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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.

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