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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 Socio-historical references that we don’t understand?”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.”


“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.”

* * *

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