They made their way into a spacious side office, one of two that accommodated the VIP lounge. X’Gaf’s broad, hairy shoulders just barely squeezed through the entrance. Once inside, he pressed into a sofa along the far wall, while the captain slid behind a desk across from him.
“Computer, begin priority message from Starbase Bastion. Authorization Aubrey Vanguard Five-Nine-Two-Alpha.”
A wafer-thin monitor unfolded from the desk. It was dual-screened, affording X’Gaf a view from his side of the room.
The hardened face of Admiral Saban Brandies appeared. His taught, square jaw and the deeper than usual crow’s feet around his eyes conveyed a level of distress not seen on him since the war.
As Brandies spoke, he stole hurried glances at a PADD in his right hand, indicating he’d had little time to prep for his communiqué.
“Captain, by the time you get this, it may be old news to you. If not, then at least you’ll have some advance notice
.” He drew in a profound breath and began. “Approximately a week after you departed, Starbase 323 intercepted an open transmission from a Xindi prospector near the Athena Cluster. They were conducting tachyon sweeps in the hope of detecting a stable wormhole. Instead, their scans picked up the echo of what appears to be a cloaked vessel, moving in the general direction of the N’Skatiee Sector
The screen split in two. On the admiral’s left was a ghostly imprint; a streak of sand grains etched across a sunburst of red and yellow scratches.
“This image is all that was captured. From what we can tell on this end, the ship is at least five kilometers in length and doesn’t fit our species/vessel index of known parties. And based on the faint energy wake that was detected, there’s every reason to believe it’s warp capable. If it begins a superlight trajectory along its projected flight path, it may arrive in the N’Skatiee system ahead of you.
“Our resources are spread thin right now, for reasons you already know. And that’s deep within our borders. Considering you’re on the fringe of Federation space
…” His mouth tightened with frustration. “Well, it’ll take weeks to get you any support. I’m sorry captain, but for all practical purposes, you and the staff of Virgo One will be on your own
No longer consulting his PADD, Brandies peered directly into the screen, his voice dropping into a somber baritone. “Given all of this, I’m taking the preemptive step of unlocking all of your Vanguard protocols for the duration of this crisis. This includes preauthorization for the deployment and use of Alpha Weapons, based solely at your own discretion. Let’s hope all of this turns out to be a false alarm. Keep me informed as best you can. Brandies out
Aubrey scratched his neck through his unbuttoned tunic. “Well…old news as he said, but the effort’s appreciated.”
X’Gaf shifted his ponderous weight forward. He flattened his long ears while affixing Aubrey with a contrite gaze. “'Vanguard Protocols'? 'Alpha weapons'?” He rumbled softly. “What are you not telling me, captain?”
Aubrey met the accusatory stare without hesitation. “Precisely what I wanted to meet with you about, your Majesty. The incident on your home world may be part of a bigger problem.”
The leader of N’Skatia had no tolerance for being spoon-fed information. He glowered ominously, waiting for Aubrey to continue.
So he explained, watching X’Gaf’s mood grow darker with each sentence he uttered. By the time he finished, the N’Skatian was looming over Aubrey’s desk; looking uncomfortably like a green Grizzly bear who had just awoke on the wrong side of his cave.
“An armada of alien ships is descending on the Alpha Quadrant, and Starfleet has seen fit to withhold this information?” It wasn’t a roar precisely, but only because X’Gaf was a seasoned official who, fortunately for Aubrey, had a deep vein of self control to draw upon.
The captain stood and craned up at the carnivore unflinchingly. “This decision was ultimately made by the Council, not Starfleet, your Majesty. But I admit they did so based on our recommendations.” He paused. “Please understand that some of our allies would have acted impulsively, endangering any hope of a diplomatic resolution. They’ll be informed soon, but we needed the lead time to evaluate the threat level.”
X’Gaf snorted dismissively.
“We’ve already seen to that.” Aubrey continued, undeterred. “A response is underway as we speak.”
“And at what point were you planning to inform me?”
“Today, as a matter of fact. That’s why I’ve been requesting an audience all night. It’s also why I chose to share this classified communiqué with you.”
X’Gaf realigned his upper torso, as though adjusting an unseen robe about his shoulders. He was making a visible effort to gather his composure. “We don’t know that the newcomer on my world is part of this incoming ‘migration wave’ you mentioned. We’re not even sure if any of these vessels are hostile.”
Aubrey took the quieter tone as an opportunity to turn down the heat. He made a point of sitting down again before he replied. “Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. But given how aggressively that ship arrived on your world, I’m betting against a friendly visitation.”
Accepting Aubrey’s gesture, the ruler of N’Skatia sank carefully into the sofa, the furniture’s smart material once again morphing to accommodate his dimensions. “So…this explains the rumors.”
X’Gaf harrumphed. “I may distrust Starfleet, but I’m well connected within your organization. My contacts have spoken to me of curious happenings; ships absent from their assigned patrol stations, mysterious construction projects, command officers being called into high level meetings…” He attuned both of his sizable ears towards the captain. “And then there’s you.”
“Yes, you----a celebrated combat veteran. Decorated nine times during the Dominion War, if I’m not mistaken, for feats of valor.”
That fact that his war record was once again defining Aubrey nearly made him squirm. Out of reflex, he trotted out a well-rehearsed statement. “With respect your Majesty, I’m not a soldier. I’m just happy to resume Starfleet’s original charter of exploration.”
X’Gaf let an agonizing silence creep by before gracing the captain with his next words. “I’m sure.” He finally allowed. “Yet, Admiral Brandies made a point of choosing you to take us home. A war hero whose ship carries a mission profile specifically tailored for this crisis----complete with something called ‘Alpha Weapons’, no less.”
“I can assure you----”
X’Gaf silenced him with a wave of his arm. “Starfleet was obviously expecting this incursion. That is why you were given this assignment. And now you have the audacity to feign surprise?”
Aubrey took a mental timeout to marvel at his lousy karma.