Yelgrun sat at a drab metallic table sorting through half a dozen different padds. Each of them contained reports from fleet commanders on the front lines, as well as new requests from Dominion-allied representatives—Cardassian, Breen, Son’a, Sindareen, and even a memo from the Orion Syndicate. He was organizing them in order he wanted to read them in when the desk monitor chirped.
“Incoming message on coded frequency one-one-six-two-eight infrared,”
said a robotic-sounding masculine voice. “Do you wish to receive?”
“Yes,” Yelgrun deadpanned as he entered the proper authorization sequence on a keypad.
A Sindareen captain appeared on the screen. Yelgrun almost mistook him for a Son’a, who had similar scaly looking skin. The distinguishing feature, however, was the cobra-like neck and a forehead that widened the further up the cranium. “This is Meezun reporting in from star system L9-637,”
he said. “Do you receive?”
“This is Yelgrun. What do you have to report, Captain Meezun?”
“Routine patrols from the system’s asteroid belt revealed a Starfleet vessel entered orbit of the fourth planet approximately thirteen hours ago.”
He entered a sequence on his keypad, which allowed a graphic with a Starfleet delta and graphic representations of planets and other celestial bodies of varying sizes and shapes to appear on Yelgrun’s screen. “It confronted the automatic defense system guarding the planet and left. Five hours after that, a smaller support vessel returned to the fourth planet and was promptly shot down.”
A smaller Starfleet delta then appeared on the graphic, indicating the support vessel’s return to that planet.
Yelgrun looked away from the screen and quietly considered the implications. Ever since two Federation starships had visited that world eleven years earlier, Starfleet had placed it under heavy quarantine to assure that no other ships were lost there and to prevent pirates from passing one of the most adaptive automated weapons systems to an enemy. The Dominion had learned the history of this world during a foray in the Lorenze Cluster last year and how the automated defense system guarding the planet was still capable of destroying intruding ships three centuries after similar ground-based weapons wiped out all of the planet’s sentient inhabitants.
“Interesting,” he muttered to himself. As long as the Dominion and its allies were holding up well, even as hostilities had descended into a war of attrition, the Founders had little interest in such a weapon system that could just as easily have wiped them out as easily as it could wipe out the enemy. But with the Breen entering the war, perhaps this was the Federation Alliance’s counter-punch.
“If you wish, I can order the destruction of the Starfleet vessel, assuming it is still in the system awaiting the smaller vessel’s return,”
Meezun offered. “I will certainly require Jem’Hadar and Breen reinforcements to…”
“No,” Yelgrun hurriedly shot back, sensing the Sindareen captain’s enthusiastic initiative. “Locate the mother ship and use whatever diplomatic gamesmanship you deem necessary to learn exactly how Starfleet plans to harness this weapons system.”
Meezun replied with a devilish smile.
Once the screen went blank, Yelgrun was reminded of a human expression he vaguely remembered hearing. It was something like, “You can’t put the sorcerer back in the box” or something to that effect. That expression certainly applied here now that both sides in the war had made very desperate gambles in recent weeks.
Ronnie Kozar sat behind the desk in the ready room writing up his weekly report. On the top of the screen on the padd was a reference to placing Lieutenants sh’Aqba and Tarlazzi on more supervised duty, at least until the war was over, to assure that they both reported for duty on time. It was not something he really wanted to do. He and Shinar had been friends for nearly fifteen years. But keeping his officers focused on their work was one of his most important duties as first officer.
He had hit a wall in his writing, and was hoping for any kind of interruption. He sighed in frustration when the doorbell chimed. “Come in,” he said eagerly.
Morrison entered with a look of dread on his face, as if he was about to be dressed down. “You wanted to see me, sir?” he asked with half a smile.
Kozar set the padd down and stood up to look straight at Morrison. He circled around the desk trying to shake the reluctance to level with another of his friends. “The captain asked me to conduct a full review of ship’s protocol,” he eventually said once he was eye to eye with Morrison. “Or lack thereof.”
“And what do you want me to do about it?” Morrison innocently asked.
“Well, for one, your recent personal relationship with Lieutenant Neeley has undermined your working relationship,” Kozar explained.
Morrison’s eyes winced with a look of feigned ignorance, which Kozar saw right through.
“It doesn’t take a medical expert to know how high hormone levels shoot up when the two of you are on the same deck,” he added. “And you are the security chief. Thirteen department heads report to you. Straighten them out. And as for you and Neeley, I would suggest for now that your personal feelings for each other aside. Otherwise, I will have to reassign one or both of you to posts that don’t get within even a parsec of each other. Understood?"
“Yes, sir,” Morrison plainly stated. Afterwards, he turned around and headed for the bridge entrance mumbling, “Seems like someone needs to get some.”
“Excuse me?” Kozar asked. He slammed the padd he was working back on the desk and paced over to Morrison. “You’re out of line, Mister,” he barked.
“Oh, am I?” Morrison hissed.
Kozar got in his face momentarily, but then backed off. He looked away from his friend to calm himself down. He walked over to the replicator to order a glass of tonic water and seated himself on the sofa. “There’s no need to for us come to blows,” he said after the first sip.
“Tensions on this ship have been rather high lately,” Morrison remarked. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“As long as we don’t end up bashing skulls. Even during the border wars, we weren’t at each other’s throats. I heard about Marcos, our classmate at the Academy.”
Morrison lowered his head when he heard the name of one of those killed in the Breen attack.
“Flynn, Brunal, T’Rana, Eisensen,” Kozar added, recalling the names on the most recent casualty list he had read. “A lot of good people died. And after Earth become an almost impenetrable fortress.”
Both friends shared a long moment of silence in honor of their friends who were stationed at Starfleet Headquarters and other posts on Earth, whose deaths felt like a punch in the stomach to both of them. The somber moment was interrupted by a comm chime.
“Commander Kozar, you’re needed on the bridge,”Carson called. “Sindareen raiding fleet closing fast.”
The two men exchanged befuddled stares. “Now there’s a name we haven’t heard in a while,” Morrison remarked.
“We’re on our way,” Kozar said with a tap of his combadge.
Sara Carson sat in the command chair, staring at the viewscreen as if hoping it would tell her what the Sindareen’s intentions were. She dutifully rose from the chair once she saw Morrison and Kozar emerge from the ready room. She gave Morrison a quick nod as he took back the tactical station and tiptoed over to Kozar with a status report.
“Six Sindareen raiders are on attack course, sir,” she told the commander. “They’ve powered their weapons and should have us in range in less than a minute.”
“Red alert,” Kozar called out, which sent the active bridge crew scrambling to various auxiliary stations. Carson returned to her station, ready to make course changes at a moment’s notice.
“All power to weapons and shields,” Kozar added as the klaxons sounded. He stood in anxious silence waiting to see what the hostiles would do next and who would blink first.
The communications board at the tactical station chirped, catching Morrison’s attention. “They’re hailing us,” he reported with a look of pleasant surprise on his face.
“The poker game begins. Put it up.”
A single Sindareen appeared on the viewscreen with a smile that was both pleasant and devious, sitting in what appeared to be a one-pilot cockpit. “I am Third Prime Meezun of the Sindareen Freehold. What is your business here?”
“Commander Ronnie Kozar of the Federation starship Lambda Paz
,” Kozar replied plainly. He anticipated that these Sindareen had been watching them for a considerable length of time before revealing themselves. “That’s not really your concern, as this is Federation space. But if you must know, we are conducting research on the gaseous properties of this system’s Oort cloud.”
Meezun said with a skeptical grin. “Our sensor probes indicate that your vessel had entered orbit of the system’s fourth planet approximately thirteen hours ago. And after a brief confrontation with the automatic defense system, you left orbit and sent a support vessel back to the planet. And since then, your capital vessel has held position here. Could you be waiting to extract a team of intelligence operatives?”
is a classified matter,” Kozar retorted. “As for why we have been here as long as we have, our studies of the cloud are taking longer than we had anticipated.”
“Perhaps we could lend a hand.”
Kozar exchanged a skeptical glance with Morrison, as if not sure what to make of the Sindareen captain’s offer. “I see,” Kozar said blankly. “The Sindareen have never shown this kind of interest in astronomical research before. And most Sindareen we’ve encountered in the last year have served the Dominion.”
“For the right commission, of course,”
Meezun quipped. “My loyalties are my own. And I have my reasons. Perhaps, a joint research project as a show of our good will.”
I’ll have to consult with my superiors.”
“Take your time. Meanwhile, I will wait here for your response.”
The image of Meezun on the viewscreen blinked out, and in its place was the six raiders spread in a triangular formation similar to a bird spreading its wings. The two raiders on both ends of the formation moved off in opposite directions, then two more after that. Of the two ships that were still nose-to-nose with the Lambda Paz
, only the starboard vessel moved away.
“They’re spreading further apart, sir,” Carson reported, “and just hanging on the edge of their short range sensor radius.”
“Morrison,” Kozar said, pacing closer to the tactical station, “what’s their arsenal?”
“Two type-four disruptor banks,” Morrison replied. He continued pressing buttons on his station and was surprised by the additional data that was coming in. “And merculite rockets.”
“Not enough to hurt us even with the six of them together,” Kozar curiously mused. “Our last encounter with them, they sent two battle cruisers that packed quite a punch.” After a moment of contemplation as he considered Sindareen battle strategy, he looked straight back at Morrison. “Keep an eye out to see if Meezun or his friends make any threatening moves. And try to monitor their comm-channels. See if they bring in reinforcements while keeping in touch with Starfleet to see if they can spare some of their own.”
“Aye, sir,” Morrison obligingly stated. “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, why did you say anything at all about what we were up to?”
“Sindareen battle strategy is to lay low to gauge what they’re up against,” Kozar explained. “I wanted to see how much he knew about our activities here.” He then stared at the viewscreen, specifically at the one raiding ship, as if that would give him a sharper glimpse into his enemy’s mind.
Lieutenants Sh’Aqba, Carson, and Huckaby stood at the port mission ops station conferring on the progress of monitoring Sindareen communications channels. So far, they were having very little success in eavesdropping on anything other than the routine comm-chatter amongst the six ships. With sh’Aqba’s repeated requests to keep trying to decipher long-range communication frequencies, Carson was increasingly convinced that it was a lost cause.
“It’s very slow-going,” Sara reiterated to the others. “Routine communications we can hack with no problem. We could listen in on them ordering pizza if we wanted. And at the risk of repeating myself, we’re looking at any number of possible subspace frequencies with possibly infinite combinations. And even then, we’d probably just get a binary message.”
“Well, keep it up,” sh’Aqba insisted. “Even the simplest sentence might be a clue.”
Sara rolled her eyes, but before she could speak, Huckaby’s console chirped. He paced back to ops and relieved the fairer-skinned human male officer there. “Sir,” he called to Morrison, seated in the command chair, “I’m picking up a signal from a Starfleet distress beacon.”
Morrison stood up, looking in Huckaby’s direction. Carson quickly re-assumed the conn while sh’Aqba headed for the port forward engineering station. “Captain to the bridge,” Morrison called through the comm-system and looked back at Huckaby. “Can you locate it, Lieutenant?”
Huckaby shook his head, unsure if he could locate the source of the signal. “It’s very faint,” he said. “Almost as if the beacon got out a signal right before the primary subspace antenna shorted out.”
“Can you get a fix on anything at all?” Morrison demanded as he saw Kozar exit the ready room from the corner of one eye.
“It’s a very large area,” Huckaby reluctantly replied. “Subspace spikes at two-three-one mark eight-three.”
“Set a course, helm,” Morrison instructed Carson. “But plot your course along system’s Oort cloud until we’re out of their sensor range. We don’t get our Sindareen ‘friends’’ attention too quickly.”
“Report,” Kozar said once he standing immediately to Morrison’s right.
“We intercepted a signal from a Starfleet distress beacon,” Morrison explained. “It could be from our people. We’re trying to maintain our subterfuge, but I would imagine the Sindareen found the same thing we did.”
“It’s a start,” Kozar replied. “Be ready to raise shields at moment’s notice.”
“Aye, sir,” Morrison answered before sauntering back to his station.
Kozar sat in the command chair, monitoring a tactical display. So far, the Sindareen had made no threatening moves.If only raiding vessels would stay put, though. Once the blips faded from the display, that was Kozar’s cue to order a course change. “Lay in a course that follows the direction of the signal,” he ordered as he quickly jumped out of the chair. “Maximum impulse.”
While the Lambda Paz
moved deeper into the system, Kozar paced back and forth in front of ops waiting for Huckaby to report something. The operations officer kept a firm gaze on his console waiting for any new information regarding the signal source.
“This is where the trail ends, sir,” Huckaby blurted when he heard steady chirping noise on his readout. “That, we can say for sure. It could have from any direction.”
Kozar took a few small steps closer to the engineering station, where sh’Aqba was manning the main console. “Lieutenant sh’Aqba,” he said, “can we saturate the area with warp emissions to give us a better idea of where the signal was coming from.”
“It’s possible,” sh’Aqba responded with less than complete assurances.
“Do it,” Kozar instructed.
Sh’Aqba keyed a set of instructions into the main console. She then lent a hand to the two engineering officers at the consoles behind her. Returning to her console, she entered one more programming sequence. “I may have something,” she reported to Kozar. “Our source is somewhere within a five-hundred thousand kilometer radius of Minos.”
“Most likely our people,” Kozar said with a minor hint of a celebratory tone. “Good work. Carson, set a course for Minos.”
“We have a problem, sir,” Huckaby apprehensively called out. “Long range sensors detect two of the Sindareen raiders on an intercept course. And that’s not at all.”
Kozar stood in fearful silence wanting to say to the young officer, Just spit it out already.
“They sent out a signal for reinforcements.”
Kozar sighed in frustration, not sure what to do next. The reinforcements could have been Jem’Hadar, Cardassian, Breen, or all of the above. And when those ships would intercept, no one could say. “Any word from Starfleet on our reinforcements?” he asked Morrison.
“The closest ships are three hours away,” Morrison grimly replied.
And we may not have three hours,
Kozar silently mused. “Our best hope is to locate and retrieve our people before
the enemy reinforcements arrive,” he announced to the crew. He seated himself back in the command chair and gave one additional command.