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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.

* * *​  

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