The ship lurched to one side and shook violently.
“Ionization levels are increasing, Sir,” Grace sang out from the Ops station. “There is a substantial amount of sub-space turbulence.”
“Steady as she goes, Miss Montoya,” Matt said calmly, as he gazed down at the readings himself. “Miss Tsien, tie the lateral sensors into navigation to increase short-range resolution—perhaps we can avoid these pockets of sub-space instability.”
“On it, Captain,” the Science Officer replied from her station behind him.
Ahead, on the main viewer, Matt could see the flashes of light created by tidal motion of the gasses and dust and debris, flashes that briefly illuminated the blue and black cloud through which Republic
Penetrating the cloud had proved (so far, at least) just as difficult as Hera
’s logs had indicated. Not only did the particle density exceed that of the majority of such stellar phenomena, the Cauldron had tides and flows of gravity influenced by the strange effects of the dark matter hidden within. It wasn’t quite as intense as the Badlands, but close, Matt thought.
“Approaching the inner boundary,” Amanda said softly. “We should be clear in just a few more minutes.”
A massive bolt of lightning, born from the ionized gasses and debris, flashed across the viewer—but Republic
’s shields held, even though the ship shook violently.
“No damage, Captain Dahlgren,” Chan intoned as his hands flew across the console. “Shields holding at 82%. Ionization levels have dropped by half.”
Matt nodded. “Mister Roshenko, drop another Class VI probe; this should be the final link in our chain to the outside.”
“Aye, aye, sir; launching Class VI Probe on station-keeping.”
This was the ninth communications relay probe that Matt had deployed—but he had no intention of being unable to communicate with Star Fleet. And the sub-space interference the nebula had already shown distorted sub-space radio over long distances—using the probes as communication beacons and relay points would allow any transmission to quickly reach Star Fleet with a minimum of signal loss.
Plus, the sensor arrays carried by the probes would record the phenomena encountered within the nebula for later analysis, a task that would keep Amanda’s science teams occupied.
Suddenly, the main viewer cleared, the clouds of gas and dust and debris falling away to reveal clear space ahead, with nearly twenty stars shining bright against the backdrop of the Cauldron’s distant walls.
“We are clear, sir,” said Isabella from the helm.
“Very good, all stop.”
“All stop, aye, sir.”
“Deflector Control, reconfigure the main dish for space-normal operations; Mister Malik, reset the Bussard Collectors and dump the accumulated gas.”
Two voices answered his command in near unison, “Aye, aye, sir
“Mister Shrak, secure the ship from Yellow Alert and post normal watches.”
“Canceling Yellow Alert.”
The turbo-lift doors opened and Ambassador Sepak stepped onto the bridge, trailed by several members of his staff. Matt swiveled his chair.
“Mister Ambassador, welcome to the Cauldron,” he said with a smile. And then the captain noticed that Amanda Tsien was frowning. “Miss Tsien, is there a problem?”
“Sir . . . this makes no sense.”
Matt frowned. “What, exactly, Miss Tsien, makes no sense?”
“Nebulas with star systems within them do form pockets of clear space generated by the solar wind of the individual stellar masses. But those pockets are always local
and surround each star. Only a supernova expansion shell differs; but the Cauldron is not a nova remnant. And yet, there is a space 33-light years in length, 24-light years in width, and 15-light years in height with standard interstellar conditions. These conditions should not be present.”
The Vulcan arched one eyebrow. “That was also noted by the crew of the Hera
fifteen years ago, Lieutenant Commander. It should have been expected.”
“Yes, Ambassador. But long-range sensors also show that none of the dimensions of the interior boundaries have altered in the slightest since that time. They remain exactly
as they were when Hera
penetrated the dust cloud. None of the drifts have expanded or diminished, and that . . . that shouldn’t be true.”
“Fascinating,” the Vulcan said. “Are your sensors in proper working order, Lieutenant Commander Tsien?”
Now Matt’s frown deepened and he compared Republic
’s sensor readings with those from the Nebula
-class cruiser fifteen years ago. They matched precisely. And that was impossible, wasn’t it?
“It is a mystery of the Cauldron,” Sepak answered. “Perhaps, once we have normalized relations with the Lorsham and averted this conflict, Star Fleet might be enticed to station a scientific research vessel here for further study.”
“I will be recommending exactly that, Mister Ambassador,” Matt said as he shook his head. “Miss Biddle, open a communications channel to the Lorsham Central Authority in the Hak’ta-thor system.”
“This is Captain Matthew Dahlgren of the Federation Starship Republic
. We will arrive at Hak’ta-thor Prime in . . .”
“Eighty-three minutes at Warp 6, Sir,” Isabella chimed in from her station.
“. . . eighty-three minutes with Ambassador Sepak and his retinue in response to your request for Federation assistance.”
The main viewer changed from displaying the nebula to show an elegantly dressed humanoid seated behind a desk. His face and hands were covered in a short fur of red and white, and his jaw was extended forward in a muzzle filled with sharp teeth.
“I am Premier Vorshun, the leader of the Lorsham people, and I bid you welcome to Shai’kar Morva—the Cradle of Life among the Clouds of Space. We shall be expecting your arrival, Captain Dahlgren. We have much which to discuss.”
The screen blanked, and Matt blinked. “Not much for conversation, are they?”
“They are a logical people, Captain Dahlgren,” the Ambassador answered. “I suspect that our questions will be answered with efficacy upon our arrival.”
“Which will only raise additional questions, I think Mister Ambassador.”
Once again, the Vulcan raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. It would be a most boring universe if we knew the answer to every question there is.”
Matt smiled and nodded. “Touché, Sir. Miss Montoya, make your course to the Hak’ta-thor system, Warp Factor Six.”
Chan Shrak shook his head as he took in the ships in orbit above Hak’ta-thor Prime through the window of the captain’s ready room. The Lorsham ships recalled to protect their home system were well built, and lovingly maintained—that much was obvious just from looking at them from the screen. But there were only three dozen of the small vessels—and of those only four could claim to be even half of Republic
’s length, a mere fraction of her tonnage. Sensors, of course, penetrated farther than the naked eyes; and here too the primitive nature of the Lorsham space effort was readily apparent. The low-powered warp drives were unlikely to reach any speed much above Warp 5 (or, to be plain spoken, little more than what one of Republic
could reach), and their weapons were a combination of old-style phase cannon and spatial torpedoes. They did possess surprisingly effective shields, however; a fact which had caused Ambassador Sepak to frown. After all, the Lorsham had not developed shields only fifteen years ago, and yet now they had them.
“Regulations forbid it, you know. And with that leg, you certainly can’t run if things go wrong.”
Matt looked up in exasperation at this first officer. “Chan, we aren’t beaming down into the middle of a Jem H’dar base. The Ambassador asked me to accompany him to the surface and I am going. That is the end of this discussion.”
“Very well, Captain Dahlgren, Sir,” the Andorian said with a twinkle in his eyes and his antennae twitched. “You will need an aide—and a bodyguard, and on that part, Captain, I must insist.”
Matt glared at his first officer, but Chan just stood there as cool as ice and returned the stare. Finally, the Captain chuckled. “Very well. One
aide, Chan, and a discrete
Marine. Oh, and have Counselor Trincullo report to Transporter Room Two as well.”
“She’s the closest thing I’ve got to a Betazed telepath, Chan, and she’s good at reading people. I want to know if the Lorsham are holding something back from us. Like why their colonies fell almost two months ago and yet we haven’t encountered a single Kraal ship since our arrival. Not even on scanners. Does that strike you as strange that wouldn’t even have a scout out there observing this system?”
“I was afraid it was my paranoia acting up again, Sir. But since you asked, I get the strangest feeling that we may not quite as welcome as the Lorsham claim. Certainly, they requested that Republic
take a parking orbit on the opposite side of the planet from that shipyard complex they have in orbit. Almost like there is something there they don’t want us to get a good look at.”
Chan smiled. “Too bad they don’t know you are a devious, devious man, Captain Dahlgren.”
“Then I take it the passive scans from the stealth probe we dropped off on our journey in system picked up something?”
“You might say that,” the XO answered as he laid a data-chip on the captain’s desk. Matt slid it into a slot and then the data began streaming across—followed by a picture, and he whistled low.
“My, my, my, Chan. What is a Bat’leth
-class battle cruiser doing here?”
“Such a suspicious mind, Captain Dahlgren, tsk, tsk, tsk; what would
the Vulcan say? After all, I’m sure the Klingons have a perfectly legitimate reason to send one of their newest and most modern warships this deep into Federation space and be on scene just as we are having reports of a war, and a plea for Federation assistance. Who knows? They might just be on an errand of mercy.”
Matt nodded as he slowly stood. “Ambassador Sepak doesn’t want us to carry weapons; but
,” the Captain said, raising his hand and his voice to cut off his XOs next words, “he doesn’t get the final call on that.”
“Have Beck issue Trincullo, my aide, and myself a cricket—we’ll let the Marine carry the only obvious weapon, which will displease the Ambassador greatly, I am certain.”
“Of course sir.”
“And speaking of which, who exactly are you planning to assign as my aide, Mister Shrak?”
Chan smiled and hit his comm badge. “Get in here.”
The doors to the bridge access corridor slid open and Ensign Roberts walked in and snapped to attention. “Reporting as ordered, Sir!”
Matt shook his head, and finally nodded. “Mister Roberts, Mister Shrak is about to brief you. Try not to spill any fruit juice on me while he does, or while the two of us are meeting with the leadership of the Lorsham on planet.”
“I-I’m beaming down with you, Sir?”
“Something about that you don’t like, Ensign?”
“No, Sir! NO, SIR! I just wasn’t expecting . . .”
“Mister Roberts, Mister Shrak selected you—so you must have been doing something
right. Chan, I’ll meet you in Transporter Two; right now I need to see Dr. Talbot before I beam down with the Ambassador and his staff—and your Mister Roberts, here.”
“I will make certain he knows his assignment, Captain Dahlgren,” Chan said, as Matt limped out of the ready room.