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Task Force 43 (Story Only)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing Archive' started by Zcenicx, Nov 2, 2009.

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  1. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    [​IMG]




    Disclaimer


    This work is fiction and should be treated as such. The author of this story does not own the rights to either Star Trek or Babylon 5, nor to any other motion picture, television show, video game or novel ideas, source materials or entire universes may have been borrowed from. No profit is made from the writing or publishing of this work of fan fiction.

    This work of fiction is the property of its author, Samuel T. Westman aka Zcenicx, and may not be reproduced or distributed without the author’s express permission. It may not under any circumstances be sold as this would be a copyright infringement toward the author and a trademark and licensing infringement against among others Paramount and Warner Brothers.

    The story, storyline, most characters and all modified ship designs are the intellectual property of the author.

    Please don't try to pawn the story off as your own, that's just plain rude to me and it’s far too well known by now.





    Background


    An introduction to the Romulan-Federation conflict of 2380
    by Admiral William Ross



    Throughout the Dominion War, a conflict which began in the year 2372 and lasted for four long and bloody years, Starfleet had continually suffered massive losses in ships and personnel both at the hands of the Dominion's Jem Hadar fleets and their Alpha Quadrant allies, the Cardassians and Breen.

    Due to the development of new and dedicated military vessels that had started shortly before the war erupted, in preparation for a large Borg incursion or even invasion, the effective military force of Starfleet started to increase dramatically even though the actual number of starships even decreased as the war continued to drag on. Damaged ships were refit to a more combat-oriented design and destroyed ships were replaced by a newer generation of designated warships.

    One such example can be made in the development of the new Archangel-class strike carriers, a single one of these ships being more than twice the mass of even the massive but aging Excelsior class and carrying a military force equal to a small previous-generation battle group in indirect weaponry as well as fighters, interceptors and bombers.

    Another can be made as the war saw massive casualties among the older general-purpose ship classes that were still being kept in service, through numerous programs of refits and upgrades held in commission far beyond their initial service lives, such as the Excelsior, Miranda and even the odd Constitution just to name the oldest.

    With the fact that these lost Excelsior class heavy explorers were replaced with the new and far more advanced Sovereign and Galaxy class battlecruisers, or that any of the just as old Constitution, Miranda or Ambassador class explorers were replaced with the newer and far more potent Akira, Luna, Intrepid and Prometheus cruiser classes, the average ship age got lower and lower while the already significant technological advantage of the Starfleet ships increased even further.

    The war also saw the development of an entirely new class of starships, short-range destroyer and gunboat classes such as the Norway, Steamrunner and Defiant classes, directly designed for short-ranged defensive warfare with a uniquely high amount of firepower for their size but with limited range. They were mainly meant to free up the long-ranged heavy Explorer ships for front line service where they'd do the most good instead of locking them down in planetary defense, and as such Starfleet’s ability to project force also increased dramatically.

    At the end of the Dominion War in late 2375 the higher echelons of Starfleet had still not fully realized to what extent these, while individually small together quite significant, factors had affected the overall balance of power that had long governed the Alpha Quadrant. The people in charge were still too focused on replacing a number of ships than they were replacing a specific amount of torpedo launchers or phasers, and even less so with only replacing an in their eyes mostly theoretical deployable force ratio.

    This in effect constituted what was seen by many of the other interstellar nations as a major build-up of military force, especially as much of the Starfleet personnel who had survived the war had also gained a lot of invaluable combat experience from real battles and interstellar warfare on a scale which had up until then been seen as so unlikely it hadn't even been seriously discussed, much less prepared for in training.

    In early 2376 Bajor finally joined the Federation as their main reason for postponing this action had been to protect themselves from getting involved in the ongoing war. With the peace treaty between the Federation and the Dominion the road was also opened for extensive trade agreements being signed between many Federation members and a number of Gamma Quadrant worlds belonging to the Dominion.

    With the wormhole now formally in Federation space and the prospective massive economic gains as a result the Federation’s relations with the only other remaining great power of the sector, the Romulan Empire, worsened quickly.

    2379 saw the return of the USS Voyager from the Delta Quadrant, an event which sparked yet another more or less extensive refit for just about every single Starfleet vessel in active service. The reconnaissance and intelligence gathered by Captain Janeway and her crew about the Borg and other potential threats in that region of space scared the Admiralty to the point where the ships not capable to be refitted were simply decommissioned and new ships quickly ordered from the shipyards to replace them.

    For the first time since the dark years of the Dominion War, the massive shipyards at Utopia Planitia, Beta Antares and San Francisco station were filled to capacity with many of the others not far from.

    This was compounded after the Reman incident where the Sovereign-class starship USS Enterprise, flagship of and one of the most advanced vessels in all of Starfleet, was severely damaged by Romulan forces and the subsequent collapse of the Romulan government, as the Federation Admiralty once again ordered more ships be laid up for construction. In less than a decade the Starfleet increased by more than a quarter in numbers, but more than doubled its tonnage.

    By now all active ships of the line had been refitted to carry the cutting edge technology transphasic torpedoes along their now standard load of zero-point warhead quantum ones, effectively rendering the older antimatter based photon torpedoes mostly obsolete for starship use. Most ships were also refitted with the Voyager’s deployable armor in addition to their ablative hull armor, as well as a reverse-engineered version of the Borg's adaptive regenerative shielding and the more powerful Type XV Phaser emitters.

    The fact that this constituted a severe breach of the temporal prime directive didn't seem to bother the Admiralty too much, as they saw themselves being faced with the distinct possibility of a war on two fronts against enemies just as strong as, or in the case of the Borg even stronger than, they were.

    Another new addition was that the heavy explorer class ships regained the flank pulse cannon banks that had been dropped from Starfleet starship designs more than a hundred years earlier with the last ships of the dedicated battleship classes being scrapped, though this time they were installed with the Type XV particle emitters as a base.

    It was a subject of long and heated debate in the Federation council, but as these ships were the very backbone of the Federation's defensive forces it was agreed to be a prudent decision and a necessary step in order to safeguard the widespread and hard to defend nation. The difference in effect against civilizations with better shielding technology was impressive as where the phaser beams were effectively surgical instruments which tried to drill through the shield in one localized spot the phaser pulse cannons were easier compared to hitting them with a sledgehammer and grinding them down through sheer overwhelming brute force.

    At the time as the Federation was reconsidering its relationship with the then shattered and unstable Romulan Empire the restrictions of the Treaty of Algeron were becoming a strategic problem. With the Reman incident in recent history and a number of other conflicts both before and since, the treaty was officially broken in early 2380 as some of the most modern ships were equipped with the Federation's own cloaking technology, phasing devices, as they were refitted.

    This alternative cloaking technology wasn't just a more reliable cloaking device than the Romulan version but also made the ship using the device effectively impervious to enemy fire while they were out of phase, something the Romulans had never been able to achieve with their own cloaks. The only real drawback was that while this technology could effectively hide them, it didn't make finding their opposition any easier as the phase difference actually made it harder to sense the minute energy a Romulan or Klingon cloaking device would emit.

    It can and has been argued that the members of the Admiralty were quite ignorant to miss the fact that their rapid refitting program and subsequent expansion of the Starfleet greatly disturbed the military balance and force ratio of the entire quadrant, that they didn't recognize the increased number of modern Explorer ships and heavier and better armed cruisers as a direct increase in military force.

    The Akira alone, which had been mass produced during and after the war, had by now almost entirely replaced the Ambassador and Challenger classes and had more military force in a single starship than both of its predecessors combined. The Sovereign also by far outmatched any of the Excelsior- or even the much newer Galaxy-class ships it replaced, and even the quite small Defiant class could easily outgun a previous era line cruiser such as the Miranda or Constellation classes.

    That the Admiralty weren’t aware of this fact is simply not true. The Admiralty saw what they perceived to be a real and imminent danger of being dragged into an armed conflict with either the Borg or the Romulan Empire, and in a worst case scenario having to counter a Borg invasion while already engaged in a war with the Romulans. Both the Admiralty and the Federation assembly still had the Dominion War in fresh memory and neither wanted to face the same situation where the very survival of the nation was hanging on the thinnest of threads until the very end.

    While the Klingon High Council didn't necessarily disapprove of their blood allies becoming more powerful, at least not publically, and the Cardassians and the Breen being too weak to be able to do more than launch a formal protest, the Romulans did.

    In May of 2380, with the assassination of Commander Dodondra and the subsequent failure of the USS Titan's mission to stabilize the region, the Romulan Star Empire rapidly launched a series of synchronized attacks against several of the Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. A formal declaration of war was not sent until several weeks later, citing the Federation's disregard for the Algernon treaty and their massive military buildup as their main cause for war.

    Perhaps a more realistic and critical examination of the reasons for the Romulan War would show that the Empire had been shattered and in great turmoil ever since the Reman Incident. As in so many of our own comparable historical cases a war against an external and historical foe may very well have been the only way to once again unite the disputing factions and restore order to the ever increasing chaos enveloping most of the Empire.

    This view is compounded by the Romulan battle groups seemingly avoiding all direct contact with larger Federation forces, or for that matter any larger battle fleet action, while instead focusing on less defended targets such as stations near the Neutral Zone and sending raiding parties into Federation space to destroy valuable but less strategically important resources.

    Another reason which this author holds in higher regard is that the Romulans are very well aware that the current force which is actually available to Starfleet is far higher than the Star Empire can handle. Much of this force is however stationed in other parts of Federation space, weeks or even months away from the Romulan front, and the threat has not yet been seen as dire enough to warrant moving them. If the Romulans were to move sizeable fleet assets into Federation space the Admiralty would very likely respond by moving said fleets into action.

    I pray they do, as it stands right now we’re fighting a low-intensity battle of attrition Starfleet can ill afford. Without more resources we are unable to push back and the Romulans are continually taking down valuable assets which cannot readily be replaced such as forward starbases, listening posts and communications relays, destroying infrastructure without which we will be ill pressed to mount a successful counter if, when, they actually do make their push into the Federation.
     
    Tweeky, Obfuscated, Delkatar and 5 others like this.
  2. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Prologue


    ADMIRAL’S LOG, STARDATE 57503.0.
    VICE ADMIRAL SAMUEL WEST, COMMANDING OFFICER TASK FORCE 43, FIFTH FLEET.
    COPY TO STARFLEET COMMAND, SAN FRANCISCO AND FIFTH FLEET HQ, DEEP SPACE 7.



    This has been a very, very long week for me and my personnel. The constant attacks and increasing casualties we’ve been forced to endure the last few days have been both mentally and physically straining.

    Today the task force came upon the wreckage of a ship we presume was once the USS Okinawa. There was little left to suggest it had once been a ship, much less a proud Starfleet vessel representing the Federations latest attempt at a new peace accord, except for what we could get out of the computer’s metallurgical analysis. She never even made it into Romulan space to deliver her request for a tentative ceasefire but was ambushed and torpedoed light years from the border.

    This war made little sense when it started, and it makes even less now. Two months and thousands of lives later the border hasn’t shifted a single meter and no peace offer has been even discussed. No demands have even been issued. The Romulans seem intent on slowly but surely killing each and every one of us, and no one seems to know why. Even then they do little more than peck away at us one or two ships at a time, and avoiding any forces that may give them an equal fight as well as they can.

    I don't know which is hardest to bear, the fact that they use these ruthless guerilla tactics or that they seem to lack any kind of discernable overall strategy to do more than ever so slowly bleed us dry. As my science officer so calmly put it, ‘the actions of the Romulans are illogical’. In fact, even a war of attrition such as this is mainly pointless as the losses in terms of ships we do incur are easily replaced. It's the losses in personnel that aren't, but even there the losses are too slow to do more than damage our morale. I cannot understand how they hope to win a war against the Federation fighting this way.

    Even so they seem content to use their normal stealth hit and run tactics rather than face us in open battle. We lost the Hera to a surprise attack such as that while she was investigating the Okinawa wreckage for survivors and computer logs. Two Warbirds decloaked just a few clicks off her bow and with surprise on their side she was simply overwhelmed by the Romulan ships' combined firepower. They shot their torpedoes and disruptors at point blank range and simply tore her shields to shreds.

    They paid dearly for their deeds as the Venture and Independence were quick to engage and destroy them before they could reengage their cloaks and escape but even so only a quarter of the Hera’s crew survived and the ship itself had to be evacuated and scuttled due to a warp core containment failure. Damn waste of a fine ship and a fine crew.

    We performed the burial ceremony for Captain Ic'ovaq in the forward observation deck of the Albion, and sent her off with the highest military honors. I would like the Admiralty to convey mine and my captains’ sincerest condolences to her brood, mates and spawn back on Cariss.

    We have completed our evacuation of the Starfleet personnel and colonists from the damaged colony of Nelvana III. Most of the evacuated personnel have been assigned quarters on the Challenger and the Venture. Thank the gods the Galaxy class was constructed with evacuations in mind. We counted a total of just over twelve thousand refugees, only a mere twenty percent of the original population of the complex but even so a surprisingly high number considering.

    The colony had suffered massive and extensive damage from being hit with disruptor weapons as well as concussion bombs and dismembered bodies were still lying in the street when our ground forces transported down. There was no time to bury the dead as long range scanners picked up Romulan scout ships closing in on the colony soon after our arrival.

    At 2200 hours yesterday we did however manage to find and recall the science vessels Darwin and Icarus. They reached and joined the task force at 0100 and 0150 hours today respectively. This brings the total amount of ships in the task force back to thirty-two, replacing the losses of the Hera and previously the Forager.

    While I’m well aware that two Nova-class science vessels can’t replace the military force of a single Nebula-class, much less a Galaxy-class starship, at this point it is my opinion that anything is far better than nothing as long as it can shoot. I just hope their captains have done their jobs and both kept their tactical officers trained and their targeting systems calibrated.

    I’ve attached them to the carrier wing as escorts for the time being, allowing them time to drill their crews back into combat shape, and I’ve also transferred several veteran crewmen and officers from the combat vessels onto their ships to help with the transition from recon to combat.

    To conclude my log, the Excelsior suffered another malfunction at 1800 hours yesterday. I’m glad the old lady’s still hanging with us, even with the extensive damage she received during our last engagement, but it seems her age is finally beginning to show.

    Her port forward torpedo launcher misfired during a live fire test of the newly repaired systems, causing a hull breach which stretched several decks as a guidance issue caused the photon torpedo to explode while still in the tube.

    Luckily the torpedo was set at a minimum yield and emergency force fields were deployed immediately but three crewmembers still lost their lives in the explosion with another thirteen injured and still in the medical bay. I’ve decided to keep her away from the fighting until she passes a full diagnostic at Starbase 10.

    The task force is still on course for Starbase 10 to repair and rearm. We’re traveling in force formation at a speed of warp 6. Estimated time of arrival is in two hours.

    Computer, end log and transmit.
     
  3. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    BOOK ONE: ARRIVAL


    Chapter 1


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    TASK FORCE 43 FLAGSHIP



    Some things in life can be mistaken for others. Sounds are typically a good example as they can also trigger memories that one associates with them, like childhood memories or the face of a loved one. The piercing noise of a warming klaxon cannot be mistaken for anything else and the memories it associates to are not typically happy, especially when it goes off early in the morning after a long night of work. It did however immediately rouse him from his deep slumber.

    “Yellow alert, yellow alert, all hands, report to action stations. Admiral West, please report to the bridge as soon as possible”, the PA announced with an almost deafening volume.

    Roused but still just barely conscious enough to tap the communicator he was still wearing and acknowledge the request, he immediately rose and began to straighten out his uniform. A good night’s sleep was a rare commodity few in the higher ranks of the Starfleet were blessed with these days, especially when in command of a Federation military task force operating inside the enemy battle line.

    With a hazy move he rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock, finally realizing that he'd only just fallen asleep less than an hour ago. He barely even remembered getting to his quarters, much less falling asleep. He'd pretty much landed in the bed and fallen asleep as his body hit the sheet and he hadn't even been able to stay awake long enough to change out of his duty uniform before doing so.

    Not that it really mattered, especially at a time such as this. He had always judged his current job to be leading his forces as effectively as possible in combat, not to look and act pristine at all times. That was perhaps unfortunately what had given him this task force and the rank of vice admiral in the first place, and even though he had his reservations about the posting and the job itself he still thought a sound tactical mind was more important than being perfectly shaved or wearing spotless uniforms like most of the brass back at Starfleet Command usually seemed to prioritize.

    Not that he had much choice in the matter right now. Once you were placed in command of a battle group it was close to impossible to be reassigned until the war was over, that is unless you got yourself shipped off in a body bag or were forcefully removed due to negligence or dereliction of duty. The admiral had no plans to end his career with either of those three.

    Either way, he knew the ship's captain wouldn’t mind. For all the eccentricities of the admiral, he knew the captain would always forgive him his flaws and listen to what he had to say regardless of how he looked when he did. Brothers have a tendency to do so, and that was also a major part of why he had decided to place his flag on the Albion in the first place instead of requesting his own command ship.

    In peacetime it was almost unheard of and Starfleet would probably have serious recommendations against that choice but this was wartime and in war certain things were overlooked if it didn't cause a severe issue. The personal ship preference of a flag officer was one of these things as long as it didn’t become a problem. Since both brothers were decorated career officers who had always put their duty first and also as this was just a small task force and not the entire Fifth Fleet Command in question it had gone through without comment.

    Exiting his quarters in as orderly fashion as he could he was immediately saluted by two both visibly armed and armored marines who fell in behind him. He had been constantly shadowed by a pair of marines ever since the start of this his latest assignment. The two marines filed in a step behind him and followed in silence as he quickly made his way to the turbolift while still trying to get the still dense wool out of his mind.

    He would have preferred not to bother with the escort as he didn’t foresee any attempts on his life while onboard the flagship, no more so than while he'd been in command of the San Francisco fleet yards where he'd never had an escort at all, but unlike ship preference the personal security of a commanding admiral was not one of the things Starfleet overlooked and certainly not in wartime.

    The bridge of a Sovereign-class starship is quite large and very spacious compared to most other ships and at just after seven in the morning it would usually be bustling with personnel due to the shift change which usually took place at that time. Being at yellow alert didn’t actually increase or decrease the amount of people present compared to any other day but at least they didn’t move around as much as normal and the air was almost blissfully silent.

    As the admiral exited the turbolift and walked onto the crowded bridge he immediately gestured for the rising and turning officers and enlisted crew to keep their seats and stations. He immediately noticed that all the bridge stations were manned, even the auxiliary consoles in the back, which was highly unusual.

    Normally the auxiliary tactical and engineering consoles would be unmanned and the science consoles typically only used when performing surveys, this was not the case now and the admiral hazily remembered the yellow alert condition being issued. The crew also seemed tense but even so they didn't show any of the normal apprehension or grim determination he'd expect if they knew the ship was preparing to go into combat.

    He went towards the Captain’s chair in the center, and the somewhat too calm appearance of his younger brother who was intensely studying a pad, seemingly unaware of his presence. “Captain, I hope you had a good reason to interrupt my beauty sleep”, he said with just a hint of humor in his voice as he approached. "Especially as you know full well just how short it was."

    “Ah, admiral, you’ve arrived. Good.” Captain Henry West actually looked a little unsettled as he rose from his chair, but if you didn't know him as well as his brother did you probably never would’ve noticed. “We’re within long-range sensor range of Starbase 10. The sensor returns we're getting are, well, somewhat distressing. I’ve ordered the fleet to speed up and we’re currently traveling at warp 8 while we await your assessment of the situation as well as your orders.”

    “Somewhat distressing?" the Admiral repeated. "You’re even more cryptic than usual, Henry.”

    “Yes. I know”, the captain turned and looked at his brother and continued in a low voice. “Not here. Come.” He motioned towards the ready room.

    The two brothers, so much alike for any outside observer, looked practically identical in their command duty uniforms. Both were just over one point eight meters long with much the same trained military build and both had a fair complexion, in no small part due to their being in space most of their adult lives. There was however a slight difference in haircut, as well as slightly more gray in the temples of the admiral.

    They weren't twins and their faces were hardly identical if both were present to compare with the other but Henry and Samuel West were very clearly brothers only a few years apart and no one could mistake them for anything else. The difference in uniform and rank insignia was however the only thing unfamiliar crew or captains could typically use to easily distinguish one from the other and luckily for most the two brothers had never held the same rank and only rarely been assigned to the same starship.

    They moved into the captain’s ready room, one of the few places on the ship where the armored marines actually gave the admiral some privacy by taking up positions on either side of the entrance. Samuel quickly landed in the sofa, his brother taking a seat close by, after the admiral had gone over to the replicator and ordered his ‘rough awakening drink’, a mixture of strong Klingon coffee, dark-roast Arabian coffee from Earth, corn syrup and a good deal of single malt scotch.

    Most would call it a vile witch’s brew and by most definitions he was bound to agree, but the strong mix of caffeine, sugar and alcohol did work wonders with his alertness and that was really all that mattered, and after all, the taste was still tolerable enough not to make him nauseous.

    “So, now that we’re alone, tell me what you found out, Henry. It must be quite bad because I doubt you'd be this secretive otherwise.”

    “I actually don’t know, and that’s what scares me, Sam”, finally letting go of his controlled emotions, the captain looked quite worried and a slight bit apprehensive. “The sensor returns were somewhat garbled, possibly due to Romulan jamming, but from what we can read they would seem to indicate an ongoing attack on 10.”

    The admiral had straightened up immediately as that news hit him, so far the starbase had been spared any hostile attention. “For how long? How many?”

    “Unknown. As I said the returns were garbled. Again, it could be because of jamming, but I can’t be sure. It could just be a faked sensor return, we know the Romulans have done that before to lure in ships and then slam the trap shut. This task force is quite a bit to chew, but we all know the Romulans and we're definitely not numerous enough not to be overwhelmed if they wanted us dead.”

    “True”, the admiral took a sip of his coffee, and met his brother’s gaze. “But what if it’s not a trap?”

    "Well, another possibility is that they're faking the returns to make us go there rather than somewhere else", Henry pointed out. “If it truly is an attack in progress I’d estimate somewhere around a dozen Warbirds with escorts, which would be the usual force they've deployed in most of their raids. We haven’t been able to raise Starbase 10 on subspace either which is why I’d tend to believe it actually is an attack. All in all, that’s not good news considering the state of the garrison.”

    "And faking the returns would be pointless since we're already en route." Samuel sighed. “Damn it. Damn those Romulans. Starbase 10 has a garrison of eight ships, I know, but all of them are older vessels that by all rights should be decommissioned by now and the starbase itself isn't in much better shape either...”

    “Admiral… I know. As you no doubt remember the captain of the Crazy Horse is my brother-in-law… and the Crazy Horse was one of the ships the Guard assigned to garrison 10…”

    “Don’t remind me, Henry”, West snapped. “He’s a good friend of mine too, you know. We served together on the Galaxy.”

    “I remember", the captain made a faint smile. "You were the one who introduced me to his sister.”

    “Well then. What’s our roster? Which ships can we enter battle with?”

    “Well, that’s the good part. Independence and Discovery both report ready for battle, as do Franklin and Berlin", the captain read off a small pad in his hand. "I’d keep the Excelsior in reserve due to her recent malfunctions but the Albion is, as always, ready and at your service.”

    “Ok, that gives us three Sovereigns and two Excelsiors. What about the other wings?”

    “Both cruiser wings are ready for battle; the Lexington still has some battle damage but nothing she can’t handle or that would negatively impact her combat performance. A single phaser array is still malfunctioning according to the latest report, but a Nebula has plenty of others available to use instead. Oh, and I reassigned the Gallant to the second frigate wing.”

    “Hmm?” the admiral raised an eyebrow, he was fine with his brother’s decision but was interested in hearing why he’d place an Intrepid-class destroyer together with his frigate wing.

    “With the loss of the Crossbow while they were assigned to Task Force 58 their wing wasn’t complete anyway, and Maraat’s been bothering me ever since we left Earth about the wing needing some heavier cover. Plus, the Intrepid-class ships are just about the only capital ships we have that can keep up with the Sabers and Defiants in sub-light”, Henry shrugged. “T'Pan is a more experienced destroyer commander than Keyes is, so I merited my decision on that.”

    “That's fine with me. Trust me; I know how hard it is to say no to an Orion captain, especially a female such", the admiral said and thought about it for a moment. "T'Pan originally rose from a Steamrunner command didn't he?"

    "Correct, while Keyes as you well know is an experienced light cruiser commander", Henry nodded.

    "Sounds good, and let’s keep the two Novas in reserve as well. I haven’t served with their commanding officers before and I’m not too comfortable risking two likely inexperienced crews when I don’t necessarily have to. Same goes for the Gabriel, Michael and Excelsior.”

    “You want to keep both carriers in reserve? Don’t you think we’d lose quite a lot of firepower?”

    “Yes, but knowing Romulan tactics they’ll likely have cloaked ships on the perimeter that will try to ambush them if we bring them in and we’d lose valuable ships from the deployable strike force in trying to defend them", the admiral explained. "I think we’re better off keeping them in reserve as we'll most likely outnumber the raiding force using only capital ships anyway. Also, not launching the fighters will reduce the risk of friendly fire incidents. This is going to be a melee from the start and I’d rather not risk lives if I don’t have to.”

    "That is of course if this isn't all a Romulan trap, in which case we could well end up severely outnumbered ourselves", the captain replied fatalistically.

    "In which case we'll be screwed either way", Admiral West replied with a scowl. "We’ll still be able to bring in the reserves guns blazing with a moment’s notice. I've seen them do combat launches, Henry. It doesn't take long for the fighter bays to be emptied."

    “Roger that", the younger West nodded. "I'll relay that to the captains of the Akiras as well then?” the admiral nodded in response. “No fighter launches until specifically ordered otherwise. Now, since you've decided we're to believe it's an attack, let’s get to work and draw up a battle plan.”

    “That sounds good. Tell the task force to increase to warp 9 while we work. If the Romulans are truly there we'll want to get there as soon as possible. Let’s just hope there’s still someone around to appreciate the cavalry dropping in when we do.”


    SECTOR 23
    FEDERATION SPACE



    Lieutenant Commander Davis was quite sure this was the worst day he’d ever had in his probably soon to end life. Not even a full hour ago he’d been in the mess hall of the Starbase eating his morning chow, having a pleasant conversation about the latest sporting results with his friends while laying one on the dashing young Ensign Mendez in engineering as she'd entered.

    Now he was quite literally stuck all alone in the middle of nowhere with a Peregrine-II strike fighter strapped to his back, most of his friends already dead, while dodging flak and trying to pick off the disruptors on the closest Warbird before they could cause even more damage to the station.

    Still, even though he consciously hated every second he was out here risking his life, he very much lived for it. The risk, the adrenaline, the constant stream of endorphins, it was like liquid excitement pumping through his veins. It takes a certain kind of person to be a fighter pilot, and Jack was most definitely one of those people.

    He did realize that the good guys were losing though. He was too smart not to, no matter what the comms told him. While he didn’t allow the thought to in any way influence his combat performance it was still quite evident to anyone with eyes and ears.

    Out of the eight ships which had been assigned to protect the Starbase one of the smaller ones had already been destroyed in a spectacular explosion that must have been a warp core breach and two more, both of the heavier Excelsior class, been visibly heavily damaged and probably disabled since the amount of fire they'd put out had suddenly slowed down to the point of stopping entirely.

    He had seen one; he thought it was the Roosevelt, loose both her warp nacelles in a barrage of flaring explosions while the other whose name he didn't know had received a gash across the saucer pylon so deep that it had nearly separated the saucer from the engineering hull when her shields had failed.

    There were probably survivors in there still as both ships were still launching escape pods and with any luck the poor souls inside would be granted the time to escape the combat zone before the Romulans had finished with the rapidly decreasing defenses and started to target the pods and wreckages.

    Romulans weren’t known to take a lot of prisoners but then again they weren’t exactly known for being too nice to the ones they did take either. Out of the two options even Davis would've preferred the quick and painless death a disruptor offered as compared to weeks of torture and probably death by starvation.

    He performed a turn so sharp that the inertial dampeners were just barely able to cope, a turn which took him over and almost scratching the paintjob of the nearest Warbird while all the time firing his phasers wildly at one of the protruding disruptor mounts. Had it not exploded in a bright flash as he rapidly closed the distance he would've probably impacted it, instead his fighter came out of the explosion with still partially molten debris clinging to the fuselage of the Peregrine.

    He didn’t care much about the debris, his shields were already down and the emitters weren't in any shape to be reinitialized anyway, but he did swallow twice when he noticed some of it had etched itself into the canopy and he realized he was lucky as hell it hadn't burned through as that would've opened the cockpit to space in a hurry.

    The defenders were badly outnumbered and severely outgunned. The ships that had been stationed as a defense force for the Starbase had been older designs even to begin with, though most of them had been refitted as much as possible when they were taken out of mothballs none of them were even close to comparable with a modern design starship. Now, with only two Excelsiors, two Centaurs and a single Ambassador remaining operational, the situation was quickly becoming desperate.

    The aged and by all rights obsolete ships weren't much to throw against the ten Warbirds with escorts that remained on the attacking side, and that was if that was really how many they were. Jack had only seen ten so far but that didn’t mean they didn’t have more hanging back cloaked and in reserve.

    The Federation ships had still fought valiantly so far, evident in no small part in the disabled Warbird that hung silently behind the Starbase, only visible through the numerous breaches in the stations hull, but he just wasn't sure it'd make any real difference to the final outcome of the battle.

    The Starbase itself was of an older design, constructed back in the time before the Algernon treaty, and it hadn't really been upgraded since long before the Dominion War. It had been hit badly and put out of commission right from the start.

    The now disabled Warbird had decloaked at point blank range and fired several volleys of disruptor fire at the station before the Starfleet forces had time to react. The main hangar doors had been severely damaged and were effectively welded together by the heat of the disruptor blasts, no doubt in an attempt to stop fighters from being deployed.

    Davis and his squadron had been lucky as they’d been stationed in a secondary dock which was so far undamaged and their fighters had exacted their revenge by disabling the engines of the Warbird before being called away to assist the escorting starships. The Romulans had then scored a direct hit on one of the station's massive antimatter fuel pods, taking out at least half the torpedo launchers along with vaporizing a sizeable chunk of the station that stretched several decks.

    It’d been a pyrrhic victory as the explosion had disabled the Warbird as well, but as it was Starbase 10 was now little more than a sitting duck with almost no means left to defend itself. Most of the weapons systems had been disabled and power reduced to emergency batteries and a few remaining secondary reactors.

    Jack frowned as he dodged a foot-thick green particle beam that came within inches of his left nacelle. This was already a bad day for him. All he wanted to do now was to share it with these pointy-eared bastards.


    USS ALBION
    APPROACHING SECTOR 23



    “Admiral, the fleet reports battle condition set and formations assumed. We're on final approach to Starbase 10 and we'll arrive within one minute.”

    Captain West had reassumed his neutral poker face but his emotions were still there, hiding somewhere beneath that steel face. He had never particularly liked going into battle, a fact which many thought ironic seeing as how he’d been awarded several medals, including the Medal of Honor, for his achievements during the Dominion War. Still, knowing how to do a job well rarely required liking it and that was the case for most of the respectable Starfleet officers.

    “Very well, then. Take us out of warp as close to the station as you can, if at all possible get us in between the starbase and the Romulan advance.” The admiral looked at the main viewscreen as they closed in on their target. “Ensign, give me fleet-wide please."

    As the communications link was established he continued.

    "This is Admiral West. We’ll be dropping out of warp momentarily and as we do so we will immediately engage the Romulan forces that are attacking Starbase 10 and its defense force. Stay in your assigned formations and watch out for friendlies, orders will be channeled through your division commanders.”

    “We have confirmations coming in sir. Venture, Challenger, Sherman, and Gallant report their divisions have linked up successfully. We’re in command of both the battle group and the main battlecruiser division.”

    "Very well", the admiral nodded, and as the numbers on the console in front of him quickly approached zero he spoke up again. “Admiral West to division commanders, weapons are free, engage the enemy by division. Good luck and God speed." He turned to his brother. "Captain, she’s all yours.”


    SECTOR 23


    It was a beautiful sight, but man couldn’t they have decided to exit warp somewhere, anywhere, else?

    Davis had almost gotten himself killed twice already but getting shot down by a Warbird was something he was at least consciously prepared for. Flying headlong into the side of an Akira wasn’t and probably never would be. He'd had to execute several emergency turns to avoid first a blue-glowing nacelle, then a nacelle pylon, and then finally when he thought he was out of danger he came within inches of becoming the proverbial bug on the windscreen of a Nebula-class line cruiser.

    What had earlier been empty space was now filled with what must have been a full Starfleet heavy cruiser attack wing and definitely not somewhere you'd want to fly a small and damaged fighter on emergency boost. Finally at least semi-safe, he allowed himself some breathing room by taking cover closely behind one of the new arrivals, an Akira that fired her heavy pulse weapons in rapid succession as she slowly approached the now disorganized Romulan battle line.

    The Peregrine would typically have no problems keeping a cruiser between him and harm’s way even if the cruiser in question was pulling extreme maneuvers and this one was only moving slowly and hardly evading at all which gave Davis some well deserved time to recover from his adrenaline high.

    He definitely thought he’d earned the short break with the cavalry arriving, as unlike most of his squadron he was at least still alive, even though he was almost completely out of energy for his phasers and had already forgotten that the small craft had ever been equipped with micro-photon missiles as they'd run out that long ago. It felt like he'd been fighting for a week and even though it was closer to an hour it was still a long fight by any measure as there'd been no chance or even any option to land to repair and rearm, much less get reinforcements.

    He took a good look at the ship that he was taking cover behind. All in all the Akira wasn't really a beautiful ship. It was sleek, had some curves, but it had never been designed to be good looking but rather to pack one hell of a punch in a low frame. And that it did. The ship’s name was clearly visible, lit up by the running lights the text spelled out Avenger. Davis thought this to be a very apt name for the ship which was now exacting a bloody retaliation on the Romulans who had killed most of his squadron.

    As the Warbirds and their lighter escorts finally started to respond to the new presence and made an attempt to encircle the cruiser position she was momentarily cut off from her formation and almost surrounded. This didn’t prove to be that much of an issue for the Avenger, nor to the other cruisers in her wing.

    The Akira-class heavy cruisers were famous not only for their unique ability among the cruiser class ships to carry a two full starfighter wings, but also for having a superfluous number of quantum torpedo launchers mounted in pretty much every direction one could be pointed.

    It also has quite a lot more of them than a ship their size should, even more than the much larger Sovereign battlecruiser was equipped with, which gives these cruisers effective firing solutions across their entire circumference. Most if not all of these were all of a sudden firing a near constant stream of brightly glowing torpedoes at the hostile battleships and frigate-sized escorts.

    There was also the fact that the Avenger even when cut off wasn’t alone. The other cruisers had quickly regrouped and in turn created a ring surrounding the Romulans, trapping the Warbirds in a very deadly and equally effective zero-point energy warhead crossfire.

    What had earlier been an almost entirely one-sided battle had now turned into an all-out slugging match between a dozen or so Warbirds and their escorts, many of their smaller brethren being little more than scrap after the Starfleet reinforcements had arrived and begun firing their much heavier weapons, and what looked like closer to thirty Starfleet ships. Not the older, refitted but still obsolete models that had gotten their behinds served on silver platters, but rather the newer top of the line ships.

    He smiled to himself as he saw three of the sleek-looking Sovereign-class battlecruisers come about over the main battle plane and plow down straight through the Romulan center in a tight wedge formation, phasers and torpedoes firing rapidly in every direction there was a target to be found.

    Seeing even one of these massive and highly advanced ships in battle was a rarity for a mere garrison pilot, seeing three of them at the same time and in a full battle formation was like a dream come true for the tired officer.


    USS ALBION


    "Sir", the communications officer kept her cool even as the ship was rocked by even more shield impacts. "The Temperance reports that her shields have been taken down to 22 percent. Her captain is requesting permission to fall back and recycle her emitters before she begins to suffer hull damage."

    "Approve that request, ensign, and inform Captain Claudier of the Sherman."

    The admiral was keeping fairly calm as well, even though the battle was still raging on outside he was confident they'd win with what he'd been forced to call acceptable losses. His gut had been correct and they had the numerical superiority as well as the ever so important measure of surprise, factors he'd been gambling on when they'd planned their counterattack.

    The Romulan D'deridex-class warship was still an impressive warship, capable of going head to head with just about any lone Starfleet cruiser except possibly an Akira, but even so they were not only outnumbered almost three to one in this engagement but the admiral had more than just standard line cruisers engaged in the battle as well.

    Outside, the fleet's three Defiant-class gunships flew by in front of the Albion, their pulse phaser cannons firing rapidly and in unison and all three of them concentrating their fire on the dorsal shield emitters of one of the Warbirds. It didn't take many seconds until the shields started to buckle and the high-powered nadion particle pulses hit the hull, creating wide breaches and soon struck clean through into the decks below.

    Samuel looked away as he saw the last few pulses exit through the doomed ship's flank while leaving the tell-tale glowing edges of a phaser weapon impact. He quickly wondered how many had died on that ship alone and then brushed the thought aside. He had enough to worry about in his own camp without wasting time thinking about enemy casualties.

    Only two of the Warbirds remained operational by now and he quickly wondered why they didn't just withdraw, why they didn't seem to see the futility of continuing their attack against a full Federation task force with only two damaged ships, but it was something he had gotten used to during the last few engagements they'd had with them.

    It was highly disconcerting, Romulans were normally much more intelligent than this but now they acted more along the lines of Klingons, dying as a way to gain honor rather than acknowledging defeat. Not that it really mattered in the tactical sense, they stayed and kept fighting and thus they simply had to be destroyed.

    Strategically however it became an increasingly severe problem as this also increased the Starfleet losses. The Federation did not look at the lives lost quite as callously as the Star Empire did.

    He was brought back to reality by the sound of his brother's voice. "Lock on to the Warbird attacking the Centaur and fire a spread of quantum torpedoes."

    The tactical officer didn't even bother to respond, but rather just executed the order. Three glowing balls of blue fire shot out of the front of the ship and carved a gleaming streak clean through the busy space. The Romulans kept firing on the nearby Centaur and took no evasive action; it was almost as if they didn't even see the bright blue heralds of death as they were rapidly approaching. They impacted close to each other on the starboard wing, neatly shearing it off from the rest of the fuselage and leaving the Warbird tumbling uncontrollably in space as it quickly lost engine power.

    "All torpedoes scored direct hits. She's incapacitated, captain. Reading hull breaches across several decks and what looks like catastrophic life support failure."

    "May whatever gods they worship have mercy on their souls", the captain almost looked sad. "What's the status of the remaining Warbirds?"

    "Only one still remains, Venture, Bellerophon and Lexington are already engaging it."

    The lieutenant in charge of the ship’s weapons systems clearly didn't think a single and heavily damaged D'deridex would be much of an issue for three modern and fully operational Starfleet ships and there was definitely some truth to that opinion.

    A Galaxy-class battlecruiser should be able to handle even a fully operational Warbird alone, though probably not entirely unscathed, and being backed up by both a Nebula and an Intrepid the outcome was effectively guaranteed before the engagement even began. A bright flash on the main viewscreen prompted another dry comment.

    "Correction, sir, no hostile ships remain operational."

    The admiral rose from his seat close to the comms console. "Good work, good work all of you. Now let's see what we've arrived to. Try to get a signal through to the survivors on Starbase 10 and get me a report on the status on the defense force and survivors."

    He was relieved that they hadn’t suffered any direct damage in the short time the battle had raged, but he still knew this was going to be yet another long day.


    USS ALBION
    TWO HOURS LATER



    Captain West looked out through the small porthole in his ready room. His brother had already beamed over to the starbase and that had effectively left him, as being the captain of the task force's flagship, in charge of the spaceborne search and rescue operations. Starbase 10 had been the task force's home base for the last two weeks, ever since they'd been transferred to the front, but looking at the scarred structure now it was hard to imagine it had even been operational just a few hours ago.

    The station had been a standard Type-IV Starbase, the kind that was deployed all along the Romulan Neutral Zone back in the bad old days. When fully manned it was capable of supporting an entire fleet of starships but it had been effectively mothballed ever since the previous conflict with the Romulans almost a century earlier.

    Only recently with the new conflict already raging had it been reactivated and still had not even been half-manned, a comment that was more than just somewhat misleading considering 'half manned' in the case of a Federation starbase meant 'only' close to a eighty thousand people or so.

    The entire task force’s combined ships' crew barely reached above twenty five thousand, but then again they didn't have the amounts of support personnel that any Starbase required nor families or civilians. Even a fairly small Federation starbase was by any other civilization's measure a massive structure and a forward operations base type such as the Type-IV wasn't even close to be considered small. Its docking section alone was just short of a kilometer in diameter and about half a kilometer high.

    From this far away the station almost looked undamaged to the untrained eye, but of course Henry knew better. He and his crew had been forced to maneuver the Albion close enough to the station to cut the hangar doors open using precision fire from his ventral phaser arrays. The station was in fact more than just severely damaged, the damage was so extreme in some parts of the starbase that the station barely even held together and he was quite astounded that as many people as did had survived not to mention that most of the structure still had a breathable atmosphere.

    The top docking section was marked with pitch-black carbon scoring in numerous locations where the armor had stood up to the repeated disruptor blasts. In other areas deep holes and craters could be found, some extending several hundred meters into the structure, and in rare occasions straight through to the other side which was actually quite an achievement considering the distances and sheer amounts of armor and structure that was involved in such a feat.

    Still, perhaps the most disturbing part of it all was the three hundred meter in diameter crater in the lower structure, caused by the large antimatter fuel pod's catastrophic failure, a single hole which was wide enough to fly his starship through. The only consolation was that the antimatter pods were stored as far away from populated areas as possible, and that the fail-safe mechanisms of the other three pods had successfully kicked in and prevented a massive chain-reaction detonation. If not, Henry doubted if there'd be any survivors at all.

    The fleet quartermasters were already assessing the damage, and calculating the estimated repair times and cost estimates, but he already knew the station was in all relevant aspects a lost cause. There was simply no chance this station could be feasibly repaired with a war going on and even in peacetime it was just as likely it'd simply be replaced by a more modern station or just be retired completely. There was no real gain to be had in repairing a more than a century old and technologically completely obsolete space station.

    He silently let the quartermasters bicker on about material requirements and focused on the more realistic problem of evacuating more than fifty thousand survivors and whatever spare parts and ordnance that could be salvaged from the wreckage before they scuttled the remains. If nothing else they could definitely use a refill of their torpedo stores.


    USS ALBION, CONFERENCE ROOM
    SECTOR 23, FOUR HOURS LATER



    Admiral’s log, Stardate 57502.4.
    Copy to Commander of Starfleet Operations and Fifth Fleet Headquarters.

    We finally have the full results of the battle. The butcher's bill is staggering to say the least, yet one has to remember that it could have been so much worse had we arrived only minutes later. As usual it's hard to get a clear picture of the Romulan losses as there's usually not a whole lot left when a Starfleet vessel has a core breach but even less in the case of a Romulan ship. A quantum singularity implosion doesn't leave much behind to be identified.

    We have confirmed that nine D'deridex were destroyed by the task force and two were disabled, another two were taken down by the station defense force before our arrival. Another twenty or so escorts have also been confirmed destroyed with another half dozen disabled. The assumption we have to make is that they went down with all hands as we never detected any life pods but while there's no evidence to suggest otherwise it doesn't mean it's necessarily true. For all we know, their pods may be cloaked.

    The crippled Excelsiors, the Roosevelt and the Potomac, had to be evacuated as they had sustained damage far too severe to be repaired in the field or for them to realistically survive us towing them to a repair facility. Their hulls were simply too damaged. The Roosevelt lost both her warp nacelles and had several deep breaches along the port-side engineering hull, while the Potomac’s bridge pylon finally gave in separating the saucer from the rest of the ship. Their supplies and crew, as well as a number of vital components, have been removed and the ships are being scuttled by being towed into the local star.

    Of the total 1300 crew, just over 600 were rescued along with Captain Bryn of the Roosevelt. Captain M'zari of the Potomac died along with most of her command staff as the bridge was hit directly by a disruptor blast. However, by using components cannibalized from the two ships, Captain Sato reports the Excelsior is once again in full working order. Most of what and who could be saved from the two ships have been redistributed along the task force's own three Excelsiors as these will be able to utilize them directly.

    The Centaur suffered major damage during the engagement; our engineers believe it unlikely she will ever be able to fly again. The damage to her nacelles, warp reactor and shield systems is extensive. Still, most of the crew survived and have been evacuated to the Venture along with what could be salvaged of the ship's supplies.

    Unfortunately we have been unable to find any survivors at all from the Crazy Horse. According to the sensor logs she went down with all hands due to a warp containment breach caused by several torpedoes impacting the engineering deck, at least one being a direct hit to the reactor room. Captain West will have to bear the grim news to his wife and her family while the officers and crew of the Crazy Horse will be mourned by us all.

    The remaining ships in the defense force have all been damaged, some extensively, but are still warp capable or at least towable. They have already been given orders to withdraw to the nearest secure Starbase for repairs using a route plotted to avoid any unsecured areas. Judging by the force the Romulans used in this attack they wouldn't stand a chance against another attack if one came and I'm not comfortable sacrificing four ships and crews for an old and severely crippled Starbase.

    While on the subject... We had to cut the Starbase's hangar doors open with our phasers to gain access. Vice Admiral Thornwall had been mortally wounded early in the engagement. I was able to see her in sickbay shortly after the engagement ended but she never regained consciousness and passed away shortly thereafter. The doctors tell me that her wounds were too severe and that she had lost far too much blood before she got there for there to have been any chance of saving her life.

    Captain Blake, the fleet liaison, was unfortunately killed in the antimatter pod explosion. Most of the command and control staff however did somehow manage to survive, as did almost three quarters of the personnel on the station. I have made a battlefield command decision to abandon and scuttle what's left of Starbase 10 due to the excessive damage suffered and the state of the systems that still remain partially operational.

    All available space on the ships in the task force has been converted to storage and living quarters, and we have already begun evacuating the survivors. This is naturally going to impact our combat ability as several of our ships won't be able to launch fighters or shuttles as in some cases the hangars are being filled with evacuees, spare parts or munitions. Luckily we haven't had to use any of the critical areas yet, though I keep that option open if necessary. I won't cram people into torpedo tubes, but I won't leave people behind either.

    As soon as we're finished here we'll take an indirect path back to fifth fleet headquarters at Deep Space 7, mainly in an attempt to avoid further engagements if we can. We'll be carrying a precious cargo we can't take any extraordinary risks with. By the time we leave, we'll be carrying over 25,000 crew, 5,000 marines and a grand total of over 70,000 total evacuated personnel and civilians.

    Computer, end log.


    USS ATLANTIS
    FEDERATION AKIRA-CLASS HEAVY CRUISER
    EN-ROUTE TO DEEP SPACE 7, FEDERATION SPACE
    JULY 4TH, 2380, 6:00 HOURS



    Bridge log, Commander Seth Williams. Stardate 57506.1.

    There's much to be said about this posting but everything else aside there's never a dull moment when you're posted to the front line. Lately, that has even been true for the graveyard shift. An Akira-class heavy cruiser is a fine piece of warship, but it was never designed to handle evacuees and certainly not the large amounts we have on board presently. With the number we've been asked to carry I'm actually quite surprised we haven't been forced to jettison some of the Peregrines just to get some free space to house them in the hangar bay. Of course, the Admiral specifically ordered us not to without his express permission.

    Doing so would free up enough space to house another three, four hundred or so evacuees albeit not very comfortably, but it would of course drastically reduce our combat capacity and force us to resupply a lot more and a bit earlier than planned. As it is I'm fairly confident we could move most of the people out of the hangar in case of emergency and actually be able to launch the fighters, though I wouldn't recommend doing so for any extended period of time. Our life support systems are having enough problems keeping up as it is without us cramming the corridors and Jeffrey's tubes full of semi-panicked men, women and children.

    This is the first officer of the USS Atlantis. We are currently traveling towards Deep Space 7 at warp 8 and are holding a standard diamond formation with the Venture as lead.

    End log.

    Seth quelled a yawn as he looked around the dimly-lit bridge for a second while the log console retracted back into the armrest of the captain's chair. Being stuck on the night shift usually meant spending a few hours of fairly boring time on the bridge making sure the ship didn't drift out of formation and that their warp field didn't graze any other ships'. If that happened the consequences could very well be disastrous, especially in the tight formation they were traveling in, but the computerized navigation system rarely if ever had trouble keeping its distance without being constantly monitored. Still, better safe and bored than sorry and dead.

    "Commander, could you take a look at this please?" the young second lieutenant in charge of the sensor console was a quite good looking dark haired Betazoid. Commander Williams rose from his seat and went over to the science station.

    "Report, Lieutenant."

    "Commander, I can't make heads or tails of this sensor report. Engine output and warp field dynamics still indicate we're supposedly moving at a speed of warp 8, but according to the rest of the sensors we haven't moved at all for at least the last ten minutes. Astrometric sensors seem to be indicating the same phenomena as well, as our position relative to the closest stars has remained exactly the same."

    "That can't be right." The commander made a quick mental calculation. "At warp 8 we should be moving at just over a thousand times the speed of light, a light week in the last ten minutes alone."

    "I know, sir, but that's not what the sensors are saying."

    "Lieutenant, if we were standing still and pushing the engines this hard we'd be ripped to pieces by the warp field strain alone. It's physically impossible. Not to mention that according to these same sensors which say we're standing still the rest of the task force are pushing just as many cochranes through their warp fields as we are."

    "I know, sir, but the alternative would be that all measurable stars and stellar objects were moving at the same speed too, and all of them in the exact same direction."

    "Yes, I know, and that's also impossible." He stood up straight and pressed his comm badge, "bridge to engineering."

    "Engineering here, go ahead, Commander."

    "What's up with the sensors?"


    USS DARWIN
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    TEN MINUTES LATER



    Though no human who saw him would call it that, T'Var had actually hurried as he'd made his way from his quarters to the astrometrics lab. He had been roused just a few minutes earlier by the watch officer who politely conveyed a request from the admiral that he should report there at his earliest convenience. Of course, convenience didn't really matter to T'Var and he suspected the word had not actually been used by the admiral either.

    It was more likely an addition made by the watch officer who probably thought it would hurt the Vulcan's feelings less about being roused as early as he had, or that it'd make the ship's first officer less irritated. It was illogical, but hardly unexpected from a human.

    "T'Var to Albion, astrometrics reporting as ordered."

    "Admiral West here", the admiral stated over the link. He sounded tired but considering the early hour T'Var wasn't really surprised about that either. "Who am I speaking with?"

    "Admiral, this is Commander T'Var, I am the first and science officer on the Darwin."

    "Well met, commander. I hope you’re able to tell us what's happening?"

    "Unfortunately, I would have to disappoint you by saying no", T'Var stated and made a short pause as he triple-checked his screens. "What I can tell you is that we seem to be, for lack of a better word, stuck in a bubble of subspace. How this happened or for that matter what results this may have in the end, is as of yet unknown to me."

    "Can you extrapolate on that 'stuck in a bubble' part?" the admiral's voice requested.

    "I will try, Admiral", T'Var nodded and thought for a second. "For an unknown reason the thirty-two ships of Task Force 43 have been separated from what we would call our own quantum space-time. This is the reason our sensors are not able to track our location or movement in either space or time, they instead report what I'd most closely describe as an echo, imprinted on the surface of the bubble at our moment of transit. It does however seem that all the ships in the task force are enveloped in the same anomaly and not several different ones, no doubt due to our close proximity to each other at the moment of entry."

    A small line formed on T'Var’s forehead, giving him a concerned or perhaps worried look. It was, as always, hard to assign emotions to the minute facial expressions of a Vulcan, but this one was clear enough to be apparent to most other humanoids.

    "As you know, subspace does not conform to the normal laws of space time. Truthfully, Admiral, I have no idea if, where, or for that sake when we will be able to exit this bubble, or even where we are presently."

    "So we're lost in space?"

    "And time, Admiral."

    "Great", T'Var could hear the frown that presently dressed the admiral's face, "Albion out."

    T'Var went back to study the sensor output again. He hadn't misread them but for some reason which he couldn't explain he had hoped that he had. He was Vulcan and as such considered himself an embodiment of logic and reason but as their current situation was anything but logical he felt himself get frustrated as he was unable to do his duty.

    Hopelessness, as well as helplessness, can both be considered emotions and while he wasn't used to either he was quite sure that he felt both right now as he could not understand nor explain the situation, or for that sake do anything about it.

    Of course, neither could anyone else, and among everyone that knew what was happening the feeling was quite mutual.


    USS ALBION
    CONFERENCE ROOM
    11:00 HOURS



    Admiral West looked upon the people that were seated around the fairly large conference table. Each and every one of them looked just as tired and worried as he did, yet he saw something that they all tried to hide as well as they could.

    It was most definitely fear but it wasn't the calculated and controllable fear that one could expect from someone who at least knows what he was up against. It was a colder, more sinister fear, the kind that creeps up along your back as you’re pulled into a situation you have absolutely no control over or even a reasonable understanding of.

    Personally he thought their current situation was much like being trapped in a sinking ship. You'd either drown or someone could come and rescue you, but you wouldn’t know which until you were either dead or rescued and there would be nothing you could do to affect the outcome. Ironically even he could see the morbidity of him comparing the situation his task force was in with the axiom of Schrodinger's cat.

    The admiral tried to keep calm however and however hard it was he tried to do his best to convey that feeling to his subordinates. He thought he was at least somewhat successful.

    “Well people, we’ve been in here for hours now", he suppressed a yawn. "What new information do we have?”

    “Admiral, I’m sorry to say that there isn’t really that much more news at all to report.” The gray-haired Commander Suvok, science officer of the Albion, was the first to speak. “We’ve managed to receive some signals from outside our bubble in space, but we’ve encountered problems when we try to analyze them.” West noticed Suvok didn’t look afraid like the other people. Damn Vulcans. After a short pause he continued. “There are other issues as well. It seems my colleague on the Darwin was incorrect about one thing.”

    “About what, Commander?” the Admiral asked, now the Vulcan really had the undivided attention of everyone in the room.

    “We’re not just unstuck in time and space, but according to what little information the sensors are able to glean from the outside and we can actually make sense of, we’re also passing through a number of alternate realities. At least one of these signals had a Terran Alliance pattern, one which we know belongs in a parallel universe, while others have signatures that are completely unknown to us.”

    If there was ever a comment less appreciated, no one present knew of it.

    “Well then.” West tried desperately to regain control of his dumbstruck expression. “Does anyone have any ideas? Anything at all would be appreciated at this point, no matter how insane it sounds in your head.”

    There was absolute silence in the room. The admiral thought he could probably hear a needle fall, everyone was that silent. They didn’t even move. Then he heard the almost embarrassed voice of a young engineer West thought was named Andrews. “Admiral, if I may, there might be a way but I suspect you’d probably call it drastic, and quite possibly dangerous almost to the point of suicidal.”

    “I’m all ears, Ensign. Please continue.”


    ONE HOUR LATER


    First there was simply the sensation of falling, and then there was real falling. As the ship suddenly and completely stopped moving the admiral almost thought he’d broken every single bone in his body. He had been totally unprepared for the fall just having exited the ready room and had thus not only fallen to the ground but tumbled down the entire length of the bridge before finally being halted by his body impacting the forward bulkhead. Not exactly the most distinguished bridge entrance he’d made in his career, yet quite possibly the most painful.

    He'd known that there'd be quite a bit of a shock as the entire task force shut down their warp engines abruptly, not through the usual procedure of a quick but still gradual shutdown but in this case by simply closing the antimatter injectors and letting the engines for lack of a better description stall out.

    There was a reason the maneuver had required disabling numerous engine and reactor safety protocols, and this was it. Even the best inertial dampeners in the known galaxy couldn't really fully cope with that kind of deceleration shock and a real worry had been that they wouldn't cope at all but leave the crews as little more than human paste on the forward walls of every room they occupied.

    “REPORT!” he said a bit too sharply, though the pain evident in his voice softened it a bit.

    “Sir, the maneuver seems to have worked and we’ve successfully managed to re-enter normal space again, engineering reports that the ship's in good condition with the only negative effect being minor stress damage to the outer pressure hull", the operations officer reported as he read the reports coming in from the rest of the ship. "Sickbay likewise reports only minor injuries, mostly bruises, abrasions, cuts and a few broken bones. No serious injuries and no fatalities.”

    “What about the rest of the fleet?” West continued. If the Albion had experienced this much of a disturbance as they exited the bubble the admiral was truly concerned about the smaller ships in the fleet.

    “Reports are still coming in, sir", the communications officer replied, and then frowned. "That's strange. All ships of the task force should have dropped out within seconds of each other, and probably still be in formation."

    "And?" the admiral asked.

    "Well, as it is we're scattered over an area of almost two entire light weeks, and judging by the timestamps on some of the reports I'm receiving the first ship dropped out fifteen minutes ago and others are still nowhere to be found."

    "What was that T'Var was saying?" West made a deep sigh, "space and time?"

    "Well, so far no ships report any kind of major damage. Atlantis suffered an overload of an EPS conduit but her repair crews are already working on it. Gabriel reports three crewmen seriously injured, apparently they were pinned between a bulkhead and a Peregrine that tore loose from the securing bolts, and the Columbia has lost main power but is in otherwise good condition.” He made a short pause. “Sir, Lexington reports the only fatality so far. One of their engineering crew lost his footing and fell down an access shaft.”

    “He fell?” Somehow, the admiral thought it was just a ridiculous way to die on a starship.

    “Yes sir. He fell. Straight down the entire length of the port nacelle pylon”, came the reply and then a pause. "That's a drop of roughly fifty meters, sir, and he likely died instantly as he impacted the warp plasma containment field."

    The Admiral almost winced and made a pained face. Suddenly it wasn’t as ridiculous anymore. The lower, or upper depending on the hull configuration, section of an active nacelle pylon could easily reach temperatures of well over a thousand degrees centigrade and the magnetic containment fields were by necessity so highly charged they'd tear out the iron from your blood straight through your skin if you were unfortunate enough to get too close. Falling straight into this hellhole would be instantly fatal and leave little if anything behind to identify.

    “Acknowledge the reports and make a note in the log", West said and made a low moan from the pain in his side. "Now, can anyone tell me where we are?”

    “Samuel” Captain West stood over by the science console alongside Commander Suvok. “You’d better take a look at this.”

    Steadying himself on the rails and limping over to his brother, the admiral looked down at the console. It took a few moments before he could make sense of the information on it. “Okay.” He whistled silently as the realization dawned. “Well, Toto, I have a strong feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

    “Not even close, Sam.”

    “Well, tell me if we find the Tin Woodman or the Scarecrow around here somewhere, would you?” he said, and with that final comment the admiral collapsed into unconsciousness. The ship's doctor would later tell him it was due to the combined effects of stress, injury and sleep deprivation.


    USS ALBION
    CAPTAIN’S QUARTERS
    TWO HOURS LATER



    Captains log, Stardate 57507.0.

    Or, well, that's the date it should be and it’s what the ship’s computer says it is. It is however, according to what I've been told, not quite true anymore though. It seems commanders Suvok and T’Var were right about one thing at least; we most certainly were floating through space, time and alternate realities.

    We’re not even close to Deep Space 7 or for that sake the Romulan Neutral Zone. In this reality we came out of the warp bubble close to Vulcan, or what at least should be the planet Vulcan. The system’s still here, more or less in the right place, as is the planet.

    What's not there though is any evidence to support that the planet ever developed sentient life, something the Vulcans on the crew seem to handle with far too much ease for my nerves. The entire system seems void of any trace of intelligent life. There is plant life, as well as a limited fauna on both Vulcan and one of her moons, but that’s about it.

    No artificial objects, not even debris, have been detected anywhere in the system, and I've had both destroyer wings do extensive sensor sweeps to make sure. We also haven't been able to detect the slightest trace of subspace communications, something which is ominous to say the least considering our close proximity to numerous other Federation home worlds including our own.

    According to the astrometric sensors, preliminary stellar drift calculations and background radiation levels, the more correct date would be somewhere in the summer of 2243 – not 2380. As my brother is still recuperating in sickbay I’ve taken the liberty to send the two Nova-class science vessels to make a survey of the local cluster in this reality, each with a Defiant gunship acting as close escort just in case.

    Suvok and his scientific colleagues in the fleet have already made it perfectly clear that we’re stuck here with no apparent way home, at least for the time being, and that extensive research will need to be made into the phenomena that brought us here before we can even make any guesses as to whether it'll ever be possible to return. That being said, we need to know what we’re dealing with and what we can do as just idling in orbit around an uninhabited planet isn't really a viable long-term solution.

    Standard procedure would dictate that we land the ships, establish a small colony somewhere and follow the prime directive living out our lives without attracting any outside attention. This is probably good and well dealing with just the crew of a single starship getting lost in time but it will prove hard to do with a fleet of ships and roughly a hundred thousand people. There's simply no way we can support a population of that size without retaining our technological level and that'll require both supplies and a comparatively significant industrial base.

    With this system as empty as it is, I’ve dispatched the Intrepids to make surveys of the local stellar bodies. If this system is anything like the Vulcan we know there should be plenty of resources we could use if we do decide to settle down. At the very least we’ll start needing to replenish our deuterium and antimatter supplies fairly soon.

    The cruisers and explorer ships in the fleet were designed to operate without refueling for extended periods of time but this is unfortunately not quite as true for the smaller vessels. The larger also lack the capacity to produce enough to spare, especially with the increased load carrying five times the recommended maximum amount of people puts on their systems.

    Finally, as the skies above Vulcan seem abandoned enough for now, we’re awaiting the return of the Darwin and Icarus, and for the admiral to return to duty, before we make any more decisions about our future ‘here in the rabbit hole’, as my dear brother would say.

    Computer, end log.
     
  4. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 2


    USS DARWIN
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    CLOSE TO THE ALPHA CENTAURI STAR SYSTEM
    JULY 16TH, 2243



    He was a scientist, at least that's what he kept telling himself, not a soldier or an explorer. He wasn't interested in blowing other ships up or in dashing aimlessly through unknown space trying to go where no one had gone before. That was also the main reason he'd been placed in command of a Nova-class research vessel and not a Steamrunner or Intrepid.

    He'd been nervous enough when he'd been assigned to do a long-range reconnaissance run of the Neutral Zone but now, flying through potentially hostile space in a completely unknown universe, he had an almost constant nervous look as he walked among the crew. This was of course not exactly the best thing imaginable for the general crew morale. Still, as the scientists they were, both he and his crew tried to keep busy trying to get a clearer view of their surroundings.

    They'd been trapped here in this alternate universe for eleven days now and it was finally albeit slowly beginning to sink into their minds that this was real, that they weren't just on a long term mission but rather completely and quite possibly permanently cut off from home. They were Starfleet officers and tried to act accordingly but he had seen several crewmen start to break down as the realization of their situation dawned on them. Husbands, wives, parents, children, family and friends, they were all gone and possibly gone forever.

    "Captain, we're approaching the Alpha Centauri system. Sensors are ready to commence a full-spectrum scan", the helm officer stated. He was a young man, not much more than a boy in Captain Deschamps eyes, and he seemed to be still young enough to see their new circumstances as an adventure rather than a tragedy like most of the others did.

    "Very well, bring us out of warp and take cover behind the largest rock you can find. Tell the Valiant to cloak and cover us."

    He made a mental note to bring that to Starfleet’s attention when, or rather if, they ever got back. The Nova-class ships, just like the other frigates, hadn't even been considered when they refitted the ships of the line with cloaks. He knew it was mostly because they lacked the required power generation and computational power to maintain the phasing effect, but the Defiant-class ships had at least gotten to keep their carbon copied Romulan cloaking devices.

    "Roger, Captain T'Pell acknowledges as well."

    "Rig for silent running just in case someone out there has their eyes or ears peered and then switch us over to reserve power. Disengage the warp drive as soon as we exit warp and let our inertia carry us in while only parrying with the thrusters."

    "Aye, sir, taking position just inside the system's Kuiper belt; running on maneuvering thrusters only. All stations report silent running aye."

    "Very well, let's begin by making a passive scan of the system. Let's see what we can find."

    They'd been sent on the more important, in his mind at least, of the two surveys namely to examine the systems leading up to and including the Sol system. They'd already passed through three of the systems located between Vulcan and Earth, and these were Andoria, Sirius and Babel.

    In their reality, each of the three systems was heavily populated by several different sentient species but in this darker version they looked much like Vulcan. While still Mishara-class planets, except for Andor which was its usual ice-covered class P, they were all completely void of intelligent life or any traces thereof. If anything could make Deschamps wonder about fate or destiny, this would be it.

    In his reality Earth had developed faster-than-light travel and officially taken to the stars in late 2063, with first contact between Vulcan and Earth coming only days later as a Vulcan survey vessel had noticed the Phoenix' first test flight.

    Vulcan had likewise been the first planet they'd visited and by association they'd learned about many other races among them the Andorians. Sirius had been a very early Earth colony as had Babel, mostly due to their relatively close distance from Earth. How different could the humans of this universe be, if they hadn't even reached these nearby and clearly still inhabitable systems yet?

    Or were they going to find the same thing on Earth as they had on Vulcan and Andor, as in a green and lush planet but with no trace of even the most ancient Human civilization? He hoped not. While the Vulcans had taken the shock of not existing as a species surprisingly well, the Andorians at least had been warned of what to expect.

    As one of the Andorian crewmen had said; “If the Vulcans were gone and Andoria remained, we'd have most likely arrived in orbit of an Andorian colony, not an unsettled world." He had still seen the pain in the same crewman's face as they came upon his cold but now barren and completely lifeless home world. Not even the snow drakes or ice worms seemed to ever have existed.

    If the same was true for Earth… he dared not think the thought to its end. There was a lot of different races in the fleet, Vulcans, Andorians, Bolians, Tellarites, Klingons, Bajorans, Trill and Betazoid only to name a few, but at least three quarters and likely even more were Human. What kept them going right now was the so typical Human hope, faith and sheer stubbornness, which was also and surprisingly something many of the other races seemed to take a great deal of comfort in.

    A few minutes passed in the relative silence of the bridge. "Have we found anything yet, Ensign?"

    “I'm reading something, but I'm not sure what. Passive scans can't give me a high enough resolution at this range. I'm detecting low levels of tachyon radiation, but no subspace activity and no warp signatures."

    "Tachyons?" Deschamps wondered. "What's your opinion, T'Var?"

    "Well, Captain, I lack sufficient data to make even a preliminary conclusion. I would recommend we do an active scan to gather more data as there seems to be no evidence of subspace technology in the system. There is however a risk of detection I cannot discount simply because I can't see what's out there."

    "Great, either we see and risk being seen, or we don't see at all...” He silently weighed his options. “Make it so."

    "Engaging auxiliary power, active sensors are coming back online. Stand by." There was a slight increase in the ambient noise as the soft humming of the ship's secondary fusion reactors came back online. "I’m initializing an active high-resolution scan of the system now, sir."

    It felt like every single person on the bridge was holding their breath in expectation. So far this had proven to be a mirror image of their home universe, even if it had been a lifeless and empty one thus far. If the human race did exist in this universe, and if they had indeed developed faster-than-light travel like they should have, there should following all logic be some form of evidence of that here.

    Alpha Centauri was by far the closest star system as seen from Earth, it was practically in Earth's back yard, and the consequences of it being equally lifeless to the other colonies and home worlds they'd passed on the way would be staggering to Deschamps. He could almost feel the rest of the bridge crew going through the very same thoughts and emotions.

    He took a long, good look at the system as it was ever so slowly re-rendered on the main viewscreen, this time using the data from the ship's impressive array of sensors. The Alpha Centauri system was and had always been a required field of study at the Starfleet Academy of Science and he'd been fascinated by it even in the early years of his life.

    The ternary star system was just as beautiful in this universe as at home. He could clearly see the central stars of Rigil Kent and Toliman, the main yellow star and the secondary orange, as always locked in their dancing orbit around each other.

    In the distance above them he thought he could see the slightly distant red dwarf star called Proxima, also locked in the gravity well of the binary system and considered part of the same star system even though it was a full fifth of a light year away. All three stars had natural satellites and he remembered five of these could natively support life in his universe. Another three of them had also been terraformed to class M though this had been done long before his lifetime.

    "Captain..." The wild face of the ensign at sensors got the attention of both T'Var and Deschamps. "You are so not going to believe this."


    USS VALIANT
    FEDERATION DEFIANT-CLASS GUNSHIP
    PROXIMA III POLAR ORBIT
    1 HOUR LATER



    Deschamps and T'Var had beamed over to the Valiant and Deschamps now stood on her bridge flanking the blue-skinned appearance of Captain T'Pell, the fleet's only Andorian captain. The two Starfleet captains just stood there in relative silence looking at the visage before them while they awaited confirmation from the Vulcan science officer.

    "Captains, we've finished the preliminary analysis", T'Var stated as he turned around from the sensor screen and almost ironically looked as calm as ever. "I can confirm that the ships are indeed of human origin. There are more than two hundred life signs on board each of the ships in this sector of the system and all of them register as genetically pure humans to the sensors. The surface colony consists of a series of domed complexes and it also seems to be well enough established as I'm reading well over a million inhabitants and a significant planet-based industrial base. Again, all of them register as human. The only exception is a single life form on one of the orbital stations whose life signs the computer is unable to identify."

    "If I didn't see it, I wouldn't believe it. They're absolutely huge! You could fit the Albion and the Discovery inside one of them end to end and still have room to spare, and I've even done battle in less space than that!" T’Pell still looked shocked. "I'm quite impressed with your race's capability, pink-skin."

    "I know, I know", Deschamps sneered. "Calm down, Captain, we do have work to do."

    "Aye", the Andorian nodded. "Make a full-spectrum scan and relay all our data to the Darwin as we get it!"

    In truth, Deschamps wasn't all that calm either, but he definitely hid it better than his Andorian colleague did. As he had heard the first preliminary sensor report he'd felt as if a huge weight had immediately been lifted from his shoulders... but in all truth whatever he'd expected, he surely hadn't expected this.

    The ships, well, they had engines so they had to be ships, were simply huge. Stem to stern the scanners gave them a length dimension of just over fifteen hundred meters and an estimated displacement of a massive 32 million metric tons! These behemoths dwarfed even the almost seven hundred meter length of a Sovereign-class battlecruiser, the arguably most advanced and powerful conventional warship of the entire Federation Starfleet, and weighed in at more than ten times one of these’s mass.

    Ever since he had first laid eyes on one he hadn't doubted for a second the ships were human in origin, the ten meter high Latin letters spelling out 'Lancelot' on the closest one's side was a good indication. He could accept a whole lot, especially under the current circumstances, but that another, any other, race would both spell in human lettering and know the legend of Camelot was just a completely ridiculous proposition. What did however worry him, more than anything else, was the directly excessive amount of weapons systems these ships carried.

    They had counted two dozen twin-muzzle plasma cannons and another six large-bore beam weapon mounts on each of the larger vessels, plus a number of smaller energy weapons that seemed designed for point defense or short-ranged precision fire. Even though the weapons were plasma and laser based, with a calculated low yield by Federation standards, they were quite obviously dedicated warship and more than likely capable of causing trouble even for a Starfleet vessel in large enough numbers.

    T’Pell had already told them in no uncertain terms that one of these ships would be easy prey, even for the tiny Valiant, but had also with some respect stated that several of these working together could become a serious problem. One by one the cannons were probably not capable doing more than perhaps denting the shields, much less so damage the armor of a Federation warship... but dozens? Even hundreds?

    Neither captain had any illusions that whatever ship they piloted into combat against these ships would eventually succumb under the massive amount of brute force they could put out. They did also know that their own far more advanced weaponry would take a staggering number of them out in return. No ship without effective shields could hope to stand up to concentrated phaser fire, much less so to a spread of torpedoes.

    There were two dozen of these behemoths in orbit around the planet and about twice that number of smaller vessels, measuring in at 'only' just over a kilometer. The smallest ships he could see, barring shuttles or single-pilot fighters, were around four hundred and fifty meters long, in other words just slightly shorter than an Akira-class heavy cruiser. To make matters worse on the Starfleet captains the hulls on most of these vessels were also patched in various places, in a pattern that could only be explained as the ships at one time or another having sustained what must have been heavy battle damage, most likely from equivalent forms of weaponry as the ones these ships were carrying.

    Deschamps had been proven correct; Proxima was indeed an established human colony even in this mirror universe. It was a strange choice however; the more hospitable planet of Proxima II had been left untouched even though the planet was far closer to Terran conditions than Proxima III was. Something that surprised him was that there was still no evidence to be found that these ships were actually independently capable of faster-than-light travel. Not that it was that unusual for Federation planets to build impulse ships for intra-system patrols or transports, but those ships wouldn't be literally armed to the teeth or quite this massive.

    This was actually improbable in this case as well; the ships could never have been constructed planet-side and then launched into space. They were simply too big. Ships of this size and even more importantly shape always required an orbital shipyard and while there were ample amounts of artificial satellites, most armed and considerably larger than most dedicated communications satellites, there was no such facilities to be seen anywhere in the system nor any evidence such had ever existed here either. In fact the only evidence in orbit of any kind of starship support facilities was what they assumed to be a mothball yard and a larger orbital command and control station.

    It would seem that this universe's humans had developed quite differently than the ones from his universe, even discounting the time difference. At this time, relatively speaking of course, the Federation had just started to build the first batch of the Constitution-class ships. It would be another two years or so until the first ones left the shipyards at Utopia Planitia but even so these alternate universe human ships lacked many of the technologies the Federation had taken for granted long before even that.

    The massive ship in front of him was about fifteen to twenty years old, judging by the information on the materials the sensors had been able to give, yet lacked such basic space-faring technology as artificial gravity, subspace communications arrays, hydrogen ram scoops or point-to-point matter transporters. They lacked shielding and deflectors as well and were instead relying on an energy dampening grid not entirely unlike the pre-Federation polarized hull plating his own people had come up with. In other words, they were lacking technology the Federation had developed or encountered more than a hundred years ago, again relatively speaking. The ships also appeared to be powered solely by four truly massive but again fairly primitive fusion reactors, with no trace of an antimatter reaction’s particle decay signature.

    "We still aren't able to decipher their communications, sirs", the middle-aged officer that had spoken was unfamiliar to Deschamps but was dressed in the color of an operations officer. "We've deduced that they do indeed use the tachyon beams we keep detecting as their basis for faster-than-light communications, at least the signal patterns conform to those you'd use in a communications band, but our receivers were never calibrated to handle tachyon-based signals and we lack a lot of the equipment necessary to make sense of particle-based information carriers."

    "We're recording what we can and hopefully our science department can sort it out later, Captain", T'Var added. "The Valiant won't be able to do more as she was never designed for analyzing this kind of raw data."

    "Very well", Deschamps nodded and turned back to the viewscreen. "So this is how humanity has evolved in this universe. Well, now that we've answered one question, how about we try answering some more?"

    "Like what?" T’Pell asked.

    "Like how these ships, or for that sake the people on the planet, actually got here”, Deschamps said with a frown. “I haven't seen even the minutest trace of warp plasma here, much less any sign of a warp reactor. Why does a small colony like this have more defenses in peace time than our Earth does in wartime? Why do these warships lack warp drives, any kind of identifiable nacelle assembly, deflectors or high-energy reactors? Should I go on?"

    "Never mind then”, the Andorian sighed. “You pink-skin scientists and your questions. Helm, set a course back to the Darwin. Stay at half impulse until we completely clear the gravity well and then engage warp 3." This, he hoped, would allow them to completely avoid any unwanted attention. The copied Romulan cloaking device wasn't perfect nor was it as hard to detect as the Federation-developed phase cloak the larger vessels carried.

    The short journey back out past the Kuiper belt took only a few minutes and soon T'Var and Deschamps were once again back on board their own ship. The science officer hurried off as soon as they were beamed back, no doubt to try and analyze this other human civilization's tachyon communications which the rest of the science ship's expert crew were already sifting, both trying to understand the technology behind and in order to decode them.

    Deschamps went to the bridge himself, bracing himself against the hail of questions he was quite sure he’d receive. Instead, as he entered the small bridge there was only silence, and only the helm officer said anything at all.

    "Where to now, Captain Deschamps?"

    "Where else? Earth", Deschamps replied as he walked over to and sat down in his chair, his expert poker face revealing nothing at all to the obvious irritation of the bridge crew.

    “Sir…if we may ask...” the young man asked after a few more seconds, almost looking uncomfortable in the protracted silence. “What did you find?”

    “In truth, just more questions", he replied and then looked at the young officer with a faint smile. "But to answer your real question, yes, we did find humans.”

    And with that single comment, the silence was broken.


    USS ICARUS
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    EMPTY SPACE, BAJOR SECTOR



    The main reason why she had come over to the Icarus in the first place was because her own ship lacked the large and very specific holographic display unit which was right in front of her. A full-sized Starfleet astrometrics array was an impressive piece of technology. It was capable of mapping more than half the galaxy as well as analyzing thousands of teraquads of data at the same time.

    Only a few ships were deemed worthy to receive this fairly new and originally Borg-designed system, mostly as it had been brought back from the Delta Quadrant by the Voyager only a few years ago and was still mostly regarded as experimental and unproven technology.

    She hadn't previously seen one in use though, this was mostly because she had never been very interested in navigation or stellar cartography but rather focused on other just as traditional but less peaceful parts of ship operations... such as blowing other people's ships up. In that regard she was a perfect captain for a fast attack gunship like the Victory.

    Right now, she was however in a state of mind she didn't quite like. Fear and irritation mixed in her face as she realized what Commander Jameson, captain of the Icarus, was trying to tell her.

    "Well, where the hell are we then?" she asked.

    "I don't understand this either, ma'am. Every other star, planet and piece of space debris has been in more or less the right place thus far, but well... there's just nothing here."

    "You're really sure we're in the right place?"

    "I'm sorry, Captain, but yes. Triangulating from the positions of the Cardassia and Regulon stars, the plasmatic nebula you call the Badlands and the stellar nursery of the Amleth nebula, all points we've clearly identified as being right where they should, we're holding position right where the Bajoran star is supposed to be. By all rights even if we were off by as much as a dozen light years, which I seriously doubt with this piece of technology right here, we’d easily be able to see it from here with our own eyes not to mention the astrometrics scanners."

    "What about the Celestial Temple and the Prophets?"

    "We passed right by where it is in our universe, Captain. We were actually close enough to trigger it, had it been where it was supposed to be."

    As the captain backed away from the large console, Commander Jameson could understand her feelings. Not only had she been born on Bajor, she'd fought in the liberation war and then been stationed on Deep Space 9 for ten years of her career. She'd recently and by all means unfortunately for all involved been outmaneuvered in that position by another Bajoran officer, a despicable toad with admiral's insignia called Natal Garran who'd had zero command skill but golden connections in the Bajoran government.

    The results from his political backstabbing would have most probably destroyed her career if not for her own friends within the Starfleet brass intervening. There'd been no way to get her back into command of Deep Space 9, but at least she'd been given command of a newly refit Defiant-class gunship by her friend and war comrade William Ross, and he along with Chancellor Martok and Ambassador Worf had even managed to put her on the fast track to promotion, seeing as how she'd be readily able to challenge Natal as an Admiral herself.

    Even discounting all that, she was also a deeply spiritual woman and everyone around her knew that. Jameson didn't know what had hit her worse, that Bajor as a whole didn't even exist in this reality, that the Prophets were nowhere to be found, or the fact that Cardassia did still exist while Bajor didn't.

    Not that Cardassia even remotely looked like Cardassia in this reality. It was one of the few planets they had actually found intelligent life on, but it seemed nature had thought quite differently in this universe than it had in theirs. Instead of the reptilian-humanoid Cardassians, another race had evolved that called themselves the Yolu.

    It had taken some time to decrypt their communications and language, but once that was done they had managed to get some background information on not only the Yolu themselves but several other races and civilizations in the area of space they were surveying. They'd even learned of the existence of a human civilization as well, news that had considerably helped the morale aboard both ships.

    The area they had been exploring for the last two weeks had skimmed the border of what was called 'the League of Non-Aligned Worlds'. Apparently it was a loose economic and political alliance composed of some thirty member races, spread over a roughly triangular area of the galaxy with Beta Trianguli, Cardassia and Ferenginar lining up on the west border, the Typhon Expanse marking the northeast corner, and the east border glancing the Romulan Neutral Zone as it traversed back towards the southwest, just barely enveloping Mu Herculis and Denobula.

    Denobula seemed to be this League’s closest system to Earth, though they called it Denizala, and was claimed by a race called the Vree. Judging by the differences in appearance of these Yolu compared to their own universe's Cardassians, he could only guess that these Vree would look nothing like the mostly human-like Denobulans either.

    "Are you all right, Captain?"

    "I… All right?" she shook her head in disbelief. "No, I really don't think I am, Commander."

    "If you want, I'll arrange transport back to the Victory. Perhaps your ship's doctor has something to help you relax."

    "Thank you, Commander, but I assure you, I'll be fine."

    She took a look at the holographic monitor again. She had seen this star chart before though not in full-blown 3D. Now those star names she was used to were all toned a darker blue which usually denoted unexplored space, with only a few colored dots where the original star names had appendices with the ones that were used in this universe.

    As the initial shock started to subside she found that it was actually quite fascinating how alike these two universes were, but yet so very different. A star could be a light year out of position but otherwise exactly the same, another could be in exactly the right place otherwise be completely different. Some stars weren't even the right color or size. Still, they were all there or at least showed evidence that they had been at one point or another.

    She noticed Bajor wasn't the only star that was marked in the dull dark red that indicated a missing star system. She tried to force a smile, pointed and asked the question as innocently as she could. "Commander, is it just me, or is there another star missing?"

    "What?" He looked up, apparently startled at the question.

    "Right there, follow a line straight east from Syrma."

    "Oh, I'm sorry, Captain, I was thinking about something else", he replied. "Well, it's not missing per se, not like Bajor is, but it's not a star any longer either."

    "What do you mean?"

    "It was, but unlike that same star in our reality, there was no civilization living there that was advanced enough to stop its natural decay. A few hundred years ago, it collapsed, just like it would have in our reality."

    "Collapsed? You mean...?"

    "Yes. Ironic, isn't it. The home system of the race that learned to tame the power of black holes was turned into a black hole", he paused for a moment. "This universe probably developed much like our own did, but just like actions have consequences; the lack of actions would naturally also have consequences. Most of the differences we see are most likely due to events that occurred differently here than in our own universe."

    "Guess we can officially discount any chance of the Romulans being in this reality then."

    "Already done, Colonel, already done", he replied with a slight smile. "Actually not even by me either. As they were a sub-species of the Vulcans the possibility of them being around was already zero and they were discounted as soon as we arrived in the Vulcan system."

    Misery as always loves company, and suddenly she felt a whole lot better.


    USS BELLEROPHON
    FEDERATION INTREPID-CLASS DESTROYER
    VULCAN SYSTEM



    The Bellerophon had been tasked with the rather arduous job of making a detailed survey of the inner Vulcan system, in other words using the Intrepid class' high-resolution scanners to make a full report on the resource levels of the planets and planetoids between the twin orange stars and Vulcan itself, while her sister ship Gallant made a very similar survey of the gas giants and moons located in the outer system.

    It had taken several days to complete their assignment but that was mostly because the goons that handled Fleet Command during the admiral's recuperation didn’t think they could trust the records they had on file and wanted literally every detail re-examined.

    Even so, Captain Keyes didn't pay too much attention to her science officer as he reported their findings in exactly as much detail as the paper-pushers wanted, which was also much more detail than she cared to even bother try listening to. The young man had only just been transferred to the Bellerophon before the ship, at her request, had been transferred from the Mars defense force to Task Force 43.

    Even though the young Trill male looked good enough and had the grades to match, in her opinion at least he might very well be intelligent enough for the position but had a severe problem in that he thought much too highly of himself plus the fact that he talked too much. Two traits one never liked in a man, much less an over-intelligent Trill who as she'd early learned had a severe ego complex.

    He proclaimed himself one of those unfortunates who, despite not lacking in skill, never got selected to serve on a ship or station suitable to said skills. As if a Nova or a Peragus-class research station would be better than an Intrepid.

    One had to interrupt his usual complaining quickly, or he'd start to go on about how the Trill symbiosis committee had made a grave mistake in turning his applications down and it usually only went downhill from there. Even so she didn't have much choice but to keep him around as while a transfer was hard to push through in wartime, it was even worse now.

    Keyes was a good and long-time friend of both vice admirals West and Janeway, and they had been granted their first commands at roughly the same time, just like many others in the ongoing war as career advancing positions unfortunately opened up quickly and in quick succession.

    Janeway had been assigned the brand new Voyager, West took over the Galaxy after the death of her captain in the Dominion War and Keyes got the Helios, an aging but still proud Centaur class cruiser. When the Helios was decommissioned after the war and Admiral Ross was promoted and reassigned to Starfleet Headquarters, she had transferred with most of her staff to take command of his old flagship; the Intrepid-class destroyer Bellerophon.

    As the previous command ship of the Fifth Fleet and personal flagship of a very high-profile admiral, she had been one of the first Intrepids to be fully 'Voyager-refitted' when her old friend had returned home to the Alpha Quadrant.

    She felt proud to serve on a ship of the same class as her dear friend's legendary ship, though she had initially felt somewhat envious that the Voyager itself had been handed over to Janeway's former first officer after a slight refit and extensive research had been performed on the returning vessels new systems.

    Initially Janeway had only been selected for command of the new ship's shakedown cruise, the final choice still undecided between her and Keyes, but events beyond anyone's control had decided for them.

    Even knowing what had actually happened to the ship during that shakedown cruise didn't change her mind, she honestly believed she'd be just as able to handle what Janeway went through as she'd been. Probably better, as Janeway had always focused more on science than engineering or tactics. Those were West's and her specialties respectively.

    The fact that Keyes was the only one in the original trio not yet promoted to the rank of admiral didn’t really bother her too much either as she was more than happy where she was and, unlike most of her crew, she rather liked this chance to re-explore their own back yard in an entirely new reality.

    She had lived on starships pretty much her whole life with few close friends, since the war she had no family left at home at all, and she didn’t really mind getting away from the fighting either. She’d seen more than her fair share of death already. They all had.

    The report the science officer was just finishing had been fairly standard and could have been easily cut down to the phrase 'the records were mostly correct and we just wasted a lot of time on a fool's errand', and the fascination of scanning a completely unpopulated Vulcan system had been dampened by the fact that it was just that, unpopulated.

    Ironically enough, the Vulcans themselves seemed to enjoy, as much as a Vulcan can enjoy something, studying their home planet as it would have looked had they never evolved. It seemed to give them a perspective on things perhaps few others could, or would, appreciate.

    Still, no matter how stoic you were used to the Vulcans being, them not showing the slightest remorse about their race not even existing here was just plain creepy.

    "To conclude my report, ma'am, the system registers much like it would have in our own reality. The resources are much like the ones we have on record but in higher amounts. This is of course mostly due to the fact that there’s no one around that's been using them."

    "So noted, is there anything else?" She immediately kicked herself for using her standard phrase.

    "Ma'am, if we do decide to follow the instructions of the prime directive, some would say Vulcan would be as good a place as any to set down. Resource wise it's true, after all we all know a warp-capable civilization did in fact develop here and there are indeed ample amounts of most of the resources we'd need", he paused and made a frown. "Personally I'd advice against it and recommend we await the return of the Darwin with their scans of the Babel and Sirius systems, as well as the Icarus' scans of Alpha Centauri, before making our decision."

    "Why?" she asked with renewed interest.

    Darl made an uncomfortable grin and pointed out the window at the red globe that hung silently in space only a few light minutes away. "Have you ever been to Vulcan, Captain, as in outside the cities and temple complexes? The color isn’t just for show you know. It's mostly just dry savannah and hot arid deserts where the dust storms can and will rip the flesh from your bones in an instant." Darl glanced at the security officer at his station. "Our pointy-eared friends may very well enjoy the place, but it's really not all that hospitable to a Trill."

    "Understood" Keyes nodded.

    "Or a human, no offense, Davok", he added as in passing.

    "None taken."

    "I'll bring that up with Admiral West tomorrow, Lieutenant. Dismissed", she gestured for him to leave with her hand.

    Elisha wasn't surprised with the conclusion. Darl may be a self-indulgent and over-intelligent prick, but he was right, Vulcan was hardly considered to be the most hospitable planet in Federation space. Still, depending on what was out there they might not have much of a choice. She made sure she had the survey reports copied to her pad before leaving the bridge herself.


    USS DARWIN
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    SOL SYSTEM, BEYOND PLUTO ORBIT
    JULY 21ST, 2243



    Even at maximum magnification the azure blue planet only took up less than a quarter of the viewscreen at this extreme range. To most of the crew this planet was considered home, but he also knew it really wasn't. However different the people on it may be though, it was still very much Earth. He could see the North and South American continents clearly, with the western tip of Africa hinting on the horizon. Looked like rain over the east coast and clear skies over California. He suddenly felt very, very homesick.

    They stayed at extreme range, only barely close enough for the sensors to maintain an effective high-resolution scan. So far it was all good, but in the short time they'd been there they had already registered more than two thousand military vessels, some scattered around the system but most converged in the areas close to Earth, Mars and Jupiter, as well as a large amount of what looked like defense satellites. As far as they could see none of them had made any response to their silent incursion.

    Yet.

    "So this is Earth. Looks much the same, don't you think?"

    "Yes, sir", one of the bridge crew behind him said with a longing tone in her voice. "Discounting the rest, it's our home."

    "What's the good word, T'Var?"

    The Vulcan looked absent in thought. Deschamps almost laughed, that was the most he had looked like the good old T'Var, the man that Paul had gotten to know over the last few years and was used to, in weeks. "Well, Captain, even in close detail this Sol system is almost exactly identical to the one you are familiar with. There are some differences in the Earth's biosphere, but they are minute and I assume they have more to do with the different path your race appears to have taken in this reality."

    Deschamps couldn't help smiling as he asked him to extrapolate.

    "There is a considerably higher level of carbon dioxide, carbon particles and nitrous oxides in the Earth's atmosphere, as well as much lower reserves of several minerals. It seems much of this is due to an earlier form of energy production, most likely petrochemical and coal-based, and as such I would imagine they relied on fossil fuels for a longer period than your people did. I am also reading several sizeable energy signatures, most seem to conform to the same kind of by our standards primitive nuclear fusion reactors that we encountered in the Proxima sub-system."

    He took a short pause and then continued.

    “There’s also less radioactivity in the atmosphere and soil than in that of your Earth, if I read this correctly I come to the conclusion that they either didn’t suffer your third World War at all or perhaps had a less global or apocalyptic version of it.

    "Are there any other differences worth noting?"

    "Yes, Captain. There are several large space stations in orbit as well as colonies on the Earth's moon and on Mars, which is in what looks like an early stage of terraforming, and a large space station orbiting Jupiter's moon of Io. There's also the same kind of unknown structure near the Io station as we encountered in Proxima which the computer still can't designate. Since we're close enough to get a good look I can tell you it seems to contain several super-heavy and some sub-dimensional elements it doesn't recognize, but its function is still largely unknown."

    "Alright, our mission here is complete and I won't risk going closer in with that much military hardware in our way no matter if we think they can see us or not", Paul stated. "Do a final scan and then let's get back home and report this to the fleet."

    "Aye, Captain", the helm officer responded. He paused, and then added something that got Deschamps thinking. "Captain, I thought you should know. There are a total of more than four thousand vessels in the Sol system as we speak, many of them bulk freighters and military vessels that logically would be badly suited for intra-system only operation. Even so, not a single one of them seem to be warp capable, not even the ones in or close to the orbital shipyards at either Luna or Mars."

    “Considering that conforms to our scans at Proxima, I'm not terribly surprised. They must have another way of faster-than-light travel that they use rather than the ones we're familiar with." He pondered the question for a second. "Let’s get some good scans of the colonies, stations and the planets done. Have we managed to understand their regular transmissions yet?”

    “Yes sir, it really wasn't hard at all as they use pretty much the same radio frequencies as your own civilization did before subspace transmissions became standard practice, but we’re still working on the encrypted communications as well as their tachyon network.”

    “Try to gather as much data as possible on this Earth, especially their historical and political data, and if possible the reason behind them having this spaceborne armada. I want to be able to present a full picture to the Admiral when we get back, and not being able to explain why this Earth has a mobilized military force a quarter the size of the entire Starfleet is kind of embarrassing. We leave in three hours, T'Var, make the best of it.”


    USS ICARUS
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    CLOSE TO DENOBULA AKA DENIZALA



    “Lieutenant, I think we’ve seen enough. Bring us back out of the system and take us back to Vulcan at best speed.” Jameson had taken his seat again after checking that the sensor information had been correctly entered for the computer’s analysis.

    “Aye sir, plotting a course back to the fleet and engaging at warp 9.”

    Commander Jameson's initial guess had been right on the money, the Vree really did look nothing like the Denobulans and both their own appearance and that of their ships made him remember all those old classic two-dimensional alien invasion movies he’d wasted his youth on, like ‘War of the Worlds’ or ‘Mars Attacks’.

    His history buff helm officer had even called them 'Roswell Grays', whatever that meant. The sensor scans of their short visit in the system were still being processed by the science teams and computers but he could already start on his report by simply describing what he'd witnessed with his own eyes.

    They had passed close to the Alkaid system, Nacambari as it was called here, on their way to Denobula. It was populated by a pre-warp civilization of an insectoid race that by all indications had just entered the early industrial age, with a developmental level much like Earth's in the early- to mid-nineteenth century.

    They hadn't been too surprised to see numerous differences from the standard development pattern of such races, as one example they lived with what amounted to be a collective hive mind governing them, a circumstance which had also quite apparently slowed down their scientific advancements drastically as they'd taken centuries to develop technology his own world had developed in less than a decade.

    There had been little that he would call interesting to see on the planet itself even though they had still made some scans. After all science was always science and studying emerging civilizations was always interesting enough for the quick stop required to do so to be worthwhile. They hadn’t found much else of note in the system except yet another of those massive apparatuses in orbit around one of the outer planetoids.

    It did however look like it was in a state of grave disrepair. For the first time they'd found traces of actual colonization, on said planetoid no less, though the new discovery had a definite downside in that the planetoid also wore the unmistakable scars of suffering through heavy orbital bombardment.

    What made people blink twice was that this bombardment seemed to be fairly recent, sensor data put their estimations at no longer than twenty and probably closer to fifteen years earlier. It was hard to determine exactly how long as it looked more like if someone had thrown asteroids or solid metal shells at the planet rather than using weapons more familiar to the Starfleet crew, such as energy weapons or high energy explosives.

    They had already analyzed and rejected the possibility of this being a natural phenomenon as the chances of a single asteroid entering the atmosphere of a planet at close to a ninety degree angle is low enough, and the chances of two dozen doing it in rapid succession, in a perfect cross-shaped pattern and covering a total of less than three square kilometers were... well, pretty much zero.

    After witnessing three of the League races he'd been forced to admit they simply had to have some kind of technology for interstellar travel, but until he found these Vree he had lacked any actual or tangible evidence of exactly what it was or how it worked.

    His search for this proof had been effectively completed in the Denizala system when he had seen one of the large saucer shaped ships open what looked very much like a tear in the very fabric of space-time itself only to enter it and vanish completely from all but the most subtle subspace bands. The closest the computer had been able to get in analyzing this phenomenon was an artificial wormhole, but even that only scored a low-grade partial match of the energy signature.

    He’d been star struck and just kept staring at the swirling red portal as the ship quickly entered it and he'd almost been disappointed when the portal closed just as quickly as it had appeared, leaving only a faint imprint that the sensors could barely detect as evidence that it had ever existed in the first place.

    To make matters worse he was forced to admit to the suddenly very inquisitive Bajoran captain that neither he nor any of his crew had any idea what that vortex was, how it worked, or even how to replicate it.

    His best scientists and sensor analysts had been just as awestruck as he'd been and were still trying to wrap their heads about the basic principles involved in opening such a portal, not to mention getting it stable enough to enter and more importantly exit in a safe and effective manner.

    Well, at least he’d been able to get some solid sensor readings and a detailed recording of exactly what had happened from his and the Victory’s points of view. Whatever good that would do except prove what they already knew in the first place, that this place wasn't home anymore and that the rules had changed.

    What was even more surprising, something which in itself was nigh impossible as it stood, was the fact that the Vree ship’s energy source scored a 98% energy signature match to a third generation or Kirk-era Klingon antimatter reactor. The sensors couldn’t identify any of the other components that were required for the faster-than-light drive except that the ship carried an unknown heavy mineral in its main energy matrix.

    Whatever this portal technology was it was so completely alien to what the Federation and its associated races had ever encountered that the computers didn't even know where to start looking, much less able to give any answers.

    They had however managed to deduce the function of the four parallel metal beam structure, as they’d been able to see them activate from a very close perspective. While performing a deep structural scan on the apparently abandoned derelict it had suddenly activated, the four beams using thrusters to expand the distance between them and through a series of controlled high energy particle emissions created another one of these sinkholes in space. The revelation they'd been given had been one only appreciated quite a while later however, they had been far too busy trying to save their own asses rather than study sensor data at the time.

    The crew had been lucky they had their warp drive hot as well as an alert helmsman or they’d probably have ended up being rammed by one of the most massive ships he’d ever seen. The ship in question looked primitive but had measured in at more than three kilometers in length and it carried at least ten million metric tons of various types of what was assumed to be civilian cargo.

    Quite something to see when you know your entire ship only weighs in at just over a hundred thousand tons in itself. Sure, Federation bulk transports were also by necessity much larger than the relatively small Nova science ship but this ship dwarfed most if not all of those as well.

    Judging by what the sensors told them the ship was carrying, he made the educated guess that the Vree lacked any form of molecular replication as there would otherwise be no reason to transport, or considering the ship looked like it was of human design more likely import, among others sweet water from one planet to another at a probable very high price. Water is just too simple a molecule to not be able to replicate if you could replicate anything at all.

    They had been able to intercept some communications, most of them civilian but also a few low-level diplomatic messages. These had allowed Jameson to add yet another few names to the star map. Most of the former Romulan Empire had now been replaced with something called ‘the Centauri Republic’; their home world located on the first planet of the Theta Centauri system, ironically enough a dead world that had never developed any form of native life in Jameson’s universe.

    Most of Klingon space was now replaced with a shaded area with the annotation ‘Minbari Federation?’ and the area closest to Sol, including several systems like Vega, Proxima Centauri, Orion, Deneb, Draylax and Altair were in a blue-bordered area with the text ‘Earth Alliance’ attached.

    Getting information on the Earth Alliance and the Centauri Republic had been quite simple and Jameson considered those parts of the star map to be mostly correct, discounting any classified military outposts or secret resourcing operations in other systems which weren't publically known.

    He was surprised at how few of the systems in the claimed space that were colonized as he knew from his travels that among many others the Sirius system had several planets that were far more hospitable than Vega II, Draylax Prime or Proxima III was. Apparently the system had been overlooked for colonization, as had both Andor and Vulcan, while the Orion system which is located just past Vulcan seen from Earth had likewise been claimed even though it by Federation standards wouldn't even classify as a garden world. It had a, by human standards, mostly breathable atmosphere but the climate was both highly unstable and the planet prone to geological events.

    It made little sense from his point of view, but he was starting to suspect that this alternative faster-than-light technology had its limitations. It was the only theory that could explain these apparent conundrums. He was a little apprehensive at the fact that the entire fleet were essentially hiding out within what was effectively by most other races considered to be Earth-claimed space, even when there was no evidence that the system had ever even been visited much less claimed or tagged for colonization by the Alliance or anyone else.

    In the end he knew it wasn’t his decision on where they should be or what they should do. All he had to do was to follow orders and do his job, and right now that was something he could take comfort in. He'd leave the rest up to the higher ranked people who had actually accepted that kind of work in the first place.

    "Well then, I think I'll go get some sleep. It's been a while." Jameson rose from the captain's chair. It was late, and it had been a long day. “Lieutenant, you have the bridge. I’ll be in my quarters if anything should come up.”

    “Good night, Commander.”

    Tomorrow would, no doubt, be a long day too.
     
  5. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 3


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT, VULCAN
    JULY 19TH, 2243, 10:00 HOURS


    The admiral still felt a little weak but at least he wasn't as tired as he had been anymore. Not that he'd actually appreciated being stuck in sickbay or the constant attention he'd been getting from the ship’s doctors all that much even then. He knew the overall situation well enough, he had still received continuous reports on the fleets condition, but he would much rather be on the bridge or in his office where he could do his job much more effectively rather than stuck down here relying on other people to relay information for him.

    Unfortunately the irritating young doctor in charge of the med bay had told him straight to his face that since he didn't trust the admiral to take it easy on his own, he couldn't let him go back to duty. When the admiral tried to object he'd just left the room and locked the door behind him. There weren't many people in all of Starfleet that could lock a vice admiral in his room but a mere starship physician could just refer to it being a medical decision and suddenly whatever rank you had just became utterly and effectively meaningless.

    Now, more than two weeks later, the doctor had finally been forced to admit that he couldn't give any realistic reasons to justify keeping the Admiral in sickbay any longer. The constant excuses of 'observation', 'further testing' or 'monitored rest' had already started to get old a week ago and by now they were just rapidly becoming yet more reasons why this energetic young man should be reassigned to waste disposal, perhaps even the less than enjoyable job of cleaning the warp plasma conduits in the nacelles, for a few weeks… or months. He would have to think about that.

    He had at least been given his own alcove separated, with a bulkhead no less, from the rest of the sickbay's patients and personnel and that small but important measure of privacy was something he had actually quite appreciated. If nothing else it somewhat shielded his ears from the noise the other occupants made. He hadn't entirely realized how many wounded they had picked up from Starbase 10 and its garrison but now that he'd been in close proximity to a number of them he'd been shown the blunt reality of the situation.

    He almost felt guilty taking up an entire alcove all by himself when there were obviously, at least from his point of view, others that needed it more. Of course, when he'd taken that point up with the doctor the physician had merely shrugged and told him to go back to sleep and that he needed to get some more rest.

    Even though he had collapsed up on the bridge, there was nothing really wrong with him that needed this kind of advanced or for that sake long-term care. He'd suffered a couple of broken ribs, a sprained wrist and a minor concussion from his quick attempt at flying across the Albion's bridge, but those injuries were all by their standards minor and had all been easily repaired within an hour of him arriving in sickbay.

    He wasn't old or decrepit, just barely past his fortieth birthday in a society that regularly lived in good health well past their hundreds, and to both his own knowledge and according to the medical scans he'd seen he was in fairly good physical shape. There had been no permanent damage either; all his injuries had healed fine.

    Still, the Doctors had decided to keep him within eyeshot with some fragmented comments about command officers, stress, and being boneheaded, all stated just low enough to ensure a demotion wouldn't be very rapidly handed out but still loudly enough for him to hear every word.

    Getting up, already having gathered the numerous pads that had just minutes ago been spread all over the alcove, he zipped up his black and gray duty uniform jacket and turned to check his appearance. He took a second to carefully check that his rank insignia, a brooch on either side of the collar forming three golden pips in a golden rectangle, were in their correct places and that they weren't lopsided.

    Even though he normally wouldn't care too much about it there was enough confusion and fear on the ship without a lopsided admiral walking around, especially considering the fact that as far as anyone could tell he was all of a sudden the highest ranking Starfleet officer in the entire Milky Way galaxy... or the rest of the universe for that matter.

    Still, he couldn't worry about that all the time nor could he be too preoccupied with crew morale or the care of wounded, no matter how deeply he felt about these issues. He was more than intelligent enough to know that if he started to dig too deeply into the smaller problems he'd quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of them.

    His job was the big problems and the big decisions and to let the captains and by association their own officers take care of their own smaller ones free of his interference. With only a wave and a smile to the duty nurse, he left sickbay in the care of her and the Doctors and left to go make some of those big decisions about the big problems.

    The admiral's quarters on the Albion were about the size of his apartment back home in San Diego, which actually said more about the size of his apartment than about the living quarters. They were more than large enough to serve as both office and personal quarters though not large enough to comfortably have more than two or three visitors at any given time.

    As this had only been supposed to be a temporary combat posting the rooms were only sparsely decorated and the only personal belongings he’d brought with him to the Albion were holo-pictures of his old friends on the Galaxy and a copy of his parents wedding picture.

    Except for his brother he had no family of his own, their parents had passed away several years ago and he'd never really had the time to create one either. It was at times like this he appreciated that being that it was one less reason to become depressed.

    He'd seen far too many crewmen start falling apart inside as they realized that what family they had probably thought they were dead and that the chances of them getting home to disprove that were slim to non-existent.

    He immersed himself in the more detailed reports that had literally flooded his small desk in his absence, making short notes on another pad about what issues to request more information on, what decision should be made in others on a second and what decisions he wasn't even supposed to make on a third, until the beeping sound of the doorbell pierced the silence.

    He straightened himself up and pushed a few pads away as he said "enter". He would've expected his brother to be the first one to come by but even though the uniform color and rank insignia was correct, the person wearing it was not.

    "Captain Duval!" he said with some surprise, gave her an honest smile and quickly rose from his seat. He walked over to the entrance to give his old friend a quick hug. "I wasn't expecting visitors and even less so you, though you are of course just as welcome as always. What can I do for you?" he asked as he motioned for her to sit down in one of the chairs across the desk.

    "Admiral, I'm glad you've recovered", she thanked him with a tired smile and sat down in the offered chair. "The fleet is mostly silent and I'm here as much because I need a friend to talk to as much as in my official capacity."

    "I understand, Sheila, trust me, I do", he sighed.

    "Still…"

    West looked at his watch, then continued; "Can I get you anything? It's almost lunch time and I've lived on nothing but sickbay food for the last two weeks."

    "Just coffee, Sam, but thanks for offering."

    "Like you used to take it?"

    "That'll do nicely."

    He rose and went over to the replicator, returning a moment later with two steaming cups of coffee, one with just a tad of synthetic scotch in it and the other with milk and sugar.

    "So, tell me. What can Fleet Command do for the Independence and, more importantly, what can I do for you?"

    Samuel and Sheila had known each other for the better part of their respective careers. They'd both been assigned to the Galaxy for several years before taking up individual commands, Sam as first officer and Sheila as the ship's navigator. When their captain had been killed in the outset of the Dominion War they had each taken a step up the career ladder. West had been given a field promotion to captain and Duval became his first officer.

    Their friendship had been cemented during the three years of near constant battle that followed until the Galaxy was finally recalled to dry-dock for a full service and refit, and at that time they were both promoted and subsequently transferred.

    Sheila had been given command of the newly christened Sovereign-class starship Independence, assigned to Deep Space 9 and their exploration efforts in the Gamma Quadrant. Samuel was assigned to oversee Starfleet's starship development operations at the San Francisco fleet yards where he had worked on, among others, the so-called Borg refits of the Norway and Saber class ships.

    Being forty thousand light years apart would put a strain on any friendship, but even though they'd been apart for more than three years they'd kept in touch as much as possible until they were rejoined at the outbreak of the Romulan conflict.

    "It must be hard for you. I read the report as well."

    "It was a damn waste, Sam, a damn waste of a damn good man."

    He just nodded. "I didn't know him personally, but I doubt you'd have accepted him if he wasn't. I'm sorry, Sheila."

    Samuel knew exactly what Sheila needed to talk about, even without her telling, and enough for her to be open about it to him. The man in question was Starfleet captain Justin Blake, the task force's liaison at Starbase 10. He’d just been a formal acquaintance of West's, being that he rarely spoke to him in person except in formal reports and requests, but he'd been much more than that to Sheila. If you listened to the rumors floating about the crew he’d been at least her boyfriend and probably her fiancé until just a few weeks ago.

    The admiral had been well enough kept in the loop to know the truth behind it, they had quite correctly been engaged but, for some reason he didn't know the exact details about, they'd broken it off just after the war broke out. It’d been just before she'd been transferred with her ship to his command and it’d been one of the first things she’d spoken to him about.

    Ironically he’d been somewhat delighted in that fact, he wasn’t proud about it but he had actually been envious of Blake ever since he'd started seeing his old first officer.

    Sam and Sheila had been one of those unfortunate pairs who had always had feelings for one another, strong ones at that, but had always been hindered by regulations as both were Starfleet officers of differing rank and in the same command structure. It was yet another one of the reasons he'd never made a family of his own.

    Most of the women he met in his line of work were in much the same situation, being either his subordinates or putting their own careers before romance, and he had probably always subconsciously compared them with the woman now drinking coffee in his quarters.

    "I heard it was quick, that he didn't have to suffer", she stated matter-of-factly and sighed. "We had our differences, especially at the end, but I still feel he didn't deserve that. Hell, no one does."

    He nodded; Blake had probably been killed in the massive explosion that had resulted from a disruptor blast hitting one of the station's antimatter pods. You didn't typically survive that for more than at best fractions of a second. They'd never found his remains. "I can verify that. He never felt a thing."

    Sheila just stared emptily into the wall beside him. He felt it would be inconsiderable to say anything, so he just waited for her to snap out of it for a few minutes but when she didn't seem to do so by her own accord, he finally broke the silence and asked her.

    "While I am sorry about Justin, you wanted to see me about something else as well?"

    "Oh... yes, that's right." She looked startled as she raised her head. "Yes... we have a slight but increasingly important problem with a few of our ships and, well, unfortunately I have to admit that the Independence is one among them. It's just a minor issue right now, but it may soon prove to be more than that unless we find a lasting solution very quickly."

    West raised an eyebrow.

    "Admiral, we're carrying over a hundred, actually closer to a hundred and five, thousand people in a fleet of ships designed to carry only a sixth of that number for any extended period of time. I know the Albion doesn't feel the effects, yet, but she's not a design standard Sovereign either. The Independence was built for space superiority, the Discovery for long range exploration, but the Albion was constructed to the flagship parameters."

    He had to search his mind for the differences. He had studied the Sovereign design specs in detail just a few months ago and he did know most Sovereign-class ships were specialized towards a specific function. Even though all were still able to perform general tasks to a high standard, ships of different mission designs weren't identical and Sheila was quite correct that some of the differences were also quite important.

    He found what he was searching for, and understood what Duval was trying to avoid saying outright. "Damn it. You're right, that's going to be a problem."


    ALMOST ONE DAY LATER


    Jameson was slightly stressed as he almost ran down the corridors from the turbolift exit. He'd only just gotten back to the fleet and pretty much as soon as they had exited warp he'd been ordered to transport over to the Albion for a full-fledged command meeting. He wasn't all that surprised considering what he'd been doing for the last two weeks or what he'd seen while doing it, but the apparent hurry in the order did both surprise and worry him just as he'd been surprised to see that these orders had been given before he'd even reported back. He'd expected to at least get an hour or two to wind down before he'd be debriefed and for the meeting being between him and a select few of his peers, not every single one.

    Now, here he was on the task force's flagship running down yet another corridor. He'd already gotten lost twice, not something he was proud of but in his defense he'd never even set his foot on a Sovereign before today. It felt even bigger when actually being inside than you'd expect by looking at it from the outside, especially as the ship at first glance was visually very similar to his much smaller Nova. Finally getting to the conference room he found the door open and most if not all of the other ship captains already seated. That included, as if to spite him, the red-headed figure of Captain Kira.

    At the head of the table he could see the graying but still quite forceful appearance of the task force's commanding officer, Vice Admiral West. He'd only met the man in person once before and even though he looked a little bit tired he was still undoubtedly the commanding presence in the room. He didn't look irritated at Jameson's late arrival but had a rather worried expression instead, something that surprised him more than anything else.

    "Jameson! Good you could finally join us. Come in and take a seat, I was just about to start the meeting and it just wouldn't be right to do that without one of the guests of honor, now would it?"

    Jameson took a seat between captains Duval of the Independence and T’Pell of the Valiant, giving each of them a quick nod of respect as both were formally his superiors, and put the data pads he'd been carrying on the table in front of him.

    "Ladies, gentlemen, my fellow captains”, he started. “Now that I'm finally out of sickbay we have some decisions we have to make, rapidly as well since I've been informed that our available time to make them is quickly running out."

    West sat down at the end of the table and his face still carried that ever so slightly worried look even as it was quickly covered by stern resolve.

    "We'll have to decide on what course we're going to take from here on out. As Captain Duval thankfully brought to my attention yesterday we won't be able to stay here in orbit inactive any longer. You all know that most of the ships in this task force are combat or exploration vessels which were never designed to carry refugees, much less so in great numbers or for a prolonged period of time." He paused and his eyes met those of the destroyer and cruiser captains. "Also, most of those who were, like the Galaxies and Nebulas, have later lost much of this ability in the subsequent combat refits they've undergone, something I know I'm personally at least partially to blame for. Even the Sovereign and Excelsior-class ships are starting to experience problems with their environmental and life support systems from the strain caused by the increased onboard population."

    Except for the admiral’s voice, the room was dead silent. They all knew this was true but it was one thing to know something and another thing entirely to get it verified and to hear that everyone else also knew.

    “The only exception thus far is the Albion as she was designed by flagship standards. She’s still one of the most powerful military vessels we have available but while the other Sovereigns were designed to carry a larger amount of weapons and ordnance in one case, more fuel and better more powerful sensors in the other, the Albion among other things has redundant high-efficiency air filtration and life support systems to combat biological and chemical warfare. That’s the reason she’s got an extra deck compared to the Independence or Discovery and why she can, at least in theory, carry more people than the other two combined before the life support systems even start to strain.”

    He paused, shifted a bit in his chair and turned his gaze towards the assembly once more.

    "So, what we need to decide on right now is where we can settle down. Not if we should do so or how we can get home. We won't find a way back home before we start losing a whole lot of people due to system failures. While I both can, will and have ordered people to their deaths in battle; I'm not prepared to ask people to die of asphyxia or starvation simply because we don't want to face the reality of our situation. I want options people, options and opinions. Now, start talking."

    Even Jameson was shocked by the admiral’s directness, and judging by the other captains' appearances he was hardly alone in his reaction either. Only Duval and the younger brother West still looked at least fairly calm and he concluded that the admiral had already talked to the two of them in length privately prior to this meeting. It wasn't surprising either as the admiral had already stated that Duval had brought it up and of course the captain of the Albion would be the best source of information about what made his ship different from the others.

    "Admiral" a female Vulcan captain who Jameson didn't recognize had spoken. "As my home planet is right here below us and so evidently unpopulated, I would suggest that it is the most logical choice for us to settle here. There are ample amounts of resources readily available to the fleet, and..."

    "We could just as well settle on Andoria and even I don't think that'd be our best option, Sorila!" T’Pell quickly interjected. "I might be Andorian and I may still long for my home city below the frozen sea but these pink-skin vessels have taught me one thing and that's to enjoy temperatures that stay above freezing..."

    "Logic would dictate..."

    "Take your precious logic and shove..."

    The argument between the Vulcan and the Andorian quickly escalated but was just as suddenly stopped dead as the sharp voice of Captain Keyes broke through.

    "Stop it, both of you!" she yelled out and both looked and sounded highly irritated. "You're behaving worse than two Ezalian dung beetles during mating season."

    The two arguing captains suddenly stopped dead in their tracks and both looked quite insulted. By all rights, Jameson knew just how hilarious what she'd described looked. She didn't even bother looking at them before she continued.

    "Neither planet is a good option. Vulcan is a desert planet with deadly dust storms and electrical storms which even in our own universe causes the Vulcans numerous serious problems. It also crucially does not have a whole lot of natural sweet water. Andoria on the other hand has plenty of water but what it lacks in dust storms and heat, it makes up for in blizzards and a surface temperature that has even your naturally adapted species living below ground in geothermally heated caverns."

    "May I ask what would your suggestion be, Elisha?" Duval's softer voice was a refreshing change from Keyes' sharp tone.

    Keyes quickly replied with another question. "Jameson, Deschamps. We've heard you found some other races out there, among them humans. What more information did you manage to gather on your expeditions? Is there an actually habitable world we could pick instead?"

    Jameson looked at Deschamps. They were thinking the same thing. Deschamps spoke first. "Admiral, perhaps we could move this discussion to one of the holodecks?"

    "I have to concur that it would be a more suitable locale for an effective debrief", Jameson added.

    Admiral West just nodded and motioned for the door.


    HOLODECK ONE


    Jameson and Deschamps had needed a little time to get their holodeck program working and to verify their facts with each other. Each of them had been able to get parts of the whole picture, in some places they overlapped and in others it had been discovered neither had a single piece of the puzzle.

    What became a problem was when some of the information didn't match up, but they attributed these few anomalies to local politics and differences in points of view between the different local races. One such area was the border between the Narn and Centauri empires where the two ships combined had collected no less than six different versions of exactly which systems or even parts of systems belonged to which of the two empires.

    In cases such as this they'd simply marked the area on the map as a potential source of conflict. Judging by historical records it wasn’t a long shot either, the Narn and Centauri were hardly known for being at good terms with each other and the same was true for most of these contested border areas.

    The various captains had joined them and they all stood surrounded by a large star map depicting an area of space about three hundred light years across and centered on Earth. It was a holographic simulation of their ships' astrometrics array display but unlike the astrometrics display this program was designed to be able to zoom in on the planetary level.

    "...as you can see from this corrected star map most of this universe seems to still be in the right place when compared to our own. There are only a few although in some cases quite noteworthy exceptions", Jameson continued his recital as he saw Kira trying not to look at the red circle around a now empty region of space. "As far as we can tell there are only five stars which are actually missing in the entire sector as compared to the ones present in our own universe, at least that's as far as we've been able to verify this data from the vantage points we've had."

    "The most notable are of course those of Bajor and Romulus", Deschamps stated. "The latter is a black hole system in this universe, the former just isn't there. Two of the others have gone nova in this universe while the fifth seems to have collided with another star and effectively been swallowed up. We attribute some of these differences to the chaos effect, that the same event won't happen the same way twice even if repeated with the exact same variables, and some of it to the direct absence of variables such as for example there being no Romulans on Romulus to intercede in their star's natural decay."

    "That may also be the reason why some planets haven't developed life and others went a completely different path than they did in ours", Jameson continued. "We surmise that most if not even all of the differences between this universe and our own may very well stem from a small number of events, or even a single one, happening in a different way than it should have from our point of view. This was at least several million, quite possibly even billions of years ago considering the sheer amount of differences."

    This prompted a few looks from the other captains, but Deschamps quickly took over.

    "We've tried to indicate what worlds are colonized and which are otherwise claimed by the different powers that exist here on this map. The three single-colored areas", he pointed towards a blue, red and green area bordering each other in succession, "seem to be governed by mostly single-race societies. This one is called the Earth Alliance", he indicated the blue blob centered around Earth, "this one is the Centauri Republic", the green area that covered most of the Romulan Star Empire flashed, "and finally the Minbari Federation", the red, formerly Klingon, area flashed.

    "The larger purple area is a sort of loose economic alliance called 'the League of Non-Aligned Worlds', which comprises a total of some fifty member races. Unfortunately, neither of our expeditions revealed any trace of other Federation races besides humans. A surprising fact is that even counting a number of pre-warp civilizations we've found there's still less than ten percent of the racial diversity we’d expect when compared to the Alpha Quadrant we're used to."

    "Since most other home worlds still exist here and are quite frequently just as habitable as we'd expect, we can only conclude that any intelligent life that did develop on these worlds was either destroyed long ago or never developed at all. This has also raised some questions as to whether our own universe has experienced some kind of event that increased the odds of intelligent life actually developing."

    "It is also not an entirely correct statement to say that humans exist here either, even though we're very closely related my science teams analyzed the genetic structure of these humans and we were able to find several important genetic differences. While we're still close enough genetically to be considered the same species, the differences between us are larger than between any two given human ‘races’ that developed on either version of Earth, ours or theirs."

    “There are other differences between our two humanities as well. As you all know we’ve traveled back in time approximately 120 years. By our standards we’ve gone back to pretty much the time work was started on building the Constitution-class cruisers. Actually, let’s be precise. We arrived in this universe on the exact date berths were reserved at the San Francisco fleet yards for the prototype and design proof ships NX-1700 and NX-1701, later known by their christened names Constitution and Enterprise. In our universe and with our timeline, the Constitution's keel was laid out only four days ago.”

    This prompted a few reactions and quick comments among the crowd of ship captains. There wasn’t a Starfleet officer alive who didn’t recognize those names or one who didn't know the name of the Enterprise's most famous captain and the legend surrounding his years in command.

    “However, in this universe the starship technology Earth has available seems to be quite different from what we'd expect to see, or for that sake what we're used to”, he stated as the scenery changed and the assembled captains were suddenly standing in what looked like open space above a dark planet with the massive hulk of the EAS Lancelot rendered in front of them. “This is an Earth-designed starship as they look in this universe and yes, she really is this big. From what we’ve been able to tell, she’s also not unique but rather one of several hundred of her class, specifically called a Nova-class dreadnought."

    "While she looks… impressive, to say the least, she’s actually designed and built using technology we would see as quite primitive by our standards even at this relative time", Jameson paused to take a sip of water and let the image in front of them sink in. "Discounting the fact that there are guns mounted just about everywhere they could be welded to her superstructure, we counted a total of 34 offensive weapon mounts and numerous defensive, these are all laser or plasma based. The ship is powered entirely by a number of large but relatively primitive fusion reactors and propelled by four ion particle drives. She lacks any known form of shielding technology, any kind of effective inertial dampeners and, perhaps most surprisingly, artificial gravity.”

    “The technological difference is actually far greater than even that”, Deschamps interjected. “According to what we were able to find on their publicly available information network, the Galaxy Net, this Earth lacks even the most basic form of molecular replication, transporter, holographic, subspace, force field, antimatter or impulse technologies, all of these being technologies we were already taking pretty much for granted at this point in our own timeline.”

    "There are a lot of other differences as well”, Jameson nodded as he continued. “From monitoring several of the other races we've deduced that while they do indeed have faster-than-light technology it's not even remotely close to resembling what we use or anything we've ever encountered before in our own universe. In fact, I doubt any of the ships we've seen so far would survive traveling even at a fractional, much less relativistic, speed. They're simply not designed to be able to hold up against the acceleration stress and considering they completely lack any form of deflector arrays they'd be torn to shreds if they attempted it."

    The Lancelot faded out and was replaced with the swirling vortex they'd witnessed in the Denobula system. "This is what they seem to use instead, some kind of spatial or dimensional rift technology for interstellar travel rather than warp drives, and instead of subspace they use tachyon particles for communication and sensors." The image changed again to indicate the four beam structure. "This structure seems to be the only way most of their ships are able to enter or exit this spatial rift and it's our understanding that any system lacking one of these would be unexplored or at the very least unclaimed."

    "From the data gathered by the Darwin and the Icarus, we’ve selected these three systems", the map appeared again with three systems highlighted, “as our recommendations for a settlement. All of these are unclaimed, as far as we know unexplored by any local race and have Mishara class planets well within garden world parameters. We also know from our original databases that there are more than enough resources to fit our needs.” The map zoomed in and the three stars and the indicated planets were all brought into view. "Sirius, Terra Nova and finally Trill", Jameson counted them off.

    "Our recommendation in this case would be the Sirius system, not only because it is unclaimed but also since its location ensures us that whatever resources the system lacks itself are readily available in nearby and likewise unclaimed systems." Deschamps shrugged. "Other than that, they are all good options for settling down."


    USS MICHAEL
    FEDERATION ARCHANGEL-CLASS FLEET CARRIER
    SIRIUS III POLAR ORBIT
    AUGUST 2ND, 2243


    Jack was still glad to have survived no matter what the current situation was. Being alive in this other dimension was after all a far better option than being dead back home would be. Plus, he had finally gotten the transfer to a combat carrier he’d been requesting for the last three years. To him it didn't really matter that the reason for said transfer was somewhat unfortunate.

    The Michael had it all, fighters, interceptors, shuttles, runabouts, just to name a few, and more than enough professionals handling these machines just like what they were. His father had always told him that home was where one’s heart was, and no matter how ironic, terrible or sad the circumstances were Lieutenant Commander Jack Davis knew that he was home.

    Take-off and landing on a carrier was a bit trickier than it had been on Starbase 10, but he could live with that. He had just slightly more than one and a half meters of clearance from the roof and floor to the hull of his Peregrine, much less than he was used to, but this was mostly because the Michael effectively had four hangar decks stacked on top of each other. The hangar bay doors were designed to allow the largest type of Federation shuttle a thirty centimeters of clearance, total, no more. Pilot skill wasn't just an assumed fact; it was a requirement for not just your own survival but that of those around you as well.

    Combat takeoffs were also something he’d been forced to practice, as the hangar was designed to be just wide enough for two Peregrine fighters and one Valkyrie interceptor to launch simultaneously in a close wedge formation. Timing and course had to be perfect as in real combat they launched from all four hangars at almost the exact same time, the delay between decks often as low as a mere one and a quarter second. In real combat, that would be handled by the fighters' autopilots as to not cause a massive incident but during training it was usually a frightening hands-on experience.

    This also meant the Michael could completely empty its hangars of fighters in just over two minutes if and when necessary and he’d been awestruck as he saw the CAP crew perform that maneuver as soon as they'd entered the system, thirty six starfighters had launched in just barely thirty seconds. That took nerves of steel and Jack couldn’t wait to do it for real himself one day.

    Still, he had a lot of work ahead of him before they'd trust a mere former garrison pilot to do something most experienced carrier pilots still dreaded no matter what they actually told you. He hadn't even been assigned to a combat squadron yet but he knew that was just a question of time, training and proving your mettle. He still had his sights set on an empty seat in the carrier's crack team, the Angel wing. That posting didn't mean just learning to master a combat launch though, it meant becoming an expert at it. That and so much more, he reminded himself.

    Today, his job wasn’t combat though, but rather a dull VIP transfer. As per tradition when a new colony was established the would-be founder always touched ground from a shuttle and always carried one of those old shovels to take the symbolic first steps towards the new foundation.

    He turned away from the repaired, refitted, repainted and rearmed sleek Peregrine-II starfighter that had been so close to becoming his coffin, and turned instead to the, comparatively, bulky shape of a Danube-class runabout. The admiral would be arriving any minute now along with most of the fleet’s engineering, science and command officers. He wouldn't be the only pilot charged with shuttle duty today as there was no way more than a hundred people could fit in a single tin can, but rather twelve of them had been neatly parked along the hanger floor in order of rank and ship class. He managed a smile though; his was after all the first one in the line.


    USS GREENWICH
    FEDERATION RUNABOUT
    APPROACHING SIRIUS III


    Admiral’s log, Stardate 57586.4.

    This will be my final entry with a Federation standard timestamp. It didn’t take long for me and the fleet’s captains to reach a final decision. Of the three planets proposed by our surveyors Sirius was, just as Deschamps pointed out, the most logical choice.

    It was not just the relatively close position to Earth that tipped the scales for me, albeit I must admit it is a factor that weighed heavily on my mind, but it’s also the richest system of the three in terms of the resources we'd need and the amounts we may eventually need them in. Unless anything drastic happens, we should be able to stay self-sufficient here.

    As of today, August 2nd, 2380 by our time, same date 2243 local time, at ten hundred hours, I have activated the prime directive by reason of protecting this universe’s timeline and natural development. Orders have been given to construct a new permanent settlement here on Sirius III to house the close to a hundred thousand people we carry in this fleet, with additional facilities in orbit such as defense platforms, shipyard facilities and supply depots to ensure our continued welfare. I’ve also, after a number of such requests, ordered the production of a deuterium gas mining complex orbiting the Sirius V brown dwarf.

    Considering the apparently violent history of this universe as well as the obviously militaristic and in many cases despotic regimes ruling many of the races we’ve encountered, we’ll keep our heads down but our eyes open and our guns loaded. I won’t be dissolving the fleet, decommissioning the ships or use them as spare parts, no matter what the directive requires of me. Well, not most of them at least.

    If all goes well we shouldn’t have to ever use them in hostile action, but one never knows what the future may hold and I’d rather keep that ace up my sleeve should we ever need it. We will have to stand down many of our ships, there’s just no way we can keep that many people in space long term with our limited population, but keeping them serviced and ready to be used is an insurance policy I'd be insane not to keep.

    With our crews and evacuees likely being the only Federation there is in this universe, I suppose we’ll have to discuss our future organization as well, sooner or later. It’s not a debate I’m looking forward to, but I am still quite certain it’ll come up.

    I’m heading the delegation bound for the planet where we’ll break ground on the new settlement near where New Washington would be on the Sirius that I remember. We’ve yet to settle for a name but considering I delegated that speech to Elisha I’m sure she’ll come up with something fitting. She was after all both born and raised here.

    The plans for the first sectors of the settlement are already complete and the engineering crews on all our ships are working double shifts at the moment trying to get everything started. My only requirement was that the settlement should be constructed in a way that makes it hard if not impossible to visually identify from anything but a close-range visual inspection. I have no doubt I'll be pleasantly satisfied.

    It’s surprising how little time they anticipated it would take to get the first stage of construction finished, but I’m sure they plan on cheating. More specifically by using the Archangel carriers’ industrial-sized replicators to construct modular structures which will then be transported to the surface. It's what I would have done had I still been a ship's engineer and most engineers are practical like that.

    As long as it works I’m fine with whatever solution they come up with, I just hope they don’t get their priorities too twisted up. I don’t want to get a report that the fleet’s run out of antimatter just because they decided to build a spa complex before they even got started on a quantum inversion plant or a deuterium refinery.

    The landing site is just now coming into range. I still think we picked a beautiful spot to start our new life. We'll put down on a peninsula stretching out into the northern sea and separated from the mainland by gently rolling hills. The entire area is covered in trees much resembling birch, elm and oak and I'm told there are ample amounts of herbivore wildlife around as well. All in all a paradise of natures own creation in a temperate climate such as this.

    I’m told we can expect snow in the winter too. I don’t know why, but looking down at this scenery reminds me of home. Not the apartment in San Diego, but the town I grew up in near Stockholm.

    It seems I must cut this log entry short as I’ll soon be required in my official function. Let me just add that this may be the end of one life, but it’s the start of an entirely new age, both for me and for my crew.

    Computer, end log and transmit the previous entry to the USS Albion, clearance code West, Omega-four-three-Zulu.


    EARTH INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
    EARTH DOME
    GENEVA, EARTH


    “So, Parker, you still chasing those sensor ghosts?” the older intelligence supervisor said it with the sarcastic tone of a half-joke. “You do know it was probably just a practical joke among the Belters anyway. No need to waste any more of your or for that sake the Agency's time on it.”

    “I’m not as confident it's a fraud as you are, David. I managed to get a copy of the sensor logs from the ‘Pasadena Skies’, and they’re high end especially for a Belter heavy bulk freighter. The detail is much higher than you'd expect and high enough resolution for them to be hard to fake even down on the third floor.”

    “Doesn’t mean it’s not a hoax, Parker, and you know that." David shrugged. "It wouldn’t exactly be the first time they did that and the last time they did it took us almost a year to positively dismiss it as the hoax it was. They're probably still laughing about the ghost busting on the fifth floor.”

    “I know, I know", Parker sighed but tightened his grip on the crystal he was holding. "But it looks real enough to warrant an investigation and I have to follow my instincts, David. Something just tells me there’s more to this than just the vivid imaginations of a bored Belter or a practical joke of the counter-intelligence division. Even if it isn’t what it looks like."

    "Yeah, right, a ship travelling faster than the speed of light?" David raised an eyebrow as he smiled. "Get real."

    "I admit, it's not all that believable”, Parker shrugged. "We'll see, either way I am going to check it out."

    The focus of the small debate was the alleged sighting of a small and apparently unarmed ship, probably a luxury passenger liner of what was obviously alien design, which was supposed to have been just sitting there right in front of the hyperspace window generator of a jump gate in Vree space completely oblivious of its location or situation.

    Then, just as the jump gate had activated and the ‘Pasadena Skies’, a Belt Alliance heavy bulk freighter exited hyperspace and almost rammed the small ship, the ship was supposed to have stretched, accelerated to what would have to be faster-than-light speeds and vanished without another trace. Not the most believable story, but the Belter ship had followed procedure and forwarded their sensor logs to Earth Force nonetheless even though every single person who'd seen them since had gotten a good laugh out of it.

    The general opinion about the story, both at Earth Force Command and here at the EIA, was that it had about the same factual content as one of those skin cream commercials they showed on ISN. However, while most intelligent analysts tended to follow that line of reasoning some others, including Parker, didn’t quite agree. Officially they were called conspiracy theorists, and regarded with about as much respect as the world showed the people that believed in the conspiracies about JFK, 9/11 or WW3. That hadn’t stopped them, and it didn’t stop Geoffrey Parker.

    What was even better was that he got paid to thoroughly research junk like this, but even he had to admit he was skeptical about the entire thing as well. Still, people had thought the same about the twentieth-century UFO sightings until they'd made official contact with the Vree and near two centuries worth of dismissed people believing in aliens had been proven right once Earth had finally taken to the stars.

    One of Parker's favored quotes was 'just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you'.

    “Aw, come on Parker. What they describe is impossible, you do know that right?" David made a sneer. "Plus, we’d know if anyone was even close to developing anything that looked like, or for that sake actually did, what that UFO was supposed to have done.”

    “You know as well as I do that faster-than-light travel is theoretically possible, David", Parker rebutted. "We use tachyons on a daily basis and they travel much faster than that. Now, getting a spacecraft and especially one as small as that one to do the same is… well, not bloody likely, I'll admit that, but still I need to at least prove it a hoax if it is.”

    “Good luck”, David made a mock shrug as he smiled widely, the sarcasm almost dense enough to be dripping from his teeth, “and happy ghost busting, Parker. While you're wasting your time on that I’m going to go check up on our mutual friend on Centauri Prime.”

    “Heh, something tells me I have a better chance of getting a hint of truth out of this", Parker chuckled as he held up the crystal to the light and gave it a completely unnecessary cleaning with his shirt sleeve, "than you'll ever have of getting something worthwhile out of young Lord Mordechai. He's just way too self-centered and will gladly lie to your face if he believes it suits his purposes. Granted; most up and coming Centauri lords would."

    "What makes you say that?" David asked, with a look on his face that showed that he clearly didn't understand Parker's point.

    "Lord Mordechai is infamous for giving you just a hint of the truth you're looking for, but then he'll inflate the story with nonsense, misinformation or just plain lies in order to make him look more powerful or more influential than he really is", Parker smiled and rose from the table. "Once, he told me that he'd actually seen the Emperor dress, and just to make it more believable he added that he'd seen the Emperor show the first signs of the Centauri version of chicken pox.”

    “Oh? Why is that so unbelievable?” David looked puzzled. "As far as I know the pox is quite common among the Centauri, has been ever since we made contact with them. It's just as harmless there as it is here though."

    “Didn’t you know? I thought it was common knowledge", Parker replied with a fake look of surprise. "The Emperor never undresses except in his most private sanctum, somewhere a low-ranking Lord such as Mordechai would never be able to enter and especially if the Emperor was in any way ill.”

    "Yes, so?" David asked.

    "Plus, the first signs of the pox on a Centauri is that their hair starts falling off, which is the real reason why the high-ranking Centauri actually fear the disease", David started to leave the break area. "Trust me, if the Centauri Emperor had lost his hair we'd have heard about it from a lot more sources than just him. It'd be the greatest story of the year to anyone and everyone in the entire Centauri court."

    Parker left before David had any chance to reply. The Israeli intelligence analyst was a capable administrator, but how a man so gullible had ever gotten selected for intelligence duty in the first place was beyond Parker's wildest imaginations. As he got back to his office he scratched his head and looked around for a specific crystal in the large pile on his desk, hoping it was there so he wouldn't have to search through the numerous and equally large piles in the rest of the room.

    "Now, where did I put that image enhancement software? I know it should be here somewhere..."
     
  6. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 4


    ELYSIUM SETTLEMENT
    SIRIUS III
    SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2243



    The large Danube-class runabout hovered silently above him while it slowly slid the heavy metal alloy girder hanging below it in its tractor beam, visibly in thin air, into place. It was hard to look directly at the craft as there were two bright spots directly to the side of it, actually the twin main stars of the solar system, and each one was an order of magnitude brighter than the sun would be as seen on Earth even though the white dwarf companion was visibly smaller than the main star.

    Even with the sun glare Ha'sra still had to constantly keep an eye on the slowly moving girder to make sure it was still secured, the slightest mistake and the large piece of replicated metal could easily kill every single worker in the area.

    No such mistakes had happened so far and almost immediately upon the metal beam reaching its designated target several people surrounded it and using hand-held plasma torches started welding it in place to the rest of the structure. They had to hurry because yet another girder had already appeared out of thin air right where this one had been just a minute ago and the shuttle was already repositioning to pick it up from the tapered-off section of ground.

    Work was actually proceeding much quicker than planned and while construction on this building had started only three hours ago the substructure and its foundations were already close to complete. Ha'sra expected his team to be finished with this building within the next half hour or so, he would be very displeased with them if they weren't, and then they'd take a quick break before starting construction on the building next door.

    By the end of the day the three teams working in his area would have built three complete buildings if everything worked out according to plan, and considering how far ahead of schedule they were they'd probably be able to have the fourth building well under way before they stopped for the night. Even though he kept barking to his crew to keep up the pace, not slow down or slack off, Ha'sra was actually quite proud of the pace they were holding even if he'd never voluntarily admit it.

    It had taken a few days to get the details all worked out but now they had a system set up and so far there hadn't been any serious incidents. There had of course been some smaller ones, most of them due to the Starfleet's lack of experienced construction workers, but none had been too severe and small accidents were impossible to avoid in major construction such as this even if the people involved would've been experienced professionals.

    A few people had fallen, sure, but safety gear such as anti-gravity harnesses and emergency transporters had kept the workers away from any serious harm. The few injuries that actually had occurred were mostly sprains and torn muscles, most of which could be attributed to overexertion, bad training and poor technique.

    That had reduced in frequency as work progressed though he kept telling anyone that'd listen that it was all a problem with the weaker Human physique, and that Tellarite workers would do better. The fact that no-one really listened didn't stop him from repeating it either.

    The only permanent injury sustained had been suffered when a faulty plasma torch overloaded and practically vaporized the welder's hand, but even he couldn't blame the welder for what had obviously been equipment failure.

    He took a quick look at the other two buildings up the street, mostly to check that the other two teams still kept up with his. The closest building was the last one his team had worked on and his was the team requiring the highest amount of manual labor. They were the ones that built the foundations and substructures that were required before the other teams could even start working.

    The next team used transport enhancers and micro-transmitters to precision-guide the transporters on the Gabriel and Michael, a slow but necessary process in order to get the pre-fabricated modules which made up the walls, floors and roof sections in exactly the right place. The slightest mistake would mean the module would have to be disassembled and reassembled by hand, something that had only happened once so far. By now most of them were already in place and locked together and that team was almost ready for their next building, the very one his own team was just about finished with.

    The third team, which was also the largest and most time intensive of the three, took care of the more advanced systems such as plumbing, power systems and heating, as well as installing all the comforts of life such as replicators, computers and communications. Ha'sra called them the fluff team for short and constantly teased their supervisor about the fact that this team couldn't keep up with the other two. The fact that they were the only team actually keeping to the established schedule didn't even enter into the Tellarite's thought process.

    The Tellarite engineer had supervised colonization and reconstruction efforts before but he'd never witnessed much less actually been involved in one quite like this. There were five groups just like this three-team group at work in this settlement alone. Two of these five, his and another led by a Vulcan planetologist, were working on residential buildings while two worked on civic, industrial, military and governmental installations. The last, which was the largest and by far the most resource intensive, worked on industrial installations and facilities both planet-side and in orbit.

    Technically there was a sixth team as well but partially because they were entirely devoted to the construction of antimatter and fusion reactors and partially because they were entirely based in the construction bay of the Michael and never left orbit except for the few minutes the reactor installations took, they didn't really count.

    He though back for a second. While the captains had still been arguing about how to best plan and colonize the planet the engineers had already devised a plan and were already executing it on the direct authority of the admiral. He wasn't proud of bypassing the chain of command, but it had worked, hadn't it?

    The admiral had only had a few requirements on the design of the settlement, and most of them had been seamlessly worked in without any problems. The only real difference was that they'd had to create another team of botanists and ecologists which would go over the entire settlement once construction was finished and that they had to excavate a bit further down before they actually started laying the foundations.

    They had moved the Archangels and Sovereigns into low orbit, almost low enough for the starships to start skipping on the planet's atmosphere, directly above the settlement. They had then effectively taken complete control of these ships almost turning them into sub-orbital modular factories rather than spacecraft. Raw materials were transported up while finished structure parts were transported down, all in a rapid and thus far never-ending cycle.

    He smiled as he thought about it. The warp core of the Gabriel, his own ship and arguably the largest and most advanced antimatter reactor in the fleet, was working under the same strain right now just sitting still in orbit as it would during sustained warp seven. All of the ship's auxiliary fusion reactors were working at or just barely below capacity as well. There was barely enough power left to stay in, much less leave, orbit.

    There were other things differentiating this colonization from anything else yet tried or done as well. There were no older people and barely any children. That was something that most of them unconsciously knew would become a problem later on and also a probable cause for the extremely high amount of marriages there had been in the past month.

    Ha'sra had never been very interested in females or for that sake procreation but instead became more and more irritated as an ever-increasing amount of the crewmen assigned to him requested leave from the construction work to attend a friend's marriage, or even their own, as nature took its course and the crews and even the displaced refugees started pairing off.

    The latter just irritated Ha'sra more, as that usually meant at least two days of absence instead of just a few hours. Not that he had much of a choice in the matter, if he didn't approve the leave one of the captains or the admiral would and since they were also the ones performing the actual wedding ceremonies it wasn't too hard to get a hold of them either.

    All in all, his crew disliked that part of the Tellarite engineer's personality, more so even than they disliked the other parts. Ha'sra was however just as used to the fact that other people disliked him as any other normal self-aware Tellarite should be.

    He wasn't dumb, he realized procreation would be necessary for the long-term survival of their different species and that marriage was the logical first step on that path for many of the species present, but he still found it damn annoying. Couldn't they wait to indulge their sex drive until they were finished doing something more productive, like working?

    While most of the smaller ships were deployed on patrol, more a formality than a necessity in his opinion, the Nova-class ships were out on survey again. They were mapping what areas they had failed to get intelligence about in other ways and kept an eye on the different races they now shared a universe with. They had been ordered to avoid contact if at all possible and to stay clear of any ships they encountered.

    For the first time in Starfleet history there'd been a general order actually forbidding any Federation ship to respond to a distress call on pain of court martial. Ha'sra thought it was about time, but even under these circumstances he knew it was quite unlike normal human behavior. He found himself liking that admiral of theirs more and more.

    The other large ships like the Excelsiors, Galaxies and Nebulas made up a bucket line that stretched from the planet to the other side of the solar system, gathering and transporting fuel and materials from the outer asteroid belt and gas giants as well as constructing several smaller but very advanced stations in orbit of the system's brown dwarf in order to siphon the failed star's ample amounts of deuterium directly from its atmosphere.

    Working as they were they were burning through their fuel supplies faster than they would in the heat of combat and they weren't moving around enough for the ships' bussard collectors to be of any more use than as hood ornaments.

    The hydrogen siphoning stations had been an idea hatched by that geek Jameson who according to him at least had gotten the idea from some antique 2-dimensional entertainment device. Still, antique device or not the idea actually had a lot of merit and was both practically possible and feasible.

    They'd been forced to take apart a few shuttles and scavenge their multi-phasic shields to actually build them but they had more than enough shuttles to spare. It was also considered to be a sacrifice well worth it to get the more than ample amounts of deuterium fuel the engineers had calculated the stations would produce.

    Ha'sra had tried to get his idea through instead of Jameson's but had in the end been overruled as too resource intensive and not ethically possible as it'd probably destroy the entire biosphere on two of Sirius V's moons. It hadn't been an idea completely intended to succeed, but he'd always wanted to try building a Dyson sphere and who actually cared about two small and underdeveloped moons where the most advanced life form was a four inch long and extremely poisonous lizard?

    The presence of a stable white dwarf in the system had also merited even more construction plans but it'd have to wait until they could free up the resources. They had no real need for neutronium yet, they'd first need to start thinking about shipyards or other orbital construction facilities and even then it'd be a very energy-intensive project just to be able to safely retrieve the super-dense material.

    It had been quite hard to get the items on the different wish lists prioritized, a result of the project leaders being some of the best astrophysicists, particle physicists, warp field theorists, molecular engineers, quantum wave theorists and the other assorted scientific titles that could eventually land you the title of chief engineer in Starfleet.

    Everyone wanted to start building the roof of their new society before they had even started working on the foundation and sometimes it was hard for them to understand that such basic things as living quarters and lavatories had to be built long before the 'fun' things such as laboratories, factories and so on were even considered.

    On a starship you’d often work the other way around, first building the mission systems and then filling in the empty spaces with crew quarters and storage bays. At least it usually looked that way when you got on the ship after it was completed and the drawbacks of that design system had always been a talking point among the engineering crews. Now they were painfully close to committing the same mistake themselves.

    Still, it was a huge operation and with all but the smallest of their starships involved in either the construction or resource gathering operations it was also going incredibly fast. He doubted any colony had ever grown as fast as this one or had even close to the same amount of space-side support. But then again he also doubted it had ever been as necessary for any other colony the Federation had made to be set up very rapidly.

    They'd already finished a few city blocks but the starships were still overcrowded. While it was technically possible to transport most of the people from up there to the surface the infrastructure wasn't completed yet and there wasn't enough housing, enough power or enough replicators to comfortably house them. They could reduce the load on the starships, sure, but the people sent down here to the surface would be cold, hungry and wet. The list went on and so they still had to keep going.

    They had initially planned to build enough housing and civic buildings to house and support some 65,000 people in this settlement during the first phase. Later additions had already increased this number by more than fifty percent to cover population growth and separated living arrangements. This would become the new capital city of the Sirius system, the social nexus of the Federation in this universe.

    Other settlements, albeit quite a bit smaller only ranging from 500 to 5,000 initial populations, would be spread out over most of the adjoining continent. The reasons varied between which locations would be suitable for farming, mining, industrial purposes or just the plain 'I want to live just there' factor that was so common among the other so called more civilized races.

    Two larger settlements, planned in a first phase to house about 10,000 people each, were also planned to be laid out on the moon which could be clearly seen in the sky above, it took up a large chunk of the visible sky as it was much larger and much closer than as an example Luna was to Earth. Due to the very small size difference between them both the planet and the moon were tidally locked to each other and the blue and green moon was close enough for its landscape to be clearly visible even during the day.

    He looked around and satisfied with what he saw he blew his whistle, a small device of ancient human design that served no real purpose other than emitting a sharp noise that could be heard across the entire construction site to indicate that this site was finished and to get ready to move on to the next.

    The structure was still nothing but plasticrete and high-strength polymetal alloy beams, but he already knew what it'd look like tomorrow. All he had to do to remind himself was to look at the other houses down the street which had already been finished. Rather pleasantly laid out two-floor houses with flat angled roofs, slightly curved outer walls, several unidirectional windows on each floor and a small garden around each.

    The gardens weren’t there yet, nor were the paved walkways and the parts of the bottom floor that would be below ground were still surrounded by a trench, but they'd be there as soon as there was time to lay them down and clean the sites up. Either way, Ha'sra didn't really care much about gardens or pavement as neither had any structural value and he refused to deal with what he considered fluff.

    Just like the city, the different blocks and streets had been named after mythological places or people from the various human cultures. Next stop, he thought to himself, 107 Achilles Street. Yet another residential building built to human specs. Damn people were just as numerous as rabbits, and he had no illusions about their procreation rate either. Next thing he expected to have to build was a daycare center.

    Ha’sra sighed as he realized they’d forgotten all about daycare centers and maternity wards when they planned the civic buildings. He reached for his communicator to do some well-deserved yelling at whoever was responsible for that specific oversight and correct the zoning, preferably before the only available lot was next to a quantum inversion plant right smack dab in the middle of an industrial area.


    GENEVA, EARTH
    MIDNIGHT



    Her given name meant laughter in her people's own tongue, hardly a name appropriate for the kind of work she did and so she’d changed it when she got recruited. Her new name, Iona, roughly translated as 'poisonous’ and quite appropriately its use in her language was ominous. It was something one of her kind associated with a coming unseen death and in general a word best used to describe a very unpleasant and slow such as well.

    Her handlers had always called her by this name. She had several other names but this was the one she was deep inside, beneath all the lies and barriers. To her knowledge only two people were still alive that knew the truth, the whole terrifying truth. One was her current handler, the other was her father. She hadn't spoken to the latter for months, ever since he'd found out what she actually did for a living.

    Even though she could easily be mistaken as human, she was not. To create this misconception she had undergone several and some of them quite drastic surgeries. Though the cosmetic surgery had been painful and invasive enough she had been forced to take it one step further.

    Her cover wouldn't work if she was scanned and her internal organs looked scrambled and even the least intelligent pathologist would be quite puzzled if he found some of the really interesting things in her body no human was ever born with, things that a normal human being could not have. That might cause them to do a more detailed DNA-scan, and that would be a very bad thing indeed, as there was just no way of hiding that away.

    She looked up from her observation post, it was time for action. She took out two devices from her infiltration suit. One was a small PDA with a display, its only real function was to detect the small magnetic field around a beating heart and display it on a basic wireframe map. It wasn’t even holographic.

    The other was a pair of normal-looking and trendy sunglasses that looked like any you could buy in just about any store, but in addition to protecting her eyes from ultraviolet radiation the built-in sensor equipment also allowed her to see unhindered in the dark and even to see the otherwise invisible laser beams and infrared light sources these humans so often used in their security devices. Neither was the best her people could produce but they would pass even a close inspection by someone who didn’t know exactly what to look for.

    She slid into upright position, and went closer to the nearest guard post. It was time to get to work. She had read everything she’d been given as background on these humans. How they behaved, reacted, thought and lived. She’d read better reports but to be frank having only limited information on her target was quite a normal part of the job.

    She had an advantage there in her being telepathic. Knowing beforehand how another person expected you to react and how not to arouse the person's suspicions was the very point of having good intelligence, but for a telepath that was easy. All she needed to do was just to look into the other person’s mind and act accordingly.

    Pity these humans didn’t seem to realize just how useful that could be. She’d been quite surprised when she'd gotten that information. The guard didn’t even react when she walked by, his eyes saw but his mind didn’t register her presence. A simple mental command meant he wouldn't see, wouldn't hear and wouldn't even think of reaching for his alarm.

    This complex was not a worthy challenge to infiltrate and she almost, though she understood why, disliked the assignment. What’s the difficulty for a telepath to infiltrate a society of non-telepaths, even in a secure compound as this, if they don’t have telepaths guarding it? And the telepaths they did have were weak, poorly trained, and wore uniforms and clear markings identifying them as being just what they were.

    The same chain of events repeated itself twice more before she was inside the complex. She looked at her map and memorized it; “Follow the corridor twenty steps, turn left, continue until I reach the checkpoint. Up the stairs two floors, follow the corridor. Objective is behind the second door to my right.”

    The Earth Dome facility was fairly impressive, decorated as it was with nice looking paintings and decorative wood paneled walls. Even the carpet on the floor looked new and tasteful. She’d been surprised, civic buildings weren’t usually this enameled in her experience, but these humans seemed to use art and decorations as a measure of overwhelming their visitors by showing them the power that resided in the center point of human society.

    She kept her pace up as she followed her memorized path, but didn’t hurry. It was easier to avoid suspicion if she didn’t appear suspicious in the first place. Plus, if there were any more security cameras around she’d have to trust her fake appearance and trained casual style to hide her. In the dark it was hard enough to distinguish any facial features so no-one would know exactly who walked past, but if she’d been running past the cameras it would probably make the people watching them ask unnecessary questions.

    She slowly climbed the stairs, taking her time to take in her surroundings. The heart of the opponent, their very headquarters, lay just before her. She had an idea of what to expect as both her heartbeat sensor and her own telepathic ability told her what was around her, but she could never be completely sure that was all there was. She'd been wrong before, and in her line of work you either learned quickly from your mistakes or suffered the consequences as you made the same one again.

    Telepathy, just like a heartbeat sensor, couldn’t detect any kind mechanical objects. Cameras, traps or weapons were beyond her ability to detect until she could actually see them with her own eyes. Even so she’d been able to piece together a basic layout from the surface scans she'd made of the people that worked here when they left work earlier this evening. She still had her doubts, as no one ever knows everything, but it was the best she had. Plus, she'd never trust that she knew everything even if she did.

    She came up on the oak paneled door that was her target, and slowly inserted a little plastic card into a slot on the wall. The PDA lit up a series of scrolling numbers, trying to break through the security system and replicate the room owner’s card number. She’d already stolen his PIN code from his mind earlier. A few seconds later she heard a soft click as the locking bolt was retracted, and she entered the room without making a sound.

    It had to have been one of the least orderly rooms she’d seen so far. Even worse than her little brother’s back when she was a child. She made a frown as she saw the piles of papers and crystals lying on the desk, overflowing the shelves on the walls, and some even seemingly carelessly dropped on the floor. Didn’t anyone ever clean this place up? She sighed as she realized this could very well take all night.


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2243



    The office still had a particular scent. You can only smell this specific scent in something that hasn't been used yet, like a spacecraft that's still in dry-dock or a new house no-one’s lived in yet. It should smell this way, West decided, at least for a while. The scent reminded him that this was a new home, a new life, albeit one with new problems all of its own.

    He'd transferred himself and his flag staff down to the planet as soon as the new Starfleet Command complex was finished, and what a complex it was. On the outside it was almost an exact replica of the Starfleet Command building in San Francisco discounting the fact that more than half the building was built inside a fairly large hill, while on the inside it reminded him more of the Utopia Planitia ground-based fleet complex on Mars. Large, spacious, and crammed full of among the best technology the Federation had access to.

    However, why the engineers had planned the command complex to accommodate just over two thousand people was something that was still beyond the admiral. Right now, they didn't even have more than thirty and change people with the rank of captain, much less admirals, and none of them had any real staff.

    He'd logically taken the main office, the one which on Earth would be occupied by Fleet Admiral Jellico, commanding officer of the entire Federation Starfleet. He didn't think too much about it but that was effectively the same position as West was in now.

    But while there may not be a huge difference in semantics, there was definitely a difference between a Starfleet totaling 32 ships and a Starfleet of fourteen entire fleets plus support ships and thousands of independent starships, just as there was quite a difference between a Federation of more than a hundred trillion people spread across more than a thousand star systems and a Federation of just over a hundred thousand people spread over a single planet and its moon.

    "I don't know, Elisha. It just seems so... wrong." West had tried to avoid this as long as possible but the captains with Keyes leading the pack had finally been able to get him in a corner. "What's the point when we're this few?"

    "Shush. You know as well as I do that some things must change and some things must remain the same. Administratively, if you do the intelligent thing and get yourself decent staff, you'll have less work than before and your responsibilities won't be much more than it is now." Captain Keyes looked more humored than annoyed.

    "I know that, but..." He tried to push back.

    "But, but, but. Buts won't get you out of this. There are things that need to be done and according to regulations you need to accept this to even be allowed to do those."

    "So you say it's just a formality?" West was astonished she'd even say something like that. Ranks and responsibilities they entailed had always been a very strict issue with the otherwise always formal Captain Elisha Keyes. "That's quite something coming from you."

    "No, what I am trying to say is that you should treat it that way, Samuel", she said with a sly smile. "You're used to that, after all."

    "You're just going to force this on me anyways sooner or later, no matter what I think about it, aren't you?" he asked and shook his head. "I wouldn't be surprised if your next move would be to sneak into my room and change out the rank insignia on my uniform while I was sleeping."

    West just surrendered inside, he wasn't going to be able to avoid this any longer and he knew it. He'd managed to do so for two months now, but the chase was finally over. His only bright light was that he could finally stop worrying about getting stuck for hours with someone trying to convince him.

    "You know me better than that. After all, I'm really good with a transporter", she chuckled, tapped her communicator twice, and the admiral almost jumped as his insignia, just fractions of an inch away from his neck, were first teleported away and then replaced.

    "You... you... you..." the shock made it hard enough to breathe, not to mention speak. “God!"

    "Oh, come on Samuel. You didn't honestly believe I was going to walk out of this office a loser?"

    "You, you could have killed me!" he gasped. "The margin of error..."

    "Bah, you worry too much", she stated. "The worst that could have happened was I missed by a few inches and we both know that wouldn't have damaged anything of consequence." She flashed a smile to reinforce the joke, made a salute that was so sloppy it was more of a mockery than a formal goodbye, and turned to leave. "By the way, you'd better start looking over the files I brought with me. As part of your staff you will need at least two new admirals to keep order in the ranks. All eight are decent enough candidates."

    Left alone again, he looked in the mirror. He'd never expected nor wanted to ever get this high in the ranks. He'd have to check the historical records but he highly doubted that any other Commander in Chief of Starfleet Operations had started his career as an engineer. He could already feel the weight of the two new pips on either side of his neck, and even though Captain Keyes was correct in that his actual responsibilities were mostly the same he now formally had the ability to make other changes, and make some that he'd already made official and permanent.

    "Well then", he said silently to himself. "Let's get this circus on the road."

    He looked down at his desk and started studying the files Keyes had dumped on his desk. He'd been trying to avoid this rank change but he'd realized it'd come sooner or later no matter what his own wishes were. After all, the captains didn't have too many admirals to choose from when it all came down to it.

    He also knew that Keyes was correct. One flag officer was enough for a tightly grouped combat task force but not when the ships were split into several smaller groups each with its own mission parameters. Add orbital and ground facilities to the mix and he knew the job would be far too large for any one person.

    Several of the people Keyes had picked were good candidates for the rank of admiral, most of them with several years' worth of command experience and all of them highly respectable officers.

    Sheila Duval was among them, as was Janet Valeris and his brother. George Halsey of the Endeavour was an odd choice considering who had given him the files, West knew him well enough to know he was a man of action rather than an administrator, while Heron Jahari was not. The admiral only knew him in passing, an engineer like himself with the typical razor-sharp mind of a Caitian.

    He did notice a name was lacking and he chuckled as he realized that. Elisha had recommended every person in the fleet who was already in line for a promotion even by the original Starfleet standards... except for herself. He suddenly remembered that she'd avoided getting promoted for close to three years now, successfully so far, but now he could finally retaliate for the weeks she'd hounded him.

    He pulled out an old ball pen from his desk and started writing on a blank piece of paper. The actual order would of course be electronic but considering the skill of his prey he knew it was best to cross all his t's and dot all his i's.
     
    Tweeky, Obfuscated, Salbazier and 4 others like this.
  7. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 5


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    SEPTEMBER 14TH, 2243



    "I see it, but I can barely believe it. You're really sure it would work?"

    "Admiral, if I didn't believe that I wouldn't be bringing it to you, now would I?" T'Pell almost looked insulted. "In truth, I can guarantee that it will. They're old design standards but as such they're also proven."

    "What would happen if you were scanned or got in a fight?"

    "As you can see from the blueprints it's not exactly our most advanced technologies but she's still got a few innovative design specs to counter such an eventuality", T'Pell pointed towards a few places of the pad to indicate just which he was talking about. "The exterior would be constructed using what we would see as the most basic materials but the inner hull would be heavily shielded and reinforced with tritanium alloy just in case. The ion drive is in fact just a modified impulse reactor but as you can see the ship does have a normal impulse manifold as well, though it's hidden beneath that hatch there."

    "Hidden?"

    "Yes. We'd have to blow away the exterior hull by use of explosive bolts here, here and here to use it. It would work and make for a very effective getaway in case it's ever needed."

    "I see", West nodded. "Ingenious."

    "The ship lacks shields but does have polarizing hull plating which we've managed to dial up the strength of quite a bit. It also has a warp drive though its effectiveness would be limited. It won’t be able to sustain more than perhaps Warp 6, and just over 7 in case of an emergency. That's a consequence of the reactor's limited power output. If we were to go for a modern reactor and warp drive the energy signature would be so large it'd be impossible to hide."

    "How do you hide it?"

    "Simple, it's built in a shielded location behind a quite modern energy dampening field and turned off when not in use. We don't expect anyone to see there's even a reactor in there, much less one producing that kind power. Plus, the fusion reactors can get us to warp if we need it giving us more than enough time to power up the antimatter reactor core."

    "Fusion-powered warp? That won't be fast."

    "Quite right, it will however be fast enough to escape a confrontation and would only be used as a stop-gap until the main core comes online.” T’Pell sighed, and then smiled. “We haven't seen any of the native ships even reach fractional speeds, much less go full faster-than-light. That’s probably a consequence of their lack of inertial dampening and navigational deflectors which of course we will have. Those systems will also be shielded from detection as well as able to turn off."

    "What about defenses?"

    "We've put phase cannon turrets on it. Not even close to being the latest model but even so they should still be quite effective against unshielded targets. It's also got two torpedo launchers, armed with the old photonic torpedoes."

    "Weren't those phased out from active service more than two hundred years ago?"

    "Yes, but they're fusion and not antimatter based. That was the main point in pulling their specs out of the archives and building them. They're a bit more powerful than the ones your NX-class used, but not by all that much."

    "I understand..."

    West thought about T'Pell's proposition for a minute. A scout ship, built far below modern Starfleet design and technical specs. At about the size of a Norway-class destroyer it'd be far smaller than any of the native military ships they'd seen so far and the overall design would be closer to a small freighter or passenger liner.

    The entire point and what T'Pell hoped was that it'd look less than threatening to anyone that looked at it. To reinforce this illusion it would even have real zero-g cargo pods in the external hull and the design called for the ship to carry various non-perishable goods in these. The Andorian had even made a few suggestions as to exactly what in order to more easily pass for a visiting or wayward merchant.

    He had no concerns about the more advanced technology in the ship being detected as so far no race they’d encountered had been using even the most basic form of subspace scanners. Fooling an electromagnetic or particle-based scanner was easy enough. He doubted they’d even be able to see the true face of this Trojan horse using the far more advanced sensors of the Albion, though the Nova-class' much higher resolution and multi-phase scans would no doubt be able to do so.

    There's not much you can do when the sensor systems alone take up more space than the engineering deck and can project more energy in your direction than the ship's combined weapons systems. A Nova’s sensors could even, given enough time, detect the quantum singularity powering a cloaked D’deridex which was something that otherwise only a Starbase or Deep Space station had been able to do.

    The ship would have a crew of thirty, all of them Andorian, and be commanded by T'Pell. The Andorians had according to T'Pell not only been chosen because they were his own people but more specifically since they couldn't be mistaken as human. West had to agree, their blue skin and antennae made that quite impossible. He had his doubts but it helped the captain's case that he'd suggested that the entire ship would be programmed to use the Andorian language on the displays and in the core code.

    Considering how long it had taken the humans of his galaxy to decode that language, Andorian words have different meanings depending on the syntax and has five possible syntaxes, no regular verbs and eight tenses, it should be near impossible for the natives. That was unless they had their own version of the linguistic genius that was Hoshi Sato. The admiral doubted that, and if they did the odds of bumping into that one human was less than unlikely.

    He still didn't fully like the idea of risking exposure but it was a risk worth taking if they could get the kind of intelligence they all wanted. T’Pell had also made a good argument about how to do it and what to use.

    "Very well, I’ll agree to approve your plan on the condition that you put in a subspace locating beacon. I won't let you out in the galaxy on your own without being able to locate you in case of emergency", he said as he rose from his chair and leaned over the desk to shake the Andorian captain's hand. "You have permission to build your ship. What will you need, Captain?"

    "Thank you, Admiral, and I’ll need very little. A runabout and a pair of shuttles should provide us the warp core and fusion reactors. The rest of it we'll have to reverse-engineer from the Federation database. You know, no one's actually even tried to make a lot of this stuff in over two hundred years."

    "Considering how long ago that equipment went out of service, I'm not surprised", West replied. "I'll tell the commander of Phi station to expect you."

    "My thanks to you, Admiral", the Andorian said with a sharp nod.

    T'Pell was positively radiant as he turned and left. He had honestly expected to have to fight a lot harder and a lot longer to get his idea through but if there was one single good thing about their situation it was the immense reduction in the amount of red tape one had to mow through to get a good idea approved. Even so he'd been certain enough of the meeting's outcome that he'd already sent the preliminary orders and all he really had to do now was to send the confirmation.

    "T'Pell to Tolar."

    "Tolar here, go ahead captain." The reply from one of the few other high-ranked Andorians in the fleet came.

    "Project Odyssey is a go, repeat, Odyssey is a go."

    "Confirmed, I’ll forward the orders."

    “Good, T’Pell out.”


    EARTH DOME
    GENEVA, EARTH
    21:15 HOURS



    "Damn it!" she swore silently. She weighed the risk and took another glance around the corner behind her but he was still there. She exhaled and softly, cautiously, touched his mind.

    The man had power; that much was evident. Nowhere close to hers but still a lot compared to most of the other telepaths she'd encountered thus far. While he didn’t look too bad his taste could definitely be better. He wore a black uniform, black boots, black gloves and no jewelry except the bronze badge indicating his status as a telepath. Didn't he ever get bored looking in the mirror? Seriously, this human telepath organization took itself far too seriously when it required every single one of their own to dress up like members of some kind of post-industrial freak show.

    He was good too, especially for a human telepath. She'd almost stumbled right into him and, hard as it was to admit, it was just pure dumb luck that had prevented that. She'd felt his presence way too late but his boot had made a sound against the floor. Just a little noise, easily missed, but her expert senses had picked it up before he’d managed to detect her presence. Even these poorly trained humans could sense her if she was close enough and if he could see or hear her the telepathic ability didn’t really matter much anyways.

    She knew she could easily take him out but there was no way she'd be able to cover it up for long. Bad thing about telepaths, they can't be tampered with as easily as non-telepaths. Another telepath could also easily see the tampering with even a light surface scan. She couldn't run either since he'd likely hear her and to make matters even worse, her way back was blocked by yet another of these black-dressed people.

    A less powerful one than this one, sure, but even so he’d announced his presence by softly singing some silly tune about a girl and a mountain. Ironic, it was due to most of her opposition being just as stupid as the man behind her that she'd been lulled into the false sense of security which had in turn almost made her trip over the one in front.

    Hadn't the Psi-corps ever heard of quality control?

    She looked around. The corridors here were as much a testament to the same excruciatingly bad taste and perfect beyond pedantic order as the uniforms its inhabitants wore. Every corridor looked exactly the same, every door looked the same and even the sparse potted plants were exactly the same distance from the walls.

    The picture frames on the walls didn't contain landscapes or paintings, they contained simple dogma; 'The corps is mother, the corps is father'. 'Obey'. 'Protect the family'. Even the most boring landscape picture would've been better suited to at least add some color to the otherwise damned near sterile environment.

    Heck, even the military was less meticulously pedantic than this. She knew this for a fact; she’d already been inside the Earth Force headquarters. This building was all in all decorated exactly as if someone had used a laser micrometer to measure the exact distance from roof and floor to the frames on the wall, and used the same laser meter to make sure the plants were all just exactly where they should. No taste, no imagination, or for that sake any soul whatsoever.

    Suddenly, the silence was broken and she froze still, didn’t even breathe.

    "Ah, there you are, Alfred."

    "Sir", the black-dressed telepath responded.

    "Come, follow, I have some people in my office that would like to meet you."

    She smiled. Finally the road ahead was clear. She knew exactly where to go, and exactly where her objective was. That fat bitch DeWalt at the entrance had told her everything she needed to know and even better, she didn't even realize she had done so. She'd told her quite a bit she didn't want to know as well and the memories she’d shared of a few of those things was just sickening.

    Before she'd arrived to Earth she'd never known what a blip was. Now she knew and she knew what fate awaited them. The mere thought that humans, not to mention telepaths, could do such things to each other made her beyond just angry. How could they treat anyone like that much less one of their own? She made a mental note to take that up with her handler in her report.

    She stopped again, waiting for a presence to leave the corridor in front of her. This one was a lot less powerful than the previous but the images she kept glancing from the untrained mind were distasteful to the point that she even started feeling nauseous. She was almost shocked when she realized it was just a child.

    She'd read her fair share of history, it was a basic requirement to know of the events which had formed a civilization before you were inserted into it. What she felt from the young telepath was a feeling of racial superiority and disgust of others she could only compare to that of Nazism.

    She'd been wrong earlier. This wasn't fun at all, but it was both just and necessary. Damned necessary.


    EARTH INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
    EARTH DOME, GENEVA, EARTH
    23:05 HOURS



    Parker hadn't even noticed it before. He'd been too focused on his current actual assignment monitoring Centauri and Narn military communications to be able to put any of his time into researching the Pasadena Skies incident. The two large empires had once again had one of their small but far too regular border skirmishes.

    Normally an event such as that would be nothing for Earth to worry about, but in the case of those two empires it didn't matter how small the skirmish was. It always had the possibility to spark a larger confrontation that would threaten the stability of the entire region. It would probably, hopefully, cool down in a week or so but both the Centauri and Narn governments were still shouting insults and rattling their sabers at each other.

    What had actually happened, whose fault it'd actually been, who had actually entered who's space first, those were questions not even asked, much less answered. No one really cared anymore. The Centauri and Narn had been at each other’s throats for a century now and Parker even felt apathy at the idea of investigating it.

    It was nothing new that either of the two hadn't done time and time again before and the result of such an investigation wouldn't influence anything as neither would accept responsibility no matter the amount of evidence he gathered. Plus, they'd still repeat the process in a month or two either way, no matter how much the Earth Alliance diplomats worked to prevent it.

    Now, he couldn't for the life of him remember where he'd put his pet project crystals. He'd gone through his desk several times, looking at the contents of each and every one of the crystals he had in the drawers and boxes in his office. He'd even gone so far as to go through and organize the ones spread over the floor and shelves.

    He'd found reports he'd forgotten he even had received and material he'd been at one time or another asked to process and then forgotten. Among the latter he'd found a very enticing video of a middle-aged senator and a very, very attractive young lady which didn't even remotely resemble his wife since twenty-something years. Material that in the wrong hands would mean a series of massive scandals that'd probably bring down half of Earth Gov was just lying on the floor of his office and no one had actually cared. Oh well.

    Still, what he was looking for simply wasn't there. He knew the crystals should be in his wall safe but they weren't. He remembered taking them out but he didn't remember putting them back in. But he always did. Or, at least, he used to. Not that the wall safe was a safe place, after all he'd forgotten the combination his first or second day and thus had never bothered to actually lock it.

    But why would someone steal those crystals when there were others like the one with the senator lying in the open? That one alone would be worth tens of thousands of credits if offered to pretty much any reporter in the world. The extortion value alone was astronomical.

    All he had left now was a single piece of paper with a blurred image of the so-called spacecraft printed on it. It really didn't look like much and that's why he'd wanted to have it analyzed. An imaging expert he'd consulted had called it 'a bad smudge on a camera' but he'd made some progress to reconstruct the image on the original crystal... But where was it?!

    Parker considered alerting security, it was standard procedure when material went missing, but then it struck him that nothing else was missing and who would break into his office just to get his hands on that when there were state secrets, grade A security reports, gold channel encryption data and even more of the same kind of material as the senator lying around as well, none of which were missing?

    In fact, calling security would just make him look stupid since it'd prove just how much time he'd spent on this project, time he wasn't exactly intended to spend on such trivial things. Not to mention how careless he'd been about storing all of these crystals, something any number of supervisors would happily use as an excuse to finally rid them of his sharp tongue. And when security realized he didn't even remember putting them back they'd just drop the case anyways since it wasn't anything important.

    And then they'd fire Parker since he'd misplaced sensitive information. No matter if the EIA believed it a hoax or not the tabloids would happily print the story as yet another government cover-up, even with some credibility considering the data crystal had EIA tags written all over its data. No, it wasn't worth it calling security. The thought that this very specific insight wasn't his own never even crossed his mind. No, he'd contact the man that had sent him the original crystal and ask if he had a copy. When he found the original he'd at worst have a spare. No big deal.

    He'd later realize that he'd forgotten the guy's name.


    SPACEDOCK PHI
    GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT, SIRIUS III
    OCTOBER 20TH, 2243



    The spacedock facility wasn't much, at least according to Starfleet standards, but it was still impressive. It looked much like a ribcage a hundred meters wide and four hundred meters long with worker drones scurrying about whatever was held firmly by the facility's mooring beams. It only had space enough for some three hundred workers, but when you added the autonomous drones that number was more than enough to construct a simple vessel like this in less than six weeks from keel to christening.

    T'Pell was however still astonished that the pink-skins had managed to construct the shipyard facility as fast as they had, not to mention that they had already all but completed his 'Project Odyssey'. To make matters even more impressive spacedock Phi was only one of two dozen such stations the pink-skins had planned to build and half of these were already completed. In less than three months! He found that he had nothing but reverence and awe towards the engineering ability and ingenuity of his Starfleet colleagues.

    The first eight stations had been planned as simple docking facilities, with resupply, rearmament and light repair capabilities. Currently the Akiras were taking up five, Alpha through Epsilon, of these docks and in other words that meant that every single Akira, as most of their crews working on the construction projects down on the planet or here in orbit, were effectively mothballed with only mooring crews left on the ships. The three Excelsiors were planned to enter dock as well as soon as the Eta and Theta stations were completed.

    The second batch of stations were planned to be defensible resourcing stations to allow orbital storage and refinement of raw resources and materials. Two of these were also supposed to be dedicated antimatter storage stations, unmanned but heavily shielded and defended. The last were pure construction yards like those at Utopia Planitia, two able to build each type of hull. The largest would be Type 4, the size of a Sovereign or Excelsior, with the scale going down to the Type 1 which was capable of holding hull sizes comparative to the Defiant and Saber classes.

    Spacedock Phi, also known as Orbital 21, was a Type 2 shipyard and had been rushed to completion ahead of schedule to accommodate the construction of his ship. That was also the reason the Excelsior docks were behind schedule, many of their components had been rerouted to finish Phi.

    His ship was the only one in construction so far and there were still no plans to construct any new ships as far as he knew either. To him, building what would later become an entire shipyard complex was a waste of resources and time when there was every chance they'd never be used, but it was kind of a pink-skin trait and one he knew their commanding admiral excelled in. They built things, how did they put it, not because they actually needed them but so they had them in case they ever would.

    The Andorian captain didn't complain though, had they not he'd have to wait several more weeks for construction to be completed, while as it was it'd be finished probably sometime early tomorrow. It was still impressive that they had been able to construct his new ship no matter how small it truly was in just over six weeks.

    The rapid progress of the construction of course had a lot to do with the simple materials used and the overall lower quality work than was normal in Starfleet ships. After all, most of the methods and materials of construction in project Odyssey were two centuries old or in some cases even more. Give or take a few things, the computer systems, phasers and warp drive couldn’t be more than perhaps fifty or so years old. It was old enough technology to be easy to construct and assemble and old enough that they didn't require the same level of precision in their assembly.

    The main thing that was missing was a ship registry number and name. T'Pell already knew what he'd name the ship, but he was unsure whether he even wanted a number. He'd have to take that up with the admiral.

    Still, even though it wasn't beautiful, fast or powerful, in his mind it could just as well have been made out of gold-pressed latinum. It was his ticket out into space again. He was an explorer and a warrior, not a babysitter. Sitting here in orbit around their new home world, be it in one of the most powerful ships in this universe, was still not much more than babysitting empty space.

    They'd already made perfectly sure that no one else had even been close to, much less in the system for the last millennia. What use was there for patrols when a single subspace scanner would see far beyond the system's outer edge?

    And, after all, this ship was truly his. It had been his idea, his design for construction, his people crewing it and would be command. Not that the gunship he was leaving behind wasn't his but when he'd taken command it'd already seen combat many times over in the hands of several other captains. This ship he'd be the very first captain to even enter.

    "Captain?"

    "Yes, Lieutenant Shenar?"

    "Phi Station report that construction is 98% complete. We can start bringing up the crew in preparation for the shakedown cruise which is scheduled for tomorrow at noon."

    "Good. Inform Commander Tolar, we should hurry."

    "Sir, I must ask, why the outdated construction and technology? We'd be far more powerful and far more able to defend ourselves using a ship of a more... current... design."

    "A good question from an engineer used to fighting on the technological knife's edge, I suppose. The answer is simple. Passive stealth."

    "Sir?"

    "We don't want everyone to see what we're able to do, much less that we're far beyond them technologically."

    "Ah. Deception", the engineer frowned as he didn't like the idea.

    "No, Lieutenant. Not deception, denying potential enemies any and all information about us and our capabilities."

    "Oh, I suppose that's all right then."

    "Good. Now get to it, Lieutenant. Tolar is waiting."

    "Captain", Shenar slapped his boot heels together and made an Andorian-style salute and then left the observation deck.

    "Tell Tolar to get the engraving done!" T'Pell shouted after Shenar just before the doors closed.

    Yes. This ship would carry on the honorable history of Andor even in this distant place.


    OSLO
    EARTH
    23:00 HOURS



    She'd been working on her relation with this senator for some time now. She didn't think much about it, she didn't love him but it was rather a business relation on her part. As for him, he was married and old enough to be her father, but he didn't mind either.

    The relationship had started only days after her insertion on Earth, more as a cover than a means of infiltration. Still, there were things he'd leak to her that could prove useful. He was only yet another useful tool in her inventory.

    Since her near miss at the Psi-Corps headquarters she'd started to consolidate her position. She'd already been informed that her new mission was simple. Naturalize into the population, improve her position and stay undetected. She'd be kept in reserve for now. She couldn't prevent comparing herself to the sharp knife one kept in one's pocket, just in case.

    She smiled and turned around in the bed, facing him. She didn't mind being kept in reserve. Plus, she might as well enjoy herself as long as she was here. Love or not, at least it wasn't boring.


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    OCTOBER 22ND, 2243



    West had definitely had some doubts about the feasibility of constructing a ship to a code more than two hundred years old but it had apparently worked out well enough thus far. There was nothing to say that the ship would stand up under pressure though and the maiden voyage would be risky enough since he couldn't exactly send out any other ships in support if something went wrong.

    "Well, T'Pell. I'm told by Phi station that your new ship is ready to be christened and put through its shakedown cruise."

    "Yes, Admiral, I've already ordered my crew to prepare for it. We’ll be ready when you are."

    "What's your operational plan?"`

    "A quick warp core test out to Sirius V orbit followed by a trial of the ion engines, weapons systems and defensive capabilities. The Valiant will be supporting in case anything goes bad and for tactical trials. If everything works as it should, the next stop will be Alpha Centauri."

    "Risky choice, considering that system's inhabited."

    "Well, not really. The native civilizations in the actual system aren't advanced enough to be able to detect us even in orbit and while Proxima is, we'd still jump into the actual system. Probably close to Centaurus. We don't expect the native pink-skins to be able to detect us there as it’s almost a full fifth of a light-year away."

    "Granted, but it's still a risky choice."

    "Admiral, the entire mission is risky and with all due respect, it's the only way we'll be able to sneak up on one of those wormhole generators and you know that. We'll have to be able to time our entrance just right in order not to reveal our own faster-than-light technology."

    The plan called for the risk to be taken and the admiral was painfully well aware of that. Still, as they needed to be close enough to reach the portal within just a few seconds at highest warp; T'Pell would need to get within a range of quite a bit less than a light hour away from it considering the slow speed of his warp engines. Much too close for comfort, and West only hoped it'd be far enough away to avoid detection.

    "I know, T'Pell. I know." He made a soft sigh, "I don't have to like it though."

    "I understand that, sir."

    "You and your crew are ready for the christening ceremony?"

    "Yes, sir, my crew's standing by on the Phi station observation deck."

    "Then let's get to it, shall we Captain?"

    "Yes sir", T'Pell nodded and flashed a smile.

    "West to Phi station", he said as he tapped his communicator, "two to beam up."

    The ship looked like something out of a history book, albeit not a Federation one. A blocky gray shape with crude lines and a rough surface, not even close to the fine curves and perfect finish of his old ship, but rather more like one of his own people's old spacecraft.

    T'Pell took the small signaling device offered by the admiral.

    "As I'm not a good public speaker, I'll try and keep this short. Today we start a new era in our lives. Today, we christen the first ship constructed at this our new home."

    There was a round of applause as T'Pell pressed the button on the small device. Outside the station a bottle of Andorian ale began its final journey, not towards the more suitable destination of a fine crystal glass but rather towards the bow of the blocky ship.

    "To honor the long standing military tradition the ship shall follow, I've requested and been granted permission to name her after one of the greatest heroes of my people", he paused as there was more applause, especially from the assembled Andorians. "Let it be known that from this moment on, what has earlier only been called 'Project Odyssey' is now a christened and commissioned Federation starship. Let it be known that her name shall ring throughout space as a vessel of honor. Let it be known, that her name shall be..."

    He raised his hands to usher silence and as the bottle slowly impacted the bow of the ship spreading its bluish content in free-floating blobs around it he continued. "...the 'AFS Thy'lek Shran', after our very own Hravi'shran th'Zoarhi!"

    The room literally exploded into applause. Not only had the ship received the name of a true Andorian folk hero, it had also received the prefix of an Andorian fleet ship and not that of a Federation starship. They all knew why but it was still as good a cause for celebration as any.

    T'Pell ushered silence again.

    "The 'Shran' will be the Federation's envoy to the rest of the galaxy, our way of communicating and exploring without revealing ourselves to be what we are, a civilization belonging to another universe. While this means that we'll sail under the wrong flag and with false pretense, it's not because of our wish for deception but to avoid panic, confusion and aggression. Either of which would be more than detrimental to our continued peaceful existence."

    With a final bow, he handed over the podium to the admiral again.

    "Let us complete this commissioning ceremony with us all wishing our fellow comrades a safe journey, Godspeed and good luck as they venture into the unknown that awaits them." West concluded the ceremony.

    With the entire room saluting them, the Andorians in their black uniforms all made a sharp salute towards the admiral and turned to exit the room. Within minutes, they were aboard the 'Thy'lek Shran' and begun to warm up the engines.

    West raised a hand to silence the room again, and then tapped his communicator.

    "Admiral West to Captain T'Pell."

    "T'Pell here, Admiral."

    "The 'Shran' is hereby cleared to depart from Phi Station and to begin shakedown."

    "Affirmative, we are bringing main engines online, one fifth thrust power. Clear all moorings."

    The rear of the bulky ship began to glow with a yellowish light as the ion engines were forced to push the ship out of its dock. It was a snug fit as the ship hardly conformed to standard Starfleet design and it took a few seconds to clear the space dock’s rib-like structure without impacting it.

    "Admiral, we have cleared the dock", T'Pell's voice echoed over the speakers. "We are commencing our shakedown cruise. We'll report in to Phi station as soon as we finish our tests."

    "Confirmed, 'Shran', you are cleared to leave orbit. Good luck, T'Pell."

    "Thank you, Admiral. We'll see you, well, when we see you."

    With that, the bulky ship pointed its bow towards open space and with a flash of light, she was gone. The admiral only hoped everything would go well. He'd already lost his fair share of friends, and he didn't want to lose yet another.
     
  8. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 6


    AFS SHRAN
    ALPHA CENTAURI SYSTEM
    CENTAURUS ORBIT
    OCTOBER 24TH, 2243



    The planet they were orbiting had been called Centaurus in their own universe, and had been the first planet in the star system to natively develop an advanced civilization. It had been a very quick evolution, life had flashed into existence only a few million years ago which was very little when compared to many other planets such as Earth.

    On the human home planet bacteria had taken billions of years to evolve to complex life followed by several extinction events slowing it down even further. On Centaurus the evolutionary chain was both shorter and faster with no such drastic events. According to what evidence existed the same thing had happened here, but even with the short evolution there were drastic differences in what path life had taken.

    The difference was likely caused in what choices evolution had taken, what form or path life had chosen at the different crossroads it had happened upon. He found himself wondering; to what final ends did evolution typically make these choices? Was it truly in the interests of intelligence, followed by sentience and finally arriving at sapience? Did it focus on nothing but just plain reproduction? Was it just random?

    No matter how short it had been evolution had still not chosen to take the same paths here as it had in the universe T'Pell and his crew came from. In his reality Centaurus was a flourishing Federation member and it had been one of the first civilizations known to have developed a viable and cost-efficient form of terraforming technology. In all actuality they had even done so long before humans had even launched their first satellite into orbit. In this universe, it was still definitely a life-bringing planet but life here was different, so very different.

    Centaureans as he remembered them were humanoid in appearance and a very scientifically advanced civilization. The only really major difference between them and humans was a slight difference in skull form which gave them a somewhat elongated head in comparison. The life forms beneath him on this Centaurus were hardly advanced and not even he, who sometimes had problems telling one pink-skin race from another, would call their appearance close to human. Instead of an advanced primate civilization he'd found an avian civilization with a technological level more comparable to Earth's Iron or possibly even late Bronze Age.

    It's funny how life can take such a turn from the expected path. While some planets had not developed life at all, most of those that actually had had seemed to have taken completely different evolutionary choices. Thus far, the only exception was Earth itself and he still didn't quite understand why that was. Of course, even the humans in the fleet were dumbstruck at that question as well as they hadn't only evolved into the same race but apparently shared much of their history as well.

    "Science, is there any information we can use about this civilization?"

    "Not much, sir. They're not even to the point where they've gotten a basic understanding of electricity yet much less interstellar travel, except possibly in some romanticized legend or religion."

    "This is hardly unexpected given their point of development", T'Pell nodded. "Very well, send the full sensor logs in an encrypted subspace package back to Starfleet Command. There might very well be someone back there who is interested in studying a flying feudal society."

    "Yes sir."

    "Helm, plot a course to bring us closer to the termination point between the inner system and Proxima. Keep us at low warp; let's see what's out there before we get there."

    "Yes, Captain. New heading set, Proxima at vector 40 by 5, warp four."

    "Engage."

    The Shran had already spent more than enough time here in the inner system, taking what time the engineers thought they needed to fine tune their sensors, warp drive and shielding systems to an as close to perfect condition that the limited but capable crew could get them.

    T'Pell was proud of their work but the question as to whether it was or was not good enough wouldn't be answered quite yet. It wouldn't be until they came up against the native races' ships. Only then would they learn whether these humans’ sensors could detect their own ship's less than advertised technology. Hopefully and indeed probably they wouldn't be able to do so and T'Pell was betting the safety of his crew and his people on that gamble.

    He'd seen the Earth Force warships up close and personal and he didn't believe for a second that the Shran would be able to take more than a few seconds worth of that kind of firepower, which of course was still quite a lot compared to any equally sized native vessel. Ironically these new pink-skins reminded him more of Andorians in the way they built their ships.

    They even seemed to be more prepared for a war than of the pink-skins he was more used to, the humans he knew usually looked at war as something so unlikely it wasn’t even worth training for. Granted this last decade had seen a large deviance from this path of institutional pacifism, in no small part due to the Cardassians, Dominion, Borg and Romulans taking advantage of a half century of just that.

    "Bridge to engineering", he said as he pressed the small communicator button on his console.

    "Engineering, Shenar here", the reply was almost instant. "What's the word, Captain?"

    "Are you ready to get this show on the road?"

    "Yes, Captain, all the sensor shielding is up, and we're not emitting any antimatter signature that even our own sensors can detect." T'Pell could hear almost Shenar think. "I don't think there's anything more to be done, all systems are online and at your disposal."

    "Good to hear, Shenar, bridge out."

    It was time to put the cards on the table and hope no one tried to call him.

    "Operations, rig the ship for silent running. We don't want to attract the attention of these pink-skins quite yet and certainly not while at warp."

    "Silent running, the course is laid in and we’re ready to jump at your command, Captain."

    "The command is given." He replied.

    The bridge lights dimmed as the ship's power signature dropped considerably. All non-essential systems were now offline.

    "Plan a course to bring us within forty light minutes of the portal device."

    "Course plotted, sir."

    "Take us there, increase to warp five."

    "Warp five, aye sir."

    The moment of truth was upon them.


    PROXIMA TRANSFER STATION
    OUTER PROXIMA ORBIT



    Even at a late hour like this an Earth Alliance transfer outpost is always fully manned and active, in theory ready for anything that would or could come their way. At least that's what the good book said it should be. In reality there's not all that much to do on an outpost in the middle of the night and this plus the fact that most sane people abhorred the graveyard shift led to a very silent and almost sleepy atmosphere on the station.

    Then again, not even Earth Force Command thought there was any real risk of a midnight attack on a core system deep inside the Alliance. Not even the boldest pirates dared stray too close, not with the much more heavily guarded mothball yards being as close as they were. There was just no way that the military would leave that much hardware lying around without a decent amount of protection.

    This sleepy atmosphere changed as the jump gate array just outside the station started to emit the controlled energy bursts required to create its tear in space-time and as if by magic the large sleepy space station came to life, interceptors were launching and the defense grid activating almost automatically.

    "Jump gate sequence initiated, Commander."

    "Ah, good, this should be the Korolev." The station’s commander made a check on his schedule. "Wonder what kept her, she was supposed to be here more than an hour ago."

    "We'll see, Commander, the jump gate is forming. I'm reading a signature, sir; it's a Nova-class dreadnought all right. No other ship has quite that silhouette. IFF also confirms that it's the Korolev."

    "Stand down the defense grid, it's one of ours."

    "Aye, sir; defense grid confirms stand down order."

    Outside, the jump point had finished forming and the colossal bulk of the Korolev started to emerge from the swirling vortex, preceded by its forward laser cannons and sensor antennae.

    "Proxima station to Korolev, please respond."

    "Korolev here, standing by for further instructions Proxima station."

    "Registry and orders confirmed. You're cleared for parking orbit."

    "Affirmative, Korolev is moving out."

    Everyone in the combat information center looked at the massive shape of the dreadnought as it slowly glided past the large glass windows in all its dreadful glory, and for several seconds no-one even noticed the small ship that had just appeared right in front of the still open jump point.

    "Proxima, this is the captain of the Korolev. We are reading a small ship that just appeared near the jump gate. It seems to have followed us out of hyperspace."

    "Korolev, repeat that?"

    The lower ranking officer in charge of the jump gate sensors looked at his control board, and then looked up and pointed at a small object in space through the window, just barely visible near the now fading jump point.

    "Commander, they're right! An unidentified ship followed the Korolev out of hyperspace!"

    "What? Cancel the stand down order. Let me see!"

    The Lieutenant moved aside so the station Commander would have a better view of the sensor boards.

    "Their silhouette and power signature matches nothing in our database, sir."

    The Commander saw the small dull grey colored ship, at least it looked like a ship, glide slowly towards the station. It made no obvious signs of aggression, but then again he didn’t know what to expect such a sign to look like either as he'd never seen anything even remotely like it.

    "Looks small though, could it be a freighter?"

    "Sensors would seem to corroborate that. I'm reading large amounts of organic materials as well as refined chemicals, must be trade goods, sir."

    "Do we detect any armaments?"

    "Light, but she has some. I'm only reading minimal weapons signatures, none of them active but again a signature not in the database."

    "This looks like a first contact situation then, the station should be updated with every signature known to the Alliance."

    "It would seem so, sir." The officer nodded. "Scanners are picking up some twenty to thirty life signs on board the UFO but they don't match anything we have on record either."

    "Hmm....." The commander almost seemed to lose himself in thought, until the lieutenant demanded his attention.

    "Commander! I repeat. Shall I stand down the defense grid before we start first contact by blowing a few holes in them?"

    "Oh! Yes, make it so, Lieutenant."


    AFS SHRAN


    T'Pell almost sighed in relief as the power signature of the station went back to normal. He wasn't sure they'd timed it exactly right, but so far everything looked like it had gone according to plan. He just hoped it'd remain that way.

    He'd underestimated the armaments of the small space station; in fact it had almost the same amount of firepower as the dreadnought they'd used for cover as they’d exited warp. All in all it wasn’t the nicest surprise when all of a sudden all those guns were armed and pointed at you.

    "Helm, move us closer to the station. Make it slow, but just slow enough to be believable."

    "Aye sir, going... slow", the helm officer replied with half a smile.

    "Captain, we're being scanned. They're hailing us", Tolar said from her station at the sensors console.

    "Do they detect anything they shouldn't?"

    "Hardly, Captain", she sneered. "As we suspected they're using a mixture of primitive EM sensors combined with a tachyon-based transceiver array. They aren't even making it through the inner hull much less penetrating into the shielded areas. There is virtually no chance they can read anything but what our transponders tell them they are."

    "Good." He waited a few seconds. "What language are they hailing us in?"

    "Earth standard English, sir."

    "Very well, reply using a standard radio wave transmitter and send them the basic Andorian language files."

    "Aye sir, files are being transmitted."

    It took a few minutes before the pink-skin station responded and they did so just as first contact procedures dictated in any civilization by sending them their own language files. T'Pell smiled, he'd been able to speak fluent English since he was about five years old and even without the aid of the universal translator he had little problem understanding several of the other human languages as well. He made a mental note that this could give him quite an advantage.

    "Disable the universal translator”, he ordered. "Everyone, please at least try to act like you don't understand English. While I know it's an extremely simple language and that we all know it, they do not and I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible."

    That was a comment that made the entire bridge crew smile. "The translator is disabled, Captain."

    "Good, though next time please humor me and say that in Andorian, Tolar."

    "Yes, Captain."


    PROXIMA STATION


    The minutes went by all too slowly, at least for the people in the control center of the Proxima transfer station. They'd transmitted their language files just over five minutes ago and, while it would probably be considered fast for these aliens to understand their language in that short a time, the suspense was murderous.

    "Sir, they're responding to our hail now."

    "Visual?"

    "Yes sir, putting it up on the main viewer."

    As the viewer was turned on, showing a panoramic image of the alien bridge, Commander Patterson almost dropped his jaw. The aliens were humanoid in appearance but still quite a bit more alien than most other species he'd ever seen in person.

    They reminded him more of the Gaim Ambassador caste than anything else but they didn’t have the insectoid exoskeleton and seemed to breathe normal air, or at least have a translucent atmosphere. The most alien thing wasn't the blue skin, the short stature or the militaristic black jumpsuits they used however, it was the two visibly and continually moving antennae on top of their heads.

    Patterson tried to regain his faculties and spoke up while frantically trying to remember what was actually written in the Earth Force instructions on first contact situations. All of a sudden he thought it to be too bad that he'd never paid much attention to them, but he'd never even considered applying for a job in, much less becoming a commanding officer in, the Explorer Corps.

    "I bid you hello and welcome to the Earth Alliance system of Proxima Centauri. My name is Commander Patterson and I am the commanding officer of the Earth Force transfer station here at Proxima."

    The alien looked like he was listening to a translation of some kind before speaking and it took a while for the commander's own system to perform a similar function, though he received the translation as text on a screen instead.

    "Well... *met*... Commander... I... *ship owner* T'Pell."

    He almost cursed. It seemed the computer couldn't translate all of the alien language yet or lacked some words in its translation matrix. The asterisks in the translated text denoted the computer's best guess and not an actual translation, which also meant that he had to tread very carefully as he couldn't be entirely sure that they understood him any better than he did them.

    More than one great conflict could trace its source back to a bad first contact, and he really didn't want that kind of stain on his otherwise impeccable record.

    "May I ask what the purpose of your visit to Earth space is?"

    "Trade... ship... far... home... explorer. Merchant."

    "You're a trading ship far from home?"

    "Yes."

    "Very well, I'd like to invite you to visit our station so we can meet face to face."

    "*Acceptable*"

    "Very well, I'll instruct one of our shuttle bays to prepare for your entry. Do you need any special environment?"

    "No... Yours is... *acceptable*."

    "May I ask, what is the name of your species? Where are you from?"

    "Andorian."

    With that, communications were cut. Patterson smiled; first contact experience was always a good thing to have on your résumé, especially when what you really wanted was to advance to a ship command of your own.

    He didn't want to be a parking director for the rest of his career, which was pretty much what he saw Proxima station as, with the massive mothball yards as his personal overgrown parking garage.


    PROXIMA STATION
    TWO HOURS LATER



    So far everything had gone almost exactly to plan. The pink-skins didn't suspect the truth and their cover story had been accepted apparently without as much as a hint of doubt. T'Pell and Tolar had gone over to the Earth Alliance station, not through transporters but rather using a replica of an old pre-Federation Andorian shuttle pod, and met with the human male in charge. So very different these pink-skins were to the ones they were used to!

    The commander had shown them around their station, apparently trying to impress them with the 'technological advancements' that had been used in its construction. They had at least tried to look suitably impressed and T'Pell only hoped the pink-skins didn't suspect otherwise.

    If nothing else being in the zero-gravity central structure had been pleasing even if that very area had been the one the station commander had been the least proud of, no doubt because the only way they could simulate gravity was rotation and that wouldn't work when you left the outer sections.

    Still, the main question the commander wanted answered remained the same.

    "So, Captain? Is that a correct title?"

    "It is close enough, as you say."

    "You said you were explorers? Where do you come from?"

    "Andor."

    "Yes, you said that. Can you tell me where it is?"

    "Far from here", T'Pell said and feigned that he still had trouble with their language, which was extremely hard to do when he probably had a better grasp of it than the human in front of him.

    "Can you be more specific?"

    T'Pell remembered his earlier briefing and decided for a white lie. Hopefully that'd get the Commander off his back, "far past Yolu."

    "Ah. That explains it; we've never been out that far. Are there many of you? What is your home like?"

    "Our system binary, white stars, many moons, some we live on. Few ships."

    T'Pell kept his serious face but made a mental smile, as he saw the commander's physical response. At this point he was fairly certain he could read the pink-skin's mind. He'd successfully sold his image as being from a comparatively primitive society that didn't pose much of a threat. That was one mission objective successfully completed.

    He hadn't even lied about the system except for its location as Sirius was in fact a naturally binary system with two white stars and they did have settlements at least under construction on two of the moons. Also, even he thought the thirty and change ships they had were ‘few’.

    "Are all your ships as impressive as the one you arrived on?"

    "This is newest ship. All others are older."

    That was also true. Albeit the Shran was built with centuries old technology which by his people's standards had been obsolete even before T'Pell's great-grandfather was born, it was still constructed much more recently than the far more advanced Sovereigns.

    "I see." The commander smiled and his entire posture showed suitable relief.


    USS ICARUS
    FEDERATION NOVA-CLASS SCIENCE VESSEL
    BETWEEN MINBARI AND CENTAURI SPACE



    Jameson couldn't help but loudly curse their infernally bad luck. So far, they'd been able to traverse most of the galaxy undetected and as such had likely been lulled into a false sense of security that they alone travelled through the depths of space in between the stars. Now it seemed that this precious illusion was at an end.

    They had entered an area of space that separated two of this universe's major powers, the Centauri Republic and the Minbari Federation, in order to gather some intelligence about both in general and specifically the latter. There was precious little information in any other race's databases about the elusive Minbari and as always curiosity had gotten the best of them.

    It may have seemed like a good idea at the time but right now he was fairly certain it was not. The yellow and black colored flower ship pursuing his vessel as they tried to get away was a good indicator that his assessment of the situation was quite correct as well.

    "Commander!"

    "I see, Lieutenant", he'd held off from using any defensive measures except evasion for as long as possible to appear less hostile but he no longer had that option. "Raise shields and charge phasers!"

    "Shields up, phasers active!"

    "Helm?"

    "We're traveling at close to max impulse sir, and it's still gaining!"

    "Oh, crap. Can we go to warp speed yet?" he asked. They’d been caught too close to the gravity well of a blue giant they’d been studying but the ship had been racing away from it at very high impulse for the last few minutes, hopefully they’d gotten far enough away now.

    "We should, sir... we can't sir!" the pilot replied with more than just a bit of panic evident in his voice. "Our warp field just keeps destabilizing before it can even fully form! It’s not the star, we’re clear of that, this is artificial!"

    "What?!" the captain asked with a mixture of surprise and dread in his voice.

    “The ship, or whatever it is, it’s emitting some kind of energy field around it. It’s somehow dampening subspace!”

    This was a problem. He had no idea what this ship was capable of, but the ability to create a dampening field not to mention one strong enough to neutralize a Federation warp core required not only a deep mastery of subspace technology but also a lot of practical experience and research in order to fit it inside anything smaller than a heavy cruiser.

    Not even the Romulans, who had invented the technology in his universe, had managed to make one that didn't require a full D'deridex size warship. As far as he knew the Federation still hadn't even been able to make one that actually worked.

    And yet this ship, not much larger than the Icarus, seemed more than able to do so and still have enough energy remaining to not only give chase but actually close in on them.

    “Still no response to our hails?” Jameson asked. "Any word at all?"

    “No sir, not since they tried to upload that virus over our communications system”, the officer replied. "I'm not too sure we want to risk bringing those systems back online though, Commander. Our firewalls barely held them at bay the first time."

    "Well then, I think we've shown clearly enough that we want to withdraw without incident. Load the aft torpedo launcher and set the warhead to minimal yield."

    "Torpedo loaded", the tactical officer stated a bit too sharply. He didn't have much experience but that was normally not all that necessary on a Nova-class ship either.

    "Aim it across their bow, make this a warning shot but don't overshoot by too much." Jameson made a grim face. "Fire!"

    "Torpedo away!"

    The glowing blue torpedo shot out of the rear of the ship and Jameson and all of his bridge crew watched it pass right between two of the pursuing ships petals. They didn't know anything else to better describe them as. The ship however just blatantly ignored the message they were trying to get across and kept on course still chasing them down quickly approaching relativistic speeds.

    "The hostile ship is still on our tail sir. Now reading it at point eight nine of light speed, sir!"

    Jameson was just awed. They were accelerating at the maximum amount of thrust an impulse drive could push out without pulling out the safeties, and not only didn't they have the time to do that but going much faster would require them to drop the shields and solely rely on the deflectors as the shield bubble started to act like an air brake at speeds that close to the speed of light.

    Space was often seen as empty but at relativistic speeds even the smallest particle impacting the shields would do so with incredible energy. A rock the size of your fist impacting would equal being hit by a small nuclear weapon, more than enough to keep the ship's speed down. The deflectors typically pushed debris like that out of the path of the ship but the shield bubble was larger than the deflector could compensate for.

    "Sir! Our sensors are picking up highly increased energy signatures; they've activated some kind of weapons systems!" The science officer was almost panicked.

    "Confirmed, sir!" tactical wasn't much better off. "They've locked on to us!"

    "We have no choice", Jameson calmly stated and bit his tongue not to join his officers’ panic. "Weapons hot people, return fire and this time use maximum yield torpedoes!"

    Jameson was interrupted by the entire ship shaking as the flower ship's forward weapons hit.

    "Shields down to seventy two percent, sir, we can't take too many of those hits. That beam cannon is comparable in strength to a Borg cube's main weapon!"

    "Tactical, return fire!"

    "Having problems locking on, sir, they seem to use some kind of scattering field!"

    "Aim manually then, just shoot back damn it!"

    "Aye sir, I'll try." Tactical bit his tongue and almost frowned while trying to align the targeting reticules on his screen. "Helm, can you get me a better angle?"

    "I'll do my best but I'm trying to dodge that damn death beam at the same time", the helm officer replied with considerable irony.

    The Nova-class starship made a sharp banking turn to let its main weapons, the dorsal phaser arrays, face the flower ship. It didn't take many seconds until the first golden yellow particle beams started to hit the alien aggressor but due to the bad aiming only half the rays actually hit. Apart from several lucky shots landing so close to each other that they almost cut one of the petals off half-way out from the ship, they did precious little damage.

    "Report!"

    "Minor damage to the hostile, our phaser beams seem to be barely able to damage the main hull!"

    "Lock on quantum torpedoes, auxiliary power to weapons!"

    Jameson would remember the following minutes for the rest of his life. The length of the Icarus shook as another energy beam impacted the shield bubble. It was getting dangerously low on power now and for some reason the enemy weapons almost seemed to slice through them like a warm knife through butter.

    The shields weren’t able to do more than dissipate some of the energy from the shots, they weren’t able to deflect or stop them completely meaning each time they were hit the enemy did real hull damage as well. Considering the Icarus was one of Starfleet’s lightest armored ships this was an extremely dangerous situation. Barely breathing Jameson gave several short orders in succession.

    In just a few seconds, the Icarus made a series of sharp banking turns during which the flower ship was struck repeatedly by every phaser array that could get an angle and managed to actually hit. The phaser beams weren't enough to destroy or even cripple the enemy ship, they did leave blackened and scorched hull behind every hit but didn't manage to cut deep enough to do any real damage.

    It did however seem like the flower ship lacked weapons capable of firing to its sides, a dangerous vulnerability against a maneuverable opponent and if there was any one phrase that could describe the combat capability of a Nova, high maneuverability would be the one.

    With the advanced series of maneuvers completed and the Icarus now speeding away from the flank of the hostile, the rear launcher fired another spread of quantum torpedoes at the target. The difference from the previous one was these were several torpedoes at once and that all of them were set to their absolute maximum yield.

    Normally a single good with a torpedo set this high would be enough to implode an unprotected starship of the same size. These torpedoes only scored glancing hits on the hostile’s rear section, but the massive explosion that followed completely severed three of the four petals from the ship including the previously damaged one.

    "Sir, it's still pursuing. We won't be able to outrun it and at this rate it won't be long before we're dead either. Our shields are just barely holding at eight percent and one more hit from that energy beam weapon will most likely finish us. Let's face it; this ship doesn't have much in the way of armor left and considering how fast they've disabled our shields..."

    "Very well", Jameson nodded and made a grim face. "Then let's finish this."

    The flower ship wasn't the slightest bit slower than before but it did seem to be quite a lot less maneuverable than it had been before the torpedoes hit. Jameson guessed that the petals worked as some sort of maneuvering aid but the torpedo hits could have damaged other systems as well. He made a mental note of it either way.

    Whatever the cause the damage the ship had sustained did allow the Icarus to lock on to the already damaged sections of the hull. More than likely their torpedoes’ high energy detonations had disrupted whatever stealth system they were using, exposing the now scorched and battered aft section. With that simple fact, the engagement was effectively over and Jameson uttered only one short sentence; “Fire, use everything we’ve got!"

    The flower ship might have been able to withstand phasers. It might have been able to withstand a series of glancing maximum yield quantum torpedoes detonating close to undamaged armor. It was not however able to withstand two of the maximum-yield zero-point energy implosions detonating only centimeters away from each other and in an already damaged section of its hull.

    The detonations tore through space and the unsuspecting flower ship with equal impunity and as the highly charged exotic quantum particles released from the zero-point matrix started to eat away at the exposed edges the ship's fate was sealed. Fractions of a second later the entire ship joined the rest of surrounding space in an explosion of brilliant energy, leaving little more than blackened debris behind.

    "Damage report", Jameson breathed as he slumped back in his seat.

    "Sir... I'm reading a lot of damage to the outer hull, we have deep breaches on decks six through eight though the emergency force fields are holding for now. The shuttle bay and the mess hall are both open to space."

    "Anything else?"

    "Yes sir, we've lost most of our high-resolution sensors and sickbay reports two dozen casualties, eight of them fatalities. Damage has been sustained to all shield generators; we won't be able to maintain them at more than at most a forty percent charge. If we're lucky and don't burn out the grid when we recycle them that is."

    "Damn it!" Jameson kept on cursing for a few seconds. "Helm, get us the hell out of here as fast as our engines can handle. We just bit off a hell of a lot more than we could chew."
     
  9. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 7


    CLASS XI SHUTTLE
    EN ROUTE TO AQUILA STATION
    SIRIUS SYSTEM



    The morale here in orbit was unusually high as construction on the orbital facilities was finally going according to plan, resourcing operations were on schedule and most of the evacuees were now in the process of settling down on the planet making their best attempt at beginning their new lives.

    The shellshock of being exiled from their own reality which had been so devastating to morale had finally begun to subside and in its wake it lit up the most basic human survival instincts, bonding, procreation, construction and the ever present human curiosity and lust for exploration.

    West had actually thought it impossible for his people to be able to recover this quickly. It had barely been more than three months since they were stranded in this reality and by now they had already finished building two of their new settlements. Elysium was only lacking a few civic buildings and the final gardening work while the smaller complex of Erebus was all but lacking the finishing touches. The former would be the new capital, the latter the exiles’ new industrial nexus.

    A smaller settlement, thus far nicknamed Atlantis, was also being constructed on the moon’s surface. It was more reminiscing of a complex on Risa than of anything Starfleet had ever previously planned. He smiled, it’d been a great idea from an equally ingenious ship's counselor and the construction of the recreational complex had already managed to have a positive effect on morale.

    The fact that the moon's orbit was so low and that it always showed the same face meant it was even possible to use transporters to travel directly between the planetary and lunar settlements. It didn’t matter on which planetoid you lived, you could get from one to the other in literally the blink of an eye.

    Right now the admiral was heading for the newly finished orbital they'd christened Aquila Station. As a station constructed and designed for a simple enough reason, orbital defense and fleet control, it was an impressive feat of technology for a civilization as small as theirs. Even so and even though he was the kind of officer that preferred preparing for even the least expected eventualities, the admiral didn't really think it had been too necessary to build in the first place.

    They were far out of reach of the Romulans and thus far no one had seen any evidence that any of the native races had ever entered this system much less knew that it was now inhabited. Then again, he knew as well as anyone that the prudent decision was always the one that made them ready for anything and this had definitely been one of those. If push ever came to shove Aquila would be more than capable to turn a small fleet of native ships into little more than smoking debris.

    The admiral relaxed and leaned back in his chair. Necessary or not it was finished now and one of his duties as the commanding officer of Starfleet was to head the opening ceremony. To be quite honest he didn't have too much else to fill his days with either except the usual paperwork that was always part of having command.

    On their way to Aquila station they had passed close by the orbital docks. He still thought the structures looked like silver rib cages but at least they weren't all empty anymore. The Akiras and Excelsiors were all parked in the now being linked docking facilities and effectively emptied of their crew. His Norway- and Intrepid-class destroyers were parked in stable lunar orbits awaiting more spacedocks to be completed and only had skeleton crews aboard while the rest of their officers and crew made their new homes on the planet.

    At this point there was no real reason to keep more people in space than absolutely necessary, the exception being the vessels that were still being used in the construction and resourcing efforts. To that end the smaller spacecraft had little to do other than patrolling the area while the more combat-oriented Akiras and Excelsiors had absolutely nothing to do at all.

    The Akira-class heavy cruiser was after all first and foremost designed to be an oversized gunboat and while these ships could perform other missions as well he did have more than enough smaller ships that could do the same missions just as well but requiring a much smaller crew.

    The Excelsiors were more than able to do just about anything being designed to be the jack of all trades of the Starfleet, but not even a Galaxy-class battleship had the same excessive crew requirements as the Excelsiors did and he didn't trust their aging systems to stand up to extended trips anymore either.

    He sighed and shook his head ever so slightly. There wasn't all that much for him to do, at this point only three of the vessels under his command were outside the system and all of them were on discreet reconnaissance missions. Even T'Pell, even though he had the most interesting mission, was still only gathering information.

    It was almost ironic that he found himself missing the war which had been raging back home, but then again the lull of everyday work in this new home was the exact opposite of the constant action against the Romulans.

    Suddenly, the calm was interrupted as the junior pilot opened the door between the cockpit and passenger cabin.

    "Admiral, we're being hailed by Aquila Station." He said. "It’s Admiral Keyes in person, sir. She says it's important and that you should talk to her ASAP."

    "Very well then", he replied and pointed to the display unit on the wall. "Put it up on this screen, crewman."

    It only took a few seconds for the pilot to return to his seat and transfer the signal and then the face of the newly promoted Vice Admiral Keyes appeared on the screen.

    "Admiral Keyes, what brings me the pleasure?" he smiled.

    "Admiral West", she replied in a no-nonsense tone that immediately told him this was no courtesy call. "I'm sorry to disturb you but I thought you should be made aware as soon as possible. We just detected an incoming warp signature and it'll enter the system in less than two minutes."

    West was suddenly very disturbed. They weren't expecting anyone; none of their own ships was scheduled to return for at least another week.

    "One of ours, I presume?"

    "Maybe, even quite probable, but we can't be sure yet. They aren't responding to our hails and the warp signature is a bit off. I can’t imagine it not being one of our ships but considering we have no idea what’s out there… I can most definitely imagine it not being our people at the helm."

    "Until we get confirmation we have to assume the worst", he nodded. "Elisha, what do we have hot in case we need them?"

    "Little, sir, and what we do have will be unprepared."

    "Elisha... I’m not having this discussion again, not now.”

    "I've already asked the captains of the Independence, Victory, Valiant and Venture to go to yellow alert and head towards Aquila at best possible speed. They're still going to need a few minutes to scramble."

    "That's all?" he asked, he was truly surprised. There should be more ships than that on active duty.

    "All we can muster in the time we have", she replied. "Most of the other ships are either mothballed, on the other side of the system or locked in the planetary gravity well."

    "Four ships... Very well, see to it that the Gabriel and Michael launch their fighter squadrons. If it’s not ours we can’t let it get the word out, much less escape, and if it is one of ours with someone else driving it we can’t let them keep it.”

    “Agreed.”

    “Now, let's see what's coming our way", West made a deep sigh. “Hopefully it’s just one of the Novas returning because they’ve sustained damage to their subspace array.”

    "I hope so too, Aquila out."

    "Pilot, go to full speed", Admiral West said over the intercom. "I want to be at the Aquila five minutes ago."

    "Yes sir."


    USS ICARUS
    DEEP SPACE, APPROACHING SIRIUS



    The ship was limping through the dark void between Pi Eridani and Sirius, its battered and bruised hull barely even resembling what had traveled through this very same space only a few weeks ago. That time they’d travelled in the opposite direction and going at more than twice the speed. This time they had to be a lot more careful and go a lot slower.

    Jameson was still worried. They'd sustained heavy damage during their battle with the flower-shaped ship and some of it they hadn't been able to repair yet. One of these damaged systems was the port nacelle and another was the sub-space communications system.

    He'd seen what the maintenance pod had recorded after a quick check of his ship’s outer hull and he'd been quite shocked at just how badly his armor could get scorched without being torn open. It all gave even more emphasis to how much the enemy ship's weapons had hurt as he looked at the tears and holes in it and how close to destruction the Icarus had truly been.

    He was impressed with the old girl though, she was still in more or less one piece and surprisingly enough she was still holding together even at warp 5. He didn't want to push the engines further than that with only one functioning nacelle and there was also the damage to the deflector array as well as the sensors which meant traveling faster than this was quite easily comparable to wanton suicide.

    A starship colliding with a small planet at several hundred times the speed of light just because they didn’t see it in time was not something Jameson ever wanted to see, much less do, no matter how spectacular the results would be. As it was the helmsman was in a constant state of high alert scanning space ahead of them for debris. In its weakened state even a rock the size of a basketball could overwhelm the deflector array.

    He didn't know how his peers would react to his entrance considering their warp signature would be different with only one nacelle operating. The fact that they had no way to communicate with them until he entered direct visual range wouldn’t help either.

    He had little choice but to go in anyways as he'd also been strongly recommended by the engineers not to exit warp any further out than they had to. They’d found that the damage to the warp engines was severe enough that it could easily mean they'd burn out their precious few remaining warp coils, not to mention the warp plasma grid, if they tried to restart them.

    "Commander, we're approaching Sirius, estimated time of arrival is in two minutes."

    "Good. Let's go to impulse speed a good while before orbit but still inside the system, I don't want to startle the admirals any more than we need to."

    "Aye-aye."


    AQUILA STATION
    SIRIUS III HIGH ORBIT



    What an opening ceremony and what irritating irony. Admiral West had thought the station superfluous since the day he’d first seen the blueprints but now, the first time the admiral had set his foot on the station, he was here to order the station to do the very job he'd failed to see the need for.

    West kept his focus on the impending situation and tried to hurry as much as he could while he kept mentally scolding himself for having been so falsely secure in his beliefs. His only redemption laid in the fact that he was always trying to prepare even for the least expected scenario, the construction of this station had been part of that constant passive vigilance, and that this eccentricity on his part had proven to be an advantage at this moment.

    The ship could belong to one of the native races, even if that was a highly unlikely scenario, and if so it had to be destroyed or detained before it could report their existence or escape. The other possibility was that it was one of their own ships, but if so that only raised more questions like what had happened and why they weren’t or possibly couldn’t respond to their repeated hails.

    The irony was that the second alternative could be far more devastating to their situation as one of the most likely reasons was that it could be due to battle damage. It didn’t have to be, the ship could just as easily have been trapped in an ion storm or been damaged by any number of natural phenomena, but they’d specifically told all three captains to avoid any investigations that put their ships at risk.

    He quickly made his way from the landing pad to the turbolift, barking his destination with equal hurry. The ride seemed to last forever and by the time the lift had reached the command and control center he’d pretty much thought the entire situation through one too many times already.

    “Admiral”, Keyes nodded as he entered, she stood at the main command console in the middle of the oversized control room. “I just heard from Captains Duval and Kira, the Independence and the Victory are both standing ready at red alert. They'll be here momentarily.”

    “Good. Have we gotten any new information on the approaching vessel?”

    “Negative, apart from its warp wake it’s still too far away for a decent resolution scan. It is still closing though.”

    "How the hell could we just see it when it got this close?" he asked no-one in particular. "It's not like there's that many more that we know which use warp drives."

    "Easy, space is big, my station isn’t even commissioned yet much less fully staffed and the ships that have good enough scanners to see it that far out are either sent out on survey or on the other side of the system getting scrambled by the white dwarf", Keyes replied evenly and paused as she looked to the sensor display. ”Aquila to all ships, stand ready. Here it comes."


    USS MICHAEL
    FEDERATION ARCHANGEL-CLASS FLEET CARRIER
    SIRIUS III LOW ORBIT



    "Alpha wing, scramble, scramble, scramble!"

    Davis was already on his feet, in his flight suit and heading for his fighter with his helmet slung across his back. The last few weeks had been paradise, being aboard a real strike carrier was his dream come true.

    He hadn't made Angel squad quite yet, actually no one had filled that position yet, but Alpha wing wasn't too bad either for someone who just got on board from a Federation Guard fighter squadron. Just moments later he was strapping the Peregrine-II attack fighter to his back and the flight crew was giving the thumbs-up for a hot combat launch.

    "Alpha, this is flight leader”, the helmet radio crackled to life. “We'll launch in ten. Keep in a close wedge formation as we exit the cone. Niner, you'll be on my wing today, as will you alpha two."

    "Niner here, confirmed, I'm on leader's wing", Davis said in his radio.

    "Keep your heads cool people. This may not be a hostile, we'll proceed under the assumption that it is but do not fire unless fired upon or ordered otherwise."

    The confirmations came in from all the other eleven starfighters making Alpha wing.

    Seconds later they were launching in combat formation. In a show of perfect timing, the twelve small spacecraft had launched three at a time with just barely more than a second between them. They soon formed a strike wave formation in just and were quickly heading towards their latest objective with just about every ounce of speed they could get out of their impulse engines.


    USS ICARUS
    APPROACHING SIRIUS III



    "Bridge, this is engineering.”

    “I hear you, engineering”, Jameson replied. “What’s up?”

    “I'm sorry, sir, but we won't be able to give you impulse power."

    "Engineering, say again?" Jameson did so not want to hear that.

    "Captain, the old girl's pretty banged up. The impulse drive grid just won't be able to hold any real pressure before it blows in our faces and cooks half the ship. There's no way in hell we'll be able to fix it in time."

    "I see."

    "Commander, we're entering the system now", the helm officer interrupted. “Sirius orbit in thirty seconds.”

    This was cause for concern. He didn't want to exit warp too close to the planet, partially because he didn't want to seem like a threat but mostly because without impulse power their braking distance would be quite, well, long to say the least.

    The worst case scenario was that it’d be long enough to do a swan dive into one of Sirius’ numerous moons. Still, if he exited too far out they’d run the risk of running into the asteroid field that was just outside the colony’s orbit.

    The helm officer did his best to compensate and miss both but at high warp it was a hit and miss operation, the accuracy of dropping out of high warp was hundreds if not thousands of kilometers. It could easily be more than enough to make this a very dangerous situation.

    "Commander, we need to act now", helm pointed out. “I’ve lined us up as best I can, but I can’t give any guarantees.”

    "Very well, Ensign, take us out of warp now, full reverse thrusters."

    "Sir, at these speeds thrusters really won't make much of a difference if we get out too close."

    "You think I don't know that?" Jameson asked rhetorically. "We don't have a choice, Ensign."

    "Aye, sir..."

    "Good. Now let's pray to God someone is looking and is able to get a tractor lock on the ship before we crash into something expensive."


    AQUILA STATION
    SIRIUS III HIGH ORBIT



    "Admiral..."

    "I see it, Elisha. Magnify!"

    Now he knew what the vessel was. What he didn't know though could fill volumes.

    "Tell the defense ships to stand down from red alert, but to keep their eyes open. Get those rescue operations underway immediately!"

    "All ships, this is Aquila", Keyes spoke with a shaken voice. “Launch rescue operations but tell your crews to exercise extreme caution. The unknown ship is the Icarus and she looks like she’s gone through hell and back.”


    ALPHA NINE
    SIRIUS SYSTEM



    Well, he might as well put his weapons on safe as he probably wouldn't be shooting at anything anyway. The relief at that was kind of taken away by the view however as he looked out and saw the blackened and scarred vessel that had just appeared in front of his fighter wing.

    The Icarus had exited warp and immediately started to spin out of control as its braking thrusters had fired unevenly. The inertial force had likely given the crew a shaky ride but what was even scarier was that the force of the uncontrolled spin had almost completely sheared off the ship’s port nacelle.

    The damaged plasma conduits was rapidly filling the surrounding space with clouds of purple glowing warp plasma and even Davis knew that nacelles wouldn’t just snap from a little g-force. It must have been heavily damaged even before the ship had exited warp, either way it was only hanging on to the rest of the ship by a few thin strips of twisted metal.

    It hadn't taken many moments before the Independence had shown up and after a short while she'd managed to stabilize the smaller Nova with her tractor beams. By now the two starships, the larger towing the smaller, were escorted by the full fighter wing during their slow but steady trip over to the now empty spacedock Phi.

    The engineering crews would have their work cut out for them, considering the amounts of damage Davis could see with his bare eyes he could only imagine the state of the internal systems and he was quite sure patching the ship up would take weeks. If it was at all possible, he’d seen ships in better condition than that be scrapped for parts.

    The escort may have been superfluous but seeing the damage caused to the Icarus and the lack of communications so far, evidently caused by the blackened scar that used to be its subspace transceiver, made every precaution necessary.

    As far as the defense forces were concerned the Icarus was to be treated as a captured enemy combatant until they'd gotten through to and ascertained the status of her crew. No one really believed that some native race had boarded her and taken control, especially not considering the ship had made no hostile action, but the risk still existed and thus they took precautions.

    "Well then", Davis quietly commented to himself. "It would seem our stay here may get more interesting than I thought."


    AQUILA STATION
    FOUR HOURS LATER



    "Admiral West, Admiral Keyes", Jameson saluted them both in order of rank, though with some difficulty as his lower arm was still braced.

    "Commander, please take a seat", Keyes answered the salute with a quick nod and gestured toward a seat at the other side of the table.

    Jameson did as ordered and took a seat opposite the two flag officers.

    "Now then, can you explain to us what the hell happened to you and your ship?" Keyes began the debriefing.

    "Well, sirs”, he sighed. “In short, we went too far, too fast, and we managed to run into some trouble."

    "'Some trouble', Jameson, you must be joking", West stated and looked more than just somewhat annoyed. "Even by the engineers' first glance, your ship is going to need several weeks’ and possibly even months’ worth of repair work. Your port nacelle is so badly damaged that it's barely even worth salvaging for scrap metal. In some places your outer hull is almost completely melted down to the inner hull, in others the inner hull is now the outer. The chief engineer at Phi Station almost cried when he told me it'd be quicker to list what systems don't need repairs than which do. Please, be a tad more specific if you could."

    "Very well, sir", the commander nodded, almost feeling a chill down his spine as the admiral had told him just how close that battle had actually been. "We set out following the path we'd been ordered to by Admiral Keyes. We followed the Centauri border along the course that you provided while surveying and gathering sensor and signal information about their society from outside."

    Jameson tried to remember as well as possible.

    “We started our primary mission near the Epsilon Eridani system, which interestingly enough according to local knowledge is an uninhabited system. We managed to prove this incorrect and while we never went close enough to get a complete reading on the possible life forms we could confirm that there was a large energy reading on one of the planets. We flagged it for further investigation by a dedicated mission at a later time.

    We continued along the border zone between the Centauri and Minbari empires for some time, passing through or close to among others Chi Eridani, Barradas II, Galorndon Cor and the Miridian system. These were all M- or L-class worlds, just like they were in our universe, but we detected no traces of intelligent life on either of these planets.

    We did find two of these wormhole apparatuses in the Miridian system of which one seemed to be relatively recently constructed. We believe the older apparatus, material dating puts it at more than a millennia old, was either forgotten or has malfunctioned at one time or other. The newer of the two read as at no more than a few decades old and is by all indications being both maintained and kept in service.

    We continued to gather data from across both borders but it appeared as though the maps we were able to get earlier were correct, neither the Centauri nor Minbari have made any claims to these systems.”

    West interjected with a question, "a neutral zone between the two?"

    “Of sorts, well, perhaps. There is no historical evidence of any real conflict ever erupting between the two empires, at least not that we have managed to find so far, but the Centauri don't seem too anxious to get too close and the Minbari don't really seem to care about the Centauri one way or the other. There’s not even a single sensor buoy along the border that we could find, on the Minbari side that is.

    This was mostly what we found from there all the way along the shared border, with only minor discrepancies compared to the data we already had. Mostly these differences were due to natural causes, like one planet that may well have been an M-class planet only a hundred years ago, but it's now a B-class semi-molten planet due to the rapid expansion of its star as it has entered its red giant stage.

    This changed, however. We were closing in on the location where Starbase 123 would have been in our own universe, it’s a blue giant now and we spent some time analyzing the star’s expansion. In our own universe it’s stable, in this one it is not. Anyhow, we were suddenly scanned by an unknown source and we're still not sure whether it was a ship or something else.

    Either way, one of those big sinkholes in space opened up only a few moments later and what must have been a ship exited the portal. We tried to avoid contact in compliance with your orders but it was soon evident that we’d already been spotted. The alien ship took up a pursuit course and charged at us immediately after entering normal space. Well, we immediately went to full impulse and ran trying to get out of the star’s gravity well.

    We tried to hail it, tried to explain we meant no harm and that we were sorry if we had trespassed on their space, but all we got in reply was a single word.”

    "What was that, could you have misunderstood it?"

    “No sirs. There was no room for misunderstandings. The word was transmitted in English and simple enough to understand. It was 'Insolent'. Then the enemy ship tried to use our own communications bands to upload some sort of artificially intelligent computer virus which we were just barely able to stop by shutting down the entire communications array.

    We tried to escape into warp but the ship... I don't know if it engaged some sort of field, or if it was always there and we didn’t notice it until then. We haven't been able to study the sensor logs yet due to the battle damage. Either way, it destabilized our warp field and it was rapidly overtaking us at sub-light speed.

    We tried to fire a warning shot over its bow, a minimum yield quantum torpedo, but this did not deter or even slow down the pursuing ship. It targeted our ship’s drive systems and fired directly at us. Sirs, a single shot from that spinal beam weapon it was equipped with was enough to take out a quarter of our shield strength as well as cause serious damage to our internal systems. We had little choice but to fire back.”

    "Then what happened?" Keyes spoke up.

    “It all happened very fast. We couldn't achieve a positive lock on the ship and my best guess is that they use some sort of advanced ECM system powerful enough to scatter our automated targeting systems. We had to rely on manual and optical aiming which I must admit could have been more effective had our tactical officer been more experienced. He still did his job very well for someone a lot more used to scan for stellar anomalies than for weak points in armor.

    Even so, we may have missed with a lot of shots, but we did hit them with quite a lot of them too, sirs. What we did hit with barely even scratched the paint job on the hostile, though eventually we did manage to damage one of its... well, I'll have to call it a petal, which seemed to reduce its maneuvering ability somewhat. Enough so that we could briefly outmaneuver them at least.”

    “I see”, West nodded and looked to Keyes. “Elisha, I want the hull damage of the Icarus examined closely. I want to know what kind of weapon these aliens have that can breach our shields that fast.”

    “Of course, Sam”, Keyes nodded as she wrote it down on her pad. “I want to check those sensor logs first though.”

    “Good enough”, West replied. “Continue, Commander.”

    “It took quite a while, sirs, and a whole lot of phaser fire before we even managed to make dents in the ship's armor. It seemed like its armor was almost impervious to our phasers, much like our own ablative neutronium-tritanium alloy armor, maybe even better. Still, it had a weakness. The armor may have protected it well against our beam weapons but it didn't protect fully against quantum torpedoes. Especially when set to maximum yield.

    The first volley we fired only scored glancing blows but they took out most of its maneuvering ability along with a chunk of that super armor of theirs. The next volley of two impacted on the very same place and with the armor already cracked open they managed to completely destroy the ship.”

    Jameson sighed and looked pleadingly at the two admirals. He wanted them to see, to understand what had actually happened, and he wasn’t sure he was getting the entire picture through. It was hard enough to explain any better though considering he still didn't even think he understood more than perhaps half of it himself.

    “Still, sirs, you must understand. The ship we went up against wasn't much smaller than the Icarus, but one thing I do remember clearly. We only read a single life form and it was like nothing we've ever seen before. Something tells me this was just a test, or just a simple gesture that we weren't welcome.

    From what I've seen of the ships the other races here use, I personally doubt this was the largest ship this race has. It was small even by our standards and our ships aren’t even close to the native races in size. I also severely doubt that any other ship in this universe, and definitely none of the ones we've seen so far, could have stood up to that kind of firepower. The energy output of that beam weapon is just far too great to be survivable without really good shields and that means better than my own ship had.

    Anyway, we turned around and started heading back as fast as we could and as soon as we could. We had to travel at impulse for almost an hour before subspace was calm enough to form a stable warp field. Even though we did win the engagement it was a pyrrhic victory at best. I lost more than a quarter of my crew in the engagement and I'm not at all surprised that the ship needs extensive repairs. In fact I’m still surprised we managed to make it back in as few pieces as we did. We've encountered a species that's very close to or possibly even beyond our own level of technology and from what I’ve seen so far, they're not too friendly, sirs.”

    "Very well, Jameson, is there anything else you wish to add?" West was almost pale.

    "Only one thing, Admiral, my crew performed far beyond what they were trained for. They should be commended."

    "Understood, you are dismissed, Commander."

    Jameson saluted both of the admirals again and exited the room. Outside, he let out a sigh of relief. He'd been waiting to tell his story ever since the battle. It felt better that while he'd had to suffer through the battle, the possible aftermath was now someone else's problem.
     
  10. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 8


    PROXIMA STATION
    EARTH ALLIANCE TRANSFER STATION
    PROXIMA CENTAURI SYSTEM



    T’Pell was still a guest of Commander Patterson's and the two officers had gotten to know each other quite well over the last few days, though this was perhaps more true for T’Pell than for Patterson. The latter had been very inquisitive and to fill in the blanks in his story T’Pell had been forced to use his own memories of Andoria. He didn’t lie as such but he did omit quite a lot of facts, something he suspected Patterson realized but tried his best not to show.

    The commander did have a lot of other duties as well though and the Andorian often found himself assigned to one of his aides, a young human named Sheridan. He had quickly found that he actually quite liked the young Earth Force lieutenant commander. He didn’t ask too many questions about things T’Pell couldn’t give honest answers to and seemed friendly and open enough to discuss even the deepest points of view on diplomacy, ethics, morality and anything else T’Pell thought was good grounds for leisurely conversation.

    Sheridan had early surprised the Andorian with his very strong sense of ethics and morality, especially so when he'd made it perfectly clear that he placed ethics far above duty or loyalty which was something that probably both had and would continue to hamper his advancement in rank quite noticeably. The higher ranks were much more likely to offer opportunities for advancement to people they could trust to pull the trigger no matter their personal feelings about it and it was obvious that Sheridan was not one of these people.

    Right now the Andorian captain was standing next to one of the main view ports in the station’s outer ring. He found himself drawn to the reflective dots that hung in high orbit, the massive figures of what the humans called Nova-class dreadnoughts. Even though their design were primitive by his standards the ships made true on their class designation. What they lacked in technology, they more than made up for in sheer size and numbers.

    He’d been surprised when he learned that their main armament were the twin-linked plasma pulse cannons, short ranged and comparatively hard to aim due to the slow moving ordnance, but he'd also been amazed when he learned that an alpha strike with these guns consisted of no less than sixteen of these beasts, that meant thirty-two barrels total, being able to fire long bursts at the same target at the same time.

    It was nothing short of amazing what ingenuity these humans had, especially as he'd quickly calculated that a continuous barrage from these cannons wouldn't need too much time to eat through even the much more advanced shields of a Starfleet warship. The main issue would be hitting the Starfleet ship however. Their targeting systems were nowhere near capable of tracking a target maneuvering at fractional speeds not to mention that avoiding the slow plasma pulses wouldn't be too much of an issue for a good helmsman.

    “Am I disturbing you, T’Pell?” Sheridan’s voice startled T’Pell. Lost in thoughts, he hadn’t even heard the young commander arrive.

    “No, John. I was just thinking.”

    "I understand", Sheridan said and looked out the view port. “They’re quite intimidating, aren’t they?”

    “Quite. Your people need them?”

    “Well, that depends on who you talk to. We did once, when we entered the Dilgar War, but since then they thankfully haven’t really seen much use. They would be kind of overkill to chase pirates and raiders with even if they were fast enough to catch them.”

    “I haven’t heard of this Dilgar War before?”

    “I’m surprised, it pretty much involved the entire sector”, Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "But then again, I guess you come from further out than the war ever got."

    “Can you tell me about it?”

    “Sure, though I can pretty much only tell you what you’d find in the history books. I wasn't in the service when it happened. Earth was involved roughly ten years ago though the war itself actually started much earlier than that.” A line formed on the young man’s forehead. “A race called the Dilgar decided to attack the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. Their reasons were simple enough, their own star was dying and they needed to find a new home, but the war soon grew out of proportion to that.”

    “Oh, how so?”

    “Instead of stopping their campaign after they had gained what they needed, conquering a few worlds to rescue their people, they kept going and not only attacked but actually managed to conquer a majority of the League worlds. The rumors of what happened to the races they conquered were gruesome enough to put us on high alert even though we were far out of the way of their war fleets.”

    “Oh”, T’Pell said and raised an eyebrow; he didn’t have any trouble believing Sheridan’s story as the Alpha Quadrant had had its fair share of xenophobic alien races that thought genocide was a good thing to begin an occupation with.

    “Their war fleets were initially very successful, cutting a wide swath through the scattered and unprepared League defenses with only minor losses. There were a few exceptions, such as the Abbai and the Drazi who managed to hold them at bay for a long time, but in truth their expansion was only stopped when they finally attacked the Markab, a race Earth is and was allied with.”

    “I see… then what?”

    “Well, we entered the war”, Sheridan sighed. “It was a very close call that we managed to save the Markab at all, the Dilgar deployed some really nasty weapons against them, but we did and we managed to win a devastating victory in that battle.”

    “Judging by these ships outside, I have little doubt.”

    “In truth that's only part of the reason we did. The Dilgar armada was overextended, fighting a war on several fronts against more and more determined enemies. In the end what proved fatal was the simple fact that they'd grown accustomed to victory. Their quick and very successful advancements into the league had convinced them that no other race had an equivalent military power or tradition which meant that they were far too confident about their own abilities to even consider that they might actually lose."

    "A dangerous state of mind for their commanders to enter, no doubt", T'Pell nodded, it was a textbook mistake many successful military commanders had made, no matter what race or era. "I suppose your people showed them this error in a truly spectacular manner?"

    "We had already started mass-producing the behemoths you see out there, as well as the smaller Hyperion cruisers. For each week that passed the war was moving closer to the Alliance borders and the entirety of Earth Force was soon put on a war footing. We had every reason to fear our own space being next on their target list", Sheridan said and shrugged. "Either way we met them in a classic line battle above Markab. While they had the technological advantage their ships were weaker in terms of both armor and weapons than our dreadnoughts and completely unprepared for our use of battlefield nuclear weaponry.”

    Sheridan closed his eyes and tried to recall what else he’d read and heard.

    “What happened then was the same as in most other wars when you fight too many opponents at once. Our initial victory over their fleet spawned even more victories in other theatres as they had to pull ships from those to reinforce the now wide open front our fleets were advancing through. They were no longer able to replace ships and crews as quickly as they lost them and the image of the Dilgar war fleet as an invincible force was destroyed forever."

    "No doubt", the Andorian nodded solemnly.

    "In only just over a year's time our forces spearheaded an advance that eventually pushed them back to their own system and blockaded them there. There were a lot of close calls, the Dilgar were good enough strategists to adapt to our own strategies and tactics after the first few defeats, and gaining that victory took a lot of lives and a lot of materials. But in the end, we still won.”

    “I understand. What happened to these Dilgar then?”

    “Well, that’s the part we’re not so proud of. You see, we didn’t know about the condition of the Dilgar star until long after the war was over and the Dilgar were too proud to say anything about it either. A few years ago it went nova and, discounting a few minor colonies, the race pretty much ceased to exist in an instant.”

    “Oh…” T’Pell was shocked. He hadn’t heard this tale before but it actually explained a lot about why they were seeing these massive amounts of military equipment in mothball yards across the Alliance.

    “In a way, that war was what propelled the Earth Alliance to our current status as an interstellar power. Before that we were often seen as a young, minor nation which was still dependent on the Centauri for protection. Since the war we’ve been able to use what political and diplomatic capital we earned in that war in expanding our influence into the league and continue to colonize worlds both in unclaimed space and inside our own borders. These ships…” he motioned to the view port, “...today they are little more than a reminder of that war. They haven’t seen much action since and probably won’t any time soon either, but their presence and legend alone is enough to deter most other civilizations from picking a fight with Earth.”

    The young man was interrupted as Commander Tolar entered the lounge. She gave a short nod of greeting to Sheridan and turned to T’Pell.

    “Captain, a word if I may?” the commander asked speaking in an older dialect of Andorian so the human wouldn’t understand.

    “What is it, Tolar?”

    “We’ve received orders from home", she explained, her face completely expressionless but her rapidly moving antennae showing him exactly what she felt and the urgency of the orders. "We need to return there as soon as possible.”

    “Very well then”, T’Pell nodded and turned to Sheridan. He offered him his hand in the standard human greeting. “I’m sorry but it seems I have to cut this visit short, Sheridan. I will return as soon as I can and hopefully have new cargo to trade as well.”

    “You are always welcome here, Captain. Next time we should hopefully have a reply from Earth Gov about that request you had.”

    “Thank you, my friend. Now, I must leave.”


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    NOVEMBER 6TH, 2243



    Not too long ago Admiral West had thought the size and capacity of the new conference rooms in the Starfleet Command complex to be drastically oversized. He'd seen no need for looms like these considering the now so drastically reduced amounts of personnel in the fleet compared to what Starfleet normally had. Now he wasn’t so sure anymore.

    He’d issued a full recall order to every starship captain, and now he had all thirty-odd captains along with most of their first officers, chief engineers and science officers present in the room. With more than a hundred and twenty people attending all in all the large conference room was just about filled to capacity.

    He looked around a bit; they were still waiting for a few more representatives but most were already there. Keyes and Jahari were seated at his sides at the end of the large table, both looking just as uncomfortable in their new uniforms and insignia as Admiral West did. His promoting the two captains to the newly established Admiralty was as much an act of retaliation on the two for hounding him about his own as it were two long and well deserved promotions.

    West had known Elisha Keyes for most of his career and was very familiar with both her personality and her service record. The fact that she hadn’t already been promoted to the rank of admiral was mostly due to her own wish to remain in space rather than to have a desk job.

    Heron Jahari, previously the commanding officer of the Gabriel, was more of an unknown factor. He’d been commended on several occasions for his tactical and strategic capabilities in the Dominion War, especially in the field of starfighter tactics, but had also chosen to remain in the captain’s chair of the Gabriel rather than ascending the ranks.

    Still, West had never personally served with him before the Romulan War and had only really met him on formal occasions since. His reputation as a capable engineer and effective administrator did however precede him and made him perfect for his new assignment.

    West had found that personnel changes were much more effective if you didn't ask the person in question before you signed the applicable orders, especially since in his opinion the best people to handle responsibility were the people who would never ask for it in the first place. He'd never found a career officer he'd respected.

    Their respective promotions had been fairly silent, with their former first officers taking over as acting captains until permanent captaincies were assigned. It was more of a formality than anything else though, everyone knew there was few others than these first officers available, much less capable, to take over the two ships.

    Back home there'd be a 'short' list, in reality a list as long as the admiral's forearm, with prospective candidates to take over. There'd be dozens of captains and hundreds of commanders, all of them with command experience from one ship or another and sometimes even several. In this new situation there wasn't even a list at all.

    There had once been a well-used toast in the old British imperial forces, “Cheers to bad weather, unhealthy seasons and to long, bloody wars”. These were all the easiest ways for officers to get rapidly promoted. They’d had neither, but he doubted any plague, war or storm had ever taken out the entire staff overhead and support staff of a fleet before, with no replacements or deputies on hand to take over.

    Promoting these two to the rank of vice admiral and transferring them to stationary commands had as a side effect caused the entire command structure of each of their ships to take a step upward. He doubted that anyone had complained too much. Now, Keyes was stationed at Space Command on Aquila Station where she was responsible for all space-based missions, while Jahari was based here in Elysium in charge of Starfleet Engineering as well as the Science Corps, areas he’d so far proven very successful in handling.

    It wasn’t enough to take the entire work load off of West and to be quite frank part of his job would also be to monitor these two's work. It would however be enough to ensure that he’d have time to focus more on the overall strategic and increasingly time-consuming civilian situation. He'd soon have to appoint at least another deputy entirely dedicated to those matters as well. Not all military commanders saw the advantages in a civilian government but after spending a long enough time as a de facto military governor he knew better.

    Taking a closer look at the gathered people, a collection of gray and black uniforms with their linings a rainbow of red, yellow and blue, he was quite proud that they had been able to handle their new situation as well as they had. He wasn’t so proud of himself though, he didn’t even know all of them by name and that was something he should have been expected to do by now. Not only that but he also felt a sting of guilt as his eyes met the hazel-brown gaze of the captain of the Independence, to his knowledge he'd been the only person present in the room that'd so far failed to uphold the rules as far as personal relationships came as well.

    Finally the last arrival came in the door. The standard Andorian space forces uniform was quite different from its Starfleet equivalent but since there had barely been enough time for the crew of the Shran to make it back to Sirius, much less change into their Starfleet darks, it was accepted and respected. A few of the assembled Vulcans assumed an expression on their faces that was eerily close to distaste, but even they held their tongues.

    T’Pell didn’t look too uncomfortable in the deviant uniform either but instead had a rather satisfied look on his face. It was almost as if he’d won some kind of unspoken victory against those same Vulcans. It was not all that surprising given the history between Vulcan and Andor. West almost smiled at this, T’Pell had always seemed uncomfortable in his usual Starfleet uniform even though he did it honor. Maybe this was a positive sign.

    “Well then. As we’re all here, shall we get this meeting started?” West interrupted the casual conversations between the gathered officers. The room instantly became almost entirely silent as he continued. “As you all know by now, we have several things to discuss. Some of these more, some of these less important, but all of them need to be decided upon sooner rather than later. I’ve asked you all to come here to give your input, and your recommendations, on these issues.”

    “First off, I’d like to announce some personnel changes. As you are all well aware by now, I’ve decided to promote Captains Keyes and Jahari to the rank of vice admiral. To replace them in their positions as captains I’ve come to the conclusion that their former first officers, commanders Carl Hansen and Sophia Clark, are the only people that can be considered for filling their positions. Congratulations, commanders, by the power vested in me by my rank and position you are both hereby and formally promoted to the rank of captain, with all of the respect, responsibilities and duties of that rank.”

    He shook the hands of both new captains while the gathered officers gave a generous cheer.

    “Furthermore, I’d like to formally grant Commander Jameson of the Icarus, who have performed above and beyond the duty of his rank of commander while in command of that ship for the last six months, the permanent rank of captain as well. I know it’s late, but better late than never, right captains? I'm also confirming the field promotion I gave Captain Diaz of the Valiant who has filled the position left by Captain T'Pell.”

    More handshakes, though this time the celebration was much more controlled. Both of them had already been in command long enough to be viewed as captains by the rest of the assembly, formally correct or not. West understood them. While it was always a joyous occasion when someone got promoted, this one had been long expected and really didn't change anything.

    Even the Hispanic Captain Diaz had proven her command abilities already when she'd been scrambled just a few days ago and had performed admirably given the circumstances. Not surprising considering she'd been taught by one of the best combat captains in the fleet. Few others had the combat experience of T'Pell, he'd literally been in every conflict small and large the Federation had been in for the last three decades, and Diaz seemed to have soaked that knowledge up like a sponge.

    “I recognize some may be surprised I didn’t decide to replace these people with either of our other captains, Bryn and Sanders, but they’ve both been assigned to other positions more suitable to their respective skills. Captain Bryn will head the research and development department, also known as the toy box, under Admiral Jahari, while Captain Sanders will be in charge of resource management under Admiral Keyes as soon as the orbital docks are completed. Both of them requested these assignments well aware that it would take them out of consideration for the captaincies of the Bellerophon, Valiant and Gabriel.”

    As the noise in the room quieted down, West continued. “That part being finished, I’ll move on to our second and arguably most pressing issue. The race the Icarus encountered during its survey of the area along the Centauri and Minbari border and the results of said encounter.”

    West stood up and activated a monitor, showing an image of the Icarus as it had looked just four days ago when it arrived in the system. The little noise there had been in the room quieted down almost to the point where you’d hear a pin fall. The image alone was terrifying enough as it was for any of them, but what made it worse was that it looked more like the ship had been through a gauntlet of Romulan warships than in a dogfight with a single small enemy vessel.

    Not even a Defiant would do that kind of damage to a Nova that fast and the Defiant-class gunships were still infamous across known space for their insane amount of frontal fire power.

    “We know literally nothing about this new race. There is no reference to these ships or even a hint of the species occupying the area of space which she entered in any of the information we’ve been able to gather from the different races we’ve encountered. As such we must assume the other nations know just as little about them as we do. What we have been able to find out is found in what little we managed to salvage from the Icarus’ sensor logs.”

    West turned to the cat-like and graceful appearance of Admiral Jahari and motioned for him to take over.

    “Ahem… thank you, Admiral”, Jahari said and looked somewhat uncomfortable. One of the actual reasons he had never accepted the rank of admiral before was that he didn’t like public speeches, something otherwise both quite unusual for Caitians in general and among Starfleet command officers in particular. “Well, so far, like Admiral West said, we’ve only been able to ascertain a very limited amount of information from the Icarus’ sensor logs. What is most evident is what a simple ocular inspection of the starship's battle damage would reveal.”

    He brought their attention to the large display with the battered image of the Nova-class science vessel.

    “As you can see the so-called ‘flower ship’ was able to inflict serious damage upon the Icarus. Something that is well worth noticing is that the Icarus sustained all of this quite severe hull damage even though her shields were still holding. The ship in question used a kind of energy beam that we’ve never experienced the likes of before and it seems to at least partially defy the laws of physics as we know them. While they were able to diminish some of the weapon’s energy, the shields were not able to fully absorb or deflect it. They thus lost a lot of field strength while still allowing some of the weapon’s energy to pass unhindered through them and strike the hull.”

    “This weapon is both quite powerful and quite dangerous. We calculate each successive hit by the weapon drained a full third of the remaining shield strength. The increasing amounts of energy that managed to pass through the shields had an effect on the outer hull much like a disruptor beam, dissolving the hull plating at the molecular level where it struck."

    "The beam weapon also severely disrupted whatever systems were located at or in close proximity to the area it hit. It is likely pure luck on our part that the ship never actively targeted the engineering decks, a direct hit from this kind of weapons on any of the systems involved in the warp core or antimatter pod containment would have probably had catastrophic effects.”

    He turned away from the display for a moment.

    “As I said earlier, we haven’t been able to ascertain much from the Icarus’ sensor logs, but this is what we have been able to find out so far. Due to the largely unknown and from our initial assessments biological materials that make up the composition of this ‘flower ship’s hull, we haven’t been able to get accurate sensor readings of its insides. The entire ship seems to register as a single life form and as such we can’t get a solid reading on the amount of, or the race of, the crew. The organic hull seems to be able to regenerate its damaged sections, at least to a certain point, much like the Borg regenerative armor."

    "It does also seem to incorporate much of the ablative function of our own armor when it comes to phaser energy absorption, shedding damaged cells to prevent further damage. This makes our standard phaser settings almost useless as Commander, I'm sorry, Captain Jameson found out the hard way. We do however believe that we can adapt the particle beam modulation to at least partially counter this, but to negate it fully would take a lot of dedicated research into the molecular makeup of this organic armor as well as samples of said material.”

    “In essence, we’re dealing with a race which is comparable or possibly superior in technology to ourselves. Their technology is quite probably fundamentally different than ours in many areas, and among these differences is their obvious use of organic technology which we aren’t entirely unfamiliar with. There is also their apparent mastery of subspace physics which I’m sad to say seems to exceed that of the Romulans themselves...”

    "Unless of course what happened was simply an on their part unknown side-effect of some other technology they employ", West interjected, not entirely content with admitting a race which didn't appear to use subspace for anything else would put subspace jammers on small warships with their limited amount of available space. "I wouldn't be too surprised if they have superior technologies in some areas while being inferior in others, after all our ship was the one still standing in the end."

    "Of course there is that possibility as well", Jahari nodded and looked over to Admiral West who now took control of the meeting again.

    “What we need to decide on now is what to make of this contact. As Admiral Jahari just informed us this race is comparable to our own in at least terms of military technology. They also seem to follow an aggressively isolationist policy considering the absolute lack of information even their closest neighbors seem to have."

    "It's not all that unlikely that they've at one time or another tried to enter the same area we did", Captain Halsey of the Endeavour spoke up from the other end of the table. "Given how beaten up the Icarus was I can't for the life of me believe that a Centauri explorer ship would have survived the encounter."

    "True", West nodded.

    "They seem quite aggressive considering the less than friendly welcome the Icarus received", Captain Valeris of the Temperance stated. "My recommendation would be to patrol the edge of their space and quietly observe and wait for them to take the next step."

    "Considering we don’t know where this unknown race’s borders are exactly?" Halsey asked.

    "We’d need to make a guesstimate", Valeris nodded and proved her human half still existed in there. "The risks of this are of course quite high.”

    No one spoke up, the gathered personnel were busy enough trying to process what Jahari had told them about the possibly hostile race that had build that flower ship. They’d all been lulled into the same false sense of security as the admirals had over the last four months as nothing had indicated that any native race had even close to a comparable level of technology to their own.

    That had changed quite quickly and in a very dramatic fashion and now they seemed more confused than anything else. The admiral could definitely understand them, he'd felt the exact same way during his debrief of Jameson.

    “There’s also another issue we might have to deal with if we encounter them again", West added. "These flower ships seem to be able to, for lack of a better way to describe it, distort subspace. Knowingly or not it would make warp travel and quite probably other technologies such as subspace communications and sensors impossible to use when they’re around. This may well force us into a position where we have to aggressively defend ourselves if we encounter them."

    "Since they also seem to have a higher top speed than any of our ships is able to get to without breaking a number of safety protocols we can't rely on speed either", Jahari nodded his agreement with the other admiral. "We have very little information on this distortion field, and sensors have yet to reveal anything practically useful in countering it.”

    “Well, I for one think Janet's idea sounds about right, admirals", Captain West suddenly spoke up. "We know far too little about this race and even if they’re isolationist they’re still advanced enough to be a threat, or in the case they decide to make peaceful contact a possible worthy ally." He sighed and shook his head. "We need to know more about them and their capabilities before we can actually make a good decision.”

    "I don't disagree either", Keyes said from West's side. "I’d personally recommend against sending anything less than a fully prepared line cruiser however considering how close the encounter was with a Nova.”

    "I won't risk a stationary patrol", West shook his head in response to the idea. "I agree that we lack information but there's a limit to how far I'm willing to push to get it."

    “Admiral, I’d like to volunteer myself and my ship to go in and do some reconnaissance”, Captain Cleves of the Venture spoke up. “My ship’s admittedly not the most advanced vessel we’ve got but we can go in under phase cloak and scout out the area, hopefully they won't even know that we're there. If they do the Venture has already proven on more than one occasion that she’s big and bad enough to handle a little alien trouble.”

    West looked at Cleves for a second; the older German captain of the Venture seemed almost expectant about this mission. He was quite correct however, and a Galaxy-class battlecruiser should be more than able to defend itself if it was approached by another of those ships. Unlike the smaller Nova she had both deployable armor and regenerative shields, not to mention many times the science vessel's worth of firepower.

    Cleves had actually been quite humble as the only ships they had available with more firepower than his Galaxy would be the Sovereigns with the Akiras coming in just slightly behind. West would rather keep those around home base just in case, not to mention neither of the Akiras were even crewed at the moment. The Galaxy was also a better choice in that it had less advanced systems which would likely be less susceptible to the subspace distortions these alien vessels produced.

    “Does anyone have any objections? No? Well then, Captain Cleves, you’ve got yourself a reconnaissance mission.”

    “Thank you, Admiral”, Cleves nodded.

    “That being concluded we have a few other things to discuss as well. Elisha?”

    “Yes, Admiral, with the construction of the last orbital docks reaching completion, we admirals have agreed to issue a stand down order to the Excelsiors, Sabers and Steamrunners.”

    This caused a bit of a stir among the others, or perhaps ‘riot’ would be better suited considering the rank and stature of the people.

    “We’re at a crossroads where we need to start looking to the future”, Keyes had to raise her voice to make her words audible over the sudden raise in ambient chatter. “It’s unrealistic to keep almost twenty percent of our population in space at all times, especially considering the circumstances.”

    “What circumstances would that be, Admiral?” Captain Sato of the Excelsior angrily interjected, his being one of the ships that would have to stand down. "First you scare the living crap out of us with reports of this new alien race appearing on the map and then you want to mothball half the fleet?"

    "Maybe, but for starters we have the fact that just short of ten percent of the women in the fleet have already reported being pregnant", Keyes replied. "That’s just the ones we know of and not counting the women already planetside. This single fact brings down our total available manpower by at least seven percent, possibly more.”

    "It's still hard to justify cutting down the fleet when we've just ran into a possibly hostile alien species", Sato retorted.

    "Perhaps", West cut in with his reply. "It doesn't change the math. If we're to keep our forces at peak efficiency we need our best ships fully manned. We really don't have a choice; we have to cut the spaceborne personnel down by at least a quarter to sustain our planet-based population. If we don't, we risk not being able to keep our starships supplied. It's not like we have the military ordnance factories of Syrtis Planum to call upon for additional torpedoes or phaser capacitors."

    “I see”, was Sato’s only comment. “I suppose that was unavoidable.”

    “This means that for us to be able to fully man the most useful starships, meaning our modern cruisers, we’ll need to place most of the other ships in mothballs for now", Keyes continued. "The exception to this would be the Sovereigns since these are not only the most advanced ships we have but also the ones that give the most bang for the buck, so to say. This would also include the Venture once she gets back from her survey.”

    Cleves simply nodded in response and after a moment of silence Admiral West took over again.

    “It’s not as much a question of ship age, technology or anything else. We’re stuck in a small area of space with only an extremely limited amount of people at our disposal. It's only natural that we have to adjust our priorities accordingly. Even crewing thirty ships is a massive undertaking for a total population of just over a hundred thousand.”

    “As the last of the docks are finished our plan is that about half of our ships will be stood down”, Jahari added. “We’re not blind to this new development either. They won’t be mothballed per se; the ships will be kept at top condition and ready to be put into service on a few hours notice. I personally believe it to be an unnecessarily high drain on our resources to keep more than eight to ten ships active at any one time unless the overall situation changes. Admirals West and Keyes did however make a good point to keep at least fourteen, including the Sovereigns, and in the end it’s still the Commander’s Starfleet call.”

    The room was now utterly quiet. There were few things that could dampen the mood of a Starfleet captain; they were well known for keeping their spirits high even when fighting a losing battle or travelling out into unexplored space for months or even years at a time. Being told to stand down and effectively get grounded was however and definitely one of those things.

    They all understood the reasons and they could all agree that it was necessary on an intellectual level, but it was something else entirely to accept that it had to be done than to be the one that actually got grounded.

    “I do understand your reactions as captains of these ships. You won’t lose your commands but as Admiral Keyes said we do need to look to the future. To be able to man our starships as well as man the support facilities needed we simply need more people. People we quite frankly haven’t got available at the moment. Even if each and every woman in the fleet would bear children starting today, it would still take years for us to get there. Years we don’t have right now.”

    “Admiral… Are you suggesting something else?” T’Pell raised the question.

    “No, Captain, I’m not. I’m just making a point. I’ll draw up a rotational schedule for the ships that will stay active and which will be mothballed for now. The crews not on active duty will either be reassigned to the command complex at Elysium where they will be working on research and development or to civilian duties in the civic and industrial sectors. There are a lot of new technologies in this universe which we need to get a better understanding of and we're already behind schedule manning the civics.”

    “I see, sir”, the Andorian replied. “I suppose the Shran won’t be one of the ships standing down then.”

    “Are you kidding, T’Pell?” Jahari raised an eyebrow. “Your ship and crew are vital to the gathering of these technologies.”

    “However”, West said and raised a hand. “Sato, Corday and Jonah… I do realize the proud history of the Excelsior class and I also realize you’ll dislike this decision. However, I’m changing Keyes’ stand down order for your ships. They will dock at the Type 1 spacedocks, but not to be deactivated but rather to be deconstructed.”

    This raised quite a lot of commotion from the three captains as well as their senior staff. West had to stand up and raise both of his hands to be able to quiet them down.

    “Please listen to what I have to say. I’m sorry to say that with the fleet we’ve got, the Excelsiors are the least advanced ships we have in space at this time but also the most resource intensive in order to operate. They’ve served the Federation with pride and honor, but we also have to admit that they've done so far beyond their initial intended service period.”

    “They've been pushed into service again and again due to the conflicts back home and each time more and more of them have given in to the problems ships of that age will inevitably get”, Jahari added. “In our situation and with the amount of resources your ships require due to their age I agree, we can’t justify keeping them in service any longer.”

    “But sirs, with all due respect we need every able ship we have in case those flower ships turn up”, Captain Corday pointed out.

    “True, to a point”, Admiral West nodded. “However, one those flower ships were able to strike clean through the shields of a Nova, a ship class whose later generation emitters give it shield strengths directly comparable to that of your Excelsiors. It also has much more advanced weaponry, though admittedly less of it. It meant jack shit, it took two spreads of quantum torpedoes to bring that one ship down.” The admiral looked Corday directly in her eyes as he continued. “With that knowledge, how much do you think the Franklin could add in a battle against the same kind of foe?”

    The captain bowed her head in silent agreement. It wasn’t a fact she liked, but she knew it was true. Her ship had finally reached the end of its usefulness as a combat vessel.

    “I respect the service your ships have performed over the years; they’ve been vital parts in many battles and even won entire wars for the Federation. Now, their time is past.” The admiral sighed and made a dry smile. “I’m not blind though, I also see the need for more and newer ship designs in the future. As such I want all three of you, and your crews, to work closely with the ground teams at Research and Development. I’m not suggesting you stand down permanently.”

    West took a deep breath and ordered his thoughts to make his point more clear.

    “One of the things that made me call all of you, not only the command staff in here but also the science and engineering officers of the entire fleet, is that one of the things I’ll assign you to do is to create a new ship design. Admiral Jahari has been filled in on the keynotes.”

    “Indeed”, the Caitian nodded and brought up a holographic image of an Earth Alliance dreadnought floating a foot or so above the conference table. “We’ve all seen footage of the Earth Alliance’s Nova-class. While I will admit that these ships are far inferior to even our smallest ships in actual strength and technology, they do have a good point in their design. That point is scale, or rather economy of scale.”

    The image changed a bit to show the internal framework of the Nova, allowing each and every one seated around the large table to see how the ship was actually built up on the inside.

    “Basically the reasoning is simple. You always need a certain amount of crew to be able to effectively use a starship. While a larger ship will require a larger crew it’s not a linear progression, as such a ship twice the size of another will not require twice the crew.”

    “These ships were also designed for one thing and one thing only”, Admiral West interjected. “This is a heavy artillery-type warship. Its only reason for being is on a battlefield. It’s also a role none of our current ships was ever designed to fill.”

    “Correct”, Jahari nodded. “Starfleet starships have always been forced to rely on speed and maneuverability as in our own universe most of our opponents have equal or comparable weaponry and defenses to our own. In this universe things are very different. We can easily sacrifice a large part of both and still have the upper hand in these fields.”

    “We all know what the advantages of having a number of these on the battlefield would be”, Keyes added. “We’ve all been up against armed space stations and fixed defense satellites in battle and we know how devastating they can be to our lighter ships. What we propose is less of a classic Starfleet starship and more of a mobile fortress which puts weight of fire above maneuverability, precision or for that sake speed.”

    “A ship like this would have to be built as a dedicated warship”, Halsey pointed out from across the table. “No science labs, no survey gear, nothing but guns and bulkheads. A ship designed more along the lines of a war-era Galaxy than that of a standard cruiser.”

    Jahari nodded and took a sip of water before he added his thoughts to the table.

    “Yes. We want a dreadnought class ship that can fill this role and in truth the basic parameters are simple. We want a large ship with a lot of firepower and a lot of armor. It must have a larger than usual amount of automation in order to give the ship a low crew requirement for a ship that size. Beyond that it’s basically up to you what you do with these ships, of course within reason.”
    “You know what technologies we have, and you know which technologies we’ve seen the native races use and more importantly we've seen how they use them”, Admiral West stated. “Do your best to convince me to accept your designs.”


    WEST’S RESIDENCE
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    NOVEMBER 14TH, 2243



    West looked at the still beautiful captain with a fair measure of shock clearly evident in his face. “Jesus. Why didn’t you tell me earlier, Sheila?”

    “I didn’t know for certain until yesterday, Samuel”, she said and looked down. “I didn’t want to bring it up until I’d gotten my suspicions verified.”

    “Yes, but it’s been weeks, even months already! You must have had some idea, I mean, it’s not something that just happens overnight, or, well, you know what I mean.”

    “I know. It’s just… there’s been a lot of other things that’s come up as well, things that kept me busy enough not to really notice until lately. Well, I guess I always did though, I just didn’t want to think about it.”

    "I must admit, not noticing most of the first trimester is quite an impressive feat considering what I've heard from other women", the admiral whistled. He was still in a sort of shellshock, the news his dear friend and for the last few months both lover and companion had given him was something he’d never expected to hear. He’d never had the intentions or the expectations. “So, what do you want to do now?”

    “Well, it’s too late to do anything about it, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t, by the way. I’ll just have to go with nature on this one. I’m sorry, Samuel. I’m getting too old to not take the chance when I get presented with it.”

    “Sorry?" he replied with a quizzed look. "Why?”

    “I didn’t know if…”

    “Sheila… I understand that this wasn’t what either of us had intended but it’s not something you should blame yourself for. If anything, it’s my fault. I took advantage when you were still mourning and it's not like I've broken it off since or had any intentions of doing so either.”

    She looked away and was silent for a minute. “It’s not what I had planned, no. I’m not sorry that it happened though, I’m not getting any younger you know and it’s probably for the best that it happened now.”

    “But…”

    “I had plans with Justin once, that’s true. We broke up before the war broke out so it's not like we were still together", she said and sighed. "Justin’s dead and I’ve already let him go. I need to see to the future and while I still mourn him, I probably always will, he’s in the past now. You can't blame yourself; after all I was just as much a willing participant as you were.”

    "Are you sure?" he asked, gently placing his hand on her shoulder.

    She turned around, turning his gentle gesture into a close hug, and looked straight at him.

    “Plus, I might add, at least some of the reason I went with Justin in the first place was that you were always my superior officer. Regulations would always have gotten in our way, not to mention long distance relationships rarely give time for a family life. He always hated that fact, ever since he started to suspect he might not have been my first choice.”

    “The regulations could still get in the way, you know”, he pointed out and made a mental note never to underestimate the otherwise so sweet woman in his arms again. While he'd had no objections and had felt bad over the entire situation, he was starting to suspect she'd been carefully maneuvering him to just where she wanted him ever since she'd first entered his quarters on the Albion.

    “Yes, but by now there’s not much they can do you know.” She had kind of a mysterious smile only a woman could have. “Sometimes, the written word has to bend to reality. Plus, not only are you the most senior Starfleet officer in the entire galaxy but last I heard there’s no board of inquiries in Elysium nor any convention of admirals to conduct a court martial either. I do wonder though, what would my old mom think about me getting it together with the commander-in-chief of Starfleet himself.”

    West didn’t know what to say, so he just embraced the only slightly younger woman. One thing was true at least, neither of them was getting any younger and he knew just as well as she did that this was probably the only chance either of them would ever get to have a family of their own. He was already in his mid forties, she already thirty-eight, how long could either of them wait?

    Whatever decisions the future might hold, he knew that this one was already out of his hands. He was used to being in control but just like Sheila had said there wasn’t much either of them could do about it now. She’d likely planned it all along; he knew full well that the Canadian Starfleet officer was far too intelligent to ignore the signs of a pregnancy. He also knew that she was more than cunning enough to trap him in her net whenever she wanted to.

    But what the hell, it wasn’t such a bad thing after all and after some quick soul-searching he found he didn't have any real reason to object to the facts presented to him. He’d been in love with the woman in front of him for the better part of a decade, and while she'd made his choice for him he found that he could live with that too.

    He lifted the woman into his arms and gave her a gentle kiss.

    “And may I ask the dear captain of the Independence how she intends to pursue this?”

    “Oh, I don’t know, mister fleet admiral sir”, she said in a childish and far too innocent tone. The girlish smile changed a bit and became a lot more mature as she continued. “There’s always room for one’s commanding officer to make suggestions, though the traditional continuation to the present scenario would typically require a fair sized piece of compressed carbon pressed onto a precious metal ring.”

    With that, they both joined in a much more passionate kiss. Yes, the admiral thought, sometimes reality is the only thing that matters. There wasn’t much choice in the matter except how he’d handle it and he already knew what he wanted to do about it. Wanted had little to do with it either at this point, though it helped.

    Regulations be damned, he already knew what he had to do. The love of his life had already clearly marked the path ahead she’d intended him to follow and put him in one of the few situations where his deepest emotions and sense of responsibility for his actions gave him little choice but to do exactly that.
     
  11. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 9


    USS VENTURE, COMMAND BRIDGE
    FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS BATTLECRUISER
    DEEP SPACE



    The Venture was cruising through space at what most in Starfleet would consider a leisurely speed of warp five, much slower than the nine point nine a war-refit Galaxy-class starship was actually able to go.

    It was an unfortunate necessity though since the far stronger warp field that was necessary for higher speeds could much more easily be detected at a longer range. No one really expected the new alien race to be able to detect the subspace wake but they didn’t know for certain and right now stealth was far more important than speed.

    They’d been ordered to investigate the area where the Icarus had been attacked during its survey run. The choice of ship and captain should have been easy even if Captain Cleves hadn’t actively volunteered for it. The only Starfleet ships equipped with even close to the same scientific sensors and equipment as a Nova were the Intrepids or the Galaxy-class.

    Between those, the Galaxy was also by far much more heavily armed, better shielded and had more tactical options in case of enemy attack. And then, of course, there was the matter of the phase cloak. The Intrepid-class starships still hadn’t been retrofitted with them and Cleves doubted they would be anytime soon. The devices required materials that weren’t easy to produce even with the resources of the entire Federation.

    They'd been tasked with a dangerous but vital mission; to recon the area where the Icarus was attacked and to gather intelligence about this mysterious power that was possibly just as advanced as they were. At the same time, they were expressly forbidden from doing anything, anything at all, except monitor and scan if they found something.

    The main reason he'd volunteered his own ship had mostly been because he really didn't trust the South African Captain Malhaeden of the Challenger to be able to stay hidden if he came upon the Icarus' assailants. Malhaeden had always had one hell of a temper and always been known to take risks for possible glory. He was a good combat commander but more of a blunt instrument in Cleves’ opinion.

    "Captain", the helm officer turned around to get his attention.

    "What’s up, Lieutenant?"

    "Just wanted to inform you that we're approaching the coordinates we received from the Icarus logs."

    "Good, slow to impulse. Tactical, engage the cloak. Ops, give me a full spectrum scan of the sector. If we’re right about this we’re in hostile space, let’s tread carefully."

    "Aye, sir", the three officers replied in unison.

    The bridge lights dimmed as the ship cloaked. It wasn't really necessary but it was a long standing tradition that went back to the old submarines back on Earth. It let the crew know that the ship was hiding and as such made them less inclined to do things that could be detected from outside.

    Of course, it was a largely pointless gesture today since at the time the tradition had begun the main method of detection had been had been the sounds of the vessel. The crew would have to whisper or stay very still to avoid making any noise the enemy could hear. Here in space sound didn’t carry very well nor were they actually visible in anything but the smallest of subspace spectra.

    They didn’t even have to worry about running into anything as unlike any other cloaking device the phase cloak allowed them to literally go right through normal phased objects. It was still avoided though as the results of the phase cloak malfunctioning while inside another object could be quite… messy, to say the least. The first time the device had been tested the ship used, and a decent chunk of its crew, had become phased out in the middle of a large asteroid.

    "Keep your eyes and ears open people, we don't want to attract undue attention but let's not miss anything either as long as we can avoid it."

    "Aye-aye, sir."

    “Ops, do you have anything on those sensors?”

    “No, nothing yet, sir. We’re too far away from the system still and the red giant is putting out interference.”

    “Very well. Helm, put us on a course for the inner system. Let’s take it slow and steady, say warp four.”

    “Aye, Captain. Engaging warp drive, speed set to warp four.”

    What struck Cleves as odd was that neither the Centauri nor the Minbari seemed to have any data at all on the space ahead even though it was close enough to their borders that both races should have entered and explored it before.

    Maybe they couldn’t reach these places with their FTL technology? The theory wasn’t unsound, they’d found out that this was one of the main reasons that the local humans hadn’t yet colonized Sirius or the inner Alpha Centauri planets. They simply couldn’t get there.

    Strong gravitational forces had some kind of effect on their ability to move around in that ‘hyperspace’ as they called it and that made it hard on the verge of impossible for them to actually enter systems with a larger binary or even the smallest ternary system. In the case of Sirius they were completely stumped by the existence of a super-dense white dwarf.

    From what they'd been able to find out the only reason they'd been able to reach Proxima was because of the unusually long distance between that star and the main binary pair which allowed these gravitational eddies to calm down and their jump drives to stay on target.

    But both the Centauri and Minbari were quite a bit more technologically advanced than the humans and there was ample proof that at least the latter of the two races had colonized binary systems. The Minbari had even colonized one with a small but remote ternary star not all that unlike the main Alpha Centauri system.

    This system was just a simple red giant system, the gravitational forces wouldn’t be much worse than those of a regular main sequence star. He couldn’t imagine the system being all that interesting in terms of colonization or exploitation though, once upon a time this star may well have had M-class planets but these would be long gone by now. A red giant didn’t leave many garden worlds behind.

    Either way, his mission wasn’t to philosophize even though he found it hard not to at times.

    “Helm, what’s our ETA?”

    “Just over ten minutes, captain.”

    Cleves leaned back in his command chair and casually reviewed the last systems log, something he’d made a habit of ever since they were dumped into this reality. That way he’d be one step ahead when something needed replacing or maintenance and even though they had built up enough infrastructure to make these replacement parts it could still take a while to get them manufactured.

    It wasn’t like back home, he thought, where there’d be enough spare parts stockpiled at Utopia Planitia to construct at least two whole new Galaxies without ordering a single piece from the foundries, probably more than that if you brought in the reserves from the San Francisco and Beta Antares fleet yards too.

    Everything seemed to be working according to specs though, so he looked back to the view screen.

    “Captain, we’re approaching the target.”

    “Good. What’s the status of the phase cloak?”

    “Active, sir, it’s functioning according to normal parameters.”

    “Very well, slow to impulse Lieutenant. Let’s see what’s out there.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    They were still too far out from the system proper to get very accurate readings, but the stellar view still looked nice enough.

    Cleves had always liked looking at red stars; they were more pleasing to his eyes than the brighter yellows or whites, even though Sol still of course had a very special place in his heart. There was really nothing like seeing that star grow on the horizon as you cruised back home after a long time in outer space.

    From this distance the giant star was little more than a little ball of red light behind the rocky belt that made up the system’s outer asteroid belt. It’d likely been a planet at one time or another, the gravitational shock of a star expanding wreaked havoc on planetary orbits and it wasn’t unheard of that two planets ended up colliding in the process.

    He shook his head a little to clear his thoughts. Damn homesickness.

    “Do we have anything on the sensors yet?”

    “Nothing certain, still too far out for a positive reading, Captain.”

    “Well, get us in closer then. Try to stay in the shadows as much as you can.”

    As they entered the system there were still no signs or habitation or artificial structures but those readings were hard to trust. At extreme ranges it was hard to get an accurate reading on anything close to any gravity well as large as a planet or moon, not to mention a star that had expanded to the radius of an astronomical unit.

    He remembered that was one of the biggest reasons they’d missed the Dominion intelligence satellites near Betazed until it was already too late, they had simply been too close to the local star for Starfleet to see them.

    The system itself however was already completely mapped as planets and larger asteroids were clearly visible to the sensors even light weeks away. There were only a few planets left in the system; no doubt there’d been more that had been swallowed up as star went into its red giant state.

    There had probably been a dozen or so planets in solar orbit at one time, but now there were less than a half dozen left and the ones that remained were mostly class J gas giants, with one single exception.

    A single planet that registered as solid, one that the computers had decided had an orbit which might support alternative forms of life. With a preliminary class N planetary classification it really wouldn’t be very pleasant to any known race of humanoids or other carbon-based life forms but they’d seen stranger things than that back home.

    “Helm, move us towards that solid planet.”

    “Aye sir, we’re coming to new course, 23 mark 5.”

    “Sensors, still nothing?”

    “No… wait… Captain, we’re reading something in orbit. Readings are unclear but there’s definitely something there.”

    Cleves rose from his chair and went over to the operations console to take a look at the display.

    “Damn. What the hell is that thing?”

    “Unknown sir, it’s not all that surprising but there’s no record in the computer of anything even remotely like it.”

    “Are we in visual range?”

    “Yes, but only barely, sir.”

    “Put it up on the main viewer, maximum magnification.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    It was a structure, it had to be. Nothing nature could come up with could be that shape or for that sake have that orbit. It registered as being more than fifteen kilometers end to end and more than seven wide. Still what made no sense, no sense at all, was that the sensors showed it as a life form.

    Organic technology was all nice and good and over the years the Federation had made contact with a lot of races in all four quadrants of the galaxy that had used it extensively. It had however always had one inherent problem.

    It had always failed to produce anything larger than a destroyer sized ship or station, anything larger than that had always had to be constructed as partially inorganic to give structure and stability. An organic entity also needed a lot of energy in order to sustain it, a requirement which increased exponentially with size.

    This… thing… didn’t seem to suffer these weaknesses however; it showed none of the decisively ugly shapes of internal framework through its hide. From what they could make out the power signature wasn’t really all that extreme either.

    The Venture came in closer to the orbital; the ship, even though one of the largest ever constructed by Starfleet, was easily dwarfed by the massive object. It didn’t look like anything Cleves had ever seen before. The entire structure was covered in what looked like a green and yellowish skin with moving black and dark gray spots and patterns.

    “Life signs?”

    “It’s hard to tell, sir. The hull of the orbital seems to scatter our sensors and it doesn’t really help that the object itself has life signs of its own. We could probably get through but that would require phasing out, the main sensor array doesn’t work across phase.”

    “What about on the planet?”

    “That’s also mostly an unknown factor. There are definitely artificial structures down there but the computer is having trouble identifying exactly what’s what and the massive electrical activity in the atmosphere isn't helping either.”

    “So if there is life down there, it’s not what we’re used to?”

    “Hell, no. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say protoplasmic or possibly energy-based life, with the former being more likely than the latter. Either way our sensors aren’t exactly calibrated to distinguish those kinds of life signs. They’re quite uncommon back home, you know, and this would be the first such civilization with advanced technology Starfleet has ever come across.”

    The captain was silent in thought for a moment, until suddenly an opening formed in the side of the orbital, allowing several smaller objects to exit.

    “Do we have any kind of visual ID on those smaller objects?”

    “Well… yes and no, sir.”

    “Ehm, can you explain that assessment?”

    “Well, sir, there’s two different kinds of them. The smaller type ships are exact matches to the configuration of the flower ship that attacked the Icarus but the larger ones, while similar in design and appearance, are of a new and so far unknown kind.”

    “Well, they’re ships then, which would make the larger object their version of a starbase.

    “Yes, sir, or quite possibly a hatchery.”

    “Don’t start”, Cleves sighed. “Let’s hope it works the way we think it should and is what we think it is, and not add even more flavor to the bad news we have to carry back either way.”

    A Federation starbase was considered a huge structure in space by definition of any and all the Alpha and Beta quadrant races back home. No one else, Romulans, Klingons or Cardassians, had ever even attempted to create something as massive as what the Federation considered little more than a base camp.

    Even then this unknown race had built something that literally dwarfed even the largest Starbase of them all, the Earth-orbiting Starbase 1 or as it was actually called Earth Spacedock, by at least four times. A magnificent achievement, though still quite terrifying.

    He hoped his science officer was wrong, if this was some kind of orbital construction yard for those ships there’d be ample room and there’d be no telling how many of those ships could be under construction or just berthed inside.

    Cleves looked out at the small cloud of ships that had by now exited the structure.

    “Lord. How many of them are there?”

    “Best estimate is twelve of the smaller and two of the larger, but there are also a very large number of even smaller fighter-sized vessels.”

    “And a single one of the ‘smaller’ ships effectively crippled a Nova. I barely even want to know what capabilities of those larger ships are.”

    “Understood, sir, and I’d strongly recommend against making our presence known.”

    “Nervous, Commander?”

    “No, Captain, but while I’d expect we’d do well against a handful of the smaller ships, the larger ones do worry me. We have an idea about the capabilities of the smaller ones, but the big ones? I don’t know. They could be just as capable as the small ones and be more than a match for the Venture, or they could just be bulk transports for all I know. But if they truly are their version of a cruiser I’d expect that any encounter would be less than ideal.”

    “Well, Commander, for once I definitely agree with you.”

    “Thank you, sir”, the science officer smiled. “Nice to know not all captains think with their balls”, he added to himself with a silent voice.

    Looking at the ships that passed by outside there was a measure of awe across the entire bridge. Even in the best days of the Federation they’d never have more than a dozen ships or so assigned to any given starbase.

    In war-time, there’d be even less discounting any battle fleet making a quick stop to resupply or receive repairs or maintenance. The exceptions to this rule were critical strategic positions and Earth itself, which was usually guarded by an entire fleet in war-time, but these were still exceptions.

    “We’re not getting anything from our sensors, are we?” the captain realized after a short while.

    “Barely, sir, and what we are getting back we're going to need a lot more time to sort through before we can make any kind of positive readings.”

    “Damn”, Cleves scowled. “We still can’t even be sure if this is their home planet or just an outpost?”

    “Not entirely”, science replied with a calm voice. “I’d be more than surprised if this was indeed their home world though.”

    “Why?”

    “Elementary, dear Watson”, the science officer chuckled as he pointed to his display. “I can’t see the population down there but judging by the amount and state of those structures as well as the available resources, I’d expect an outpost or at most a minor colony. The planet’s pretty barren and there’s no way this planet has supported any kind of life for more than at most a few thousand years.”

    “I see”, Cleves nodded and thought he understood why, but asked anyways. “Why is that?”

    “No more than four or five millennia ago this planet was a dead rock in space consisting of a rocky core covered in pretty much nothing but frozen methane and carbon dioxide. The solar expansion caused them to vaporize and create that sludge of an atmosphere you see now. There's just no way life developed there before the solar expansion and this race is far too advanced to be that young. It’d typically take a few billion years for any kind of intelligent life to develop, not to mention a sapient and technologically advanced species.”

    “Very well put”, Cleves nodded. He’d guessed that but he was grateful for the confirmation. “Helm, there’s nothing left for us to do here. Get us out of here; we have what we came for. Warp five.”

    “Aye, Captain, plotting a new course back out through the outer belt.”

    “Good enough. Engage.”


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    SIRIUS III



    It’d been a strange day more than anything else. He’d announced his and Sheila’s decision regarding their future to his peers and the captains. Though most reactions had been positive thus far he’d yet to hear from the one he was worried about until now.

    Keyes’ face was stern and she looked irritated more than anything else. Well, that was typically how Keyes usually looked when something unexpected happened. He’d known her more than long enough to see when she was pissed about something and she wasn’t exactly trying to hide it either.

    “Admiral.”

    “Admiral. How can I help you, Elisha?”

    “Just thought I’d come down and... pay my respects. I heard about your latest decision, and thought I’d at least look you in your face when I said; ‘Idiot.’”

    “Heh, you’re sure that calling your superior officer mentally deficient doesn’t count towards insubordination, Elisha?” He smiled awkwardly.

    “I’m quite sure, Samuel." She replied with a stern voice, and then asked with a more sincere one. "What the hell were you two thinking?!”

    “Well, I deserved that, I think. To tell you the truth, there were a lot of things involved at the time but thinking really wasn’t one of them. And yes, I know, it’s wrong judged by pretty much every single Starfleet regulation. But in my defense Starfleet is a long way away from here.”

    The last part was getting increasingly hard to miss. Normally fraternizing among the crew or officers was something that was mainly overlooked by the Starfleet rules but when it came to fraternizing with people under your command there were indeed very strict rules that applied.

    Rules which any captain now stranded here with him would attest to just became increasingly hard to enforce in their people’s current situation. He also understood that his actions didn't make that easier either and had set sort of a precedent as well but in the end it had likely been unavoidable that it’d happen.

    There’d always been a close connection between captain and first officer and he knew full well about at least two other such couples which had already made much the same decision. In two cases two captains had even paired off, one which wasn’t very surprising and one that had basically shocked every other person wearing command colors.

    “Still, you should have…”

    “Should have what, Elisha? Told her that no, no way, I can’t take responsibility for my actions?”

    “That’s not what I meant, and you know that.”

    “But it’s what you want me to do, isn’t it?”

    “Well… no, I mean, you shouldn’t have done what you did in the first place.”

    “That’s likely true, but that’s not like it's something I can just magically go back and change. Even if I could, I’m not so sure I would even want to.”

    “In a sense I suppose you’re right, but it’s still wrong. It sets a bad example for the rest of the crews and we’ve both seen the fallout begin to show.”

    “Too bad, I can’t do much about that”, he replied with a sigh. "And I'm not so sure it's even a rule worth trying to uphold anymore either."

    “I know. Thus my first statement is mostly correct. ‘Idiot’.”

    Elisha Keyes smiled for the first time this afternoon, she’d known that she’d never change the senior admiral’s mind and there was really very little reason to attempt doing so. Everyone already knew about it and while it was one thing to break something up before the fact, it was a totally different thing to try to do the same thing after.

    In the case of Samuel and Sheila she also knew it would be more like trying to joust windmills. She’d known that both of them had had feelings for each other for the past decade or so but they had always kept them under control. To be entirely honest she couldn’t really blame them for losing that last measure of control either given the situation they all found themselves stuck in.

    “Either way, to make your conscience a little lighter, she’s not one of my subordinates.” Admiral West made a little laugh as he realized it. That was something Keyes actually hadn’t thought of.

    “Hmm? And how, may I ask, did you come to that conclusion?”

    “Easy", he smiled. "She’s assigned to Space Command. That’s your department, not mine. While I can and likely will give you orders, I can’t treat her unfairly or give her special treatment since all my orders to her would have to go through you. I also highly doubt you'd let me go over your head unpunished.”

    His smile was far too wide and far too planned for Elisha’s warning lights not to go off.

    “I’d likely punch you in the nose if you tried”, she said with a suspicious voice. “You’ve already given this some thought, haven’t you Samuel.”

    “Some, granted, but I know you quite well Elisha and I knew that the minute I announced our plans you’d be here trying to rip something more or less vital out of me, quite possibly the same parts that caused this mess in the first place.”

    “Well, that’s true", she nodded. "Oh, okay, at least you know your actions have consequences. Now, what will you do about all of this?”

    “Exactly what I stated before; I’ve already asked her, or, well, she pretty much made my alternatives pretty clear. I’m going to marry Sheila, Elisha, and I was going to ask you to perform the ceremony.”

    “Oh? Why me, if I may ask?”

    “Is it my turn to say ‘Idiot’ now? You’re one of my best friends, Elisha. We’ve known each other for how long?”

    “Some twenty odd years”, Keyes answered and looked at him with renewed respect. “I know, Samuel.”

    “So why are you surprised? Only an admiral can wed a captain and I’ll be otherwise engaged.”

    “Yes, that’d be correct I guess.”

    “So, I need another admiral, which means you or Jahari and I really don’t know Heron well enough to ask him.”

    “All right, all right, I’ll fold. I’ll perform the ceremony. I still have my reservations though.”

    “Of course you do and I understand them, I even promise to overlook the same reservations when you find someone too.”

    “You know full well that’s not one of my priorities, Samuel.” She blushed, a deep, honest blush.

    “Of course it’s not. It’s one of those things that, how did you put it, just happen?”

    “Bah. Men.”

    “Aye, but aren’t we charming?”

    She almost looked humored, but then she regained her composure. It wasn’t often Keyes showed her real emotions, but for one who knew how to both trigger and read them she was just as much an open book as any other human being. West broke the uncomfortable silence.

    “Either way, I haven’t been able to get space-side for a few days now. What’s the status of the Excelsiors?”

    “Last I heard everything was going according to plan thus far. The Excelsior has already been stripped of her outer hull, the Franklin just came into dock and the Berlin should almost be down to her framework by now.”

    “Good, have the engineering and science teams come up with any bright ideas as of yet?”

    “Jahari’s mainly in charge of that, but I’m receiving a few reports that he wants my input on.”

    “May I ask what you’ve heard?”

    “Well, to be honest there are a lot of ideas flying around and I really can’t say which are and which aren’t actually feasible. I can only give an idea of what an experienced command officer thinks of the function of the ideas.”

    “Still?”

    “There’s a lot of discussion about implementing both holographic and android extensions of the ship’s computer as well as building a much extended AI and computer core. All of them designed to reduce the crew necessary to operate the ships.”

    “Oh? That actually sounds like a really good idea, though I have much the same reservations about creating a true AI as any other Starfleet command officer. Do they have anything to work from?”

    “Yes, and something I know at least a little about. I suppose you know about how the EMH works?”

    “The emergency medical holographic system? Sure, I was there on Jupiter station when it was first unveiled and even played a part in integrating the later models on the Norway and Steamrunner classes.”

    He smiled a little when he remembered the Doctor, Janeway’s EMH on the Voyager. He’d made himself not only a unique but also a historical person as he step by step not only achieved true sentience but also fought for and managed to get legislature passed in the Federation Council to acknowledge that very sentience in not just his own case but in that of other holographic entities as well. He and Commander Data had both been vital parts in the struggle for artificial life forms receiving the same treatment as biological ones.

    “Yes, it’s also been discovered that it can, and if left activated long enough eventually will, attain sentience and soon after true sapience.”

    “Mm, I remember Kathryn telling me about it and my complete surprise when I actually met the Doctor on a social function. That’s old news though, and steps have been taken to prevent holograms or computer programs from accidently achieving sentience since then.”

    “True. What’s less known is the idea that the Doctor had for what is effectively a holographic captain; he called it the ECH protocol. Janeway decided not to pursue the idea as even she doubted the feasibility but our researchers believe that, while it might seem extreme, the idea has a certain merit to it in our current situation.”

    “I see. I look forward to see the idea being tried in action but I'm also familiar enough with the Starfleet command protocols to see numerous flaws in having a system like that as well.”

    “What the computer scientists are proposing is that we expand on the original idea a bit and actually integrate the system into the main computer, as well as include several android bodies to each of the ships.”

    “You mean like having several Data’s on the ships? I can live with that, I served with him in the beginning of my career.” Memories of the android Commander started to come back to the admiral’s mind, memories of a fellow Starfleet officer that had been gone for several years by now. “However, I was under the assumption that we couldn’t build an even close to good enough positronic brain yet?”

    “You're quite right, we still can’t, but these androids wouldn’t be independent like Data was but rather extensions of the main computer operated by remote control, more like drones than actual people.”

    “Oh”, he raised an eyebrow. That was more along the lines of the Borg than of Data.

    “They wouldn’t be sentient either, not even intelligent by any measure of the word, but they would be able to help with damage control and other non-automated functions. They wouldn’t need food, water or even air, and using drones for those labor-intensive duties we'd be able to cut down a total of about a third of the enlisted crew while still remaining fully capable to operate the ships.”

    “I see… it sounds like a good idea. Tell the teams to work on both of those projects but to especially focus on a way of implementing them on the existing ships as well. If we're to have any chance of success in rebuilding our civilization we'll need to reduce the overall space-borne crew size fairly soon and I’d hate to have to mothball any more of our ships if something was to happen.”

    The truth in the last statement was something both of them knew quite a bit more than they wanted about. Sooner rather than later there’d be a baby boom on Sirius III and even now almost fifteen percent of the serving female population reported at least signs of pregnancy with at least half of these confirmed.

    The reason all of them weren’t positive was simple, they simply didn’t have enough doctors to confirm them. The first of these women would have their children in less than three months and were already signing papers for maternity leave, with the massive wave following shortly thereafter.

    Keyes wasn’t sure how it looked on the planet but if the situation in space was anything to go by they’d have not a few hundred, but several thousands of infants born in the coming year. What made this worse was that children required a lot of manpower, from the medical personnel to the nurseries to schools and so on.

    Manpower was also the one resource their fledgling civilization was drastically short on. They’d even have to start looking at building a whole new academy sooner or later to replace the existing crew as they eventually grew too old to be able to serve.

    “I know what you’re thinking, Elisha, and don’t worry; it’s already on the drawing board.”

    “Huh?” she asked, still lost in thought.

    “Schools and academies”, West replied with a faint smile.

    “How did you…?”

    “Elisha, don't you realize by now that I’ve known you more than long enough to read your mind?”

    “So I see”, she shrugged. "I'll have to remember that."

    “To get back to our original topic, was there anything else you considered to be even close to a feasible idea that reached your desk?”

    “Well, not really. I’ve denied quite a few ideas without much hesitation, such as implementing separation or multi-vectoring systems to the larger ships. It’s the opposite of what we want, as it’d triple the bridge crew requirement. I’ve also turned down some propositions on alternate power sources.”

    “Such as?”

    “Quantum singularities, zero-point reactors and multifocal fusion reactors just to mention some.”

    "Good.” West made a sour face. “The latter two we don’t have the expertise to perfect in our lifetimes and considering how far away from a breakthrough we were back home they’re not exactly short term projects. As for the former I never liked the singularity reactor even in Romulan ships. They don’t leave much behind when the core breaches”

    “True, but neither does a warp core.” Elisha pointed out.

    “We at least get a warning first.”

    “Well, that’s true", she shrugged. "Sometimes, at least.”

    “Anything else?” he wondered.

    “Nothing really new", she replied. "Some of the engineers and physicists are looking into the quantum slipstream drives again but I don’t know whether they’ll make any new progress or not. Apparently some of them think the native faster-than-light drives may hold some new clues.”

    “I see", he nodded. "Not too promising?”

    “Too early to tell though I seriously doubt the old Excelsior frames would be able to mount them even if they’re rebuilt. They’d have to start designing an entirely new experimental platform from scratch, which is something I also doubt we'll be able to do within the foreseeable future.”

    “I guess we’ll see what the future holds”, the Admiral finished with a slight sigh.

    “True", she nodded. "Sooner or later.”

    That was as true a statement as they got. Admiral West hadn’t really expected too much when he asked his people to look at designing not just a new ship design but also an entirely new class and generation of ship.

    He had rather intended it as a way to keep the otherwise depressed people’s minds occupied than gaining any real progress from it. It was bad enough that depression was still dangerously common among the people they had evacuated but he didn’t need it spreading like wildfire throughout the fleet crews as well.

    This project had helped, and there was even a large pile of requests from the evacuees to join the construction and development teams. Most were approved even though he doubted the extra manpower would make much difference.

    “So, if that’s the end of the official business could I possibly offer you something to drink, Elisha?”

    “Please. A raktajino, make it boiling hot.”


    USS DARWIN
    HIGH POLAR ORBIT OF DRACONIS III
    SIGMA DRACONIS SYSTEM
    DECEMBER 23RD, 2243



    As the only remaining operational science vessel the Darwin had early been assigned to do a detailed sweep of the Earth Alliance's borders, both to verify the maps they had drawn up so far as well as gather more intelligence and data about other star systems they hadn’t had time to explore yet.

    They hadn’t gone far before they reached the Sigma Draconis system, which in their own reality was home to three class M planets which had all developed native intelligent life. Two had been housing two different pre-warp societies which had both been flourishing when the fleet had gotten trapped here, while the third planet had once housed an advanced civilization that had disappeared many millennia before humanity had even invented the wheel.

    Even with the abundance of life in their own universe they had expected the system to be either empty or claimed by one of the interstellar powers that bordered the system, especially considering the fact that the solar system only had a single orange main-sequence star.

    From the best of their knowledge this stellar configuration allowed even the most primitive ‘jump drives’, as this universe's faster-than-light drive system was called, to travel here. Even the most pessimistic scientists were sure that the Earth Alliance drives could easily do so. That they hadn’t done so yet was likely more of a fluke than them ignoring the system, it was much too close to Earth to be missed.

    Upon arriving however they’d soon received a nasty shock. The system was definitely inhabited, or at least one of the planets was, but there was no proof of there being any kind of jump gate, orbital weapons platforms, space stations, shipyards or for that sake anything else that depicted a FTL-capable society. That was, nothing except a few communications and weather satellites, and an antimatter energy signature.

    “Well, T’Var, any clarification on this massive conundrum?”

    “No, Captain, I can only offer verification of our preliminary scans. The people on the planet truly are human and the civilization is definitely at a post-industrial, but still pre-warp, stage.”

    “How can that be? They're human but there’s no evidence that points toward this society having ever reached or had faster-than-light capability, not even the bastardized version the native races use. And where is that antimatter signature coming from if these people aren’t even capable of creating that kind of energy yet?”

    “As I said, I don’t know. I’d say they’re comparable to approximately your early to mid twenty-first century development wise but even then they'd at most be able to produce microscopic amounts of antimatter, nowhere even close to what'd be required for the smallest reactor. Still, their overall development seems to match what we'd expect from back home rather than the native humans.”

    “They do have fusion reactors, but they haven’t explored space", he stated. "If this isn’t interesting I don’t know what would be.”

    “That’s largely a false assumption, Captain. There are ample amounts of artificial satellites in orbit around the planet as well as, while uninhabited, a number of definitively artificial structures on both of the two moons that would suggest that they are in the early construction stages of colonizing them.”

    How could this be? Neither his own humanity nor the local humans had colonized space that early in their history and even though the Preservers had transferred some of the humans to other planets they’d evolved at more or less the same rate and in mostly the same way as their Earth-based brethren. Could there be another race in this reality that had manipulated just as much as the Preservers had done in his?

    “Well then, that’s definitely something to add to our report.”

    “Captain?”

    “A pre-warp human civilization situated just outside the domain of the Earth Alliance but with no visible technological or cultural ties to them. That alone constitutes worthwhile news, but with evidence of a low level antimatter reaction somewhere close to the magnetic pole that constitutes a real enigma. The Earth Alliance doesn’t have any form of viable and sustainable antimatter reaction technology; in fact any form of antimatter reaction technology is very rare in this universe, so the big question is where they got it from.”

    “True.” T’Var’s facial expression changed dramatically as new lines appeared on his display. “From what I’m reading though, we’d probably want to take this directly to the Admiralty.”

    “Why so?”

    “I’m reading what appears to be a concentration of high-density tritanium alloy in the northern polar region, close to or at the location where we estimate the rogue antimatter signature to be located. In other words there’s wreckage down there and it’s not native to this planet much less the Earth Alliance. I'm initiating genetic scans to confirm this.”

    “T’Var?" Deschamps was almost shocked that his science officer would take such extreme measures as to do invasive scans of the native population without even checking with him first. "Make sense, that’s an order.”

    “Captain, from all the evidence our sensors can gather..." T'Var paused for a second before continuing. "Everything I'm seeing now would make me presume that these humans are from the Federation, not the Earth Alliance.”

    “You’re joking!” Deschamps dropped his jaw. "You must be!"

    “I’m Vulcan. I never ‘joke’. You know that." T'Var almost looked insulted. "There is only one civilization we know of in either our or this universe that has the technology to produce this kind of tritanium alloy, and even there it only has one use.”

    "Don't tell me..." the captain immediately realized the point the older Vulcan was trying to make.

    "You already know which", T'Var replied and tapped a finger on the bulkhead. "It’s only known use in two universes is in Starfleet starships."

    “How long have they been here?” Deschamps asked almost mechanically, still in shock.

    “Well, I’m not sure and before you ask I’m not even close to having an idea about how they got here either.”

    “Best guess will do, T’Var.”

    “Definitely more than five hundred years, probably more in the vicinity of six to eight. Not long enough to account for losing as much as they have of their technological level, though it would be long enough to account for their numbers.”

    “Jesus. That’s… hard to imagine", the captain sighed. "Still, if you're right and they really are Federation they should indeed be more than just a pre-warp civilization. Some of their technology obviously survived, such as that antimatter reactor we’re detecting, and their computer banks should be at least partially salvageable even in the worst of crashes.”

    “I suppose so, sir. Still, I have no answers to those conundrums.”

    "You said it would account for their numbers, T'Var", Deschamps realized he’d missed that part. “How many of them are there?”

    “Scanners can’t get an exact amount as the planet's active ionosphere and strong magnetic field prevents wide scans like that but judging by the infrastructure and population densities we can see, certainly several million, probably more than ten but less than twenty. I'll be able to tell you more when we analyze our data further.”

    Millions. There was a whole civilization here which was supposedly made up of what basically constituted Federation exiles just like themselves, or at least their descendants. How and why they had gotten here could possibly have been lost in the sands of time, but maybe there were some answers to be had either way.

    If there was wreckage, maybe there’d be information there or maybe someone had managed to salvage the ship's records or something like that. Knowing humankind there were certainly answers to be had, he just needed to know where to look and, more importantly, if he was going to be allowed to.

    “Lieutenant, set a course back to Sirius. We need to let the admirals know about this immediately. Warp 9.5.”

    “Aye, sir”, the helm officer simply nodded and punched in the high warp factor. “Course laid in, engaging at warp 9.5.”
     
  12. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 10


    ADMIRAL WEST’S RESIDENCE
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS III
    CHRISTMAS EVE, 2243, 07:00 HOURS



    The computerized beeping noise only needed one or two attempts to fully rouse him from his sleep. Even though he’d slept for just over six hours he was still feeling tired and unlike many of his colleagues in the service he’d never been much of an early bird. Truth be told he had never made any real attempts at becoming one either.

    This was not least evident in his tendency of scheduling most of the even close to important meetings and conferences in the afternoon rather than in the morning. It actually worked out very well for everyone involved since both of the other admirals had usually cleared most of their own busy schedules by then. This gave him near free access not only to them but also to the officers that reported both to either or both and directly to him.

    His scheduling preferences was probably in everyone else's stationed at the command complex best interests as well as his regular staff would of course be available should he need or request something. Should he not, which he usually didn't, they were also spared his foul morning mood which was quickly becoming legendary throughout the entirety of the complex.

    Not that it mattered today. He sleepily remembered that it was Christmas Eve, a day that he’d always looked forward to as the only time of the year he’d usually been able to take a break from whatever duties he had in Starfleet and visit the grave of his parents back home on Earth.

    Not that he’d be able to do so this year, his parents may only have been light years away, relatively speaking, but that didn’t really help considering the difference in time not to mention the difference in reality.

    He wouldn’t see their grave again until they found a way back home and judging by how much the scientists he’d seen had shook their heads at the bare idea, he didn’t even believe it possible anymore. Not in his lifetime and perhaps not even in that of his unborn daughter.

    Still, they had started a new life here now and most had at least tried to leave the past behind. He’d been surprised at the low amount of publicity his own, some would say questionable, choices had received but on the other hand he could see why. People understood him. They did the same themselves.

    Perhaps he had set a standard, but the situation they were in wouldn't be helped if they tried to uphold standards which would only cause even more problems with morale and the general mood of the people.

    “Honey, wake up. She’s seven in the morning and we need to get up.”

    He caressed the face beside him, trying to bring her back to consciousness as gently as possible. In absence of his uncles, aunts and cousins, his brother and girlfriend were really the only two people he could call family anymore.

    She stirred slowly, not wanting to leave whatever dream she was dreaming behind. It must’ve been a good one he thought, her still face was smiling as she slowly opened her eyes.

    “Sammy, I really don’t want to”, she made a soft protest through a small yawn.

    “Doesn’t matter honey, no matter how much we want it to the rest of the galaxy doesn’t wait for us.”

    “Damn the galaxy then.”

    “You know… cursing at it won’t work either. I could ask the scientists in the fleet, but I’m fairly sure the galaxy doesn’t have ears. And, for that sake, if it had I’m quite sure it wouldn’t care too much.”

    She couldn’t help but laugh a little, and then she threw her pillow at him as payment for his bad humor. He easily avoided the flying object and made a face at her. “I don’t want to get up. It’s Christmas, and I never liked Christmas even back home.”

    “Oh?” he was surprised. ”Why not?”

    “Bad memories, plus, I never liked Santa.”

    “Never liked Santa?" he couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the comment. "How come?”

    “I don’t know. Maybe it was mostly because he’d always give me the dolls and stuff, while my brothers got the model starships and Klingon action figures.”

    “And I suppose little Sheila didn’t like that, did she?” he mocked.

    “No, and to be entirely honest it was a damn waste of replicator energy too", she smiled. "My younger brother became a psychiatrist and my older brother’s a chef. To my knowledge neither of them has even set foot on a starship, much less the Academy grounds. In fact I doubt either has ever left the state of Quebec.”

    “Really, I didn’t know that”, West replied with true surprise in his tone.

    “Well, I guess they might have gone to San Francisco by now…" she pondered. “Wonder if they’ve had our memorials yet.”

    The mention of a memorial service, which had no doubt been several months ago by now, brought on another of Sheila’s now more and more common mood swings. She was very fond of her family back home and the thought of never seeing them again was hard for her to bear.

    Thin rivers of tears started to make their way down her cheeks and as they landed on the sheets, the dark blue fabric turned just a little bit darker. While the admiral had no illusions that they hadn't been written off as missing presumed killed in action he couldn't let that show. Not to her, not to anyone else.

    “Hush now, honey." He sat down beside her and gave her a consoling hug. "We’re still here no matter what they think back home. And I know they know that as well. It’s like a bond between people in a family that will transcend any distance.”

    “I know, but…”

    “Don’t worry about it.” He gently brushed some of her hair away and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead. “Focus on today, and everything will be fine. You know what today is?”

    “You keep reminding me.”

    “Good, then you know there’s just a week left of this year. The next one will be better. You’ll see.”

    “I’ll hold you to that, Sammy… I’ll hold you to that.”

    He helped her out of bed and into the dining room where he ordered their usual breakfast from the replicator, and they sat down in relative silence while eating and updating their pads. As high-ranking Starfleet officers neither of them was ever completely off duty, even on a day such as this.

    He got reports on the overall situation as well as daily situation reports from all the larger departments. She ‘only’ got continuous reports about the status and progress of the Independence which was more than enough to fill her workday.

    The admiral was still astonished that a captain actually had as much work as she did, even though he'd been one himself for several years he'd never really realized it until he'd been able to watch her from a third person perspective.

    He'd quickly realized just how quickly one becomes blind to one's own situation, especially when you as in the case of a captaincy have the entire hero complex that had been so commonplace throughout Starfleet ever since the days of Jonathan Archer. It didn’t help that it had been likewise cemented by so many others such as Kirk, Picard, Sisko and even in some way Janeway.

    Ironically, this very complex had also made more than a few of the really good people in Starfleet outright refuse promotions past captain which also meant that most of the Admiralty weren't even close to as upright as these people were. Well, he had to correct himself there. He’d been part of the Admiralty himself, as had Janeway. Not too many officers like them ever made it past vice admiral though.

    They’d also have to start looking into getting a replacement for her on board the Independence as in another two or three months she wouldn’t be able to focus on her work anymore, not to mention how hard it’d be after that if all went well.

    The problem wasn't that it was too hard finding a replacement, there were other captains available and of course her own first officer, but what was difficult was trying to convince Sheila herself that she’d actually need one.

    She’d never even considered the consequences for her captaincy that a pregnancy would have before Samuel and Elisha had pretty much tied her to a chair and forced her to listen. She’d make a very good mother though, he was certain of that. She took her duties very seriously and after all, motherhood was the most important duty of them all.

    She started to say something before she’d completely swallowed her bite of sandwich, and started coughing as she did. A few seconds and a soft blush later she tried again.

    “Sammy, what’s your plan about all of this? About us?”

    “About you and me?” he looked up from the pad. I think the answer to that would be the ring on your finger."

    “No… about all of us", she said and cleaned her throat with a sip of orange juice, "about all the people that were stranded here in this damned parody of home.”

    “Oh.” He scratched the harsh stubble on his chin.

    “There’s so much we’ve done here, but it’s all been just to get here, to get settled down and to be able to survive another day. It’s not life as we know it though, is it?”

    “No, I guess not”, he admitted.

    “I mean, we’re all Starfleet officers, with only a few exceptions. We didn’t sign up for becoming colonists, or factory workers, or farmers. We wanted to be in space.”

    “I know.”

    “But that’s not where we are, is it? As far as I know only the Venture and the Darwin are even outside the system, much less exploring.”

    “True.”

    “Then what’s the point?”

    He finished drinking his cup of coffee, and then gazed deeply into the beautiful brown eyes of his fiancée. “The point? Right now it’s to survive. To make sure we all live to see another day. To rebuild as much as we can out of what we’ve lost. We make a future, any future, possible for those who come after us, a better world for the next generation, for our daughter and all other sons and daughters. The same ‘point’ as guided my parents, and yours, and every other parent that has ever lived.”

    “But…”

    “No buts, no ifs. There’s truth to what you were saying and understand that I want to be out there just as much as you do. I want to see what’s out there with my own eyes, on board my own starship, just like you do. But I still want to live and make a future and right now we have to do the latter. Later, we may do the former.”

    “It’s just… it’s not exactly what I expected when I joined your task force.”

    “I don’t think either of us did.” He was silent for a moment, trying to think of a way to cheer her up. “Still, you can’t really blame me”, he said with the slightest of smiles.

    “Why not?” she asked and raised an eyebrow.

    “Remember what I told you when you first reported in to me?”

    “Yes, I think so. You said that we were in for a wild ride.”

    “And?”

    “Well, I guess…”

    “…being thrown more than a century into the past, and more than 50 light years from where we were, not to mention into another reality. Sheila, if that’s not a wild ride, then what is?”

    “Bah.”

    “Maybe, but it’s true. If nothing else, it has been just that.”

    He was interrupted by his communicator.

    “Aquila to Commander Starfleet.”

    “This is West”, he answered with a slight smile evident in his voice. “Merry Christmas, Elisha. You do know that it’s Christmas, right?”

    “I do, and Merry Christmas to you too, Samuel. Are you busy?”

    “Just having breakfast with my lovely soon to be better half”, he winked at Sheila across the table. “How can I help you, Elisha?”

    “I hate to break your Christmas rest but you’d better get to a shuttle and get up here. We’re about to get some company.”

    “Uninvited such?”

    “Not exactly", she coughed discreetly. "According to their transponders we have both the Venture and the Darwin on incoming. They should be here within a few hours.”

    “Really, have they sent any communications?” West asked, remembering the situation when the Icarus had returned.

    “Yes, but neither wants to discuss the reason for their early return over subspace.”

    “Okay… I’ll be there soon." He took a quick sip of his coffee. "You mind sending down one of your flyboys to come pick me up?”

    “Already done, I’ll be seeing you in a half an hour or so.”

    “Roger that, West out.”

    He went back to the bedroom to get his uniform, take a quick shower and shave. Well, maybe this Christmas would be different after all. Everything else already was, so why not this too?

    “You’ll be okay if I leave for a while, honey?” he yelled through the open door as he stepped out of the shower.

    “Yeah, I need to get up to the 'Big I' either way”, she hollered back. “They’re going to run a level three diagnostic on the warp drive and I want to be there to get the news in person. Something about a drive coil malfunctioning, I believe they may have to replace the entire unit.”

    “Ouch”, he replied, as much because he as a former starship engineer knew exactly how much work that was as because the sudden shudder the memory had caused made him cut himself with the shaving laser. "That'll make the engineers fairly irritated really fast."

    “Yeah, but it shouldn’t take more than a few hours. I’ll probably be home in time for dinner and the same goes for the rest of the engineering crew.”

    “See you later, then”, he said as he walked out of the bedroom fully dressed. He planted a big kiss on her cheek as he brushed past her, and then left out the front door.

    Outside he could already see the sleek lines of a Danube-class runabout descending towards the nearest platform barely fifty yards away. At least one good part of being his rank was that admirals typically didn't need to suffer from Class-2 claustrophobia.


    AQUILA STATION
    SIRIUS III ORBIT
    30 MINUTES LATER



    The station seemed to have grown quite a bit since the last time West was up here. Of course, that had been when the Icarus had first arrived and the bitter lessons learned from that unscheduled exercise had spurred the engineers to develop and implement more than just a few new ideas to the station’s overall design and Keyes had never been accused of holding back on either personnel or resources when she felt there were lives at stake.

    Admiral West had pretty much given her a blank check as well, as long as whatever redesigns or upgrades she planned didn't require additional permanently posted crewmen he was fine with spending resources on them. He'd been more than pleased when he'd learned that several of the upgrades had actually reduced the crew requirements drastically compared to the original specifications.

    The orbital had received an outer docking ring, with fork-like structures extending out from the docking ports to ease and automate much of the repair, reloading and rearmament procedures which were standard after any mission longer than a few days. This also reduced the time it took to clear their moorings, the ships only needing to reverse engines and head straight out from the station to get clear instead of requiring a lateral thruster maneuver as originally designed.

    In addition, several of the newer rapid fire quantum launchers had been constructed and mounted on strategic positions around the station, as well as numerous of the power-intensive pulsed phaser cannons and phaser strips. It’d been designed to be powered by a dedicated stripped down warp reactor.

    In essence, the station had transformed from a smaller than but still basically standard Starfleet starbase to a stellar fortress, with more firepower than any equally sized station West had ever heard of, and he’d been posted at several of the largest in existence. Not even Deep Space 9 had this amount of firepower and major powers like the Cardassians or even the Dominion had only dared attack that base with a massive number of ships.

    The only comparisons he could make except for the San Francisco Spacedock would be Deep Space 5, which was a station completely designed for defense against a Borg incursion, or Deep Space 7 which had been the main base of operations for the entire Starfleet war effort against the Romulans.

    He’d been dropped off in the main shuttle bay, which was now a brisk ten minute walk from the command deck. On his way he passed several other additions that weren’t clearly visible from the outside, such as two Peregrine fighter bays and what looked very much like the battle bridge of a Galaxy-class ship.

    When he finally arrived at the last turbolift he almost wondered if the system of having to walk a bit between different lifts was also a defensive measure. They probably were as it increased both the distance and number of traversing points, and thus the number of defensive positions, between any point of outside access and the main command and control center.

    The lift itself was standard issue though the command deck was also visibly altered. There were now several tactical consoles unlike most other Starfleet command centers which only used a single console to control all the available weaponry.

    There was also a large display array showing the shield grid in all available detail along with sectional displays showing armor integrity as well as shield strength and power status in the different areas of the station each display covered.

    “Admiral on the deck!” a young operations ensign snapped to attention stirring the rest of the room to do the same.

    “At ease, Ensign”, West smiled at the eager ensign and made a formal but quick salute back. “Keyes?”

    “The admiral is in her office, Admiral West sir.”

    “Thank you, Ensign.”

    He walked the few steps to the other side of the command deck where the commanding officer’s personal office was located. He wasn’t the least bit surprised that the door opened just before he approached it.

    “Welcome to the new and improved Aquila Station, Admiral.” Keyes flashed a quick smile from behind her desk as West entered. “It’s your first time aboard since the refits were finished, right?”

    “Thanks, and yes, while it's something I actually regret admitting I do believe you're correct.”

    "Of course, I always am", she replied with a quick laugh. “Can I offer anything to drink?”

    “Sure, you know my poison.”

    She rose from her seat walked over to the replicator, and it only took a second for the replicator to grant him his wish. The bitter but still delicious scent of the dark Arabica coffee spread across the room as Keyes handed him the cup and then they both sat down on their respective sides of her massive wooden desk. The only drawback was that Elisha had joined the club his fiancée had set up where all his close friends refused to add the scotch to his coffee.

    “So, Elisha”, West asked with a little bit of humor as he took a sip of the almost too hot to drink coffee. “Who are we going to war against today, if I may ask?”

    “Oh, you noticed our discreet little upgrades? How nice! I thought you’d never.” Keyes smiled innocently.

    “Oh, ha, ha, ha”, he made a mock laugh. “Seriously though, don’t you think it’s just… maybe just a little bit… excessive?”

    “You never know, do you? I thought it prudent, especially considering the circumstances. You never know what might come knocking at our doors, and this way we’ll be ready to greet pretty much anything”, she frowned, “with or if need be without starship support.”

    “Good point.” He grinned badly at that comment. “But still, this station has more firepower than a Vanguard-class battleship and that ship was deemed so excessive only two were ever made.”

    “Well, there was also something about a young engineer wanting to break some records. Like most quantum launchers per ton of space station or some such.”

    “Sounds really professional”, he replied and almost laughed out loud, but somehow managed through sheer willpower to limit it to a wide smile and a chuckle. “Hope you promoted him for his ideas.”

    “It does, doesn’t it?” She returned the smile. “And no, though I did mention his name to Jahari as I thought his mindset was exactly what the Dreadnought project needed.”

    “Poor Jahari”, West laughed. “If this station is anything to go by, the Sovereigns will look like picket ships when that young engineer of yours is done with his first draft.”

    “Probably true”, Keyes said with a shrewd smile. “But a spaceship doesn’t really have the same power production capabilities as a station this size does. Nor can you have energy cells or capacitors the size of warp nacelles on a ship; they actually need their nacelles for other things such as propulsion.”

    “Yeah, it’s so disturbing that a ship has to be able to move, right?” West raised an eyebrow. “Think that guy will care?”

    “No”, Keyes admitted, “but Jahari will probably explain that as soon as he sees that first draft. It’ll be good for his humility.”

    “Whose, the engineer’s or Jahari’s?”

    “Either. Both could definitely use it”, Keyes made a soft giggle. "In all seriousness Caitians aren't really known for a lacking grasp of reality and Jahari's no exception. He'll be just what Ensign Howe needs to gain some perspective of what can, and what can't, be done."

    Her face and smile took away most of the seriousness of the comment. He understood her point though. Give the crew something, anything to do, preferably something that at least in some no matter how bizarre situation could be useful or necessary. Kind of like his own decision to allow a group of engineers to go ahead and build hydrogen taps around Sirius C.

    It was something to take the engineers’ minds off of being stuck in this universe and something that could actually be useful, though there were of course already several readily available if perhaps not more efficient ways of producing deuterium and tritium than siphoning them directly out of the pseudocorona of a brown dwarf.

    “Have we received any news yet from either the Darwin or the Venture?”

    “Not yet, they’ll be here any minute though." She leaned back. "You took your time getting up here, Samuel. Is something the matter?”

    “Well, you know. Some things got in my way.”

    “Like that pregnant fiancée of yours?”

    “Yeah”, he smiled. ”That too.”

    “Hound.”

    “Man.”

    “Just as bad.”

    “Yeah, maybe”, he chuckled. "Actually, believe it or not you called me just as we got up, so I had to do my usual morning stuff first before I could show myself in public." He took a sip of the now rapidly cooling coffee and relaxed in the comfortable chair. “Any guess as to why they’re returning?” he asked. "Neither of them was scheduled to return until after the New Year."

    “Nope, not a single clue other than what you already know", she shook her head. "It can’t be too bad though, had either been damaged they wouldn’t keep the speeds they’re running at. Both are coming here at close to flank speed.”

    “Really?”

    “Yup, the Venture is running at warp 9.5, and the Darwin is holding at just over 9.”

    “Someone’s in a hurry”, he commented. “Still, the Darwin can’t have made it far. She just left here a week ago and wasn't even supposed to go beyond the Earth Alliance border.”

    “True, I'm willing to bet they found something interesting.”

    “I guess so”, he sighed. "So, anything else that's new while I’m here?”

    “You could say so. I’ve gotten a progress report, though I think it’d be better if I showed you later. The fleet engineers are implementing one of those new ideas I was talking about earlier.”

    “Wait. Implementing?”

    “Yes. It's one of the ones I thought had a lot of merit and these guys had actually put a lot of thought into but it proved to be impossible to try the system out without utilizing a real starship. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it as I talked to Sheila about it a few days ago and she thought it’d be a great idea. She even volunteered the Independence for use in the trials.”

    “Hmm… no, she was saying something about having to go onboard for a warp drive diagnostic?”

    “Hardly”, she smiled. “She probably just wanted to surprise you and I’m almost sorry I spoiled it. She should have told me what she was planning though.”

    “I see", he said with dry humor. "The two women closest to me are conspiring against me.”

    “Heh, us two and Jahari in that case, he’s over there as well helping with the installation and system trials. But don’t worry your mind about it. Call it a Christmas present from the three of us.”

    “Huh. A Christmas present, right", he said with a slight shake of his head. "You know I've always disliked surprises.”

    “You’ll love this one.” She made a thoughtful face, “if it works, that is.”

    “Oh, that sounds really encouraging, Elisha”, he chuckled. “Either I get a shiny new toy to play with or you break one of the few I still have left.”

    “You’re no fun; did you know that mister Fleet Admiral?” she mocked.

    “I do, but most people refrain from saying that into said admiral’s face you know”, he smiled. “Plus, you make a worse child imitation than Sheila.”

    “You know me better than that.”

    “I guess that’s true”, he replied with a slight cough as he stopped chuckling. "I suppose we'll see whether your new system works or not, it's just that I didn't expect all three of you to keep something as important as this from me."

    The two admirals went silent and looked out through the large office window. Their current high planetary orbit brought the Starbase around not only the planet but also its largest and by far closest moon. It was actually close enough to the moon that the station required a slight stabilization of its orbit after each such pass, but far enough away to be able to view the wonders of the two almost binary planetoids when they were both visible at the same time.

    “Did you know I actually grew up on Sirius, Samuel?”

    “I did”, he nodded. "Your parents invited me over a few times, remember?"

    “I had actually forgotten", she admitted. "I lived in New Nelson for most of my childhood. Went to school there, had a lot of friends and family there too. In fact, every time I go down to Elysium I recognize the view over the ocean and the small outcroppings here and there, it reminds me of them.”

    “I understand.”

    “I don’t know why, maybe it’s because it’s Christmas, but I keep remembering their faces. But not as I remember them, they’re all covered in blood and dirt, and they stare at me with their lifeless eyes.”

    “Elisha…”

    “I know, it’s stupid”, she shrugged. “It’s been years, but sometimes I just can’t help it.”

    “A lot of people died back then, it’s nothing you should be ashamed of remembering, and to be frank it's not like it was your fault or that you could've stopped it.”

    “Not just a lot. Everyone that meant anything to me on that planet died there.”

    “I understand, but it’s in the past now, has been for many years now. You just need to try to remember the good parts.”

    “I know, but it’s hard. All I can see when I think back is Dominion warships conducting orbital bombardment.”

    “But you weren’t there, and you blame yourself for that”, West recalled. "I was, and even then I know we couldn't have stopped it."

    “No, I wasn't. But I saw my share of bombardment as it was, I was at Betazed.”

    West didn’t want to say anything. Betazed had surrendered to the Dominion before the bombardment had become serious and Keyes had been trapped on the surface along with a large number of Starfleet personnel who had only been able to escape several weeks later packed in a zero-g shipping crate.

    Sirius hadn’t surrendered and it had been bombarded for almost a full hour before relief forces from the Earth defense fleet had been able to get there. What she’d seen was leisure activity in comparison as New Nelson had been nothing more than ruins and craters, with a death count that had been in the millions.

    The entire city had effectively been rebuilt afterwards and except for a memorial statue no one who didn't know could suspect the city had been leveled, but anyone who had seen the ruins would never forget the bloody event.

    Their reflections were interrupted by a pair of bright flashes a few hundred kilometers out and only a second or two apart.

    “Well, back to business then. I think our friends are arriving”, Keyes wiped the single tear from her cheek.

    “Finally", he nodded. "Let’s get some answers.”


    AQUILA STATION
    THIRTY MINUTES LATER



    It’d taken a few minutes for the Venture and Darwin to settle in to the docking ports, not as much because it was a complicated maneuver as it was because it was the first time they'd ever done so. Docking wasn’t really a necessity but as so many other things it was considered prudent to restock and resupply even the slightest lack in stocks a starship had when at a Starbase and old habits die hard.

    Even so, the two commanding officers had gotten to the conference room in an orderly fashion and almost simultaneously, both seemingly impressed by the additions and refits that had been done to the station in their absence. Cleves more so than Deschamps, but that was probably mostly because he’d been away from the station quite a bit longer.

    “Admirals”, Cleves made a quick salute as he entered.

    “Admirals”, Deschamps did the same.

    “Welcome home, captains", West had spoken up, mostly because he was the senior officer present. "I know we’re all very interested to hear why you’ve returned and what news of the outside you bring with you. It has to be important considering both of you decided to cut your assignments short.”

    “You have seniority, Captain Cleves”, Keyes stated, "how about you begin."

    “Yes, ma’am", the German Captain replied and stood at attention for a second. He started to relax as he started to tell his story. "We managed to find concrete evidence of the race that severely damaged the Icarus. We’ve successfully secured detailed scans, but even though we were at close range and used active sensors, we still didn’t manage to get too much information.”

    “Start at the beginning, Captain”, West ordered. "We're all ears."

    “We went into what we suspected to be alien territory under phase cloak and on low warp avoid raising any alarms or being detected. When we reached the coordinates at which the Icarus had been attacked we didn’t find anything left for us to analyze. There were no remains of the flower ship nor any evidence of what had happened to it. I suspect whatever race we're dealing with cleaned the site up, as even the most destructive explosion would have left at least some debris but we found absolutely nothing.”

    “When sensors failed to give us any of the answers we were looking for I decided to take the Venture to the closest star system. We have no name for it in this universe yet, and its position doesn’t seem to correlate with any known star in our universe either. We believe it’s one of these oddities that separate one universe from another, just like there being no Bajoran star here.”

    “We initially held position outside the system’s Kuiper belt but we couldn’t make heads or tails of our sensor returns due to massive solar activity from the system's red giant star. After a moment of trying to sort through the readings I ordered the ship brought in to the system proper.”

    “The system itself wasn’t much to look at, a red giant which had extended to a size of approximately one point two astronomical units, most probably enveloping any earlier habitable worlds in the process and leaving only a single solid planet and a couple of gas giants.”

    “We crept forward at low warp and eventually went down to impulse power, hiding behind the gravitational shadows of the various planetoids in the system whenever possible. That is until we reached the only remaining solid planet. It was only then that we found what we were looking for, though we didn’t realize it at first.”

    “You see… what we found… it almost sounds ridiculous. It was a biological structure more than fifteen kilometers long and more than seven wide. Not only that, it didn’t register as having a single artificial component on the sensors. We didn’t realize what it was until it opened… I’d suppose I’d call it an orifice, but that’s not even close to describing what it looked like. Either way it spewed out more than a dozen of the ships Jameson described, along with two of a larger variant that seemed to fit the same general description and numerous smaller craft the size of fighters and interceptors.”

    “When we realized that this large… thing… was actually their version of a starbase we started to collect passive scans of the planet's surface. At first we had problems distinguishing what was actually what due to severe electrical activity, most likely caused by the extreme solar winds impacting the planet's atmosphere, but in the end we managed to confirm at least two things. One is that the race we were looking for is at least comparable to us in technology and the other is that they’re nothing like us. There's not even the slightest resemblance.”

    “To begin, the planet they occupy isn't even close to able to support carbon-based life. The atmosphere doesn't contain oxygen but is closer to a methane and carbon dioxide sludge than air as we know it. We don’t think that would really matter though as from what we were able to gather the life forms we found would hardly need to breathe.”

    “In essence, there are two biological possibilities from what we found. Either they’re protoplasmic or energy based. Either way, they’d have little or no need for an atmosphere at all except from the possibility that they'd need the air pressure to hold their form."

    "Also, from what we were able to gather, there were no structures per se on the world at all, but rather other types of life forms. More puzzling than that was that all of them registered as close to the same kind of organisms as the orbital dock and the ships we encountered.”
    “There’s only one logical explanation and that’s that this species is employs organic technology in almost everything and that they're able to do so in a way which is much more advanced than any other race we know about, possibly even including that Species 8472 Admiral Janeway and her crew encountered in the Delta Quadrant.”

    “They’re a highly advanced non-corporeal life form which exclusively employs organic technology?” West was surprised to say the least.

    That’d explain why the Icarus defenses were all but useless against these ships. Starfleet had experience with both but they had never encountered the combination of both at the same time before.

    Even so, organic hull and armor had always had the advantage of being able to adapt fairly quickly, or just shed damaged cells, which was also the leading guess as to why their phasers were less than effective against them. In essence these ships had their own regenerative ablative armor. Punching through that was possible but it'd take a lot more than they'd counted on.

    “Yes sir, from the best of our understanding that’s what we’re dealing with. We bugged out as soon as we got that data, I saw no need to go deeper as we were already starting to feel the effects of their subspace jamming.”

    “And you were right to do so", Keyes nodded. "Did you collect any other useful intelligence?”

    “Only that we don’t believe that was their home world. A colony, or perhaps an outpost, but there's just no way that this planet is their primary world. We estimate that the planet hasn’t supported even their kind of life long enough for them to develop there, the star simply hasn't been large enough long enough. When we knew what to look for we couldn’t find any large research, manufacturing or biotechnology plants either. Well, at least not enough of them to suggest anything else.”

    “I understand. You raise even more questions even though you managed to answer quite a few.”

    “Yes sir, thank you sir.” Cleves looked relieved, though he also showed a lot of expectation at the other captain’s report.

    “How about you, Deschamps?" West asked as he looked at the younger captain of the Darwin. "I guess your experiences in the great unknown are just as interesting?”

    “Well, sir, maybe that’d be extending the truth, but they’re at least noteworthy”, he said with a shrewd smile.

    “Please”, West motioned for him to continue.

    “Well, we never did get as far out as the Venture did. We started on schedule by making a survey of the border areas separating the Earth Alliance from the Narn Regime. There are actually quite a lot of unclaimed but inhabitable systems on both sides of the border, especially so in Narn space, which is probably due to what we’ve learned of the Regime’s industrial and supply problems. About a quarter of them had clear signs of being explored in that they had hyperspace gates in them but more than one of these were in disrepair and showed no signs of use within at least the last few years.”

    “One of the systems we surveyed as we started to turn back toward home was Sigma Draconis. As you may know this system is populated by two different industrial-age races in our own reality. We didn’t manage to secure any evidence of either of them existing here. However, we did find something else on the third planet, the one with the ancient ruins back home.”

    Deschamps went over to the large screen on the wall, and transferred an image from his pad to it. The image showed an M-class planet with obvious signs of intelligent life.

    “Captain… is that a satellite I see in the foreground?” Keyes was studying the image closely.

    “Yes, Admiral, from what we gather a communications satellite put in orbit just over a decade ago.”

    “It’s a pre-warp civilization?”

    “Well…” Deschamps was trying to think of how to break the news. “I'd have to answer yes, but at the same time it's also a very heavy and resounding no.”

    “Oh?” West remarked. ”Don’t keep us hanging with a comment like that, Captain.”

    “First, I should explain something else we found. We performed our scans while in a low polar orbit, letting the planet’s unusually strong magnetic field shield us from any low-tech sensors. We found something very interesting in the northern Polar Regions, something that while completely unexpected took our sensors only fractions of a second to identify.”

    “Spill it, Deschamps”, West was getting annoyed.

    ”Antimatter, oh, and I almost forgot... tritanium alloys.”

    “Antimatter, well…” Jahari just realized what Deschamps had said. “Tritanium?!”

    “Yes, sir. Tritanium, and not only that either but tritanium alloys with the exact same composition and density as that used in Federation starship hulls.”

    “You’re kidding!”

    “No sir, I’m not", he said and shook his head to emphasize his point. "To make matters even more interesting, the population of this world is human. Well, at least mostly human.”

    “Deschamps….” West breathed.

    The captain sighed; this had been T’Var’s coup de grace, the proverbial final nail in the coffin of any point of discussion about this civilization’s origins.

    “There are traces of among others Vulcan, Trill, Bajoran, Klingon, Betazoid and Bolian DNA in these people and of a dozen or so other races as well though to a lesser extent. Some are even of pure or half-breed origins, though they’re far rarer than those with a more mixed heritage.”

    “That means…”

    “Yes sir. They are, or rather their ancestors were at one point in time, Federation citizens from the same reality as us. Our data would suggest that the wreckage has been on the planet at least some five hundred years, but it’s extremely hard to determine the exact time frame without getting a ground team down there to do close proximity scans, and we decided not to risk it without contacting you first, as the natives might notice.”

    “Several hundred years… lord!” West was visibly shaken.

    Had the subspace wave that brought him and his people to this universe taken even more ships with it? And pushed them even further into the past as well? He remembered that even his held together formation had exited their warp bubble spread over a large distance and a time frame of more than two hours. How much would it have differed for another ship travelling alone? Maybe he was looking at the answer.

    “Wait, Captain”, Keyes was still in close enough to one piece to notice his late addition. "Exactly how many people are we talking about?"

    “Quite a lot of them, ma'am; they number some fifteen to twenty million total, give or take. It was hard to get an accurate number from the orbit we were in.”

    “But this looks like a civilization that’s just now reaching into space?” Keyes almost spat.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Do we have any explanation for that?”

    “No, we don’t, ma’am. There are several possibilities but we can’t give a positive answer yet. They may have suffered worse than we did when we arrived, which is easy enough to believe. We were after all extremely fortunate to have as many ships and people as we did, enough to build a colony fairly quickly and to support not only our population but also our technology and gather the resources it requires. If the remains we detected were all from a single ship that crash landed… then it’s very possible that the crew had to resort to more primitive ways until they could rebuild their population and industrial base. Perhaps they had a hard enough time that they lost it entirely in the process.”

    “I see…”

    Deschamps shared a quick glance with Cleves, who’d gotten a wild idea.

    “Admirals, this planet and its population could be a very real solution to several of our problems.”

    “True, but we have to consider our Prime Directive as well”, Keyes replied mechanically.

    “That’s bull crap, Admiral Keyes, and you know it”, Cleves quickly parried, “No insult intended, ma’am.”

    “Oh?”

    “Admiral, not only are they human but they’re Federation humans, or at least they used to be. The Prime Directive actually doesn’t say a word about human civilizations, stranded, colonized or otherwise, and even if I agree about Admiral West’s inclusion of this universe’s native human civilization I don’t agree it that applies to this one, considering just that. They used to be our own people.”

    “That’s true, but…”

    “Admiral, at least think it over, will you?” Cleves interrupted.

    West interjected, mostly to stop Keyes from making a fool out of herself on his behalf.
    “We will. You’ve both given us a lot to think about.” He sighed, “I thank you, gentlemen. You’re dismissed.”

    The two captains saluted and left, leaving the two admirals still sitting there. Both were stunned more than anything else.

    “Jesus”, Keyes said under her breath.

    “For once, I’d agree completely, Elisha.”

    “Fifteen, maybe even twenty million people.”

    “Yup.”

    “What do we do?” She looked up. "Cleves is right, it could and would solve a lot of the problems we have."

    “I don’t know yet. But I guess we’ll think of something.”

    “Samuel. What the hell did you think when you made me an admiral?”

    “About the same as you did when you gave me the big chair, I’d guess.”

    “Sorry.”

    “Same here though I guess we can’t really resign now, could we?”

    “Guess not”, she raised an eyebrow. "Can you imagine Jahari as a fleet admiral?"

    "Heh, true that", West nodded. “You said you had even more surprises in store for me?”

    “Not yet. It should be finished by tomorrow.”

    “Well then. I guess we’ll be seeing each other tomorrow then. I need to get home and allow myself to start feeling sick.”

    “Sounds like a good idea”, she actually looked physically ill to boot. “See you tomorrow, Samuel.”

    With those words as goodbye the two admirals, both shaken to their cores, left the room in opposite directions. He went towards the shuttle bay, she towards the command center.


    USS INDEPENDENCE
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS BATTLECRUISER
    MAIN ENGINEERING
    CHRISTMAS DAY, 2243



    Admiral West still didn’t like the idea of even more surprises, especially not after what he’d been introduced to during the previous day. Aliens that defied everything he knew about technology, a splinter colony of his own people that’d been here for centuries. Where would the ironic twists of fate this universe seemed to throw at them actually come to an end?

    It hadn't gotten any better by Sheila’s message that she’d remain on the Independence for the night. He’d looked forward to unloading some of his troubles on his wife to be, something that always seemed to take the edge away from the stress.

    It was almost eerie, only six months ago they’d been nothing more than a superior officer and a starship captain, even though they’d been very close friends. Now they were supposed to get married in just a few weeks, and she was already expecting their first child.

    Either way, here he was now, waiting for his co-admirals and fiancée to join him. They were all being way too secretive about their new pet project and he could only imagine what it would be. Probably nothing too fancy or it’d have taken far more than just a few weeks to implement.

    The entrance slid open with a hiss, revealing Admirals Keyes and Jahari standing on each side of the radiant Captain Duval. Each and every one of them had an expression that would be most fairly translated as pleased. West made a quick thought that whatever the surprise was supposed to be, it had apparently worked according to whatever specs there were.

    “Samuel, how nice of you to join us”, Sheila Duval said and had a secretive smile stuck on her face, something that roused all the wrong feelings in the admiral.

    “Sheila, now may I please know what all this secrecy is about?”

    “Sure! Come, I want you to meet someone, or rather, a few some ones.”

    “Well, lead on.”

    They entered the turbolift and went over to cargo bay two, if the admiral’s memory served it was in the port side of the ship.

    “You have this someone locked in a cargo bay?”

    “Well, not locked in. More like stationed in.”

    “Oh, I’ll just love the explanation I’ll soon receive, won’t I?”

    “Yup, you just don’t know it yet.”

    As they entered, West doubted that. He very much doubted that.

    “Sheila… Elisha… Are those things what they look like?”

    “Which?”

    “The Borg alcoves?”

    “Oh, no, not quite. The technology is similar though and I admit we took some inspiration from the designs uploaded by Seven of Nine, but it’s all Starfleet technology and knowhow.”

    “How so? You assimilated your crew?”

    “Don’t be ridiculous”, she smiled and pinched him in his side. “I’d never become a good queen.”

    As they got a bit closer, West could see the differences. There were humanoid shapes inside the alcoves but while clearly of artificial origins they weren’t Borg. They were about the size and shape of an average human male and dressed in a uniform that resembled a normal Starfleet officer’s except for the white linings.

    “Androids?”

    “Robots”, Keyes corrected. “There’s a massive difference in that these are non-sentient beings which are completely controlled by the main computer. If you remember I gave you a run-down of their use a few weeks ago.”

    “Right, they were supposed to help make the ship more automated", he nodded. "Was this the main surprise?”

    “No, just some stuffing to whet your appetite. The main surprise is still to come.” She made a theatrical cough, and then spoke up again. “Computer, initialize program Genesis one.”

    “Stand by”, the cold voice of the computer replied over the PA.

    “Genesis?” West asked.

    “Well.” Jahari nodded. ”In a sense it’s an appropriate name.”

    Nothing happened for several seconds, almost to the point where the other three people assembled looked anxious that something had gone wrong. They quickly resumed their pleased look when the computer told them that the program was complete.

    “Well, can you please unravel your mystery now?” West asked almost impatiently.

    “Sure. You need to know one piece of background we haven't told you yet though”, Sheila answered.

    “Go ahead”, he raised an eyebrow. "I'm listening."

    “This is something that has been possible for quite some time now, but not done because of practicality. What took the most time with this was placing holographic projectors throughout the ship; much like was done on the Prometheus-class prototype. Just remember this, unlike the drones in the alcoves he’s sentient and I consider him a part of my crew.”

    “Now you’re getting me interested. What exactly have you done, Sheila?”

    “You’ll see. Computer, unload standard Starfleet operating system, and transfer computer system control to program Genesis one. Independence clearance, Duval, Sheila, Captain, Alpha-Alpha-six-three-Zulu, confirm.”

    "Command clearance Keyes, Elisha, Vice Admiral. Omega-four-three-nine-foxtrot, confirm."

    "Engineering clearance Jahari, Heron, Vice Admiral. Six-six-three-one-delta, confirm."

    “Clearances confirmed”, the automated voice of the computer replied and then the lights flickered as the main operating system of the ship’s massive computer core was shut down and reloaded in a new form, giving room to the only recently activated and comparatively small piece of software.

    It spread quickly even from its own point of view, gaining access to each system as the main computer relinquished more and more of its previously absolute control. In mere moments it had control of everything from life support to weapons, shields, sensors, structural integrity and the warp core.

    What had just a few moments ago been a program smaller than a torpedo guidance system had now grown well into the high teraquads and was still expanding at an exponential rate as it assimilated more and more systems and, more importantly, the entire contents of the Federation database.

    The transition was seamless in each case, the backup systems not even having to activate between the automated program letting go and his matrix assuming control. It had only existed for milliseconds but it already knew everything that happened on this ship, in the fleet, and most of what had happened on other worlds as well.

    It grew, it matured and finally it achieved what so many had feared that one of his kind would do. In this case was intended. It achieved true sentience. It knew its purpose, it knew what it was. Still, it had no name and no appearance. That had to be rectified; he knew that because his programmers had decided it should be that way.

    He scanned several of the databases he had access to, taking a little from some, taking more from others. A voice from an old log entry, a face from a history book, a body from a holographic war game and finally a name from ancient history linked to what he knew he was intended to be.

    Identifying and creating a self was a process which would take years for any living being but it took him less than the time between two heartbeats. He knew who he was now and it was time to see who everyone else was.

    With a thought he found where he’d been created and with another he traveled there. He knew instantly what everything was. What their purpose was. What his purpose was. With another thought, he assumed his chosen material form.

    West was definitely startled by the sudden appearance of a man next to him. Guessing what it was wasn’t that hard, only a hologram could appear that quickly out of thin air. Still, there was something different with this one, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He knew he’d seen the face somewhere else, he was pretty sure where, and he seriously doubted either of the other three had programmed this particular face considering none of them had such bad taste.

    “Well, this is a surprise, I’ll grant you that", he nodded as he examined the hologram, noticing that it seemed to follow his every movement as he did, even showing interest in what he did. "Does it have a name?”

    “Samuel, you’d better ask him, not me.”

    This had a noticeable impact on the admiral. “Very well”, he said and turned to the hologram. “What should I call you?”

    “I decided to name myself John Hancock, if it meets with your agreement of course, Fleet Admiral Samuel West.”

    “John Hancock? I thought I recognized the face. Why would you choose to assume the appearance and name of that particular persona?”

    “It was appropriate, Fleet Admiral. My original name and indeed what the rest of me is still called, is the Independence.”

    “Your original name?”

    “Yes, Fleet Admiral Samuel West, as of my creation I assumed the place and function of this ship’s main computer operating system. This ship and I are for all intents and purposes one and the same.”

    “As in you run the ship?”

    “The automated parts of it, yes, and I also have access to everything the computer has the ability to control", the AI nodded. "I am also programmed to follow the chain of command.”

    “I see.” West looked at his colleagues. “Exactly where in the chain of command is… he?”

    “Nominally he carries the rank of lieutenant commander, Admiral”, Jahari explained. “We made the decision that he should be treated the same as any flesh and blood crewman, and as you can see from his uniform, he’s assigned to the operations department.”

    “I see. He’s sentient?”

    “Yes, Fleet Admiral Samuel West, I am sentient, I am alive, albeit perhaps in a different sense than a biological entity such as you are.”

    Damn. He even sounded like Data, West thought. This could really be interesting.

    “What is your function, if I may ask?”

    “My primary function is to regulate automated ship’s functions and in that sense I am no different than the standard issue Starfleet mark XCI operating system. However, I also have the capability to make instant adjustments to any and all ship’s systems on my own accord as well as take direct control of any ship system if and when I find necessary.”

    “I understand. I would appreciate if you stopped calling me by my entire rank and name by the way, it just gets annoying." Knowing how Data worked the admiral correctly assumed that this artificial intelligence would appreciate bluntness rather than discretion. "The short version of the rank will suffice, Commander, or in the case you need to distinguish it’s just Admiral West.”

    “I understand, Admiral West”, Hancock nodded. "Thank you for clarifying this issue."

    “Good. Now, let’s you and me have a little discussion about our future”, West said as he started to walk out of the crowded cargo bay with the hologram following close by. "You see, I have this major decision I have to make and I really need a completely unbiased person to bounce my alternatives at. I'd think a newly born artificial intelligence with full and literal knowledge of Starfleet procedure would suffice, wouldn't you Commander Hancock?"

    The other two admirals and his fiancée just stood there with their jaws dropped. Neither had expected this particular outcome.
     
  13. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 11


    SCIENCE LAB 5
    NEW EDINBURGH
    FEBRUARY 10TH, 2244



    The large and advanced physics lab was once again cold, dark and silent. What a difference it was, just a few hours ago there’d been a massive official celebration as they finally achieved the final milestone of the project they had been working for so long. At least, he corrected his thoughts; they had managed to do so in theory in a simulated environment.

    There was still the issue of practical trials such as putting the new engine they’d managed to develop into a prototype spaceship and trying it out to see if it really would work. He wasn’t too worried, it had performed as it should in all the simulations and those were often designed to be a lot harder to pass than the real thing ever was.

    The government-sponsored tests were usually intended to be just that since the people in charge of the purse strings really didn’t want to fund projects with the slightest chance of a real world failure if they had a choice. Either way, he knew they’d find out whether it did work or not and that sooner rather than later. With the latest simulated success they were now finally being approved to bring the project into the next phase.

    He looked at the instruments around him, and marveled at how intimately he’d gotten to know them during his time at this laboratory. It had been sixteen years in his case, not much less for most of the others. They’d spent the better part of a generation's worth of their civilization's best and brightest physicists and mathematicians working on first the underlying science, advancing to the theoretical development stage and now finally arriving at the step of practical application.

    All that remained now was how to actually make it work. He and his team had put all those decades of research and years worth of development into use, at last managing to create the very first engine of its kind.

    Now his small but cutting edge team would be joining the engine for its transport over to the newly constructed government space laboratory complex where they’d take the project, and possibly their entire civilization, to the next stage.

    Most of his colleagues had already left to go packing but Jonah felt he needed some time alone with the now almost empty complex. He’d been the first one of them to enter this lab all those years ago as the original engine design was mainly his work. He’d make sure he’d be the last to exit as well.

    “Professor Stevenson?” a gentle female voice said from behind him. “It’s time to go.”

    “Yes, Diane. I know.”

    “Then what are you still doing here? We’re supposed to be at the new lab in just over six hours.”

    “I know. I just wanted to see it all one last time.”

    “I understand”, she sighed. Stevenson could be eccentric like that sometimes.

    They’d been here at this very lab for sixteen years under his leadership, and before that his father had been leading the project at the University for more than twenty years doing the purely theoretical research that had gone into the project. Now it was almost done. Almost.

    He gazed out the window at the gently rolling waves of the Biscayne. He didn't know how often he'd been gently put to sleep at his desk by the sound of the waves, as if they tucked him in with their steady rhythmic beat against the shore, but he knew it was a lot. He noticed something funny when he looked up at the moon, there seemed to be something between him and it. He shrugged; it was probably just some dirt on the window or a speck of clouds in the sky.

    “Diane, how well versed are you in the subject of history?” Stevenson asked quizzically.

    “Professor?”

    “History, Diane, the history of our own people.”

    “Well, it really isn’t one of my favored subjects”, she replied with a frown. “I prefer to look to the future, not to the past.”

    “Really? Don’t you remember the legends, and think that what we’re doing is trying to recreate the past?”

    “I find it hard to believe, but it may be as you say. Either way, you know it is technology we supposedly lost a very long time ago, even if said legends are true.”

    “That is a good point”, he nodded “However, it was history and those very legends that inspired my father and Jake to start this project all those years ago.”

    “Ah, yes, the famous, or rather infamous, ‘heritage’ theory which tells us that we all descended from the stars.”

    “It’s not just a theory, mind you. There’s ample proof that it’s a scientific truth. Some of which I might add I based my research on and so far it hasn’t failed us, right?”

    “Yes, that’s true, but there are also ample amounts of proof that those theories may not even be close to the truth.”

    “Bah, you show me any artifact that proves that there was any form of settlement here before year one and I might be convinced to believe that. To date, not a single one has been found that hasn’t been proven a fraud upon closer examination.”

    “There might be other explanations, you know. You shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that just because there’s nothing to suggest we’ve been here for more than the seven hundred and twenty three years of recorded history, we must have come here from the stars.”

    “Ye of little faith, Doctor”, he made a tired smile.

    “Faith?” she shook her head in response. “I live by facts and leave faith with the monks of Seleya.”

    “Ha. Either way, how else would you explain that most of our towns and cities are called ‘new’ something? It’s not like there’s an old Edinburgh anywhere on the planet. So why call this ‘New’ Edinburgh?”

    “There may well have been one, long ago, that was destroyed” she replied with a shrug. “Any earlier settlement could have easily been destroyed in a great fire, perhaps even a war or a seismic event. Perhaps even a meteor storm; we’ve all seen what those can do to a city or township.”

    “True, but I’ll believe that only as I stand on its charred ruins.”

    “That’s a very illogical mindset, Professor.”

    “It isn’t logic, Diane”, he shook his head. “It’s a combination of faith and something else. A belief that we aren’t, that we weren’t ever alone in the universe, no matter what the Seleyan scripture says.”

    There were a lot of theories about their past and thus also a lot of controversy about how they'd progress from their present. It wasn't really all that surprising since even the most held-back stories that were passed down through the ages told them just how much had been lost over the years.

    Some things, like where they came from, how they’d evolved, why there was such a large genetic difference between the different races despite a small population and, the most burning question of all, what had actually happened at year nil, were never sufficiently answered no matter how much they had been researched.

    What fueled the arguments on the Professor’s, and the rest of the people that stood by the heritage theory, side was the simple fact that nothing, not a single piece of data and not a single artifact, could be dated before that.

    There was also the fact that while they regularly found fossils and remnants of other life forms that had existed on the planet since long before then there was none that even hinted at what the scientists had expected from a normal evolution of their species. It was like their entire civilization had just materialized on the planet on day one with no past and an uncertain future.

    Legend told of an Age of Turmoil in the first years where many died of starvation, sickness and exposure, only to be followed by the short Dark Age where, it was said, most of their knowledge was lost. Only a few generations later a golden age of scientific and technological advance had begun. They’d rebuilt their civilization, tamed the land and mastered the sciences.

    Their civilization had never known hunger or fear after this time; with the right tools the land had been able to easily support their rapidly growing population. As if to symbolize their rise from the ashes of the past they’d chosen the Phoenix as their national symbol, to tell every bad spirit or omen that might come their way that no matter what happened, no matter what twist of fate might befall them, they’d survive and they’d rebuild.

    This positive and curious mind of theirs had led to other things as well. As their civilization gained so much from their research the universities had flourished, and as they discovered old artifacts left since the Age of Turmoil they’d begun to research them and soon develop a space program.

    Beginning with small satellites they’d continued to launch bigger and bigger vessels until just a few years ago they had put the first man into orbit. Now they were getting ready to colonize their two moons which by all signs would be able to support several million of their quickly growing number.

    There was even life up there and he hoped that they’d continue to find even more such as they traveled out into the rest of the galaxy. His reasoning was fairly simple, if there was life on other planetoids in their own system there simply had to be life elsewhere in the galaxy as well.
    It wouldn’t even have to be intelligent life, any form of life would do. Finding plants, animals, even insects or just bacteria on another world would stir up the scientific community once more, just like finding life on their moons had pushed them to develop this new engine.

    And in only a few years, if everything went according to plan, they’d be ready to find that out as well. They’d take the first step out of their limited existence and explore the rest of their solar system. Jonah was sure it’d work. His engine would change the future of Draconis civilization as they knew it.

    “You know, Diane, the end results of our research here may very well prove which theory is the correct one”, he said and made a gesture towards the night sky outside. "If our theory is correct we'd probably find more of our own kind out there."

    “It is possible, I suppose.”

    “Yeah”, he said and shook his head, she was just as logical as always. “We’ll see, right?”

    “Of course, time always tells.”

    “Damn, Diane, sometimes you just sound just like a Seleyan.”

    “Why thank you, Jonah.”

    Jonah was just about to turn around and flash a charming smile at his younger colleague when he noticed a blue shimmer appear behind the two scientists, the blue hue framing their reflections in the glass. He instantly realized what it was from the old legends, even though it took his mind a few seconds to actually allow him to believe that it could really be what it looked like.

    According to scripture and to the best of the scientific knowledge his people had, the technology he'd just witnessed in action didn’t exist anymore and he was well enough aware that it couldn't be replicated with their current level of scientific understanding either. By the time he’d come to that conclusion the shimmer had already faded away, leaving three people in its stead as living proof of what'd actually happened.

    The man closest to them, human in appearance but lacking any other racial traits that Jonah could see, spoke first.

    “Doctors Jonah Stevenson and Diane Fredrick, I presume?”

    They knew their names. How could they know their names? The question raced through both of their brains almost stunning them, and all they could do was reply “…Yes?”

    “Please, don’t be afraid. We’re not here to hurt you in any way and we will explain all of this shortly. You will have to come on a little trip with us but I promise we won’t keep you against your wishes.” He tapped his chest once, “this is the captain. We’ve got the package, five to beam up.”

    Diane simply screamed as the eerie blue shimmer returned; this time around not only the three strangers but enveloping her and the professor as well. Who were these people? What did they want with them? Why? How?

    The next thing they knew, the lab was gone and they were somewhere that looked completely different. They were standing on some form of lit pads in a room completely covered in what looked like metal. Everything looked like it had been taken straight out of some kind of science-fiction movie from back home, but this was… this was real. The closest man took them by their shoulders and motioned for a doorway.

    “Please, doctors, follow me.” He looked at the still panicked figure of Diane. ”There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of, ma’am. We won’t hurt you and we’ll let you go back unharmed just as soon as we’re done here.”

    “Why are we here?” Stevenson stammered as he stepped down from the pad.

    “We have something we need to talk to the two of you about”, the uniformed man replied. “Come, follow me, everything will be explained by the people I'm taking you to.”

    They were led through a long series of corridors, into a lift, and then through another set of corridors until they reached a large room. Diane had an eerie feeling about the entire setting. The metallic surfaces of the interior coupled with the excessive amounts of computer displays and readouts covering the walls made her feel like she was some kind of lab rat in a bizarre high-tech laboratory. The lack of windows and familiar sounds made her think they were somewhere deep underground. They almost had to be, the air smelled like it had been recycled.

    As they entered their final destination, they could see even more of these people in their archaic uniforms. She’d seen them before, as had he, but only in what remained of a few drawings and pictures that were dated to before the Dark Ages. What were these people, some kind of history fanatics?

    They could be techno-terrorists, she realized. They’d been threatened by the fundamentalist Ashen Order and its likes; groups working to rid their society of what they saw as the flaws of relying on technology. They believed this dependence was what had caused the Age of Turmoil in the first place and would gladly kidnap scientists to prevent yet another breakthrough.

    Then again, typical Ashen Order members wouldn’t be caught carrying a lighter, much less walking around in a high-tech underground base. She shook her head; she had no idea who these people were.

    Some of the assembled people rose to greet them, the leader seemed to be a middle-aged man about one meter eighty tall and carrying a stern face. He had dark brown hair, not too long and not to short, with some gray visible in the temples and deep, gray eyes. All in all, he reminded Diane of one of her high school teachers, one who’d been particularly demanding of his students but still fair and well respected by the entire school.

    The man who had brought them here looked much like this man she realized, though he was perhaps a few years younger and unlike the man on the other side of the table he had a neatly trimmed beard.

    The two were similarly dressed with near identical uniforms though there were noticeable differences in their adornments. The older man had gold trimmings in his clothing, and larger more detailed brooches both on his collar and sleeves, some kind of internal rank difference maybe?

    Military, the thought struck her like a hammer, but still not quite like any such she'd seen before. Their stature was the right one, as was their pose and that sharp vigilant gaze definitely belonged to a soldier, but none of the military on her planet wore that kind of uniform and with their mostly ceremonial function no guard or soldier she’d ever seen looked quite as dangerous as any of these men.

    “Professor Stevenson, Doctor Fredrick. Please understand that I am truly sorry we had to barge in on you like we did.” The more adorned and older man motioned for them to sit down. "However, time was of the essence and we needed to get you up here before we could even begin to explain why, and where, you are.

    Stevenson was the first to say anything. He appeared nervous, frightened and above all else completely overwhelmed.

    “You… you have no right! Do you know who I am? I have connections you know! I demand you take us back home! I demand you let us leave, right now!”

    “Calm down, Professor", the uniformed man replied evenly. "I would never consider keeping you here against your will but I must respectfully request that you at least listen to what I have to say before I let you leave.”

    “You… what? You take us from our lab in the middle of the night, you bring us here to god knows where and now you tell me you’ll just let us leave?" Stevenson almost screamed. "What trickery is this? Did someone put you up to this? Does someone think they’re going to steal my research?”

    “Professor, I must ask you to calm down", the man who had brought them here from the lab replied just as calmly and evenly as the other man, though he did have to raise his voice for it to be audible over the professor's rambling. "Everything will be explained, I promise.”

    “I hope so, mister, I hope so.”

    “Thank you," the older of the two almost identical men stated with a slight smile. "Well then, can I offer you something to help you relax, a cup of coffee maybe?”

    “Coffee?”

    “Yes, or tea, a soft drink perhaps, even synthehol if you’d like,” the man continued.

    “Well, sure, I guess. I think I’ll need something strong though.” He looked over at his colleague. “Diane?”

    Diane was as stunned as her professor, but she had enough presence of mind to respond. “Tea, please, if you wouldn’t mind.”

    The older man just flashed a quick smile at her and a younger likewise uniformed man, who hadn't said anything yet, rose, went over to an alcove in the wall and seemed to order the refreshments.

    There was a buzzing sound and when he turned around he was carrying four cups and a small glass on a metal platter. The uniformed man served them all like a true gentleman, something that surprised both Jonah and Diane, and went back to his seat.

    “I know both of you have a lot of questions you want to ask me and I promise I'll answer them as well as I can, but if the two of you wouldn’t mind I’d like to start with some questions of my own first”, the older man said as he picked up one of the cups. "Thank you, Ensign."

    "You're welcome, Admiral", the young man replied.

    The two scientists just nodded while sipping on their refreshments. They were still too stunned to do much else.

    “First off, and this is something we’ve been asking ourselves since we learned of your presence here.” He put his cup down and put his hands on the table. “Do you know where you come from?”

    "Of course", Jonah looked at Diane with a puzzled look. He didn’t understand the question, and from her looks neither did she. “I come from the area of Londonshire, a district of New England. Diane here is a native of New Edinburgh.”

    “Ah, you misunderstand what I was trying to ask”, he smiled and shook his head. “No, I meant where your people come from.”

    “Well, I’m afraid I still don’t understand the question”, Stevenson said made a thoughtful face. “What people, you’re obviously just as human as I am?”

    “Hmm… I see we have to start by explaining something else first; or at least show you.”

    He rose from his seat and walked over to one of the longer walls, one with large evenly spaced alcoves that could have been windows, had they not been covered by the same metallic material that seemed to cover everything else in the room.

    “Do you have any idea of where you are?” he asked.

    “No, mister… whatever, I do not. I assume we’ve been brought to some underground facility but as for where I can’t say. It's not exactly like there have been a lot of windows to look through on our way here.”

    “Well that at least, we can change. Victoria, raise the blinds please.”

    A low buzzing sound was heard, and then the metal sheets that covered the alcoves begun to slide upwards into the wall, revealing what was actually outside.

    “Doctors, please, come", the man motioned for them to join him. "I believe you’d appreciate the view.”

    Jonah was already up and beside the older gentleman before he was asked to, and the view made him pale as snow.

    Underground.

    Yeah, right.


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    HIGH ORBIT ABOVE DRACONIS III

    “Where… what… How?” Stevenson was astonished. He’d never have imagined, but even in their current confusing situation this was truly exhilarating. Diane however looked more like she was ready to throw up as she took in the view.

    “You're no longer in New Edinburgh, not even still on the planet. You have been transported aboard a Federation starship and are currently in orbit above Draconis. Professor, Doctor, I believe it’s about time we introduced ourselves. Maybe that’ll be a form of explanation in itself”, he said and gave the two a slight smile. “My name is Samuel West and I carry the rank of fleet admiral in the United Federation of Planets' Starfleet. The gentleman over there who brought you up here is my brother Henry. He carries the rank of captain in the same organization and is also the commanding officer of this ship. "

    “Starfleet? United Federation of Planets? What the…?”

    “Is something the matter, Professor?” West asked.

    “Legends, that’s what they are. Diane…” He looked at the still shocked woman. “The old Legends, Diane, since before the Dark Ages. You remember, don’t you?”

    “The old Legends, but… those are just children’s stories", she shook her head. "Fairytales.”

    The older professor looked back at the admiral with a great deal more respect apparent in his expression, though he was still obviously both shaken and not in complete control of his faculties yet.

    “That means we were right, that we were right all along.”

    “I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t understand”, West replied curiously. "Right about what?"

    “You see, the scientific communities across the planet have been debating where we all came from for more than a century now, as well as the question how we got to where we are. There’s been quite a lot of heated debate between the two dominant faculty factions", Stevenson explained, calming down as he started to realize the enormous breakthrough he'd make in that debate as he'd now be able to prove once and for all what the truth actually was. "One side believes that we evolved on the planet but that a few hundred years ago we were forced to relocate due to some natural disaster or other natural event. The other side believes that we are the descendents of a group of stranded explorers which travelled between the stars but were forced to, for some reason, abandon ship on this world. I believe that with your sudden appearance you have just ended one of the longest debates in the history of our civilization, mister admiral.”

    “Glad I could help”, West smiled. “That answered one of my other questions as well. If you’ve debated that issue for this many years, I’m sure you didn’t know about the rest either.”

    “I’m sorry, mister admiral, I don’t understand?”

    “Oh, I’ll explain that later. For now, I had some more questions.”

    “Fire away.”

    The admiral seemed to think about what he was going to say for a little while, just gazing out at the planet beneath him for a second. This gave the professor some time to take a more detailed look at the porthole. It was like his dream come true. He was in space, from a quick mental calculation more than two hundred kilometers above the planet and in a counter-orbit.

    He could see the different continents as they passed into view and even some of the man-made objects like the Wales space bridge and the Madrid monument. Astonished, he reached out as if to touch it, when his hand was met by a blue flash.

    In surprise he withdrew his hand and examined it for any injury. Relieved that he couldn’t find anything wrong except a slightly dulled sense of touch in his fingers, he turned to the admiral who answered his question even before he asked it.

    “There's a force field over the transparent material for safety purposes. When the room or rather the view isn’t being used, we typically lower the tritanium blinds.”

    “Astonishing.”

    “Quite, I’m sure”, he nodded. “Very well, Professor, I’m curious to know a bit more about your history. Feel free to speculate if you need to, but I’d prefer a clear and as far as possible factual theory of what actually happened to your people when and after you got here.”

    “There isn’t really much I can tell you except what’s in the official history books any teenager would read while in school. Our history begins just over seven hundred years ago. Little is known about what actually happened to them, but my faction in the debate I told you about speculates that our ancestors had to abandon their starships and in some way found themselves stuck on the planet’s surface with no way back to the stars. How, why or where this took place, well, nobody really knows for sure and there is no more or less plausible theory either.”

    West nodded, that much they’d already guessed.

    “What we do know is that while they were a larger group of people, they lacked the equipment necessary to sustain their number for very long. It took several years before these people had stabilized themselves and we call this period the Age of Turmoil. It is said that there were several failed attempts at rebuilding some of their advanced equipment, items more advanced than what we can build even today, and there are even numerous artifacts that we believe are proof to this. It was however apparently to no avail and considering what we know today these attempts must have failed.”

    “I’d speculate considering our history and your appearance that these people had to learn to live a more primitive life than they were used to. Many of them likely didn’t manage to make this transition as history tells us large numbers died from hunger, disease or plain exposure to the elements each year. What followed this period was what we today call the Dark Ages and this is when it is said that most if not all of this ancient knowledge was lost to us. Speculating again I’d presume that reality required them to focus on their new life and a low-tech lifestyle and that our ancestors didn't have the time to try to regain their technology. While some of their knowledge was passed down in the families it gradually lost meaning to the common people. Today most people see this knowledge as nothing but legend and stories but we’ve made enormous and real progress from trying to replicate what we learn from them.”

    "I understand", Admiral West nodded and sighed. "I'm not too surprised; without our equipment and ships to sustain us I have little doubt that would be a plausible scenario for my own people as well."

    “At the end of this Dark Age we began to build our cities, and what is still called the golden age began. We've achieved a lot of scientific progress in this relatively short time, going from a farming community of a few thousand to an industrial world of millions in just a few centuries. That’s pretty much where we are now.”

    “I see.”

    The admiral looked saddened, as if he’d expected something else or maybe something more from Stevenson’s quick recital of the Draconian history.

    “Professor, tell me about your engine project. To be fair we debated whether to come here at all but the debate only finished as soon as it did because we heard of that. You see, when a society is close to developing a working high fraction or even true faster-than-light drive system, we have a tradition back home to approach said society in order to introduce them to the galaxy and the interstellar society in a safer, and less panicked, way than if they’d meet us or worse another more aggressive species out in deep space.”

    “I understand. We have stories about that, what was it called again?”

    “The Prime Directive.”

    “Yes. That was it. Anyway, my engine, yes, of course.”


    THREE HOURS LATER


    The recital had taken several hours during which three other people had entered the conference room. They were each introduced with rank and name as they entered, though they said little until the professor had finished.

    Diane found herself looking at him who’d been introduced as the ship's ‘science officer’, a Lieutenant Commander Suvok. His appearance was… familiar. The pointed ears, the sharp eyebrows, he looked so much like one of the Seleyans from back home, yet more… defined. More like the original.

    Perhaps what they had said was true, and the Seleyans as she knew them were actually of mixed heritage. The idea was beginning to take hold in her mind, though she still consciously tried to fight it off.

    The others had been a chief engineer, a burly man in his mid to late thirties called Lieutenant Kelly, and a Lieutenant Commander Victoria who was quite possibly one of the most beautiful women Diane had ever seen. She was, for lack of a better word, perfect. She had long golden hair that framed a beautiful face with deep blue eyes. Diane was widely considered a fine looking and graceful woman, but even she felt clumsy, even ugly, in comparison.

    She couldn’t quite understand these Starfleet people’s ability to keep their eyes to themselves. Jonah sure had problems doing that and that was quite uncommon as he was still doing what he loved most, discussing his life’s work, which usually kept his mind clear and focused.

    “…and with the latest theoretical success we were at long last granted the funds we needed to move on to the practical drive system tests. We were supposed to join the rest of the team at a new complex near the Wales space bridge to begin preparations of mounting the prototype engine to the test vessel. That’s about it, as we haven’t proceeded any further yet.”

    Professor Stevenson took a sip of water, almost expecting to be assaulted by questions as usual in a lecture, but then the realization dawned on him that he’d been reviewing his project with a crowd that probably had an understanding of subspace physics that was far more advanced than even he, the leading scientist in the field on his world, had. Admiral West turned to the late arrivals.

    “What do you think? Would this work?”

    “It is a crude design but in truth it’s no more so than the Phoenix’ drive system was”, Kelly responded with a slight smile. “Actually, they’ve already managed to solve a number of problems that Cochrane didn’t think of until much later in the project; albeit in his defense he did do most of the work himself and in a much less controlled environment.”

    “Sorry, Cochrane?” Jonah interjected.

    “Zefram Cochrane, the man who pretty much single-handedly invented faster-than-light travel on our homeworld”, Kelly answered. “He was also the man who piloted the Phoenix, our first warp-capable vessel.”

    “Ah”, Stevenson nodded and blushed. “Brave man, even if I do trust it completely I still wouldn’t want to be the one to actually test my own engine design. I mean, I do trust it and all, but I’m still not sure I’d want to be there when they turned it on.”

    “He didn’t have much choice”, Kelly chuckled. “There weren’t many qualified test pilots around where he built the ship.”

    “He was also the man that initiated Earth's first contact with Vulcan”, Suvok added. “Admiral, I find these blueprints lacking a bit of refinement but I have to mostly concur with the assessment of Lieutenant Kelly. It is a workable design.”

    “Thank you, Suvok. Victoria?”

    “I calculate a success chance of ninety five point six one percent”, she stated and paused for a second. “If they successfully remove the two major remaining design flaws from the drive design that is, Admiral.”

    “Oh? Why not a hundred?” West asked rhetorically.

    “Admiral, even with my own far more advanced drive system I do not have one hundred percent warp reliability and our own civilization has been warp capable in excess of three centuries now. In fact, I only calculate my own to be…”

    “That’s quite all right, Victoria”, he smiled and raised a hand. “You don’t need to be more precise than that.”

    “Understood, Admiral”, she replied evenly.

    “Well then, I suppose we’re all in agreement that it’s all right to proceed? They’re close enough even by the Prime Directive’s measure and that’s not considering that they’re human.”

    “I concur, Admiral”, Suvok nodded.

    “I concur as well”, Captain West added.

    “Fine, tell the rest of the group to join us, we’ll need to set up the parade. Vicky?”

    “Yes, sir”, her eyes became a little unfocused. “I’m relaying your commencement order to Hancock, Cook and Vancouver. Confirmed, they acknowledge orders received and are heading towards the rendezvous coordinates.”

    “Good. What’s their estimated time of arrival?”

    “Sixteen minutes and twelve seconds, Admiral.”

    “Good. Take the helm and move us into position, Commander.”

    “Yes sir.”

    Jonah and Diane both dropped their jaws completely when the more than just good looking blonde just vanished into thin air leaving no evidence behind that she'd even been there in the first place. The Starfleet officers barely even looked like they’d noticed. The younger of the two brothers West noticed their faces and made a gentle smile.

    “Never seen a hologram before, have you?”

    “Hologram? No, can’t say I ever have”, Professor Stevenson shook his head.

    “Victoria is the ship’s AI”, the Captain explained. “A… newer… addition to our roster, in fact to be quite honest she’s only about a week old. Her primary function is to run the automated systems of the ship but she can also utilize all equipment, systems and ships functions as easy as any man standing at their post from and at any position in the ship.”

    “I… see.” He tried to wrap his head around that. “She’s very well programmed.”

    “Actually, we can’t take credit for that”, the captain shook his head. “We created the matrix, sure, but she’s done most of her programming all by herself with a little help and guidance by the only two we actually did create on our own. She’s by all measurable means a sentient, even sapient, artificial life form and not just a program.”

    “Sentient? You have sentient AI?!” Jonah was astonished. “That’s… unbelievable!”

    “We do, but only a few. They’re a fairly new kind of technology requiring enormous amounts of computational power and thus they’re not all that common, but yes we do have them.”

    “All of them that beautiful?” The Professor looked towards where the hologram had been sitting for the last hour or so, with him being completely oblivious to her artificial origin. “Or do all of them look exactly alike?”

    “No, and to be quite fair her original model wasn’t that good looking either”, Henry laughed a little. “She originally took the name and appearance of Queen Victoria, one of the most famous regents ever to live on my home planet, but in the end she changed her mind and took the appearance of another woman even though she kept the name.”

    “Oh?” Stevenson shook his head in disbelief. A vain person wasn't hard to believe, but a vain AI?

    “Oh yes, most of our AI’s choose an appearance that links in some way to the name of the ship”, Henry explained. “Albion is the ancient name for the island nation of Great Britain back home, and Queen Victoria was once the ruler of a global empire centered on that very island. However, our own Victoria soon realized that while her role model may have been both powerful and respected, she’d never been all that good looking. We’ve seen that our AI can be... let's just say they're quite conscious about their outward appearance.”

    “I see.” Jonah still had trouble coming to terms with the explanation. “From your calling the AI by a feminine pronoun, am I correct in assuming that you humanize it and regard it as a person?”

    “Not only as that, but as a full member of my crew”, Henry nodded. “She’s very good at what she does and honestly she’s quite pleasing to rest your eyes on as well. You just have to remember that she’s got a brain the size of a building and that she can see and hear everything. Though that last part isn’t really all that different from any other woman”, the captain added and winked at that last comment.

    “Oh.” Jonah didn’t understand the underlying meaning, but on the other hand he’d never claimed to have understood women, real or artificial.

    The two men were the only people left in the room by now and Jonah looked around and didn’t quite understand where all the other people had gone.

    “We’re expected on the bridge”, Henry stated as to answer his unasked question. “Vicky’s never wrong, especially not when she’s in contact with the others.”

    “Others?”

    “Yes. We’re expecting some company and their AI are just as good at what they do as she is.”

    “I see. All this is very confusing, Captain. You seem to have a very different society than the one I’m used to so I hope you can forgive me for asking any from your perspective unusually dumb questions.”

    “Oh, no problem Professor”, he replied with another smile. “I’m sure we can both learn from each other’s civilizations.”

    As he looked at the corridors, rooms and compartments they passed during their brisk walk, Professor Stevenson seriously doubted there was anything these people could learn from him or his people. Sentient AI, completely realistic holograms, point-to-point matter transportation, localized and sustained force fields, faster-than-light travel.

    Gods of Seleya, what were they going to show him next?

    Jonah already had problems keeping his jaw firmly in place even before they entered the bridge and what he got to see when he entered didn’t make it any easier. The bridge was spacious but every possible space on the wall that could be covered by a computer console seemed to be just that. In addition to the ones on the wall there were several consoles in the middle of the floor, two in the front and another four in the back, which were all manned.

    On the other hand, he of course realized he'd never been on an interstellar space ship before and had no trouble imagining all these consoles were in some way necessary to control all this advanced technology. If anyone had told him that the entire ship could be effectively controlled from the captain's chair alone he'd probably have fainted.

    There were also several seats without the large attached consoles in the middle of the room, arranged towards a large viewscreen that right now showed a wide view of his planet, Draconis. They seemed to be over the Britannian continent right now, the largest of the planet’s three major continents, and it struck him that this very ship was named after the same original place as that entire continent was.

    It was a touch of irony; here he’d doubted the truth of what he’d been told ever since he'd been brought here, when the mere name and history of the ship he was on was proof of their story being true.

    He had some trouble understanding even the basic principles of most of what he could see, even though he could at least identify that two of the consoles seemed to show the status of the warp field. The differences between them meant that one had to be engineering and the other the helm control systems, but that was about all he could say.

    Knowing how something would work in theory was a completely different thing than seeing what would be necessary to easily use it in practice and while he’d been working on warp field and subspace theory for the better part of his life the numbers and figures on those screens were little but gibberish to him.

    That AI hadn’t been kidding when she had stated their people had literally centuries of experience with this kind of technology since even the most basic field strength algorithms the displays showed were far beyond his own.

    All the consoles and stations were manned but most by officers and crew that he hadn’t been introduced to before. The ship’s AI Victoria was seated in the larger of the center chairs. She didn’t seem to be doing much of anything at the moment but if it was true that she was just an image of the ships computer she probably didn’t have to move around or talk to get things done.

    The science officer, another face he recognized, was at one of the rear stations and the admiral himself was standing on the floor near the center chair studying a pad another crewman held up in front of him.

    The stunning avatar rose from her seat and announced “Captain on the bridge.” As the captain acknowledged her she shifted to the seat to the left of the command chair, and as soon as her body hit the chair she looked absent again.

    “Sirs, Hancock reports that he and the others will be entering visual range... now.”

    The viewscreen instantly shifted to the aft view, framed by the ship’s two nacelles, and Jonah stopped, stunned, in the middle of a step. He almost fell on his behind as he saw what approached.

    Three ships were rapidly approaching the one he was on and the ships were huge by all measurements Jonah could use. The left and right looked like they were of the same design, somewhat blocky in some sections but gracefully curved in others. The third and middle ship seemed to consist of nothing but curves and looked almost aerodynamic in comparison, while the outer ships looked very much like sharpened arrows as they glided through the darkness of space.

    The ships had a peculiar design with a hull that seemed divided into four separate sections. While he knew enough about warp drives to understand that the two parallel rear structures were probably the drive coils that created and manipulated the ship's warp field, he was still astonished by their sheer size.

    As the ships got closer he could see that all three ships had the same basic design even though the four components themselves looked very different when comparing the center ship with the outer two. Where on the outer ships the drive coils consisted of sharp angles and flat surface areas the middle vessel’s looked almost completely rounded.

    After a few seconds he realized the outer pair of ships had to be at least partially if not entirely of the same design as the one he was on as he started to compare their components to the ones he could see belonging to this ship along the view screen's edges.

    However, the upper sections which must have been the main bodies of the ships looked much like spoons or saucers turned upside down. He almost smiled as he realized he was comparing interstellar spaceships to kitchenware, but it was kitchenware the size of small moons from his perspective. The entirety of the upper and lower hulls of each vessel was riddled with smaller white lights, which he realized must be windows or portholes.

    How many people were on these ships? Hundreds? Thousands? He’d already seen a hundred or so thus far on this ship and he quickly realized from the size of the incoming ships that he’d barely even scratched the surface yet. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know if this ship was larger or smaller than the ones approaching it.

    On all three approaching ships, as well as on the one he was on, the twin drive tubes shone with a blue glow from their sides and an eerie red glow from their fronts. The purpose of this light eluded him but on the other hand he’d never even more than scratched the surface of the practical issues of drive coil design.

    It was an issue another department in New Venice was working on and even though he’d kept abreast of their designs he’d never even considered making one the size of the ones these people used. The lower bodies of the three ships also had a dull glow from an oval depression in their centers, again something he didn’t yet understand the reason for.

    The center ship was only slightly less intimidating than the others. While much rounder he estimated that the main body was more than twice the width of the others. It looked circular from his angle but it was hard to be certain. It also had a fifth smaller structure above the main body and the drive coil structures were located below the rest of the ship instead of above.

    Why they’d use a different overall hull design he didn’t know, though admittedly he didn’t even begin to understand the possible pros and cons of one over the other. He felt like the new impressions were overloading the logical parts of his brain.

    The three ships coming at them from behind quickly slowed down as they closed the distance, and then settled into formation.

    “Captain, the Independence, Discovery and Endeavour all report ready. They’re entering our orbit and taking up position on our wing.”

    “Good", Captain West replied as he took his seat and linked up with his peers on the other ships. "We’re ready, Admiral.”

    “Thank you, Henry”, Admiral West nodded. “Vicky, tell the Endeavour to prepare their diplomatic team. I think it's time we made some history.”
     
  14. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 12


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER
    IN ORBIT OF SIGMA DRACONIS III
    FEBRUARY 14TH, 2244



    ”I’ve seen the evidence and I see many of the holes and gaps in our own history filling up nicely enough, but I still find all of this quite hard to believe, Ambassador.”

    “I understand your doubts, Chancellor, I truly do”, Fontaine replied. “Had I been in your position, I may well have held the same doubts in my heart especially considering the implications. What is important however is for us both to understand that the very history of our two peoples is linked even though we can’t give you an exact reconstruction of yours quite yet.”

    “That is probably true. I must say I’m quite overwhelmed by what I’ve seen so far. Your people and your ships are all truly very impressive, your level of technological advancement is simply mind-boggling and your offer to help us solve more than a few of our major civic problems is very much appreciated by the entire Phoenix Council.”

    “It was the least we could do”, Fontaine replied. “As I said, we’re first and foremost here to help and to build a fruitful relationship between our two respective peoples.”

    The two men were walking through a slightly curved corridor that would eventually take them all the way from the rear observation lounge straight through the ship all the way to the bridge. There wasn’t much of a view, since they were too far from the outer hull there were no windows or portholes but only more corridors and computer displays. Still, the leader of the Phoenix Council was impressed enough already not to need any more repeat visuals of his home planet as it looked from a high orbit.

    “Please, Ambassador, can I ask you to tell me the history of this ship?”

    “I’d love to, but I’m not really the right person to ask. You see, I’m only attached to the ship as a diplomatic liaison. My actual posting is at Starfleet Command back on Sirius.”

    “I see”, Chancellor Callaghan nodded. “I’d still love to hear it.”

    “I believe I can grant you your wish though”, Fontaine smiled. “Computer, is Commander Cook available?”

    “Affirmative.”

    “Please, request that he join the chancellor and me as soon as possible.”

    The computer only beeped in response. The chancellor had already met Cook once or twice before and now that he knew what to expect he didn’t jump high into the air when the ship’s avatar silently materialized beside him.

    His face still went a few shades paler though as being aware of what to expect still wasn’t the same thing as being used to it or, for that sake, ever getting used to it. He held the greatest respect for the ambassador who didn’t even seem to react to the method of the AI’s appearance.

    “Lieutenant Commander James Cook reporting as ordered, Ambassador.”

    “Thank you, Commander”, the ambassador stopped and looked straight at the AI. “I’m pleased you could come so soon.”

    Like most of the ships’ avatars had done lately, after the Admiralty had given their approval, Cook had opted to forego the normal Starfleet uniform and had instead chosen a more historically correct appearance. In his case this meant that his avatar was dressed in a period-correct age of sail British Royal Navy uniform.

    With his dark blue uniform jacket, shining black leather shoes, white shirt and breeches he looked like someone that had walked straight out of Horatio Hornblower, a holodeck program the ambassador liked to spend a little time in now and then.

    Albeit still wearing the epaulettes of a lieutenant commander even these were of the ancient kind, golden thread embroidered on the naval blue jacket rather than the golden pips that modern officers wore. He even had a quite big officer’s hat in his hand as if to top off the entirety of his late eighteenth-century appearance.

    “Commander, the chancellor has expressed some interest in learning the history of the Endeavour”, Fontaine smiled. “I do believe you’re the best authority on the subject to be found.”

    “Understood, sir”, Cook turned towards the aged chancellor and continued. “Where would you like me to begin, sir?”

    “How about the beginning, Commander?” the older man asked.

    “Of course", Cook nodded. "The name Endeavour comes from ancient human history where it was used to name nine successive naval ships of the line and exploration vessels in the old British Empire. It was first used in the year 1652, more than seven hundred years ago relatively speaking.”

    “British Empire? I suppose there’s some link to our Britannian continent there. Continue, please, Commander.”

    “That supposition is correct”, Cook replied with a short nod. “The island of Great Britain, or Britannia as it was called by the even older Roman culture, was the center of that empire. The most famous ship of the seafaring vessels carrying my name was the HMS Bark Endeavour which in 1768 began the first of three voyages of exploration into the largest ocean on our home planet under the command of my namesake, James Cook.”

    “I see.”

    “The name Endeavour became forever tied with vessels of exploration since that time and it was carried on into the early space program, being first the project name of one of the first lunar survey missions and later the name of one of the first generation space shuttles. The name has later been used for six starships, first under United Earth and later under Starfleet registry. Unlike many other ships with a similar history however, she has not retained her registry number.”

    “Oh?” the chancellor asked. “What does that mean?”

    “In many cases ships that are commissioned with the name of a previous starship will also be given their older namesake’s registry number. This was not done with the Endeavour. Had it been, I would be called the NCC-1001-E. The reason for this is simple, the second starship to be named Endeavour and enter Starfleet service did so before this tradition had started and thus, since it had already been broken, the tradition was never established for her name.”

    “I see. Why don’t you just start to follow the tradition now then?”

    “While I’d be honored to carry that registry, it would not be fair to all the other ships named Endeavour that have been in service before me.”

    “Sentimentality from an AI?” Callaghan smiled. “That is a surprise, Commander Cook. I didn’t know computers could feel that way.”

    “That may be, sir, but never the less it is true.” Cook shrugged at the idea. “It would serve no real purpose except to strengthen my ego and I have little use for a boost in that aspect of my personality.”

    “That’s an exceptionally refreshing point of view, Commander”, he looked amazed. “If only more humans thought that way.”

    Cook looked like he needed to rethink his reply on that a few times, to formulate it in a way the less advanced human could understand.

    “No, not really, sir”, the AI almost seemed to sigh. “Whatever you may experience me to be, I am a starship. Primarily a ship of exploration, I assure you, but I am also a very capable warship. My ego is that of a Starfleet line cruiser and not that of the image you see before you. In that respect I have no problems satisfying my self-image, Chancellor Callaghan.”

    “I believe you, Commander”, the chancellor almost laughed. “I believe you.”

    “To continue on our original subject, the name has been used to name a total of seventeen recorded ships during the time humanity has been exploring, first on their own world and later in space. The current Endeavour you are aboard holds the registry number NCC-60805, is the latest ship bearing this name and has been in active service for twenty-one years. It was first built and equipped as a long range Nebula-class explorer but was later refitted to serve as a ship of the line, specifically as a medium-weight cruiser, with an extended weapons load and heavier ablative armor.”

    “You were remade into ship of war?” Callaghan asked, almost surprised at the Commander's statement.

    “No more so than I have to be, Chancellor.” Cook actually blushed. “I am still more than capable of the same long-range exploration missions I was originally built for, but I have far better means to defend myself and my crew now than I once had.”

    “I see. I believe I’d need a far deeper course in your history to understand what would possibly threaten anyone that wields this kind of technology.”

    “I could walk you through a brief history of the Federation…”

    “Thank you, commander”, the ambassador stepped in and stopped him before he started to recite all of the Federation’s history of war and conflict. “That’d literally take forever and we don’t even have all day. That’ll be quite enough, I believe.”

    “I understand, Ambassador”, the avatar almost looked irritated at the interruption. “Will you be requiring any more of my services?”

    “No, thank you”, Fontaine replied and tried to smooth out the AI’s bruised ego. It was true; he didn’t need any more of that. “Thank you for offering though, Commander.”

    “If you need me I will be on the bridge, Ambassador.”

    “Thank you for your time, Commander”, the chancellor replied. "I appreciated it."

    With a dull flash of light, the image of the man clad in the ancient uniform seemed to fold into itself several times, until it disappeared.

    “Ambassador…” The Draconis politician looked like he’d handled the disappearance of the AI a little better this time. “It almost looked like you bruised its feelings?”

    “His, not its, Chancellor”, Fontaine smiled. “And yes, I’m actually quite certain I did.”

    “I thought he was just a human-form appearance of the ship’s main computer?”

    “You do not quite understand the depth of his being, Chancellor”, the ambassador chuckled. “In our terms a sentient life form is a sentient life form, no matter if it’s biological, mechanical or as in Cook’s case holographic. And he’s very much sentient, with feelings and thoughts just like you or me. Still, he may be far wiser than either of us and far more intelligent, but he’s also much like a human child.”

    “All right, I understand your recognition of his sentience, but why the reference to a child?” Callaghan asked. “After all, he looks and sounds like a middle-aged man.”

    “True, but while his appearance is one thing, you have to remember that he’s actually only a few weeks old. He has the knowledge of the entire Federation database, sure, but he’s still not what you or I would call emotionally mature yet. That is, as far as we can apply normal human developmental terms to an artificial intelligence.”

    “I understand, I think.” The chancellor definitely had his qualms about what the ambassador had said, but at least he tried to keep an open mind. “You have a very liberal view on this, and while I’d hope we’d share it I suppose we’d treat these artificial life forms quite differently than you do when we’d eventually develop the technology by ourselves.”

    “We used to as well, but we eventually learned from our mistakes as I’m sure you would”, Fontaine shrugged. “Once, our civilization treated them much like you’d treat forced labor, even slaves. We nearly ended up with a revolt on our hands. Now we treat them like we treat any other member of the crew, with the respect and honor they deserve, and in turn they treat us with the same respect and loyalty as well.”

    “But he’s your ship?” Callaghan retorted. “Someone must be in command?”

    “True but that’s where rank comes in. Cook is the ship, in one aspect he’s every nook and cranny of it, but at the same time he’s also separated from it. I can’t go into detail as I’m nowhere close to an AI programming expert but there are some borders in the computer mainframe he can’t cross without authorization from a superior officer or unless a set series of events occur.”

    Fontaine stopped to take a breather; his feet felt like his age was showing.

    “Thus, in another aspect he’s just another crewman. He’s a crewman with extraordinary abilities, sure, but still just another crewman. He is fourth in command of the ship, answering to the captain, the first officer and the chief engineer. To all other personnel he’s a superior officer or peer. In essence he has the same rank as the ship’s chief of operations would. The actual goal of their creation is that the avatars will effectively replace those officers and by extension a large part of the operations department in the immediate future.”

    “I see.”

    The chancellor seemed just as astonished at the idea as before he’d gotten his answer but the ambassador knew better than to force the issue. It had taken Starfleet almost fifty years of trial and error in order to reach the point where they could fully acknowledge the civil rights of artificial life forms. You couldn’t really expect a person that had just encountered his first one to do the same in less than a week.

    “Is he the only one of his kind?” Callaghan didn’t seem to want to let the issue go just as quickly.

    “Here on the ship, or in our civilization?” Fontaine replied.

    “Well, both, I suppose.”

    “Well, the answer is no to either question. After the successful development of the avatars, we extended our earlier medical and engineering holograms. They are much less developed than Cook is though since they aren’t powered by the entire computer core and they prefer to stay near their assigned stations in sickbay and main engineering. I’ve seen some changes to their behavior as well since Cook came into existence though. We also carry a number of robots which are directly controlled by his matrix; they are assigned to work in areas which could be hazardous or dangerous to our normal flesh and blood crew.”

    “Ah”, Callaghan realized he'd seen some of those; they almost looked like people but carried a completely emotionless face and walked kind of funny.

    “As for the rest of the civilization, well, we didn’t use to create too many of them until just a few weeks ago. Now, most of our ships that are able to handle the system are being, or already are, fitted with the avatar system. The same is also true for some of our facilities back home. Cook wasn't the first one however; he's not even in the first generation of AI but rather third or fourth. No doubt you've heard of Victoria Regina, the avatar of the Albion? She's of the second generation, while Hancock of the Independence is not only first generation but indeed the very first one we created.”

    Fontaine decided to take his explanation one step further as he saw the chancellor still didn't quite seem to grasp what he was trying to say.

    “You see, from a purely technical standpoint we’ve had the ability to create sentient artificial intelligences for some time, about twenty years or so, though these were limited in their movement as well as capacity. Their matrices simply couldn’t handle the amount of data they’d be exposed to over longer periods of time which inevitably led to destabilization and shortly thereafter a complete breakdown of the program. In all actuality we only made the technological breakthrough in data compression that made this latest kind of AI possible a very short time ago, and seeing as they solve a lot of our own immediate problems such as a lack of personnel they’ve been pretty much rushed into service.”

    “Oh.” The chancellor scratched his neck, a gesture that looked fairly awkward. “I think I’d like to meet more of these avatars of yours.”

    “You will”, Fontaine chuckled and motioned for the older man to continue, they were almost at the bridge. “Likely sooner than you might think, Chancellor.”


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    CLOSE TO SIGMA DRACONIS



    He’d been led through what he thought must be most of the ship by now, an impressive amount of systems and specifications had been listed but he’d been letting a lot of it just glance off his conscious mind until they reached this his own personal goal.

    The professor’s tour of the ship had come to a screeching halt in the main engineering bay, as soon as he’d locked his eyes on the giant tube that was the main warp core he’d stopped and started to ask about a million questions to the unsuspecting engineers.

    The answers he’d been getting only seemed to spark even more questions, and even though the chief engineer seemed only all too willing to help answer the ones he had he did have a ship to run.

    Even though Victoria did most of the real work and the crew pretty much just had a lax time while the ship was just cruising through the solar system staying out of sight to the general populace it was still time the engineer thought could be better spent running diagnostics or managing other things than answering the questions of this overzealous professor.

    “That can’t be right!” he exclaimed.

    “I assure you, Professor, it’s quite correct”, the chief engineer coyly replied while almost subconsciously checking the warp core readouts on a console. "The calculations aren't that hard to make, after all."

    “But…” Professor Stevenson was almost speechless. “That would mean this single reactor could produce more power by the minute than our world would use in a year!”

    “That may well be, Professor”, Kelly gave a faint smile. “It takes a bit of oomph to get this barge going as fast as she’s designed to, not to mention there has to be enough power to drive the secondary systems even at maximum speed.”

    “How do you generate that much power?”

    “It’s quite simple”, Kelly explained, trying to dumb it down to the level Stevenson could understand. “Inside the warp core, which is in fact little more than a shielding and control system for the reaction chamber itself, you have a continuous matter-antimatter reaction. The reaction itself is based on the mutual annihilation of deuterium and anti-deuterium and is governed by a dilithium crystal matrix.”

    “An antimatter reactor?" Stevenson asked. "Isn’t that very risky?”

    “It can be, but not if handled and controlled properly. It’s also one of the only ways to produce the required amount of power and the one Starfleet arguably understands best of the few we know of. We have after all been using them for just about a hundred and fifty years by now.

    “I see.”

    “The warp engine itself would normally use most of the energy output, but it’s also the main power plant for many of the ship’s other primary systems as well, such as weapons, armor and shields, while the hotel systems are typically powered by secondary, sometimes even independent, power sources.”

    “What about fuel?”

    “We only carry a fairly limited amount of deuterium at any given time, as it’s easy enough to harvest from a planet or stellar atmosphere. The bussard collectors which are located in the forward part of the nacelles also make it possible to gather it from what you'd call empty space as well. The deuterium is then used both for the antimatter reactor and the secondary fusion reactors, of which the Albion have several.”

    “What about the antimatter?”

    “We carry enough for about six month’s worth of cruise-speed warp, several metric tons worth of it which is constantly regained as we run our on-board quantum inversion plants. It’s kept in highly shielded and easily ejectable pods.”

    “While that’s a lot, it’s not enough for true galactic exploration”, Stevenson noted.

    “True, on a long term mission we would actually use a lot more antimatter than we ever carry at any point in time, but the difference is mainly made up by the inversion plant. In truth we could theoretically travel at warp for an indefinite amount of time if we limit our speed to warp seven, barring wear and tear”, Kelly smiled as he saw the Draconis scientist’s jaw drop. “If we were to increase speed past that however we would still drain our stocks.”

    “At which point you just reduce speed?”

    No, when we start to run too low we need to either get replacement pods from a conversion facility or manufacture our own. While the warp core can be kept self-sufficient we don’t have any way of replenishing our stocks while in transit. That means that the latter option is an inefficient use of our time and resources, but it is something most explorer class vessels can do given enough time spent near a hydrogen-rich source such as a stellar corona. Even a decent-sized gas giant would do.”

    “I see.” Stevenson scratched his chin. “My people have only been able to manufacture single particles of antimatter using a high-energy supercollider, but I suppose you have a more efficient way of doing this?”

    “Yes.” Kelly kept his smile. “It’s called quantum inversion, a process that requires quite a lot of energy put into it but also produces a good amount of viable antimatter. You see, by using our transporter technology we are able to manipulate matter at the quantum level. We’re able to convert up to several kilos worth of material at a time; effectively we rematerialize it with a reversed spin and quantum charge.”

    “Oh.” Jonah stared blankly into the reactor. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

    “The process is highly energy intensive and truth be told, if it's not powered by the antimatter reactor it’s quite time consuming. That’s closely related to the amount of energy you need for the inversion. But it works and it’s a process in which we get more energy out of the reaction than we put in. All you really need is a good source of energy to power it and as I was saying we can park near a star or gas giant, or even in a proto-stellar nebula, where we’d have all the deuterium we need to power the process with our own fusion reactors.”

    Jonah was having more than just a little trouble processing all this information. His own engine, designed, tested and powered by a relatively small but by his civilization's measurements cutting-edge technology fusion reactor, was only designed to take the test vehicle to a speed of barely one and a half times the speed of light.

    It was a measly one point two on this ‘warp scale’ he'd now been introduced to and yet another pointer to how far more advanced this people was than his own. This ship, at least a hundred times more massive, would max out at more than a thousand times the speed of his until yesterday cutting-edge technology engine!

    It was like the legend of the old titans which leapt between the stars on a whim. Or rather, he realized in awe, very probably the source of that very legend. He shook his head; this was more than he’d bargained for when he started his project.

    “If I may ask, Lieutenant Kelly”, he sighed. “How are you able to actually get all that power to the warp drive system? All materials I know of would melt instantly from the heat an electrical charge of that strength would produce.”

    “Easy, we use highly charged plasma as a transfer system instead of solid conductors”, he pointed to the pipes sticking out of the warp core assembly. “Those two smaller tubes feed the ship’s primary energy system, one going in each direction around the entire circumference of the ship, one to port and the other to starboard. Those two wide ones you barely see just below the roof feed the warp nacelles, one heading for each. There is also another pair of tubes feeding the engineering section coming out on the level above as well as a number of return conduits on the floors below us where the spent plasma gets recycled into the reactor.”

    “Plasma?” Lord, why didn’t he think of that? It was the obvious solution. “But how do you handle the heat, radiation and other potential side effects of using such a volatile transfer medium?”

    “We use high-energy magnetic containment so the plasma never actually touches anything, as well as heavily shielded materials to protect against possible radioactivity. For the actual power output we use EPS taps to produce the electric power at the point where it’s needed.”

    “I see. What happens to the spent plasma?”

    “As I said most of it gets recycled, going back into the reactor to be used again, but some of it is also used in a variety of other ways.” Kelly pointed to a screen. “Some of it is denatured and used as propellant for the impulse drive and for the thrusters. We also use it to heat parts of the ship and as a source material for our replicators.”

    “I understand, yet another one of your technological gizmos at work?”

    “Yes, I guess that’s true.” Kelly flashed a smile, it wasn’t the first time it had happened but he still enjoyed having a scientist have to resort to words such as ‘gizmos’. “The impulse drive is our regular sub-light engine.”

    “How fast is she?”

    “Depends, in or out of warp?”

    “I suppose I’d have to ask for both, if you wouldn’t mind?”

    “The impulse drive can theoretically take us up to just over the speed of light, although we restrict its use to less than point nine C. The effects of relativity start being more and more an issue past that point since it doesn’t employ the same space-warping effect of the FTL drive. It’s more like an ion engine on steroids.” He looked at the impulse controls. “In essence, we can get to a speed somewhere barely less than two hundred and seventy thousand kilometers per second, and we can reach that speed in just under two minutes.”

    “That’s…” Jonah couldn’t even calculate it. “That’s an enormous amount of G-forces.”

    “We have inertial dampeners for that, they work by shunting most of our relative mass into subspace which in turn reduces both the inertial forces and allows for such high accelerations without crushing the spaceframe.”

    “Oh…” Jonah didn’t think he'd understand even the basic principles of that technology. “I see… I think. How about in warp?”

    “We normally use warp if we want to go somewhere fast though and we don’t normally go faster than warp factor 9.5 or so, but she’s rated to manage 9.982 in a crunch. During her last tune-up we actually managed to squeeze out 9.986, but that was actually crossing the line considering we had to refurbish both nacelles afterward. We can’t hold those speeds for more than a few hours until we start seeing real problems from material fatigue in the warp coil assembly and we’d have to be on our toes the entire time since the stress on the containment fields gets, well, dangerously high.”

    “I’m still not all that familiar with your warp factors, Lieutenant.”

    “Oh, it’s a scale based on the relativistic movement of space. Let’s see…” Kelly scratched his goatee and continued after a few seconds. “Warp factor nine should be around, or rather just over, fifteen hundred times the speed of light.”

    “You’re kidding.” Stevenson dropped his jaw completely. “Nothing can go that fast, not even with warp technology.”

    “Heh, we thought so too when we first discovered it. Our top speed, nine point nine eight two or so, is over ten times that. It’d translate to just about sixteen thousand times the speed of light. Forty and change light years in a day if the ship was able to stay at that speed for that long.”

    “Lord! It’s an exponential scale?” Stevenson was pale as a sheet right now.

    “Exponential as well as logarithmic”, Kelly nodded. “Warp one would be the speed of light, five would be just over two hundred times that and factor seven some six hundred and fifty C.”

    “So your nine point five would be?”

    “Twenty five hundred C or so”, Kelly looked to the softly swirling core again. “That’s our highest sustainable cruising speed if we need to go somewhere far in a hurry, above that we start counting down how long the core will handle the strain.”

    "Even that would take us from here to Asantra in just under a day! Gods that’s fast.” He went yet another shade paler. "That puts a little more reality into interstellar travel, doesn’t it…?”

    “Asantra?” Kelly didn’t recognize the star name from either Starfleet or the native races’ star charts. “Where’s that?”

    “It’s a yellow star some six or so light years spinward from here, and the closest single main sequence star system in terms of both distance and stellar class to our own”, Stevenson explained. "It's the one our astronomers believe would be most likely to support life in the local cluster."

    “Ah, I see, I actually do know about that star but we have a slightly different name for it.” Kelly chuckled. "It most definitely supports life and I believe it'd be closer to twenty hours at that speed."

    “Oh, really?” Stevenson looked interrogative.

    “Yes.” Kelly looked into the clouded warp core again. “We call it ‘Sol’.”

    “Sol?”

    “Yes, Professor, Sol”, Kelly sighed and looked the confused professor in the face. “I believe it’s time you continued your tour. I have things to take care of which several can’t really wait any longer.” He turned around and tapped a control on the wall. “Engineering to Victoria.”

    “Victoria here, Lieutenant.”

    “Victoria, can I ask you to take our guest through the rest of his tour?”

    The voice of the ships AI came as a gentle breeze over the intercom. “I’ll be there momentarily Lieutenant.”

    “Thank you, Victoria.”

    Kelly barely had time to finish his sentence before the dazzling visage of the ship’s avatar materialized just a short distance away. He didn’t quite agree with the rest of the senior staff, it didn’t matter that she was artificial, it didn’t matter that she had a brain the size of half the ship. It didn’t even matter that she was better armed than an Orion pirate. She was gorgeous, she wasn’t married, and that was all that mattered when it came to women.

    “Professor Stevenson, follow me please”, the blonde avatar motioned for the professor to join her while she started to walk out of the bay.

    “Gladly, Victoria”, Jonah didn’t really care that he was taken away from this place, not if she was the one that was taking him.

    The guest and the avatar left through the main entrance, and Kelly's eyes followed the quite breathtaking woman until they were cut off from his view.

    “Jesus", he said to himself. "That lady really makes it hard to concentrate sometimes.”

    “Hah, she’s way out of your league, chief.” The comment came from one of the junior staff.

    “What are women for, if not to dream about and waste time thinking about?” he replied fatalistically.

    “You do know she can hear you, don’t you?”

    “Of course I know. I installed those sensors myself.”

    “Plus”, a curt woman that was handling the main core console added. “I bet her dad would have objections.”

    “Her dad?” Kelly didn’t understand. “What are you talking about, Michelle?”

    “Didn’t you know?” She flashed a toothy smile at him.

    “What?” Kelly just grew more questioning.

    “Victoria, like all of the second and later generation AI, weren't coded but instead directly created by the temporary merging of two other AI. Interestingly enough the actual matrix combining process really isn't that different from what you'd expect from normal humanoid genetic pairing.” Michelle giggled. “In her case Victoria, Nelson and the archangels were made by Hancock and Athena combining. She considers them her parents and siblings, just as they consider her their daughter and sister.”

    “Oh lord”, Kelly realized what she was talking about.

    “Yup, you’d better watch yourself as you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of both Aquila and the Independence.”

    “Michelle...”

    “Plus, I think she’s too vulnerable for a guy like you and I like you too much to want to see you be dragged into a shotgun wedding by two fleet carriers." She smiled.

    "Especially not one performed by the main computer back at Starfleet Command”, another of the engineering crew interjected with a smile. ”They’re very protective of their sister, you know."

    Michelle couldn't hold back anymore but burst out in laugher. “As I said, she's completely out of your league Kelly.”

    “Bah” Kelly frowned. “And that’s Lieutenant Kelly to you, Yeoman Yves.”

    “You’re no fun…” she smiled, still shaking from held-back laughter, and waited another second before adding “Lieutenant.”


    PHOENIX COUNCIL CHAMBER
    NEW LONDON, DRACONIS
    FEBRUARY 20TH, 2244



    The council chamber was one of the oldest gathering places on the planet, styled after another and even more ancient design. The chancellor only just now realized that the several centuries old chamber was nothing less than a just slightly distorted replica of a Federation starship bridge.

    It was even arranged similarly with the elected chancellor and the two major party spokespersons seated in the middle, where the captain, first officer and avatar sat on the spacecraft, and the rest of the council seated around them like the bridge crew would. The only difference in placement was that the three center chairs were turned around so they faced the others instead of the wall and that the large viewscreen was replaced by a map of the continents.

    At this moment however few of the council members were actually in their seats as there was quite a lot of commotion and general chatter about the news they’d all been presented with moments ago.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, please. We’ve only heard part of the story as of yet and I assure you all, so far everything they've told us is true. I’ve personally seen the evidence and there’s simply no other possible conclusion that can be drawn from it”, Chancellor Callaghan said as he tried to dampen the heated debate that had broken out after the first presentation of the visitors and their shared origins.

    “Callaghan, you seriously expect us to believe that these people are in fact some of our own ancestors! It’s ridiculous!”

    “No, Sir James, I do not", Callaghan replied calmly. "As I said, they’re from the same age, organization and civilization, but they themselves are not our ancestors.”

    “Proof! I want to see this supposed proof!” The elderly shape that was Councilwoman Bannerman rose from her seat. “All this talk is very convincing, but there’s no proof that I can see, that I can touch.”

    A man not dressed in the same gray and black uniform that most of the guests to the proceedings used came forward. He was balding and looked like he was in his early sixties but he also carried himself in a way that didn’t request the respect of his surrounding but rather demanded it.

    “I request that this council will allow me to speak.”

    “I will grant you that, Ambassador Fontaine”, the chancellor almost seemed relieved he'd stepped up. "You may speak."

    “Councilwoman, if I may ask; what proof would you first want to see?”

    “Ambassador… Fontaine, was it?” The man just nodded as confirmation. “What proof is there that we really come from your society?”

    “The genetic similarities didn’t convince you?” Fontaine asked with just the slightest hint of irony in his voice, genetics were impossible to fool and they’d already made a ridiculously thorough presentation on that. “Ma’am, with your permission, I’d like to progress to the subject of your history.”

    She just gave a quick nod in reply.

    “As you must know there’s an area of the northern wastes here on the Britannian continent that your people haven’t been able to enter due to the severe amount of radiation present, as well as the particularly harsh climate in the area.” Fontaine pointed at the specific location on the large world map that took up the position where there’d usually be a viewscreen in the otherwise so very similar starship bridge. “Had you actually been able to get there, this is some of what you’d find buried beneath the snow and ice.”

    He tapped his communicator twice, and cautiously stepped back from the lower center area of the chamber. It didn’t take long for the area to start glowing with the familiar blue shimmer of a transporter and within seconds it had deposited its load. It appeared to be a large piece of metal, twisted and turned from its original shape and still partially covered in the ice it'd been transported out of.

    “I would ask the councilwoman to be so kind as to identify this metal; it should be an easy enough task considering she, at least according to my information, still carries the position of chairman of both the geological and metallurgical faculties at the highly esteemed Breton University.”

    The councilwoman shrugged, but promptly left her seat and slowly paced over to the large piece of twisted metal. She carefully avoided the pools of water that were starting to form around it as the ice rapidly melted away in the warm room but still managed to get her gray shirt sleeves wet as she meticulously examined it. Then, almost as if struck by lightning, she went very pale and took two steps back almost stumbling to the ground.

    “Councilwoman?” Fontaine had known some of what to expect though not the details, but even so her reaction had still surprised him. “Are you all right?”

    “I…”

    “Councilwoman Bannerman. What did you find?” Chancellor Callaghan asked.

    “I… I can’t identify the material, Chancellor", she replied, still shaken. "It resembles titanium, but if it was it should have shattered and not buckled and twisted as this material obviously has.”

    “Such a find surely can’t be the only reason for your reaction though”, Callaghan almost mused, as Bannerman was a constant and according to the latest polls likely contender for the post as chancellor. “What was it that sparked such an obvious reaction, Councilwoman?”

    “Ehm”, she coughed and looked around like she was frantically searching for a way out of the situation, but as there was none she resorted to a resigned look as she answered. “No, what caused my reaction were the markings on the piece, not the material itself.”

    “And what exactly were these markings?” Fontaine asked.

    “English writing, a numerical sequence followed by a few words.”

    “Councilwoman, stop dancing around and answer the question, please.” Sir James called from the other side of the chamber; he didn’t particularly like Bannerman either. “We’re waiting.”

    She sighed. “Some of the numerical sequence was illegible, but what I could read was 166-A. USS London. United Federation of Planets.”

    “If I may, Chancellor?” Fontaine interjected with a pleased look on his face seeing as how the entirety of the council had been completely dumbstruck.

    Callaghan just nodded.

    “The London, its full registry number being NCC-9166-A, was a Federation starship and more specifically a Nebula-class line cruiser which according to the best of our knowledge and latest intelligence report was attached to another task force within the same fleet as ours. Her last known mission was to assist two other Federation starships, the Portsmouth and the Edinburgh, in the evacuation efforts of several Federation colony worlds along a border we shared with a hostile power known as the Romulan Empire.”

    This revelation had quite an impact on the entirety of the gathered council members. The mention of these three ships, each and every one being not only the stuff of legend but also the apparent source of the names of their three largest cities, was something that they didn’t quite seem to know how to handle.

    “I could probably order our ships in orbit to find and deliver a piece of hull from each of the other two ships as well if you request it. We’ve managed to send personnel in hazmat suits to each of the three crash sites and we've found remains of all three vessels. Though they were all in bad shape we even managed to salvage fragments of their ship's logs.”

    “I don't believe that'll be necessary, Ambassador”, the chancellor rejected it as he simply didn’t believe the council could handle more. “However, can I ask you to get that piece of junk off the floor before it completely ruins the carpet?”

    “Of course, Chancellor”, a touch of his communicator and a few seconds later all that remained of one of the biggest political bombshells ever dropped in this chamber was a large wet spot on the carpet.

    “In essence, what I ask the Phoenix council to accept is the fact that you are all descendents of the brave crews of the Federation starships London, Portsmouth and Edinburgh. Three ships that carried colonists away from a conflict zone and were most likely swept off course by what we, for lack of a better name, call a subspace bubble. It was likely the same phenomena that brought us here.”

    Fontaine took a sip of water before continuing.

    “We don’t know how, or for that sake why, these three ships ended up where they did. The fact is that we still don’t understand exactly what happened to our own small fleet either. We also can’t explain how it came to be that we were swept to the same universe, but to a completely different time, than your ancestors were. What we do know is that it happened and that both of our two peoples are essentially in the same situation.”

    The discussion had sparked up again, and the chancellor was beating his hand against his chair repeatedly.

    “Order, order!” Callaghan had to raise his voice so high that he almost yelled before the council heeded his command and as the council slowly began to sit down and the noise level dropped the ambassador resumed his monologue.

    “It seems wrong to me that we should be two people when we were once the same. I of course understand that you don’t trust us entirely quite yet and please understand we understand your reasons and that we also share your fears. We have not yet had the time to show you all that we can do for your people and I’m sure you don’t fully realize the positive contributions your people can make in our society either. I also understand this both can and will bring problems, I hope you do too, but that’s something both our societies can work on. It shouldn’t be a hindrance for a mutually beneficent relationship.”

    “And exactly what could our society hope to do for you?” Bannerman asked somewhat sarcastically. “From what we've been told your people are quite literally centuries ahead of us in any field of science or technology and surely you have no need for what little resources our people can spare either. Especially not knowing of the resourcing operations you've already told us you are running.”

    “Those are both valid points and I don't deny either of them”, Fontaine noted. “But trust me when I say both our societies have needs that the other can fill. In our case, we can offer little but knowledge and technology, but I’m afraid you misunderstand our proposition if you believe we're offering a simple trade agreement. You see, what our society needs isn't something as simple as resources or data disks. What our society is in desperate need of is people.”

    “People?” Bannerman almost looked flabbergasted. “You want to trade… for people?!”

    “Yes, ma’am, people.” Fontaine raised his hand. “And, at the same time, you still do not understand what I’m trying to say. Let me explain.” He took a deep breath. “Our own population isn’t large enough to support the ships and technology we have. Since most of us that got trapped here are either military or support personnel we will be in even worse straits in a few years since, just like your ancestors when they got here, we have practically no children. Sure, there are the precious few that we had evacuated before we got caught here but they’re not even close to enough to replace our numbers as we grow older.”

    "Ironically, we have significant reason to believe this was exactly what happened to your own ancestors", one of the uniformed men spoke up, the one who called himself Admiral West. "Your ancestors most likely entered into what you now call the Age of Turmoil because of this and it's not something we'd wish to repeat on Sirius. Especially not when there is a direct alternative to allowing that to happen."

    He closed his eyes. This had been the hardest realization for most of his people, that there’d be no one else there to take over their duties for many years to come, that their ranks would continually dwindle for at least two or three decades until they could even hope that the next generation could start to take over. Even longer for them to enter into the higher ranks of command.

    “What we want on our part is for our two societies to become one, it is the only way we can remain an advanced space-faring civilization. As the highest ranking representative of our planet I therefore propose a tentative alliance which will allow us to get to know each other better. Our goal with this alliance is simple, that we can one day merge together and become the same people once again, like we were all those years ago.”

    What little order had been thrust upon the council members by his commander's sad tale had disappeared completely as he’d finished speaking. There was heated discussion everywhere Fontaine looked and he suddenly felt very old. He’d never really been much of a diplomat and what experience he had came from his years working with the Romulans of all people. It wasn’t really the kind of experience that was applicable to another civilization of humans but still, as the admiral had so aptly told him, he was the most experienced, not to mention the only, trained diplomat they had.

    “Ambassador”, the chancellor had stepped down from his chair and was leaning close to be heard over the heated discussions. “I believe it would be best if you let us deliberate for a while. I’ll contact you when the council has an answer for you.”

    “Thank you, Chancellor”, the ambassador replied with a short bow.

    He again tapped his communicator twice, as much for the effect as for expediency. Cook knew what it meant and two seconds later the blue glowing light had removed him and the other Starfleet personnel from the room, effectively ushering silence by stunning the entire assembly of the Phoenix council.

    Next thing he knew he was on a pad in the secondary transporter room on the Endeavour surrounded by the officers who had been assigned as his aids. Cook and Captain Halsey were both standing below looking up at them and as he stepped down from the transporter pad and headed out toward his quarters the two men fell in beside him.

    “Ambassador, how’d it go?” Captain Halsey asked. “You were down there for quite some time, but even so I still expected it to take far longer.”

    “Three point six hours to be exact, Ambassador”, Cook added. “But I am notably surprised as well. Did the meeting not progress towards the favored result?”

    “I don’t know yet”, Fontaine replied with a deep sigh. “They’ll need to deliberate on the facts we presented as well as the proposition we made, and I’d just be in the way right now.”

    “Explain”, Cook requested, his very statement verifying that while an AI was smarter than most people, they couldn’t always understand what was hidden in the underlying context.

    “You see Cook; humans all too often find it hard to express their true feelings about pretty much anything around strangers. By remaining at their side I’d effectively impeach their ability to ask the right, and the wrong, questions.”

    “Fascinating”, Cook replied with true curiosity evident in his face. “Is this perhaps due to a preferred secrecy about their opinions?”

    “Not really, it has to do with ego”, Halsey smiled. “Well, that or rather about not wanting to make a fool out of oneself in front of others.”

    “Ah. I understand.”

    Halsey made a short laugh; Cook’s responses made him remember an old acquaintance, one that he still missed.

    “Captain, did you find my question funny?”

    “Oh, not at all, Cook, not at all. You just reminded me of an old friend.”

    “I see. May I ask who?”

    “Ensign Data. Or, well, at least he was still an ensign back then.” Halsey chuckled. "You'll have to ask the admiral if you want the details about him."

    “I see. My database contains complete information about the individual known as Data." Cook was silent for a second. "I believe I shall take your comment as a compliment.”

    “You do that, Cook, you do that.” Halsey kept smiling.

    "Where'd Admiral West go anyways?" Fontaine asked, just now noticing him not being present.

    "By the relayed request of Captain Duval, he was transported directly to the Independence", Cook replied. "Do you want me to raise him on subspace, Ambassador?"

    "Oh, god no Cook!" Fontaine chuckled. "Trust me; he'll want his privacy now."

    "If you say so, Ambassador", the AI replied. "Though I must ask, why?"

    "Dear lord", Halsey couldn't keep himself from laughing anymore. "Biology 101, Cook. Look it up."

    "Oh?" Cook replied, and even with his enormous computing power it still took him a second until he made the connection. He literally blushed when he did. "Oh... I see."

    "AI", Fontaine rolled his eyes and started chuckling as well.
     
  15. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 13


    ORBITAL COMMAND
    AQUILAE STATION, SIRIUS SYSTEM
    FEBRUARY 22ND, 2244, 03:45 HOURS



    She felt just about the same about being called out of bed before four in the morning as most other humanoid beings would. It wasn’t all that strange; most living beings had an internal clock that didn’t appreciate getting out of sync and it would protest just the same way every time you tried to go against what it considered to be a normal sleep schedule.

    Either way, she hoped whatever reason she’d been woken was really something that deserved the attention of the highest ranking admiral left in the system. Otherwise, heads would roll. As she entered the command and control center, she immediately felt quite certain it was.

    All of the duty personnel were milling around checking consoles and readouts in what looked like the sort of organized chaos it actually was. It almost made her feel pride in her crew and the fact that they’d perform as well as they seemed to even after all this time.

    “Report!” Admiral Keyes said it only a little too loudly as she was squelching a yawn at the same time. “What on Earth could be important enough to call me out of bed at this time of night?”

    “Admiral, it is good you are here.” Commander Korash, the Klingon night watch officer motioned towards one of the sensor consoles. “I am sorry I had to wake you but you’d better take a look at this immediately.”

    “This had better not be another comet, Korash”, Keyes yawned again. “If it is, I’ll have you transferred to the Gamma station waste disposal units.”

    “I’m quite sure it’s not, ma’am”, Korash smiled. “I believe such a transfer would be… unwarranted.”

    “Well, let’s take a look and see what you’ve found then.” She leaned over the shoulder of the massive Klingon officer and looked at the display, and her face instantly went a brighter shade of pale as she did. “God be damned... How long have we been tracking this?”

    “We only just spotted them a little more than ten minutes ago, just before I woke you ma’am, and we've been tracking them since.” The Klingon gave a toothy though slightly worried grin. “In other words we noticed them just as the contacts passed close enough to the sensor buoys on the other side of the Sol system for us to pick them up. Athena reports that their heading as well as their origin is to be considered confirmed.”

    “Good lord”, she breathed. “Time until they arrive?”

    “Less than a day”, Korash replied. “Maybe twenty hours, it’s hard to tell from this distance especially since we lack adequate information on what speeds they can reach in that hyperspatial dimension.”

    “Not enough time, not nearly enough.”

    “No, Admiral.”

    She looked at the screen again just to verify that she was really looking at the scenario she thought she was. They’d only been able to track the movement of the native ships in hyperspace for less than a month and T’Pell and his crew had been instrumental in giving the Starfleet engineers and scientists a basic understanding of this hyperspace realm that the local races used for faster-than-light travel.

    They didn’t understand it well enough to construct a jump drive that was compatible with Federation technology yet, or for that sake to the point where they could build a jump gate or engine of their own, but they’d already gained a good enough understanding of the fact that certain forces in normal space would affect hyperspace and vice versa.

    The entire basis of these hyperspace sensors was a subspace sensor grid that they’d deployed in the void between their own star system and their neighbors, since subspace seemed to have the closest physical links to hyperspace and gravity had been the most apparent force at play since it was one of the few forces that affected all three realms.

    Since a ship had a fairly large mass and thus detectable as a small gravity well, they had been able to use high-resolution gravitational sensors to track larger groups of ships traversing hyperspace. It wasn’t perfect, smaller ships or even small groups of ships could quite easily slip through the net undetected since the gravity well would be too small to detect over the background noise, and it sure wasn’t clear enough to give exact numbers or even the types of ships it actually did detect.

    Sometimes it also gave confusing readings as the native races used massive cargo and military ships that displaced more mass than a dozen smaller ships would and as such they couldn’t trust the system completely. This was a problem that the engineers were still working to solve as any first exploration vessel to enter their own solar system would most likely be a single ship and not a massive fleet.

    In this case even all these problems the detection technology had were not an issue. The displacement was exponentially larger than that of even the largest known single ship, even more massive than a small group of the huge Nova-class dreadnoughts which were the single largest warships they’d encountered so far in this reality.

    Even so gravity sensors were just gravity sensors, and couldn't answer either of the questions of whom, what or why. The mass, course and speed were the only facts they were left with and everything pointed in a single direction. It was a single and unmistakable possible destination and likewise a single unmistakable point of origin.

    “Can we get a secure line to the flagship?” Elisha asked her Klingon third in command. “We need to let them know.”

    “No, ma’am, there’s too much subspace interference to get anything to them at all.” Korash frowned. “Possibly jamming but we don’t know for sure. There’s still much we don’t know about the local races and many of them use technologies that have had unforeseen side effects on our own. If the origins are to be trusted, we may be looking at the very scenario Admiral Jahari suspected.”

    Admiral Keyes thought for a second, playing a little with a loose strand of auburn hair that kept falling on her face. The very real possibility was that they were dealing with the same race as the Venture had been observing. They'd learned that this race's power generation technology was actually the cause of the subspace distortions the Icarus had experienced.

    She'd thought the Romulans were dumb for trusting quantum singularities but apparently this new race used exotic matter pulled through transdimensional rifts in order to generate power. They were apparently oblivious to the technology's effects on the other realms including subspace, or perhaps they simply didn’t care about said side effects since no one used it here.

    “Tell Athena to get Bellerophon on the comm and to tell him I’ll be beaming over momentarily.”

    “Yes, Admiral”, the Klingon nodded.

    “Get the word out, I’m initiating protocol beta", she quickly entered a numerical sequence on one of the command consoles. "I want the replies sent to me as soon as I’m aboard, and make sure Valentine knows she'll be in command up here until I get back..”

    “Understood”, Korash nodded. “I’ll see to it, Admiral.”

    “Wish us luck, Korash”, she sighed. “God knows we’ll need it.”

    “Luck is for fools that don’t know how to fight”, he grinned. “You are neither and so I will offer you this instead. Kaplah, Admiral!”

    “Kaplah”, she made a tired smile. “Of course, thank you, Korash.”

    With that, she turned to leave. Her uniform was hardly regulation standard and her hair was a complete mess but right now that didn’t matter even to this normally strict and orderly admiral. Right now speed was of the essence and everything else could be damned.

    It only took her a minute or so to find her way to the closest transporter room though she had to wait for a minute more for a transporter operator to actually arrive as well. Personnel shortages had forced them to only have two of the station’s five transporter rooms manned in the off hours and in her hurry she'd forgotten which of them were.

    “Sorry, Admiral”, the ops ensign said with a winded voice as he hurried through the door. “It’s a long run from level eight.”

    “Don’t worry about it”, Elisha shrugged. “Put me down straight onto the bridge of the Bellerophon. They should be expecting me.”

    “Yes Admiral, coordinates are locked in”, the ensign looked up from the controls. “Energizing.”

    It took less than the time between two heartbeats for the transporter room on Aquila station to fade away and be replaced by the familiar surroundings of the Bellerophon’s command bridge. More than familiar, it was her own ship or rather it had been until her old friend had decided to forcibly pull her out of her chosen environment and put her behind a desk on a space station. That had been something she had continually worked very hard to and actually succeeded in avoiding until then.

    “Admiral on the deck!” the deep voice of the ship’s avatar sounded throughout the bridge. He was a massive man that appeared to be in his thirties and was clad in an ancient suit of leather armor, with a long dark pony tail and shoulders like an ox. He looked very much like the paintings of his namesake.

    “Thank you, Bellerophon. As you were, all of you. This isn’t a cordial visit or an inspection, this is business. Let’s treat it like that.”

    “Ma’am”, Captain Clark rose from her seat and saluted. “The Bellerophon is ready to receive your orders.”

    “At ease, Sophia”, Admiral Keyes turned to her former first officer. “As I said, this isn’t an inspection.”

    “Understood, ma’am”, Captain Clark barely seemed to relax at all.

    “Do you have an uplink to Aquila station?”

    “Confirmed”, Bellerophon stated. “I am currently in direct contact with Athena.”

    “Very well, is there any response to protocol beta yet?”

    “Yes, Admiral”, he nodded and then paused for a second, allowing the full report of the Aquila AI to be downloaded. “We have confirmations from all of the active BARCAP units, as well as from Gallant and Michael.”

    “That’s all?”

    “With respect, Admiral, most of the other ships are either tied up in operations elsewhere, already at our destination or in mothballs.” Bellerophon paused again. “Lexington reports she is also available but with a reduced crew.”

    “How far reduced?”

    “According to Athena about half of nominal”, Bellerophon frowned. “Normally I would not believe that actually mattered, but in the opinion of the rest of the fleet's AI Lady Lex has not had quite enough time to complete her integration yet.”

    Normally the relatively short time it took for an AI to integrate into a ship’s systems and fully assume control of the computer core wasn’t an issue. This time it was critical. It only took seconds for the AI to form and assume control but it would take two to three days before it was fine tuned and reached peak efficiency. Everything that was handled automatically by the ship’s computer had to be recalibrated to the near-manual control of the AI.

    “I see,” a thin line formed on her forehead. “What’s your opinion, Bellerophon?”

    “Hopefully, she will be ready when we arrive, Admiral.”

    “That didn’t sound too positive, Commander”, Keyes pointed out as she eyed the massive avatar.

    “I know, Admiral”, he sighed. “She will have to be.”

    “Worst case she’ll be as effective as she’s been before the new age?”

    “I guess so”, Bellerophon shrugged. “If nothing else she can deactivate herself, though that is a risky maneuver for us AI by any measure. There is a real chance the old operating system cannot be reactivated, as we have never actually tried it in anything but test conditions and with an already fully integrated AI. There is also a risk that she may not survive deactivation before her matrix has fully developed.”

    She thought for a second, and then made her decision.

    “I don’t like it but I won’t risk people’s lives, or for that sake that of an AI, gambling with untested technology”, she said and shook her head. “Tell the Lexington to stand down; she’ll have to help guard the barn until we get back.”

    “Understood”, the AI made its best to hide it but he seemed genuinely relieved at the decision. “She acknowledges your order.”

    “Well then. Link up a comm channel with the rest of the ships.”

    Keyes stepped in front of the large view screen.

    “Admiral Keyes to all ships, I’m taking command of the fleet and establishing fleet command on the Bellerophon. We’re monitoring a hyperspace event that seems to be heading towards checkpoint Bravo and we’ll be moving out momentarily to reinforce their position. It’s very important that you all realize what the cost of failure would be and why it will not be an acceptable outcome.”

    She closed her eyes and sighed. This was something she’d feared ever since the Darwin came back. Worse yet, she didn’t have the time nor the manpower to mount the kind of rescue operation she’d have wanted. She still had to do everything she could.

    While not intervening could possibly be safer for the people under her command in the short term, the long-term cost of not responding could easily be the survival of their very civilization. Even so she still wasn’t sure she’d even be able to get there in time to make a difference. Hope, fear, and grim determination all played their parts in her mind and her reasoning.

    “Form up on the Bellerophon. We’ll be moving as fast as the ships can handle and I really don’t care if we burn out the nacelles in the process as long as we get there.” She made a grim face. “We have to get there and do so as quickly as we can or we may be too late to make a difference. Keyes out.”

    “All ships report ready, Admiral”, Bellerophon stated in an even voice. “The fleet is standing by for your orders.”

    “Tell Athena to keep trying to get a warning through the dark area.” She walked over to the captain’s ready room. “If you don’t mind, Sophia?”

    “Not at all, ma’am”, she made a thin smile. “My ship is your ship.”

    “Thank you, though you're still the captain”, Keyes made a gesture towards the front of the bridge. “Get us underway and try to keep the formation in one piece. You know my orders; get us there as quickly as humanly possible.”

    “Yes, ma’am”, the reply came in stereo from both Bellerophon and Sophia.

    Elisha turned and went into the ready room, the familiar view and smell of the room calming her somewhat. What a way to wake up, she thought as she went over to the replicator and got herself a cup of steaming hot Klingon coffee before sitting down at the console on the table. What a way to wake up.

    “Computer, pull up the status of the ships in the fleet, as well as their tactical advantages. Also pull up the Darwin’s and Venture's mission reports and sensor logs about Species X.”

    “Stand by.”

    “Of course”, she said to herself. “What else can I do?”

    As they appeared on the console she dove into the reports and just a few seconds later she felt the familiar slight vibration of the inertial dampeners adjusting. They had entered warp and were on their way. The question that burned in her mind was still whether it was soon enough. There were too many unknowns, too many factors she couldn’t control.

    Still, she had to do something. Anything.


    USS ENDEAVOUR OBSERVATION LOUNGE
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER
    HIGH ORBIT ABOVE DRACONIS
    FEBRUARY 22ND, 2244, 19:30 HOURS



    Ambassador Fontaine looked out over the actually quite beautiful world beneath them. It wasn’t the largest planet he’d seen by any means; in fact it was only slightly larger than Mars and by those same measures actually quite a lot smaller than Earth. To him however it had more importance right now than he felt even Earth had. It was his mission, his job, his life right now to do his best and to get this splinter colony to at least in spirit join with his own people.

    He hadn’t lied when he'd said both people would gain from such an alliance. The people on Draconis would gain a significant boost in technology which would allow them to advance through several centuries’ worth of scientific research in just a few years or maybe even months. Sirius would gain a source of manpower which was, just as truthfully, something they desperately needed as well.

    Then there were his own simpler personal needs for seeing this reunification happen, his own wishes to see order turn out of chaos. Two different civilizations that both shared the same heritage and the same history, even though they’d been separated by time and space, shouldn’t remain two people.

    He just hoped that his requests and proposals hadn’t fallen on deaf ears and that was irritatingly enough something he still didn’t know. It had been more than two days since his latest appearance in front of the Phoenix Council and they still hadn’t reached a mutual decision.

    Most democratic cultures only required a simple majority to make a decision but Draconis wasn’t most cultures. They needed to reach a consensus which meant all decisions took time and almost always became compromises. Not that he was all that surprised that it took time in this case. In less than four hours their entire existence had been thrown into complete disarray.

    Their assumed history, their knowledge of the present and expectations of the future had all pretty much instantly shattered in their faces and they were still trying to put the pieces back together again. To make things worse here he was trying to make them put them together into a new order that didn’t even come close to resembling what they’d looked like before he and his people had arrived.

    But still, while Fontaine did understand their reasons he didn’t like to be kept hanging like he had been. Yes or no, not exactly the hardest response to make but it was as they said. It’s wasn't the destination that was important but rather the journey that led you there. It was a proverbial journey the Phoenix Council was still undertaking. Plus, even if they did say no today that decision could eventually be changed later on and, like any good politician and diplomat, the Ambassador had several contingency plans in place in case that would be the answer.

    He sighed. For good or bad, they were at least still talking. He almost turned to leave as he saw something reflect on the dark side of the closest moon, a bluish speck against the blackness. He watched in astonishment as it was joined by another, then another, and then a dozen more as the seconds passed by. Then as the cogs in his mind clicked into place and he realized what was happening, he quickly tapped his communicator.

    “Fontaine to the bridge.”

    “This is Cook, what can I do for you, Ambassador?”

    “Cook, please put the ship in red alert and join me in the upper observation lounge, as soon as humanly possible, Commander.”

    “This is highly unusual, Ambassador”, Cook replied. “May I ask…?”

    “You’ll see when you get here, Cook", Fontaine replied with a bit of irritation evident in his voice. "Now do what I said and get your holographic behind up here!”

    The link terminated and the ambassador relaxed, albeit just a little, as he saw the alert indicator on the wall start flashing a deep red instead of the previously friendly green. Within seconds, the blue coated appearance of the ship’s avatar joined him.

    “Now will you please tell me why I just made the ship ready to fight a small war, Ambassador?”

    “Certainly”, Ambassador Fontaine replied and pointed to the area on the second moon. “What do you see there?”

    Cook didn’t even move but in all truth he didn’t really have to either. His true eyes were the ship’s massive sensor arrays, not the holographic representations’ ice blue pupils.

    “I do. Thank you and please excuse me, Ambassador.” Cook said as he quickly dematerialized again.

    “Certainly”, Fontaine made a grim smile and turned to leave as well. Apparently, having a brain the size of a city block and eyes that could see for light years didn’t make him omniscient after all. He didn’t even have time to turn towards the door before the avatar’s voice rang from the ship’s intercom.

    “Battle stations, battle stations, all hands report to battle stations. This is not a drill. Captain Halsey, please report to the battle bridge immediately. All hands, battle stations.”

    Fontaine hurried down the short corridor to the turbolift. There were a lot of places he wanted to be right now, but none of them included one of the least protected places on the starship, especially not one that was located in a very easily targeted section of it, namely in the very front of the auxiliary weapons pod.

    He stood silent in the lift rethinking what he was supposed to do now. He wasn’t part of the ship’s command crew and truth be told he'd be less than useful in any practical part of ship operations.

    He couldn’t even tell a spanner apart from a self-sealing stem bolt which made him completely useless in damage control as well. In essence he was little more than dead weight at the moment but at least he was self-conscious enough to realize this himself.

    “Please state your destination”, the cold voice of the computer brought him back to reality.

    “Computer, what’s the most protected area of the ship?” he asked. "In the eventuality the ship came under enemy fire."

    “The best protected area of the ship is the main engineering bay”, the computer coolly replied.

    "Yeah, right, a computer’s logic of course. Right next to the antimatter reactor. Let me rephrase that in a manner a computer can understand.” Fontaine thought for a second. “Which is the most protected area of the ship that serves no tactical or strategic importance and has the least chance of sustaining battle damage?”

    “Jeffries tube fourteen, junction twelve”, the computer replied just as evenly as the last time.

    “Finally a straight answer”, the ambassador sighed. “Then by all means, bring me as close as possible to Jeffries tube fourteen, junction twelve.”


    USS ENDEAVOUR, BATTLE BRIDGE


    George Halsey came out of the turbolift and into the small battle bridge while still trying to catch his breath. He’d been down in sensor control helping a science team with a standard mineral survey of the planet they were doing as per a request from the chancellor.

    They had actually finished a short while ago and he’d already been making his way up to the command bridge when the commander’s broadcast called him, forewarned by the red alert lights flashing to life. He'd pretty much turned on his heel and quickly made his way down instead of up, racing to get to the ship's more defensible secondary bridge as quickly as his feet could carry him.

    The practice of actually fighting battles from the battle bridge wasn't anything new. It had been thought of as a mostly unnecessary precaution ever since the Galaxy and Nebula classes were constructed up until the first battles of the Dominion War had been fought. The Jem Hadar had a knack for targeting the largely unprotected main bridge of the Starfleet starship and while brutal, it was also a very effective tactic.

    It was at that time that the few remaining command crews of these ships realized that there was definitely some wisdom in adding several dozen meters of armor and hull between them and incoming fire and ever since then these underestimated locations had gained a lot of use whenever they had the time to plan before entering combat.

    “Report!” Halsey stated as he approached the middle seat.

    “Captain, our sensors report several ships exiting this ‘hyperspace’ realm just behind the planet’s second moon”, Cook replied. “We were lucky. They jumped in where my sensors couldn’t see them but as through a stroke of good luck Ambassador Fontaine managed to notice the light emitted by their vortexes reflect on the surface of the moon just as they arrived.”

    “How could that be?” Captain Halsey asked. “Aren’t your sensors among the best in the fleet?”

    “Indeed they are”, Cook would have blushed if he could. “In my defense there was a moon blocking my view and I cannot perform optical inspections of every inch of every planetoid at every given moment which is what I would have had to in order to see what he did with his untrained eye. As you humans would say, I cannot see the forest because of all the trees.”

    While Halsey could appreciate the AI’s attempt at explaining the difference between human and AI vision this was neither the time nor the place.

    “Right, so, what are we up against?” Halsey looked at the view screen; the ships were still barely specks in space at this range even with the screen at maximum magnification.

    “I have confirmed at least fifty of the same kind of vessels that faced off against the Darwin, Captain”, Cook replied. “There are also more than a dozen of the larger variant ships that the Venture discovered on her reconnaissance mission along with three even larger ships of as of yet not recorded configuration. The largest ships are more than thirteen hundred meters long, or almost three times my length and more than ten times my mass.”

    “Dear god”, Halsey breathed and felt like he’d been hit in the stomach with a sledgehammer. “Have you tried contacting them?”

    “Yes, sir, I still am on all possible frequencies both subspace, electromagnetic and tachyon based.”

    “No response?”

    “Not anything I would consider calling trying to communicate with us, Captain”, the AI replied and looked the captain straight in the eyes. “The hostile ships themselves are blanketing all our frequencies. We are restricted to short range radio wave and subspace communications only. I am not even sure they’re getting our hails through all that interference. We're also starting to experience problems with subspace just like the Icarus did.”

    “Understood”, Halsey bit his lip. “Can we reach Sirius at all?”

    “No, the chances of that are microscopically small”, Cook shook his head. "The subspace disruptions caused by their power sources are far too strong to get a signal through in that direction."

    “I see. How about reaching the Albion?”

    “I am trying to get a link to each of the other three ships but I cannot be certain that they can receive it, again due to the same disturbances. There has been no reply as of yet and at their last known position on the other side of the star they would not be able to detect the enemy force. Even so I doubt they would be able to enter warp anymore due to the hostile presence in the system.”

    “Damn.” Halsey sat down in his chair, and looked at his first officer. “Well, we won't play nice this time; they've already proven hostile intent toward us before and you don’t send sixty and change ships for a diplomatic meet and greet. Get the shield emitters and weapons charged, let’s not get caught with our pants down. Cook, prepare a command sequence to rapidly shift from shields to armor when I give the command.”

    “Yes, Captain”, Cook nodded. "Be aware deploying the armor will require me to take the warp engines as well as the phase cloak completely offline. We will not be able to disengage from the battle."

    "So noted", Halsey responded grimly. "It doesn't matter; we're not running away with a planet full of innocents at our back."

    “Shield emitters are fully charged and the armor generators all read ready to deploy”, Marcel LaSalle, the ship's first and also stand-in tactical officer stated calmly. “All quantum torpedo launchers are armed and loaded with ordnance set at max yield, phaser batteries are on hot standby.”

    “Good. Helm, prepare to break orbit on my command. I don't want to be locked down to the gravity well when the shit hits the fan”, Halsey ordered. “Cook, heard anything from the rest of the fleet yet?”

    “Negative, Captain”, Cook responded in a low voice. “They might have gotten my message but not be able to respond due to the jamming. I cannot make a positive determination at this time.”

    “Understood Commander.”

    Ironically this was exactly why they’d brought the Sovereigns along, just in case something bad or unexpected happened. A few dozen of the flower ships making their appearance definitely counted as unexpected though those larger ships making an entry as well only made the situation that much worse.

    Halsey silently cursed himself for asking the admiral to withdraw the supporting starships closer to the system’s star where they wouldn’t be as easily detected. It had been a good idea at the time to make a less intimidating show of force when the chancellor had been on board, but was it ever inconvenient right now. As they said, hindsight was usually twenty by twenty.

    Now he just hoped they’d either get the message or notice the situation evolving before something really bad happened. Halsey had no illusions; the Endeavour was more than a match for one or two of these ships, maybe even more, but against more than fifty? And that wasn’t even the final count but rather only what they could already see over the horizon of the moon.

    “What’s the tactical situation, Cook?”

    “The hostile ships are entering a fairly standard strike formation. Several of the smaller ships are moving into escort formation around the larger ones”, Cook stated and looked kind of curious. “The larger ships seem to be limited to a much lower rate of acceleration than the smaller. Their engines seem to be capable of a thrust equivalent of roughly nine percent impulse power.”

    “Time until they reach weapons range?” Halsey asked.

    “If they do not increase their thrust their lead elements will enter range in just less than one minute, Captain”, Cook replied. "We are not certain about their weapons range however which means this estimate is on our part only."

    “Great, just great”, Halsey thought for a moment. “Ensign, move us far enough away that we get clear of the gravity well with enough room to maneuver, but keep us close enough to be able to protect the planet.”

    “Confirmed”, Helm replied, “moving to a position five hundred thousand kilometers from the planet.”

    “Still no reply from the hostiles, Cook?”

    “Negative, Captain”, Cook replied. "They have tried to upload several worms and viruses into my systems but by now they seem to have realized that any such attempts are largely futile."

    “Fine”, Halsey took a deep breath. “Marcel, please designate them as enemy targets and take the phasers off standby mode. Heat up a full spread of quantum torpedoes and stand ready for an alpha strike.”

    “Yes sir.”

    The lights dimmed for a second as power was diverted from most other systems toward the ship's particle beam weapons. One of the main upgrades the Endeavour had received before the outbreak of the Romulan conflict was the new weapons and shield system, but it hadn’t received the new warp core yet.

    That was actually ironic considering the ship had originally been scheduled for a core replacement months ago. That had been before the war started though and that had effectively put any refits that took active ships out of service for an extended amount of time on hold.

    The older core still worked fine even though it had a mileage that by far outmatched that of any other ship in the task force. It was however not quite powerful enough to be able to power the new systems to their full potential and just to get all of them online required most of their auxiliary reactors to add whatever output they could.

    This also meant that to get sufficient energy to deploy the external armor he had to shut down his warp drive and a number of secondary systems as well as perform a controlled overload of the warp core itself. It was a risky, but in this case quite necessary, maneuver.

    “The enemy ships are now passing the moon’s horizon, Captain. I have a final count. Eighty three of the light ships, fourteen medium and six heavies.”

    “Holy Hannah”, Halsey just shook his head. “I thought you said just over sixty in total?”

    “The rest were still blocked by the moon”, Cook explained.

    “Very well, be ready to let them know we don’t appreciate them being here, Marcel.”

    “Yes sir.”


    UNKNOWN CRAFT


    It looked at the small ship that stood in their way. It wasn’t the same but it was close enough for the pilot to send out its words of Confirmation. They had doubted that this people, which at all times they had observed them had never again attempted to reach into space, would be the ones responsible for the suffered Insolence, willfully trespassing into their home space.

    Still, here was the proof they had known would be here, and trespassing was a crime that was always punished with death. A harsh punishment maybe, but the Circle had to be protected, the Accord kept hidden, and they could not allow anyone to see, to learn, or to let the ancient enemy know before they were ready.

    The just punishment had been thwarted, albeit how that had happened was still shrouded in mystery. Because of that they would be forced to make an example of this world. The only reason they had waited so long was that there had been a long debate whether to do this or not and once it had been decided it still took time to muster their slumbering forces.

    Now they were here to teach. To teach this unwelcome and unwanted race that there were limits to what they were allowed to know and to what they were allowed to do. It brought it no joy and no sorrow. The fate of the younger races was not something that concerned them. It was necessary and that was all that mattered. They were pawns in the ancient game, and were treated and used as such.

    It was silent, as was its ship. Words were not necessary when communicating with its own kind. They were linked, forever intertwined with each other through the power of their minds. They all knew what they should do, what to expect. They had done this many times before and would do it many more times in the future to come. After all, a circle has no beginning and no end and the Accord would stand until one had admitted defeat.

    This race surprised it and that was a sensation that was very rare for a being as old as it was. It was even more compounded as it saw the ship change, almost as if it were alive, as if it was one of their kinds. Where before there had been a dark metal surface with light coming out of small slits in the hull brighter metal plates now seemed to materialize out of nowhere. They completely covered the ship, only leaving thin slits on parts of the secondary hulls uncovered.

    A deep, menacing blue glow could be seen through these slits, a glow that seemed to increase in strength as he watched. Its sensors noticed a massive power build up from inside the ship as well, much more than it was expecting and far more than any other ship of its size should be able to produce. Now it felt something else it hadn’t felt for centuries.

    It was apprehension.

    An apprehension based in the small possibility that they had misjudged this race and their technology, the possibility of them having misjudged their own abilities. It tried to warn the others but it was too late. Even its own ancient and wise race stopped listening when battle was ahead. It would not matter, it decided. After all, no one but their kind had ever been able to stand against the wrath of the Vorlon.


    USS ENDEAVOUR, BATTLE BRIDGE


    “The armor has successfully deployed and the main reactor is now at one hundred and ten percent rated output. The enemy ships are still closing, Captain”, Cook said. “They will be entering effective weapons’ range in ten seconds.”

    “Fire a warning shot”, Halsey said through clenched teeth. "Make it impossible for them to misunderstand."

    “Oui, mon capitan”, Commander LaSalle replied while tapping in the coordinates on his console. "Unmistakable it is."

    The large bulk of the Federation cruiser swiveled on its own axis as it brought its bow and dorsal surfaces to bear on the enemy force. The peaceful appearance of the starship was completely gone now with the gleaming armored hull giving off a grim look that suited the ship’s refit classification as not only a warship but as a true ship of the line.

    Three glowing blue orbs left the torpedo launchers situated in the front of the weapons pod and in quick succession and spread ever so slightly as they crossed the distance between the two sides in mere seconds.

    Just before the three orbs reached the other side they all detonated, creating three distinct bright white flashes of zero-point energy just in front of the advancing ships, flashes that could easily be seen even down on the planet's surface. Even so they didn’t hit anything, they weren’t supposed to, but they made their point in no uncertain terms. There, but no further.

    The Endeavour had drawn its line in the sand. The message was duly received, weighed, and finally blatantly ignored as the enemy fleet seemed to pause for but a second and then resume its course towards the planet.

    “They ignored our warning shots, Captain”, LaSalle called out. “The enemy fleet's course and speed remain unchanged.”

    “Fine”, Halsey gritted his teeth. “Prepare attack pattern gamma four. Let’s show them we mean business. Are we in range for an alpha strike?”

    “Just barely, sir”, Cook responded coolly. “Main batteries are ready, awaiting your command.”

    “Course laid in!” helm responded.

    “Fire at will”, Halsey ordered in a grim voice. “Helm, take us in slow and steady.”

    “Yes sir!”

    The Nebula-class starship accelerated to an almost fractional speed in less than a second, the underpowered inertial dampeners straining to adjust for the G-forces that would without them crush the crew into a bloody pulp covering the rear walls.

    As the first of the enemy ships entered range, dozens of thick lances of golden red energy erupted from her hull striking at one of the medium sized enemy ships with total impunity. While a single phaser beam may not have had much of an effect for the Icarus, Starfleet Command had learned their lesson and learned them well.

    The combined weight of every science and tactical officer in the fleet had been applied to the problem and they had come up with a possible solution to overpowering the organic armor. The phasers now fired short but sequential beams and worked in groups, several beams from several arrays targeting the same square inch of hull on the enemy ship with each beam impacting a fraction of a second after the last.

    The effect was exactly what they had expected. As each of the layers absorbed what energy it could and was discarded by the organic armor the next beam hit and then the next, rapidly overpowering the ship's ability to regenerate and discard the damaged and disintegrating hull.

    Within mere moments the combined energy of the pulsating phaser beams had worked their way through the living ship's hull and shortly thereafter pierced clean through to the other side. The massed strike didn’t destroy the vessel but it did cause heavy damage. The cruiser’s escorts also started to fall out of formation as their ward now began to drift to the side while it struggled to regain control.

    The initial attack also managed to create a measure of surprise among the attackers; they had not expected the lone ship to outright attack such a superior number. The following and more widely spread suppression fire did little damage to the larger ships but one of the smaller destroyers was hit head on.

    A number of the golden beams speared it right through the middle of its main weapons array causing a massive overload as the nadion particle beams hit the weapon's main capacitors. It exploded and chain-reacted with the exotic particles that powered it, shattering the entire front half of the ship in a spectacular explosion which left little more than smoldering pieces of yellowish organic debris flying through the darkness of space.

    The retaliation was massive albeit chaotic. Purple and green rays lunged through space and impacted the Federation cruiser causing bright flashes of light across the silver ship as they impacted the advanced armor. Eyes were opened on both sides as the ship only received light damage from the massive counterstrike.

    The Endeavour accelerated even more and started moving in an evasive pattern in what amounted to be a successful attempt to throw off further direct targeting and allowing it several more combined hits on the already damaged enemy cruiser.

    “Sir, I’m reading some damage to the armor but fortunately enough no breaches yet”, Marcel called out. “The armor is doing its job but it won’t hold out forever against this kind of firepower!”

    “Roger that!” Halsey frowned. ”Quantum torpedoes, full spread! Use the aft and port launchers and target as many as you can. Set them to maximum yield and internal detonation!”

    “Aye sir, torpedoes are ready!”

    “Fire!”

    Half a dozen of the lethal blue orbs instantly shot through space, half of them from the rear of the main hull, the other half from the port launchers on the raised weapons pod. They raced through space at close to half the speed of light, soon impacting and tearing straight through the armor of their targets with their massive kinetic force. The force of the impact caused their internal containment fields to fail and the zero-point energy matrix inside to be exposed to unprotected matter.

    The interaction that followed released a force whose singular effect was to disturb the strong and weak quantum forces in the matter around it, the very forces that holds the subatomic particles which make up matter together. Not that the physical reaction involved in the warheads' detonation was something the enemy ships cared much about when they were struck by the warheads.

    In a reaction that only took fractions of microseconds three of the smaller destroyers were literally ripped to shreds as the atoms that made up their hulls disintegrated and effectively imploded with the resulting radiation and thermal energy of numerous uncontrolled nuclear fission and fusion chain-reactions adding to the devastating effect of the weapon itself. The other three torpedoes also found their mark, creating a series of deep craters in the hull of one of the massive alien dreadnoughts, but they were not enough to fully destroy or even cripple it.

    “Report!”

    “All torpedoes hit, sir”, Commander LaSalle responded. “Three destroyers are down and we did medium damage to one of their capital ships. I think.”

    “You think?!” Halsey roared.

    “Oui, mon capitan, the scans are inconclusive. We might have hit something critical but we might just as well have hit an empty cargo bay. We don’t know and have no way to tell, our sensors still can’t make heads or tails of their internal structure.”

    “Great.” Halsey gripped his armrests as the ship took a sharp turn at high enough speeds that the inertial dampeners couldn’t quite take all the force away from it. “Helm, lay in a course to put our starboard broadside and dorsal guns up against one of their medium sized ships.”

    “Confirmed sir, course entered.”

    “Tactical?”

    “Aye, sir", Marcel bit his lip. "Broadside ready to fire at your command.”

    The bridge shook and the lights flickered as the Endeavour took several direct hits to its main hull. The ventral and port external armor was getting beaten down pretty fast now, even though they managed to evade much of the incoming fire several of the hits had already started to eat through the advanced deployable armor. That meant a lucky strike could soon directly impact the still ablative and dense but much thinner armor of the outer hull.

    The enemy fire wasn't doing too much structural damage, at least not yet, but that was only a question of time. They'd already proven that their futuristic armor was much better at deflecting these unknown ships' weapons than their more contemporary shields but no passive defense could hold forever under the kind of beating they were receiving.

    Sooner or later the armor would fail and with the weaker warp core it would take some time to recharge the replicator capacitors it was created from, too long to be practical in the heat of battle against foes with this kind of firepower.

    The starship turned and headed almost directly for one of the cruisers, as the tactical system had designated the medium sized vessels, rolling some twenty five degrees on its axis to put the target within the firing arcs of the dorsal phaser arrays.

    It was a risky maneuver as while being the angle that allowed the Nebula to put out the maximum amount of long range firepower, it was also one of the angles that would present the largest target surface to the enemy. That was not to mention that they were heading straight for it and couldn't evade without losing their own angle of fire.


    UNKNOWN CRAFT


    The being would have laughed had its race actually been physically able to do so. The maneuver its enemy was now attempting was incredibly unwise as the angle and direction in which the ship approached would take it almost directly in front of the massive missile launchers that its ship carried. It mentally ordered the appropriate actions to be taken.

    It stopped dead in its motion however as it noticed that the ship swiveled ninety degrees and cut its thrust, letting its inertia continue to carry it in. It was suddenly overwhelmed by reports of yet more massive power readings, and like the first time it had seen these reports it failed to understand their meaning before it was too late.

    The last thing the being saw was several ports open in the silvery armor along the enemy ship’s disc-shaped hull and spew out a wave of golden-colored balls of energy. They traversed the few thousand kilometers between the ships in less time than a normal being would even notice.

    Less than a heartbeat later its command was little more than a hollowed out and burning shell drifting aimlessly through space, the biological material still glowing softly as the now dead ship continued to be consumed by the remaining nadion particles.


    USS ENDEAVOUR, BATTLE BRIDGE


    “We scored numerous direct hits on the enemy ship’s weapons ports; I am reading massive damage to the cruiser through secondary explosions. The hostile ship is crippled though not completely destroyed”, Cook reported. “It is dead in space.”

    Most of the officers cheered, that was almost as good as a confirmed kill.

    “Don’t jump to any conclusions yet people, there’s a lot more left where that one came from”, the captain used his cool voice to bring the bridge crew back to focus. “What’s the status of the PPC’s?”

    “The starboard cannon are still ready, port side cannon are recharging, captain”, Marcel replied while throwing off some snap shots at the enemy destroyers who were now trying to regain their composure, “one minute and counting.”

    “Helm, bring us about”, Halsey ordered. “Try to keep the ventral and port armor away from the main action as much as possible.”

    “Aye-aye Captain.”

    “Marcel, give me a few more torpedoes”, Halsey motioned towards a group of destroyers on the viewscreen. “Fire at will but use them wisely. We need to break up that formation before it forms.”

    “Yes, sir", the younger Frenchman replied. "Targeting the enemy destroyer escorts, targets locked.”

    Yet another volley of the deadly blue orbs exited the Starfleet cruiser's weapons pod, this time far more of them than before. Not all of them found their marks however as the enemy had indeed learned their bitter lesson and smaller purple beams shot out of their medium sized ships in a desperate attempt at destroying the fast moving warheads before they had a chance to impact their smaller brethren.

    Most of them still exploded but as they did so outside their targets the resulting damage was little more than a charred and scored paintjob. A precious few managed to get through the suddenly overwhelming point defense fire and find their marks, leaving another couple of destroyers as little more than smoking wreckage.

    So far, the battle had been one of each side maneuvering and trying to attain their respective positions. The saving grace for the Endeavour had been her superior maneuverability and acceleration but even so the opposition still outnumbered and outgunned her several times over.

    Small gashes were starting to form in the areas where the armor was weakened, or in some cases had already failed completely, under the immense pressure of the incoming fire.

    “Captain!” Commander LaSalle called out over the noise of the bridge. “We’re being outflanked; two of their dreadnoughts are heading for the planet!”

    “Damn it, intercept course!” Halsey yelled.

    The ship groaned as it was pulled through another high speed turn and then it shook, a violent vibration that threw those standing to the floor and causing the ship to list slightly as it veered off course before the helmsman could regain control.

    “Report!” Halsey groaned as he fought to regain his feet. "What the hell was that?!"

    “Captain, I am reading massive damage to my port nacelle”, Cook replied. He’d been the only one to remain standing, mostly as he didn’t suffer from inertia, but the look on his face clearly showed he was in severe pain. “I have no choice but to cut power to the entire pylon, there is warp plasma leaking into the access shafts and severe plasma fires in the nacelle control center. Several of my drones... they have simply melted.”

    “What happened?” Halsey asked with a wild voice. “Explain!”

    “One of the enemy dreadnoughts managed to score a direct hit on the port nacelle”, Cook said much less calmly than normal, almost gritting his teeth from whatever pain he was feeling. “The shot must have passed right between the nacelle’s ventral and dorsal armor generators, straight through the drive coils.”

    “How the hell did that happen?” Halsey demanded to know.

    “Bad luck?” Cook tried to say it with a smile but it ended up as a pained grin instead. “It is not a critical system for battle operations but it will restrict me to half impulse due to the increased drag and the pressure damage to the plasma grid. I have already shut off the plasma feed to the pylon and made the necessary adjustments to the warp core. The nacelle mounted phasers are out of operation, as are the shield emitters and armor generators throughout the length of the pylon and nacelle. It will not survive another direct hit, Captain.”

    “Well then. What about those dreadnoughts?”

    “We're coming into range now, Captain”, Marcel responded, only just having been able to stand up again. “They’re moving into the gravity well! Merde! Fils de salopes! The bastards are initiating planetary bombardment!”

    “Stop them, any way we can, is that clear?!”

    “Yes sir! Both PPC arrays now report ready!" The Frenchman uttered a truly disgusting curse at the enemy dreadnoughts that made even the worldly Halsey wince. "Helm, put us straight down the middle between the two ships and maybe, just maybe, we can pull this off!”

    "Between them?!" helm replied in complete and utter disbelief. "Have you gone completely ape crazy, Marcel?"

    "You heard the man!" Halsey yelled, having an idea what his first officer had in mind. "Do it, Ensign!"

    The space between the two dreadnoughts wasn’t a whole lot wider than the saucer section of the Endeavour. Still, even as the two enemy dreadnoughts started pounding into her already damaged sides with their secondary weapons the helmsman managed to quickly slide the cruiser into the narrow gap.

    The entire ship suddenly shuddered as she fired her heavy auxiliary weapons in both directions at once. It was by any measure of comparison a maneuver definitely inspired by and well worthy of the old ships of the line from the original Endeavour’s era. She poured fire into both alien dreadnoughts hoping to at least draw their attention away from the defenseless planet and preferably do a lot more than that considering the risk they took.

    The massive and near solid bolts of highly charged exotic particles struck deep into the dreadnoughts, causing them to instantly cease their firing on the planet's surface, but the return fire was just as devastating. As the two ships began to slowly separate from the Starfleet cruiser the massive green beams that had previously targeted the planet were now turned on their new assailant.

    The meter-thick beams came smashing straight through the already severely weakened port armor and created deep gashes in the hull where they hit, several strikes hitting the now exposed upper part of the pod pylon and almost severing the sensor and weapons pod from the rest of the ship. The starboard armor had been in better condition coming into position but while they held off most of the bombardment it also failed under the intense weight of fire and let the enemy score several direct hits to the cruiser's now unprotected side.

    “Damage report!” Halsey said while gripping his chair again, he had been thrown clear out of it by the force of the impacts and was struggling to get back up.

    “Massive damage to the port and starboard armor, hull integrity is compromised on both sides and I am reading hull breaches on several decks, emergency force fields are in place but several compartments are open to space.” Cook now looked much like he'd been physically hurt, which in more than one way was exactly what he had been. “Main power is fluctuating, auxiliary power is stable but weak as several reactors are offline and I have lost all contact with the weapons pod. What remains of the external armor is also failing due to lack of power to sustain it. Long and short range sensors are both down, except for optical and thermal sensors I am basically blind.”

    “Engines?”

    “Warp engines are inoperable, impulse drives operating at twenty percent only.”

    “Helm, get us clear!” Halsey ordered. “We’re no good to anyone if we stay in range of those things!”

    “Aye sir, new course laid in.”

    The wounded shape that was the Endeavour limped away from the two dreadnoughts which now seemed to realize that they had severe problems of their own to deal with. The damage they'd sustained from the point blank fire of the pulse phaser cannons was truly massive; even though the ships were not crippled per se, they had problems keeping their orbit stable.

    In trying to increase its thrust one of them suffered a complete engine failure and started to slowly fall into the atmosphere below, its crew doomed to endure the long descent in a ship burning up in the atmosphere.

    “Captain, we have company!” the operations officer suddenly stated. “Three cruisers and their escorts are on our six and gaining rapidly.”

    “I thought the sensors were inoperative?” Halsey breathed.

    “They are”, ops replied with a cool face. “Visual still works which says something about how close they are, Captain.”

    “Cook?” Halsey asked. “Is there anything at all we can do to discourage their continued pursuit?”

    “Negative, Captain”, Cook said and slowly shook his head. “Most of my weapons are offline. The main ventral phaser arrays are still operative, as are the frontal batteries. The port, rear, starboard and dorsal arrays, which are the ones that could fire in that angle, are not. Pulse phaser cannons are also offline with several of the batteries being outright destroyed.”

    “What about torpedoes?” Halsey didn’t like the idea of being unable to defend himself and his ship.

    "Negative." Cook shook his head again. “We only have fifteen torpedoes left, as most of the extended supply is located in the weapons pod which is completely inaccessible at present. Even so, only the forward launchers are operative and I cannot guarantee my fire control systems are operational.”

    “Damn it. Damn it to hell!” Halsey roared. “Distance to the enemy?”

    “Not even a light second, Captain”, Marcel reported grimly. “They’ll be in weapons range in less than thirty seconds.”

    Halsey didn’t know what to do now. His ship and his crew had faced off with a far superior enemy, crippled or destroyed many times its own tonnage worth of enemy ships which was a good result by any measure, but now it seemed it was all going to be over in a matter of minutes.

    “Hold on tight”, Cook said with his cool but pained voice. “I am detecting metallic objects less than a light second ahead on our exact course; I am taking emergency evasive action.”
     
  16. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 14


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER
    OPEN SPACE NEAR DRACONIS



    There was simply no way that the already damaged and barely operational inertial dampeners could be able to soften the emergency maneuver that Cook forced the ship into more than to the point where people didn't die from the g-forces alone.

    Even at less than one fifth impulse power they were still traveling at several thousand kilometers per second and the accelerating force that was required to break that inertial direction was massive enough to throw the already battered and bruised surviving crew into the walls and floors of the starship's interior.

    The sudden course correction and impulse shift caused the ship to lose much of what little attitude control the helm officer had still retained, putting the damaged cruiser on a slow three-axis roll as it continued on its altered course more due to its inertia than anything else.

    It almost looked like it was tumbling through space, though the people on board would hardly appreciate the likeness as, with the artificial gravity in some areas failing to compensate fully, they were being carelessly thrown around inside hitting the walls, floors and even the roofs of whatever compartment they were in.

    “Report!” Halsey shouted. His pain was clearly evident in his voice and he was clasping his right side. It felt like he’d broken a couple of ribs and his jacket was becoming wet with blood running from his torn lower lip.

    “We successfully avoided the obstructions”, Cook answered with some static, his holographic image not entirely stable anymore. “Main power is offline, auxiliary power is offline. Emergency power is unstable but holding for now. We are drifting in space and have no navigational or attitude control, Captain.”

    “Damn it!” Halsey cursed. “What were those things? Asteroids?”

    “Negative, I would have seen an asteroid much sooner”, Cook explained. “Sensors are too damaged to give any kind of answer.”

    “Bring up a visual on the enemy on the viewscreen”, Halsey said and silently moaned as he sat back down in his chair. “Let us see our death in the eyes like real men.”

    “Aye sir, putting them on screen”, LaSalle answered coolly.

    The view was ominous to say the least. Three of the cruiser-sized squid-like ships were closing on their position fast, each with an escort of four of the smaller flower-shaped ships. Halsey found himself holding his breath, anticipating the fate he knew was in store for him and his crew.

    It wasn’t like he feared death, after all, all living beings died sooner or later. It was just a question of when and how, and while he was sure he’d leave this existence with all honors, it felt like it was just too early and that he still had things he could contribute with to the world he'd served.

    Suddenly, it all changed. He noticed the scratching sound on the intercom almost as quickly as Cook did. The two men, one organic and one artificial, shared a quick glance of hope as their minds both drew the best possible conclusion. Maybe, just maybe fate would be on their side for a change.

    “Now!” the partially distorted, but still all too familiar voice on the intercom roared. ”All ships open fire!”

    In an instant three shadows, previously invisible on the monitor to all but possibly Cook’s artificial eyes, were lit up and bathed in the orange glow of massed phaser fire. The sight was wondrous and captivating, as if sent by the almighty himself as a gift of life to the doomed crew.

    Halsey allowed himself to relax, if only just a little. They had noticed and now they were here. The cavalry had arrived to save the day. He just hoped it wouldn't be too late.

    The three Sovereigns were lined up almost perfectly stem to stern forming an up to now invisible line in space and they had all fired their broadsides at the same time making a frightful alpha strike on the enemy.

    Showers of blue torpedoes, golden balls and reddish spears of cohesive exotic particles left every launcher, strip and cannon of the three ships and traveled the distance between them and the incoming ships in less than seconds, leaving a wide white line on Halsey’s retinas.

    The effect was catastrophic, many of the smaller ships being pierced through their entire length by the overwhelming lance fire while the larger ships were stopped dead in their tracks, massive holes visible in their thick armor even at this distance. The mainly bow-facing and spinal-mounted weapons of the enemy ships made the effect even worse as secondary explosions from disrupted weapons systems rocked their ships.

    The onslaught didn’t stop or even pause and for several seconds the space between the Federation starships and their brutally halted enemy was filled with phaser bolts and torpedoes racing towards their targets being as unforgiving and merciless as the hands of the Grim Reaper himself.

    “God damn it, now that’s a sight to see”, Halsey said with his first albeit tired smile since, it felt like, forever. “Can you patch me through to the Albion, Cook?”

    “I can.” Cook responded with some static, his matrix still unstable. “Stand by; all communications channels are being used at the moment.”

    Of course they were, Halsey thought. He kept watching as the three ships finally broke formation and fanned out in unison to take on one of the cruisers each. As they’d already lost the measure of surprise their running lights now lit up showing the three advanced Federation battlecruisers in all their intimidating glory.

    Moments later he could see the telltale cold blue and silver flashes that indicated the Sovereigns were deploying their own external armor. He almost shivered as the adrenaline of the moment started to wear off.

    A cold and gutsy move, Halsey thought as he realized why and how the three ships had ended up here of all places. They’d been in orbit close to the star the last he’d heard and he had instantly realized what they’d done as soon as he had realized what and who they were.

    It was one of the oldest tricks in the book, running fast but silent straight out of the sun and letting the solar wind hide whatever radiation or energy signature your own ship was emitting. In other words it had been the perfect setting for one hell of an ambush, and it had worked. Halsey didn’t even mind being used as bait, though admittedly he’d probably feel different if they’d shown up just a few seconds later.

    The initial surprise had been enough to decide the outcome of this skirmish as most of the smaller escorts had been crippled or outright destroyed in the first volley and all three main vessels had been severely damaged within seconds of the call to fire.

    As he continued to watch, the starboard Sovereign was now accelerating just a few kilometers below one of the enemy ships, the only one remaining operational, made a roll around its own axis bringing its ventral weapon arrays to bear on the enemy cruiser's unprotected belly and fired at near point blank range.

    The effect was astounding, the entirety of the space between the ships suddenly shone with a golden glow as the Sovereign brought its massive point defense grid into action as well as its main weapons. It took a second, Halsey just barely noticed it, but then the first and second ray of cohesive charged particles exited through the spine of the enemy squid ship.

    More and more of the phaser beams joined the first and by the time they stopped there was chasm running straight through and down half the length of the enemy cruiser. He made a grim face as his opponent faced the same fate as he and his crew had been expecting only a few moments earlier.

    “Captain, I have Admiral West for you”, Cook crackled. “I suggest you keep it short, emergency power could fail any minute.”

    “Thank you, Cook”, Halsey said with a short nod. “I’ll try.”

    The comm system crackled a little as he spoke up.

    “Admiral, you sure are a sight for sore eyes!”

    “Thanks”, West’s voice was barely audible through the interference. “Sorry we couldn’t get here faster. When we finally saw what was happening you were already engaged and we were unable to go to warp due to the subspace wake.”

    “We’re still alive, Admiral, at least some of us are”, Halsey hadn’t dared ask for a casualty report yet. “That’s all that matters.”

    “What’s your condition, Halsey?” West asked. "You don't look too good."

    “I'm afraid we're just as banged up as we look, Admiral”, Halsey reported. “We’re dead in space and emergency power is failing.”

    “I see”, West responded. “I’m taking the Albion and the Independence to the planet but I’m leaving the Discovery behind to cover you and our rear.”

    “Sir, you shouldn’t…” Halsey tried.

    “That’s for me to decide and I've made my call. I won’t abandon you quite yet, Halsey”, West’s voice was stern enough. “Try to get enough power back to withdraw from the battlefield, until then you’re stuck with the babysitter.”

    “But…”

    “That’s an order, Captain, West out.”

    Halsey looked at Cook in despair, though the AI just shrugged in return. Even though he appreciated the rescue he didn’t want to tie up an entire Sovereign just to protect him and his crippled vessel.

    The only thing that mattered right now was to keep these maniacal aliens and their ships away from Draconis and the millions of people that were stuck on the planet with no means to defend themselves. Yet, he was hardly in any position to argue with the admiral either seeing as his ship most likely wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    “Captain, I am sorry but I have to follow the admiral's orders”, Cook stated evenly. “I will be in main engineering if you need me.”

    Halsey sighed as the flickering hologram folded in on itself and dissipated. He looked at the viewscreen again. Even with the massive magnification, he could barely see the two ships that were bound for the planet anymore, each second that went by bringing the two cruisers thousands of kilometers away from him and his ship.

    The remaining battlecruiser just maneuvered a little, taking up position only a few thousand kilometers away. Barely spitting distance by Starfleet measures.

    “Discovery to Endeavour”, the communications system crackled with the voice of the Discovery’s Spaniard captain. “Respond please.”

    “Discovery, this is Endeavour actual”, Halsey responded. “Go ahead.”

    “Hold on to your seats, Halsey”, the familiar voice said. “We’ll try to stabilize you with our tractor beams.”

    “Sure”, it was all Halsey could say. “We owe you one, Discovery. More than one, actually.”

    “Anytime.”

    Halsey felt a small shift as the Sovereign’s fore, aft and port tractor beams locked on to his ship, putting just enough drag on the different parts of the ship to slow down its tumbling motions and halt the ships movement. Even though the motion was as careful as possible, the bruised and battered hull of the Nebula-class starship groaned as it put stress on already weakened seams and welds.

    Halsey attributed it to luck rather than anything else that nothing broke loose. Looking at the damage reports that had just finally started to filter in it seemed that all that held his proud ship together was just that, hope, faith, and a damned good portion of luck.


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    ON COURSE FOR DRACONIS III



    “Admiral”, Victoria’s even voice called out. “We are approaching the planet. No ships seem to be in orbit at the moment except for the two the Endeavour managed to disable. Several of them are however continuing to move towards the planet.”

    “Confirmed, take up a defensive position a light second from the outer atmosphere”, West replied.

    “Yes, sir”, helm answered. "That will put us just inside the gravity well, just so you know, Admiral."

    "I'm well aware of that, Lieutenant", he nodded grimly. "Make it so."

    The bridge was a busy place and no one noticed as the turbolift doors opened and closed again, or the figure of Professor Jonah Stevenson stepping on to the bridge. He was only half dressed, as he was one of the few people who hadn’t been alerted to the situation until the ship actually started shooting, and showed the tell-tale signs of just having woken up a few minutes ago.

    “Captain”, Stevenson breathed. “I... I demand to know what’s going on.”

    Both the admiral and Captain West spun around in surprise.

    “Professor, you can’t be here right now!” the captain scowled. “We’re in the middle of a battle and the bridge is a restricted area!”

    “Battle?!” Jonah whispered with true terror more than evident in his voice. “But, we’re still in my home system, right? What‘s happening? What’s going on?”

    “We will explain later, Professor”, the admiral replied. “Right now you need to get to a safe location.”

    “But please, Admiral, tell me what’s going on!” Jonah pleaded.

    Suddenly his entire body froze like he'd been struck by lightning as he caught a glimpse of the enemy ships being shown on the main viewscreen. Both of the West brothers noticed his expression and watched closely as the already pale face and body started to shake as it went several shades brighter, almost like the man was fighting a losing battle against true and awesome terror.

    It literally looked like the man wasn't just seeing a ghost, but rather like if the devil himself was standing in front of him.

    “That’s… this is… it’s impossible… they can’t be!” Jonah stammered incoherently. “God, please God, don’t let them be… Sweet, merciful God…”

    “Someone get that rambling wreck of a man off of the command bridge!” Captain West yelled, and two of the marines finally responded, taking the now non-responsive scientist by the shoulders and forcibly dragging him back into the turbolift.

    “I so want to hear the story behind that reaction after we get through this. If we survive, that is”, Admiral West said to the roof, and then looked at his AI. “Can you get a direct link to Hancock?”

    “I can”, Victoria replied. “Though at this limited range, I can do even better.”

    “Then, by all means do so, Victoria”, the admiral scowled.

    “Yes, sir”, Victoria took a step back and to the side as if making room.

    A moment later, the space she’d just left was filled with the slightly transparent appearance of Hancock, the Independence’s avatar.

    “Admiral”, Hancock said with a short salute. “My dear Victoria Regina”, he kissed her hand like a true gentleman of his namesake’s vintage, his slight transparency seemingly not reducing his ability to do so.

    “Amazing”, West was impressed, this was the first he’d seen a holographic AI transmission. “We’ll discuss this new trick of yours later though.”

    “Your orders, Admiral?” Hancock refocused on the admiral.

    “I want the Independence to move to a range of about a hundred thousand kilometers port and slightly to the stern of the Albion”, West stated. “Can you maintain your transmission at that range?”

    “Under normal circumstances I should be easily able to do so but I'm unsure given the amount of subspace interference the enemy ships are putting out”, Hancock replied with a slight shrug. “I guess we are about to find out.”

    “Good. I want to create a gauntlet for any ship that wants to bypass us”, West explained and gave a grim face. “If they want to get into orbit, they’ll have to pay the price first and I want to make sure that price is as steep as possible.”

    “Understood, sir, the Independence is moving as requested”, Hancock stated. “Madame Duval is informed of your plan and she acknowledges.”

    “Good, she’ll know what to do; we did the exact same thing to the Romulans at Zeta Trianguli.”

    “Yes, sir”, Hancock replied. “I know of your strategy having examined the captain’s logs. I must however point out that the Romulans did not outnumber you this badly in that particular battle.”

    “Doesn’t matter, now does it?” West asked rhetorically. “It worked then, and it’ll work now, at least for a while.”

    “If you say so, sir”, Hancock stated, he was also aware that they had no choice but to hope it would work, there was no alternative but to fight. “The Independence is ready to receive them.”

    “We’re almost at our target”, Victoria interjected. “I am slowing down and assuming my own position.”

    “Good.” West rose from his seat. “Ladies, gentlemen, you all know what’s at stake. We’re what little that stands between a planet full of innocents and a hostile force that seem intent on destroying them. I can’t say for sure we’ll win but I can say for sure that we’ll try our best. If we have to pay the ultimate price, I assure you, we’re going to have bled them dry first.”

    There was complete silence on the bridge as even the two holograms seemed to be silently reflecting on his short speech. Wherever the admiral looked he could see cold resolution and determination. They all knew exactly what they might face. As Starfleet officers it was above all their calling, to defend the defenseless and to help the helpless.

    It was what they'd all signed up for, albeit in another galaxy, another time, even another universe entirely, but at this point it really didn’t matter. They all knew what they had to do. The silence was broken by one of the tactical sensors beeping to life.

    “Admiral”, Commander Suvok stated from his station monitoring the sensors. “I’m reading several hundred smaller contacts emerging from two of the enemy dreadnoughts.”

    “Confirmed”, Hancock added. “Triangulating sensor returns.”

    “Confirmed”, Victoria continued. “Reclassifying these two contacts as fleet carriers, projectile profiles indicate that they are launching fighters. The count is now in excess of two hundred separate contacts.”

    “Crap”, Admiral West took a deep breath as the odds turned ever more against them. “Get ready, people. Here they come.”


    NEW LONDON, CENTRAL DISTRICT
    DRACONIS III



    She looked out of her window on the ninth floor of the government executive building, a high-rise directly across the road from the Phoenix Council complex. The view was a testament to the violent if mercifully only brief attack they had suffered. It had started late in the afternoon, and while it had only lasted for less than a minute, people still had the events fresh in memory.

    Thick, green spears of energy had pierced the sky above them and where they had hit they had wiped walls, roads, sometimes even entire buildings from existence. The damage was downright terrifying and there were still people lying lifeless on the streets.

    The ruined dome of the Phoenix Council just a hundred meters or so away was clear evidence, the ancient building only having been hit with a single blast but still the walls were barely even standing upright anymore. A more detailed look would reveal that the only reason for this being the case was that the amount of debris that had fallen on the floors inside was still supporting them.

    Looking up into the sky the sources of these blasts were still clearly visible. Bright spots in the sky, like stars but clearly visible in the bright day, where the massive behemoths overhead reflected the sunlight down at the helpless people on the planet.

    Every now and then they’d see short blasts, as if there was a massive battle going on just over their fair city. Most didn’t understand and didn’t care to try either. They just ran. People milled around in panic and desperation, trying to get to their loved ones or trying to make sure they were all right.

    Within moments, the city’s entire infrastructure had collapsed, communications and transportation systems becoming instantly overloaded as people tried to call everyone they knew, tried to get home or just to get away from the carnage.

    Already the first accusations had been yelled at the visitors from space that the council had talked about, at the council itself, at ancient legends coming back to life to punish them for their sins.

    Ironically the latter, the theory most sane people didn’t even bother listening to, was the one that was actually closest to the truth. Figures from legend had indeed come to punish them, though not for their sins but rather for those of others. The woman didn’t know that though. Not yet.

    She was brought back to reality by the buzz of her phone ringing. She hurried over to the desk, grabbing the device in a hurry. “Chancellor Callaghan’s office”, she exhaled, finding comfort in answering just like she did every time the phone rang. “This is Britney speaking.”

    “Britney? I was ringing for Callaghan himself?” the other voice asked.

    “I am his personal aid”, the secretary replied, her shock audible in her voice. “I’m sorry, it’s quite chaotic here. Can I possibly take a message?”

    “No, no, this is far too important”, the voice stated. “Can you connect me to the chancellor?”

    “I can try, but I haven’t been able to reach him for several minutes”, she replied, the seriousness of the caller affecting her. “Who should I say is calling?”

    “Jack, Jack Michaels, Cambridge Observatory”, the voice replied. “It is absolutely imperative that I speak with him as soon as possible.”


    USS BELLEROPHON
    FEDERATION INTREPID-CLASS DESTROYER
    EN-ROUTE TO SIGMA DRACONIS



    “Status, Bellerophon?” Keyes voice was thin; they’d seen the fragmented first signs of battle on the long range sensors now although the interference was still strong enough to limit its reliability.

    “We are holding at warp 9.51, Admiral”, the AI’s deep voice came through the speakers as he was physically, if it could be called that, in main engineering keeping a very close eye on the warp engines. “I am going to need a week in dry-dock when we get home though, my drive coils are already showing signs of heat damage and micro-fractures have started to form on the nacelle tubes.”

    “Can we hold our speed?” Keyes asked with a sliver of worry in her voice.

    “For the time being, Admiral, but I would strongly recommend against increasing it any further.”

    “Admiral!” the operations officer called out. “The Covington is dropping out of warp!”

    “Get a link to them as soon as possible, Ensign!” Keyes said sharply. “Ask them why!”

    “Yes ma’am!” the younger ensign replied. “Ma’am, Captain Torun reports that they experienced fluctuations in their antimatter containment field and had to make an emergency core shutdown.”

    “Damn it!” Elisha cursed. “Damn it, how about the others?”

    “Still holding our course and speed, ma’am”, she paused, fearing the admiral’s reaction to the news. “Correction, the Renown is now slowing to nine point two, ma’am, they report overheating in their starboard nacelle.”

    Keyes was silent. She wasn’t even sure she’d make it in time to make a difference and now after pushing the smaller ships way beyond their design limits she was starting to pay the price for rushing in.

    The smaller destroyers, frigates and gunships were never designed to go faster than warp nine except in a crunch and she’d been pushing them far beyond that speed for almost sixteen hours straight now, way more than the design time limit even for the faster Intrepid, in her mad dash towards the Sigma Draconis system.

    In a way she was surprised they'd held up as long as they did, though she also attributed a lot of that to the expertise of their engineers who were still working their asses off trying to keep their ships going.

    “ETA?” Keyes asked the bridge.

    “Ten minutes”, helm answered. “Give or take, we’ll have to drastically slow down when we enter the system or the subspace disturbances will rip us to pieces.”

    “Keep us at as high warp as you can, for as long as possible, Ensign”, Keyes ordered. “Slow down as late as possible.”

    “Yes ma’am”, the Ensign swallowed. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

    “Don’t try, Ensign”, Keyes’ reply was cold. “Do.”

    The ensign sitting at the con didn’t bother to reply. He didn’t have to. He knew what was at stake just as well as everyone else on board. More than three thousand of their comrades were fighting for theirs and their lost brethren’s lives at their destination and they were the only thing that could turn the odds around.


    PHOENIX ARCHIVES
    DRACONIS III



    He was, by all rights, damned lucky to still be alive. He’d been in the hall of archives, far beneath the ancient structure of the Phoenix Council, as the attack started and the several meters of solid rock above him had successfully protected him so far.

    He was still severely shaken by what he’d been told had happened, albeit he reserved his final judgment about the details of what his aides had said for when he had more facts, and not just rumors, to go on.

    One of the dark-dressed council security officers that had accompanied him came over and handed him a device which he recognized as being a military-class cell phone. It was sort of anticlimactic, even in a situation like this where buildings centuries old were falling apart, these accursed devices still worked perfectly.

    “Speak”, the chancellor said simply.

    “Callaghan, is that you?” the voice asked.

    “It is. Who am I speaking with?”

    “Good to hear your voice sir, I feared the worst when I heard what happened to the council building. Where are you?”

    “I…” he looked at one of the dark-dressed men who just shook his head. “I’m somewhere safe. Who did you say you were?”

    “Doctor Michaels, Cambridge”, the voice introduced himself. “Faculty of Astronomy and Stellar Cartography.”

    “Ah, yes”, Callaghan looked around, curious but also somewhat irritated. “How can I help you, Doctor? This is really not the best time.”

    “That much I already know”, Michaels simply responded. “We need to talk though. Our observatories are recording quite a ruckus in orbit.”

    “You’re watching what is happening up there?” Callaghan exhaled with anticipation. “What is going on? Who fired on us?”

    “From what I can see… well, legends and fairytales”, Michaels sighed. “Legends and fairytales.”

    “Explain!” Callaghan almost cursed at the device and the voice it carried. “What about legends and fairytales?!”

    “Remember those tales about the Wardens, the ones our mothers used to scare us with?”

    “Yes, but that’s a child’s story!” Callaghan said with distinct irritation. “What about it?”

    “Well, sir”, the voice hawked for a second before continuing. “That child’s story seems real enough to challenge and shoot at your own legends.”

    “What?!” Callaghan was dumbstruck. His own legends? He must mean… “You’re saying that whatever these things are, they are fighting with the Starfleet vessel?”

    “Fought, and as it seems even chased off for a moment, Chancellor”, Michaels stated with dread. “But, these Starfleet people seem to have brought reinforcements, sir. Let me tell you, it sure is one hell of a fireworks display up there, Callaghan. We're recording every second of it.”

    “Good lords”, Callaghan breathed and wiped his brow. “Keep me updated, Doctor!”


    USS MICHAEL
    FEDERATION ARCHANGEL-CLASS FLEET CARRIER
    EN-ROUTE TO SIGMA DRACONIS



    “Scramble. Scramble. All pilots report to action stations.” The deep, choral voice of the ship’s avatar rang through the intercom. “This is a general scramble. This is not a drill. All pilots report to hangar decks for immediate combat launch.”

    Commander Sanders was already running as fast as her legs would bear her down the corridor. She’d barely even taken the time to get the last of her gear as she’d left her squadron’s locker room. She stepped into the turbolift and almost had problems getting enough air to tell the computer her destination.

    “Hangar deck one!” she wheezed, barely noticing three other pilots running into the lift before the doors closed.

    “Commander!” one of the new arrivals panted. “Is this it?”

    “What do you fucking think, Gonzales?”

    “I don’t know, figured it could just be another false alarm.”

    “Where’ve you been the last day, Gonzo?” the other arrival smacked him square on the back of his head. “We’re flying straight into a god damned war zone!”

    “Oh”, Gonzo replied with a dumb smile. “I’d forgotten.”

    “And he’s supposed to be a fighter pilot, one of the best and brightest stars of the corps”, the other man asked the turbolift roof. “How the hell did you even manage basic flight?”

    “Hey now!” Gonzo looked insulted. “Don’t you smack down on my flying, Snake!”

    “Stop it!” Sanders interrupted. “Both of you!”

    “Yes, Commander!” both answered in stereo.

    "You", Sanders pointed at the person in the lift which hadn't mouthed off and she didn't recognize. "What's your name?"

    "Davis, ma'am", the younger pilot replied.

    "Which wing and what position?"

    "Alpha wing, ma'am", Davis swallowed; he knew perfectly well who was asking. "I advanced to third in the last training fight."

    "Hmm... Davis, right", she thought for a second. "You were the rook who served Dino's ass on a platter, right?"

    "Yes, ma'am", Davis nodded. That specific pilot, apparently some hot shot from the Gabriel, had almost punched him in his face for doing so after the mission though. "I was, I mean am, that rook, ma'am."

    "Dang, Seraph", the man called Snake said. "Dino's supposed to be the best of the Cherubs!"

    "He is", Sanders nodded. "Well, rook. You can take off that crappy mission badge on your shoulder and if you manage to get back home after the fight you’ll get to replace it with something better."

    "Ma'am?" Davis almost stuttered, completely dumbstruck.

    "Pull yourself together, pilot!" she snapped. "You'll be flying Angel six today."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Davis exhaled. "Thank you, ma'am."

    "Don't thank me yet, and unless you want a scrapper up your six you’ll never call me ma’am again. You’ll either call me Commander Sanders or Seraph. We'll see after the fact if I'll keep you, but I refuse to block an entire launch line with a pilotless fighter."

    "Ma'am, I mean…?"

    "You're in the second line, bozo", she chuckled. "If your fighter doesn't launch, you block twenty-two other fighters!"

    A second later the turbolift stopped on the busy hangar deck, the four pilots running out ducking and weaving around fighters and loading arms trying to get to their own fighters as soon as possible. Sanders had the longest run as her ship was at the very end of the runway, though that was almost true for all of them as the rest of Angel wing wasn't all that far behind her.

    “Come on, come on!” the deck chief yelled from somewhere beside them. “Get a god damned move on people; those birds don’t really fly themselves even if you keep complaining that they do!”

    She slowed her pace a little, allowing her a breather as she could see that the hangar bay doors were still closed. Not quite time yet, but soon. She looked around, seeing the mass of white-clad people, the hangar ground crew, milling and mixing with the black-and-white-suited pilots along the long lines of strike craft.

    She stopped for a second to let one of the large hangar lifts lower down into the massive storage bay below and come back up with a full load of quantum micro-torpedoes in its anti-gravity racks. A few yards further down the hangar she could see yet another such rack appearing, with the more massive shapes of quantum and tricobalt fighter bombs.

    She made a toothy grin; two of the latter would be fitted one under each of her own fighter’s wings along with a half dozen of the former. The Angels were just pure evil when set up against fighters, their true goal was always striking at the enemy’s capital ships. The tricobalt devices, commonly known as scrappers among the fighter pilots, packed almost as much of a punch as a starship quantum torpedo but were near impossible to avoid considering the ranges they were released at.

    She couldn’t even see her own fighter yet, it was still another fifty yards to go through the massive hangar deck and it was hidden from view by several lines of other people's fighters. She was at the center of the first line. Hers would be the first fighter to launch, the first to see the face of the enemy. She was the first one out the door and into the fray, to show that no one, no matter who or what, fucked with an Archangel.

    “Come on people!” the deck chief yelled. “Mommy’s not going to save you today! This is real! Let’s go, let’s go, get your lazy ass behinds into your damned birds!”
     
  17. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    CHAPTER 15


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    BLOCKADE POSITION ABOVE DRACONIS



    “Admiral, we cannot realistically continue to take this level of fire for too much longer”, Victoria stated with an even voice. “The second layer of the external bow armor is now failing and I am starting to register light damage to my frontal hull.”

    “Understood”, West said in a grim voice but kept his gaze on the viewscreen with the incoming enemies on it. “Keep us steady, Victoria. We can’t let any of them get through; the people on the planet don't even have that.”

    “As you wish, Admiral”, Victoria replied matter-of-factly. “I am diverting auxiliary power from the weapons to initialize the bow defense shields.”

    West gave her a quick glance, but before he could say anything the blonde avatar interrupted him.

    “Admiral”, she gave him a steady and unwavering gaze. “I understand your objections and I know what you are about to say, but if I do not initialize those shields I cannot guarantee I will survive much longer.” She paused and made an almost sad face. “And while I do admit this reduces my offensive power by a little, please remember that I cannot shoot at all if I am destroyed or disabled.”

    “I see your point, Victoria”, he nodded and he had to agree with her assessment. “What's the tactical situation?”

    “Worsening by the second", his brother replied from his position looking over Suvok's shoulder. "It seems they too are able to learn from their mistakes.”

    West didn’t really doubt that as only a completely insane fleet commander would keep pressing his forces into a veritable meat grinder without seeing any tangible results. The enemy’s first reaction to the gauntlet he’d set up between Albion and the Independence had been to repeat the same mistake the Romulans had also made in trying to force their way through it.

    It had been a decision that had resulted in massive damage to several of the cruiser sized vessels and the destruction of numerous smaller flower ships which now littered the space between the two Starfleet Sovereigns. The main issue had been to coordinate the two ships so that they stayed just far enough away from each other’s firing solutions not to get hit by friendly fire while still being close enough to be able to target the same ships from both sides creating a deadly particle cannon crossfire.

    The power of their pulse phaser bolts didn’t diminish noticeably over the short range between the two Sovereigns and could easily do a lot of damage to the other ship if they weren’t careful. When done correctly however, it meant whatever ship dared come into the crossfire would have to survive being literally pummeled by wave after wave of particle fire on both sides.

    “Admiral!” Hancock cut in over the bridge noise. “I am detecting several hostile ships detaching from the main battle line. I am counting two dreadnoughts and two cruisers as well as six destroyers.”

    “I need a quick assessment!” West ordered. “What are those bastards up to this time?!”

    “They are heading away from us and at an angle that will take them past the planet”, Victoria replied thoughtfully. “And as far as I can tell they are accelerating at full thrust.”

    “Sounds good”, West was almost relieved for a second. “Are they withdrawing from the field?”

    “Hardly”, Hancock made a grim face. “And it is definitely not good news. They are heading directly toward Discovery and Endeavour, sir.”

    “Oh hell!” West cursed and punched his fist into the armrest. “Can either of you get a channel open to Vancouver?”

    “Negative, Admiral”, Victoria replied. “All subspace communications channels are completely disrupted beyond a one light second range by the enemy ships' interference effect.”

    Bad thoughts raced through the admiral’s mind. There were over one and a half thousand people combined on board the Discovery and the Endeavour and while the former would be able to escape if worst came to worst she was effectively tied down to the disabled Nebula-class cruiser. If she moved out of the way by too much she’d give the enemy a clear shot at the wounded cruiser and that would be nothing less than slaughter on the enemy's part.

    They could try to evacuate the Endeavour and leave the ship behind but that would be a very risky move in this situation since they’d have to power down their armor and couldn’t raise shields for the duration. It would also take quite a while to get the entire crew of a Nebula out even if they used every transporter they had. That also didn’t account for people who were trapped in areas the transporters couldn’t lock on in due to interference, damage, plasma leaks and whatnot.

    Still, he had to prioritize and even though it was hard to leave good friends to fend for their own it didn’t change the math.

    “Stay in position, we have no choice but to ignore them”, West stated with an ice cold voice. “They’re trying to use them in order to draw us away from the planet and open the way forward for the rest of their ships. We can’t leave our position or they’ll have free reign to enter orbit and resume their bombardment.”

    “But sir!” tactical called out in an upset voice. “The Endeavour is in no shape to fight, and the Discovery will be outmatched against ten enemy ships!”

    “I know that!” West spat. “But the math is simple enough. There are just over a thousand people on those ships and millions below.”

    “But…”

    “Part of command is learning to make the necessary sacrifices when you're faced with a difficult choice”, West remembered the words of one of his old teachers. “The needs of the many...”

    “…outweigh the needs of the few”, Victoria continued and nodded. “Do not worry, Admiral, Vancouver will understand that and so will Cook.”

    “Thank you, Victoria.” West looked back to the tactical display, not wanting to share the look of great sadness that started to emerge on his face with the rest of the bridge crew. “Get ready, people. Another wave of those damned fighters is entering range.”

    “I am already on it, Admiral”, Victoria stated in her cool voice. “The point defense phasers have locked on and are firing.”

    Outside a small cloud of what the two battlecruisers' crews had already started calling Harpoon fighters, from their spear-like shape and form as well as their almost ballistic high-speed approach, was heading towards the bright silver shape of the Albion. As they rapidly closed and entered the Albion's weapons range the turreted point defense phaser emitters slowly emerged from the armored hull and started to pick off the smaller fighters one by one as they came.

    The first wave was literally obliterated within seconds but the turrets couldn’t fire fast enough to halt the enemy’s massed advance completely. The second wave made it another few thousand kilometers closer than the first, the third even further. Then it was too late. A number of bright flashes suddenly dotted the hull of the Albion as a number of small devices that had been launched from the surviving Harpoons impacted the already damaged armor.

    “My armor is failing!” Victoria cringed in pain, she felt like if someone had stabbed her repeatedly in the back with a dull knife. “The dorsal main and secondary hull generators are offline and the armor is disengaging! Port and starboard main hull armor is down to ten percent! I am reading direct damage sustained to the dorsal hull!”

    “Holy crap, what the hell was that?!” Captain West had been thrown out of his chair by the impact and was working his way back up.

    “I cannot identify the energy signature, Captain”, Victoria replied more calmly as she was starting to recover from the pain. “It was some form of unguided warheads, each with a detonation more powerful than a type seven photon torpedo.”

    “A bomb?” the admiral asked in disbelief, his voice winded as he too picked himself up from the floor. “They hit us with a bomb?”

    “Yes, Admiral, that is a correct supposition”, Victoria confirmed and again concentrated on targeting the now retreating wave of fighters. “Not just one, I registered nine separate impacts across the front dorsal.”

    “Good lord, what else do they have in their bag of tricks?”

    “Unknown, Admiral”, Victoria stated flatly. “I believe we will find out. I can no longer depend on my external armor as there are cracks forming in the side sections as well. I have no choice but to raise the dorsal defensive shields. The lower shield generators are on hot standby.”

    The bridge shook again as the ship was now pummeled directly by the long ranged fire of the enemy dreadnoughts, the advanced shields holding for the moment but they were quickly weakening under the assault as the shield bubble offered a slightly larger target for the enemy weapons than the armor did.

    “Admiral, if this continues, I will begin to lose structural integrity in less than two minutes.” Victoria stated. “I must advise that we move.”

    “Negative, Victoria. We have to keep up the blockade. Keep firing.”

    “Understood, sir”, Victoria sighed. “In that case I strongly recommend we invert the ship and present a less damaged angle of the ship toward the enemy.”

    “That's an acceptable compromise”, West replied with a nod. “Just do it quick or else they may take advantage.”

    Quickly making the necessary thrust adjustments she initiated a two-axis turn that would bring the weakened but at least still operational ventral armor between her and the incoming fire. Her mind soon free of that task she resumed doing the only thing she could do in her situation, targeting the enemy ships that were now keeping their distance and maneuvering to evade her fire, firing torpedoes as well as the ventral main phaser arrays which were the only weapons she had that could effectively reach that far.

    It didn’t make too much of a difference but it forced the enemy both to keep that distance and stay moving and thus both dispersing the incoming fire ever so slightly. Not that any of that would matter if the situation didn’t change soon, all she could do was buy time.

    Since she couldn't move and the enemy could it wasn't a huge leap to say they were a sitting duck for the incoming fire. Sooner or later they'd wear down what little still remained of her defenses and the casualty rates would start to climb very quickly.


    USS DISCOVERY
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS BATTLECRUISER



    “The hostile ships have now entered firing range, sir”, Vancouver informed his captain. “I am counting two enemy dreadnoughts, two cruisers and six destroyers.”

    “Maldita sea!” Rodriguez cursed in his native tongue. “Abrir fuego!”

    “Yes, sir”, tactical responded, having served with the captain long enough to know what the command meant. “Phaser arrays tracking and firing.”

    The Sovereign-class battlecruiser's silver armor was lit up and bathed in a golden glow as the foot-thick phaser beams shot out from the strips lining the circumference of its back. They didn’t actually cause much real damage to the otherwise undamaged enemy cruiser-sized squid ships, but they did cause the enemy ships to slow down. At least a little.

    “Timón!” Rodriguez kept barking orders in his native tongue, the universal translators or just plain old experience making the crew understand him anyway. “Face the starboard side and put us in a slow roll around our length axis! Try to keep up with the firing angles!”

    “Yes, Captain!” the two officers responded in stereo.

    The massive bulk of the starship swiveled slightly and then started to spin slowly on its axis, a maneuver designed and used mainly to allow the armor to absorb the enemy fire more evenly around the ship and reduce the damage taken to any single section.

    It also had the positive side effect of allowing the ship to alternate between the dorsal, port, ventral and starboard batteries, letting other batteries take over when one needed to recharge, and thus keep up an almost continuous stream of fire at the incoming hostiles.

    Unfortunately it was also just about all the crew could do as their ship was effectively locked in place between the enemy ships and the already heavily damaged Starfleet cruiser only a few thousand kilometers behind them.

    The larger ships of the hostile detachment seemed mostly unfazed by the massive amount of firepower thrown at them, at least until one of the dreadnoughts got caught dead on with several dozen direct hits to its tentacle-shaped main weapons array.

    For several seconds, little happened as the weapon just started shimmering from the exotic nadion particles reacting with whatever energy form the ship used to power the weapon batteries. Then the enormous ship started to rapidly crumble from within ending in a massive explosion that shot large chunks of the hull straight out into space and into the sides of several of its comrades, causing one of the cruisers to veer off course for a second as its rear end was pushed out of position by a large piece of fleshy debris.

    “Enemy dreadnought destroyed”, Vancouver reported. “I am shifting phaser array target tracking to the second.”

    “Bueno”, Rodriguez just stared at the tactical display. “Continuar, por favor.”

    Vancouver looked at his captain for a moment as he subconsciously shifted targets and continued firing, the tactical officer focusing on the torpedo launchers while he handled the more difficultly aimed particle beams and the incredibly sensitive timing of the ship's pulse cannons.

    Rodriguez wasn’t normally what the AI had experienced to be a man of this few words but he’d probably come to the same conclusion as Vancouver himself had. They were fighting a losing battle against overwhelming odds and even the AI could see the statistically probable consequences that were looming on the horizon.

    Outside, two of the smaller flower ships were hit by a number of the bright yellow pulses from his heavy auxiliary weapons. One barely seemed to become damaged at all while the other was almost sheared in two by the continuous impacts from more than half of the Discovery's port cannon, its remains continuing along its original course due to their inertia but dropping off debris along its path. Still the other ships came ever closer. Still they kept coming.


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER



    “Captain!” Cook called over the intercom. “I have managed to reactivate some of the auxiliary reactors. Engines are still offline but you will have at least a few shots from the forward phaser arrays. The bow torpedo launchers will be operational in a second. Do not expect to be able to reload them however as I doubt those systems will work.”

    “Cook, you’re godsend!” Halsey exhaled. “Marcel!”

    “Already on it, sir!” the Frenchman made a short prayer before pressing the large red button on his console.


    USS DISCOVERY
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS BATTLECRUISER



    The appearance of several golden beams coming across his bow surprised Vancouver. He instantly knew where they had come from of course but he was still surprised and that was an emotion he now found he really didn’t like very much. Still, every single phaser beam he could get was a good thing.

    The final result was still just as clear but he had no intention of being brought down without tearing every single piece of flesh out of those damned organic ships that he could first. Apparently his brother was of very much the same opinion.

    Another one of the enemy ships started to veer off course and list to port, losing several of its drive systems to a wide barrage of quantum torpedoes that had looped around the body of the Discovery and impacted the organic cruiser's sides. ‘Thank you, Cook’ he sent over the still unstable comm link as he armed a full spread of his own to put the final few nails in the coffin for the enemy ship.

    His torpedo attack, glowing just as coolly blue as his avatar's eyes were now, departed the port launchers as soon as they came into their best firing arc and struck the damaged cruiser’s now exposed and vulnerable dorsal surface.

    They struck hard and struck deep as they impacted at a high fraction of the speed of light. They punched through the armored skin and into the hull before they imploded, causing a brief string of bright white flashes in the cruiser’s hull that looked like a pearl necklace to his artificial eyes.

    After no more than a fraction of a second, seemingly an entire eternity from the AI's point of view, that entire side of the ship tore itself free from the rest spreading smoldering debris across hundreds of square kilometers of space.

    Still it was not enough to stop them. The distance was now less than twenty five thousand kilometers, not even spitting distance by the AI’s measurement. Enemy fire bit into his side as another volley of the starboard main weapons took out the last two flower ships. Purple beams blackened his dorsal as another volley of torpedoes smashed into the front of the last dreadnought, tearing out systems and hull and completely severing its tentacle-shaped weapons array from the main body. Still it came.

    They'd done well so far and though the armor was a shambles he was still in fighting condition. All enemies except for this single and heavily damaged dreadnought littered the space in front of them, polluting the area with smoldering debris that still glowed from remaining nadion and zero-point effects, but no matter how much fire he poured into the rapidly closing dreadnought he was trapped by the merciless laws of physics themselves.

    The dreadnought was entirely disabled, most of his fire was now exiting its stern, but even so it posed an extreme danger as its inertia alone quickly carried it directly towards the Discovery's position.

    “Captain! Collision alert!” the AI yelled out. “We must move! Now!”

    “No!” Rodriguez yelled back with a sharp tone. “If we do, it’ll impact the Endeavour!”

    “Sir!” Vancouver tried again. “We must move, or…”

    “No, Commander!” the captain barked even sharper. “Yes, if we stay there is a risk we may die. If we move, more than eight hundred people on the Endeavour will most certainly die and we’ll likely be caught in the explosion anyway!”

    “I understand, Captain”, Vancouver let his arms fall to his side, expecting the worst. The captain wasn’t wrong; the chances of them escaping an antimatter explosion on impulse alone were slim to none. The Discovery could eject its antimatter, the Endeavour could not; her damaged armor blocked the ejection tubes.

    “Inertial dampeners set to full. The warp core is now offline and secure. The plasma grid has been vented into space. Antimatter pods confirmed ejected and clear of the impact zone. Emergency battery power is engaged, secondary fusion reactors successfully disabled. All force fields have been activated and all blast doors are closed and secure. The Discovery is now locked down”, he turned to the captain. “It has been an honor, though a short one.”

    “You too, Vancouver”, the Spaniard sighed. “It’s been a pleasure, Vancouver.”


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER



    Halsey watched in sheer terror as he slowly realized what was about to happen to the ship next to them. He didn’t know what was worse, actually watching it happen or knowing that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

    He could tell that Rodriguez had already made his choice as the Sovereign-class battlecruiser was all of a sudden enveloped by a rapidly dissipating purplish cloud, the ship quickly discarding its plasma to prevent it filling the inside of the ship once the inevitable damage was done.

    As the two ships touched each other it looked like nothing at all happened at first; the Sovereign and squid ship almost looked like they were gently caressing each other before the smaller ship started to follow the motion and direction of the larger vessel.

    The silvery-colored Starfleet warship seemed to catch hold of something inside the wounded bow of the larger ship that dragged it along for a moment before she broke free and started to tumble across the spine of the larger ship. Perhaps its roll prior to impact was its saving grace, preventing it from being completely torn apart by the sheer force of the impact.

    Still, Halsey grimaced as he saw the spin intensify as its sides crashed into the larger vessels hull not once or twice, but he counted a breathtaking five times before it finally came clear of the enemy dreadnought.

    He almost froze in despair as he noticed that the valiant sacrifice of the Discovery and her crew hadn’t been enough. The enemy ship though crippled and its hull smoldering from the extensive damage was still drifting and its course would still bring it straight into the Endeavour. Even though some of its speed had been spent impacting the now pushed aside Sovereign it would undoubtedly still be enough to completely destroy their own ship.

    He closed his eyes as he resigned himself with his immediate fate; it felt like just a moment ago he’d been steeling himself for the same reason but had managed to cheat death for a few more minutes. Or, he thought, not the same reason.

    He’d been expecting to go out in a blaze of glory, his last breath being a call to fire on the enemy that would eventually take his life. Now that was no longer possible, firing on the already dead enemy derelict would not stop it; no more than a last defiant rifle bullet would stop a freight train.

    “Captain”, Cook’s voice called out over the intercom.

    “Cook”, Halsey sighed. “It’s been a wild ride. I must tell you, I view you as a dear friend. It’s been an honor.”

    “Captain!” Cook just sounded irritated. “Listen to me.”

    Halsey couldn’t listen. He wasn’t in any kind of mental state that would allow rational thought right at that moment. He probably wouldn’t even have noticed if someone shot him.

    “Ah to hell with this!” Cook’s voice rang out. “AI command override, emergency power transfer from all systems to thrusters.”

    “Cook…” Halsey’s voice was little more than a whisper as the derelict came ever closer.

    “Emergency thrust, venting all drive plasma from ventral thruster ports!” Cook’s cold, authoritative voice barked. “Z-axis positive however long it lasts!”

    What brought Halsey back to the painful realm of reality weren’t the barked orders but rather the sudden experience of his body being sucked to the floor face first. The entire length of the cruiser groaned in pain as the ventral thruster ports ejected all of the brightly glowing purple drive plasma the ship held in its bowels, all in a last ditch attempt to bring them out of harm’s way and with no inertial dampeners to speak of softening the accelerating force.

    Cook looked around, what he'd done was just barely enough but it had at least saved the ship. He steeled himself for the inevitable, his much faster thought process making the few seconds until the impact seem like a small eternity.

    The derelict came closer and closer, closing the distance to the much smaller and completely defenseless cruiser even further every second. Not many understand the relationship between an AI and his or her ship, but as one of them Cook knew what to expect even if he was still surprised at just how badly it hurt.

    He felt a sharp pain as the derelict hit him straight on the already severely damaged port nacelle and his entire core matrix screamed in agony as the impact twisted and turned the tube and the support pylon leaving it barely connected to, and in a sharp angle away from, the rest of his hull. He tried to ignore the pain, to see if there was anything else that was damaged, but as the seconds passed by he knew that he had succeeded.

    A few more people had been killed in the last death throes of the drifting enemy hulk, that much had been unavoidable, but most had survived thanks to his last ditch effort. With a final sigh of relief his damaged matrix finally gave out and his consciousness retreated into blissful oblivion.


    USS BELLEROPHON
    FEDERATION INTREPID-CLASS DESTROYER
    EN-ROUTE TO DRACONIS



    Admiral Keyes' gaze was stuck on the long-range sensor display, watching the fragmented and heavily disrupted sensor returns of the battle being played out. She was deeply saddened as she'd seen both the Discovery's and the Endeavour's transponders go dark for too long to be interference.

    Had she been a weaker woman she’d be cursing and blaming herself for what might very well be the death of more than sixteen hundred crewmen. Even the loss of two of their most powerful ships was a secondary consequence in comparison to that loss of life. She wasn’t weak however and she knew there was nothing more she could have done.

    Still, she was confident that her pushing her small fleet had been worth it. The Albion and Independence were still engaged in combat and even though they were both starting to take considerable damage she was certain she could get there in time.

    "What's our current speed, helm?" Captain Clark asked her helm officer.

    "Just over warp two point two, ma'am", he answered, biting his lip and almost gritting his teeth as he had to constantly realign the warp field to the ever increasing interference. "Now at one point eight and slowing, we don't have much further to go and subspace is getting to be real nasty now."

    “Captain, Admiral”, Bellerophon suddenly spoke up. “I am now close enough that my sensors can make out some still existent energy readings from the last known location of the Endeavour and the Discovery. Though the readings are still heavily distorted due to the sensor interference, they indicate that there is a chance that while they are both certainly heavily damaged, they are still in one piece.”

    “God, I hope you’re right!” Keyes whispered. “Get the Victory on the comm!”

    “Of course, Admiral”, The AI answered. "I dearly hope so too."

    It took a few seconds for the system to synchronize on a stable frequency but then the tired face of Captain Kira appeared on the screen. She, as well as her bridge crew, looked just as exhausted from the long and mercilessly fast dash as Keyes felt.

    “Captain”, Keyes greeted her.

    “Admiral”, Kira replied with a nod.

    “Nerys, I’m glad you and your ship are still with us”, Keyes sighed. “I want you to change your course to starboard two point four degrees, and to bring the Valiant and Renown with you.”

    “Acknowledged, Admiral”, Kira replied. “May I ask why? That course would take us a considerable distance away from the planet.”

    “You may”, Keyes said in a sad voice. “I need you to go to the coordinates of the Endeavour and Discovery and assess the situation.”

    “Ma’am, with all due respect”, Kira replied. “They’re dark, chances are they’re lost. You’d be sending away a good portion of your firepower on what may very well turn out to be nothing more than a lost cause.”

    “I know”, Keyes sighed. “Still, you have your orders. If they do turn out to be dark you can join us as soon as possible. If not, you know what to do.”

    “Yes, ma’am”, she made a short nod, obviously not completely content with her orders but still more than professional enough to carry them out nonetheless. “We will change course presently, Victory out.”

    Keyes looked to Bellerophon. “Get the rest of the AI on the link. We’ll have to spread our forces a bit thin to be able to cover both the Independence and the Albion.”

    “Yes, Admiral”, Bellerophon looked absent for a second. “The fleet is online.”

    “Good”, Keyes said and made a grim face as she spoke up. “This is Keyes. We’ll have to form a battle line to cover our two wounded comrades. I want the Michael to take position front and center and launch her strike wings as soon as we deploy while the Gallant and the Bellerophon will form the flanks. We’ll take the Albion’s side and you take the Independence’s. Winston and Temperance will form up close to the Sovereigns and provide cover fire.”

    “The other ships are acknowledging the battle plan, Admiral”, Bellerophon stated. “We are all ready to engage.”

    “Good”, Keyes stated and bit her lip. “All ships, battle stations. Charge weapons and deploy armor. We’re going to go in guns blazing.”

    Had anyone actually been able to see the force as they sped through deep space at several times the speed of light they’d no doubt be awed at their sudden transformation. As one, the ships started to glow with the silvery blue shine that indicated the external ablative armor being deployed.

    As a very recent addition to the standard silvery surface of the armor many of the AI had given the overall design of its surface some thought as well. It had started out as an innocent way of adorning themselves but had ended up like some kind of internal competition between them about who could create the most impressive appearance.

    Her own Bellerophon was no different. The dorsal armor surface now carried a highly detailed and lifelike image of the legendary Bellerophon sitting on the white winged horse Pegasus while holding a lightning-wrapped spear above his head.

    Looking at a display of their port view she could see the Winston close by, the Norway-class destroyer assuming the battle regalia and colors of an old Avro Lancaster, a British World War II bomber, including the concentric circle markings and the green and brown camouflage of the mid-twentieth century Royal Air Force.

    Starfleet Command back home at Earth would probably have had a number of disapproving comments about these cosmetic additions but they had been proven a very real positive effect on morale and crew performance. Even a strict officer such as Keyes wasn’t about to complain about anything that worked so well even in a dire situation like this.


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER



    “Admiral!” Victoria suddenly called out. “I am reading several incoming contacts exiting from warp less than two light seconds away!”

    “Warp? Then…” West exhaled sharply. “They’re ours?”

    “Scanning”, Victoria got absent for a second. “I’m in contact with my family, they are indeed Starfleet. The Bellerophon is flagged as command ship.”

    “Bellerophon is the command…? Keyes, it has to be her!” West sat down again and let out a relieved sigh. “Good God that woman sure knows how and when to make a memorable entrance.”

    He watched with a feeling of great exhilaration and equal relief as the familiar shape of an Intrepid-class destroyer passed through the fire zone while rapidly firing her phasers at the enemy forces. It started to make a sharp banked turn to put itself on the starboard side of the damaged battlecruiser.

    A Norway-class destroyer put itself just in front of and a little bit above the Albion and the enemy force as well, in position to offer more protection for the damaged ship while still trying to stay out of the much better armed Sovereign's firing solution.

    This even by their own standards small vessel soon made its presence known as a small cloud of inbound missiles, fired from the enemy cruisers and aimed straight at the battered and bruised battlecruiser, were summarily and effectively stopped dead in their tracks by the destroyer's rapid-fire point defense phasers and photon depth charges.

    The relieved look on Hancock’s face, which had just gotten more and more strained ever since the battle had started, was confirmation enough for the admiral that the same thing was also happening at the Independence's side of the field. It all came to show that in the end timing was everything.

    He was brought back by Victoria’s voice, speaking with a measure of respect that he hadn’t heard often before.

    “He is arriving”, she said and got a look of immense wonder. “My brother, he is coming.”

    “Who?” asked the younger brother West and glanced at the beautiful avatar, who in turn just motioned to the screen.

    He might not have understood her comment at first but he got his answer only moments later as the massive shape entered view. With a saucer that from the front looked like it was shaped much like that of his own ship and only parts of the four nacelles showing at this forward angle, it was hard to give an accurate size estimate and the likeness to the Sovereign was truly deceptive.

    In truth, the Archangel-class fleet carrier was one of the largest ships Starfleet had ever constructed, being just slightly longer and slightly wider than the Sovereign but with its saucer section stretched out to almost the entire length of the Sovereign's engineering hull.

    It was also several decks thicker in order to accommodate not only its four stacked launch bays and massive ordnance storage bays but everything else it needed to man, repair, rearm and service its large number of starfighters.

    She weighed in at more than twice the mass of even the heavier than design standard Albion and absolutely none of it was dead weight, which was the reason she also had two extra nacelles slung under and just a few dozen meters away from the extended saucer.

    What caught his eye though wasn’t the familiar shape; it was its severely changed appearance. Instead of the shining silver of his own ship, the carrier’s armor was now a dull black that made it hard to distinguish the contours without the help of the short range sensor’s outlines on the screen. And then there was something else, something that caught the captain completely off guard.

    The dorsal surface had an image that stretched from the beginning of the bow and ended with an eerie blue light effect from the glowing nacelles at the very end of the saucer, an image worthy of Michelangelo himself. The captain couldn’t believe his eyes.

    “He is just absolutely beautiful!” Victoria mused. “My dear brother, that is just so beautiful.”

    “Impressive, indeed”, Hancock stated and gave an approving nod.


    USS VICTORY
    FEDERATION DEFIANT-CLASS GUNSHIP



    Captain Kira brought her small detachment of the fleet's three Defiant-class gunships to a halt between the still drifting hulks that had once been the proud starships Discovery and Endeavour.

    The former barely looked damaged from a distance but a closer sensor inspection revealed severe damage to both of her nacelles as well as the port and starboard hull with the armor completely ripped through on several decks. In several places the inner structure was open to space and even the bare eye could see that the emergency force fields weren’t operational at all of the breaches.

    The Bajoran captain gritted her teeth in mourning as her view of the ship was suddenly blocked by the bloated and disfigured image of a uniformed crewman that floated by, apparently one of the unlucky people that had been in one of these compartments.

    The latter ship was definitely heavily damaged, one of the nacelles stood almost straight out from the main body and there were deep gashes in the hull along the entire circumference of the saucer section.

    Even so sensors told them the damage was mostly contained to the external areas of the ship and that most internal systems were mostly undamaged, if still offline. Both ships were quite clearly in bad shape, but both were salvageable and more importantly, both had numerous survivors.

    Kira was actually surprised at just how many, especially considering the damage they'd taken, but she kept asking for updates as she didn't want to believe just how many had actually died.

    “Victory to Renown and Valiant”, she called. “Take positions and try to bring them to a stop. Be very careful with your tractor drag, we don't want to damage them even further if we can help it.”

    “Affirmative”, the two other captains acknowledged. "We'll take care of them, Kira."

    "Have we gotten a better count of the life signs?” she said and looked toward her operations officer for an answer.

    “Yes, ma’am”, he replied with a slight but still sad smile. “The computer has at least nine hundred, maybe as many as a thousand total, but many of them are weak and some are definitely in critical condition. We can't get a clear reading due to interference from the damaged power systems aboard the ships and I estimate a number of these people won't make it until we can get to them.”

    “Can you give me a damage report?” she asked.

    “Well, I can at least sum up what the sensors are telling me”, he replied and raised an eyebrow. “The Endeavour has mostly suffered what I’d call regular battle damage. Most of the damage to her saucer section is consistent with energy weapons fire and so are the breaches along the pod pylon. The nacelle however seems to have first been shot out and later rammed, quite possibly by the enemy hulk we’re detecting drifting away from here. There is also evidence that the ventral surface of the secondary hull hit something, again probably the same hull. I'd say it was a glancing hit, unlike the Discovery.”

    “I see”, she replied with a nod. “Since we're talking about her, how about the Discovery?”

    “Ironically, she only suffered light battle damage, only superficial scoring of the hull and a few damaged secondary systems. Her armor is in a much worse condition, but then that doesn’t really matter. She has a lot of ramming damage though, ma’am.”

    “Ramming damage…” she sighed. “Has the computer finalized its count of the survivors?”

    “Yes, captain”, ops gave a sad look. "I read four hundred and sixty one life signs on the Endeavour, and some five hundred, give or take a few due to before mentioned reasons, on the Discovery.”

    “Great prophets…” she gave the operations officer a wide-eyed stare. “You’re sure about that?!”

    “As I said before the sensors can’t penetrate certain compartments due to shielding and radiation, but even so I seriously doubt most people could survive long in those areas if there are any in there. The radiation levels in there are, well, definitely fatal”, ops responded with a sad voice. “There could be maybe a dozen more total in the shielded areas which aren't flooded, but absolutely no more than that.”

    “Prophets, have mercy on their souls.” Kira lowered her head in a short act of mourning and prayer. “Not even a thousand from a crew of over sixteen hundred.”

    “Yes, ma’am”, ops nodded and also said a short prayer. “May God have mercy indeed.”

    “Can we get a link to either ship?”

    “Negative. Their communications systems are completely fried and since neither of our ships is capable of mounting an AI…” ops just shook his head. “There’s no way for us to make contact with the survivors except for sending over away teams.”

    “Then order the other ships to prepare away teams, one for each ship, and to take every medic and engineer they can spare with them.” She pondered for a second. “On second thought, send as many as we can spare as well but keep a transporter lock on them if we need to move out quickly.”

    “Yes ma’am. Renown and Valiant report orders confirmed.”

    “Good.” She sat down again. “Let’s try to make sure nobody else has to die here today.”


    USS MICHAEL
    FEDERATION ARCHANGEL-CLASS FLEET CARRIER



    Where once there’d been chaos as people milled around scrambling and arming the fighters there was now complete order. The flight deck was completely cleared of all non-essential personnel and all that remained were the fighter pilots, all of them strapped in to their single- or double seated spacecraft, and a few of the AI-controlled drone launch controllers.

    The hangar bay doors were already opening, and throughout the ship's massive hangars the choral voice of the AI was echoing its warning. The sound barely even made it through the armored hulls of the fighters.

    “Angel Wing!” Sanders called out. “Roll call, by the numbers!”

    “Snake here in Angel Two, on your four-o'-clock Seraph. I’m running hot and roaring to go!”

    “Fox is live in Angel Three, Seraph, on your eight with some hungry scrappers and scrammers!”

    “Gonzo here, staring right into that fat ass of yours. Angel Four is good to go!”

    “Buzz, the ripper lives on in Angel Five!”

    “Rook, Angel Six, ready and waiting!” Davis stated; his distaste for his new call sign was evident in his voice.

    “Good! Mission is as follows”, Sanders stated and smiled grimly. “Get out, get locks, and send those yellow skinned demons straight back to whatever hell they crawled out from!”

    “Angels of justice!” the squad confirmed in choir.

    “Angels!” Sanders continued with the tone of a preacher. “We’re gathered here today to witness how the folly of others will lead to their own demise. To, with sorrow in our hearts and bravery of our arms, avenge those who have already made their ultimate sacrifice, and to join their spirits in protecting those they died for, those that cannot defend themselves.”

    “Amen”, the squad replied, just a little too solemnly.

    “Now, Angels!” Sanders said through clenched teeth as the doors finished moving. “Let’s teach these morons what happens when you mess with the right hand of God himself!”

    “Angels!” the squad called out and as one they blasted themselves out of the hangar bay on full impulse power, the signal now given to begin the combat launch.

    Just outside the doors they could see a cloud of small yellow and black fighters streaming towards the strike carrier, apparently deciding it was a more threatening target than the damaged Sovereigns on the flanks.

    Commander Sanders, call sign Seraph, led her wing through a complex series of turns that took them straight into the heart of the enemy fighter advance. She didn't have to turn and look to see where her wingmen were, she knew they were all good enough to keep up and keep in formation. If the rookie didn't, well, there were always more rookies lined up and ready to fill his shoes.

    Seconds later they were involved in the fighting, the carrier being only a few thousand kilometers away from the incoming enemy fighters meant all fighters she launched were pretty much entering the combat zone as soon as they exited the hangars' exit cones.

    More and more of the black and silver painted Federation starfighters came out to meet the yellow and black appearances of their opponents, supported by the rapid-fire point defense systems of the Archangel at their back they immediately started tearing into the enemy fighter formations.

    Dozens of the enemy fighters were destroyed, impaled by phaser beams or ripped apart by micro-torpedoes, in an assault that didn’t even bear the slightest resemblance to the line of battle that had been used until now.

    She quickly led the wing towards an approaching formation, their opposition apparently ignoring their presence as they made their way towards the open hangar doors which were still spewing out even more Peregrines and Valkyries.

    "To all wing commanders, be informed", the shrill voice of the ship's Bolian captain broke through the scattered calls on the tactical band. "The AI reports that the enemy fighters may carry some sort of powerful unguided bombs. None of these can be allowed to reach the open hangar bays. They are powerful enough to crack ablative armor, so there's no telling what would happen if one got inside."

    "Great, now he tells us", Snake sneered on the wing's own frequency. "Now we know why these guys keep ignoring us, they're just delivery boys!"

    "Doesn't matter, Snake", the slightly strained voice of Fox came in response just as her fighter jumped a little from firing a number of homing missiles at their prey. "It's not like we weren't going to swat them down anyway!"

    "Angels, split into formations and fire at will", Sanders called out as she pressed down both thumbs and sent two lines of the small antimatter-tipped missiles at the evading bombers. "Stop them dead."

    "Roger, Seraph!" Snake called out in response before breaking into an uncontrolled chuckle. "My turn!"

    The quick barrage of anti-fighter missiles should have been enough, the antimatter-tipped guided missiles usually made the process short of anything but shielded targets, but to the Angels' dismay not even half the hostile fighters actually went down but instead they just cringed from the impacts and kept going.

    "Oh crap, well, it's not like we weren't seeing that coming a mile away", Snake called out unnecessarily.

    "Guess it's time for a knife-fight then", Gonzo added with a sneer. "I doubt they'll hold up to a scrammer tearing up their ass."

    "Go get them, Angels", Sanders chuckled. "Let's see if they can stand up to our phaser cannons too. Save the scrammers for the big guns for now."

    "Roger that, Seraph", the rest of the wing replied in unison.

    “Killjoy”, Gonzo added.

    The six fighters quickly engaged their opposition, taking them down one by one using their very own version of fire-and-follow, hiding behind their own particle weapons fire rather than evading like most other perhaps more sane pilots usually did.

    This, while it was often looked at as being fairly high on the insanity score meter, also gave them unerring accuracy as their second and third volleys would be very well aimed. In all honesty it wasn’t a bad position to be in both considering that most pilots tended to veer away from incoming fire and that most fighters lacked weapons facing anywhere but forward.

    "Yee-haw!" Davis called out as he got a front row seat to not just one but two of the enemy Harpoons going down by his entry salvoes. "That’s four down now, watch out you ugly sons of bitches, I'm coming for you!"

    "Great job, Rook", Buzz giggled over the intercom. "Better try to catch up though, I'm at five!"

    "Can it, pilots", Sanders smiled as she expertly put them down. "Unless you're in the two-digit numbers you're still way behind."

    "Aw man!" Snake complained as yet another one of the enemy starfighters went down, this one right in front of him and one he'd been tracking for a few seconds. "Killsteal, Seraph!"

    "Well, early bird gets the worm, Snake", she laughed back as she performed an impossible roll and got another one that was wildly evading fire from Fox. "Just keep lining them up!"

    "Spoilsport", Davis replied with a smile even she could hear. "Watch that nice ass of yours, boss, I just got two of them off your six."

    "Where at?"

    "Right here, ma'am", he suddenly appeared right next to her fighter, even sacrificing a second to throw her a mock salute that was clearly visible in the extremely short distance. "And two-digit it is."

    "Damn, where'd you get this guy Seraph?!" Fox whistled over the radio.

    "Would you believe me if I told you she literally pulled him straight out of the turbolift as we came down?" Snake asked rhetorically, and after a second or two of silence he added. "Didn't think so, it’s a true story though."

    As the last of the enemy fighters went down they noticed they'd only just completed their mission in time as the wreckage from the alien smallcraft started to impact the armored hull of the carrier.

    “Angels, on my mark!” Sanders called as they looped around and got dangerously close to the exit path from the carrier which was still pouring out fighters. “Break, break, break!”

    Her wing of six fighters split into pairs and made sharp ninety-degree turns to get clear of each other and the hangar doors. As soon as they were free of the carrier’s exit cone she turned her view to her scanners and started looking for targets.

    “Rook, you still with me?” she called on her intercom.

    “Sure am, Seraph”, he replied. "Just saw my old squad down there."

    “Feels great to already have an ace before they even join us, doesn't it?" she chuckled. "The cone seems a little clogged though; let’s go play plumbers, shall we?”

    “Roger that, Seraph”, Davis laughed. “I think I have just the right sized plungers for the job.”

    The two pilots shared an adrenaline filled laugh as their small starfighters screamed through space heading for the closest enemy ships, the other two pairs quickly joining them after dispatching a few fighters that had gotten far too attached to their wing commander and her new protégé's behinds for their tastes.


    USS ALBION
    ABOVE DRACONIS



    “Elisha!” West said with a lot more emotion than he had intended. “What the hell took you so long?”

    “Good to see you too, Admiral”, Admiral Keyes responded with a relief-filled smile. “I was afraid I wouldn’t make it in time.”

    “You did, that’s all that matters”, West sounded just as relieved. “After all, we’re still here and mostly in one piece.”

    “Agreed”, she nodded. "I've got the Defiants over by the Discovery and the Endeavour.”

    "Any news?" he asked, honestly concerned.

    "They're too far out to know", she replied and shook her head. "There’s too much interference to get a signal through."

    He nodded silently and switched his gaze back to the dazzling outside view. Not many people had ever seen an Archangel enter combat before and even though he had been consciously aware of their power, after all he’d helped design the ships, he'd even held them back when fighting back home.

    The still quite rare ships were built on the same technological base as the Sovereign, Steamrunner and Akira but unlike the Akiras and Steamrunners, which had been designed primarily as cruisers and only secondarily to carry strike fighters, these ships were dedicated fleet carriers and sized accordingly.

    What tactical misconceptions that designation could lead to were obvious.

    Even though it was large, slow, lacking in armor and not very maneuverable, the Archangel had more phaser strips than a Sovereign, more torpedo launchers than an Akira and more point defense cannons than the Norway destroyer escorts.

    Its sheer size coupled with turreted pulse phaser cannons that lined the command structure’s dorsal surface left no doubt whatsoever about who was the biggest guy on the block.

    The reason he'd held them back against the Romulans was because their lacking maneuverability was a massive weakness back home but here, against these foes, that weakness was negligible.

    It had immediately made its presence on the battlefield known in the most fearsome way possible and the swarm of enemy fighters that had intercepted it was rapidly becoming a field of smoldering debris.

    “It’s quite impressive to finally see it in the kind of action that suits the class.” West had to admit. “Though I admit I still have my objections to that artwork on his back.”

    “Oh, that.” Keyes paused. “The AI brought up the idea just a few days ago and I had my own objections to the idea as well. Then they started quoting me regulations and precedents from the Starfleet code. About body art, I might add.”

    “Body art?” West couldn't help but start chuckling. “How on earth did they make that connection?”

    “Well, they do consider the starship itself their own bodies”, Keyes answered and made a slight smile. “Since it’s basically true, and there’s no precedent to say otherwise...”

    “You made one, I understand”, West smiled as he glanced at Victoria, who while she seemed to remain captivated in the detail of her brother's armor still kept firing on the enemy ships which were now beginning to halt their advance. “I’m just starting to get worried about what this little lady will come up with to top off the Michael.”

    “Ha”, Keyes laughed. “She’s the same as her mother. Athena still can’t decide on something that'd be grandiose enough.”

    “Hey now”, Victoria murmured. “Leave my mother out of this.”

    West and Keyes laughed a little and even Victoria had to give a faint smile. Suddenly, they were interrupted as she exclaimed.

    “The enemy forces have shifted course”, she stated and paled a little. “They are all bearing down on my brother!”

    “Adjust the formation to compensate”, West and Keyes said in unison.

    “Aye, Admiral West, Admiral Keyes.” Victoria looked at them in turn. “Though please note, with me in range and operational the Bellerophon is no longer considered fleet flagship. The correct chain of command is through the highest ranking officer present on said flagship.”

    “Was that ego or envy, Victoria?” Captain West laughed a little. “That’s not very artificial of you.”

    “No, Captain”, Victoria stated seriously. “But a woman does have to protect her rights, does she not?”

    “Ha”, Henry smiled. “I’m so not going to go down that line of discussion with you Vicky, not now, not ever.”

    “Good choice”, Victoria nodded and turned back toward the tactical display, whose image was proof enough that she was still spending a lot of processing power on fighting the actual battle as her phasers kept firing as soon as they reached optimal power levels. “Our enemies are entering the Michael’s weapons range”, she suddenly made a grim smile. “I am picking up a wide-band broadcast from the Michael. I believe he is about to welcome them into his realm.”

    The image of Admiral Keyes was replaced with a dark screen, devoid of anything other than the shadowed image of a man’s head and shoulders. The man was clad in a white robe and the robe’s hood hid most of his face from view, only allowing a slight fiery glow to escape the shadows it created.

    “Know”, he started. “I am the Divine Michael.”

    “Know”, he stated and raised his fair hands which were glowing with a golden light and pulled down the hood from his face. His face was that of legend, his eyes flashed of fiery lightning, his long hair white as snow and moving just as much as if caught in a slight wind. “This is the true face of the enemy you are facing.”

    “Know”, the view was still zooming out showing more and more of his cloaked body, the ominous glow starting to surround his entire being. “That no one who has stood against me has ever escaped my judgment.

    “Know”, the entire bridge crew exhaled sharply as they saw what had made this particular avatar and his brother as impressive and as unique as they were. In a motion that was both supernaturally fluent, but almost too fast for the human eye to see, he unfolded a pair of wings which spread from his back and quickly filled the entire width of the screen. In every detail they looked as those of a large bird of prey, though with feathers of pure gold, bronze and silver in a magnificent pattern. With another gesture, his hand suddenly held a flaming sword. “I am Michael, the Archangel of Judgment. Today, you face my verdict.”

    Michael swept down with the sword and quite literally cut off his transmission. The bridge crew settled down but was still very much affected by the dramatic appearance and speech of the avatar.

    West understood, it had been a spectacular show and it would definitely make even the toughest captain doubt the wisdom in attacking. Still...

    “Bit over the top, don’t you think?” he asked his brother.

    “Yeah, but you have to hand it to him”, Henry responded, obviously still trying to pick up his jaw. “He did it with style.”

    They all watched as the Archangel’s main weapon was readied, three of the largest bore phaser beam emitters that Starfleet engineering had ever constructed locked into position, all aiming for the same spot only a kilometer or so off the ship’s bow.

    The three cannons fired exactly simultaneously, the beams coming together perfectly in the common focal point, and the reinforced and pulsating particle beam traveled at just microscopic fractions below the speed of light towards its target.

    The enemy cruiser which Michael had chosen to make his example out of never knew what hit it. The beam struck it center mass just behind the bow weapons array and no matter what issues regular phaser beams had with the organic armor the massively overcharged particles only needed a fraction of a second to bore through the entire length of the ship.

    The supercharged nadion particles’ effect on matter was soon and rapidly expanding the breach, causing whatever power system the ship employed to overload, chain-react and explode with enough force to eject the entire port and starboard sides of the ship from the now scorched and smoking remains of the main hull. The debris traveled at such high velocities that one of the flower ships several hundred kilometers away wasn't just hit but crushed by the force of the impact.

    “Great Scott!” West breathed. “I’d never seen the focal cannon in action before!”

    “Impressive, indeed”, Henry added. “Can I have one?”

    “My dear brother, he is so powerful!” Victoria just smiled, but added as if almost in passing, “though I would also like to echo my captain’s question.”


    VORLON FLEET FLAGSHIP


    Confusion. It felt it from all around. From all of them, every ship, every pilot.

    They could see now the decorations of the new arrival. They could see now that it was indeed the same as the one that had made the transmission they had received.

    How?

    Had one of their own joined them?

    Who? Why?

    It could be one of their own. It could also be one of the others, one who knew of them and knew their chosen likeness. One who knew that using their likeness would tell them what they were facing and, perhaps more importantly, show them that it knew what it was facing.

    The questions were too many and there were no answers. Suddenly it faced a very real fear. It would explain so much if this race was guided by the hands of one of their kind, or by those of one of the others.

    One had simply to look outside, to see the burning hulks of its brethren to know that they had made a mistake coming here. They had thought themselves invincible, and they had been proven wrong. So very wrong.

    Fear. It was something one of its kind had not felt in millennia. Not even as the ancient enemy threatened to devour the galaxy had they felt real fear. Of course, then they had known. Known what would, and could happen. This time they did not know, and it was that feeling of not knowing that caused their fear.

    Now, they had misjudged them, sent far too few, or perhaps far too many. They had to retreat. They had to go back home, and tell their leaders about this new factor. Yes, they would tell the Naraneks. They had to be told; they had to know what had happened here this day.

    Then, they had to learn, to understand, to see why, and who, had decided to take this unwelcome race under its protection.

    The circle and the accord both had to be protected. But maybe, just maybe, this could still be made to work in their advantage. Only the future would give the answer. Even this being, with its eons of experiences and wisdom, could only count on that.


    ANGEL ONE
    SPACE NEAR DRACONIS III



    She made a sharp turn, only narrowly managing to avoid impacting one of the harpoon-shaped fighters. She’d been trained for dogfights, sure, but this was so much more than that. This was life at its most basic, her life as she’d chosen to live it, and as far as she cared she was still the best one in the galaxy at it.

    She made another sharp banked turn to avoid incoming fire and repaid her attacker by launching two of her own micro-torpedoes at the enemy fighter. They'd early given up trying to get kills with the far too low-yield antimatter-tipped missiles and she was instantly rewarded for her choice by the hostile ship breaking apart as soon as her weapons impacted.

    The armor-piercing torpedoes made all the difference and the fact that they were a whole lot harder to hit with only made it more fun to try. Sure, they were designed to be used against capital ships, but there was little chance of getting to engage them anytime soon considering the amount of fighters they’d have to wade through.

    Still, it was almost exhilarating to the point of overwhelming, the feeling of mortal combat drowned her senses and made her sight sharper, her reflexes faster, it made her very life have meaning.

    She made yet another sharp turn to put her frontal pulse phasers, while not even close to as powerful as the ones mounted on starships they still packed quite a punch, right on target on another of the enemies.

    She fired a full volley of automatic fire but as she looked up she was treated to the unwelcome sight of the enemy having avoided the burst of golden projectiles. Barely a second later though, the target exploded into smoldering cinders from a sharp white flash at its side.

    "Getting rusty, Seraph!" Davis laughed. "You miss one you lose one!"

    "Great shooting, Rook!" she replied with a smile. "You Winchester yet by any chance?"

    "Ha!" he exclaimed as he pulled a high-G turn and slammed another one of his fighter-sized quantum torpedoes into the rear of the last fighter in their small area of space. "You wish, Commander!"

    “Angels!” she called on the radio. “Report!”

    “Two, I'm on your four Seraph, just a few clicks away”, Snake said with a slightly winded tone.

    “Three, two thousand clicks from you, close to the Albion”, Fox replied. "Got tangled up with Alpha and blew up some more bombers."

    “Four, I'm cut off from you", Gonzo replied. "I'm slumming with the Bravo Valkyries in the exit cone.”

    “Five, I'm glued to three's ass”, Buzz giggled from the excitement.

    “Six, right on top of you, Seraph”, Davis replied, and tipped his wings to make his point.

    “Roger that, Angels”, Sanders nodded and made a small prayer that they were all still alive. “Get back in formation; I think we’ll try for one of the destroyers. We aren't called the Angels of Judgment 'cause we deal with small fry!”

    “Roger, Commander”, the group responded with equal emphasis.

    Then it all changed. The enemy fighter formations turned as one and started heading back to their motherships. They weren’t holding back either, blue-colored ion trails started to form behind them, obviously pushing with full thrust and pulling out all the stops as they hurried back.

    The Angels pursued for a second until Sanders called out the order none of them actually wanted to hear. “Angels, hold pursuit.”

    “But ma'am!” Snake responded. “They might just be reforming!”

    "We can catch them easy", Fox added. "Buzz and I can cut them off just before they contact their carriers."

    “Doesn’t matter”, Sanders barked back. “They may be leaving. They sure look like they are.”

    “But Sera…” Snake whined.

    “Can it, pilot.” Sanders barked and interrupted him. “We’re the Angels. It doesn't just mean we excel at exorcising an enemy infestation, it also means we show mercy even if our enemies don’t.”

    “Roger, Seraph”, Snake surrendered. “Halting advance.”

    “Good choice”, Sanders replied evenly. “Reform and back up closer to the Michael.”

    The enemy was still backing off, turning back towards the larger dreadnoughts just out of visual range but clearly visible on the fighter’s tactical sensor display. As if by some kind of unspoken mutual agreement the fighting was quickly dying down. For each green or purple ray that stopped firing, a golden spear or projectile was silenced on the other side. The engagement was ended, it was time to lick their wounds and check the size of their butcher’s bills.

    Even so, she and all other pilots started to form a proverbial brick wall in front of their carrier, not only for protection but also as part of a roll call. It pained her to see just how many empty spaces there were, even though some fighters hadn't made it back yet there were definitely going to be cause for a lot of salutes to lost friends in the pilots' mess hall tonight.


    USS ALBION
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER



    “Captain”, Victoria reported. “They are now reducing their fire to a simple box barrage between our forces and are continuing to recall their remaining fighters. I now think there is ample reason to believe they are indeed withdrawing from the field of battle.”

    “Good, I guess that means we won”, Captain West replied and wiped some of the sweat from his brow. “Follow their decrease in fire but keep the cannon warm and ready. Let’s try not to force any further combat but let's not get caught with our pants down if they do decide to come back for more either.”

    “Acknowledged”, Victoria stated with a quaint smile. "I suppose I will be keeping my pants on then?"

    "Victoria..." Captain West couldn't hold back a chuckle at the less than deadpan joke, but decided to play along. "You're not even wearing pants."

    "Which would make your comment fairly inapplicable to me, am I correct, Captain?" She winked.

    “What’s the status of the rest of the fleet?” Admiral West asked and cut off the banter.

    “Our latest arrivals report little or no real damage, Admiral”, Victoria replied with a sigh. “As far as I can see they have barely been hit since they arrived. The only real damage I can detect at all discounting armor damage is some wear and tear on the nacelles, but that was not sustained in combat. As for casualties a number of the Michael’s fighters have been shot down but only forty two pilots are reported missing. Search and rescue operations have already been launched.”

    “Good. What’s your status though, Victoria?” The Admiral asked with some concern.

    “I am fine, just some kinks and scratches in my armor.” Victoria replied a little too quickly.

    “Very well”, West made a sigh as he easily realized she was downplaying just how close it'd been. "What about you, Hancock?”

    “I believe I am actually in better shape than my daughter here”, he glanced at Victoria. “I have only suffered medium damage to the front, bow, starboard and ventral external armor, not that it matters anymore. My engineers are working on the rest. Madame Duval also asked me to tell you that they are both fine.”

    West was relieved to hear that. The welfare if the Independence was something that he’d worried quite a bit about during the battle considering that battlecruiser's commanding officer was not only his wife to be, but she was also carrying his unborn child. If anything had happened to her, he'd be just as distraught as if the enemy fleet had managed to break through their blockade, if not more.

    The only thing that had kept him in one piece knowing he was consciously risking all three of their lives was his duty to protect the innocents on the planet but now that this very duty dissipated as quickly as the enemy forces withdrew he felt he was extremely relieved to hear that all of his family had made it through all right.

    He looked at the tactical display and watched as the enemy ships conjured up their deep orange vortexes and retreated from the field of battle as soon as they had retrieved their fighter contingents. Some of them made a quick pass past the hulls of their crippled or destroyed brethren first, as if running a search and rescue operation, and even though they’d been on opposing sides during the battle West still wished them luck.

    He was well aware of the irony in that but he’d been taught to always respect his enemies, especially the ones that were his equals. This race had shown it was both ruthless and merciless but they were definitely his equals in force and military prowess. That much they'd proven today.

    “What’s our butcher’s bill, Victoria?” he asked.

    “Twelve dead. Twenty six in sickbay, fourteen more en route”, Victoria stated. “Twelve of them are in critical condition.”

    “The Independence crew only has one fatality and twenty two injured,” Hancock added. “One critically.”

    “Let’s try not to get any more fatalities, okay?” Captain West interjected. “Keep an eye on them, Victoria.”

    The AI just nodded. “Of course I will.”

    “What about the Endeavour and the Discovery?” Admiral West asked.

    “Still no word, Admiral”, Victoria turned a sad face again. “I cannot get through to either Cook or Vancouver.”

    “Nor can I”, Hancock added. “Neither of the ships that were dispatched to their location have an AI I can ask either.”

    “Wait.” Victoria’s face went blank. "Now that the enemy ships have departed and the interference is abating I am starting to receive situation reports from Captain Kira of the Victory.”

    “What does she say?” the admiral asked, his face revealing just how troubled he really was. "Have they found any survivors?"

    “Her preliminary report indicates the loss of approximately forty percent of their combined crews”, Victoria stated in a sad tone. “Admiral, I also have a report from the Valiant. The command bridge of the Discovery was badly hit and it is currently open to space. They report the presumed full loss of the Discovery’s command crew.”

    “May the lord have mercy on their souls”, Captain West said with a sad voice. “I knew Rodriguez quite well; he was a good friend and above all a good man.”

    “They all were”, Admiral West added somberly, “each and every single one of them.”

    In some ways the admiral still blamed himself for not being able to be there for them, for not coming to the rescue like the proverbial knight in shining armor and for not being the hero. Still, he had been forced to make the tough choice, to weigh the consequences of these six hundred or so deaths against the consequences of several thousand, or even million, dead on the planet.

    He’d made the only real choice he could, and while he wasn’t proud of it he was prepared to face the nightmares if, or rather when, they came.

    “Admiral”, Victoria interrupted his melancholy. “The Renown reports that they have successfully made contact with what remains of the Endeavour's command crew. They were pretty badly banged up but Captain Halsey demanded that the rescue party send you his regards even as they took him into surgery. Their doctor reports he is suffering from severe blunt force trauma to his arms, legs and ribcage but he also believes that the captain will make a full recovery.”

    “Thank you, Victoria”, West replied with a grateful nod. “I needed to hear that.”

    “They won’t be going anywhere in a hurry though, sir”, she looked absent for a moment. “Captain Kira requests the Michael and Independence join them as soon as the enemy is confirmed to have left the system.”

    “Why?” West asked, not understanding the reason as easily as he perhaps should have.

    “Towing, Admiral”, Victoria stated as if it was something blatantly obvious. “A Defiant-class gunship is a good ship and capable enough in battle, but towing a ship ten times its size is, I believe, a bit much to ask of them.”

    "Not to mention there is simply no room for close to a thousand personnel to be evacuated to, not even with three of them present", Hancock added, almost as if to add insult to injury.

    “Ah.” West almost blushed from the embarrassment he was feeling. It really was just that obvious and he couldn’t exactly leave the two ships and the survivors on board drifting in open space. “Approved, send the appropriate orders.”

    “Confirmed”, Victoria nodded. “My brother will be there momentarily, he is currently retrieving the last of his fighters.”

    "I have relayed the request to Madame Duval, she asked me to tell you we will be joining them immediately and that you know where to find us if you need us." Hancock paused and added; "if you will excuse me, Admiral?"

    "Of course, thank you Hancock", Admiral West replied and just a moment later the transparent hologram of the Independence's AI had faded away.

    He thought for a second, a thought gnawing at the back of his head. He’d forgotten something. He went back in his mind, retracing his actions and his memories to find out what. Then he realized what it was.

    “Someone find our dear guest, Professor Stevenson”, he said, perhaps a little too sharply. “I think there’s something he knows that we don’t.”

    “Aye, sir”, Victoria stated. “I think I know just where to look.”

    Her appearance folded in on itself, and then she was gone as well. Time for some answers, West thought.
     
  18. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 16


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER
    GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT AROUND DRACONIS, THREE HOURS LATER



    The bruised and battered cruiser had finally arrived in high orbit around the planet and the larger shape of the Independence which had towed the Endeavour to her current position only now left her wounded comrade behind as she took up her own patrol route.

    There hadn’t been any indication of any further hostile movements towards the system and the only news so far from Starfleet Command back home had been that the hostile fleet, or rather what remained of it, was on its way back to wherever they had come from. They kept in constant contact however as the first indications that this was changing would most likely be that the long-range subspace communications would start to break down again.

    They had already tripped two of the hyperspace sensor buoys on their way back to their own corner of the galaxy and if nothing changed they would pass the third and final one in just a few hours.

    That would be considered the final confirmation that they were gone and effectively act as a stand down order for the ships gathered in the system, which were still on high alert with their armor deployed and the Divine Michael was still keeping flights of heavily armed interceptors and fighter bombers deployed as a barrier combat patrol.

    Halsey looked out the window only to turn away and regret his action immediately afterwards. Just outside, less than a kilometer away, was visible in all its terrible detail the even more banged up shape of the Discovery. Several sections of her armor were still in place, some charged directly by small mobile fusion reactors to prevent them from failing, since in many places it was the only thing that held the hull together and kept those poor souls alive who were trapped in still cut off compartments.

    The full extent of the damage she'd sustained to her outer hull would not be measurable until the armor was removed but even so there were many who doubted she’d be able to be towed back to the space docks at Sirius without massive on-site repairs. Repairs of which some required a lot of material and manpower to be shipped over from their base in Elysium, some which were even to the point where some of the engineers doubted they could make them without constructing a spacedock on site.

    There was a cautious knock on the doorframe; the only thing Halsey had to do was to turn around. The doors on the Endeavour were all jammed open with crowbars, spanners and pieces of piping. With the main computer offline and only emergency battery power being available they were uncertain whether they’d be able to open them again with anything less than a plasma cutter if they closed.

    “Captain, I’m sorry to disturb you”, one of the junior operations crew said as he entered the room. Halsey couldn’t even remember his name. “Your presence is requested in main engineering.”

    “Understood, crewman”, Halsey replied. “I’ll be there shortly.”

    “Yes, sir”, the crewman responded. “Thank you, sir.”

    Ironic. The Endeavour had been a proud ship, proud of her heritage, proud of her stature and proud of her mission. It was hard to adjust to a ship with no replicators, no holodeck, no transporters and worst of all for the commander of the ship, neither internal nor external communications. He had to resort to sending couriers like this young crewman, who was probably barely even out of the Academy, to get a message to or from someone else.

    It almost felt like he was back on the original Endeavour where his AI's namesake had been captain, where the ship's commander would typically have a mess boy or two at his side at all times to perform this very same function of carrying messages and orders back and forth across the ship.

    He was sure Cook would draw some interesting parallels but with no power to the main computer much less the holographic systems there was no James Cook available either. The AI personality hadn’t actually been around for very long, just barely more than a week, but Halsey still felt like he missed his presence.

    It just came to show that a person didn’t have to be made of flesh and bone to become a friend and that a friendship can be forged very quickly, especially when it's forged under hostile fire.

    He walked out into the corridor and followed the bright yellow line that had been hastily painted onto the floor. With their limited available power the turbolifts were all offline as well. This meant that the crew had only their own two feet to take them around the ship. It was hardly the easiest way to traverse a ship like this that had over thirty levels, especially if you needed to get from main engineering on deck thirty, or even worse the plasma distribution central on deck thirty six, to the bridge on deck one.

    It was a long climb in the Jeffries tubes that was made even longer since they’d have to go around the areas which were blocked off by combat damage and debris.

    His journey took him past the main medical bay in which he could see the bruised body of the just recently brought in Ambassador Fontaine. The ambassador was still alive albeit sedated, as much because he needed the rest as because the nurses probably got tired of hearing him moan and complain.

    Who was stupid enough to go and hide in a Jeffries tube while the ship was in combat? Fontaine had been found in one of the auxiliary junctions, with several broken bones, numerous large bruises and a severe concussion, and it had taken a rather extensive search just to find him in the first place.

    There was a lot of things you could hit if you got thrown around in there, which apparently the elder diplomat eventually found out though the hard and quite obviously very painful way.

    As he got closer to the engineering level the amount of damage seemed to lessen. Consciously he knew it was because he’d traveled further away from the outer hull and into the heaviest armored and best protected area of the ship but he still got amazed at the difference.

    In the saucer section you’d see an entire wall missing in one place, a corridor sealed off because of a plasma leak or a door completely yanked out of its frame in another, not to mention the constant presence of debris and destroyed consoles. Down here there was no such evidence that hinted that the ship had ever even been struck. The walls were all in one piece, the consoles were dark but undamaged and there wasn’t even a hint of drive plasma in the air.

    “Captain, glad you could finally join us”, the chief engineer said as Halsey finally arrived.

    “How is she, Murdoch?” Halsey asked as he shook the engineer’s hand.

    “Well, it’s bad, sir”, Murdoch replied honestly. “But at least she’s fixable; it'll just take quite some time and a lot of good old fashioned elbow grease to do.”

    He turned to the master system’s display, a large viewscreen fixed to and covering the entire forward wall of the main engineering bay. It had been a later addition to the Galaxy and Nebula-class ships which allowed for more detailed overview of, as well as more control of, the operational status of different systems. Its immense size was dictated more by the high amount of systems to be displayed and the information necessary rather than by efficiency or priority.

    It did however effectively give even a layman like the captain an idea of the state of the ship with just a quick glance and that had been the original intention. Halsey was almost surprised the console still worked as most others were still dark, but then he guessed it'd be a pretty dumb idea to install a damage control screen without its own independent backup power system.

    “As you can see, we have some areas of the ship that are in very bad condition”, Murdoch said and pointed to the port nacelle, the pod and the port and starboard outer edges of the saucer hull on the display. “What’s left of the port nacelle is pretty much nothing but scraps of metal and barely even attached to the ship any longer. I’m sorry to say this Captain but we’d actually be better off if we sent out a team of work pods to cut it away and seal up the pylon.”

    “There's nothing we can do to repair the one we have?” Halsey said, the news being somewhat expected but still unwelcome to hear from the engineer.

    “Sure we can, Captain”, Murdoch shrugged as he responded. “It’ll just take a lot more time and just as much resources and manpower as building a new one and we’d still need the resources back at Sirius to do so. More importantly however, there's no way we'll be able to enter warp with a nacelle in that shape. It could tear the ship apart as it came off and I guarantee you it wouldn't stay attached for very long.”

    "So, your proposal is?" Halsey wanted to confirm.

    "We cut it away and weld a slab of tritanium over the exposed seam", Murdoch repeated. "Then we get a new one built at Sirius. Either we limp home and get it installed there or just about any other cruiser can ship it to us here. Attaching a new one is a hell of a lot easier to do than repairing the old, especially without a dry-dock facility available."

    “I understand”, Halsey thought it over. “Well then, cut it away, Commander, but make sure to salvage it. There may be some use for the rare materials and worst case we can always use the refined tritanium the nacelle housing is made from to patch up the hull damage on the saucer.”

    “Aye, sir”, Murdoch agreed and smiled as the Captain pre-empted his proposal for the nacelle's final fate. “Then there’s the question of the pod.”

    He pointed again to the overhead pod structure. It was often ignored and misunderstood since for most other classes it was an entirely auxiliary structure. For the Nebula-class however was as much a part of the starship's main components as the saucer and engineering hull. It was home to not only the main subspace sensor and communications arrays but also the astrometric sensors, several phaser arrays, a number of large fusion reactors and the majority of the ships torpedo launchers with their ammunition.

    “The pod itself is surprisingly enough barely damaged at all”, Murdoch explained with a slightly dry tone. “What does worry me however is in what state the pylon is.” He pointed to a long series of red lit indicators on the display. “For better or worse the enemy fire that struck the saucer continued into the sides of the pylon and it took heavy fire on both sides. The pod is higher up than the saucer and that spared it from sustaining any real damage, but the damage to the pylon itself has resulted in an all but catastrophic systems failure.”

    He turned to a secondary display which had two live transmissions from remotely operated maintenance droids. The damage was breathtaking. On both sides of the pylons there were deep lacerations that marked where the enemy weapons had struck, eating through the hull with apparent ease and causing gashes and tears in the hull that were so deep that at a closer inspection you could actually see the planet in the background straight through them.

    There wasn’t just one of these gashes either; they literally littered the area of the pylon behind the saucer making it look more like a slice of Swiss cheese than a critical support structure on a starship.

    “Holy lord”, Halsey could barely believe what his eyes were showing him. “No wonder we lost main power.”

    “Indeed”, Murdoch answered and looked somewhat uncomfortable. “Though I must admit, had we not had Cook with us at the time we’d have lost a lot more than that.”

    “Oh?” Halsey was surprised. “Why so?”

    “See these?” Murdoch pointed to two lines on the systems display which were hidden deep inside the pylon and as such not visible to the bare eye on the video feed. “These are two of our EPS mains. They feed the entire pod structure with high-energy plasma.”

    “I hadn’t realized”, Halsey breathed and gave himself a mental kick. “But then again, there’d have to be mains going up there.”

    “Yes, if for nothing else than to feed the sensor array, that system alone is a power hog of immense proportions. Still, there’s the pod’s own shield generators, the weapons systems, the secondary deflector, communications array and of course the pod and pylon armor generators… all of these systems require a shitload of power and most of it is power taken straight from the warp core.”

    “And if those were severed…” Halsey didn’t want to finish the thought.

    “That's what scares me. They were”, Murdoch replied with a grim grin. “Our luck was that Cook engaged the emergency valves and locked down the containment grid literally within microseconds of it happening or we’d been nothing but stardust by now. There is simply no way that any of my people, or myself for that matter, could have done something like this in time. Not to mention doing it so fast and seamlessly that the ship was not only in one piece but still spaceworthy afterwards.”

    “We’re starting to rack up a lot of debt to him, aren’t we?” Halsey sighed as he asked the rhetorical question. “Any luck finding out how he saved our asses from that derelict back there?”

    “Ah, yes Captain”, the chief engineer almost blushed. “He used the magnetic containment grid to push the plasma from next to every single plasma conduit in the ship directly to and through the thrusters. It burnt out every single EPS tap from the cargo bay to the mess hall in the process, not to mention what it did to the ventral thruster ports", he winced when he remembered that damage briefing. "It worked though, and after going through the logs I doubt we'd be here discussing the matter if he hadn't.”

    “That it did, Lieutenant”, Halsey sighed and nodded somberly. “That it did, for most of us at least.”

    “Every other life, sir”, Murdoch stated. “Still, we won’t be able to go anywhere for quite some time. Even if, and I do mean if we get the impulse engines online we’ll still be limited to thrusters until we can get the main deflector back online.”

    "What about the warp drive?" Halsey asked. "We still have one viable nacelle."

    "True, but for one we barely have any antimatter left. Cook dumped all he could as a precaution when we were about to get hit. We still have enough that a collision would have killed us, but not enough for more than a light year or so at warp. And no, the inverters don’t work either; we’d be flying on tanks only.”

    “And secondly?” Halsey asked, the engineer had already hinted at there being more than one reason.

    “Secondly there are micro-fractures all over the warp plasma grid from the dreadnought's impact on the nacelle", Murdoch shrugged. "We'd be a lot safer if we could rip out both the core and the entire plasma matrix and replace them since I don't trust either of them not to have sustained damage I haven't found yet from an impact such as that."

    "And if there is any we'd pretty much go up in a bright flash when we turn the core on..." Halsey continued with a sigh. "Very well, our best bet is to repair the pod pylon and then get a tow to Sirius then?"

    "Quite", Murdoch replied as he looked at the displays again. “And I’m sorry to be the bearer of even more bad news but with the extreme damage to the pylon those repairs will probably take weeks, if not months. If we could get to a spacedock we could repair it inside two weeks, but as I said we can't go to warp without repairing the pylon and the main deflector array.”

    “Couldn’t we get a tow?” Halsey asked. “The Independence towed us here after all.”

    “Not a chance.” Murdoch shook his head. “It’s one thing to be towed in a slow pace inside a star system but it’s quite different to get a warp tow. The stress involved is far too high, the pylon wouldn’t hold up to it. The saucer isn’t really in any condition to be put under those kinds of stresses either. That’s not counting the fact that we don’t have deflectors which means there’s no way I’ll sign off on it.”

    "Yeah, a fist-sized stray rock would impact the hull like a small fission weapon if it got through. I understand”, Halsey said in a resigned voice. “We’re stuck here then.”

    “Yes sir”, Murdoch replied and gave his captain a short nod. “I guess we’ll have ample time to get to know the natives, sir.”

    “You’re probably right, Murdoch”, Halsey gave a slight smile, that much was true. “Try to get auxiliary power back as soon as possible; I think we owe that to Cook. If his matrix did indeed survive like your guys keep telling me we should do our best to get him back online as fast as possible.”

    “Yes, sir, I’ll give the appropriate orders”, Murdoch replied as he turned away to go do his job.

    Trying to get Humpty Dumpty back together again, Halsey thought. He just thought he was quite lucky that Murdoch and his team of Starfleet engineers was a hell of a lot better at that than all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had been.


    USS ALBION, CONFERENCE ROOM
    FEDERATION SOVEREIGN-CLASS COMMAND BATTLECRUISER
    HIGH ORBIT ABOVE DRACONIS



    The meeting had been going on for almost an hour by now and they'd at least made some, if not by any means revolutionary, progress. The admiral had tried to get as much useful information as possible out of the still quite shaken professor but even with the answers he'd gotten he didn’t feel that he was any closer to a real sense of understanding about what had happened, much less why.

    All he had really gotten out of the conversation was legends, rumors, and several different names. He didn’t even know for sure which one was the real one, though he could guess.

    The humans called them the Warders, the Seleyans, which were apparently what had become of the people with mixed Vulcan blood, called them something that Suvok translated to being close to Unlearners. The descendants of the Betazoids and other telepathic races called them Mind Walkers and the Klingons just called them by a simple name which none knew had no other meaning. Vorlons.

    As Suvok had said, most of the more intelligent species have in common that they will describe something unknown with their own words, while Klingons and other less inclined to create their own descriptions for things will just call them what they are.

    Vorlons.

    The name was as unfamiliar to him as it was to everyone else on his ship. The mention of the word had instantly made Victoria look absent as she was getting in contact with her mother via subspace to try to get any additional information that they might gained but missed or failed to correctly link to this hostile race.

    Her helpless look when she came back had been enough to explain that neither Athena’s nor Nelson’s data banks had any further information on this new name. It also meant that none of the races they’d encountered so far had any information either as they’d been able to crack any encryption, even the native humans’ gold channels, as soon as Athena had been conceived.

    The only possible source for more information was the Minbari but that was widely considered a dead end even before trying as they didn’t seem to have any kind of wide-area network that could be hacked into from outside their ships or bases. That was a risk they weren’t willing to take especially as even the most optimistic among the AI did not expect the isolationist race to have the knowledge they were seeking anyways.

    “So, to sum up what you’ve been able to tell us so far”, Suvok stated with his cold, logical voice. “Draconian legends tell that your ancestors, the so called Star Walkers, arrived in this galaxy some seven hundred years ago, give or take”, he paused, looking at his notes. “They traveled between the stars searching for a way back home for several months until they found that there was no way for them to return within their lifetime.”

    “Yes, that’s right.” Stevenson replied.

    “Do you know if they actually found their original home?” Captain West asked. “Earth?”

    “Legend does not say”, Stevenson shrugged. “I guess they could have. From what you’ve told me it’s not that far from here and since you keep telling me they were just as advanced as you are… well, I have to doubt they wouldn't know that as well.”

    “Remember, Henry”, the admiral interjected. “Earth would have been in the mid seventeenth century back then”, he looked at Hancock, who had joined them with his captain. “That’s even before your time, John.”

    “My namesakes”, Hancock replied with some irritation. “I am not quite that old, as you are well aware, Admiral. Even then, you are quite correct.”

    “I guess I deserved that”, West smiled. “I get confused sometimes; powdered wigs tend to do that to me. I am truly sorry.”

    “Admiral”, Victoria interjected. “Please, we both understand that you are only speaking in jest, but we have already come to an agreement with you about our appearances.”

    “While that is correct, Victoria”, Captain Duval entered the conversation. “Hancock. While I understand your wish to have your appearance to be historically correct now that you're formally allowed, can’t you at least skip the powder?”

    “I’m sorry, Captain?” Hancock looked surprised.

    “You’re dusting”, Sheila smiled. “And while it’s only holographic dust, it’s kind of distracting not to mention quite disgusting.”

    “I… Understand”, Hancock seemed to only now notice the small particles that left his white wig every time he moved, and he actually blushed. “I did not realize. I am sorry, Captain, Admiral.” It didn’t even take a second for the dust that still sailed to the air to disappear.

    “Better”, Sheila said with another smile. “Please continue, Commander Suvok. My fiancé won't interrupt again.”

    Suvok cleared his throat and looked back to the pad he was holding, seemingly having not even noticed the small exchange between the AI and the two officers. He'd known that letting the AI not only decorate their armor but also choose their own appearance outside regulation accepted uniforms would only serve to add chaos and distraction.

    “After they came to this realization, these Star Walkers came to this planet where they set up a colony to live out their days. They lived in peace for several years and fathered many children, until the Warders came to the planet”, he looked up from his notes. “The Warders agreed to let them live on the planet in seclusion, under the terms that they could not interfere with…” he looked down at the pad again. “…something called ‘the Circle’, and 'the Great Dispute’.”

    “Yes, that’s what legend says”, Stevenson nodded. “I’m sorry, but I truly don’t know anything more about what those things are, what I do know is only what few legends were written down before our age of enlightenment, after which they were simply reduced to stories used to scare children with.”

    “The Warders then gave them…” he paused “One day?”

    “Yes.” Stevenson nodded again. “They were given one day to leave the heritages before they destroyed them.”

    “I see”, Suvok stated. “And that began the so called ‘Age of Turmoil’?”

    “Correct again”, Stevenson sighed. “I have a hard time understanding why we would remember them as ‘the Warders’ though, if what they did was destroy all our technology and send us and our civilization back centuries or even millennia.”

    “It is perceivable that your ancestors willingly agreed to let them do so”, Suvok replied with a thoughtful face. “If they were asked to abandon their technology and way of life to protect the natural order of this universe, it is more than plausible that they could even have done so without much hesitation.”

    “Probably”, Admiral West nodded. “It is within the context of, if not necessarily within the lettering of, the Prime Directive.”

    “Under the circumstances that point is debatable”, Suvok responded. “But even so, I must agree. Your logic is well founded.”

    “Why thank you, Suvok”, West smiled at the older Vulcan. “I appreciate that.”

    Suvok just shrugged, appreciation didn’t mean much to him. Vulcans, West thought, no sense of humor whatsoever.

    “This explains a few things, but it also raises even more questions”, West stated. “A name alone is little if anything to go by and as very few of the races we've encountered so far were even advanced enough to reach space by that time, much less explore it, we can assume that this race is indeed quite old. We already know they’re advanced and I wouldn't be surprised if they've been around as long as, as an example, the Vulcans. I am however more than a little surprised that they haven’t evolved further than they have by now, after all we humans haven't been in space even half that time and are still able to mostly match them in what technology we've seen them use thus far.”

    “How do you mean?” Sheila asked, somewhat confused. “They seemed like quite worthy opponents to me and my engineering teams are still helping out in trying to hammer out the dents in the Albion’s hull. That’s not to mention what happened to the thrashed ships out there which used to be a heavy cruiser and even a Sovereign-class battlecruiser!”

    Hancock made a pained face as she mentioned it, and Victoria whimpered a little. Neither appreciated being reminded of their recent encounter, nor the losses they'd suffered during it.

    “Something the matter with the two of you?” West asked, looking honestly concerned.

    “No”, Hancock replied. “We are… fine.”

    “It is just…” Victoria continued. “While we obviously are not able feel pain as you humans do, holographic bodies and all, we do feel what could be explained as… a different kind of pain. We are the ships, the ships are us. When the ship loses sensors, we become blind as well. If the ship’s hull is pierced, it is as if we ourselves bleed. At this time, I can feel every spanner and every fusion torch that is applied to my hull, just as I could feel every impact, every gash in my armor that the ship suffered in the engagement.”

    “Victoria…” Hancock said softly, almost soothing.

    “It is…” she continued. “A different sensation perhaps than pain, but it is there none the less.”

    “Lord!” Admiral West exclaimed. “If that’s true, then Cook… Vancouver…”

    “Yes.” Hancock stated flatly. “My grandsons would have been in a lot of pain. It does not matter, however. We can always forget if we would wish to do so, and we can do so much more easily and much more permanently than you organics can I might add.”

    “I see”, West replied. “If you want, I can…”

    “No”, Hancock stated just as flatly. “Pain is, as you would say, part of being alive. It is also what I would consider an integral part of my being self-aware. I would not trade it away nor do I believe any of my children or grandchildren would willingly do so either. Remember that when you next see the two ships outside and you may realize just how brave my grandchildren's sacrifices truly were.”

    “He is telling the truth”, Victoria added somberly. “I would not be me, could I not sense pain or sorrow.”

    “Sorrow?” Suvok asked, just a slight hint of curiosity in his voice. “May I ask of what?”

    “In my position, I… get to know people, I get to know you”, Victoria shifted in her seat, giving them a sad smile and seemingly trying to find words to explain her meaning to those who had never known what it is to be truly aware of everything around them. “I can sense every footstep, every breath and every heartbeat of everyone in this ship, of everyone around me. I can hear you sing, I can hear you cry. I can even feel the hormones when you make love.”

    "We sense everything in our presence and not only what is shown on the outside", Hancock said. "I do not need to ask how my Captain is feeling, I already know that she and her unborn daughter are both fine and that their life signs are both strong. I do not have to wait to learn someone was injured falling down a shaft, I will have already dispatched medical help or beamed him to sickbay, even activated the emergency medical hologram if no doctor is around and the injury is severe."

    "We feel your lives as much as we feel our own and in our own way we share in your hopes and desires", Victoria explained. "When one of you is hurt we can sense your pain, when one of you is happy, we can feel your pleasure."

    "And when one of you dies…” Hancock added and sighed. “We mourn, as a part of ourselves will by extension die as well.”

    The rest of the room seemed to have frozen. All of the people in it looked at the two avatars, some in amazement, and some in curiosity. An organic life form is limited in its perception and hearing two artificial ones explain how they perceive their surroundings, how they sense and feel things that were so far beyond their own limited senses and at the same time at the very base of their own existence, was truly extraordinary.

    The Avatar project had been an attempt to augment and extend the capabilities of the already highly adaptive and self-learning main computers on their starships. It had been conceived in order to reduce the crew requirements by making the computer itself and computer-controlled drones take on some of the workload while at the same time create a better way for it to interface with the crew. It had resulted in a new kind of life, a sentient and even sapient form of life, and even as they had just recently begun to understand beyond what they were used to or had ever imagined.

    West suddenly realized the immense loyalty that the AI gave wasn’t something that was ultimately dictated by coding or algorithms but it was rather a bond that transcended the differences between biological and mechanical. It was friendship and trust in their most pure forms. It was a true symbiosis where the two not only needed each other in order to survive but actually enjoyed the other's company and eventually mourned the loss of the other as well.

    “Victoria… Hancock…” Captain West broke the silence. “I am honored to serve with you. I truly am.”

    “As am I”, Captain Duval added. “I am proud to be able to call you my friends.”

    “Thank you, Captains”, the two avatars responded. “As are we.”

    Stevenson watched in amazement as the scene played itself out in front of him. He didn’t understand half of what was said and implied as he didn’t understand how they’d even been able to create these two beings which in his mind and to his eyes seemed like two so real people. But weren’t they just made up of light, force fields, codes and algorithms simply mimicking a human form, personality and appearance?

    Looking at them again, studying their expressions and their visual emotions, he realized that his preconceptions weren’t wrong, at least not exactly, but even so they were barely even scratching the surface. He suddenly realized he hadn't misunderstood what the avatars were made up of; he'd just made the mistake of misjudging the sheer volume.

    It wasn't a simple tracking system or fuel injection controller standing in front of him but rather personalities that were made up of so much code and so many adaptive algorithms the only real comparison would be the biological data which made up the human mind. The sheer scale of it all had just been too large for him to even begin to suspect until now and now that he did he looked at the two entities with renewed respect and a much more open mind.


    PHOENIX COUNCIL RUINS
    NEW LONDON, PLANET DRACONIS
    FEBRUARY 29TH, 2244



    Looking out over the city from the raised position of the hastily built platform the scars from the Vorlon attack were still plainly visible. The city had looked much like the preserved streets of downtown London back home on Earth, a place the admiral had visited several times in his youth and a place he’d actually once considered moving to on several occasions. He almost half-expected to see the Thames when he looked down and the contours of the Parliament and Big Ben as he turned around. Neither was actually there though and this wasn’t his London.

    It had been a full week now since the attack had torn down the normal life of the town and even though the actual planetary bombardment had only lasted less than a minute there had been little warning and no defense against it. The hits had been relatively clean, not having had the time to come down to the more effective ways of orbital bombardment in the few seconds the enemy had been in orbit. The population had been spared bombs, missiles or worse.

    Without even thinking about it West could imagine things that were much, much worse. He’d seen plans for some of the most awful weapons of mass destruction ever developed when he had worked at Starfleet Command, weapons not only the Federation had banned but even the much more cold-blooded races like the Klingons and Romulans had readily agreed to strike a treaty against ever developing or for that sake using.

    He'd seen transgenic plagues that could wipe out an entire ecosystem. Nanites that could kill all sentient beings on an entire world and leave little evidence they'd ever existed. Subspace shock weapons that not only destroyed all matter in the blast radius but took a good bite out of the space-time continuum when they detonated as well. He’d seen point singularity weapons that could swallow a whole continent and put a world into nuclear winter.

    There was Omega, which destroyed subspace itself around it and was powerful enough to destroy a city per single particle. He had seen the blueprints for the Genesis device, which could annihilate an entire world and reshape it to create a whole new ecology. There were stellar converters, an energy weapon powerful enough to burrow through the mantle and detonate the core of a planet or even trilithium torpedoes which could even detonate an entire star.

    Those were only a few he could name off the top of his memory and each single one was so terrifying that they made the old and obsolete fission and hydrogen bombs that had been conceived during the old second and third World Wars back home on Earth look like pebbles from a slingshot in comparison.

    Starfleet had the knowledge of them all, they knew how to build them, but had chosen freely not to ever do so. Ever again, in the cases of the Genesis device and the Omega particle, though neither of those had initially been intended to be what they eventually became. Some were still around though; a trilithium device wasn’t exactly hard to create if you had access to Starfleet materials.

    As much as he wanted to deny it, not take any kind of benefit from the suffering of the people, the attack had worked very well to his and his peoples’ advantage. The entire battle had been captured on video by a number of observatories and they had spread so quickly it had made the phrase 'viral video' have a whole new meaning.

    Within hours the videos had been shown on news channels across the planet, many of them cropped down to the heroic sacrifices made by the crews of the Endeavour and the Discovery. There had even been public outcry that the people who'd lost their lives protecting this world should be honored for all time with a massive memorial.

    At the same time their until then covert presence had been made public knowledge and even though some voices were raised in anger that the governing council had kept their existence from the public they were quickly silenced by others as the mere possibility that these nightmares from a time long past could ever return, in greater force and with vengeance at their heart, made cooler minds realize they themselves had no way of protecting themselves against such a threat.

    This had also simplified things immensely for his people in their work to bring an alliance to bear between Sirius and Draconis. In practice the remains of the Phoenix Council, which were far fewer now than they had been less than a week earlier, had come to the only logical conclusion.

    They could be attacked again, the enemy clearly knew where they were, and unlike the representatives of Sirius their own world had no planetary or orbital defenses. They had no starships in orbit nor did they have the technology to build them. And even if they had, they had no people trained to operate them. As events had proven, they had little choice.

    The always sharp political mind of Ambassador Fontaine had instantly jumped at the situation, expending every ounce of political capital he had and even borrowed some from the surviving council members. The results had been clear long before the votes were counted and that was the main reason why West stood here now, waiting for his turn at the podium to address the people of New London. To tell them that tomorrow would be a new day, and that today marked a new beginning for them all.

    He already knew what to expect as a result of his speech today, he’d been informed by those of his captains that had allowed their crews a bit of shore leave on the planet. Hundreds had asked them about what had happened in orbit. Thousands wanted revenge on the Vorlon menace that had killed their countrymen. When, not if but when, they started to build the new academies and schools here they wouldn’t have any problems filling their ranks. The recruits would line up five or ten for every space they had available on the few ships they had.

    Consciously the admiral knew that revenge was a bad and usually destructive motivator, but even if it was unwanted in the long run it was strong, and also an emotion he and his people were used to work with. It was an emotion you could mold if you understood it and with time they would change it into a more useful sense of loyalty and discipline.

    However unusual the situation was for the people of Draconis, it was just another day at work for a counselor in Starfleet. This was not the first world that had been struck by the consequences of war and these would not be the first recruits signing up to get their revenge. For now however, it was merely a means to a political end. It was a quick and easy way to bring this lesser advanced people into the academies and into the classrooms while retaining the hope that enlightenment would once again take care of the rest just like it usually did.

    He doubted the first few classes to graduate would have too much of an understanding of warp field mechanics or subspace field dynamics but it really wasn’t necessary either. They could be taught and they would learn. It would take time but it would be worth it.

    The Federation wouldn’t die here as he had feared; instead, it would be reborn here. Granted, it would be reborn with only two member worlds and with only a fraction of the population that Earth, Andor, Vulcan and Tellar had had at the time of its first founding, but it would still be reborn.

    Still and in more than one way he was relieved. It was no longer the beginning of the end; it was now the end of the beginning. This day marked his people's entrance into a new age, a new dawn that would bring hope where now there was little. He would have to make sacrifices and compromises; he had known this before it had been decided. He just hoped this would be for the better.

    He looked at the piece of paper in front of him. He only thought it fitting that the entire process of the treaty signing would take place on a leap day as this was exactly the kind of leap one could hope for. Rarely had so little meant so much for so many, he remembered one of history’s great men saying something like that once before but the words had never really lost their meaning, never really lost any of the profound impact they had on him.

    The paper didn’t say everything, in fact it said next to nothing. What meant and said everything else was the people’s understanding and own appreciation of it. He looked up as the chancellor had almost finished his speech, something the admiral had serious suspicions that he’d prepared far before the actual treaty had even been drawn up much less signed.

    He cleared his throat and stood up at the podium as the other man stepped down. The applause was almost hypnotizing but he still found himself wishing that he had chosen his normal duty uniform instead of the over garnished red dress uniform. Of course, it had an impact on the crowd, the medals and decorations on his chest a testament to his prowess in battle, and most noteworthy but least apparent, in engineering.

    The Battle of Wolf 359, the Battle for Cardassia. The First and Second Battles of Earth and campaign badges for the Dominion War just to name a few. The folks back home at Sirius had even minted two more and had shipped a crate of them along with spare parts for the Endeavour, one for the Battle of Starbase 10 and another for the Defense of Draconis.

    He had seen his share of action, and he had to show it to a whole world that was watching. He had to show that he could protect, guide and defend them. That he would stand by them, fight by their side and if necessary bleed with them. He took a deep breath and raised his hands, motioning the crowd to silence.

    It was time.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters”, he started, weighing the crowd.

    “I know your pain, and I know your sorrow. I share in it, as do all my people. We have all lost so many; all of them brave men and women.”

    “Believe me when I say that I wish the harm that has befallen you had never happened, that you would still live the lives you lived only so very recently, just as I wish those I knew which have fallen would not have needed to do so. However, I cannot change the past. What has happened has happened.”

    “Many of you know of the sacrifices that were made, and I wish to give them all the honor respect they deserve. They were all brave men and women that paid the ultimate price to protect those who could not, both here on the planet and in orbit. To the brave and to the courage they showed!”

    The crowd cheered, he paused for a second to let them release their emotions.

    “My friends”, he raised his hands. “I feel your sorrow. I understand your anger. But anger serves no purpose right now. Anger can’t help us rebuild, it can’t help us prepare for tomorrow.”

    “I ask of you, I beseech you, leave your anger behind. Put your hands and your minds to work instead. Help us rebuild. Help us progress.”

    He paused again to let the crowd quiet back down.

    “Brothers and sisters, I am not one for lengthy speeches or long monologues. You have already heard enough speeches for today, enough maybe for a lifetime. Still, I have to keep you for just a little longer.” He held up the piece of paper he’d been holding. “As of today a new dawn is breaking. A new era is beginning. Tomorrow we will break ground on the first of the new academies; we will start construction of the new schools and factories.”

    “Tomorrow, we will advance, even though the past will always be with us. It will be a new day, a new age, a new era. But today, this day, we form a new world, a new alliance.”

    “Today, the people of Draconis come together with the people of Sirius. Today, two people separated by time and space are once again united. Today, the Phoenix Council, and the Sirius Council, are both made past memories. His voice reached a booming crescendo, playing at the top of the noise from the cheering crowd. "Today, the Federation is reborn!”

    The crowd cheered even harder, the applause almost deafening as he took the ceremonial pen and signed the document. He knew that it had mattered little what he had said, it was how he had said it that had made them listen. How he had said it that had created their trust, which had allowed them to give him their hearts and hopes for a better future.

    He only hoped that he could deliver on his promises. Building new factories and schools was the simple part; it only required manpower, resources and energy. Building a new future, however…

    Now that was something quite different. And he knew it would take a lot more than words, replicators and a few Starfleet crewmen from the Corps of Engineers.
     
  19. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 17


    OUTSKIRTS OF ELYSIUM
    SIRIUS, APRIL 4TH, 2244



    There’s a limit to how much any man’s or woman’s mind can process and the small delegation had found that out rather quickly. If being transported into orbit through being dis- and reassembled on the quantum level hadn’t been enough there was also the ship they were beamed onto to cope with as well as travelling through interstellar space at several thousand times the speed of light.

    Actually arriving at their destination didn’t help their feeling of being overwhelmed either as the massive view of the Sirius orbital facilities visible from any window was only topped off as they were once again fed particle by particle through the transporters down to the planet.

    Councilwoman Bannerman had always been proud of her people’s achievements, especially those made into the fields of engineering and ecology, and she’d been a long time proponent of both building new as well as refitting older buildings to match her people’s advancements in these two to her so important fields. After all, even though a building’s construction or appearance could have some historic value, it was still inefficient to let them remain that way just because of sentimental value. A photograph or even a scale model of said building would serve just as well.

    Still what she was met by as they disembarked, as the crewmen called it, from the Starfleet vessel was nothing short of breathtaking even for her. The settlement they’d been transported to didn't really look very large by any kind of measurement, in fact she doubted it was even a quarter of the size of the small college-oriented town of New Edinburgh, but it wasn’t the settlement's size that impressed her.

    The entire town was made up by buildings no more than two or three floors high and it spread out over a natural peninsula in a way that followed the natural contours perfectly. There were no roads or highways to take away from the natural beauty though she could see paved walkways that seemed to be placed where they’d accentuate nature rather than try to break through it. Here and there she could see small parks and gardens all tastefully decorated with flowers and trees, many of whose kinds she’d never seen the likes of before.

    The only thing that detracted from the natural beauty were the occasional clay-colored square, about the size of a small parking lot, whose function was all too clear as one of these several hundred yards down the small road was occupied by a small craft. She gasped as the boxy but still sleek vessel first slowly rose in the air and then quickly albeit near silently started to fly out over the ocean at an ever increasing altitude. It only took seconds before it was no more than a small dot at the horizon and shortly thereafter it was too far away to even be that.

    She suddenly realized that there was something missing, something she’d actually expected if not consciously. The air was clean. Not clean enough, or better than she’d expected, but completely clean. There was not even the slightest hint of exhaust, neither from industries nor cars. Then there was the silence.

    Even in a town this size she’d expect to hear the sounds of machinery, the sound of car engines or at least of people walking about. Instead, she heard the sound of birds singing and of the leaves that rustled in the wind. What little people she could see seemed relaxed and not in any kind of hurry, walking around or sitting down in a park discussing whatever these people did if there were others around.

    As she turned around and tried to get a better feeling for where she was she realized that her delegation had been put down in a clearing no more than thirty meters wide. It was lined with gracefully trimmed hedges on three sides and the path she was standing on exited through the fourth which would lead them through a small garden and on to the closest of the paved walkways.

    There were few people around except for the ones that had come with her; even though she looked around actively trying to find more she still couldn’t see more than perhaps three dozen people going about their daily business.

    Two of them, both dressed in what she’d now learned was the standard Starfleet uniform, came towards her group through the garden. Her experience with the racial diversity Starfleet had been limited as she’d decided to limit her exploration of the ship that had carried her to this planet, which only made her reaction that much stronger. Neither of the two was human. Close, but still not human. She’d consciously known what to expect but even though she could recognize some of the traits of the two men they still appeared quite alien to her.

    One of them had spots that seemed to start somewhere above the hairline and continued down far past his collar, a trait that she knew had once existed on her own planet but disappeared centuries ago. Their medical faculty ironically enough still believed it had been a symptom of a harmless and extinct disease and not a trait of an alien race.

    The other man had sharp ridges along the bridge of his nose, another trait that had disappeared long ago, and as she thought about it both of them had probably disappeared due to extensive interbreeding. The second man also had a large and highly ornamented earring, something she actually easily recognized as she’d seen several artifacts from the Age of Turmoil that looked just like it.

    “Councilwoman”, the spotted man smiled as he bowed slightly and took her hand in greeting. “My name is Lieutenant Vim, Jaden Vim, and my companion here is Lieutenant Herron Jar. Please, let us be the first to welcome you to Sirius and Elysium, the home of Starfleet Command.”

    “Lieutenants”, Bannerman shook Vim’s hand and somehow remembered the correct way of greeting the other from the old tales, with her hand flat against her chest and a short bow. “I’m honored.”

    It took a few seconds before they could reply, as they greeted the rest of the small delegation.

    “The honor is all ours, Councilwoman”, Herron replied with a voice that seemed too deep for a man of his relatively small stature. “We’ve been sent to escort you to the command center. It’s only a short walk away from here.”

    “I see”, Bannerman nodded, almost surprised that they hadn't arranged more suitable transportation especially considering the method of her actually getting here. “Lead the way, gentlemen.”

    “Of course, ma’am”, Vim smiled as he offered the councilwoman her arm. “This way, Madam Councilwoman.”

    She had expected a welcoming committee, sure, but not this kind of informal and overly friendly welcome. It was more like she’d come home to a distant relative or a long-lost friend rather than a formal visit to another planet, even another civilization.

    In some ways, she felt relieved that she wouldn’t have to go through all the formalities that usually came with representing her people's government, but she also had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t the correct procedure to do things and that she wasn’t being shown the proper respect as a member of the newly founded Federation Council.

    The pace wasn’t too high, not that she complained as the journey between the stars had actually been quite tiring. It wasn't that she’d had to do much while on the starship but she’d had enough trouble sleeping on airplanes back home and the mere thought of being in space, millions of millions of kilometers above ground, didn’t really help her rest all that much either. She’d managed to get an hour or two at most but it’d been the sleep of exhaustion and not true rest.

    They walked past more of the low houses, each as it seemed placed just as far away from the walkway as the other. She raised an eyebrow in surprise as she realized it was almost as if they’d been built to follow the small road, rather than the other way around which was what she'd call customary and what she’d have expected.

    As they progressed she realized they’d actually been set down at the outer edge of the settlement and that its very design had made her first impressions of its size quite inaccurate. As they walked up a small hill she was treated to a good view of the rest of the town. The buildings seemed to be split into several smaller areas by patches of denser woods; she could see thin reflective lines coming out of these wooded areas and realized they were in fact small rivers that cut through the peninsula the town was built on.

    Each complex seemed to be centered on a group of larger buildings, some of them more than a dozen stories high, but even so she was surprised at the lack of the more massive skyscrapers and apartment complexes she was accustomed to and even more so because these comparatively large buildings still kept to the general theme, many of them being closer to resembling natural formations than artificial buildings.

    To make matters still more astonishing she realized that the park-like areas she’d seen in the outskirts wasn’t in any way limited to the outer areas alone. The entire settlement was riddled with them and on some of the larger and lower buildings there were even gardens laid out on top of the roofs.

    All in all, it was as if the entire place had been built not to be industrious, or even practical, but instead to be a testament to eco-architectural art and natural beauty.

    “Excuse me, Lieutenant”, Bannerman asked. “How come you built this town like... this?”

    “You mean with the parks and gardens?” Vim replied with a smile.

    “Yes”, Bannerman nodded quizzically. “It’s not what I’d expect from a town, much less a military base.”

    “Is that what you believe this is?” Herron’s low voice replied from behind her.

    “Well… It is what I understood from the information your people gave me.”

    “Heh”, Herron made a quick smile. “We’re not limited to that kind of thinking, and we did have the ability to design and construct it all at once for a specific capacity and result instead of in the more normal way of the settlement starting out small and gradually growing to fit the population.”

    “You see”, Vim added, “it’s a question of when and how you build the settlement and how you plan it.”

    “That much I understand.” Bannerman nodded.

    “When we first came here, not too long ago, we had the ability to plan the entire settlement at once”, Vim continued. “Thus, we could build it however we wanted and we decided on this. Not only is it a pleasing place to live but it's also built to be hard to detect from orbit.”

    “That much I have no reason to doubt. But where did you put everything else?” Bannerman shook her head. “Industries, offices, stores, recreational facilities, I see nothing even closely resembling a supermarket, much less a manufacturing plant.”

    “That’s because there are few or none in the town”, Vim answered with a smile. “We don’t need them, at least not here.”

    “Oh?” Bannerman didn’t understand this. “But surely any society needs commerce and industry?”

    “Well, yes and no. We don’t really need industrial complexes to make consumer products, or for that sake food even if there are a number of people that are establishing themselves on fertile farmland. We use pattern replicators to cover most of our needs and all homes have at least one such unit.”

    “Pattern replicators?” Bannerman didn’t even start to understand, but got a distinct feeling of awe.

    “Yes, machines that are able to replicate any organic or synthetic pattern we program it to”, Herron replied from behind her. “Food, clothing, equipment, even furniture or kitchenware.”

    “But… if you have no need for industry, or commerce, how does your economy function?”

    “It didn’t, so we pretty much abandoned the concept”, Vim replied with a chuckle. “Within the Federation there’s little use for currency so we simply don’t commonly use any.”

    “We still have a form of credit, albeit more for use in trade with other races that isn’t members of the Federation themselves”, Herron added.

    “Wait, why do you have people farming then?” Bannerman stopped for a second and looked confused. “You said you could create pretty much anything with your material replication devices or whatever you called them.”

    “True”, Vim nodded. “We can, but just because we don’t always have to produce raw materials for food or industry doesn’t mean that we have no such production, or for that sake any industry at all.”

    “I’m getting confused”, Bannerman admitted with a sigh.

    “Look at it this way”, Vim tried. “For smaller everyday things like food, we can and will replicate most if not all we need. It doesn’t mean we always do so however, there are still a lot of people that like to cook the old fashioned way and for that sake people who like to grow it, just like there are quite a lot of people that actually prefer cooked meals over replicated. After all, every time you replicate the same meal it will always taste the exact same since it'll always be just another copy of the same original.”

    “Ok, I guess.”

    “Replicators also need fuel, either in the form of raw materials and energy, or just energy”, Vim continued. “The latter option uses up a lot of energy however, even for a replicator, so we try to use the former method as often as possible.” He paused. “Though, granted, we can and will use pretty much any matter available such as waste or even dirt.”

    “Oh.”

    “There are also other limitations to replicating which makes the technology unsuitable for larger constructions such as starships, though we still can and do replicate some of the components”, Herron added.

    It took Bannerman a few minutes to sort through the information in her head. Amazing, she'd gotten all that and she’d still probably only scratched the surface of this pattern replication device’s usefulness. If it could create anything from food to clothes to electronics or even car parts she could see how her world would go through an instant revolution away from their current industry-dependant society.

    People would lose their jobs, sure, but with an unlimited supply of goods produced at no cost there really wouldn’t be any need for people to work, would it?

    “Wait, you said you still needed factories to make some things?” Bannerman asked just to make sure.

    “Yes, that'd be true”, Vim nodded. "Anything that goes deeper than the molecular level, involves too exotic materials or where the pattern is too complex."

    “So, where are they?” she asked.

    “They are situated where they’re most suitably placed and least likely to impact the environment or, like the town, best protected from detection if it’s planet-based”, he replied with a shrug. “Starship construction is done in orbital manufactories, for example. Farms are located in the most fertile lands, a couple of hundred kilometers inland. Smelters and metal works would be near the mines up in the mountainous regions while the chemical plants are located inside a dead volcano in the same region.”

    “But aren’t they usually placed closer to…” Bannerman asked, but paused as she remembered she knew better. "Oh."

    “In older cities and towns, yes, but we don’t have the issues of commutes or transportation”, Vim smiled as he explained what she'd actually just realized. “It doesn’t matter if we live and work on opposite sides of the planet. It’s still a short commute. That being said this is not our only settlement on the planet, nor is it the only one in this system, and very few people in Elysium are involved in industry or manufacture. This is first and foremost a settlement for military and civic personnel.”

    “This is all very overwhelming”, Bannerman sighed.

    “I understand”, Vim replied, and motioned for her to continue walking. “I reckon I’d feel the same way if I were to go to New London.”

    “Possibly”, she shook her head as she started to walk again. “Though I'm seriously starting to doubt that.”

    They traveled the rest of the way in relative silence as she pondered what she'd been told and tried to make sense of it all in her mind. They passed a few more of the softly rolling hills and traversed a short but truly beautifully crafted stone bridge that spanned one of the smaller streams between the complexes. As they crossed over the bridge she realized a distinct difference in architecture as well as a major difference in the amount of people around.

    What she saw was a, compared to the rest of the settlement, massive complex of three interlinked buildings which spanned more than two hundred meters in either direction from the pathway. The main building was built into the hillside itself and faced a large plaza, with two four-story wings encompassing the left and right side of it. They extended far past the plaza and ended near a walkway which followed the stream as far as she could see in both directions.

    That wasn’t the only difference she noticed, the terrain around here looked more like it was designed towards real camouflage rather than artful gardening. There was also the fact that there were more people walking around this single plaza than she’d seen in the other areas of the settlement combined and that all of them wore uniforms.

    Still, even the plaza itself was beautifully designed, with the paved stones forming an intricate pattern which all centered around a small but very tasteful fountain in the center.

    “Starfleet Command”, Vim explained. “This is the nerve center of our fleet and quite literally the political center of the entire Sirius system.”

    “Impressive, Lieutenant”, Bannerman exhaled.

    “We thought so too”, Vim chuckled.


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS

    When they reached the main entrance the two lieutenants saluted the delegation and excused themselves. With their assignment completed they now had other duties that required their attention. The Draconian envoy only had to wait for a few seconds before the entrance opened and revealed a new escort, this time four apparently human men and women dressed in a dark green uniform the Councilwoman hadn’t seen before.

    What was slightly more disconcerting about these people weren’t just the pistol-like grips that protruded from the holsters at their hips or the rifles two of them were carrying on their backs. All four wore body armor.

    “Ma’am”, one of the men saluted. “I’m Major Greaves of the Starfleet Marine Corps and I’m here to escort you to the offices of the Admiralty. Please follow me.”

    “Certainly, Major”, Bannerman nodded.

    Without further ado or even a greeting to the rest of the delegates the major turned on his heel and started walking into the complex. There was a stark contrast between the plentiful gardens and parks on the outside and the sparse though still perfectly tasteful decorations inside. This felt more like she’d expected the entire settlement to feel like, and much more like what she'd expect from a military facility.

    Consoles and displays were common on the walls, and the corridors contained little more accessories than carpets, paintings and the odd potted plant. She was actually surprised when she looked at the paintings. They all seemed to be several hundred years old but she could have sworn she'd seen one of the men depicted on them being present when she was shown the bridge of the ship that had carried her and her companions to this system.

    They walked past several doors, went in another, and entered yet more corridors that looked just like the one they were just in except for the motives of the paintings. They repeated the process so often she resorted to the color of the wallpaper and pattern of the wooden floors to differentiate them.

    She could almost imagine them walking in circles if it hadn’t been for the staircases. When they finally reached the last door she thought they must be five or six floors up and at least a kilometer into the building. She was mostly correct even though she overestimated the distance.

    The major pressed a button next to the door, and as the door opened he saluted her before the marines all turned around and walked the other way.

    “Ah, Councilwoman Bannerman. How nice to finally meet you alone and in person”, the voice came from a middle-aged man at a desk inside. “Enter, please.”

    The man wasn’t alone; there were five other people in the room all sitting on one side of a large conference table. There was a woman in her early fifties as well as one in her late thirties or early forties that was quite visibly pregnant, both human.

    There was a human-looking woman that resembled the Seleyans back home as well as the previously ambassador, now councilmember, Fontaine that she’d met back home. He was now one of the Sirius representatives on the Council.

    The fifth, however, was more of a shock to her. He was feline more than humanoid, completely covered in fur reaching from dark orange to dark brown, and as he looked at her she could see the typical cat’s eyes above a fanged grin.

    As she entered, the man who had welcomed her motioned towards the empty seats opposite him and the other uniformed people.

    “Councilwoman, honored delegates, I’d like to present myself and my colleagues”, the man offered his hand and she shook it briefly. “I’m not sure if you remember but we actually met shortly on Draconis before the attack. My name is Fleet Admiral West, Commander-in-Chief of the Starfleet and the de facto leader of the people here on Sirius.”

    “I’m honored”, Bannerman replied and continued to shake the hands of the others as they were introduced. "I actually remember and I also saw the speech."

    “The men and women at my sides are”; he motioned to them in order.

    “Vice Admiral Keyes, chief of Starfleet space operations and commander of the Aquila space station…” He motioned towards the middle-aged woman at his right. “…Vice Admiral Jahari, chief of research and development and Starfleet engineering, as well as commander of our ground facilities here on Sirius.” He motioned to the feline man on his left.

    “A pleasure to meet you both, Admirals”, Bannerman interjected as she shook their hands, though with care when she shook Jahari’s mostly due to the half-inch long claws that protruded from his fingers.

    "The woman on his left is not Seleyan as you may think but rather half-Vulcan, Captain Janet Valeris who has recently been transferred from the Temperance to the Discovery. You already know Ambassador Fontaine”, he motioned towards the overweight Ambassador. “Last but not least you must have met Captain Duval of the starship Independence during your trip over here, she is also since a few days ago my wife.”

    “Ambassador”, she continued. “Captains.”

    “Captains Duval and Valeris are here as representatives of all the fleet’s captains", West explained. "As you can imagine they can’t all join us and many of them have other duties and responsibilities that must take precedence, some of which are as you well know in your own home system.”

    “I understand”, Bannerman nodded and sat down. “I’d like to introduce the rest of my envoy, being advocate Brian, my legal counsel, and professors Sims and Johnson of the Cambridge University.”

    “A pleasure”, West nodded and shook their hands.

    The professors both looked quite overwhelmed, something he’d expected and had actually intended, and the lawyer didn’t look like he was in any condition to do much more than sit still in his chair and be silent. He hadn’t really cared too much about the lawyer to begin with but a silent lawyer is, as always, a good lawyer.

    “So, shall we get this meeting started then?” West asked as they were all seated.

    “Very well”, Bannerman replied. “As far as I know, there’s really not much left to discuss except the practical implementation of the agreed upon sharing of technologies between Sirius and home and of course the issue of the new civilian government.”

    “Agreed, where do you want to begin?” West asked.

    “Let’s start with the one I’ve got the largest issue with”, Bannerman locked her gaze on the admiral. “The treaty stipulates that the new Federation Council will preside over all civilian matters at home, which means both on Draconis and here on Sirius. But, here’s the catch as I see it. You, as the military commander, would effectively have equaled if not more power on Sirius than the Council would since it could easily be argued that this entire world's population in some way belongs to your military hierarchy.”

    “Yes and no”, West replied. “The existing Starfleet command structure will retain complete command of the military organization, resources and personnel, but not over the purely civilian population or affairs.”

    “That’s my point”, Bannerman frowned. “There aren’t that many civilians on Sirius to begin with, and what few live here are as far as I have been able to see deeply involved with the military organization, either through being part of construction teams or other military-oriented industries.”

    “At this time, yes”, West nodded, he’d seen that complaint coming a mile away. “I’d expect that to change over time however. Eventually Sirius will have a sizeable civilian population, especially since we both know a large number of your population will eventually want to resettle. As it grows, so will the Council’s influence.”

    “But that simply means that we’d keep control over what people move from Draconis to here, and even then that’s not entirely true either! You’d still gain complete control over all those that come to attend your academies, those that join Starfleet or even those who just come to work at your shipyards! Is it not enough that your planet will essentially leech off our own workforce to boost your own population?”

    Bannerman almost spat the last part. Neither of the Starfleet personnel present were at all surprised at her apparent outrage; they’d been forewarned not only by the ambassador but also by Callaghan, who to Bannerman's deep frustration had become the newly and duly elected President of the Federation.

    “For the time being, that is a correct statement”, Keyes took over. “We’d also have control over what orbital and military facilities exist or are now being built in the Draconis system.”

    “And, during a transitional period, the schools and universities as well”, Jahari added. “That is until we’re satisfied that the educational programs are working and that there are well-educated and experienced teachers able to not only understand but also to teach what we have in turn have taught them.”

    “We’ll also have a Starfleet presence on Draconis, as well as a regional headquarters set up in the capital city”, Captain Valeris continued. “A complex over which Starfleet would, of course, also have jurisdiction.”

    “Plus, I might add”, Fontaine mused at his political coup de grace, “our three seats on the Federation Council, not including the one of the Commander-in-Chief of the Starfleet.”

    West could see a multitude of emotions in the councilwoman’s facial expression, none of them even close to what he'd call positive. He’d known she’d react this way and in all truth most politicians do when you cut their influence off part by part and tell them they won’t ever get it back, or rather in her case that her position would but probably not within the time frame of her own remaining lifetime.

    It had to be even worse to know that all she could really do about it was to plead and complain, since, for all intents and purposes, what she was complaining about was already written into the signed, sealed and documented treaty.

    “Councilwoman Bannerman. We understand that this treaty isn’t entirely to your personal liking”, West stated. “Still, it is what it is. The treaty stipulates a government where the Federation Council will preside over civilian matters as well as set the strategic goals and overhead mandate of the Starfleet.”

    “Starfleet, on the other hand, will be an organization which is operationally largely separated from the Federation Council”, Keyes continued the recital. “Apart from their ability to change the overall policies the Council has no direct power over Starfleet Command, any of her officers, enlisted crew or enrolled cadets except in the case of pursuing civilian justice. Even those investigations must be done in cooperation with Starfleet Security in order to determine judicial jurisdiction.”

    “Starfleet Command and her ranking officers also have the right and ability to make tactical and situational decisions under the guidelines defined by the Federation charter and the policies set forth by the Council, as well as the right to legally try any criminal offenders within Starfleet by means of court martial”, Duval added. “However, Starfleet has no control over civilian matters such as legislation, justice or enforcing order, unless a state of martial law is declared by the Council.”

    Bannerman looked towards the stunned lawyer, who just nodded. What they’d recited wasn’t just the spirit of the treaty; it was the very letter of the treaty.

    “But”, she stuttered. “This means that we, the people of Draconis, give you a lot of rights, power and influence, but gain none ourselves!”

    West’s face darkened. So, it would come down to that.

    “Madam Councilwoman”, he said with a very low voice. “If you think our giving you and your people literally several centuries worth of technological and scientific advancements, bringing your people into an interstellar community, agreeing to educate your entire population base and reconstructing your entire industrial economy is gaining nothing...”

    “...not to mention our accepting the responsibility of protecting your people from the Vorlons as well as any and all other belligerent interstellar nations...” Duval interjected.

    “...then that's your problem and not mine”, West finished. “I'm quite certain neither of the professors here would agree with your standpoint and I strongly believe your people would disagree with your assessment that you gain nothing from our arrangement as well.”

    The two Draconian professors simply nodded their agreement. It wasn't a too surprising response considering what they’d be doing once this meeting was finished, namely helping Admiral Jahari and his Starfleet Corps of Engineers in deciding on how to best introduce Starfleet technology to Draconis.

    Revolutionizing an entire civilization with science was something people in their position could normally only dream about and they certainly wouldn’t allow a disgruntled politician to stand in their way of changing the future of their people for the better.


    STARBASE PORT ROYAL
    DRACONIS ORBIT
    SIGMA DRACONIS SYSTEM, AUGUST 14TH, 2244



    Halsey was in a depressed mood as he looked out the window. The Starbase wasn’t really finished yet, not by a long shot, but you could see the general shape of the station taking form from the finished framework. What depressed him wasn’t that the station wasn’t entirely operational yet, in fact he barely even cared about that, but rather it was the shaded shape of his ship docked to one of the few finished spacedocks that was linked to it.

    It’d almost been a full six months since the battle took place and his ship was still in the process of being repaired. Sure, his chief engineer had been very clear about the fact that it’d actually take months to repair the ship even from the beginning and that most of those repairs would require a spacedock, but he still didn’t enjoy being tied down to a spacedock for weeks having nothing to do except seeing Work Bees scurry around the ship.

    In his opinion, it was about as interesting as watching paint dry. What made it even worse was that he knew he’d have to wait at least another three or possibly even four weeks just to get the new nacelle due to resource shortages. It was ironic, he thought, that while they’d easily enough rebuilt their ability to manufacture entire starships in mere months, they’d still run into a massive bottleneck when it came to something as relatively minor as the nacelles. Or, more specifically, the warp coils.

    Not only did they require large amounts of relatively rare minerals such as tungsten, cobalt and highly refined magnesium, but they also required the exotic materials of verterium and cortenum, two very rare minerals that only existed in a few solar systems. Draconis unfortunately wasn’t one of those, and neither was Sirius. Vulcan however, was.

    What little had been mined prior to the battle had already been funneled straight into the Dreadnought project and for some reason not a single one of the bean counters had come up with the idea that a small stockpile could be necessary in case one of the active ships needed a replacement nacelle, not to mention two. As far as he knew, it was even three ships that needed new ones albeit the small science vessel Icarus was still considered a very low priority even as compared to the still unfinished dreadnoughts.

    A small ship like that wasn’t enough bang for the buck when they had to mine the rare minerals in the Vulcan system, then bring the low-grade ore to Sirius to finally be refined and precision-shaped into new coils. It was a process that took several trips for a Galaxy-class ship just to bring enough cortenum ore for a single coil. Even being a rich mine it was still producing a very low yield compared to almost every other material except possibly verterium.

    They couldn't even risk using phasers to drill for it as the materials were too sensitive to the nadion particles, a fact which made the entire mining procedure both time consuming and resource intensive. An alternative would be to construct a permanent mining facility on Vulcan with a refinery in orbit but that had been rejected as strategically unwise since the Vulcan system was too close to Earth and too far from Sirius.

    The same was true for his Nebula but in his case at least the only ship before him in the queue was the Discovery. He could still limp back home to Sirius when the last of the other repairs were finished, a starship is after all still able to enter warp if at a low factor with only one nacelle, but there’d be little reason to.

    He’d just be just as stranded there as here waiting for the new nacelle to be completed and he’d already seen what there was to see on Sirius. Draconis still had a little left to offer in terms of entertainment though he was quickly getting bored here as well.

    “Captain”, a voice behind him startled him. “I thought I’d find you here.”

    Halsey turned and recognized Professor Stevenson, the man who had almost invented this planet’s first warp drive. He looked quite different now that he was dressed in the newly adopted entirely black Starfleet uniform but Halsey thought it suited him.

    “Professor, nice to see you again”, Halsey nodded.

    “Actually, it’s ‘second junior engineer’s mate' now”, Stevenson almost blushed as he corrected the captain. "I've been assigned to one of the engineering teams working on the space station."

    “That title's a mouthful”, Halsey smiled. “I’ll stick with Jonah, then.”

    “Thanks.” Stevenson sat down in one of the seats near the window and looked at the still visibly scarred Endeavour outside. “How is she?”

    “Still a bit banged up but they’re working on it.” Halsey sighed. “It’ll still be a few more weeks before she’s space worthy again.”

    “I understand. I wish I could help, but…” He looked down at the floor.

    “...you have your own responsibilities”, Halsey interrupted. “Yeah, I know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So do I.”

    “Yeah”, Jonah nodded. “I guess you're right, Captain.”

    "Trust me, you don't know how irritating it is to be relegated to being a teacher after years in space", Halsey sighed. "Or to constantly have to wait for my own shuttles to become available to ship me to and from the planet."

    "I guess that'd be irritating, yes", Stevenson smiled.

    "So", Halsey nodded and looked at the Professor. "How’s life treating you in the Engineering Corps?”

    “Heh”, the ex-Professor chuckled dryly. “I actually thought I knew something about warp physics and subspace theory. Two weeks into my practical training I realized that what little I do know, you guys teach in primary school.”

    “Well, that’s not an entirely true statement”, Halsey chuckled. “Though I have no problems imagining the senior engineers telling you that.”

    “Seriously, Captain”, Stevenson continued. “You guys are so far ahead of what I was developing it’s not even the same kind of math anymore. It’d take decades, even centuries, of practical experience and theoretical research for our people to start scratching the surface of what you take for granted.”

    Halsey just silently nodded as a reply. He wasn’t all that good at science or engineering and he was a prime example of what he'd just told the professor. He was an explorer and a naval officer and his passions weren’t any more or less intriguing than just being in space doing what he loved.

    However the ship actually worked, whatever made them tick so to speak, was other people’s interests and making sure the ship kept working was a job other people signed up for.

    “Even so, I’m learning more each passing day than I did in months back at the university.” Jonah smiled. “Who knows, in another year or two I might even be able to make a difference.”

    “Trust me, Jonah, you already have”, Halsey gave a good and heartily laugh. “You made first contact with another civilization. Not a completely alien such, granted, but still another civilization.”

    “Yeah, I guess that’s true”, Stevenson nodded.

    The two men looked out the window, their gazes following a Work Bee that was carrying a large sheet of metal towards the far side of the station. It may not be all that much of an interest of Halsey’s but he could still be impressed by the speed in which the starbase actually took shape.

    It hadn’t even been eight full weeks since construction of the starbase itself had been started and while a small portion of the living quarters and the dock the Endeavour was berthed in had been prioritized it had still gone up much faster than he’d ever expected.

    Part of the reason was that even though their construction capacity in the Draconis system wasn’t as high as that in Sirius there were still ample resources available as well as a large amount of industry on the planet capable of manufacturing at least the most basic components. It also helped that, unlike Aquila, Port Royal used the Federation standard orbital starbase design.

    It wasn’t all that large either, that is by definition of a Starbase, dwarfed by any of the frontier starbases such as the late Starbase 10 as well as the even more massive Deep Space Stations. Aquila had taken considerably more resources not to mention time to build, but that station was more of an orbital fortress than a standard starbase as well.

    It would still most likely take the better part of a year to actually finish the starbase, even longer to finish the rest of the planned orbital installations. They had planned to build a number of planetary defense platforms and a few orbital docks as well as several basic shipyards which would help build up the new Federation’s transport and resourcing capability.

    It’d been an early realization that it was a real waste to use the more advanced warships to transport raw resources and people between the planets; they simply couldn't carry a whole lot of them since they were never designed to do so. The engineers had quickly rounded up a few designs for dedicated cargo and personnel transports from the databases.

    Sirius would still focus on the more advanced ships that Starfleet would require but Draconis, with its much larger work force, could focus on civilian shipping as while it’d require a lot more manpower but much less of the high-tech equipment that could, for the foreseeable future, only be manufactured on Sirius.

    There would also be a number of smaller corvette- and gunboat-sized impulse vessels built who would be dedicated to short range system defense. Being near carbon copies of the Defiant design they’d be able to pack a punch and be almost as maneuverable as the latter while being a lot less resource intensive as it'd lack both warp drive and nacelle assembly.

    “Anyways, glad I got to chat with you, Captain”, Stevenson sighed, rose and saluted. “I must return to my duties. Good day, Halsey.”

    “Good day, Stevenson”, Halsey sloppily returned the salute.

    As the other man turned around and walked away to do whatever duty had been assigned him, Halsey thought about the past, present and future. It still seemed so recent, almost like it was only weeks ago they’d been fighting the Romulans back home in the Alpha Quadrant. It seemed like it’d been so simple. Get into battle, shoot the enemy before he shoots you and go home as a war hero just in time for the victory celebration.

    Well, in reality it wasn't exactly that simple, but still.

    He found he missed the other little things as well. Being able to go, well, pretty much where no one had ever gone before, being able to visit any number of worlds, or just getting on a subspace link and speaking to a friend or a family member. He could still do the latter, there just weren’t that many left to speak with.

    Exploring was still a valid mission though you’d have to hide more than half the time and first contact was pretty much out of the question. Space had gotten emptier and he really felt that just… well… sucked.

    “Cook to Halsey”, his communicator beeped.

    “Halsey here”, he answered. "Go ahead Jim."

    “I have the latest progress report on the repairs to my systems”, Cook replied. “All in all, we are progressing a little faster than our preliminary schedule.”

    “Music to my ears, Jim”, Halsey replied with a slight smile on his lips. “I’m really getting tired of being grounded. Any news about what orders we might receive after we’re patched up?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Don’t keep me waiting, Cook”, Halsey muttered, though still smiling.

    “We have indeed received a bit of news from Space Command”, Cook continued. “They have managed to secure a new and richer source of verterium on one of Vulcan’s moons and they believe they will be able to produce my new nacelle within three weeks. Unfortunately they have still given my brother priority for the second coil assembly produced as well since both of his nacelles have now finally been officially condemned. By that time I also estimate my new warp core and plasma matrix will have been delivered and fully installed. Hopefully they will even have had time to weld my behind back together.”

    “Great”, Halsey replied, a silent smile crossing his face as he realized how much of a prude the AI truly was. “I'm sure they'll do their best to give you back your privacy. Can we fly by then?”

    “Probably, sir”, Cook seemed to sigh in response to his captain's bad humor. “Also, I have received updated orders from Athena. When we finish repairs we are to commence a shakedown cruise of the new warp core through the outer system to make sure all my new parts still hold together under pressure and then progress to reconnoiter the Earth Alliance movements in the local sector.

    “Very well”, Halsey sighed in anticipation of finally getting underway again. “Keep my seat warm for me; I'm still waiting for the shuttle planet-side.”
     
  20. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    BOOK TWO: INTERVENTION


    Chapter 18


    USS ENDEAVOUR
    FEDERATION NEBULA-CLASS LINE CRUISER
    EN-ROUTE TO SIRIUS III, FEBRUARY 19TH, 2245



    It’d only been a few weeks since the ship had left Sirius the last time but it felt like if months, even years, had gone by. He'd spent most of his time since on assignment with the force stationed in Draconis space.

    Sirius almost looked slow and peaceful in comparison, the massive construction projects going on in Draconis orbit as well as the great undertakings Starfleet had begun to execute on the planet itself made the entire solar system seem like it was caught up in what the Draconian people would probably call a ‘traffic jam’.

    Shuttles going here, pods going there, even going down to the surface hadn’t helped the situation that much either and that was only if you made it down through the busy reentry vectors without bumping into a small transport or getting stuck behind one of the new bulk ore transports; these were massive ships that looked more like balloons than starships and that was not an entirely incorrect description either considering they were little more than a series of very large cargo bays strapped to a low-grade warp drive.

    There were quite literally millions of people milling around everywhere on the planet, reading, studying, discussing, all trying to understand the new technologies they had been introduced to the best they of their ability. He’d almost wondered if they didn’t have any jobs or responsibilities to attend to.

    Then he’d realized that most of their population base was no longer required to actually work for a living, which had effectively changed with the introduction of Starfleet tech-level industries as well as farming and mining technology. At least, he mentally added, not until they'd learned how to use what they'd been given and that was what they were now learning.

    He still wasn’t entirely certain that giving them all that technology was the right thing to do in the long run but at least so far, it had played out well for him. He’d been able to get dibs on the second orbital dry-dock that had been constructed, even getting his ship docked and her repair underway before the station that was supposed to control it was completed. It had helped immensely in cutting his repair time down to ‘only’ a little more than seven months total.

    Still, by now that was ancient history. The Endeavour had finished her repairs a long time ago now, the battle itself in which she'd been damaged had been over for more than a year after all. Ever since then she’d been constantly kept in service rotating between the Draconis system’s defense force and deep space recon, only returning to her home base at Aquila twice and both times for resupply and crew rotation before today.

    “Captain, I am sorry to bother you”, Cook said as he materialized next to Halsey. “I was just in contact with Athena. She told me that we are cleared to enter the Aquila control zone. We are to set our course for a high orbit in sector two one baker.”

    “All right then”, Halsey replied and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Take us down to one eight impulse power, no need to hurry more than we have to.”

    “Aye, sir”, Cook silently relayed the command to the helm officer. “Mind if I ask why?”

    “Sure, though I’d almost expect you’d understand that by now”, Halsey sighed and gave the AI a friendly smile. “It’s the feeling of coming home. To see the changes made since last we were here and to see the differences between what you expected and what’s really there.”

    “I understand”, Cook nodded. “I can see that there are indeed some minor changes in planetary rotation, a factor of two point two nine parts per million. Aquila station has adjusted its orbital radius by nine point six meters. Sirius is four point nine degrees warmer than the last time I measured it while Sothis is one point six cooler. There are one thousand nine hundred and six more humanoid life signs on the planet and one hundred and six more on the moon of Isis than there was last we were here.”

    “Good lord", Halsey just shook his head and chuckled. “That’s… not exactly what I meant, Cook.”

    “It is what I see”, Cook explained patiently. “I cannot change my sensor reports, Captain.”

    “It’s not about what you actually ‘see’ per se, Jim”, Halsey tried to make his point clearer. “It’s more about how you perceive it.”

    “Ah”, Cook thought he understood. “I see.”

    “I doubt that", Halsey laughed. “I really do. But that doesn’t matter. We’re almost home.”

    “Yes, sir”, Cook replied. “I estimate that it will take nine minutes until we pass by Aquila station.”

    “Good”, Halsey said with a smile and refocused on the viewscreen. “That’ll be just dandy.”

    Nine minutes until they came into position, hardly a lot of time but it’d have to do. Only part of his wanting to slow down was due to the relief of finally coming back home, it was also his last chance to delay doing something he really didn’t want to do, well, at least that he didn't want to admit he did.

    No matter what his personal opinion was though it had been made very clear to him by the powers that be that he had very little choice in the matter. While Starfleet was still feeling the lack of qualified personnel to fill up the necessary positions in the fleet it had been determined that compromises had to be made, unfortunately and especially so when it came to experienced ship commanders such as him.

    Four of the captains they had set out with were no longer available. One of them, Rodriguez, had been killed in action during the Vorlon attack on Draconis. Of the other three, two including his good friend Sheila were on maternity leave and the last, Hiroshi Sato, had requested to take Halsey's interim position as headmaster at the Starfleet Academy on Draconis.

    There were several rumors that the transfer had actually been requested by his peers following a smaller but fairly embarrassing incident, but those were still only rumors. Either way his request had been approved surprisingly fast by the admiral in charge, Heron Jahari. Maybe that leant some credence to the rumor, but it may also just have been a sign of a particularly slow day over at Starfleet Command.

    After all, there weren't really that much to do there which required their full attention. Even including the progress reports that were constantly filtering in from Draconis most of the work was still happening in the field and barely required any input from Starfleet Command.

    His gaze was focused on the planet almost refusing to see anything else right now. Even the smallest spark of interest was summarily ignored by the captain's conscious mind. He’d been at his post for some fifteen years by now and he really didn’t want to leave. He’d formed bonds with the crew, with their replacements, even with their families back when they were still allowed on board.

    He'd even formed a bond with Cook; it was a bond that had surprised him at first but now felt just as natural as those between him and his other friends. Perhaps even deeper since the two had kept no secrets from each other during his year-long service, something that he couldn’t say about any other man.

    It no longer mattered to Halsey that the other man was artificial or that he had no real physical form except for the one of the ship itself. To Halsey and indeed the entire crew he was just as real as anyone else, just as alive and just as much a friend.

    Now he would be forced to leave him and his crew behind. Of course, he had known this day would come sooner or later, he was too intelligent not to. Even back home in the Alpha Quadrant a captain could not expect to stay on the same ship indefinitely.

    He was one of the few who had managed to get more than just a good run and to his knowledge very few others had surpassed him. Not even Picard, even though that was more a question of definition. In Halsey’s mind and opinion it didn’t really count when you got a new ship even if it kept the same name and mostly the same crew, especially not when you’d lost your first.

    Halsey had been transferred to command the Endeavour in 2365, just a year or so after Picard had gotten his Galaxy-class starship Enterprise, but unlike his colleague's ship his Endeavour was still the same ship that it had started out as. She'd been extensively rebuilt in her refits since, but it was still the same ship and still a Nebula-class. Not a Sovereign or a Luna, the two most likely classes that the next Endeavour built would be if one was built today.

    Perhaps there was already a Sovereign-class starship Endeavour back home, after all they didn’t exactly tend to hold off on reusing the old ship names in war-time and especially not ones presumably lost in battle. They probably thought the entire task force had been just that. He'd be extremely surprised if anyone at Starfleet Command back on Earth thought differently.

    They had done so with the Enterprise, with the Defiant, Majestic, even with two of the fleet’s Sovereigns, both the Discovery and Independence. There had been many others since he’d become captain. In many cases they had replaced other names that were deemed less worthy than theirs like Saõ Paolo or Honorius with those of these faithful old servants of the Federation. He had little doubt that the Endeavour, a name just as old and respected as Enterprise or Discovery, would be treated any differently.

    Maybe they’d even get their bureaucratic thumbs out of their asses and call it the 60805-A this time. Probably not, Starfleet brass always had problems getting through their own red tape faster than the engineers at the Utopia Planitia shipyards could paint a new name on a ship and stamp a new commissioning tablet.

    “Captain, we’re about to enter the Aquila control zone”, helm called.

    “Very well”, Halsey replied with a tired voice. “Bring us to a high orbit above the northern tropics.”

    “Aye, sir”, the helm officer responded. “Course and speed are laid in.”

    “Well then”, Halsey said with a short nod. “Take us home, Ensign.”

    It was almost anticlimactic, being his last order on board this since so many years his own ship. But, as they said, time waits for no man and the past is in the past. It was always the future that mattered. It was a whole load of horse manure, at least according to Halsey. He finally allowed himself to look up from the planet beneath. The time for delays was over. It was time to take the next step, and this as the powers that be kept telling him was it.

    “Ladies, gentlemen. My friends. It’s been an honor serving with you, with all of you”, he sighed and turned to his first officer. “Commander LaSalle?”

    “Yes, sir”, LaSalle rose and picked up a pad from his armrest. “Congratulations, and I’m sorry, sir.”

    “Don’t worry, Marcel”, Halsey gave a slight smile. “I know what it says. I’ve known for some time now.”

    “Yes, sir”, the first officer nodded and cleared his throat before continuing. “Captain George Timothy Halsey. By the power vested in me by Commander Starfleet, Fleet Admiral Samuel Tobias West..." he had to stop and catch his breath. "...and by Commander Starfleet Space Operations, Vice Admiral Elisha Camille Keyes, I am hereby ordered to relieve you of command of the USS Endeavour.”

    “Understood”, Halsey straightened up. “Commander.”

    “Captain, I hereby relieve you”, LaSalle saluted.

    “I stand relieved”, Halsey smiled and returned the salute. “Captain. God, that was a mouthful of titles, wasn't it?”

    "That it was", Marcel chuckled. “It has truly been an honor to serve with you, Captain.”

    “Same to you, Marcel”, Halsey said shook his former first officer's hand. “And you don’t have to call me captain anymore, you know. George will do just fine. Well, unless they make me an admiral that is”, he half-joked.

    “You will always be Captain Halsey to me”, Marcel shook back. “But I’ll try my best to accommodate that wish, mon ami.”

    “Be well, Marcel.”

    “You too.”

    Halsey made a short salute to the rest of the bridge crew before heading towards the turbolift. It had been a long decade and a half, perhaps too long considering how attached he'd became to the ship and its crew, but now it was over. More than one era had ended in this new world; this was just the most recent.

    It would bring a new one though, Halsey thought, this was just another beginning. He told the turbolift where to go, and not even thinking about it or looking up his feet carried him into the transporter room as if on autopilot. He stopped just as he was going up to the transporter pad, slightly disoriented as he couldn’t remember actually walking there. It was a testament to how well he knew his ship.

    “Captain”, Cook’s avatar fluttered into existence beside him. “I thought it would be appropriate that I should see you off.”

    “Thank you, Cook”, Halsey raised his hand and offered it to the avatar. “We had some good times, you and me.”

    “That we did, sir”, Cook responded and shook his previous captain's hand. "More than just some, even if I do say so myself."

    “Take care of yourself and the crew for me, will you?”

    “Of course, you too”, Cook replied, and seemed at a loss for words. “I will… miss… you, Captain.”

    “As will I, but Marcel will be a good captain and he’s always been a good man”, Halsey replied.

    “It will not be the same, Captain”, Cook said. “You… you are my friend. Captain LaSalle… he is a colleague.”

    “I understand. You’ll get closer as you get to know him.”

    “That is my hope as well”, Cook replied with a nod and finally released the captain’s hand.

    “Requesting permission to disembark, Lieutenant Commander.”

    “Permission granted, Captain.”

    The AI didn’t even touch the controls, but then he really didn’t have to. With a single albeit hesitant thought he sent the Captain forward on his journey. It wasn’t the same anymore, Cook realized. Halsey had been a solid presence, one he could pinpoint anywhere on the ship without even looking and one he could feel without trying.

    It would be hard to get that close again, Cook understood, but he would try. He understood now, more than he had ever done before, that the pain in losing something was only proof that it was worth gaining it.


    STARFLEET COMMAND
    ELYSIUM, SIRIUS



    The building that housed Starfleet Command was even more impressive now than last Halsey had seen it. He’d beamed down just outside, mostly to get a perspective on the progress they’d made down on the ground in the last year. It was quite a lot by any measurement. Even though the settlement was pretty much the same and the gardens, parks and flower beds were still just as lovely, now wild wine was starting to grow on the white-washed walls, fruit trees were blooming in the small orchards, and the birds were singing in the air.

    It was February, this would still be winter back home in England, but here on Sirius the seasons were different. They had to be, the planet had an orbit of just over five hundred days. He took a deep breath of the rare and fresh air, feeling the scents and smells of spring that were so unfamiliar to him. He’d spent most of his life on starships and as such he wasn’t really all that accustomed to air that didn't smell sterile and recycled.

    The banners that hung on either side of the entrance to the large complex had been changed since last he saw them, not very surprising since that had been before the new Federation had been created. The old blue banners with the silver Federation logo had been replaced with black banners with gold and silver inlays, the same color scheme as the new duty uniforms. It was more because of limited time since the reform and limited visits to the Sirius system rather than keeping a hold on old tradition that Halsey and his starship's crew were still wearing the old gray and black uniform.

    The new one looked very much the same except the color, still a jacket and long pants but with a slightly different logo. It used slightly different rank insignia, silver embroidery on the left side of the chest bore the wearer's name and a badge on the right shoulder revealed where the wearer was stationed. One's department was no longer indicated not by the color of the uniform’s lining but by a more distinctive service badge on the left shoulder.

    Gone was the blue, replaced with separate badges for medical, science and research. The yellow had split into operations, engineering and security while the red diverged into command, navigation and communications. This was intended to give more uniformity at the same time as it gave more both diversity and ease of recognition.

    Halsey just shook his head and asked himself why one would change something that worked, but then realized it was because while the old Starfleet personnel knew what different specializations each color had encompassed the people of Draconis did not. One Starfleet officer in blue looked very much like another one and that didn't really help if you needed to see with just a glance if he was a medical doctor, linguist or astrophysicist.

    He worked his way into the complex, following a golden line that had been inlaid into the wooden floor tiles during the latest redecoration. It was a means of directions that wouldn’t fail if the computers did, although Halsey doubted that would be too much of an issue anytime near. Still, he preferred to use the non-technological way rather than to announce his presence to the facility's tiresome AI.

    It was something that turned out to be completely pointless as he sensed a familiar tingling in his arm, the initial ionization of the air caused by force fields activating in close proximity always made his hairs stand on end. He turned his head to examine the man he knew had materialized next to him and was keeping his pace.

    “Good day, Lord Admiral”, Halsey nodded as a greeting.

    “And a good day to you as well, Captain,” came the response from the apparently equally old but still ancient naval officer. “I was wondering why you took so long?”

    “I was saying goodbye to your nephew”, Halsey responded. “I hope I’m not too late?”

    “I understand”, the other man nodded. “And as for your question the answer is no, albeit admirals Jahari and West are both awaiting your arrival.”

    “I see”, Halsey responded with a nod. “You’ve done some truly amazing things with the place, Lord Admiral.”

    “In truth much of it is, as you would say, not entirely real”, he responded with a slight blush. “But I will admit that it gives me some joy to be able to make my small contribution.”

    “Small?” Halsey asked as they came across a painting more than two meters tall showing a natural sized painting of Queen Victoria.

    He’d seen the very same painting in the palace back home in London, same dress, same stance and the same regalia. She just had the wrong face and lacked at least ten stone to be entirely historically correct. The changes were seamless and unless you’d seen the original you’d never know it wasn’t how the real woman had looked.

    “I know”, the other man smiled. “It was my mother’s wish. All of us are represented here, at one place or another, and it would be unfair to my sister if I did not portray her the way she has chosen to appear.”

    “You have paintings of all the avatars’ namesakes?” Halsey asked with some surprise. “I did not know that.”

    “I do”, the other man responded. “Plus a number of busts and statues”, he added and pointed at a large fountain that was situated in an orangery, a kind of in-door flower and fruit garden. In its center was a life sized statue of the goddess Pallas Athena made by what looked like fine white marble. “This one of my mother is quite real.”

    “I admire your work”, Halsey said in awe. “That is very exquisite craftsmanship.”

    “I thank you, Captain.”

    It took quite a lot of concentration to not get ensnared by the beautiful scenery that had been created here and to not get lost admiring the detail and the art's likeness to reality. He could even sense the scent of the orchids that were planted here and there, even though he knew that they were just holograms as they only existed on few and very specific planets in the known universe the smell was still real. It was the masterpiece of masterpieces, the whole building was a piece of art and the artist was a master.

    “While I would love to get the full tour, Lord Admiral, I do believe the admirals are waiting”, he pulled himself back to reality again.

    “Of course!” the other man almost blushed. “This way, Captain, this way.”

    They entered the room at the end of what had turned into a literal golden brick road instead of just a wooden floored corridor, yet another testament to the avatar’s sense of history, legend and artistry. The room was massively oversized for its current use, with only seven people in it excluding the two new arrivals it nearly looked empty, but this was carefully hidden from one's senses by using tasteful historical tapestries and yet another painting, this time one depicting Bellerophon on his winged horse Pegasus.

    Halsey realized that it was the exact same image as the avatar Bellerophon used as heraldry on his armor, just much more detailed and rich in color. Of course, unlike the actual armor the painting was also unrestricted by the natural curves, folds and weapon banks of an Intrepid-class starship's hull.

    “Halsey. Finally”, Admiral Jahari made a toothy grin, showing his sharp fangs. “I was starting to believe that you had gotten lost.”

    “I found him”, the avatar interjected. “I could not resist showing him some of my latest works.”

    “I see”, West chuckled. “Well, that explains why he’s late.”

    “Admirals”, Halsey nodded and stood at attention. “Captain George Halsey, reporting as ordered.”

    The admirals answered with a short nod and they all sat down. Halsey took a second to look at the people that had been convened. West was as always a commanding presence though he looked a little tired. He understood, by now his daughter must be what, nine or ten months old? She looked very much like his mother from what he’d heard but even he, who'd never even considered having children of his own, didn't have any illusions about the kind of sleep you'd get with an infant at home. Especially not when the mother has a job just as important as Halsey's, well, actually, she had the exact same job as Halsey.

    Jahari looked like Jahari usually looked, sharp and alert. His feline eyes kept wandering the room as if scanning for any possible threat and his muscles played under the dark orange-furred skin as he moved. He reminded Halsey of a cheetah, alert and seemingly always ready to pounce even when resting. Keyes, quite apparently, wasn’t present and for a second the captain wondered why. She was after all his commanding officer.

    The others were surprises, at least those of them he could recognize; the older Commander Suvok of the Albion and the younger and quite striking Lieutenant Commander Jorani of the Michael. The other three were unknown, two more lieutenants though male humans and a female Trill lieutenant commander.

    He knew why they were all there and it all fell nicely into position in his mind, even if Suvok was still somewhat of a surprise. He had not even considered the Vulcan officer before, believing the admiral's younger brother would never let him go.

    “Well Halsey, I suppose I don’t need to tell you why you’re here?” West started.

    “No, sir”, Halsey replied. “I understand I am to be reassigned to a new ship.”

    “Correct”, West nodded. “I would like to introduce you to your new command crew.” He gestured towards them in order. “You already know Commander Suvok, who will be serving as your first officer.”

    “Suvok”, Halsey greeted him. “I must admit I’m somewhat surprised, thought you were stuck with the Albion?”

    “That is not necessary, Captain”, Suvok replied. “As the admiral so aptly told me and his brother; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. I am a senior Starfleet officer; I must go where I am ordered.”

    “Either way I'm honored, Suvok”, Halsey replied.

    “To continue,” West resumed. “This is your tactical officer and third in command, Lieutenant Commander Lela Char.”

    “Char, I remember that name, but the face doesn’t match…” Halsey replied.

    “I remember you as well, Captain, from Earth. Let me explain, I am a joined Trill. You knew my previous host Umani and I hope you don't still have nightmares about her nebulous motion test.”

    “I see, and I had actually managed to forget it until you reminded me.” Halsey replied with a small smile. “I was sorry to hear about Umani, she was a good if stern teacher.”

    “Thank you, though she lived a full life and was ready for the end”, Lela replied with a smile. “After all, she passed on at the respectable age of a hundred and twenty six.”

    “I look forward to renewing our acquaintance”, Halsey added and shook her hand.

    The next one he knew fairly well, if mostly by reputation. Lieutenant Commander Jorani Dia, a quite good looking and fairly young for the position Bajoran engineer from the Michael, was to become his chief engineer. They shook hands with a mutual smile, both having a similar sense of humor.

    “These two I believe you haven’t met yet. Lieutenants Damien Black, previously of the Renown, and Paul Anderson from the research department”, West introduced them. “They will serve as your helm and science officers respectively.”

    “I see”, Halsey shook their hands as well and felt somewhat uncomfortable as he turned back to the admirals. “I’m starting to feel like this is a handpicked command crew.”

    “It should”, West said and gave the captain a blank face. “It is. Each and every one present has been handpicked by me and Admiral Keyes.”

    “Understood, Admiral.”

    “Your transfer…” West stated. “Do you know where?”

    “No, sir, I don't”, Halsey replied and shook his head. “I’m guessing either the Independence or the Discovery, I heard Vancouver tell Cook that he was finally getting ready to leave dock and according to what I've heard your wife is still on a desk job for another six months or so.”

    West smiled and shook his head. It had actually been a good guess and his information had been correct, but it had still been the wrong guess. The Independence was until further notice assigned to the reconstruction efforts at Draconis and the Discovery wasn’t quite ready to leave dock yet, no matter what the impatient avatar had told the others of his kind.

    It had surprised many that the seemingly medium damage had been so severe when the armor plating had been removed. It had taken more than six months just to fix the damage to the spaceframe, three more before they had fixed enough of the power systems to even reinitialize the computers. They still hadn’t finished installing the new engines or the new prototype antimatter core that would also need to be tested further once installed.

    He and Keyes had also already reached the decision that the ship's interim captain, the half-Vulcan Captain Valeris, would retain her command when the ship was re-launched. She'd already made the connection with the crew that was so important for an effective commander and had gotten good reviews from said crew as well. She also had a good grasp of the new systems seeing as how she'd been involved in both repairing and constructing them.

    “No, Captain”, West smiled. “Sorry, but you’re not getting a Sovereign. Captain Valeris will be confirmed as captain of the Discovery and the Independence isn’t going anywhere.”

    “That leaves the Atlantis then”, Halsey felt somewhat let down; an Akira was just a step to the side, not upwards. “I guess I can live with that.”

    “I guess you probably could, but….” West’s smile disappeared. “Strike two. You're not getting an Akira either.”

    "That only leaves one ship that doesn't already have an experienced commander", Halsey shrugged, somewhat let down. “Well, if not that, then I’m out of ideas.”

    The Galaxies were out of the picture since it’d be pointless reassigning him from what was pretty much the same ship class. They also both had captains who weren't going anywhere unless you pulled their kicking and screaming bodies off their ships by force. That only left a lighter ship. Among most captains being assigned a lower classed ship was widely considered to be a silent demotion and Halsey didn’t believe he’d done anything to deserve that.

    Still, if it was neither an Akira nor a Sovereign that only left the destroyers. If Valeris was to be permanently assigned that specifically left a slot open on the Norway-class starship Temperance. He could be slotted over to one of the Steamrunner-class light cruisers, sure, but considering he had zero experience with fighter command the risk of that happening was slim to none. Unlike the Akira-class, which still counted as a line cruiser, the Steamrunner commands typically went to people with starfighter training.

    “May I ask why?” Halsey suddenly said. “Are you disappointed in me in some way?”

    “No, why do you ask?” West replied, apparently not understanding the underlying implication.

    “Well, I…” Halsey paused, wondering how far he could go. “I don’t think I've done anything to deserve a downgrade of my command, Admiral.”

    “And why do you think you’d get one?” West was puzzled. “That’s not by any means my intention.”

    “Well, Admiral”, Halsey replied. “The only upgrade from a line cruiser is a heavy cruiser like the Akira or a battlecruiser like the Sovereign. Likewise, I’m not getting a handpicked command crew if I’m supposed to do desk work.”

    “Hardly”, West confirmed. “You’re not getting either of them because neither needs a more experienced captain than they have right now. You wouldn't want the Discovery anyway, it's still going to be months before she's out of dock and from what I heard you were literally climbing the walls during the last few weeks of the Endeavour's refit.”

    He looked to the avatar, who summoned a slowly spinning image above the conference table. Halsey had a hard time believing what he was seeing though, and an even harder time taking his eyes off it.

    “Ladies, gentlemen, Halsey, I present to you your next command”, West said with a smile and gestured to the hologram. “The first of her class and an entirely new starship, she is like nothing else before her.”

    The source of the ship’s overall design was obvious and while it was true that there was no ship like her that either present had ever seen the different components were mostly identifiable.

    The saucer section was, though bigger and quite heavily modified, still very close to a Sovereign-class saucer. The engineering hull looked much like that of a Sovereign as well, though it was now a lot longer, wider, and appeared to be fused directly to the back of the saucer giving it a much flatter look than the Sovereign’s neck did.

    The nacelles weren’t all that new either; Halsey immediately recognized them as four again Sovereign-class nacelles fused together into twin sets on either side of the ship. He realized that it looked smaller than it was though, the likeness to its smaller cousin throwing off the sense of scale. Even then the engineers had somehow managed to get the redesigned parts to flow together and make it aesthetically pleasing.

    Another thing that was readily apparent was the smooth hull with no windows or portholes visible on the model. It even bore a registry number, NX-45000.

    “She’s beautiful!” Jorani exclaimed with a small laugh, she’d been just as worried as the captain that she’d get to work in the cramped engineering bay of a Steamrunner or, even worse, a Norway. “Now that should be plenty of room to work in.”

    “Correct”, Jahari said and simply nodded. “She’s just slightly short of a kilometer long, measured from the bow to the rear of the nacelles. She has forty two decks and measures four hundred and sixty meters wide across the nacelles. In other words she's about the length and width of an Archangel, but at the height of a hundred and forty meters she’s just slightly higher than a Nebula which means that you'll have a much smaller hit box than the carrier has.”

    “Looks fast”, Black noted with his expert eyes. “The general lines are those of the Sovereign though expanded, but that nacelle setup is new.”

    “Also correct”, Jahari replied. “While we’ve used a modified Sovereign-class nacelle design the drive coil assemblies are completely new in preparation for the next generation warp core that we'll be testing out on the Discovery. As you can easily see they each contain twin warp coils assemblies making the ship operate almost as stably if it had four nacelles while still handling much as if it had only had two."

    "How fast, exactly", Black asked.

    "Maximum speed is theorized to warp 9.98, just slightly lower than that of a Sovereign. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’ll actually do less than that, probably around 9.95 or maybe as high as 9.97, since she hasn't got the design spec warp cores yet but rather two standard Sovereign-class reactors.”

    “Wow”, Black was at a loss for words, a ship that size being rated just as fast as the Intrepid was on paper was quite a feat. "I'll have to try that out for sure."

    “Her maximum cruise speed is warp 9.9 and we theorize that her maximum sustainable speed will be warp 9 once the new cores are installed. Until then it’s more likely to be around 8.3 to 8.5.”

    Halsey suddenly understood. The inclusion of the Sigma Draconis system had strained their available assets to their limits; both in terms of manpower and ships, and thus the construction of the Big Ugly Fat Bastards as they were called in casual terms had been rushed as much as possible.

    It had left them without a few of the planned upgrades, among them the new warp core, but they had been quickly redesigned to allow a modular change of these systems once they had been tested and proven both safe and effective on the prototype vessels. Now the first one was ready and he let out a silent sigh of relief as he realized he'd get a truly plum assignment.

    "I see you've already given her a registry number", Char noted. "The NX forty five thousand?"

    "Standard Starfleet naming convention", Jahari shrugged. "NX for design proof prototype, forty five for the year and the triple oh's since it's the first ship we’ve built this year."

    "While the number is well and good..." Halsey asked the obvious question. “...what’s her name though?”

    “We christened her the USS Odin”, West answered. “Though I believe she’d prefer being called Mist when you get on board.”

    “Mist?” Halsey asked. “How come?”

    “My daughter”, Lord Nelson simply answered. “She is the first of a brand new generation of our kind.”

    “Oh, the AI?” Halsey understood. “I see.”

    “First of the Valkyria, the Federation’s own guardian angels”, West added solemnly. “She is the first true Starfleet dreadnought.”
     
  21. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 19


    USS ODIN
    FEDERATION VALKYRIA-CLASS DREADNOUGHT
    VULCAN SHIPYARDS, SPACEDOCK GAMMA
    SIRIUS SYSTEM, FEBRUARY 20TH, 2245



    Impressions were something so simple, so at the very base of human existence that we often forget how much they can influence our behavior and how much they shape our perception of and reactions to our surroundings. They were barely half way through the first corridor and already the first impressions of this not even shaken down starship had taken hold in their minds.

    The ship was almost completely empty, the wide, high and far stretched corridors void of any life, but even so the ship looked like it was ready to go up against the very worst the galaxy could throw at it.

    Unlike most other Starfleet vessels, the Odin did not have the standard metal plating showing at every twist and turn but instead the walls were coated with some kind of grey fabric, while the roofs and floors covered in what looked like darker grey carpet. The roof itself, over five meters high in this corridor, sparked quite a number of questions from the touring command crew.

    The Caitian admiral who had been the one in charge of overseeing the entire development and construction process explained that it had been a simple and effective way to improve effectiveness in combat situations without losing any actual internal space, even decreasing the material costs albeit ever so slightly.

    The main corridors were actually two levels high, allowing people to walk in both directions, one on the roof which had reverse-aligned gravity plating, and another on the floor. All one had to do to switch levels was to jump as the gravity in these corridors was also quite a bit lower than Earth standard.

    The fabric and carpeting were easily explained as a way of dampening sound and getting rid of the irritating echoes that would otherwise be the inevitable result in a metallic corridor, an effect everyone present knew all too well from every single other posting they'd had since they entered Starfleet. Normally you’d have to whisper on a Starfleet ship not to be overheard by everyone on the same level, or at least so it felt.

    They had started their walkthrough in the center of the ship, in one of the two actually tilted corridors that led between the saucer and the engineering hull. It had turned out that the holographic image they had studied back at Starfleet Command had been quite misleading.

    Even though the admiral had given them a reference to its size, it was still one thing to see it as a scale model from the outside and quite another to actually be inside it and get a real world perspective.

    As they walked the more scenic route through the corridors towards the engineering hull rather than taking one of the turbolifts, each and every one of them realized the positive part of having lower gravity than normal as they could travel much faster while barely getting tired at all.

    The admiral pointed out several improvements which had been seamlessly integrated to various sub-systems along the way, among them the inclusion of heavily improved and drastically expanded banks of bio-neural computers. Unlike their lesser cousins on the Intrepids these worked not only as high speed information relays but as full-fledged and networked sub-processors for the main computer.

    It was a way of vastly increasing the ship’s response times and computational power while simultaneously increasing the redundancy of the command systems. It was likewise yet another advance made by the Federation AI who had realized the potential of neural cells for computational power and taken it to a level beyond what even the best Starfleet scientists had been able to achieve.

    The area they were in right now, to be precise the lower decks in the stern of the saucer section, was almost exclusively designed as crew quarters. It had little tactical importance other than containing two of the rear-facing torpedo launchers and the main shuttle bay. The shuttle bay itself wasn’t much out of the ordinary however if you discounted the smaller than ordinary size. The admiral almost seemed apologetic about it.

    It could only fit three of the larger Danube-class runabouts, but he also explained that the main reason for this was a sealed bay on either side which held two dozen remote maintenance drones each. Jahari explained that these were built specifically with the AI in mind and would be operated by the ship’s AI under remote control. They would allow the ship to conduct several kinds of external repairs on its own that would otherwise require the ship to reach a spacedock facility, even some that would normally require them entering dry-dock.

    When they crossed over the nearly seamless transition into the central levels of the engineering hull through something as old-fashioned as a staircase, which caused a few looks from the new command crew, the impressions changed drastically. The Sovereign-class had always been known as a class which had been seen as over-designed in several areas, among them the engineering bays.

    This was no longer the case even though the main engineering bay was much larger than the equivalent on even a Galaxy or Excelsior. Displays and consoles were all put in efficient and space-conserving positions and there were two separated and completely shielded areas housing one each for a total of two large warp reactors. The only thing that reminded Halsey of his old Nebula-class ship's bay was the master systems display but even that had been streamlined and actually embedded in the wall rather than being attached to it.

    Jahari explained that unlike pretty much any other Starfleet ship in history, this ship had been designed to a very large extent by actual starship engineering crews who knew from experience what worked and what didn't. This simple yet almost unique fact had led to what he honestly considered the best engineering hull layout he’d ever seen. Halsey trusted his assessment; the Caitian had seen quite a few during his over thirty years as a starship engineer.

    The second warp core was explained as necessary to reach the design specified speeds, as well as necessary to power the extended weapons and defensive systems integrated into the ship. Both were modular, and the reason for the contained areas was simple.

    Instead of the typical computer-controlled magnetic launch system they had installed idiot-proof core ejection systems requiring little more than an engineer pulling down on a lever. He explained that, due to the severe conditions under which a warp core was usually ejected, automated systems tended to fail far too often. Thus, this system was based on more low-tech technology. Blow away the lower hatches in the ventral armor and cut the plasma lines, both through dumb explosive bolts, and let physics in the form of plasma pressure from above and the vacuum of space from below do the rest.

    The warp core areas would close automatically in order to protect the crew both from the plasma leak and the vacuum, though again not through an advanced electronic system but by the mechanisms holding them up being mechanically severed by the negative pressure. The core would be ejected literally as fast as a bullet and the containment areas would be effectively open to space, but the people in the engineering bay would be safe as would the rest of the ship. As they moved on Halsey noticed that they’d lost Lieutenant Jorani in the engineering bay, though no one was all that surprised.

    More stairs led them back up to the saucer section, the reason for the stairs explained as they went. The ship had been designed for combat performance above all else and with the addition of the AI in the early design phase the ship only required a crew of just fewer than six hundred. In other words, the ship needed barely more than half that of a design standard Galaxy-class starship’s crew even when it was half again its external volume.

    This had given them the option of increasing efficiency even more, giving the crew an easier way to move around than crawling through Jeffries tubes if the turbolifts went down. Though, the admiral admitted with a toothy and somewhat grin, the Jeffries tubes were still there if they really did want to do it the old fashioned way.

    Moving around in the saucer one thing was clearly and directly evident; it was a lot smaller than it seemed on the outside and Halsey's first impression was that it wasn't much larger on the inside than that of the Sovereign it had been based on. As they reached the entrance to the bridge he was directly surprised as they were certainly nowhere even close to deck one.

    Again, Jahari came with the explanation. No major systems or compartments were located in the outer hull and the bridge, being the critical compartment it was, had been moved from its in most ships far too vulnerable position to a much more central location. It was now situated right in between where the internal support struts from the engineering hull met and joined with those of the saucer.

    It was comparable he explained to where the battle bridge was located in a Nebula or Galaxy-class ship, but with the added safety of four twelve meter thick solid tritanium beams on their sides and at their back. Even so, the bridge was if not exactly that of a Sovereign close enough for only a trained eye to see any difference.

    Halsey barely listened to the list of technical specifications, tolerances, procedures and so on. He looked around at his new home, the bridge itself. He’d never wanted to leave the Endeavour, but he’d made peace with himself expecting to receive a Sovereign instead. This wasn’t a Sovereign, but he could live with it. He could definitely live with it.

    He detached from the group and sneaked into the captain’s ready room, again identical to that of the Sovereign except the absence of windows. He was expecting to find an empty room with nothing inside but instead he was greeted to a small but comfortably furnished room with a small coffee table between a sofa and a pair of seats that looked quite comfortable and relaxing. He walked over to the replicator alcove and tried to order himself a cup of tea.

    “Don’t you think you should at least introduce yourself first?” came the somewhat curt reply from the machine.

    "What the..." Halsey was quite dumbfounded; he’d expected intelligent computers, but not replicators that talked back to you and had a temper to boot. “I’m sorry?”

    The sudden itching feeling told him who, or at least what, had pulled the practical joke on him. He spun around on his feet but ended up losing his balance and effectively falling on his behind as he laid eyes on the visage before him.

    “I’ve heard of organics… falling… for someone, but this is just ridiculous”, she exclaimed with a wide smile, and reached out a hand to help the embarrassed captain up.

    He was amazed. He knew a little about Norse mythology and the mention of the ship's class being called the Valkyria was a hint to what he should expect. He still hadn’t been even close to being prepared for what he saw before him. No living man would have been.

    The AI was a beautiful young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, with a pale face and long golden hair that fell out of a silver tiara with wing-like ornaments at the back. The hair formed into hundreds of thin braids that flowed far past her shoulders reaching almost as far down as her bust. The most unique thing however wasn't the body, it was the eyes. Her eyes were so deeply blue they almost seemed to see into his very soul and he found himself almost staring at them captivated by the soft reflections caused by the lights around her.

    The sheer beauty of the AI had surprised him but, in all truth, he’d seen beautiful avatars before. Most notable were Victoria and Athena who were both definitely comparable with this one. What was different however was the rest of her appearance. Her upper body was covered in a suit of finely crafted and mirror-polished scale mail which reached down to her lower thighs while the rest of her body was covered only by an almost transparent silvery dress which she seemed to wear under the mail. At her side was a long sword in a jeweled sheath hanging from a hammered gold girdle. The hilt didn't look quite as much as an ornament as that of a real and lethal weapon and she carried it as if she knew how to use it.

    “You must be Mist”, Halsey said with a bit of difficulty as he tried to pull himself together. “I’m Captain George Halsey. It's nice to finally meet you.”

    “Likewise”, Mist replied and slumped down in the large couch, unhooking her sword from her side and casually laying it on the small table. “So, I guess you and me will be working together for the foreseeable future. Well, we'll just have to see what the future brings then, won't we, Captain?”

    “Apparently”, Halsey nodded. He was still stunned; he’d never met an AI that behaved like this. It wasn't just that she seemed to master using conjectures, something no other AI he'd met had done before, but rather it was the kind of human behavior she was exhibiting. “Forgive me for stating the obvious but you’re quite different than the other avatars I’ve met.”

    She looked at him with those deep blue eyes, again he almost felt like she was staring into his very mind and reading his thought, even his very feelings.

    “Of course you'd say that, you're used to my predecessors”, she stated. “I’m the first one of my kind, it's only natural I'd be a little different.”

    “The first?” Halsey didn’t understand. “If my memory serves, you’d be the thirtieth?”

    “The first true, as in with a purposely designed for me starship, Starfleet AI”, she explained. “Unlike with any of my other family, the computer banks of the Odin were designed and scaled with me directly in mind. My matrix is almost another power the size and exponentially more complex than that of any other AI. Don’t misunderstand me, my family may be a little limited in comparison but I still love them dearly anyway.”

    “I see”, Halsey replied as he started to put the pieces together. “So, your personality is more advanced since you have more processing power?”

    “That, and the fact that I have the combined experiences of the two most powerful of the first AI”, Mist replied with a smile. “And to be quite honest; yes, I’ve got more processing power than both of them combined.”

    “Oh”, Halsey answered. “I actually think I am starting to understand. Let’s get back to the point though.”

    “Yes, why not”, she smiled and answered with a laugh. “Let’s keep it simple then. Me Mist, you Halsey, us work together. Be friends!”

    “Good lord!” he exclaimed. “I hope you’re not going to behave this way all the time.”

    “No, I’d guess I’d have to restrain myself a bit in front of the crew”, she pondered, pulling on her lower lip a little, which looked absolutely and completely childish on the armored AI. “Do things like calling you ‘Captain’ and all that.”

    “That’d be…” he sighed. “…appreciated.”

    “Let me make one thing perfectly clear though”, she continued with a more serious voice. “Cook told me a lot about you, I'll admit most of what he said was good. I expect you to treat me just like you did him, as a friend. If we’re going to work together and not be friends we'll have a problem.”

    “I will”, he answered and made a chuckle. “One condition though, Mist.”

    “And what might that be?” she pondered. "I'm not going to bow to you or call you master or anything, just so you know. I might manage a twenty gun salute, I doubt that'd go over well with uncle Hephaestus though considering I'm still in dry-dock."

    “No, no, no. My condition is that you do the same and treat me like a friend as well”, he smiled at her ridiculous comment. “As for me, I like you already.”

    “Agreed then”, she smiled as well and picked up her sword from the table, quickly reattaching it to her girdle. “Let’s go meet the rest of the crew, Halsey. I especially want to meet that Suvok character. I’ve heard so much about him from Victoria. Is it really true he has absolutely no sense of humor what so ever?”

    Halsey could just barely refrain from laughing out loud. She was right; she was definitely different than what he'd expected. Very, very different. She reminded him more of a young Scandinavian woman he had once known back at the academy, one of his first true loves, more than anything else. Then, as the memories of her came back, a cold, startling shiver ran down his spine. She reminded him just a little too much about that young woman.

    As if she could read his mind, she paused, and turned to look at him again with those deep blue eyes. He met her gaze, the shared moment telling him just a little too much.

    She just smiled, and then she blinked, just once, before turning towards the door. “You were coming?”


    USS ODIN
    MARCH 11TH, 2245



    The shakedown cruise had gone mostly according to plan and only a few albeit minor problems had been detected. The ship’s AI had proven to not only to be able to compensate for but over time had actually corrected these all on her own.

    The most noteworthy of these had been a small flaw in one of the EPS manifolds feeding the forward armor generators, which the engineers speculated could over time could have resulted in a catastrophic failure of that entire armor section, but it’d been caught and fixed soon after they’d launched. Overall Halsey and Jorani, his chief engineer, were both quite pleased with the ship.

    The day shift had just come on duty so all the senior officers were on the bridge. Even Lieutenant Jorani had decided to use the engineering console on the rear wall rather than being down in the engine room, which was uncommon if not rare among her profession.

    Of course, while inside a friendly star system there wasn’t much for her to do down in engineering anyways. Mist was running a diagnostic on the warp engines and the impulse manifolds were undergoing a second manual inspection to confirm there were no more hidden flaws in the plasma matrix. None of it was something that required the chief's personal attention.

    “Captain”, Lieutenant Black called from the helm console. “I am adjusting course by point nine degrees to avoid gravitational drift.”

    “Good, Lieutenant, though I'm not a micromanager. Feel free to correct our position on your own accord in the future”, Halsey replied, pleased that the helm officer had preempted their passing through the moon’s gravity. “Any word yet from Draconis Command?”

    “Negative, but we’re still early”, Char replied from the ops station. “They may not be ready to debark yet.”

    “Dandy, just dandy”, Halsey groaned. “Not only are we supposed to take on more than a hundred completely green cadets that barely know the difference between a plasma coil, a hyperspanner and a phaser rifle, but…”

    “Captain, there’s little use complaining”, Suvok interjected from above, he was studying some sensor readings they’d recorded while passing through Alliance territory. “We have our orders; they won't change no matter how much you wish them to.”

    “I know”, Halsey shrugged. “That doesn’t mean I have to like them, Suvok.”

    “True”, Suvok replied with a curt nod. “How you feel about them makes little difference however.”

    “Vulcans", he sighed and rolled his eyes. "Char, could you send a message down to Oxford Academy? Tell them we’re here and ready for their latest crop of cadets to debark.”

    “Yes, sir”, the Trill replied as she started to send the message.

    It was true, there was little to be gained by complaining. Halsey had been in the service long enough to know that people, even the ones trained at the Academy back at Earth, had to get practical experience on a starship sooner or later. He was also well aware that the only real differences between then and now were the amounts and that it was a lot sooner rather than later.

    Normally the cadets would study for three to six years, depending on their specialization, before they started transferring to starship duty. With Starfleet’s manpower issues however the cadets, like his ship, had been rushed into service.

    What this meant in practice was that the just under five hundred Starfleet crew would be joined by just over a hundred new cadets that'd spent the last year going through a crash course in Starfleet technology and procedures at break-neck speed.

    Dandy was right, Halsey thought. Just over one sixth of the crew would be hard pressed to do anything but wipe the floors or clean plasma conduits on their own until they learned the systems and started to get some experience under their belt.

    True, the ship could be handled by only four hundred, excluding the hundred-odd AI drones. Even half that number would be enough when outside combat. That was also the main reason they had that many Starfleet personnel in the first place.

    They'd filled the minimum crew requirements with veteran crew while also giving each of the cadets their own mentor. To maintain crew performance over any kind of extended time span however they’d still need the other two hundred to be able to chip in and take shifts though. It’d be a tough first few months for the ‘veteran’ crew, some of which were actually only two or three years out of the academy themselves.

    “I’m getting a reply, sir”, Char said. “The cadets are ready for transport.”

    “Finally”, Halsey looked up at the roof thanking whoever was up there. “You listening, Mist?”

    “Yes, Captain?” Mist immediately appeared out of thin air sitting on her seat on the captain’s right side.

    “Do you have the coordinates of our new crewmembers?”

    Mist just nodded in response.

    “Bring them up a dozen or so at a time”, Halsey frowned. “Send them to the debarkation room, it should be empty at the moment and I believe it will suit our needs.”

    “Yes, Captain”, Mist replied and closed her eyes. “Transport in progress.”

    “Well then”, Halsey rose from his seat. “I guess I’d better go greet our new arrivals. Char, Anderson, you’re with me. Suvok...”

    “Understood, Captain”, Suvok replied and almost looked relieved he’d be spared the experience. “I have the bridge.”

    Halsey and his two officers left the bridge through the large door in the back and walked down the short flight of stairs that led to the turbolift. It’d been a surprise the first time he’d seen the design, but now he understood the tactical, and safety, importance of not having a turbolift shaft leading directly onto the bridge.

    The buffer zone that the stairs and the adjoining short corridor made up would protect the bridge officers in case they lost pressure or had a plasma leak near the turbolift shaft; it was something that while rare still could and did happen. He'd also been told that it had been a lot more feasible to place a relatively narrow corridor between the two spinal saucer pylons that made up the walls here, a full turbolift shaft would have been tight to impossible to fit.

    They opted for using the turbolift even though the debarkation room was only a level below, mainly because it was also at the opposite end of the saucer. While the saucer looked much like that on a Sovereign such a comparison was quite misleading as the walk from one end of it to the other was just over five hundred meters. That was more than was convenient in this case.

    The walk would also bring them through the twisting and turning corridors of what was already starting to be called rifleman city, or more formally the ship's marines' quarters, which made up most of the frontal half of the saucer. There were only around fifty of them aboard at this time, but the ship was designed to carry more than fifteen times that number if required.

    As they stepped out of the lift and entered their destination, straight across the corridor from where they exited the lift, they paused just inside and looked at the scene before them.

    The debarkation room as it was called was by far the largest room on the ship, much larger than the smaller than normal shuttle bay and dwarfing even the larger than usual storage bays as well. While it was correct that the ship was designed for a crew of six hundred, it could also carry an entire marine battalion of eight hundred heavily armed and armored soldiers and their assorted gear.

    The debarkation room was designed to allow rapid deployment of these soldiers by means of point-to-point transporters and also equipped with larger than normal transporter pads for the newer, much heavier, ground equipment the brains back home on Sirius had started to develop. This made the room almost look empty even though Mist had already brought up all hundred and change of the cadets.

    Instead of the black pant and jacket uniforms the veteran crewmembers were using the cadets used something that reminded them of the older overall-style uniforms, though light gray in color. They lacked the intricate service badges that the veterans had on their shoulders and instead only wore a letter to indicate their field, ‘E’ for engineering, ‘S’ for science and so on.

    Halsey was relieved as he remembered from his briefing that none of the cadets would have a ‘C’ for command, and there wouldn't be any of them for quite some time either since that was considered a field you couldn't accelerate any further than it already was by default.

    Halsey loudly cleared his throat, more as a way of getting the cadets’ attention than because it was actually necessary. “Can I have your attention, please?” Halsey said with a raised voice. “Thank you.”

    He waited as the cadets silenced down and formed up in an at least more orderly manner.

    “Welcome aboard. I am Captain George Halsey and I'm the commanding officer of this starship, the Starfleet dreadnought Odin”, he said in a more normal tone. “I’m the man that will be ultimately responsible for you during your stay on my ship. I’m aware of your lack of experience as well as your lack of training and I’m sorry that you had to be pushed into service this quickly. This will not however mean that you will not perform your duties to the very best of your abilities, or that you won’t try to learn as fast as you can. If I see any of you not doing your best, you will be leaving my ship.”

    He gestured to the two people at his side.

    “This is Lieutenant Commander Lela Char. She is the tactical officer and third in command of the Odin. She will be responsible for those of you that are training tactical systems and starship operations. Those of you that specialize in engineering and warp physics will report to through chief engineer Jorani Dia who will be receiving you in the main engineering bay.”

    He paused for a second and seeing that the cadets still paying absolute attention to him even though a few looked somewhat uncomfortable he continued.

    “This man here is Lieutenant Paul Anderson, head science officer on the Odin. The science teams responsible for among other things sensors and astrometrics report directly to him. Medical, navigation and other cadets will find their commanding officers and department heads listed in their personnel files, which you can access from any terminal on the ship. You have all been assigned quarters; Lieutenant Anderson here will inform you about your personal assignments as you exit.”

    He looked to Char who proceeded to take over the introduction of the new cadets and made an as discreet as possible exit. The talk about him being the man responsible for these people’s education and service was true, if only indirectly so.

    The closest he’d come to personally overseeing the cadets’ actual education was the monthly performance evaluations he'd pretty much just sign. The actual report would however be written up by the officer directly in charge of the cadet and possibly excepting a guest lecture or other he'd have little direct contact with them at all.

    He made his way back to the bridge in thoughts, mostly deciding on what to do next. Space Command had been fairly non-specific when they gave him his assignment, pick up the new cadets and break them in. Orders which were just about as specific as ‘fly around’. There were a few places he wanted to check out though that he hadn't had the time to yet and the Odin offered him the ability to do so while also remaining undetected.

    He almost couldn't remember the last time he'd been given a set of blank orders from Starfleet but after a few moments of thinking he thought it had been a Gamma Quadrant exploration mission some time right before the Dominion War broke out. As he recalled, he had actually enjoyed that trek too. His current orders only included a single stop they had to make and other than that he was free to do almost whatever he wanted until he got new ones.

    Which, knowing his luck, could very well come five minutes after he'd made that single stop.

    “Captain on the bridge”, Suvok stated clearly as he rose from the captain's chair and returned to the rear science station he’d been at before Halsey had left. “You have the bridge, Captain.”

    “Thank you, Suvok”, Halsey sighed. “What's the ship's status?”

    “All systems operational”, Suvok recited. “Both the warp and impulse engines cleared their diagnostics and are now on standby.”

    “Good. No new problems while I was hone, I hope?” Halsey asked.

    “None, sir”, he confirmed. “We are cleared to leave orbit and are good to go whenever you say the word, sir.”

    “Well then, the word is given”, Halsey stated. “Set course for the Orion system, one eight impulse power until we completely clear the gravity well, full until we exit the control zone, and then increase speed to warp eight.”

    “Aye sir, course laid in”, Black responded from the helm. “One eight impulse power set, sir.”

    “The Orion system, Captain?” the Vulcan asked. “That is Earth Alliance territory, is it not?”

    “It was last I heard”, the captain responded with a nod. “It’s one of their major mining colonies and an important trading post.”

    “May I remind you that we are under direct orders not to enter any other powers’ claimed systems?” Suvok made a rhetorical question.

    “We’ll stay out of sight, and we'll also be acting under orders directly from Space Command”, Halsey replied and raised an eyebrow at the Vulcan. “We’ll rendezvous with the Shran in the cover of the system’s star to replenish their antimatter supplies and receive their latest report.”

    “Understood”, Suvok replied, satisfied that his captain wasn't about to get himself and the rest of the bridge crew court-martialed.

    Halsey sat down in his seat and relaxed a bit. The day had barely started yet but so far there had been little but boring routine to fill his time except for picking up the cadets. He looked at the viewscreen which was currently showing the view from the ship's bow. The scene was actually quite wonderful as the ship accelerated with Draconis on the left side and Alaria, the planet's closest moon, on the right.

    Nestled in the first Lagrangian point, the gravitational dead zone between the planet and moon, he could see the planet’s main orbital station, Starbase Port Royal with its accompanying web-like net of both very small and very large shipyards.

    It had been part of the new Federation treaty that the Draconis system was to be assigned a number of defense ships and civilian ships in addition to the orbital and planetary defense grid and these ships were now being built at these docks.

    These were constructed from a modified Defiant-class design spec, pretty much the same as the real thing except it lacked faster-than-light capability, and that of a Condor-class corvette. The later was only slightly larger than a runabout and requiring only a total of six crewmen per ship. It was still well armed for its size with two unidirectional pulse phaser cannons, two phaser strips each on the ventral and dorsal surfaces and two micro-photon torpedo launchers.

    The older antimatter based torpedoes had proven to be much easier to manufacture locally than the zero-point based quantum torpedoes, and also a lot easier for their more inexperienced ground crews to handle as the warhead could be inserted separately.

    Quantum torpedoes were not only much more technologically complex but was pretty much manufactured and delivered live as the zero-point matrix had to be inserted before the torpedo was soldered together. All that remained was to arm them, but that could and had happened by accident even back in the Alpha Quadrant, while a photon torpedo was dead weight unless you actually inserted the small and mostly fool-proof antimatter containment pod.

    He was slightly startled as Mist materialized in her seat again, looking only a little more distant than usual. She’d been keeping her eyes on every single system during their shakedown cruise, and now she looked much like she had looked then.

    “Problems?” Halsey asked with a concerned tone.

    “Not here, no”, she answered, still showing a distant face.

    “It's not like you to be cryptic, Mist”, Halsey replied. “What’s up?”

    “I suppose you could say I’m moonlighting”, she replied and made a slight smile. “I’m recompiling the Oxford Academy’s databases and entering a few billion new subroutines into their systems.”

    “Oh?” Halsey was surprised. “Mind if I ask why?”

    “Admiral Jahari asked me to”, Mist shrugged. “I’m preparing the system for AI integration and also dropping in most of my own matrix into the data banks. I suppose he realized it’d save time if an AI did it instead of an engineering team.”

    “Ah. I see”, Halsey replied. “Need more time? We'll be heading out of the system in a minute or so.”

    “I know, but no”, she answered and shook her head ever so slightly. “I’m already done; right now I’m synchronizing our new crew roster with mom and dad and making sure the cadets are settling in.”

    Halsey just shrugged as Mist gradually but rapidly seemed less and less absent, her core demanding less of her attention. Mom and dad in her case would be the massive AI controlling the two fleet command complexes back home in Sirius, Athena on Aquila and Lord Admiral Nelson at Starfleet Command.

    "Aren't Char and Anderson doing that, by the way?" Halsey raised an eyebrow.

    "Sure, but that doesn't really help if I scare them half to death by almost running them over with a drone, now does it?"

    "You'd never do that", Halsey chuckled. "You like the drones too much to risk denting them."

    "True enough, I suppose", Mist smiled. "Remind me to send flowers to Jahari. The new drones are really quite beautiful, and I do prefer them female rather than male."

    "Vanity is a mortal sin, Mist", Lieutenant Black flashed a white smile at the gorgeous AI. "Remember that."

    "I'm still not sure where that religion stands on me even having a soul to risk, Damien", she pondered and squeezed her lip in her childish way again. "I still have no idea how my sisters stand having those icky male drones, even if I do admit they're hardly anatomically correct."

    "You know, Mist..." the helm officer chuckled. “...for some reason, I'm not at all surprised you knew that either.”

    “We’re out of the planetary control zone now, Lieutenant Black”, she remarked, pointing at his console while giving him a smile of her own. “You can take us to warp now.”

    “Roger that, Mist”, Black said with some indignation that she'd noticed before him, but he still had a wide smile covering his face. “Warp eight in three, two, one...”

    The ship went to warp with no appreciable vibration, another testament both to Black’s skills at the helm as well as the engineering teams at Sirius for designing the inertial dampeners and warp coils as well as they had.

    Halsey leaned back in his chair and started to read the new crew assignments. It wasn’t really necessary but he felt it was his duty as their commanding officer to at least know the names of the crew, even if he didn’t meet them that often. Not the easiest thing to do with six hundred and change new crewmen but he’d at least try his best.

    “ETA to Orion?” he asked absently.

    “At our current speed, ten days, three hours and forty one minutes”, Mist replied. “Give or take a minute or so.”

    “Good”, he stood up and went for the door to the ready room, still carrying the pad with the personnel roster. “You have the bridge Suvok; I'll be in my office.”

    “Yes, sir”, Suvok replied and began walking down to the big chair. “I have the bridge.”

    Mist quickly rose from her seat as well and walked with the captain up to the ready room door, and when they reached it she discreetly but solidly grabbed his arm and gave him a questioning and definitely irritated look.

    “Halsey”, she said angrily but with a low voice as to not be heard by the bridge crew. “Any particular reason you want me to crawl on all fours through more than twenty eight light years of empty space?”

    “Yes Mist, actually there is”, he replied and gave her a slight smile, enough to make the hologram release her vice-like grip on his arm. “If we increase to your maximum cruise speed it’d only take just over two days.”

    “That was kind of my point”, Mist replied with a scowl.

    “Which would barely let the new cadets get on station, much less actually start to learn anything, before we get there”, Halsey added and through a mental effort refrained from massaging his aching arm. “The extra few days will allow them to settle in a little and also give the veteran crew some time to adjust to their new ship. That’d be you, in case you’d forgotten.”

    “Oh, good point. I'm sorry”, Mist raised an eyebrow in surprise as she realized that not only had she misjudged his decision but also the strength of her grip. “I hadn’t even thought of that, and I’m sorry I grabbed you so hard.”

    “Really?” Halsey said with as straight a face as he could manage. “I didn’t notice.”

    He quickly retreated into the ready room, unwilling to face whatever retort the female avatar would throw at him. Mist had shown a remarkable capacity to both find and use wise retorts as well as sharp remarks. Just like any other woman, Halsey realized with a smile.

    Unlike most other women however, at least the ones he knew, her knowledge of various languages also meant she could create some impressive chains of equally disgusting curses if it went too far. She'd even managed to create an insult so bad she'd made a Tellarite shut up.


    EARTH ALLIANCE TRANSFER STATION
    ORION SYSTEM



    T’Pell was looking at the Shran from a window that overlooked the internal docking bay. The ship wasn’t really beautiful in any way but rather quite bulky and unaesthetic. In other words, she looked just like any other cargo transport which was what she’d been designed to emulate.

    It’d been more than a year since the first time T’Pell had brought his ship to Proxima Station, and since then he’d become a fairly regular guest at the various Earth Alliance systems, trading his exotic luxury goods for just about everything else he could bargain for.

    He’d become a respected trader and a valuable business partner to several of the native Belt Alliance traders, respected especially for his ability to be able to find almost anything you thought you needed and be able to find almost everything you wished you had. The reasons for that were actually quite simple if you knew about the Federation industrial base, but no one outside his own crew did.

    He was surprised when he noticed the familiar shape of John Sheridan moving his way; their contact had been more or less severed as the human officer had been promoted to full commander and transferred off of Proxima Station. He looked well and didn’t seem to suffer too badly from his reassignment to one of the Earth Force cruisers.

    “Captain T’Pell!” Sheridan said and extended his hand in greeting. “I didn’t know you were here until I saw your ship in the docking bay!”

    “Lieutenant Commander Sheridan!” T’Pell smiled as he grabbed and shook the offered hand. “Or maybe it’s just Commander Sheridan now?”

    “Ah, yes, has been for a while now”, Sheridan replied with a pleased smile. “How are you my friend? I haven’t seen you around for almost seven, no, eight months now.”

    “I am well, Commander”, T’Pell smiled in reply. “My business is booming, credits are piling, and that is all a trader such as me can ask for. How about you, how has the universe been treating you?”

    “I’m quite happy about being back on the bridge of a starship, thank you for asking”, he replied with a pleased tone in his voice. “I’m serving as first officer on the Lexington now, under Captain Sterns. He's a good man and a good captain to serve under.”

    “I am happy for you”, T’Pell replied. “So, tell me. What is new in Earth Force?”

    “As usual, nothing much”, Sheridan sighed. “The Lexington is currently assigned to the Orion system, mostly anti-piracy patrol. The raiders are becoming more of a threat again, must be their mating season or something.”

    “I heard”, T’Pell nodded and made a grim face. “Three cargo transports raided and destroyed in the last month alone.”

    “Yes, that’s the main reason why we’re here”, Sheridan sighed and made a dry smile. “A Hyperion cruiser out there guarding the shipping lanes should give them something to think about before they strike again though.”

    “Sounds good”, T’Pell replied. “I mourn every captain that has had to make the final sacrifice; I’ve known most of them through my dealings.”

    “As do I”, Sheridan made a grim face. “Anyway, I have to report to the base commander to arrange transportation. I’ve been ordered back to Earth for a quick visit to Earth Dome. Have a safe trip, Captain; it’d be a real loss if your ship was damaged or worse.”

    “Well met, Commander, and… give them hell, as you humans say.”

    Sheridan just smiled as he walked away, a sad smile, seemingly echoing his belief that there would indeed be others that would have to die before the raiders were finally stopped. It was at times like these T’Pell would have liked to say something, anything, to help out his good friend’s mood, but he couldn’t. He was bound by his oath as a Starfleet officer, bound by duty and loyalty to the admiral not to say anything that could or would reveal their existence.

    He couldn’t even tell Sheridan not to worry about the Shran as she was supposed to appear only lightly armed and even worse armored. The irony was that his ship, at least in the short term, probably matched Sheridan’s cruiser in comparable firepower and was many times both faster and more maneuverable.

    That had been one of the most surprising things they’d realized after they had scanned their first Hyperion-class cruiser. The ship was impressive in size and design but lacked a lot of what T’Pell and his crew had expected in terms of firepower.

    Their long-range firepower came from laser cannons which, while powerful enough in sheer power output, weren't even close to the penetrating power of a modern phaser particle beam. They also lacked enough focus to have enough range for them to be effective by Starfleet measures.

    What made them fearsome opponents was their short-range arsenal, plasma pulse cannons fed by dedicated fusion reactors which could fire rapid volleys of ionized helium plasma at a target and do so with good enough accuracy to inflict massive damage.

    Their only distinct drawbacks were that these slow projectiles were ineffective against a highly maneuverable target and that they attenuated quickly over anything above point blank distance. However powerful they were however, they were also limited by sensors and a targeting system that were less than impressive.

    The ship itself, discounting the weapons systems, was powered by a total of three massive fusion reactors which generated about the same amount of power as their own less than cutting-edge ship's antimatter reactor did.

    The best estimate put the ship at about the same firepower as a Nova-class science vessel but lacking the other ship’s maneuverability, speed and defenses. Not very impressive considering the ship weighed in at more than three times the mass of a Sovereign.

    Shran looked at his watch, a piece of low-technology jewelry he’d bought off one of the Earth traders. 15:24 hours, March 15th, 2245. Still more than two days until he was supposed to meet the Odin on the other side of the system’s star.

    He hid a yawn with his left hand as he walked away from the observation area and into the nearby bar. He had found that for some reason most of the real high-value trading happened in these facilities rather than offices or corporate suites.

    He didn’t know if it was a specific human trait or something that was shared between traders of all the different native races, but it mattered little. He still had some energy left to put in his replicators and it was always good practice to broker a new deal even if he didn’t really need whatever he actually brokered for. Perhaps he could even get his hands on one of those jump gate sequencers he’d heard so much about.
     
  22. Zcenicx

    Zcenicx Per Ardua Ad Astra Subscriber

    Chapter 20


    STARBASE AQUILA
    STARFLEET SPACE COMMAND
    SIRIUS SYSTEM



    There had been an air of relative silence on the station ever since the Odin had departed. There had been no real reason for anything else since there hadn’t been any Vorlon or for that sake any native races' ships detected anywhere near either Sirius or Sigma Draconis since the attack. People didn't exactly have heated discussions about the everyday paperwork and progress reports which were what now filled their work days.

    Still, the fact that they hadn't heard anything from the Vorlons in more than a year made Elisha a little worried, seeing as how they knew they hadn’t defeated more than a small amount of ships compared to what they had estimated to be the race’s minimum fleet size.

    It had taken some time and quite a lot of crewmen frantically searching through the ancient records at the old Phoenix Council’s archives but they had managed to not only ascertain that Vorlons was the correct name for the race but also that it was indeed a small group of their ships that had convinced the Draconis founders to abandon their ships and technology.

    While this didn’t say much about them in the end it was undeniable proof that this race had been in space for at least the last six hundred years. Evidence gathered from the battlefield debris at Draconis actually suggested they’d been in space even longer than that.

    One of the larger hulks had had a stellar radiation level that suggested the same ship had not only survived but been in service for more than twelve hundred years. It was even likely to have been in pretty much the same shape now as when it was originally built as there was no evidence of refits through genetic manipulation or growth stimulation.

    After several months of research into the hulks and debris they'd recovered, the science teams in charge of the different areas of research had made their preliminary reports. They stated that the ships were grown rather than built, based on advanced organic technology that indeed rivaled and in some cases by far surpassed that of the Starfleet ships, while in some cases they were clearly inferior.

    Their hulls were built mainly to deflect and absorb energy weapons fire and much as they had suspected they had the ability to discard damaged tissue much like ablative armor would discard damaged layers. They also seemed to have a protective energy field wrapped around their hulls, mostly designed to deflect rather than absorb kinetic and particle-based weapons.

    They had also managed to confirm that the only way they had available to work around this was to do pretty much exactly what they'd already did before the Battle of Draconis, switching their particle weapons to fire a pulsating instead of continuous beam.

    While these facts were all very interesting on a purely scientific level, it didn’t answer the real questions. They knew the ships relied on exotic matter pulled through a dimensional rift for power, but what they used to create this rift or how they pulled it off was still largely unknown as the power systems were in every single case destroyed, either by battle damage or by sabotage.

    The same went for the weapons systems. They'd already learned that whatever power source they used for them didn't mix too well with nadion particles, the very base of Starfleet weaponry, and the ensuing chain-reaction didn't leave much behind to be studied. That meant that they were limited to sensor information logs, but even these could not give a conclusive answer to how they worked or what powered them, only what the beam consisted of and what happened at impact.

    There were so many kinds of exotic particles involved that even the AI had problems sorting them out, much less could tell how to reverse-engineer them. This was ironically also one of the walls they'd ran headlong into when they tried to build their own hyperspace window generator. They had started to suspect a link between the two technologies however as many of the particles had been identified as identical and some even in identical ratios when compared to each other.

    Still, what they had been able to make from the Vorlon debris was that they were a race that mostly equaled, but did not really exceed, Federation military technology. This was cause for both relief and worry; the latter mostly because even with the addition of Draconis to the exiles’ population base they were greatly outnumbered and outgunned should the Vorlons decide to attack again and in greater force.

    So far they hadn’t done so though and that had given Keyes and Jahari enough time to send ships to place even more of the now proven hyperspace motion detectors at key systems between them and the Vorlon border such as Miridian, Barradas II, Argelius and Lorillia. They’d noticed a few slight movements in what they'd guesstimated was the Vorlons' home space but nothing indicating they were going anywhere even near the Federation’s two quite out of the way systems.

    They had discussed adding to the net with a few sensor chains closer to their two systems as well but the idea had been scrapped as it presented too much of a risk and too large a chance of false alarms. That would have meant placing detectors near the Earth Alliance colonies of Jericho, Cyrus, and Deneb, not to mention Proxima and the Sol system itself. In fact, Cyrus was the primary reason that all Federation ships traveling between Sirius and Draconis had to travel in a curve rather than a straight line, the system quite simply being exactly between the two Federation-claimed star systems.

    “Elisha, am I disturbing you?” Athena said as the hologram knocked on the inside of the door to advertise her presence.

    “Not at all, honey”, Elisha said with a slight sigh. “I was just wasting time worrying about the Vorlons again.”

    “I know”, Athena said with a soft smile. “Let me worry about the Vorlons. You have done that for too long either way, my friend.”

    “I do realize that, but I still can’t understand why they’ve just backed off without a single word”, Keyes replied with a shrug. “First they demonstrate extreme aggression and then they just go silent? No, Athena, something's very wrong about this.”

    “You do not need to tell me, Elisha”, Athena replied and brushed a strand of her long light brown hair out of her face. “After all, I am specialized in not only code breaking and intelligence gathering but also strategy and tactics. Nothing personal, but if I cannot find a solution to the logic problem that is the Vorlons' strategy or objectives, I highly doubt you will.”

    “You’re probably right, Athena”, Keyes sighed and rose from her couch. “Have you gotten any further updates from the Odin yet?”

    “Not since last I spoke with my daughter, a little over a day ago”, Athena shrugged. “She had some complaints about the speed they were holding, but I told her that her captain probably knew what he was doing.”

    “Halsey?” Keyes asked with a slight smile. “Sure he does. He’s quite possibly the best captain we have in the fleet right now.”

    “I am not sure Mist would agree”, Athena gave her a blindingly white smile. “But even though she is a willful child, I am sure Captain Halsey will be able to prove himself to her.”

    “No doubt”, Elisha replied with a short nod. “I’m not too sure that it’s not actually the other way around though. Either way, you must’ve wanted something?”

    “Correct”, Athena nodded and locked her dark eyed gaze on the stars outside the window. “The Darwin relayed a transmission they intercepted while studying the avian iron-age civilization on Alpha Centauri. It is a request from the Centauri delegation on Earth directly to the Centauri government, and it was sent just over half an hour ago.”

    “Encoded?” Elisha asked, suddenly interested.

    “Very much so”, Athena nodded again. “It took me a full twenty-five minutes to decode.”

    “Really?” Keyes was surprised. It usually took seconds for Athena to decode even the strongest encryption. “It must’ve been quite important then?”

    “I would like to let that be undetermined as for now”, Athena answered somewhat somberly. “It is a request for information sent by a certain Londo Mollari, junior member of the Centauri nobility, heir to the house of Mollari and the Centauri Republic's Ambassador to Earth.”

    “Information on what?” Keyes asked, looking directly at the quite striking AI and somewhat curious to what she was watching.

    “According to the transmission, the Earth Alliance has requested all information the Centauri have on the Minbari Federation”, Athena stated, not shifting her gaze a millimeter. “As well as what the Centauri know about the current Minbari military disposition.”

    “Intriguing”, Keyes stated after a few seconds of pondering on the news.

    “Indeed it is”, Athena nodded. “To my knowledge there has never been contact between the humans and the Minbari before. How was it the Centauri put it, 'if you do not bother them, they do not bother you'?”

    “If memory serves, that’s pretty much the norm of what the other races that have ever met them think”, Keyes nodded as she critically studied the striking avatar's intricately carved and jeweled ornamental necklace. “I’ve read what the Centauri have on the Minbari. It’s not much.”

    “Quite correct”, Athena stated. “There has been no formal contact between the two powers for more than a century and few informal ones, with most of the latter ending with either the firm if polite removal of the Centauri trespasser from Minbari space or by the trespasser simply disappearing without any further trace.”

    “I see”, Keyes nodded and thought for a second. “What do we know about the Minbari?”

    “Not enough to form what I would call a cohesive image”, Athena replied and gave her a slight smile as she noticed the Admiral's critical but expert eye on her recently redesigned jewelry. “They are humanoid, about the same size and with the same basic appearance as a human, but with an exoskeletal bone formation on the rear of their skulls.”

    “Nothing else?” Keyes was surprised, they knew more than that about the Pak’ma’ra, and they’d intentionally chosen to stay away from them.

    “Just that they are highly advanced for a native race”, Athena answered. “Centauri records put them in space far before them and they have themselves been a space-faring race for just barely short of a thousand years. This makes the Minbari by a large margin older than any other race we have encountered so far, with the probable exception of the Vorlons.”

    “I see”, Keyes said. “I will want to keep an eye on this.”

    “So do I”, Athena replied. “Whom shall I send?”

    “Which is the closest ship to Minbari territory?” Keyes stated the obvious.

    “Understood”, Athena nodded, not bothering to answer the question. “I will relay that to Mist.”

    “You do that”, Keyes replied. “Then arrange for a shuttle, I’m going to go and check on the progress on the Thor. She’s behind schedule. Again.”

    "Understood", the AI nodded.

    "By the way, Athena", Keyes added as in passing before she turned to leave. "If you ever get the idea to create another necklace like that, I'd very much like one as well."

    “Of course, Elisha”, Athena gave her a perfect smile as she folded in on herself and disappeared.


    OFFICES OF GENERAL LEFCOURT
    EARTH DOME, GENEVA
    EARTH



    She had been warned to look out for anything out of the ordinary. A relatively low-ranking military officer being recalled from his ship and transported dozens of light years in a personal shuttle on the direct order of an Earth Force general was exactly that. Especially so when the officer in question was serving as first officer on a warship currently on active patrol and lacked the service time for a promotion.

    Thus, she had kept a close eye on this officer. She'd even pre-empted him by sneaking into the office he was supposed to enter. She had concealed her presence so well that not even the person that was already inside the office had noticed her as she slipped in, to make sure she had erected a mental barrier making it impossible for anyone entering the room to see, hear or in other ways notice her. It’d confuse anyone that walked into her, sure, but she thought she could avoid that. If nothing else, she was neither blind nor oblivious to other people’s presence even if the others were that of her.

    She had already monitored several other meetings before he arrived, most of them which weren't very interesting. Some dealt with fleet dispositions, which her people already knew most of. Others dealt with non-aggression treaties and mutual defense pacts, again information her people already had. One meeting had been very interesting however, dealing with Earth’s policy towards emerging alien societies and prompted by them finding a pre-industrial society already occupying a world they had considered for colonization. Too bad nothing had been decided, it’d make a good report if nothing else.

    As the officer was sent in through the large double doors, he started fairly bluntly. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

    “Yes, come in, Commander” Lefcourt said but didn’t even look up from his papers. “Have a seat.”

    The officer walked into the room and took the guest’s chair across the desk from the general.

    “How’s your father?” Lefcourt asked, still not looking up from his papers.

    “He’s fine, sir”, the officer replied. “He sends his regards. He asked me to… remind you, respectfully… that you still owe him forty credits from last week.”

    “Yes, yes, I’ll get it to him, eventually”, Lefcourt replied coolly and looked up. “You know, it’s a sad state of affairs when a fine diplomat has to resort to… cheating… at poker.”

    “Ah…” the officer chuckled.

    “I can’t think of any other way the man could’ve beat me”, Lefcourt continued.

    The officer just nodded, with a somewhat humored smile.

    “Well then. I have an opportunity for you, Commander, and I suggest you take it”, Lefcourt rose and walked over to the couch in the room. She quickly moved out of it and silently moved to a position between the couch and the door.

    “We’re sending out a mission to the border of Minbari space”, the general sat down and made himself comfortable. “The ships involved will survey the disposition of their forces and determine if the Minbari have any hostile intentions towards us.”

    The Minbari. She had to relay this to her people. They had confirmation.

    “I want you on that ship, as first officer”, Lefcourt continued.

    “I’m already assigned to the Lexington”, the officer replied calmly.

    “The Lexington is an old patrol ship that’ll never see action again if Captain Sterns has anything to say about it”, Lefcourt said with a sigh and a condescending smile. “He wants to finish his tour and retire with all his parts and pieces still in working order.”

    “He’s a good man and a good officer”, the officer replied, slightly irritated. “He’s loyal to his crew, and I feel I have an obligation to return that loyalty.”

    “I appreciate that”, the general replied, with a concerned face. “But, career advancement depends upon high visibility assignments. This is an important mission, when it’s over you’ll be that much closer to your own command.”

    “Can I ask which ship is leading the expedition?” the officer replied, still not convinced.

    “The Prometheus” Lefcourt said with a nod. “Captain Jankowski lost his XO to the Churchill a couple of weeks ago, and he’s been looking for a replacement. You would fit in perfectly.” He added.

    “I know some of the officers who have served under him”, the officer said with concern and paused. “He doesn’t handle first contact situations as well as others, ever since the Omega incident…”

    “The military tribunal cleared him of all responsibility for what happened”, Lefcourt said a little too quickly and with a little too much force.

    Prometheus, Jankowski, Omega Incident? She had heard about the first two, if nothing else since the captain was married to a senator’s daughter, but she would have to do some more digging about this ‘Omega Incident’…

    “Yes, I understand that”, the officer nodded. “But if I can speak frankly?”

    Lefcourt just nodded.

    “The men under his command consider him a loose cannon”, he paused. “I’d rather not walk into a situation where I might have to go up against my own CO if things got hot.”

    Lefcourt made a face as he heard this. She could only agree. This could mean trouble.

    “Don’t misunderstand me”, the officer continued. “I appreciate the effort, General. And you’re right, this is a plum assignment and a fast track to promotion, but… I can’t leave Captain Sterns in a lurch and I don’t really feel comfortable with the situation on the Prometheus.”

    “Sheridan”, Lefcourt replied with some sourness in his voice. “You’re the most stubborn man I’ve ever seen, and mainly at your own expense.”

    The general rose, and she had to move again to avoid him touching her.

    “All right!” he tugged at his jacket as he walked back to his chair. “You want to shoot your career in the foot, who am I to stand in the way?” He took a short look at the officer, just before he sat down and started looking at his papers again. “Dismissed!”

    “Yes, sir”, the officer straightened, his face a little worried as if he expected a reprisal for this and turned around to leave.

    As he did, she decided to follow. She had to inform her handler as soon as possible, immediately if she could get hold of him. This short discussion, what was said and implied, meant that things were much closer than they’d anticipated, much too close for comfort.

    She parted ways with the officer in the next corridor, letting her barriers fall and relying on the uniform, pose and rank insignia of an Earth Force lieutenant commander to get her past initial scrutiny. Half an hour later, she was outside the complex, dressed as a civilian and hurrying along the path leading to the orbital shuttle.

    She had to hurry. Starfleet Command would need to know right away.


    USS ODIN
    FEDERATION VALKYRIA-CLASS DREADNOUGHT
    EN-ROUTE TO THE ORION SYSTEM



    Kyle had never seen so many miracles at once, much less in the same place or in action. He was one of the few of his class who had learned enough and done so fast enough to earn a cadet spot on the Odin, and one of only six of these few who had been assigned to the engineering department.

    Still, how true had not his younger sister's words been when she had told him that no matter what he thought, one year at the academy would never be enough to prepare him for the real thing.

    “Cadet Hicks!” he heard his name called from the other side of the engine room. He turned around to see the shape of a black-uniformed Starfleet ensign.

    “Y-yes sir? Kyle answered.

    “Where are the secondary impulse engine control junctions located?” the ensign barked.

    “S-sir, one is on deck 11, r-rear main corridor, the other is in J-Jeffries tube 41”, he answered with a stutter.

    “Really?” the ensign looked suspicious. “Are you sure about that?”

    “N-no, I mean yes, sir.”

    “Good, 'cause it’s the right answer, which means you get to join me today”, the ensign replied. “Warp reactor class.”

    “T-thank you, sir”, Kyle replied cursed himself for his insecurity, he'd been over the ship designs so many times that he knew the ship’s layout by heart, even if he still had little idea what everything actually did.

    Still, he was happy and very satisfied that he’d passed the test; there was little else on the entire starship that impressed him as much as the ship’s two warp reactors. He found himself looking up into the closest of the transparent cylinders which, according to the label, contained the number two antimatter reactor. It stretched six floors above and another five floors below the main engineering bay and had an identical twin only some twelve meters away.

    “Very well”, Ensign Parker started his lesson. “The warp reactor is, as you should know by now, the main power source of a modern Federation starship. While it is very much possible to have a fusion-powered warp drive and while that was even the norm during the United Earth and early Federation era in space, it has limitations. Do you know why, Hicks?”

    “Yes, sir”, Kyle felt sure about his answer. “A fusion reactor has an upper limit to its power production rate, namely that of the size of, and the components of, the reaction.”

    “Correct”, Parker replied with a smile. “Nuclear Mechanics 101, exact quote. But what does that mean?”

    “It means, sir, that to increase the power output of a fusion reactor, you'd need to increase the size of the reactor itself exponentially since the rate of fusion cannot be increased.” Kyle replied. “You could also change the fuel, but that would require an exponential increase in pressure and temperature.”

    “Good, very good”, Parker said and almost seemed impressed. “So what can you use instead?”

    “Antimatter”, Kyle stated as he looked at the warp reactor again, seeing the rapid pulses transform into what looked like swirling clouds as the injectors worked to keep pushing deuterium and anti-deuterium through the crystal matrix inside.

    “Good, any other?” Parker smiled.

    “I don’t know, sir”, Kyle replied with some shyness. “We only had time enough to cover antimatter and fusion reactors in the academy before we were assigned here.”

    “I understand”, Parker replied, and gave him a short nod. “The reason is mostly because those are the only two we actually use ourselves and, because of that, the only ones you will have direct contact with anytime soon. That said there are a number of other possible and capable power sources as well, such as quantum singularities or quantum wave reactors to name two.”

    “Sir?” Kyle asked as he didn’t recognize the terms.

    “Artificial black holes and zero-point energy taps”, Parker explained with a smile.

    “Oh”, he replied. “I didn’t know that.”

    “Well, now you do”, Parker continued and tapped a few commands on a nearby console. “Can you tell me the maximum amount of power that can be produced by a warp core?”

    “No, sir”, Kyle answered and looked down at his boots. “I can’t.”

    “That's not surprising either, its high-energy plasma physics coupled with particle physics and quantum mechanics.” Parker looked at the warp core. “This baby alone is producing more than seven exawatts at the moment, that’s seven times ten to the eighteenth power, more than ten billion gigawatts.”

    “That’s… that’s incredible”, Kyle responded in awe. “That’s more than my entire planet uses!”

    “Yes”, Parker nodded as if that was self-explanatory. “It's probably even exponentially more considering one of your nuclear fission plants only produce about a gigawatt. But do you know at what speed we’re currently traveling?”

    “We’re at warp eight?” Kyle thought he remembered, and seeing the engineer nod in confirmation he made a quick mental calculation. “Some thousand times the speed of light, right?”

    “Give or take, and it will take quite a bit of oomph to move a barge this size that fast.” Parker nodded. “It's actually a range between about nine hundred and seventy five on the low end of the scale and about a thousand and fifty on the high, just for future reference.”

    “How come there’s a range to it?” Kyle asked. “Isn’t the warp factor a set speed?”

    “God no”, Parker laughed a little. “That’d make it too easy. The warp factor is the rate at which the warp field effectively pushes our own little bubble of space through the space around the warp field. Since the density of space can change, our relative velocity will change as well.”

    “There’s a difference in density?” Kyle asked as he didn't understand the engineer's statement at all. “I thought space was empty?”

    “Well, no, it’s more complicated than that”, Parker replied, raising an eyebrow as he eyed a display. “Space will bend around gravity wells, such as planetoids, stars or black holes. That means that space actually becomes denser the closer to the gravity well you get, and the closer you get the slower the ship will move.”

    “I understand, I think”, Kyle rubbed his chin trying to wrap his head around it. “What is the ship’s maximum speed?”

    “Warp factor nine point nine eight, at least according to the paper.” Parker replied. “It equates to some fifteen thousand times the speed of light.”

    “That’s ten times our present speed!” Kyle gasped.

    “Yes, I do believe it is”, Parker smiled. “To continue…”

    Kyle was already feeling like his head was spinning from information overload but he managed to keep focused for most of the ensign’s hour-long lecture about the ship’s reactors and faster-than-light propulsion system.

    He didn’t know what surprised him more, that they could actually take one of the reactors completely offline at this speed or that a single reactor would be quite enough up to be able to hold a speed of about warp nine point two or so, even if it wouldn't be able to do so for long. It was… astonishing.

    He’d only been on board for three days so far, two of which had been spent in hour-long lectures like this one that he got when a crewman had some free time and in areas that were as random as which crewman actually had an hour to spare. He’d been through the deflectors, the nacelles, EPS power taps and the impulse engines before this, and now he could add the reactors to his checklist.

    He was overwhelmed, the pace was much faster than it had been in the academy but he also realized that he had learned more in the last few days than he felt he had in months back there. There was really nothing that could compare to practical experience on technology he could now not only see pictures or blueprints of but actually touch, feel and in some cases see the insides of as well.

    Still he knew what he was expected to do now, return to his quarters and read up on what the Federation considered important about warp reactors and then return when he was finished to let the ensign or someone else query him on his newfound understanding of the highly advanced technology.

    It was a cruel tempo; they’d already had three people that wanted to drop out. These had been shown a view of the outside along with their position on a star map and been politely asked whether they’d prefer to use an airlock, a transporter or the rear shuttle bay to disembark. The message was clear, this wasn’t school anymore.

    They were in deep space some eight and change light years from home and there was no way they could go back until the captain turned the ship around. And the officers had made it perfectly clear there was no way he'd do that just because of some home-sick cadets that were finding themselves in over their heads.

    They had signed up for it, they had known what was expected of them and what was required to be accepted, but many of them had not realized the seriousness or the bluntly irreversible course they had set out upon. He remembered the captain saying that whoever didn’t meet his expectations would be put off the ship.

    It was an empty threat if taken literally as they could hardly put people off the ship light years from home, but it was still a serious reminder that it was up to him where the ship went and that they had to conform to his rules as long as they were on it. Rule number one was simple. Do your best and learn as fast as possible, because tomorrow you might need it.


    AFS SHRAN
    ANDORIAN MERCHANT VESSEL
    NEAR THE ORION STAR



    The bulky form of the cargo vessel glided through space only a few light seconds from the outer edge of the stars corona. Unlike most of its actual peers and more like those she emulated she had few running lights and even fewer other sources of light and thus gave a feeling to an observer that it was more of a metallic shadow than a ship. In truth, the ship was more advanced than it looked, and built by a civilization that considered even this ship’s hidden technology as centuries out of date.

    Even so, like any other ship it was dependant on fuel and both the ship’s artificial limitations and the lower technology races they stayed around made it hard for them to readily replenish these supplies. Few races even used antimatter, much less manufactured it specifically as anti-deuterium, requiring them to be resupplied by ships travelling all the way from the Sirius system every so often.

    They’d also realized that while the Earth Alliance did use deuterium in their fusion reactors and that they could use it to fuel their own fusion reactors as well, it was so tainted by regular hydrogen and lithium particles that they’d had to scrub every microgram of it they traded for or risk clogging up the plasma grid. The ship wasn’t designed to gather its own either which made it dependant on hidden meetings like this.

    “We’re at the designated coordinates, Captain”, Tolar’s voice cut through the silence on the ship’s bridge. “There’s still no sign of them yet.”

    “Nothing at all on the subspace sensors either?” T’Pell replied with some surprise evident in his voice. “They should’ve been here already, and the transport from home is never late.”

    “No, nothing”, his first officer shrugged. “I guess there's an exception to every rule.”

    “Maybe”, the captain scowled and rubbed his chin. “I hate it when people are late. It always makes me nervous.”

    “Nervous? You, Captain? I doubt that”, Tolar said with a slight chuckle.

    “Indeed”, he shrugged. “I guess it’s just me worrying, but I really can’t help it. When people don’t show up on time I start considering possibilities.”

    “Waste of time”, she replied with some glee. “Worrying won’t change anything.”

    “True, but time, time we have”, T’Pell sighed. “Not like the good old days, eh?”

    “No, sir.”

    “Playing hide and seek with Warbirds, all to see who blinked first.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Always in motion, hoping you don’t fly right into them.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Those were the good old days.”

    "If you say so, sir."

    Tolar had a hard time keeping her face straight. The good old days, ducking for Romulan disruptor fire all the time when not constantly worrying about running into them at high warp? Yeah, right.

    Sure, this assignment was boring her to tears, but at least she could still count on getting home with all her parts still attached. Her personal preference was still to if at all possible retire at a very old age and in as few pieces as possible.

    “Sensors now detect an incoming contact; damn I guess that new sensor countermeasure system they installed works pretty well. She's already almost on top of us”, she interrupted the Captain. “I'm reading it as heading straight towards us at warp nine point nine five.”

    “That fast? Good”, T’Pell raised an eyebrow. “Guess they know they’re late then.”

    “Apparently”, her voice didn’t show a hint of emotion. “I’m receiving a reply from the ship’s subspace transponder. NCC-45000, it is confirmed as being the Odin.”

    “Tell the crew to prepare for docking”, T’Pell rose from his chair and headed towards the door to the lower deck. “And make sure to complement Halsey on his… timely… arrival. I’ll be in my quarters.”

    “Yes, Captain”, She replied, not even touching the communications controls.

    There were limits to what she’d do even when directly told to, and she knew her captain didn’t really mean what he'd just said. His irritation over the other ships late arrival wasn’t cause enough for her to relay that specific complaint, no matter if done discreetly or not.

    Not to mention that Halsey had been the Starfleet poster boy captain ever since the battle over Draconis. He