The holodeck had been laid out in an exacting replica of Europa’s
briefing room, as to make best use of the chamber’s holographic capabilities.
Lieutenant(j.g.) Lightner was making his first presentation as the ship’s newly appointed Strategic Operations Officer. At Lar’ragos’ encouragement, he’d taken on that new assignment in addition to his helm duties. The captain hoped that it would become a first step for the young man into the larger world of command.
The starship was underway at Warp Eight, on course for a system two sectors distant, the farthest push yet into the Delta Quadrant by a participant of Vanguard. En route, they would carry out tests to determine if the transwarp drive could be restored to operability.
A bright yellow line traced its way through the starscape above their heads, denoting Europa’s
present course to its ultimate destination. “This is us,” Lighner began. “As you can see, we are only one of a number of vessels undertaking operations in this theater at present.”
An orange line arcing in the opposite direction was highlighted as Lightner narrated. “This is Valiant
escorting the Gilsan Aggregate convoy to a Class-M planet that Giacobini
surveyed six weeks ago in System D-463/8. Valiant
will be helping them to establish a colony site and an orbital defense grid. That mission will likely keep Valiant's
crew occupied for most of the next three months.”
A green line, some parsecs distant, indicated yet another TFV vessel. “Ascendant
is presently shadowing the alien fleet formation designated UIF-6 as it approaches the coreward-most shelf of the Norma Arm. We don’t know their intentions, as it appears most if not all the lifeforms aboard their ships are in cryonic suspension and the vessels aren’t responding to linga-code hails.”
Lightner continued, detailing the assignments of a half-dozen other starships before moving on to address Europa’s
“Our task out here is two-fold. Our secondary assignment is to try and get the transwarp drive working again. Our primary task, however, is to attempt to locate Captain Sandhurst’s tribe of Amon who are believed to be operating somewhere in this region. Their pattern to date indicates they prey on the resulting confrontations between the incoming alien fleets and those settled societies in the refugee’s path.”
The overhead image shifted, speeding ahead of Europa’s
golden course marker to their destination sector. “One of our advance reconnaissance probes has been tracking two incoming fleet formations in close proximity to one another and traveling at identical warp velocities. From the probe’s observations, it appears their technology is sufficiently dissimilar to suggest they are separate species, and detectable damage to both fleets and recurring energy blooms believed to be weapon exchanges are indicative of sustained warfare between the two groups.”
A red line charting the shared course of these two entwined formations traced towards a nearby star. “They are heading for a system containing a Class-M world that another of our probes identified as being home to a sentient species. The planet-bound species is estimated to have a level of technology analogous to that of mid-nineteenth century Earth. However, indications of derelict high-orbit artificial satellites and abandoned lunar installations suggest that the native species achieved some level of technological sophistication before a general societal collapse prompted their backslide.
“The resulting struggle that we anticipate over this planet and its natural resources by these two more advanced cultures will likely involve in a significant death toll, which is why we believe it may be an opportune target for Amon ‘harvesting.’”
With a nod, Lightner turned the briefing over to Shanthi. The tall Zulu stood, calling up an enhanced image of the bluish-green sphere. “This is Alanthal, the planet in question. We’ve begun attenuating our sensors to detect the dimensionally offset collection arrays the Amon typically place in orbit around worlds they’re feeding on. We haven’t identified any yet, but we’re still a long way out from the system.”
“We’ve all read the brief,” an agitated Georgia Kirk remarked, holding up her padd. “And if we find the Amon, what then?” She was obviously unwilling to sit passively through the rest of Lightner and Shanthi’s scripted presentations. “What if they don’t want to talk? Have you seen the tactical specs on that souped-up cube they’re flying?”
Shanthi looked down at her with hooded eyes. “Actually, Lieutenant, I’ve stood toe-to-toe with it. Many of those around this table have as well.”
Lar’ragos considered intervening, but ultimately took a page from Sandhurst’s leadership guidebook and allowed the two officers to grind down one another’s rough edges via friction. He could sense Wu’s frustration with the ongoing interplay, but disciplined as she was, Wu refrained from looking to Lar’ragos or showing any visible sign of her irritation.
“We’ll have an ‘in’ with Sandhurst,” Shanthi pointed out.
“He’s one man,” Kirk replied disbelievingly. “And based on how he fought his way off this ship, they’d pretty well pickled his brains on life-essence already. You really think one AWOL Starfleet officer with a monkey on his back that size is going to sway an entire nation to our side?”
A flicker of uncertainty clouded Shanthi’s expression. “We’ll have the captain… and Commander Pell,” he continued haltingly.
Kirk waved one hand dismissively. “Oh, well then, by all means. Just so long as we’ve got a duranium-clad plan in place.”
“That’s enough,” Wu called, verbally stepping in between the two.
Kirk turned her gaze on the XO. “Respectfully, sir, you
should be the one pointing all this out. I realize that most of the senior-staff have served together for years, and that to them this scheme might make some kind of sense, but to me it sounds like a blindly desperate stab in the dark.”
“It’s the plan we have,” Wu uttered in a frosty voice. “This is where you shut up and listen, Lieutenant.”
Kirk raised her hands in a mock gesture of surrender. “Aye, sir.”
Shanthi directed a question towards Leone. “I trust you’ve had the chance to look over the tactical profile of the Amon vessel?”
“I have,” Dom replied seriously. “My assessment of their capabilities would be that anything short of a devastating sneak-attack with an Alpha Weapon would leave us completely at their mercy. They’re hundreds of times our mass with the firepower to match.”
The science officer’s response was a patient, “We’re not planning on fighting these Amon.”
Leone held the taller man’s gaze effortlessly. “And have these Amon acknowledged receipt of that memo, Lieutenant?”
Shanthi turned his back dismissively on Leone and looked to Lar’ragos. “A little help, sir? I don’t see that I have to justify our mission to anyone.”
“No, of course not,” Lar’ragos agreed, sitting forward. “For those of you who are new here, I understand that I can’t expect the same confidence that I do from those I’ve served with previously. We’ve been through a great deal together, and that underlying trust is something that can’t be replicated quickly. I’ll have to ask each of you to extend me a certain amount of faith that I and those above me who planned this mission are more familiar with the circumstances and the players than you.”
There was a grudging expression of acceptance from Kirk, and Leone appeared skeptical but resolute.
“Sandhurst’s presence carries great weight among the Amon,” Lar’ragos explained. “It’s true that we don’t fully understand his particular significance and all it portends, but we hope that it can be exploited in order to foster an alliance between our peoples.”
That seemed to quell the figurative murmurs of dissent from the newcomers, and Shanthi picked up where he’d left off. “The approach of the alien species to Alanthal will also give us better opportunity to observe their tactical strengths and weaknesses, should we eventually have to oppose either or both groups down the line.”
“Dare I ask as to the fate of the indigenous population?” Counselor Liu inquired. “May I presume the Prime Directive is being invoked here?”
“Yes,” Lightner confirmed, fielding the query for Shanthi who again wore a pained expression. “They have no weapons advanced enough to allow for any kind of effective defense. The best case scenario for them would be to hunker down and try to stay out of the way while the two spacefaring species plunder their world for natural resources.”
Jaws set and eyes hardened around the table.
Lar’ragos spoke up to dissuade another round of fruitless inquiries. “Tragic though it is, the plight of the native Alanthians is not our concern. We are interested in this world because it fits the profile we believe most tempting to the Amon.”
“Collateral damage, then?” Liu said acidly, his unmistakable pout of distaste aimed directly at Lar’ragos.
“Natural selection,” Lar’ragos countered without missing a beat.
“Easy for you to sa—“ Liu began, only to be cut off in mid-sentence by Pava’s fist crashing down onto the table top.
“Stop acting like a goddamn child, Counselor!” Lar’ragos barked, startling more than one person at the table. “A first-year cadet understands the why’s and wherefore’s of the Prime Directive, and I won’t waste my breath debating the subject with you out here on the bleeding edge of the Delta Quadrant. And while we’re on the subject, next time you want to flaunt your moralistic hand-wringing over the fate of a helpless victim species, perhaps you shouldn’t try it with someone whose whole race was annihilated by the fucking Borg!”
A shocked silence followed and Liu appeared to be expending a great deal of energy on inspecting his hands resting in his lap, as everyone else wished mightily that they were exactly anyplace other than here.
“We’ll try this again in two hours, people. When you return, leave your bleeding hearts at the door. We’re here to prevent a giga-deathcrime from being visited upon the Alpha Quadrant, and I’ll thank all of you to remember that.”
Lar’ragos’ eyes scorched across everyone at the table. “Everyone except Commander Wu is dismissed.”
After the others had beat a hasty retreat from the holodeck, Wu gazed impassively at Lar’ragos from across the table. “That may be one of the best impressions of Lucian Ebnal I’ve ever seen employed, sir,” she remarked dryly.
Lar’ragos smirked. “It did the trick. I need them all focused on the big picture here, not obsessing over those we can’t save.”
“Just between us,” Wu inquired blatantly, “just how much of a gamble is our present mission?”
“A blind man grasping at straws blown by gale-force winds would stand a better chance of success than we do,” he answered with equal candor.
She digested that in silence for a long moment. “Why me?” Wu asked.
“You’re a soldier, like me,” he replied. “Come what may, you’ll follow orders and complete the mission, if at all possible.” Lar’ragos stood, turning away from her. “Before this is over, we may well be called upon to do… unspeakable things, Commander. I needed a hard hand, and a harder heart from my XO.”
“You’ll have both,” Wu answered sincerely.
* * *