22 Dark Nebula
Acting Captain Thomas Eugene Paris of the USS Perseus read over his padd of report updates on his way to the bridge. He didn't know what happened, but he'd had the first full sleep in ages, thanks in large part to the catharsis provided by Doctor Salvatore – as well as the confidence instilled in him by the efficient professionalism of the crew; as well as their moral support. In turn, he, like Captains Janeway, Chakotay, and Tuvok, would try to offer his crew strength where they needed it, understanding when they needed it, and personal sacrifice, when duty and good conscience demanded.
According to the scrolling data on the padd, the Voyager trail had varied through the night. The ship had managed to not only erase its quantum wake, but also to alter course erratically. Fortunately, Seven and Vexa had successfully gotten the PRAM Sensor modifications online; the technology proved itself, and Voyager's unmistakable neutrino output had lit up like a Christmas tree on the PRAM display - resulting in an ebullient night shift for the crew. He doubted the alien intruder would be aware of the technique; so far, all of Voyager's course corrections had occurred independently of any PRAM Sensor tests.
Tom couldn't say why, but this morning, the crew seemed tighter, somehow. As if the night had affected them. They took to their duties expediently and in good cheer, considering. As acting captain he would have to make his peace with sometimes being out of the loop when it came to staff morale. But that was alright; because Tom trusted this crew. He trusted in their abilities and professionalism and even passion. He'd served over seven years with a good many of them; and had personally gotten to know each and every member prior to their deployment to Perseus.
The turbolift opened to the bridge.
Seven of Nine announced him. “Captain on the bridge!” She stood by the command chair, and the entire bridge crew stood at attention by their stations, awaiting inspection. Their show of respect emboldened Tom and filled him with a sense of pride – duty – and loyalty to each one of them in turn.
He stood in the center of the bridge and noted each officer: Commander Seven of Nine, First Officer and Chief Engineer. Lieutenant Commander Nikhila Munich, Second Officer and Chief Communications Officer. Ensign Ujio Shir, Helmsman. Lieutenant Grifahni Jace, Chief Tactical Officer. Lieutenant Vexa, Chief Operations Officer, now bearing a gold mantle - on a Starfleet uniform.
Tom hit the shipwide com indicator on his chair's panel. The boatswain's call sounded throughout the ship. “All hands,” he began. “This is the acting Captain. I'm pleased to report the installation of the new PRAM Sensor modifications have been successfully completed. Perseus is on a direct course for the Starship Voyager. Congratulations to you all. Starfleet couldn't ask for a better crew in all the fleet than the crew it is my honor and privilege to command, the crew of the USS Perseus. Voyager's only hope rests in your hands. Because of each and every one of you, the odds just shifted in her favor. Let's bring her home.” He killed the switch and sat in the command chair. “Stations – and let's stow the protocol.”
Tom evaluated the chart of the two ships' courses on the main screen. “She's on the run and hell bent for leather. Seven, report.”
“Sir. Given the headings set by Voyager through the night, Lieutenant Vexa and I have extrapolated Voyager's course corrections in order to localize any likely destination points along a range of median vectors.”
“What did you find?”
“The set diminishes with increased distance attained,” Vexa said, indicating a string of various trajectories across her panel's display of the Delta Quadrant; as Perseus blazed through the sectors, the fan-shaped vector range narrowed, parsec by parsec. “However many variables remain. The range covers many inhabited systems indicated by the Borg stellar data that Voyager acquired in its final voyage back to Earth.”
“What's this vector here?” Tom indicated a bold line traversing the range. “Wait a minute, I know that vector. That was Voyager's original course for Earth. Almost didn't recognize it upside down like that.”
“Affirmative, Sir. As you can see the range of possible vectors is entirely intersected by that course.”
Seven interrupted. “If the alien intruder originated from the Delta Quadrant she may have learned of Voyager in that time period. With her powers she could have easily taken any number of Federation ships with superior capabilities; yet she has obviously gone through great pains to acquire Voyager in particular. It would suggest a prior familiarity. Especially in light of our current course.”
“Or Voyager might have been her backup plan, if she failed to acquire Perseus,” Tom replied. “All we really know for sure is that her plan required a ship with quantum slipstream drive, obviously. She may have been able to fashion a quantum drive out of whatever matter replication techniques she employed – but it was Starfleet design. My guess is that no matter how advanced she is, she hadn't had access to a quantum drive until we gave it to her. Who knows what she wants to use it for.”
“Nevertheless, the vector patterns clearly fall into place around Voyager's original heading for Earth. Speculation suggests a correlation. Perhaps something Voyager did while in the Delta Quadrant affected the alien's interest somehow, which is why she would have taken the trouble to locate Voyager, out of all the ships in all the galaxy.”
Commander Munich looked up from her constant scanning of Voyager's records. “Well if there was ever any indication of the species of this alien, I can't find it. None of Voyager's records contain any mention of this race whatsoever.”
Tom wasn't convinced. “Still, it's not as if people steal starships to go take care of business tens of thousands of light years away from home. She must have at least some familiarity with the Delta Quadrant. Of course, if that's true, it raises a pointed question.”
Tom looked at Vexa. She paused from her scans to consider it.
“How did the alien traverse the quadrant in the first place to arrive in Sector 001 of the Alpha Quadrant?” she answered. “And if in a ship – where is its current location?”
He and Seven exchanged consternated glances.
“So, is there anything at all worth noting along these paths Vexa?”
Vexa zoomed in and graphical callouts indicated several key regions in the range. “If the course median holds to the extrapolation, Voyager could pass within a vicinity of approximately five hundred seventy-three star systems, most of them uncharted and statistically uninhabited. Five pulsars and nova-type stars, a stellar nursery, a void expanse, various known spatial and subspace phenomena, a cosmic string fragment and an imploding star cluster.
“The Borg data indicates several regions of major inhabited stellar civilizations as well as cold buffer zones not unlike the Alpha-Beta Neutral Zone. Lesser civilizations and colonized worlds are likely as well. The course also skirts various fractionated radiative regions, chaotic spatial disturbances, and posited dark matter formations. Of course, this represents what can be known or inferred. No doubt this region contains any number of uncharted phenomena. There is also a likelihood the destination falls outside this range entirely; however this likelihood, like the vector range, diminishes with time.”
“And nothing to indicate her purpose,” Tom said.
Neither Vexa nor Seven had a reply.
“There is another factor,” Seven countered. Vexa raised her brow in question. “The maximum range Voyager can maintain current speed before engine failure.”
“It is illogical to assume the alien will push Voyager to engine failure,” Vexa replied. “She can drop out of slipstream at any time, and reestablish any course available to her.”
“It is your logic which is in error,” Seven countered. “If her intention was to traverse a distance beyond the capacity of the quantum drive, she would not push the engines to their maximum limit prior to arriving at her destination, requiring a prolonged shutdown of those systems. She would have used a less energy-intensive speed for greater distance of travel. Therefore, logically, her destination must be within this vector range. I have already done the calculations. Would you care to run them, Lieutenant? For the sake of the Captain.”
Vexa considered silently in logical acquiescence and ran a new set of variable parameters. The computer flashed with vector corrections and other notations. The subset Voyager icons flashed in their respective positions across the sectors. “Varying speed over this course would result in an earlier arrival time than traveling at maximum speed and stopping for the necessary down-maintenance periods. The further Voyager travels the more this holds true. Captain, the Commander's hypothesis is correct. Velocity analysis indicates a greater likelihood that at current speed Voyager will reach her destination as early as possible, rather than take a more measured course for a longer or more circuitous route. She will have factored in her total distance accordingly.”
“She didn't reduce speed earlier. She won't stop completely down the line and arrive even later,” Tom said. “No, this is a one-legged long jump before burning out the drive. Good work to both of you.”
Vexa added the new data and requisite formulae to her analysis. The vector range shortened and narrowed considerably. “This increases the likelihood of her arriving at one of these charted regions. Captain, I apologize for overlooking such... an obvious key factor. My logic was in -”
“I've seen course corrections like this before,” Tom replied. “Like I said. On the run and hell bent for leather.”
Vexa exchanged looks with Seven. “Yes, sir, but – we have proved
Seven interrupted her. “The Captain's – logic
– was correct, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, Commander.” They gave Tom the eye and returned to their readouts.
Grif took a look at their vector analysis on his Tactical station. “She doesn't know if she's being followed,” he said. “But she's not taking any chances. Gonna be tough taking her by surprise. So what are we gonna do when we catch her?”
Tom straightened from the readout. “Briefing room. Five minutes. Pencils sharpened.”
The briefing hadn't been as productive as he'd hoped. The extrapolated courses placed Voyager's destination somewhere in the central region of Delta Quadrant – an area Voyager had not even traveled before it had been absorbed by the Borg sphere in its final mission in the quadrant. So much for past run-ins.
“Captain. Reading massive fluctuations of discrete clouds and cloud complexes. Superradiant emissions, IR sources, hydroxyl emissions, ionized gas, carbon family molecules, silicon oxide, isotopometers and deuterated molecules.”
Voyager had disappeared from all sensors. Where she had gone, however, was no mystery.
“Sounds like a garden variety stellar nursery to me?” He hoped.
Vexa continued. “Readings indicate spectral line emissions in the microwave band of the EM spectrum. Most likely due to naturally occurring astrophysical masers.”
“Nothing Perseus can't handle, Lieutenant.” Tom leaned forward and assured himself he was right.
Despite their brainstorming during the briefing, little was forthcoming. The problem lay not in the crew's resourcefulness – but in the x variable that undermined all strategy: the alien motive.
“No sign of Voyager,” Ujio added. “The dense molecular cores of the filaments and clump formations provide too much interference. Some nasty weather ahead. Supersonic magnetic turbulences infusing and dissipating randomly, sir.”
“Shields up and steady as she goes, Ensign.”
Grif had suggested a covert boarding, given the opportunity, rather than a full assault. Seven contributed an inspired idea of a Borg-enhanced interpolating security field in which to snare the alien, utilizing Vexa's subspace-jamming technique to prevent the alien from reprogramming the technology telekinetically – or however she managed to do it. But it would take time to create.
Time the alien had not given them.
Perseus approached the stellar nursery, a Giant Molecular Cloud sixty-four point seven parsecs across in diameter. Somewhere in that violent storm-tossed dark nebula, the starship Voyager bided silently, deep in a dense molecular core, shrouded in ammonia traces and alien intent.