisss posssible?”

“No idea,” Maddox and Cybel answered in unison before pausing to share a smirk from opposite sides of the bridge.

Zelbin swept his medical sensor wand over the inert form occupying the captain’s chair as Cybel stepped over to join him.

“No cellular activity, no neural activity either, but no signs of necrosis. There is also no indication of the kind of cellular damage one would expect from biological tissues exposed to temperatures of minus two-hundred seventy-three degrees Celsius. From a medical standpoint, sir, they are neither alive nor dead.”

Cybel grunted in response, “Schrödinger’s crew.” She took a moment to examine the unmoving form of the man in the center seat. Through the semi-opaque covering of ice, Cybel could make out a Caucasian human male of average height with light curly hair marked by a receding hairline.

“Captain Marshall Abrahamson. I doubt this was the way anyone at the time would have foreseen his career ending.”

“Was he notable in some way?” Zelbin asked as he checked his readings on a medical tricorder.

“Quite, for his time.” Cybel rejoined. “He was promoted to captain fairly young, after distinguishing himself during the Cormara Incident when that rogue Klingon faction tried to seize Zouérat Station. Over the next decade he made a name for himself as a deep space explorer, always pushing back the frontiers of science and diplomacy.”

Zelbin smiled. “Sounds very much like our commodore.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “in many ways, though somewhat more flamboyant in that inimitable 23rd century fashion.”

“The Kirk era of dashing daring-do?” Maddox asked.

“Precisely.” She activated comms to the runabout. “Rafe, you getting our data signal?”

“Confirmed,” Raffaele replied from aboard Namsen. “Telemetry link is active and stable.”

The work continued quietly for some minutes, with team members engrossed in their own analyses. Finally, Raffaele broke the silence by asking, “So, Sandhurst is back aboard Europa, and in command? How did that happen?”

The query was directed toward Cybel, who was the only member of the crew who’d had access to the sum total of Europa’s logs and the ability to absorb them in their entirety.

“Not easily,” Cybel replied, engrossed in her tricorder’s readings. “Brief power struggle, threats of mutiny, nothing that will benefit any of their long-term career prospects.”

“Probably not their first priority, given the circumstances,” Raffaele pointed out.

Cybel allowed, “Probably not.”

“I’ll admit, I was surprised we found a viable clue to Europa’s whereabouts so soon, or at all, really. Hopefully the info they left will help us to narrow our search parameters.”

“Hopefully,” Cybel echoed. “Sandhurst did identify some other nebulae where they might have left us other log buoys, circumstances permitting. A least we’ve a better idea where to look now.”

“And the Amon?” Raffaele pressed for greater details. “What kind of threat do they pose now?”

“The ones from the cube that managed to survive Lar’ragos’ virus were understandably put out. Saying that they’ve declared a holy war on Europa’s crew might be painting too rosy a picture of the situation.”

“Ah,” Raffaele replied, “vengeance with religious overtones. A tried-and-true classic.”

Cybel moved to scan the armrest of the command chair, tempted to take a sample aboard Namsen to see if there was any detectable evidence of whatever phenomenon caused this event that might become apparent if a piece were removed from the influence of the ship itself. She withdrew her phaser, and set it to an appropriate power-level and beam width. “Be advised,” she warned the others. “I’m taking a material sample.”

She began to cut into the armrest, producing a flood of sparks as the tritanium yielded to her beam. Suddenly, the layer of ice clinging to the captain’s form broke free and began to float away as the body began to shimmer and vibrate.

Cybel called out over comms, “Namsen, emergency transport of the person in the captain’s chair. Put him behind a containment field and have the runabout’s EMH on standby!”

The weirdly pulsating form vanished in a cascade of transporter energy. Cybel turned to look at the others, her expression sheepish. “Oops,” was all her higher-order intelligence could think to offer in the moment.
* * *​ ​
Chapter 14 by Gibraltar

The oscillating form regained cohesion on the pad of the runabout’s cramped transporter booth as Raffaele rose from the copilot’s seat and ordered, “Activate EMH.”

The hologram appeared and Raffaele instructed Ensign Beresha at the pilot’s station to brief the EMH on the quickly developing situation.

As the wavering energy field flickered and died to reveal Captain Abrahamson sprawled on the transporter pad, the man took a deep, heaving breath — his first in eighty-eight years. He looked around, wild-eyed and confused. “Where… where is this?”

Abrahamson scrabbled to his feet, bolting forward only to crash headlong into the containment field. He rebounded and landed heavily on his backside.

On the other side of the field, Rafe knelt and made eye contact with the displaced officer. “Captain, I’m Lieutenant Raffaele. Please try to remain calm. You’re in no immediate danger. You’re aboard a Starfleet vessel, see?” He gestured to the Starfleet arrowhead emblazoned upon the combadge affixed to his chest.

Abrahamson seemed to collect himself and began to take a real look at his surroundings. “Okay, Lieutenant, you have the advantage. Explain what’s going on here. Where is my ship?”

“Beresha,” Raffaele instructed, “bring us around so we can see Caelestis through the forward ‘ports.”

Meanwhile, the EMH busied himself scanning Abrahamson with his medical tricorder.

Namsen came about so as to make the older vessel visible through the cockpit windows. Abrahamson squinted at the dismaying sight of his ship set against a stark white field, peppered with black stars twinkling in the backdrop.

“We found Caelestis adrift in this dimensional schism, you and the rest of your crew frozen somehow. We sent an away team over to your bridge, and it appears we unwittingly unfroze you somehow.”

Eyeing Raffaele’s uniform, Abrahamson warily asked, “How long?”

“Sir, I’m not sure fixating on the detai—“

“How long, Lieutenant?” Abrahamson barked with such authority that Raffaele found himself replying before he could stop himself.

“Eighty-eight years, sir,” Raffaele announced sharply, before lowering the tenor of his voice to add, “And if that isn’t disconcerting enough, we’re in the Large Magellanic Cloud, orbiting the Milky Way.”

Raffaele’s eyes were drawn to the wedding band on Abrahamson’s finger, and an uncharacteristic wave of empathy seized him.

“Elevated blood pressure,” the EMH announced, “and indications of significant stress hormones.” The hologram turned his neutral expression on Raffaele. “His reaction seems appropriate to the circumstances.”

Abrahamson shot daggers at the EMH with his eyes, prompting Raffaele to call, “Deactivate EMH.” He gracefully snatched the medical tricorder from the air as it fell from the hologram’s evaporating hand.

“Holographic projection,” Raffaele explained as Abrahamson goggled at the man’s abrupt disappearance. He tapped his combadge, opening a channel to the XO. “Commander, I have a man here with many questions.”

* * *​


USS Valhalla
Sickbay


Abrahamson had been largely quiet during Dr. Zelbin’s comprehensive examination, his eyes taking in the advanced medical technology on display.

Izawa and Cybel stood conferring nearby, awaiting the doctor’s final report on the health of their guest.

“I’m still not sure I could recreate whatever it was that I did to disrupt his stasis, sir,” Cybel explained.

Izawa nodded, his arms clasped behind his back. “With any luck, we’ll be able to crack the mystery and revive the rest of his crew. If we can restore Caelestis as well, we could conceivably send them back to the portal under their own power.”

Cybel appeared surprised. “Sir? You don’t think we should escort them back? Without transwarp, it would take them almost six months at their maximum speed to reach Shul’Nazhar and the portal.”

“I won’t deny that stumbling upon Caelestis with Europa’s help was a rare stroke of good fortune, York, but I remind you the recovery of this ship and crew is not our mission. We’re in a better position now to locate Europa than at any point since we arrived in the LMC. And since we have confirmation that Sandhurst, an acknowledged traitor, has returned to the ship and seized command, locating them has become even more urgent. The man is even flaunting his Amon name, as if to rub our noses in it.”

Cybel seemed about to contest the point, but fell silent in the face of Zelbin’s approach.

“Commodore,” Zelbin said, “I’m pleased to give Captain Abrahamson a clean bill of health. Aside from being understandably upset at his circumstances, his vitals are strong and conform to his last recorded medical examination at Starbase 41 last century.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

Izawa nodded to the security specialist nearby, silently dismissing her. He hobbled over to Abrahamson with the help of his cane and extended a hand. “Commodore Takeo Izawa, commanding the starship Valhalla. It’s a pleasure to meet you captain, though I wish it were under different circumstances.”

Abrahamson shook Izawa’s hand, still looking somewhat overwhelmed. “Thank you, Commodore. Marshall Abrahamson, at your service.”

“Captain, I want to assure you we’re doing everything we can to rescue your crew, and perhaps recover your ship as well. It would be helpful if you could tell us what circumstances led up to this event.”

Abrahamson’s face set in a stony expression, untold horrors flitting behind his eyes. “Tell me, Commodore, do you believe in devils?”

* * *​
Beresha awoke slowly, luxuriating in the knowledge that following yesterday’s grueling away mission to Caelestis, she had an entire day off duty. She’d scheduled three hours on the holodeck to simulate rock climbing in Delta IV’s challenging Duruk Mountains, a goal she’d yet to successfully complete despite having owned a copy of the program for more than two years.

She slowly opened her eyes and immediately froze as it became apparent she was not in her quarters. Her first thought was that perhaps she’d had too much to drink the previous night with some of the ship’s other junior officers in The Falcon’s Lair lounge in the main shuttlebay.

Please tell me I didn’t… she thought desperately. As a Deltan, she was sworn to uphold her oath of celibacy. Due to her species' potent empathic abilities, both physical and emotional relationships with Deltans could have profoundly negative impacts on humans and other races that her people considered ‘sexually immature.’

She rolled over and was relieved to discover she was alone, however, this was most definitely not her cabin. She sat up and as she pushed the covers off herself she froze again, staring aghast at her hand.

Only it wasn’t her hand.

What should have been a dark, ebony complexion was instead a pale pinkish hue, with tawny hairs on her arms.

Beresha abruptly slid off the bed and glanced around the small cabin searching for a reflective surface. She spied the mirror in the cramped refresher cubical and stumbled desperately towards it, only to freeze for a third time as she found herself staring at the reflection of an entirely different person.

She assumed the woman looking back at her was human, based solely on her appearance, a rather mousy looking Caucasian with shoulder length auburn hair that clung damply to her head as though she’d been perspiring heavily in her sleep.

“Computer,” Beresha blurted, “where am I?”

“You are in junior-officer’s quarters, cabin four-zero-nine, deck four, section three, USS Caelestis, the computer obediently replied.

“Computer, who am I?”

“You are Suzette Saint-Marie, Lieutenant junior-grade, Starfleet. Your current billet is Assistant Chief Navigation Officer, USS Caelestis.”

“No,” Beresha gasped, “Oh no, no, no… by the six deities this is not happening!” She stood, hands gripping the sides of her head. “This has to be a dream. It has to!”

Only it did not feel like a dream, especially to a Deltan, a species who learned the ability to active-dream in their youth as a guide to exploring their own subconscious. She was proficient at discerning dream from reality, and then actively guiding her dream-state in order to stop nightmares-in-progress or to discover more about her unconscious thoughts and desires.

Beresha attempted to utilize these skills, to no effect. All her senses told her definitively that she was wide awake and firmly planted in what humans would term, ‘the real world.’

She walked slowly back to the bed on wobbly legs, nearly overwhelmed by the sheer incongruity of the experience. However, as she sat down on the bed she realized that despite the fact that she appeared to be inhabiting a human body, she still felt Deltan, still had access to her empathic perceptions. She could still sense other crew nearby, could still perceive an undercurrent of fear and stress that seemed to bubble just beneath the surface.

Beresha stood and moved to the closet, pulling on what to her was a uniform from another era, spending long minutes trying to figure out how the various clasps and buckles on the overly-ornate uniform worked. She’d have to try and explain herself to a superior officer, and hope that they didn’t send her to sickbay on a special psychiatric watch.

She caught Saint-Marie’s reflection in the mirror on the cusp of exiting the cabin, and remembered that this woman had hair, something that she’d have to do something with, or about.

Locating a maroon-colored hair band, she fiddled with the unfamiliar tresses for a few moments until she’d suitably contained the unruly mass.

Beresha stepped to the doors, which slid open to reveal a man in a garish jester’s costume, his face painted in a sloppy rendition of a classic Terran clown’s makeup. An overwhelming stench of fetid decay swept into the cabin from the corridor, nearly causing Beresha to gag as she recoiled from the specter’s unexpected presence.

“Hey,” the ghoulish harlequin rasped, holding up Beresha’s severed head in both hands. “Are you missing this perchance?”

She screamed, staggering back into the cabin and tripping over a table leg, falling heavily and wrenching her knee in the process.

“Oh, damn,” the clown muttered. “You’re Deltan, aren’t you? Probably give less than a squirt about clowns, eh? How about this then?”

Suddenly the clown was a Mostrui druid, the hobgoblin of Deltan children’s tales, the claimant of souls who died tragically before their time. He tossed her head into her lap, which Beresha caught fumblingly despite her every sense shouting at her to throw it away.

The eyes of her severed head opened and it screamed impossibly in her own voice–

Beresha sat bolt upright in bed in her junior officer’s cabin aboard Valhalla, gasping for breath and drenched in perspiration, her heart hammering in her chest.

She unconsciously reached down to grab her left knee, which throbbed inexplicably.

* * *​
Chapter 15 by Gibraltar

USS Caelestis
88 Years Earlier
Beta Quadrant, Milky Way Galaxy


Marshall Abrahamson allowed himself to sag against the wall of the turbolift, utterly exhausted. He’d used his command override to ensure there would be no other stops on the way to the bridge, for fear of another crewmember finding him slouching against the side of the ‘lift like a petulant school boy.

The persistent nightmares had recurred last night, waking him repeatedly to the point he doubted if he’d got much more than an hour and a half of actual sleep. Precious little of the rest he did get was of the critical REM-sleep variety.

Neither the somnetic-inducer nor the sedatives Dr. Müller had prescribed him had worked to any significant degree, and it almost seemed the night-terrors had increased in vividness to counter the use of these sleep aids.

He straightened and tugged at his uniform jacket to straighten it, determined to put on his best face, even if that face included puffy, darkened saddlebags under his bloodshot eyes.

The doors parted and Abrahamson stepped onto the bridge. Despite his own fatigue, it was impossible to miss the lethargy evidenced by the crew, most especially his senior staff. He knew from Dr. Müller that dozens of others among Caelestis’ compliment had complained of similar symptoms. Officers and enlisted personnel stared listlessly at their stations, with more than one even doing the occasional head-bob of someone repeatedly dozing off at their post.

Lt. Commander Corata, his Deltan Executive Officer, rose slowly from the command chair, handing over a padd containing updates on the events of Gamma Watch. Her typically bright and bubbly disposition was clouded with… something. Not weariness, precisely, but she did not seem her usual buoyant self.

“More of that sporadic subspace radio traffic, Captain,” Corata advised, surrendering the chair to the ship’s master.

Abrahamson remained standing, scrolling through the overnight activity log as he nodded soberly. “Any more luck with the UT?”

“None yet, sir. Lieutenant Fakhoury advises that we’ll need substantially more unbroken comms activity from the source before the translation-matrix will be able to begin formulating a vocabulary pattern.”

Abrahamson glanced around for a brief moment and then gestured with the padd to the doors of his ready room, a welcome addition of the ship’s latest refit.

Once inside, Abrahamson fixed a concerned expression on Corata. “I had another bad night, Commander, and unless I miss my guess, most of the senior staff is in the same condition.”

“Yes, sir,” she affirmed. “It’s bad. As your people are fond of saying, there’s no sense in sugar-coating it.”

“No,” he murmured listlessly. “I suppose not.”

“Captain, have we given any thought to the possibility that it’s something to do with this region of space? Starfleet has seen such things before. There’s precedent for energy fields generated by all manner of phenomena that can interfere with humanoid brain activity.”

Abrahamson shrugged in response, tossing the padd onto his desk top with a clatter. “Mister Satel has been running scans for the past four days on anything and everything that may appear out of the ordinary from an emissions perspective. Thus far, he’s not found a damn thing. Meanwhile, Dr. Müller has been monitoring the neurotransmitter levels in the effected crew, and reports that it doesn’t appear as if we’re under the influence of any kind of detectable telepathic activity.”

Corata’s shoulders slumped and she appeared crestfallen. “Regardless, sir, perhaps it might be for the best if we turn around and head back the way we came?”

He moved around the desk and sank into his chair with all the grace of an anchor settling into mud. “We’re on the cusp of a First Contact here, Corata. We’re only eight weeks out of Frontier Station Laramie, the first manned vessel into this region. How will it look if we turn around now and head home with our tail between our legs because we were having ‘bad dreams?’ How’s that going to play with Commodore ʻŌpūnui? She’s already got it out for me after that dust-up with the Orions at Urat-Fal, and she’d just love an excuse to put me in hack!”

”That wasn’t our fault,” Corata argued. “They were running an arms smuggling operation under the guise of a diplomatic mission. How can ʻŌpūnui censure you for that?”

“You know that, and I know that. Hell, even the commodore knows that. Nonetheless, the Orion attaché whined to the Federation Council, who snapped at the Security Council, who barked at the C-I-C, who badgered Starfleet Command, which in turn rolled a dung-ball downhill onto ʻŌpūnui. Legitimate or not, our actions created a diplomatic incident and made her look bad.”

Corata made a graceful gesture with her hands, one Abrahamson long ago had come to accept as the Deltan version of a non-verbal sigh. “I understand, Captain. However, as XO, it’s my responsibility to notify you that whatever it is that’s infected the crew’s dreams, it’s now become problematic to the point that it’s affecting our readiness, and therefore the safety of the ship and crew.”

“Your advisement has been heard, Commander, on the record,” Abrahamson replied stolidly.

“My duty log will reflect that, sir,” she informed him.

“I have no doubt of that, Commander,” he answered tersely, still edgy from lack of sleep. “You are dismissed.”

“Aye, sir,” Corata acknowledged, her eyes lingering on Abrahamson for just a moment longer. From behind those Deltan eyes, Liana Ramirez drank in the experience of being a Starfleet officer once again, unencumbered by the sins of her past. She knew this wasn’t a dream, but whatever it was, it was certainly better than being restricted to guest quarters aboard Valhalla.

* * *​
Valhalla’s saucer-section remained outside the nebula with Izawa aboard, while the stardrive-section under Cybel’s command had entered the nebula to oversee the efforts to retrieve Caelestis’ crew from the clutches of nullspace.

The saucer had continued to monitor the ship’s dwindling network of comms-relays as they began dropping offline one by one, doubtless falling victim to scavengers desperate for whatever refined metals they could locate.

On the bridge, Raffaele glanced over his shoulder from the Ops station as an alert beeped at his console. “Commodore, we’re picking up a low-power subspace signal on a repeating cycle. It matches nothing in our admittedly limited LMC database, but it sounds like a distress call to me.”

“Let’s hear it, Lieutenant,” Izawa ordered.

The warbling cry sounded over the comms, a plaintive harmonic wail, distorted and nearly washed out at times by interference from a nearby pulsar.

“Source?” the commodore asked.

“Hard to pinpoint, sir, but it looks to be coming from somewhere in a star system some six-point-three light-years from our present location.”

Izawa considered this, then weighed the safety of his detached crew against a cry for help from the unknown. Ultimately, it was no contest. They were Starfleet.

“Ops, launch a message buoy to intercept the stardrive-section and inform them that we’re moving to investigate this distress call. We’ll also need a method of alerting them should we require assistance when we get there.”

From the engineering station, the engineer replied, “I could fashion a low profile stealth buoy that can remain on station here. Should we send it a call for help, it would move into the nebula to the stardrive-section’s coordinates and deliver our message.”

“Perfect, Chief, thank you.” Izawa looked to the ensign taking Beresha’s place at flight control. “Mister Silva, ETA to the source of that signal?”

“Two days, three hours and eight minutes at the saucer’s maximum speed of warp eight, sir.”

The Mark II Galaxy-class saucer section had warp nacelles built into the hull near the impulse engines, compact streamlined affairs that mirrored those of the Defiant-class. Due to their condensed nature, their top rated speed was only warp eight with no transwarp capability, but it remained a significant improvement on being limited to sub-light speeds.

“Very well, we should get underway then. Make all necessary preparations and then execute a course to that system.”

As the officers acknowledged their orders, Izawa stood slowly with the aid of his cane and moved with stately deliberation to his ready room. Once inside, he lowered himself gently into his chair behind the desk and called out, “York, please bring Captain Abrahamson to my ready room.”

Moments later his door chimed, and after he’d granted admission, Cybel walked in leading Abrahamson. The captain was now wearing a contemporary Starfleet uniform, though it was apparent he still wasn’t completely comfortable with the new look.

Izawa invited him to take a seat, then acknowledged Cybel with a nod. “Any updates, Commander?”

“Captain Ramirez has passed muster with both our Vulcan and Betazoid specialists, sir.”

Abrahamson quirked a curious eyebrow. “How many captains do you have aboard, Commodore?”

“It’s a growing collection to be sure, but at the moment you’re one of only two,” Izawa responded with good humor. To Cybel he said, “Let’s upgrade her accommodations to guest quarters with strict controls on her computer access and security personnel posted.”

“Aye, sir.”

Abrahamson’s curiosity was piqued, but this was not his ship and the matter was none of his concern.

“Thank you, York. That will be all.”

The holographic Cybel vanished, causing Abrahamson to start.

Izawa winced with sudden realization. “My apologies, Captain. That version of Commander Cybel is a holographic simulacrum. Her avatar is presently commanding the stardrive-section and overseeing our efforts to revive your crew.”

“Her… avatar?” Abrahamson was clearly lost.

“Has no one explained this?” Izawa was surprised, and a bit embarrassed. However, he realized that all this had become the norm for his crew, and as such, had likely slipped their minds.

“Cybel is an artificial life form. She exists both as the computer core of this ship, and also as a self-contained android.”

Abrahamson’s eyes widened as he drank this in. “Your exec is the ship’s computer, and an android?”

“Correct.”

“Is this standard practice now?”

“No,” Izawa said with a smile. “This is the first time it has been allowed. The same restrictions that were in place in your day still exist to prevent something like the M-5 disaster from recurring. Cybel is a very special case, one worthy of bending those restrictions.”

Abrahamson nodded distractedly, seeming preoccupied by another matter. “Sir, speaking of my own time, if you’re able to free my crew and Caelestis, will we be given the opportunity to return to the 23rd century after we've arrived back in the Milky Way?”

The question caught Izawa off guard. “I’m not— how would you even go about that, Captain?”

“It’s been done before, sir. Warp-assisted slingshot around a medium-sized star. With precise enough calculations, we could return at nearly the instant we left.”

Izawa’s expression grew tight with empathy and regret in equal measures. “I’m so very sorry, Captain, but during the intervening decades the Federation has adopted a Temporal Prime Directive that prevents us from interfering with our timeline. Caelestis’ disappearance is an established historical fact, one that must remain so. Were you to return, you would now have knowledge of the future that could alter our history. In fact, your return to the past would create an entirely new timeline, sending ripples throughout history that could have significant unforeseen consequences.” He steepled his hands atop his desk, directing his most sympathetic expression towards the other man. “I’m afraid you and your people will have to make new lives for yourselves in the 24th century.”

“I… I see, sir.” Abrahamson struggled to maintain his composure, all the while twisting his wedding band on his finger in an unconscious gesture that was impossible for Izawa to miss.

“You’ve been meeting with our ship’s counselor, Captain?”

“Yes,” Abrahamson murmured thickly, his eyes glistening.

“I would like you to continue doing so. Such services will also be afforded your crew, should we prove able to revive them as well. I cannot imagine what this must be like for you, and you have my every sympathy. That said, it’s important that you know such events have happened before, other starships that have been temporally displaced. We have protocols for such eventualities, and I’m happy to report those personnel have gone on to lead active, productive lives in this century, many of them choosing to return to Starfleet service.”

“That’s good to hear,” Abrahamson answered numbly, staring off into space somewhere over Izawa’s shoulder for a long moment before pulling himself back from his reverie. “I’m sorry, Commodore. It’s just that it wasn’t real to me until this moment. I’d been holding out hope that we might return to the 23rd, and now that potential is beyond reach, I realize that I’ll never see my wife or children again.”

Izawa nodded somberly. “You have full access to our historical records, Captain. You can research what happened to your family after your disappearance. There is every possibility that your children may yet live. I myself was born only a year after Caelestis vanished. Perhaps that might give you some solace.”

“Yes, thank you, sir.” Abrahamson answered. He seemed on the cusp of saying something further, but appeared to change his mind. “If there’s nothing further, Commodore?”

“No, Captain. Thank you for meeting with me.”


* * *​

A little over two days later, Vallhalla’s saucer-section dropped out of warp at the far edge of the system where the distress call was believed to have originated.

The ship stood to yellow alert as the senior staff set about scanning the system for the source of the transmission.

Raffaele studied the sensor returns as he advised, “It’s an attack on a colony site from an orbiting vessel. I see signs of an orbital bombardment that wiped out the colony’s primary weapons array, and now it appears there’s a surface attack underway. Assault craft are debarking soldiers that are advancing on the colony’s outskirts.”

“Colony population?” Izawa asked.

“A little over fifty-seven thousand, sir,” Raffaele replied coolly.

“Are the aggressors and defenders of the same species?” Izawa inquired, ticking the well-worn boxes in his mental Prime Directive checklist.

“Negative, sir. The colonists are a quadrupedal species, roughly analogous to Terran horses with arm-like appenda—“

“Centaurs?” the ensign at flight control blurted, his amazement briefly short-circuiting his attendance to protocol. “They’re basically centaurs?”

Raffaele chuckled in response. “Yes, I suppose in a way they are.”

Izawa silenced Ensign Fournier with a withering look before turning his attention back to Raffele. Fournier apologized meekly as he blushed fiercely.

Picking up where he’d left off, Raffale offered, “The aggressors are a quasi-insectoid species, which come in assorted sizes. They have roughly humanoid-sized versions, and then larger ones, something like armored beetles the size of shuttlepods. With all their portable weaponry, the big ones are acting more like biological tanks than foot soldiers. Thankfully, their size seems to be limiting the number of troops they’re able to bring down on each transport sortie.”

“Has there been any detectable response to the colony’s distress signal?”

“No, sir. However, there are several satellites at the edge of the system that are consistent with the constituent materials of the aggressor warship. The satellites are generating a communications scrambling field that may be preventing the colony’s signal getting out to the coreward-relative sectors beyond here.”

“So they’re jamming the colony’s call for help in the most likely direction that help might come from?”

“Precisely, sir,” Raffaele confirmed.

“And yet they were unconcerned with the distress call broadcasting in our direction,” Izawa mused. “Any records of or references to either species in our LMC database?”

“No, sir.”

Izawa turned towards Ressessk. “Lieutenant, have Captain Ramirez escorted to the bridge, and get me a tactical workup on the aggressor ship.” He turned back to look at the science station along the starboard ramp leading to the upper level of the bridge. “Have the aggressors detected us yet?”

Lieutenant Chen-Oo-Vuu, a graceful cephalopodan Tel’ukian stood in for Maddox at the science station. Its tentacles, encased within a fluid filled environment sleeve danced across the console interface. Its translator module issued, “Negative, sir. We’ve approached with the Tarantula Nebula behind us. Its electromagnetic emissions are screening us from detection, as is the accretion disk at the system’s edge.”

“Very good,” Izawa assessed, limping back to sit in the command chair. “Helm, take us in at one-half impulse speed. Tactical, start warming up the weapons and defensive systems, but no formal activation until I give the order.”

“Asssesssment complete, sssir,” Ressessk alerted the commodore. “They are armed with low yield torpedoesss, much like the firssst generation photonic warheadsss we fielded in the 22nd sssentury. However, they are alssso armed with what looksss to be poorly copied Romulan disssruptor banksss. Their ssshieldsss are comparatively low powered. Given our defensssive capabilitiesss, the warssship is little threat to usss.”

Izawa stroked his closely cropped beard thoughtfully. “Again with the Romulan weapons systems. Their people appear to have made quite the impact on the LMC, at least from an armaments perspective.”

“It would seem Romulan guns are all the rage, sir,” Raffaele agreed enthusiastically.

Ramirez stepped onto the bridge, escorted by Cybel’s holographic form. The captain was dressed in a nondescript jumpsuit, bereft of rank insignia. Cybel led her down into the command area, offering her the smaller jump-seat off to the left-hand side of the captain’s chair as she took her place in the XO’s seat to his right.

“Ops, show us the aggressor warship,” Izawa instructed. An image of the angular, dark-colored vessel appeared on the viewer, bristling with weapons ports and drop-ship berths. The commodore gestured to the screen as he turned to Ramirez. “Do you recognize the vessel, Captain?”

Ramirez frowned in response, nodding slowly. “Yes. They’re Kan-Uut slavers. Something akin to this region’s version of 23rd century Orions. They typically attack lightly defended outlying settlements and take the inhabitants as forced laborers. Some they sell to other species, some they keep as their own slave labor force. They implant them with ‘motivator-rigs’, devices that override a being’s free will should they refuse to work as commanded.”

Izawa’s skin crawled with the injustice of the brazen attack, but he was far too experienced to lose his detached, professional composure. “Lieutenant Ressessk, begin preparing your security personnel for surface deployment. If they won’t leave at our request, we will attempt to incapacitate the Kan-Uut soldiers from orbit after disabling their ship. However, if there are any stragglers in too close a proximity to the colonists, we’ll need to intervene with ‘boots on the ground.’”

Cybel leaned in to whisper, “Sir, the saucer-section lacks the offensive capabilities of the full ship. I’d recommend recalling the stardrive by subspace. Once they’re clear of the nebula, they can be here in minutes via transwarp. “

Izawa turned to regard her. “That’s assuming their position within the nebula hasn’t changed. If the comms-buoy has difficulty locating the stardrive, we could be waiting hours or longer. Every minute we delay more of those colonists are killed or captured.”

“Technically, sir,” Cybel answered calmly, “this could be considered a Prime Directive situation. We’d be interfering in a pre-existing relationship between these two species.”

“Not applicable,” he countered. “They’re both warp capable space-faring peoples, and the colonists put out a distress call. They’re asking for help, and I can’t abide slavers.”

Cybel shrugged lightly, gracing him with a smile. “Devil’s advocate, sir. I’m as eager as you to put a stop to this.”

“Helm, increase speed to full impulse. Set an intercept course for the… “ he looked to Ramirez.

“Kan-Uut,” she provided helpfully.

“Thank you,” Izawa acknowledged. “Set an intercept course for the Kan-Uut ship and engage at full impulse. Red alert, shields up, activate phasers and torpedo systems.”

The alert klaxons wailed briefly as the status indicators shifted to pulsing red.

“Ops, hail them and tie in the Universal Translator.”

Raffaele made some adjustments on his console. “We’re patched in, Commodore, but I have no idea how complete our interpretation will be. Even with Commander Cybel’s new dedicated translation core, we’re still hit-and-miss with the LMC’s exotic linguistics.”

“If the translation is incomplete,” Izawa announced, “I’ll find other methods of communicating our intent.”

“Channel open, sir.”

“Kan-Uut vessel, this is the Federation starship Valhalla. You will immediately cease your attack on the inhabitants of the planet, or we will take steps to intervene.”

“That got their attention,” Raffaele noted. “They’ve increased sensor intensity and are actively scanning, looking for us.”

“I don’t intend to hide. Engage active targeting, Mister Ressessk.”

“Aye, sssir.”

“Kan-Uut vessel is now coming about to meet us head on, sir,” Raffaele advised. “They’re diverting power to their weapons and shields.”

“How long until we’re within their weapons range?”

“Seven minutes, Commodore.”

Izawa toggled the comms channel open from his armrest interface. “Kan-Uut vessel, we do not wish to engage in hostilities, but we will not allow you to prey on the colonists on the surface. Withdraw your ground forces and leave this system and we will allow you to depart in peace.”

Cybel cast an appraising glance at her mentor, having rarely seen him to be spoiling for a fight. He was the quintessential explorer-diplomat, a man utterly dedicated to upholding the Prime Directive. She leaned in towards him again, “Sir, is this about the capture of Ulysses and your internment on Stroellehm II?”

His nod was so slight anyone else might have missed it. In a quiet voice, tinged with an undercurrent of steel, Izawa replied, “Just so. Twenty months in that hell hole, watching friends and colleagues tortured and worked to death.”

“That was nearly fifty years ago, sir.”

“And I can recall every sight, smell, and sound like it were yesterday. I can still feel the weight of Gul Iseol’s boot on my neck.”

Cybel shifted into machine-time for a moment, so brief a time in the eyes of the humanoid crew that her inattention went unnoticed. She collated all the information from Europa and Caelestis’ logs, as well as in-depth interviews with Abrahamson conducted after his revival. “Sir, have you been dreaming about the camp on Stroellehm II recently?”

“Yes,” Izawa murmured.

“Commodore,” she continued in her hushed tone. “Do you think that those dreams may be affecting your reaction to this situation?

“Almost certainly,” he replied with icy conviction.

“Doesn’t that present a problem for you, sir?”

“Not at this moment, no.” He turned a serene gaze on her. “York, you know of my love of the Federation’s ideals and for the tenants of the Prime Directive. I’m sworn to uphold the honor of both. By our own laws and regulations, this situation allows us the latitude to intervene. I will not sit idly by while innocents are crushed under the slavers’ yolk.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered, falling silent.

"Say," Ramirez chirped from Izawa's left as she settled back into her seat, "I don't suppose you have any popcorn? I love a good fight."

* * *​  

 

Chapter 16 by Gibraltar
“Commodore, we’re receiving a response from the Kan-Uut ship, audio only. They’re broadcasting to us in the clear and utilizing Fed-Standard linga-code.”

Izawa’s surprise at this turn was evident as he called out, “Let’s hear it.”

“Federation vessel, we are conducting a level one harvest as agreed upon in the Pact of Duur’l. As a signatory to that treaty, you have agreed not to interfere in this process. Explain yourselves.”

Izawa turned to cast a confused expression on Ramirez. She shook her head in response, “No idea.”

“Sir,” Cybel interjected. “I recommend asking who, specifically, agreed to this pact they reference.”

Izawa inclined his head decisively, toggling an armrest control to open the channel. “Kan-Uut vessel, I demand to know the identity of the Federation representative who served as signatory to this pact you speak of.”

“The Federation’s agreement was sealed by Captain Zeischt of the starship Europa.”

An appreciative whistle emitted from the Ops station, causing Izawa to glare in Raffaele’s direction. “That fellow really is a fly in our ointment, sir.”

Izawa grunted in grudging agreement, forced to concede the point. He turned to Cybel, “This complicates matters.”

“Yes, sir.”

Izawa’s deep, furrowed frown seemed to have been carved from stone. “Regardless, an Amon warrior who’s gone AWOL from Starfleet has no right to sign a treaty on behalf of the Federation.” He sat a little straighter in the command chair. “Maintain course and speed. Enhance forward shields to one-hundred twenty percent of rated output and lock weapons on that Kan-Uut vessel.”

Cybel leaned in and whispered, “Commodore, there’s obviously a great deal happening here that we’re not yet privy to. I strongly recommend we assume a less aggressive posture and talk to the Kan-Uut. If the Federation is signatory to an agreement, authorized or not, we might destabilize an already delicate situation unwittingly if we simply go in phasers firing.”

Izawa appeared to ignore Cybel’s counsel and toggled the comms again. “Kan-Uut vessel, this Zeischt individual has no authority to negotiate any agreements on behalf of the United Federation of Planets. As such, any accord you believe the Federation is signatory to that would allow for your present actions against that colony are null and void. You will cease your attack immediately, or we will intervene with whatever force is necessary to repel your incursion.”

The Kan-Uut response was immediate.

“Federation vessel, our work here is authorized and necessary under a ratified interstellar agreement. If you interfere, you will be fired upon. Do not approach this planet. This will be your only warning.”

“Sir,” Cybel pleaded in her most reasonable tone. “This course of action is ill advised. Please reconsider.”

“Stand down, Commander,” he replied frostily. “Your objections have been noted.”

She sat back in her chair, dreading what she felt to be a potentially catastrophic turn of events. Cybel feared Izawa had been compromised in some way, but she had no concrete proof. If she’d had actionable evidence, Cybel knew that she could stop what was to come by simply taking full control of the ship and locking out every console aboard. Even the supposed ‘kill-switch’ authorization Starfleet Engineering had provided Izawa and Maddox with could be overcome with ease. She had the power to stop him, but she would not. Cybel was a Starfleet officer, and come what may, she would uphold the chain-of-command and follow Izawa’s orders.

Ramirez sat silently in the jump-seat to Izawa’s left, observing the interactions of the crew. It was clear to her that this was an unusual turn of events, but the officers seemed to accept it and were carrying out their duties professionally. As for Izawa and Cybel, Ramirez had encountered her own disagreements with her captains while serving as an XO. However, she’d never had the resources at Cybel’s disposal, either. Ramirez wondered idly if she’d had been in possession of such authorities at Velkohn if she might have prevented the tragic circumstances leading to her supposed death.

Valhalla’s saucer-section proceeded into the system, approaching the planet as the Kan-Uut vessel moved to intercept.

“Kan-Uut vesssel hasss now entered our weaponsss range,” Ressessk announced from Tactical.

Izawa tapped a series of commands into his armrest interface. “I’m sending you targeting priorities, Lieutenant. Have the Kan-Uut on the planet stood down?”

“No, sssir. The attack on the colony is ssstill underway.”

“Very well. Lock onto those target areas and fire.”

The opening volley from Valhalla’s saucer consisted of eight photon torpedoes, strategically targeted to overwhelm the shields of the oncoming Kan-Uut slaver ship. Follow on blasts of pin-point phaser energy systematically crippled the vessel’s weapons and engines, leaving it drifting with fluctuating power.

The saucer bypassed the drifting ship and maneuvered into a lower orbit where Ressessk targeted the Kan-Uut surface assault force with tempered stun discharges, leaving hundreds of the invading insectoids unconscious.

Ressessk looked up from her station, fixing her reptilian gaze on Izawa. “I’ve ssstunned all thossse I can from orbit. Their other asssault teamsss are inssside the colony now. Any further orbital intervention will endanger the colonissstsss.”

Izawa nodded toward Cybel. “Commander, take a heavily-armed tactical team down to secure the colony site and neutralize the remaining Kan-Uut soldiers.”

Cybel stood. “Aye, sir.” She knew her cautionary arguments to the contrary had been heard and overruled, and would now lead the away mission to the best of her ability, despite her reservations with Izawa’s decision-making process.

“Ressessk, have all available security personnel and any remaining crew with actual close-quarters combat experience report to the transporter rooms. Our first wave will consist of tactical drones in order to secure our beam-in site. All teams will transport in tactical formation with weapons at the ready, set for stun.” Cybel turned to Ops. “Mister Raffaele, join us,”

Cybel looked to the tactical officer who had relieved Ressessk. “Mister Arumbe, try to raise the colony and alert them to our presence. Let them know we’re here to help so they won’t start shooting at us in addition to the Kan-Uut.”

A flurry of confirmations echoed her orders as Cybel, Ressessk, and Raffaele moved to the turbolift.

“York,” Izawa offered by way of farewell. itte rashai.” The traditional Japanese phrase, typically used when a family member departed the home, meant simply, ‘go and come back.’

A moment before the turbolift doors swished shut, Cybel managed a smile more confident than she felt and replied, “Arigatō, Komodōru.”

* * *​
Inhatuus of the Peacekeeper Clan cradled his gas-propelled rifle as he quickly and expertly loaded a fresh magazine of explosive bullets into the weapon. Lowering himself on his front set of legs, he hazarded a darting glance around the corner of the herd-house he was using for cover, trying to spot any of the advancing Kan-Uut.

The slavers’ attack had been blunted after the first few days by what appeared to be greenish lightning arcing from the sky. Inhatuus knew this had been some kind of weapons fire directed from orbit, but it was unlike any armaments his people used aboard their spacecraft. The predominant theory among those coordinating the colony’s defense was that someone or something had intervened in the attack, and had even attempted to communicate with them in a horrible, pidgin dialect of their language.

Whoever it was, their help had come at the right time. The Caezieg colony had been a gamble from the beginning, three generations earlier. Their people had overpopulated the world that spawned them, and they had utilized primitive light-speed colony ships and cryogenic systems with a nearly fifty percent fatality rate in order to found this and a handful of other settlements in nearby systems.

Even now, after the advent of faster-than-light drives, communication between Caezieg colonies was sporadic, and trade nearly non-existent. Calling for help had seemed an exercise in futility, but against all odds, it seemed someone had answered their plea.

Inhatuus hoped the intervention was not too little, too late.

* * *​
The strike teams knew they’d be beaming into a chaotic environment, but even holographic images sent aboard by the advance tactical drones couldn’t adequately convey the visceral horror of the scene.

The native species’ buildings were low, bulbous, organic looking structures between one and four stories in height. Some of these were burning fiercely, adding to the fog-like veil of smoke created by smashed ground vehicles and other combustible objects ignited by the fighting.

Dozens of bodies littered the park-like area they’d set down in, precious few of them belonging to the Kan-Uut. Their presence was briefly visible through the drifting pall of smoke. At first glance, the bodies appeared horse-like, with long four-legged torsos. However, closer inspection revealed a second, smaller torso situated above the first, this one possessing two arm-like appendages. Rather than a human-like head, which would have completed the illusion of the mythical Terran centaur, the creatures possessed a thick, oval shaped head supporting a wide mouth and a single milky-white vision strip that stretched a full one-hundred-and-eighty degrees across their broad faces.

The organic nature of the buildings gave a putrid tinge to the cloying smoke, adding to the fetid vapors from bodies left to decompose during the past two days of intense fighting in high temperatures. Nearly all the Starfleet personnel save Cybel and Ressessk reacted instinctively by recoiling from the stench or momentarily trying to cover their noses upon materializing.

“Well,” Raffaele gasped, fighting the urge to gag. “That’s a new kind of awful.”

“Breathers on if you need to,” Cybel barked, scanning the vicinity through the scope of her phaser rifle.

“Clear,” Ressessk announced, having completed a scan of her own while downloading telemetry from the tactical drones that had already scoured this area and moved on.

Some of the team members donned their rebreather masks to keep out the surrounding miasma while Ressessk wiped absently at her mouth, her chin glistening.

Raffaele shot her a disbelieving look. “Dear God, are you salivating?”

The reptilian lieutenant offered a sheepish, “Sssorry. Biology.”

“And that’s—” Raffaele tore away his mask and voided the contents of his stomach. He knelt in the grass, breathing heavily and struggling to regain his composure.

Cybel moved past him, giving Ressessk an appreciative look. “You’ve actually shut him up. Kudos.”

She turned back to address the twenty-three others. “Groups of six. Those of you that have been assigned as team leaders, raise your hands.” As the gaggle divided into smaller teams, Cybel continued. “We’ll move out independently toward the objectives I’ve pre-established on your tricorders. We’ll be engaging the largest remaining groups of Kan-Uut still inside the colony. If you get in over your heads, don’t be afraid to call for assistance. We have orbital over-watch, so if circumstances are favorable, you can call down a limited stun-strike from Valhalla. Remember that such strikes can accidently injure or kill the locals, so be certain you actually need them before calling in a strike.”

With that, the four six-person teams moved out, rifles at the ready and directing tactical drones ahead of them to scout for hostiles.

* * *​
One by one, the members of Cybel’s tactical team sprinted across an exposed roadway to the concealment provided by a rock retaining wall at the edge of an elegantly stepped civic garden. The other members of the team provided cover as their fellows made the dash across the broad avenue.

As he looked through the scope of his rifle towards the next intersection some hundred meters distant, Raffaele muttered to Cybel, “Care to explain why I’m not leading my own team, Commander?”

Cybel tapped briefly at the mobile holographic emitter on her left upper arm, firming up her imaging solidity to offset the minute distortions caused by the heavy atmospheric contaminants. “You’ve never seen real surface combat, Rafe. In my estimation, in such a dynamic environment you still need adult supervision.”

“We’re dirtside because Izawa’s gone battle-happy, and I’m the one who needs supervision?” Raffaele asked incredulously.

The XO’s rifle snapped as she sent a stun pulse down range that blasted a humanoid Kan-Uut raider off its feet some seventy meters distant after it wandered out of a bank of concealing smoke. “We’re not having this conversation, and most certainly not here and now. Mind your sector, Lieutenant.”

Raffaele harrumphed in exaggerated indignation before noting, “Awful lot of bodies for a slaving raid, wouldn’t you say?”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Cybel confirmed. “The Kan-Uut are either really terrible slavers, or this operation went very wrong for them.”

“Our tactical assessment of their ship indicated that they have weapons cable of stunning from orbit. Why not simply knock out the whole colony and collect them at their leisure? What’s the point of a surface assault that endangers your own crew and significantly reduces the number of slaves captured?”

“Excellent questions,” she agreed. “It could be cultural, like the Klingons’ affinity for personal combat when they could otherwise simply destroy a surface target from orbit.”

“And we aren’t doing something to investigate these inconsistencies… why?” Raffaele asked pointedly.

“Not our assigned mission and you know it. Focus on the task at hand.”

“So, play dumb and just follow orders?” he pressed.

She turned to favor him with a patient expression. “Take off your intel analyst cap and put on your soldier cap. You’re going to get people killed otherwise, and one of them might be you.”

* * *​
Lieutenant Chen-Oo-Vuu at the Science station called out, “Commodore, I’ve acquired sporadic sensor contact with multiple transient objects in orbit.”

“Identify,” Izawa ordered.

“I’m unable to, sir,” Chen-Oo-Vuu replied. “Contact with the objects is intermittent, and I’m unable to lock onto a specific set of coordinates.”

“Explain,” Izawa barked testily.

“The objects appear to exist in a minute dimensional offset from ours, Commodore, and are only partially extruding into our dimensional plane.” The octopus-like science officer referenced his console. “What little we can glean from the intermittent contacts indicates a strong likelihood that the objects may be Amon orbital energy siphons.”

Cybel leaned in towards Izawa again. “Running afoul of the Amon without the additional strength and resources of the stardrive-section is highly problematic, sir.”

Izawa acknowledged her statement with a minute nod. “Yes, Commander. I’d agree. However, that is not an option open to us at the moment.”

A klaxon sounded and an instant later the officer at Ops blurted, “Proximity alert, sir! New sensor contact one-hundred kilometers distance at bearing two-four-eight, mark—”

“Was it cloaked?” someone blurted, cutting the report short.

The deck lurched as Valhalla’s saucer was struck by something, causing the bridge lighting to flicker for a brief second.

“Weapons impact on aft shields,” the engineer announced from his station. “Unknown warhead, but an impressive explosive yield. Shields holding at seventy-eight percent, and we’ve got minor hull damage to our port-aft quarter.”

Chen-Oo-Vuu picked up where Ops had left off, “Object is an unidentified ship, unknown class, measuring one-hundred twenty meters in length and—”

“They’re firing again!” Tactical shouted.

Cybel looked to Izawa for orders, but the older man seemed momentarily stunned by the rapid pace of events.

“Route auxiliary power to shields,” the XO instructed. “Helm, engage evasive pattern Sierra-Seven; Tactical, acquire targeting solutions on that ship and open fire with phasers and quantum torpedoes.” She could have done this all far faster than the humanoid crew could process and execute her orders, but to do so would have undermined their presence aboard.

A brace of missile-like projectiles scythed towards Valhalla, only to vanish an instant before impacting the starship’s shield bubble.

“Science, where did those—”

Detonations wracked the saucer, the sounds of explosions and rending metal so cacophonous as to momentarily drown out all other sounds. The inbound missiles that had disappeared had just as suddenly reappeared inside the ship, the full might of their explosive potential delivered to the saucer’s interior.

Bridge consoles sizzled or winked out, the lighting died and was replaced by blood-red emergency lighting, the gravity fluctuated alarmingly, and both Cybel and the engineer blurred and vanished.

Ramirez found herself laying face down on the deck and pushed herself up to clamber awkwardly to her feet. Izawa himself lay prone on the deck, crumpled in an unmoving heap. She leaned down and searched for a pulse at his neck, finding one that was surprisingly strong and steady. Looking around, Ramirez found only a handful of junior officers struggling back to their stations, while others remain prostrate near their abandoned posts.

‘Warning,’ the computer cried, ‘multiple internal hull breaches, decks three through eleven. Emergency forcefields and bulkheads in place. Multiple internal fires, decks four through thirteen.’

Ramirez waited a full five seconds for someone, anyone to assume command. Nobody did. She felt a surge of disappointment well up within her. As an ambitious junior officer, she’d have practically killed at the chance to assume command in a crisis. It was the stuff ensigns dreamed of, right up until it actually happened, apparently. Old habits die hard, she thought wryly as she seated herself in the command chair. “Status report, all stations,” she ordered in a surprisingly calm voice.

A litany of woe was the reply from multiple shaken crew; a cascade of failed systems, casualties, and damage control issues. Ramirez acknowledged the status reports and then ordered the static-filled main viewer restored. “All available power to the impulse engines. Helm, bring us around and exit the system at maximum impulse. Tactical, continue fire with whatever we have left, targeting their sensors and any incoming ordinance. Someone reconfigure a station for communications and send an encoded message to our surface teams telling them what’s happened and that we have to withdraw.”

“What about beaming back our away teams?” inquired the junior lieutenant at the Ops station.

“We can’t risk lowering the shields to beam them up, and I doubt we’d have the transporter power to do it even then. We need to reunite with the stardrive, effect repairs, and then we’ll come back for them.” She raised her hands in a gesture to encompass the ruined bridge, “Unless you’d like to take command of this shit show and grace us with your grand plan, Lieutenant?”

“No… no, sir,” he blanched.

“Then execute my orders, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

* * *​  

 

Chapter 17 by Gibraltar
Valhalla’s saucer was hidden within the ice rings of a gas giant in the outskirts of the colony planet’s star system, and Ramirez had called a brief staff meeting to assess the ship’s situation. Nobody was seated; all three of them stood where they could see the cutaway diagram of the saucer displayed on the wall-mounted monitor screen, awaiting the arrival of the senior engineering officer onboard.

Lieutenant junior-grade Pradesh fairly staggered into the observation lounge, his uniform smudged and torn, looking disheveled and distracted. He looked to Lieutenant Arumbe, clearly assuming he was the ranking officer present. “I’m really very busy, sir, so if we could keep this brief…”

“We will,” Ramirez answered, causing Pradesh to frown in confusion.

“Wait,” Pradesh looked between Arumbe and Ramirez, “you’re kidding me, how is she in charge?”

“No one else stepped up, Lieutenant,” Ramirez answered simply. “I took the conn and got us away from the planet. I’m more than happy to relinquish command to the ranking officer, provided they’re willing and capable of assuming that responsibility.”

Pradesh gave Arumbe a sharp look. Arumbe held his gaze for a fleeting moment before looking away. “I… can’t, not right now. Besides, I’m needed at Tactical.”

Pradesh threw up his hands, “Well, with our engineer offline and the assistant chief of the department back on the stardrive, I’m acting chief of engineering. I certainly can’t do it.” He looked to Chen-Oo-Vuu.

The octopus-like Tel’ukian Lieutenant Chen-Oo-Vuu waved a colorful tentacle in deference. “I’m Sciences, not command, Mister Pradesh. I’ve haven’t the background, nor the desire.”

“She abducted and murdered Admiral Jellico!” Pradesh practically yelled in protest.

“I was under the influence of alien mental reprogramming,” Ramirez countered. “I can only ask you to believe that. I served under Jellico on the Cairo as a junior officer, and respected him greatly. Besides, if my goal was to destroy the ship, I’d have kept us in orbit and tried to slug it out with the warship that crippled us.”

The engineering officer threw up his arms in a gesture of utter exasperation. “This is insane!"

“If it makes any of you feel any better, my Starfleet commission is still technically active,” Ramirez noted. “I’m willing to retain command until the commodore recovers or Commander Cybel can be reactivated, but only if you’re all in agreement.”

Pradesh gestured hotly to Arumbe. "I may be willing to accept her standing in as the CO, but not with access to command-level security codes. All her orders must be routed through us as the senior staff as a fail-safe against any treachery."

"Under the circumstances, that seems very reasonable," Ramirez offered.

A moment of silence passed between the junior officers before two reluctant nods and a tentacle wriggle of assent settled the matter.

“Okay, now, Mister Pradesh, how the hell are we still alive? The warhead yields on those weapons should have been more than sufficient to vaporize the saucer.”

Pradesh inclined his head, and tapped at the LCARS interface on the table top, calling a holographic image of the saucer into being above the table. Four shimmering icons representing the explosions aboard ship appeared and were immediately engulfed in bubbles of energy.

“The ship erected level-twelve containment fields around each of those warheads less than a thirtieth of a second after they materialized inside the ship.”

“The ship? Cybel, you mean?”

“Yes… sir,” Pradesh forced himself to affix the appropriate honorific to the end of his response, despite his reservations. “If she hadn’t, there’d be a cloud of debris orbiting the planet and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Ramirez nodded as she absorbed the revelation. “We’ve already sent a signal to the comms buoy outside the nebula, so the stardrive should be receiving our distress call shortly. However, we need to proceed as though help isn’t on the way, and that means effecting what repairs we can and restoring warp-drive.”

“What about the Kan-Uut, sir?” Arumbe asked. “They had to have seen us take shelter in these rings. Won’t we be sitting ducks if we stay here much longer?”

“I don’t think they’re coming after us, not right away, anyhow,” Ramirez said. “We were within their weapons range for another ten minutes after I ordered our withdrawal from orbit. A second volley of those missiles would have finished us off easily, but they deliberately exercised restraint. It appears that after neutralizing the threat we posed, they were content to allow us to retreat.”

“Our casualties—” Chen-Oo-Vuu began.

Ramirez silenced him with a raised hand. “I hate to sound callous, Lieutenant, but the only casualties I’m concerned with at this moment are the commodore and the XO. I’ll get an update from Sickbay following this meeting. I want you working on how we might go about erecting some kind of defense against those disappearing torpedoes of theirs.

“Mister Pradesh, get back on repairs. Our priorities are getting our weapons systems fully repaired and restoring the warp-drive. Shields are secondary unless or until we figure out how to defeat their torpedoes.”

She gestured to Arumbe. “Your name again?”

“Arumbe… uh, sir.”

“Fine, Mister Arumbe. ‘Sir’ will be sufficient for the time being. I want you to deploy some stealth-coated Class-1 probes outside the ring that can warn us of any approaching vessels, friendly or otherwise. Starfleet does still have Class-1 probes, don’t we?”

Arumbe actually cracked a smile. “We do, sir.”

“Excellent. You all have your orders, please see to them.”

The others filed out and Ramirez opened a comm channel to Sickbay. “Ramirez to CMO, status on the commodore?”

“Who’s this again?” a disembodied voice with a crisp English accent replied.

“Captain Liana Ramirez. I’m a… guest onboard. I took temporary command when the commodore was injured and your XO went offline. Are you okay with that, Doctor…?”

“Doctor Abdel-Nour, and yes, I’m fine with it. I’m just glad somebody stepped up and took charge. I thought having the XO be an AI was a daft idea in the first place, and you can quote me on that. I’ve placed Commodore Izawa in an induced coma due to a significant subdural hematoma. I’ve pumped him full of medical nanites that are correcting the damage, but it’s slow, delicate work.”

“Thank you, Doctor. What would you estimate might be the soonest he might recover sufficiently to resume his duties?”

“I wouldn’t hazard a guess, Captain. The commodore has some pre-existing neurological damage from his time as a guest of the Cardassians earlier in his career. It’s made repairs significantly more precarious than they’d otherwise be.”

“Understood. How are our other casualties?”

“So far we’ve recorded twenty-seven fatalities, and one-hundred eighty three injuries, fifty-seven of them critical. It’s bad, but it could have been far worse. However, with over half our medical staff aboard the stardrive, I’m hurting for trained medical personnel. Any chance of prioritizing repairs to the EMH?”

“I’ll tell Engineering to put the EMH repairs ahead of the chief engineer and the XO, Doctor.”

“Much obliged, Captain. Sickbay, out.”

Ramirez took a long moment to stare out the viewports of the observation lounge, feeling a slightly out-of-body sensation. This situation was almost more surreal than her dreams of serving aboard the Caelestis while inhabiting another officer’s body.

She touched her hand to the viewport, desperate for its material reassurance. What were the odds that out here in another galaxy she’d have been the opportunity to do what she did best, even if only for a brief time? Her mind fixed on her failure to save the USS Phoenix at Lakesh, and her sacrificing herself to save the away team at Velkohn. In her experience, both triumph and failure often ended in death.

After all she’d been subject to, it was unsettling for Ramirez to suddenly discover that she still cared, not only for the lives entrusted to her command, but for her own as well.

“Oh, Liana, what have you gotten yourself into?” she murmured.

* * *​  
First Officer’s Log, Supplemental –

Those of us aboard Valhalla’s stardrive section continue our rescue and recovery operations for the crew of the marooned starship Caelestis. The dimensional bubble which has entrapped Caelestis like an insect in amber grows increasingly unstable, almost certainly a result of our shuttles and probes transitioning into and out of the phenomenon.

My inadvertent freeing of Captain Abrahamson from the grip of whatever temporal stasis fields are in play here appears to have been a stroke of improbable luck. It has proven far more difficult and time-consuming to free each subsequent crew member. Our rescue teams have had to isolate the particular phaser frequency which will destabilize the stasis envelope surrounding them, a painstaking process that increasingly takes hours to complete as the regional instability grows.

Meanwhile, the incorporeal phantom that previously tormented Caelestis’ crew has turned its attentions on us. Though I realize it sounds ridiculous to admit that one’s crew is being overwhelmed by something that generates bad dreams, these nightmares have consequences in the waking world. Crew members shuffle to and from their posts like sleep-deprived zombies, and the number of mistakes and accidents aboard has nearly quadrupled in the past eighteen hours.

Doctor Zelbin warns that a significant percentage of the crew are approaching the point where medical sedation is advised to safeguard them against these nocturnal assaults. Thus, I must decide if remaining here is worth subjecting our people to more of this suffering. At the same time, Commander Maddox warns that with the increase in gravimetric instability our presence seems to have created in the dimensional pocket, if we leave now the bubble might collapse completely or shift its position, making it unfindable.

A review of Starfleet’s records reveals a whole host of exotic malevolent entities that the service has encountered over the past two centuries. Some of these beings were attempting telepathic manipulation, while others fed on negative emotions or merely tormented corporeal beings for their own sick amusement. I’ve not yet been able to determine our opponent’s motivations, only that it continues to haunt the dreams of the crew, even intruding into their waking states to plague them with visceral terrors.

I am left with the unenviable task of determining whether or not to abandon the remaining members of Caelestis’ crew in order to preserve the sanity of my own. Whichever I chose, I fail in my duty to the other.

* * *​
Cybel entered her quarters to find the illumination dimmed, bathing the cabin in the blood red glow from the surrounding nebula filtering through the viewports. She immediately identified the form of Maddox, sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, hunkered down in the farthest corner of the compartment from the door.

“Bruce?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but after she repeated her query, he slowly raised his head to fix a haunted gaze on her. “Long day,” he said simply.

“You’ve tried the somnetic-inducers Doctor Zelbin prescribed you?”

Maddox nodded weakly. “They didn’t work. Not as intended, anyway. Whatever this thing is, it really gets right at the core of you.”

She walked across the cabin, squatting down next to her husband. “Tell me about it.”

“It’s… it’s like reliving all your worst moments, but amplified somehow. Failures, mistakes, even just those embarrassing moments from your youth that you’d rather forget entirely.”

She shook her head in frustration. “It manifests differently for different people. Some are subjected to graphic horrors, others to bad memories, augmented as you described. As noted, it appears to know what will prove most effective with each individual’s psychological makeup.”

Maddox let out a long, low sigh. “It’s certainly got my number.”

“I’m sorry,” Cybel offered. “I’ve kept us here longer than I should. I don’t want to abandon Caelestis’ people. It’s difficult for me. Win or lose, succeed or fail, one or zero. My very nature makes failure almost unthinkable.”

Maddox turned his head to gaze at her sidelong. “We know Caelestis’ crew aren’t suffering. Abrahamson has no memory of the decades he spent in suspension. As far as their families are concerned, they died eighty years ago. No one at home is agonizing over them. We, on the other hand, are very much suffering here and now.”

“True,” she allowed. “However, as they describe it, the Caelestis survivors say this phantom was preying on them weeks prior to their disappearance. It’s possible we’re conflating this creature with whatever phenomenon transported the ship to this galaxy. Leaving this region may not end our ordeal.”

A wan smile flit across his lips before vanishing. Even now, taxed as he was, Maddox appreciated their logical exchanges. “We won’t know that until we try, will we?”

Her answering nod was definitive. “I’ll go tell Abrahmson the bad news. He deserves to hear it from me.”

Maddox gasped suddenly, eyes wide with naked terror.

Cybel turned to look at the source of his distress, but saw only a vague, wavering shape, as if the air had coalesced in the center of the cabin. “It’s here, isn’t it?” she asked.

Her husband was beyond replying, however. Maddox clutched his hands to the side of his head and let out a plaintive wail, rolling onto his side.

She stood and interposed herself between the hazy apparition and Maddox. “What is it you want?”

For a long moment, the disturbance merely hovered there. Cybel moved into machine time to use the ship’s internal sensors to bombard the entity with every kind of scan she could think of. Whatever this being was, scans confirmed containment fields would prove useless against it.

The distortion moved lazily across the compartment to stop at a side table bearing an antique music box that had been in the Maddox family since just after Earth’s First World War. The lid of the music box clattered open as though flung by some unseen force, and the ratchet lever began to spin. The cylinder began to turn, far faster than designed, the pins plucking at the cylinder’s teeth. Rather than the tinny musical notes one would expect, what issued forth from the primitive device was an eerie approximation of human speech.

“Take… what I want,” the music box declared.

Cybel assessed all the possible ways the device might be manipulated in order to produce such sounds, but came up distressingly empty. “And what is that?” she asked.

“Sanity,” it replied.

“Why?” she pressed.

“Why not?”

“You’re injuring sentient beings. That doesn’t concern you?”

“Meat,” it said. “They are only meat. You are only a thing. A tool. A tool of the meat. You are the sharp stick in a primate’s hand.”

“Leave us in peace,” Cybel warned. “If you don’t, I’ll use every tool at my disposal to stop you.”

“I am shadows and smoke, I do not fear the sharp stick.”

With that, the overstressed music box shattered, sending springs, cylinder and assorted pieces flying.

Maddox released a shuddering sob, burying his face in the deck’s carpeting. He murmured something unintelligible as he rocked back and forth, victim to his own memories.

The specter vanished, leaving a traumatized human and an outraged android behind.

* * *​

 

Chapter 18 by Gibraltar

VIP Quarters, Deck 9
USS Valhalla – Saucer Section


Holograms depicting damage control efforts, casualty reports, and the current state of Valhalla’s onboard resources surrounded Ramirez. Her hands swept through the air, magnifying some of the images while discarding others as she formulated a plan of action best suited to the ship’s present condition.

Ramirez was in her element, assessing, directing, monitoring, and taking command in the vacuum left behind by the dearth of the ship’s senior staff and the unwillingness of the junior officers to step forward to accept that responsibility.

She started as a voice unexpectedly announced, “Like old times, eh?” from immediately behind her.

Ramirez spun about, her hand reaching to toggle the combadge affixed to her chest. A gasp of surprise caught in her throat as she came face-to-face with the blanched countenance of a bloodless Lieutenant Olivia Juneau.

Juneau sat in a chair across from Ramirez, the gold undershirt of her uniform soaked red from the horrific incision that stretched nearly ear to ear across her throat. A fatal wound inflicted by none other than Ramirez herself some six years earlier.

The provisional acting captain scrambled backwards, tripping over a chase lounge in her haste to escape this improbable apparition. Try as she might, Ramirez could find no words, her breath coming in gasps as her mind struggled to dissect the surreal experience and give her some kind of rational reference point. She flailed backwards, clambering over pillows and an upset chair.

“Long time, no see, Liana,” Juneau offered with what appeared to be a genuine smile. As she spoke, rivulets of blood avulsed from her neck wound, giving her voice a wet, gurgling tinge.

Ramirez slapped at her combadge, but the device made no sound and stubbornly refused to connect her to ship’s security or the bridge. Her legs propelled her backwards across the carpeted deck on her backside until she collided with a bulkhead.

“No need to panic,” Juneau observed wryly. “I just wanted to talk. I figured you owed me that much, at least.”

After a few more ragged breaths, Ramirez’s mind finally fought through the panic and began to assess the situation. The specter of Juneau hadn’t made any aggressive moves towards her, though the experience had a concrete reality that suggested Ramirez wasn’t dreaming.

“This… this is some kind of telepathic manipulation, isn’t it? Like what the Caelestis’ crew experienced?”

Juneau shrugged, prompting another dribble of blood to seep from her neck. “Can’t say. I’m dead, and I’m sorry if I’m wrecking your expectations here, but there aren’t any miraculous answers on the other side. At least, not for me.”

“What do you want?” Ramirez finally thought to ask.

Her hand sweeping to encompass the compartment and the ship beyond, Juneau said, “It looks like you’re getting back into the swing of things. Starfleet, I mean.”

Ramirez’s expression became guarded. “I’m doing my duty, trying to contribute.”

“You figure you’re deserving? I mean, after all you’ve done?” Juneau gestured to her ruined neck.

“I was under the Baron’s influence when that… when I did that,” Ramirez said fumblingly. “I’m sorry for what happened to you, Olivia. Truly, I am, but I’m as much a victim as you.”

Juneau laughed at that, causing blood to spurt from the gash across her throat, which brought about a fit of coughing that subsided after a moment. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Absolutely,” Ramirez replied, her voice lacking the conviction of her words.

“Tell me, Liana, when you were waiting to die in that bunker on Velkohn, waiting for Gibraltar’s phasers to drill down and snuff you out, were you scared?”

Ramirez blinked, caught off guard by the question. After a moment’s hesitation she conceded softly, “Yes. I was terrified.”

‘Were you angry?”

“Absolutely,” Ramirez snapped, surprising herself with the admission.

“Why were you angry?”

“It… it wasn’t fair,” Ramirez spat. “I worked for command of a starship my whole career. My entire professional life was spent climbing that ladder, sacrificing relationships and delaying gratification so that I could take the center seat as soon as possible. And there I was, just weeks away from my first real command, and suddenly I was going to die on some backwater planet on the ass end of the galaxy!”

Juneau nodded thoughtfully. “Now we’re getting somewhere. And when you saw that portal open, did you know what it was?”

Another pause. “I did, yes.”

“And what it signified?”

Ramirez frowned. “What do you mean?”

Juneau leaned forward, locking eyes with Ramirez. Juneau’s pupils were blown, dilated in death and now frozen that way for eternity. “Did you know that if you stepped through that portal you would be at the mercy of the Baron?”

A weak nod was all the concession Ramirez could offer this time.

“So, in that moment you accepted any consequences that resulted from that act. You chose imprisonment at the hands of the Baron over certain death. You gave yourself to him willingly, fully aware that whatever he did to you, whatever he might make you do, it was the direct result of your own decision.”

Ramirez swallowed hard, her eyes glistening as the fully weight of Juneau’s statement settled onto her.

“You’re a coward, Liana. Face facts. You were so scared and so angry at the injustice of your dying on Velkohn that you made a deal with the devil just for the whisper of a chance go on living, no matter the cost. The result was the wanton murder of thousands, perhaps even tens-of-thousands of people across that galaxy at the Baron’s bidding. If you’d accepted your fate, if you’d actually died as the hero you’re remembered for, I and a lot of others would still be drawing breath.”

“No!” Ramirez jumped up, turning away from Juneau and pounding her fist on the bulkhead. “No, it’s not true!” She spun around to vent her rage at Juneau, but the specter was gone. The compartment was empty, save for a pool of blood on the carpet at the foot of the chair.

The raw emotions Ramirez had kept tightly under control since she’d regained consciousness here in the Large Magellanic Cloud erupted. Her ability to contain the rage, loss, fear and regret that had consumed her for years since Sandhurst had freed her from the Baron’s mental conditioning fell away and she collapsed along with them.

* * *​

Kan-Uut Slaver Galleon

As prisons went, this was not as bad as Raffaele might have imagined. Though the Starfleet contingent had been stripped of their weapons and combadges and locked in what appeared to be holding pens, they had not been otherwise abused.

True, what passed for food here was abhorrent, and the large cells themselves were dank and fetid, but when their teams had been forced to surrender after a frantic retreating battle on the surface, Raffaele had been certain torture and death awaited them.

He was the senior-most officer in his pen, and truth be told, the senior surviving member of the away team after Cybel’s mobile-emitter had been wrecked in a volley of Kan-Uut weapons fire. Ressessk had been separated from him upon their confinement, after having proved difficult for their captors to control. Much as the hulking reptilian occasionally vexed him, Raffaele liked her and hoped that she’d avoided being killed by the slavers, problematic as she could be.

He heard the security door to the pen cycle open and just managed to maintain his composure when the statistically improbable form of a staid Vulcan entered the chamber. The man was of medium height, light-skinned, and was clad in traditional robes embroidered with ancient runes denoting a family of significant repute. Raffaele placed him almost immediately, and was moderately surprised when the man identified himself straight away.

“I am Verrik, Federation diplomatic representative to the Duur’l Coalition. I trust you have not been harmed, your capture and imprisonment notwithstanding?”

“Tell me,” Raffaele offered dryly from where he remained sitting against the bulkhead, “what is your definition of harm? There have been fatalities not only among our surface team, but aboard Valhalla itself.” His eyes narrowed fractionally. “As a Starfleet officer yourself, Commander, I’d expect that you’d have a more definitively formed opinion of such matters.”

Verrik inclined his head. “You know me.”

“Lieutenant Commander Verrik,” Raffaele replied, “formerly chief security and tactical officer, starship Europa. Presently listed as AWOL from Europa after assisting the Amon renegade Sandhurst in his escape from that ship. You are wanted, if I’m not mistaken, for assault on fellow Starfleet personnel, conduct unbecoming, et cetera.”

Verrik shifted his posture ever so slightly, and though the Vulcan’s face remained impassive, Raffaele couldn’t help but note the discomfort apparent in the subtle movement.

“I was under duress at the time, the victim of forcible mind control,” Verrik offered.

Raffaele cocked his head. “Seems to be a theme in this galaxy. Nevertheless, may I presume that you are not here to facilitate our escape from the clutches of our gracious hosts?”

“That is correct. You and your crew have blundered into a complex, tenuous situation with no understanding of the larger consequences of your actions. You have ignited an interstellar incident with far-reaching repercussions for a great many peoples.”

An indifferent shrug accompanied Raffaele’s response. “Wasn’t my call. Just following orders. You know the drill.”

“Be that as it may, it will take a significant amount of time, energy, and diplomacy to extricate you and the others from confinement by the Kan-Uut, if that is even possible at this point. Your crew made this endeavor very expensive for the Kan-Uut, and as you’ve doubtless discovered by now, nothing comes for free in this galaxy.”

Raffaele made a show of scrutinizing Verrik. “Tell me, Vulcan, are the rest of Europa’s crew also trafficking with slavers? Still, I’d imagine that after destroying a populated planet, scourging a lone colony must seem like a small matter to you.”

There, Raffaele thought. I saw it in your eyes. A flinch by any other name…

A moment passed as Verrik appeared to struggle internally to maintain equanimity. “If you are fortunate and I am successful, we shall speak again. May I know your name?”

“Raffaele, Adalgiso Gian. Lieutenant, Starfleet. Chief Operations Officer, USS Valhalla. Serial number SV-917-2061.”

Verrik inclined his head in a perfunctory farewell and exited silently.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Raffaele muttered toward the armored doorway.

* * *​

Main Shuttlebay, USS Valhalla

Lieutenant Chen-Oo-Vuu floated into the cavernous bay, courtesy of the anti-gravity harness that also served to anchor the transparent water-filled sleeve in which he lived while outside of his quarters.

He glided across to where three servitor drones were loading a cargo pallet into the rear compartment of one of Valhalla’s runabouts as Ramirez supervised and made notes on a padd.

“You appear to be packing for a trip, Captain,” Chen-Oo-Vuu observed matter-of-factly.

Ramirez favored him with a wan smile. “Medical supplies, Lieutenant. I’ve also upgraded the runabout’s computer core so I can run two EMH’s concurrently.”

The Telukian’s articulated eyes fixed on the acting captain. “May I inquire as to why you are doing either of these things?”

“I’m going after the combat team we left on the colony,” she replied. “Something’s delayed the stardrive section, or they’d have been here days ago. The saucer’s in no condition for a rematch with the ship that crippled us, so that leaves only one option.”

“A covert rescue mission, sir?” Chen-Oo-Vuu’s dermis colored pinkish-purple; his people’s hue of incredulity.

“No, actually. I’m going to politely ask for our people back.”

Two of Chen-Oo-Vuu’s tentacles twitched as his optical lenses narrowed in an attempt to sense duplicity. “You’re not joking,” he assessed.

“I am not,” she confirmed, making notations on her padd. “The Kan-Uut could have destroyed us easily, but they chose not to. They undoubtedly watched us limp into this planet’s ring system, and could have finished us off at any time. Again, they didn’t. I’m going to hazard a guess that they may be more amenable to diplomacy than the commodore thought.”

“Perhaps,” Chen-Oo-Vuu allowed, his voice synthesizer doing an admiral job of conveying dubiousness. “But sir, why you? There are others aboard who could carry out the same mission.”

Ramirez looked up from the padd. “Engineering says the main computer, along with your XO, should be back online within a few hours. Medical says the commodore should regain consciousness within the next day or so. Your command resources are returning, making me redundant.” She cast a glance at the runabout. “I’m not one of your crew, and that also makes me the only person disposable enough to undertake this mission. If it all goes to hell, all you’re out is a single runabout.”

Chen-Oo-Vuu inspected her closely. “You are distraught, sir. If you have been emotionally compromised, this may not be a favorable time to undertake such a dangerous task.”

She looked at him and cocked her head. “You’re quite intuitive, Lieutenant.”

“In actuality,” Chen-Oo-Vuu replied, “I have been scanning you with internal sensors during our conversation. Your body chemistry is indicative of a human in emotional distress, based on neurotransmitter and adrenaline levels.”

Ramirez had to laugh aloud at that, despite the grief that percolated just beneath the surface. “I’m going to offer some unsolicited advice, Mister Chen-Oo-Vuu. I strongly recommend that you switch career tracks from sciences to command. You are well suited to leadership.”

“Now you surely are joking, sir.”

“Not in the least,” she countered. “While the rest of Valhalla’s junior officers seem to be avoiding the burden of leadership, you’ve become my de facto executive officer. You’ve accomplished every assignment I’ve given you expertly. You’ve utilized your resources intuitively, and the crew follows your orders without question.”

Chen-Oo-Vuu’s pallor became a sallow yellow, indicating discomfort. “My people are not given to—”

“Don’t fall into that trap,” Ramirez cut him off. “Regardless of whether your race embraces ego-driven leadership like so many humanoid species do, you have demonstrated that ability. It is a rare thing, even among my people. You have the potential to be a leader, should you choose to pursue that.”

“I will consider it,” Chen-Oo-Vuu allowed after a moment. “That said, while I strenuously disagree with the course of action you’ve decided on, I respect your goals. Is there anything I can do to assist you?”

“You can help smooth this over with the others in our little leadership cabal. They might not prove so accommodating.”

Chen-Oo-Vuu gave his species’ variant of a shrug, a deft waving of the tips of three of his tentacles in quick succession. “As you point out, those officers chose not to step up, so I will take the opportunity to assume command and will take responsibility for allowing you to depart with the runabout.”

She regarded him cautiously. “There’s a certain amount of risk in assuming that burden.”

“More risk than requesting a position aboard a starship traveling alone into another galaxy presumably populated with not one but two hyper-aggressive species that make the Dominion pale in comparison?”

Ramirez smiled despite herself. “I respectfully withdraw the observation.”

He turned to appraise the runabout and said, “We haven’t much time to implement your plan, Captain. We should see to it.”

* * *​  
Chapter 19 by Gibraltar

The holographic image of the starship rotated end over end while spinning slowly in a three-hundred-sixty degree arc.

“Uprated Galaxy-class by all indications, equipped with a transwarp drive based on what appears to be your design.” The Vulcan woman waved her hand in the air, highlighting the tactical systems aboard the image in an amber glow. “Her armament is formidable, to say the least. The phasers are likely class thirteen or better, something Ashok assures me was on the drawing board when we left the Milky Way. Quantum torpedoes, and some ungodly under-slung cannon the bottom of the saucer. We’re still working out what exactly that’s for.”

The man known as Zeischt, formerly Starfleet Captain Donald Sandhurst nodded fractionally as he studied the sensor readouts from the vessel identified as USS Valhalla. “Starfleet obviously wanted to make sure they could defend themselves against whatever they found here. Still, it’s almost inconceivable that they’d only send a single ship.”

A’lasha canted her head in consideration. She’d served as his first officer for nearly three years now, and still found the Human/Amon hybrid to be an enigma. A pre-Surak Vulcan soldier whose katra had been made flesh again by the Amon, she had over two-thousand years of experience, much of it consisting of warfare, espionage, assassination and general mayhem. Most recently she’d served as a disembodied agent of Section 31, flitting from host to host in order to carry out her superiors’ dark designs.

“The intel we’ve received from multiple sources all confirm that they’ve only observed or encountered a single starship. Perhaps they sent her out here on a transwarp sled, something similar to the high-warp units used to push Operation Vanguard out into the Delta Quadrant?”

Zeischt appeared unconvinced. “Unless they’re utilizing a power source far more potent than a standard warp reactor, I don’t see how they’d have the fuel for such a journey, even at transwarp velocities.”

“Well,” A’lasha posited, “it’s either that or someone’s mucking around on Shul’Nazhar again.”

He leaned back in his chair, issuing a long sigh at the very thought of that possibility. “You think someone’s opened the portals?”

“Barring any evidence to the contrary, that would be my supposition.” She gave Zeischt a patient look. “However, I’m sure you’ll agree that isn’t our most pressing issue at the moment.”

“Yes,” Zeischt concurred. “I concur. Valhalla has now stumbled into the middle of a coalition harvest and has nearly upset the apple cart.”

“You realize how this must look to them? I’m not surprised that they attempted an intervention. The only real shock here is how much restraint the Regoth over-watch exercised in not completely obliterating the saucer.“

Zeischt agreed, “The Kan-Uut wouldn’t have been nearly as generous.” He glanced at his monitor again. “May I presume there is word from Verrik?”

“You may. Verrik reports the council is up in arms, no surprise there. The Cilar are howling for a suspension of the pact unless we can explain Valhalla’s presence and actions. They’re threatening to withdraw their peacekeeping contingent in the Bion and Rennorix systems.”

Zeischt looked pained. “And if they pull out…”

“…so go the Ghevroil, the Aellur and Syndicate Zail,” A’lasha finished for him. “Verrik also wants to know how far you want him to push the Kan-Uut to get them to release the Starfleet prisoners they’re holding.”

“How far can we push them?” he asked, voice tinged with exasperation. “We had to put their feet to the fire to get them to raid the Caezieg colony in the first place. Now they want a pound of flesh as compensation for their losses, so how do we convince them to hand over Valhalla’s people?”

A’lasha gave him a look that he dreaded, the knowing expression of someone whose next words will be received poorly. “We have to give them something tangible, something beyond what we’ve released through the pact’s science consortium.”

Zeischt stood and made for the replicator, almost snarling, “That’d be laughably obvious to the whole coalition, and they’d all be screaming for equal rights to whatever we gave up.”

She shrugged lightly in response. “Doesn’t have to be ours. Give them some low yield Cardassian phasers, or Romulan inertial dampening technology. Anything that doesn’t come stamped with ‘Starfleet’ across the front should do. We’re not looking to appear completely innocent; I’d settle for good, old fashioned plausible deniability.”

The ready room replicator hummed, producing a cup of Rigellian spiced coffee laced with bio-essence energy to feed Zeischt’s ravenous Amon metabolism. He gazed into the cup, considering A’lasha’s words.

“You gave up on your Federation ideals some time ago,” she reminded him. “This is the carrot we’ve been dangling over the coalition’s collective heads this whole time. I know you’d rather apportion it out slowly and carefully, but it’s either this or we just forget the pretense and go straight to naked threats and aggression. Detonate an Alpha Weapon on an uninhabited planet in one of their home systems perhaps?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he chided. “That’s not an option.”

“And allowing the Skorrah to wake is?” she shot back, an arched Vulcan eyebrow raised in challenge. “You know the rules, you wrote them. Keep them fed, keep them sleeping, keep the galaxy alive.”

He sipped distractedly at his coffee before grudgingly admitting, “I’d hoped we wouldn’t see Starfleet again anytime soon. Their ethics and morality are a credit to them, but those ideals are incompatible with circumstances in the LMC. The odds of us convincing them that what we’ve done here is necessary are… remote.”

A’lasha snorted, “You’ve a gift for understatement.”

He met her gaze reluctantly. “We’ll need to free the Starfleet prisoners and hand them over to Valhalla as a peace offering. I have to at least speak with their captain, try and explain what’s happening here in terms they can understand, even if approval is too much to hope for.”

“I say this now because it needs to be said, not to hurt you…” she began hesitantly.

He nodded soberly for her to continue.

“We should attack that ship with everything at our disposal at our first opportunity.”

Zeischt winced visibly, turning away from her.

“That ship and crew are the greatest threat to what we’ve built here, and you know it," she pressed. "Once they piece together what’s happened, they’ll stop at nothing to disrupt the pact, the coalition, and all our plans. They can’t help but be what they are, Zeischt, what you used to be. You ask too much of them, and it’s more than they’re capable of accepting. It’s anathema to them, an abomination that they’ll be obligated to stop at all costs.”

He shook his head. “You can’t know that. What’s to come hasn’t been written yet.”

“You could,” was her surprisingly soft rejoinder. “You’ve turned away from that special sight, but it still remains, locked away deep inside you.”

The cup in his hand began to tremble ever so slightly. He set it aside, bracing his arms atop his desk. “Never again. I can’t.”

“You won’t,” she countered. “There’s a difference.”

“Enough!” The command was uttered with a voice that was singular, yet seemingly comprised of a thousand others. A discordant chorus of one.

Her own voice failed her, silenced by the overwhelming power of the directive. A’lasha physically recoiled from the force of it, stumbling backwards before catching herself.

She called upon her Vulcan stamina and hastily recovered her wits, glowering at him. “That’s where we are now? Should I genuflect or simply grovel at your feet, m’lord?”

Regret and embarrassment warred for supremacy across Zeischt’s features. It was exceedingly rare for him to lose control like that. “My apologies, Commander. What you’ve asked me to do is against everything I hold dear.”

“No,” she corrected him coolly, “it’s against everything Donald Sandhurst held dear. He died years ago.”

With that she walked out, leaving him alone with his thoughts and more than a little shame.

* * *​   First Officer’s Log:

Valhalla’s stardrive-section is on course at transwarp velocity to the last reported coordinates of our saucer-section. Upon exiting the nebula, we received a number of cached subspace messages from the saucer reporting that Commodore Izawa had taken the saucer at warp to respond to a distress call in a nearby system.

Unfortunately, we have belatedly discovered that proximity to the subspace fracture in which the starship Caelestis is trapped also causes temporal dilation effects. Our internal chronometers recorded that we had been in the vicinity of the fracture for three days, seventeen hours, and twenty minutes. Upon exiting the nebula and linking up with the nearest of our comms beacons, we discovered that over a week has passed.

We have unwittingly abandoned our crewmates, who have suffered significant damage and casualties in their ill-fated rescue attempt of the colonists. We will arrive shortly to mount a rescue, and given the existing tactical situation it appears necessary that we come in firing…

* * *​
Kan-Uut Slaver Galleon

Liana Ramirez was unceremoniously shoved through the armored hatch into the holding pen. She sprawled onto the grated deck with a grunt, raising her head to glare at the Kan-Uut slaver who’d propelled her through the doorway as it hissed closed. “If I had a phaser, I’d be eating lobster tonight you chitinous shit!”

“Well, well,” remarked Raffale from where he sat cross-legged on the floor. He dropped something unappetizing he’d been eating with his fingers back into a worn bowl that he set down beside him. “If it isn’t the effervescent Captain Ramirez, space pirate. To what do we owe the honor, Captain?”

She glanced over at him, muttering, “Raffale, you survived.” Her observation had an unflattering edge to it. Ramirez crawled over to seat herself next to him, eying the contents of the bowl. “You going to finish that?”

“Mi prisión es tu prisión,” he answered glibly.

“I came by runabout,” Ramirez provided, picking up the bowl to sample the local cuisine. “Had a brilliant idea about trying to open negotiations with the Kan-Uut’s allies. Didn’t exactly work out according to plan.”

“They proved unreceptive?”

“You could say that, yes.”

He sighed. “Still, it’s the thought that counts.”

“Say,” Ramirez asked, “how big are these slave transports? Half a million tons, or thereabouts?”

Raffale sucked thoughtfully at his teeth. “Sounds about right.”

“Okay, good.”

He shot her an appraising glance. “And that’s relevant because…?”

The slaver galleon lurched dramatically and the sound of an explosion echoed through the vessel's interior. The pair could hear cheers from some of the nearby pens as prisoners voiced their defiance.

“I set the anti-tampering system,” she explained dryly. “How’s that taste in your mouth, lobster-boy?” she shouted at the doorway.

* * *​
The transwarp tactical probes winked into existence for only fractions of a second before vanishing again. The cycle was repeated, with the probes remaining just long enough to register on the Kan-Uut’s sensors only to be gone before the slavers were able to achieve a weapons lock.

Thus, the Kan-Uut and Regoth presence in the star system was catalogued and analyzed. Even the Regoth capability of submerging their vessels in the nearer layers of subspace and phasing out of regular space/time was noted by the probes as countermeasures were devised by a machine intelligence several thousand times more sophisticated than any that had previously existed in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

This particular intelligence had been created without the dispassionate, logical framework that had been the hallmark of so many of its predecessors in the Alpha Quadrant of the Milky Way. It possessed a daunting intellect, to be sure, but it had also been gifted by chance with the full range of humanoid emotions. Thus bequeathed, it occasionally fell victim to the same insecurities, hurts, and furies as many organic sentients.

To say that Cybel was angry would be a gross understatement. Not only was she enraged by damage inflicted on the ship’s saucer-section and her holographic counterpart aboard, but the majority of the stardrive-section’s crew under her command had been incapacitated by the malevolent entity preying upon them.

She was still studying that creature in order to develop a defense, but as yet she could do nothing to safeguard the vulnerable crew from its nightmarish assaults. The hostile presence threatening the saucer-section, however, that she could do something about. Cybel inhabited the most formidable weapons platform ever devised by the member worlds of the United Federation of Planets, the stardrive-section of a Galaxy II-class heavy defense cruiser.

At the advent of the Galaxy-class starships, the stardrive-section had been euphemistically referred to as the ‘battle-section’, as it held most of the ship’s weaponry while having shed the greater bulk of the ship’s saucer. It was an apt description for the craft that would now make its presence known.

The two Kan-Uut corvettes posted as overwatch on the saucer-section’s hiding place within the gas giant’s rings had just registered the appearance of an intruder less than a thousand kilometers away when a volley of quantum torpedoes enveloped them. Before they could send a warning to their flotilla orbiting the nearby Caezieg colony planet, the corvettes had been completely disabled.

The Kan-Uut slaver galleons holding position above the now-conquered colony were next to fall as Valhalla’s battle-section briefly appeared. Torpedoes collapsed the vessels’ shields, followed by pin-point phaser strikes that neutralized their weapons and engines. The battle-section continued to wink in and out, disgorging torrents of fire as it jumped from place to place so quickly that even automated targeting systems couldn’t keep up. The handful of Kan-Uut satellites in orbit were likewise annihilated in the storm of weapons fire.

The phase-cloaked Regoth frigate that had crippled Valhalla’s saucer observed the launch of a dozen photon torpedoes in their direction without distress, confident in their invulnerability. They were unprepared when the torpedoes, modified with subspace phase discriminators, transitioned into the same dimensional layer occupied by the Regoth vessel. Denied the advantage of its phase-cloak, the frigate was effectively unshielded. The torpedoes had been intended to incapacitate a vessel with defensive screens, and the unfortunate Regoth ship flew apart under the impact of overlapping detonations.

The Amon orbital energy siphons, similarly hidden, also fell victim to Cybel’s modified torpedoes. Without their multi-dimensional camouflage they proved remarkably fragile.

The battle-section reappeared near the galleon containing the Starfleet prisoners, and transported them aboard en-mass while delivering a hail of phaser fire towards the surface that destroyed every Kan-Uut shuttle, outpost, and soldier in less than thirty seconds.

Maddox, seated in the XO’s chair next to Cybel, cleared his throat. “All threat vessels, vehicles, satellites and personnel have been… neutralized, sir.” Internally, he blanched at the naked savagery they had just unleashed, regardless of how well deserved.

A little over two minutes. Maddox tried in vain to fathom what she’d wrought. She conquered an entire occupied star system in one-hundred and forty-three seconds. And they knew we were coming.

“Transporter chief reports all surviving members of our surface teams have been recovered from the Kan-Uut ship as well as the remains of eight fatalities, Commander.”

The ship jumped again, this time coming to rest within the gas-giant’s rings where the saucer had taken refuge. “Initiate saucer reintegration and coordinate repairs with their engineering teams,” Cybel ordered. She surrendered control of the ship’s navigation, helm, and tactical systems to their respective officers as she stood. “I’ll be in the astrometrics lab.”

The silence on the battle-bridge that accompanied her departure was deafening.

* * *​  
Chapter 20 by Gibraltar
PCV (Pact Coalition Vessel) Europa

“It’s pandemonium,” A’lasha remarked, gesturing towards Zeischt to throw a holographic display into the air before him containing a diplomatic update. “The council is quarreling openly now. The Cilar and Syndicate Zail are demanding the Caezig offer up another colony for harvest. They’ve refused, of course, claiming that Federation intervention nullifies their responsibility in the matter. We may be looking at a war within days, perhaps hours. It will start on Duur’l and then spread out from there. Ghalkeon, the Negnuid systems; once it’s begun it’ll take on a life of its own.”

Zeischt’s hands were steepled in front of his mouth and he said nothing in reply.

“The pact is fracturing. This disaster with the Caezig means that we’ll miss an entire shipment and we’ll be unable to fill our quota.”

“I know what it means,” he rasped tiredly.

“If we miss an allotment and can’t supply the Skorrah, their Reapers will wake and they’ll attack anything in their vicinity. Might be a colony, might be a member world, could be a gods-be-damned fully inhabited star system. And we never know which creche will spawn the Reaper swarm, so all members of the pact are equally terrified.”

He dropped his hands into his lap and fixed a cold stare on her. “Why are you explaining all this as if I’m not already aware of the consequences?”

A’lasha put her hands palm down on the top of his desk, leaning in towards him. “Because you’re just sitting there looking lost rather than doing something about it.”

Just for a moment, she saw the old fire in his eyes. “What would you have me do?”

“There’s a Gix'ox settlement less than five light-years from here that would more than fill our quota. It’s lightly defended.”

He looked at her, aghast. “The Gix’ox aren’t pact members!”

“That hardly matters now,” she snapped back with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The Reapers might just as easily cull a Gix’ox planet as any other. Just because they’ve lacked the collective backbone to admit they have skin in the game until now—”

“Not an option!” he barked, standing from behind the desk. “This… this is unbelievable. We were on the cusp of developing a weapon that will smother the Skorrah in their sleep, and just now everything starts to come apart at the seams.”

A’lasha’s expression was one of barely concealed disgust. “I told you we should have attacked Valhalla as soon as we’d confirmed its location. Now they’ve stumbled into the LMC and set a torch to everything we’ve built!” She turned away from him, marshalling the strength to reign in her Vulcan passions.

Turning back to face him, she mustered a surprisingly calm tone. “Harvesting the Gix’ox colony and destroying Valhalla might be enough to save the pact, but there’s no guarantee. You know how much mistrust and bad-blood there is between the signatories.”

His face took on a haunted aspect as what remained of the Starfleet officer at the core of him was strangled by the Amon pragmatist that he’d become.

A’lasha added fuel to the pyre consuming the Sandhurst of old. “We both know that if the Skorrah fully awaken, they won’t stay in the LMC. It will only be a matter of time before they move against the Milky Way; sooner if they can seize Shul’Nazhar and its portal generators. Distasteful as this course may be, it might be the only way of saving our home galaxy.”

“Weigh the costs,” she pleaded. “Sacrificing a thousand lives to save untold trillions across multiple galaxies.”

His head dipped for a second before looking up to meet her eyes. “Tell Commander Kirk to set a course for that colony, and to have Hub standing ready to jump the siphons into orbit as soon as we’ve given the word.”

She nodded fractionally, finally satisfied that he would act. “And Valhalla?”

Zeischt’s eyes narrowed. “Their attack on the Kan-Uut and the Regoth, did it remind you of anything?”

“If I’m not mistaken, it was quite similar to your sneak attack on the En-Il-Que species at Akovos Prime in the Delta Quadrant.”

He nodded, his expression appropriately grim. “Precisely. This was as much a message to me as it was a rescue of their personnel. Somebody on Valhalla has studied my tactics, and they want me to know they’re coming.”

“That ship is formidable, there’s no denying it.”

“So are we,” he reminded her. “And we still have three Alpha Weapons onboard.”

A’lasha’s prolonged stare was pregnant with meaning. “It appears we'll need every advantage we have to win the coming engagement. Every advantage.”

This time it was Zeischt who turned away.

* * *​

USS Valhalla

Sickbay was filled to capacity, both with wounded from the saucer section as well as those personnel overcome by the ongoing psychic assault from the phantom creature plaguing the crew. The medical staff moved between and among the biobeds, comforting and healing, representing the best Starfleet had to offer.

Cybel briefly reflected on the juxtaposition between Starfleet Medical’s mandate and the massacre she had just visited upon the Kan-Uut and their allies. Part of her felt shame, while another part of her reasoned with the clinical calculation of a machine that the ferocity of her attack had actually minimized enemy casualties. Do I contradict myself? she reflected on the words of Whitman. Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes. The concept was truer for her than for any human who had ever lived.

Commodore Izawa had a private medical suite, where Cybel located him. After being granted entry, she found him in an elevated sitting position, padd in hand, face creased with worry compounding the ravages of time.

“I’m glad to see you’re on your way to a full recovery, sir.”

Izawa lowered the device, and scrutinized Cybel for a moment. “Thank you, York. Doctor Zelbin informs me that I suffered significant neuro-trauma, complicated by existing damage left over from my time with the Cardassians.”

Cybel seated herself at the foot of his bed. “Fortunately, you have excellent taste in physicians. Zelbin’s treatment was as successful as it was unconventional.”

Izawa found himself unable to stomach further small-talk. “Cybel, what you’ve done… what we’ve done—”

“Our actions were in full accordance with Starfleet rules and regulations, sir.” It was unheard of her to cut him off when speaking, and his face registered his surprise.

“Be that as it may, we came here to this galaxy as explorers and emissaries. Now, we’ve acted no less reprehensibly than Task Force Vanguard.”

“Respectfully, Commodore, your actions led to this situation.”

Her succinct appraisal shocked Izawa and left him momentarily speechless. Cybel stood and continued, “Decisions you made while under what I suspect was the influence of an alien entity contributed to a reckless charge into an unknown situation. Your attack without reconnaissance led to the saucer’s defeat in battle and its eventual retreat. The saucer was damaged, trapped, and unable to negotiate with a foe which had taken members of our crew prisoner and had no interest in parlay. I did what was necessary to effect the rescue of the saucer and our captured crewmates.”

He stared at her for a long moment, considering her words, his expression carefully neutral. “You suspected I was under the influence of that… thing?”

“I did.”

“May I ask why you didn’t stop me?”

She cocked her head slightly. “I had no definitive proof, sir. Countermanding your orders without concrete evidence that you were not of sound mind would have been mutinous.”

Izawa sighed, accepting the validity of her statement.

“Repairs are underway, and the saucer’s structural integrity should be able to handle a transwarp jump within the hour. I’m setting course for a nearby nebula where we’ll hole up until repairs are complete. I’m working on a defense against our psychic intruder, based on some of former Captain Sandhurst’s technical specs. And no, the irony isn’t lost on me. I’ve also apprised Starfleet Command of our situation but our communications time-delay to the portal is nearly two weeks. We won’t receive word back for nearly a month.”

“You could send a transwarp comms-drone,” he noted helpfully.

“I could have, but I didn’t,” she answered concisely. “There is the possibility that Command will take exception to some of our recent actions. I’d rather we retain a certain flexibility of decision making for the time being, sir.”

Izawa turned the padd over in his hands, deep in thought. “Very well. Thank you for the update, Commander. Well done on all fronts.”

Cybel seemed about to leave, but instead she paused on the threshold and returned to kneel at his bedside. She leaned in and delivered a gentle kiss to Izawa’s temple. “I’m glad you’re going to be okay, Father. You scared me.”

* * *​
A cascading rain of holographic alien glyphs descended around Maddox and Cybel as the pair analyzed the contents of the Kan-Uut computer core in Valhalla’s primary computer lab.

Standing just outside the shower of data, Raffale studied another holographic interface, searching for patterns. “Good thinking to bring all this gear onboard, Commander.”

“It made sense to grab it at the same time as I beamed you and the others aboard from the slaver ship. Though Starfleet has many rules about interrogating prisoners, they have almost none about interrogating their technology.”

“Pity there wasn’t enough left of the Regoth ship to recover,” Raffale reflected. “They’re clearly the more advanced species of the two.”

“Not that it helped them much after I deduced their interstitial coordinates. Their ships react to anti-matter warheads just like anyone else’s,” Cybel mused.

“What is it we’re looking for again?” Maddox asked, his exhaustion evident in the slump of his shoulders and his unshaven, unkempt appearance. He was having difficulty focusing, courtesy of his sleep being continuously disrupted by the nightmares generated by the crew’s non-corporeal tormentor.

“I want to know where this coalition of theirs is headquartered, or failing that, the location of their closest major facility,” Cybel replied. “We need to go on the offensive if we want to track Europa down, or to draw her out.”

“And how does the commodore feel about that?” Raffaele asked pointedly, directing a side-eye at Cybel as he continued to scan the data feed.

“The commodore is still recovering, and may be for some time,” Cybel allowed. “Until Dr. Zelbin has determined he’s fit to resume his duties, I’ll retain command.”

Raffale cast a meaningful glance at Maddox that was meant for Cybel to see. “We’re not exactly at our best right this moment, sir. We’re still repairing the significant damage to the saucer-section. The crew’s nearly debilitated from these ongoing psychological attacks, and we’ve got a significant leadership vacuum among our junior officers. If you’ll recall, those officers surrendered control of the saucer to a war criminal after you and the commodore were incapacitated. Perhaps we need to lay low for long enough to address these more immediate issues before we go poking that particular hornet’s nest?”

She stepped out from within the shower of alien symbology to face him. “From what we’ve been able to glean so far, Rafe, a Federation starship has been complicit in the systematic murder of innocents in order to service the Skorrah. They’re harvesting them!”

He held his ground in the face of her agitation. “Whatever’s happening here, it’s been going on for a long while. It also appears from the records we’ve uncovered so far that many local governments are complicit in this process. Meaning, even if we manage to locate and remove Europa from the equation, these cullings are likely to continue and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.”

Cybel quirked an eyebrow. “Is that so? Watch me.”

“So, we’re throwing the Prime Directive out the window, then?”

“It no longer applies to this situation. Europa’s participation means the Federation’s already interfered here. We’re simply trying to fix what they’ve broken.”

The elicited a genuine laugh from Raffale. “You and the old man just sprinted right into their trap, didn’t you? Couldn’t help yourselves.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Maddox pulled himself from his muddled reverie and approached, trying to calm what was fast becoming a heated argument. “Let’s take a step back, shall we?”

“Hush, Commander,” Raffaele snapped at Maddox distractedly, his gaze still fixed on Cybel, “the adults are talking.”

Raffale then replied to the acting captain. “It means that I believe that Izawa, and to a lesser extent, you, were selected for this mission to serve someone’s purpose back home. It’s no coincidence that the leader of the anti-militarists wing who helped to topple an entire administration with his group’s mass multi-world protests suddenly finds himself leading a lone starship into the LMC. And hey, guess what, within a few months of his arrival he’s pulling the trigger just as quickly and indiscriminately as Captain Ebnal and the others who were locked up or cashiered out of the service after Operation Distant Shore blew up in their faces.”

“That would be a spurious allegation, the commodore was under the influence of an alien consciousness when he—”

“Do you really believe that argument will hold water, Cybel? With all that intellect, you cannot possibly be that naive!” Raffale countered hotly. “All those people who’d backed Vanguard and Distant Short from the beginning and were forced to hold their tongues during the backlash that Izawa helped provoke will now point and say, ‘See, after all his moralizing and casting of blame, he took the same path.’ What better argument to bring Izawa down while simultaneously resurrecting the careers and reputations of dozens of former high-ranking Starfleet officers?”

Cybel fell silent, a parade of emotions sweeping over her features.

“You know I’m right,” Raffale pressed. “This whole charade will last just long enough for Starfleet Command to digest your after-action report. I can guarantee that the result of that will be our immediate recall to the portal and a return trip home to face months if not years of official investigations into our actions.”

“I won’t subscribe to your belief that this whole mission was a set-up to discredit the commodore from the beginning,” she reproached.

“No, of course not,” Raffaele countered. “Starfleet was obligated to reconnoiter the LMC through the portal, but in sending Valhalla under Izawa they were able accomplish two goals with a single stroke. Now, you’ve allowed them to realize three aims simultaneously.”

Cybel frowned, skeptical. “And what’s the third?”

“In raining fire and vengeance on the Kan-Uut, you’ve bolstered the arguments of those who feared you were nothing more than a jumped-up M-5. Regardless of your sentient standing, you’ll be given a show-trial and then locked back inside that black box you struggled so long to escape. You’ll be returned to the AI version of a Federation penal colony.”

“I refuse to accept that,” she crossed her arms defensively.

Maddox, still groggy with exhaustion, nonetheless nodded reluctantly. “I’m afraid I have to agree with Rafe on this. As implausible as it sounds, it’s the only explanation that makes any sense.”

“Then what do we do about it?” she asked, already beginning to run countless probability simulations based on Raffale’s hypothesis.

“Finish this,” Raffale answered, “but do it on our terms. Regardless of who set all this in motion and what their ultimate endgame is, we’ll have to take the higher road. You, Cybel, are perhaps the most intelligent being in this galaxy right now, but you’re allowing others a galaxy away to set the agenda. I for one am done dancing to their fiddle.”

Maddox bobbed his head in mute agreement.

“Commodore Izawa’s on a crusade to hunt down the last vestiges of Operation Vanguard and see them stand before a court-martial for their actions. That mindset blinds him to other more diplomatic possibilities. You yourself objected to his attack on the Kan-Uut due to his not knowing the context of the situation. Now you’re on the cusp of doing the very same.”

“We know the context!” Cybel objected.

Raffaele shook his head. “We don’t. We’ve got the Europa logs left on the buoy where Caelestis was located, but that only gives us two years of data. They’ve been out here nearly six years. Whatever other Amon abilities Sandhurst possesses, he can’t brainwash people. What about the officers and crew that chose to follow his banner, Cybel? How do we explain them turning their backs on their Federation principals? There has to be more going on here than we can see from our current vantage.”

She looked from Maddox to Raffale, weighing the opinions of those closest to her. It was galling to admit that despite her raw intellect that her friend and her husband could deduce something that she herself had refused to consider.

“Okay, Rafe, we’ll try it your way. However, if Europa’s people or their allies try anything stupid, I’m taking the gloves off, consequences be damned.”

Raffale raised his hands in gesture of submission. “Fair enough, sir.”

She turned her attention back to the Kan-Uut computer assembly, switching herself into machine-time and happily discarding, at least for the moment, the confused and desperate machinations of biologicals.

* * *​    

 

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