ST: Intrepid / Preemptive Maneuvers

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Galen4, Jun 22, 2017.

  1. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek
    Chapter 5



    Starbase 323
    Tactical Command Section—Lounge A-15





    I
    t was hardly a state secret that Vice Admiral Edward Jellico had always hated the tedium of meetings. Official gatherings were even less fun when they were a series of debriefings by a special review board, which had included the new Commander of Starfleet. So…he had the joy of defending his command decisions in the field, coupled with the drudgery of an After Action Report.

    He regarded it as penance. Part of him actually needed the punishment. While he had no regrets concerning the course of action he had taken, the review process provided a sort of closure…loss, death, anguish, it could all be summarized neatly into columns of numbers which in turn were attached to cause and effect trees. “A” had led to “B” and eventually we ended up here at “G”. Any more questions?

    Jellico’s Tango Fleet had stumbled across the impending attack on Betazed. Given Betazed’s strategic importance, he had decided to engage the Dominion. But the operation was hampered by three perilous obstacles: the Dominion had seized control of the communication array in the sector and was jamming all COMM traffic. Then there was the inexplicable absence of the Tenth Fleet, charged with guarding Betazed. Perhaps most significant of all was that Jellico had been outnumbered three to one. Without the Tenth to balance their numbers, his fleet had been decimated, losing a full two-thirds of his forces. Was it a noble sacrifice? Or poor decision making, born of desperation? The matter was still under review.

    Incredibly, the fall of Betazed was currently being eclipsed by a new crisis, one that had appeared during Tango Fleet’s ill-fated campaign. So here he sat at yet another meeting, sleep deprived, anxious and staring wistfully at his glass of ice tea, thinking that he’d give his left arm to exchange the contents for Kentucky Whiskey.

    He was joined at the large conference table by admirals William J. Ross, Owen Paris, Alyanna Nechayev, Margaret Blackwell and Jon Owens. It was a power squad to be sure. This group was one of those inner circles among the top brass whose influence went beyond their individual jurisdictions and areas of expertise. (Although Owens seemed to be a last minute attendee. Jellico wasn’t certain what area of Fleet Command he was assigned to.)

    Like Jellico, they all looked like hell. Ross was unshaven, Blackwell had bags under her eyes and the elderly Paris could have passed for a man ten years his senior. Even the normally unflappable Admiral Nechayev seemed oddly restless, as though already waiting for the briefing to end so she could get on with more important matters. The only member who appeared alert and rested was Owens.

    They climbed wearily to their feet as Gabriel Quetzalxochitl entered the room. The newly appointed Commander of Starfleet was a stately woman in her early eighties whose lineage could be traced back to the Aztecs of South America. Although small in stature, her body moved with smart, clockwork precision. It was clear that she was fueled by a self confidence that was authentic rather than rehearsed. Her pronounced features and braided gray hair completed a courtly package. All together, she had the bearing of a classical oil painting.

    "Please be seated." She ordered, while drawing up behind a podium at the other end of the conference room. “Most of you know one another or know of one another, so we’ll skip the introductions. As you can see, your order jackets indicate a suspension of your current assignments. That’s because you’ve been selected as our crisis management team. This base will serve as our strategic command center. All Starfleet efforts will be coordinated through us. I will remain on site and report directly to the President. The Federation Council has convened an emergency session and will be updated as the situation unfolds.”

    Blackwell and Paris connected through a mutual look of concern.

    “Before we begin, I have a communications directive for all of you…and it is absolutely critical that you adhere it.” She leaned intently over the podium. “Once we leave this room, you are not to use the word ‘Inth’. It is not to be written in any communications, spoken out loud amongst yourselves, your subordinates or even family members. Violation of this order will result in the most severe of consequences. Make sure you enforce this rule to all below you, as well. Officially, we’d like to avoid confirming the presence of new alien invaders. But if pressed, you’ll refer to them only as the ‘Yolak’.”

    “Who are the ‘Yolak’?” Blackwell asked.

    “The term was fabricated. It’s better that we name these creatures, rather than letting the public label them as ‘Inth’.” Nechayev supplied. Jellico noted that she seemed to have an inside track. It was likely, he decided. Her connections within Starfleet stretched wide and ran deep.

    “I don’t recall that we’ve ever gone to these lengths just to hide the identity of an alien species.” Owens commented.

    “Correct. We have not. But this threat is unprecedented.” Quetzalxochitl’s hard gaze drifted over the group. “Remember, to us the Inth are merely a campfire story. But to many Federation worlds, they’re a dark belief system that’s woven into their cultures—their existence has always been accepted as a fact that millions still live in fear of. They are considered to be the very definition of ‘monster’, the ultimate ‘boogymen’. When you consider that our citizens are already on edge because of the war, publicly acknowledging that the Inth are real and have returned, would set off a mass panic. Projections indicate that some of our members would even secede from the Federation and flee the Alpha Quadrant in terror. I’m sure I don’t have to explain what a refugee crisis of that magnitude would do to the war effort.”

    “End it.” Ross said flatly.

    “But I’m sure word has already leaked out…” Blackwell objected.

    “We’ve launched a disinformation campaign to discredit the idea.” Nechayev interjected cooly.

    Dubious frowns traveled around the table.

    Quetzalxochitl continued. “You all know Vice Admiral Edward Jellico as the Composite Warfare Commander for Taskforce Tango during the Battle of Betazed. He was, of course, directly involved in events leading up to the current crisis. I’ve asked him to brief you all on some related developments. Admiral?”

    “Thank you.” Jellico’s voice crackled authoritatively through the air as though he were lecturing a class of first-year cadets. “After the incident in Gorn space, their new Imperator seems eager to make a name for himself. He’s already lodged a formal complaint with the Council, accusing us of violating the Cestus Accords. He just followed that up by ordering all Federation citizens from their territories and recalling their diplomates—and they’re demanding Aubrey’s extradition as a proviso for any potential talks.”

    “Months of diplomacy aimed at bringing the Gorn into the war…all lost.” Ross grumbled caustically.

    Jellico endorsed the sentiment with a small nod. “With that in mind, we’ve decided to classify the Intrepid as a rogue vessel. Starfleet is officially disavowing any and all actions by the Intrepid while under Aubrey’s control—in case there are further transgressions against our allies. Also, in consideration of our own forces, a Priority One directive has been issued to all Starfleet assets within Intrepid’s immediate travel sphere that they avoid contact.”

    He cleared his throat. “Initially, I ordered Captain Caroline Hiroko of the Sentry to shadow Intrepid, report INTEL but to avoid contact. However, she broke radio silence in an attempt to mitigate the Gorn incursion. I’ve gone on record as supporting that decision. I trust her judgement.”

    You also trusted Aubrey’s judgement. No one actually said that, but it was all over their faces.

    Ignoring the mute disapproval, he marched on; “She was under orders to come about before Aubrey entered Dominion space, but that’s no longer an option. The battlefront has recently shifted behind her. Hiroko and her crew are now trapped behind enemy lines.”

    Ross scratched his stubbled chin. “It was because I had the Third Fleet fall back to Salvete Domum…”

    “In light of this, I ordered her to stay with Intrepid. Ironically, it represents the most secure tactical position at the moment.”

    “What’s their current location?” Paris asked.

    “My last update from Hiroko puts Intrepid and Sentry less than three hours from the Archer system’s outer boundary. But due to enemy fleet movements in the sector, we’re pretty sure they’re already in the line of fire.”

    “Strange. You relieved Aubrey of command. Even though he refused the order, I’m surprised his crew didn’t act on it…” Blackwell mused.

    Jellico responded with a lengthy, if not incredulous look before sharing that same expression with the other admirals. “Respectfully, I think you’ve all been out of the center seat too long. You may have forgotten how fiercely loyal a crew can be to their CO.”

    “That’s one theory,” Nechayev said icily. “A more likely one is that his crew has been compromised.”

    “Thank you, Admiral Jellico.” Quetzalxochitl interrupted. “Before getting under way, Sentry launched two Class-Three probes outside the Betazed system; Whisper One, which is stationary, and Whisper Two which is doing a superlight RECON within the system. The telemetry we received is the main subject of this briefing.”

    Quetzalxochitl tapped the PADD in her hand. A holographic image spread through the air and hung over the conference table like a cloud of luminescent smoke. “This was the Kokala Nebula as it appeared ten hours ago. Computer, show Kokala Nebula time index 1421.02.”

    The nebula dissolved into a spiky blur that was half its former size.

    "Computer, show Kokala Nebula time index 1605.08.” She instructed.

    Now it was a iridescent clump. A spiral pattern was visible in the gas, as though it were watercolors that a child had drawn circles over with his finger.

    "What's happening to it?" Ross asked.

    “The nebula is imploding, apparently because of a singularity located at its center. More critically, this singularity is emitting gravimetric waves that are somehow propagating through subspace." The image drew back to a greater distance. Beyond Kokala lay a ring of cookie crumbs. "The initial event was a shockwave powerful enough that it shattered all planetary bodies in the Kalandra System. Gravimetric shearing forces were so extreme at the height of the event, that they exceeded our probe’s ability to measure them.”

    The reactions around the room were a blend of shock and concern.

    “My God. Betazed…” Ross exclaimed tightly.

    “Fortunately, the gravimetric burst phased out of our universe immediately afterward. However, Whisper Two picked up indications that three planetary bodies in the Betazed system have shifted their orbits by two degrees—likely because of the disaster.”

    Kokala drew close again, fully rendered as a computer graphic. From its center, overlapping rings were expanding, blinking in and out as they traveled.

    “It’s spreading beyond Kokala.” Blackwell noted bleakly.

    Owens was studying the hologram intently. “It’s sending out displacement waves at irregular intervals.” He pointed up at the outermost rings as they raced over his head. “But according to this, they’re encompassing the entire Federation.” He looked at his colleagues in confusion. “But there’s been no reports of mass destruction…”

    “That’s because most of what you’re seeing is hypothetical, based on projections by the Daystrom Institute. Keep in mind that these distortion waves do exist, but luckily for us, they’re out of phase with normal space-time. However, that’s now beginning to change. The waves are starting to shift into our universe more and more frequently. And as you can imagine, even a few seconds is all it takes for devastation to occur.”

    “What’s causing this thing? What is it exactly?” Paris demanded.

    “We don’t know. This monster doesn’t fit any established behavioral models. Oh, our people have all kinds of theories. If we had a few hours I could run through them all. Some say it’s an ‘inverted trans-spatial rift’, while others thinks it’s ‘energetic space fold’, joining higher dimensional planes. Then we have speculation that the distortion waves are being fed by ‘harmonic amplification effects while interacting with dark matter’…” She dropped her PADD on the podium and shook her head. “There’s so much jargon here I can barely make sense of it all. But despite the dueling theories, there’s one fact everyone agrees upon…”

    The weary group straightened in their chairs, almost wincing in anticipation, like people bracing themselves for a slap across the face.

    “The anomaly’s energy is growing exponentially. As that happens, frequency and duration continue to increase. In other words, the gravimetric waves are coming more often and staying longer in our universe. If current projections hold, the Federation will be in ruins within eight days.”

    The group of flag officers could only gape at her, their voices strangled by the weight of her statement.

    “And I’m afraid there’s been another development. Evidently, the distortion waves aren’t the only visitors to our universe.” The hologram winked off as she picked up her PADD and began referencing data. “Nine hours ago, a Klingon task force under Captain Laska was traveling through the Velda Corridor when they encountered the trailing edge of a distortion wave that appeared without warning. Half of her ships were disabled, so she was forced to abort the mission. Soon after that, we received a message saying that her ships were under attack by unidentified aliens—someone or something other than the Dominion. They haven’t been heard from since…and her task force failed to return to base.”

    The room remained deathly quiet.

    Sighing heavily, she thumbed her PADD again before continuing. “Four hours ago, a transmission came in from the orbital refinery at Delta Vega. They also reported a sudden distortion wave. Their last message was a distress call, indicating contact with ‘life forms of an undetermined nature’. Since then, we’ve lost all contact with the colony.”

    “Those locations are at opposite ends of the Federation.” Paris observed. “These waves apparently don’t weaken with distance…”

    “It’s an invasion. It’s already started!” Ross erupted. His nerves frayed, he turned accusingly to Jellico. “I thought these so-called ‘Inth’ were all divided among the Intrepid and Archer IV. Why the hell are they manifesting in other places?”

    Jellico’s gumption ramped up a level. He sneered at Ross. “Let’s all remember that that information came from a rogue captain who had suffered aggressive mental contact with this species.”

    Ross turned beseechingly to Quetzalxochitl. “How do we stop this?”

    “We can’t.” She replied simply. “We couldn’t even under the best of circumstances—which a war definitely isn’t.”

    Paris shook his head, as if hoping he could jolt himself out of what had to be a macabre day dream. “I don’t…” He stammered. Then: “Maybe we should start thinking about evacuations…”

    Jellico nearly choked on the tea he had just sipped. “‘Evacuations’?” He sputtered. “Weren’t you listening? We’d lose everything!”

    Paris held up his palms in appeasement as he addressed the stunned faces around him. “I’m only suggesting contingency plans. Look, we have to consider the possibility that Federation territory may soon become uninhabitable…”

    “Billions of people!” Blackwell objected. “And where would they go?”

    “Owen, they’d be easy targets in open space!” Incredibly, Nechayev’s voice wavered unsteadily. “Starfleet doesn’t have nearly the resources—“

    “I’m just saying all possibilities have to be—“

    “We can’t even think about giving up!” Ross barked.

    “You want us to just roll over and show our bellies?” Jellico growled. “Don’t let this thing turn you into a coward!”

    Paris bristled. “That kind of thinking didn’t help you at Betazed, did it?”

    “What the hell does that mean?” Jellico snapped.

    “I’ll spell it out.” Paris snapped back. “It means you threw away valuable resources and hundreds of lives on a hopeless campaign because you don’t know when to cut your losses! Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on!”

    Jellico bolted out of his chair and hurled his glass of ice tea against the wall, where it exploded with a tinkling crash. “Don’t you EVER question my loyalty, you son of a bitch!”

    Nechayev came to her feet. “Shut up Edward!” She snarled in a sudden gush of fury. “In fact, why don’t you ALL SHUT UP!” Her lower lip was trembling.

    Blackwell rose from her chair. “Why don’t you shut up, Nechayev?”

    “Go to hell, Margaret!”

    “After you, Alyanna!”

    Everyone flinched as a PADD clattered across the middle of the conference table.

    Quetzalxochitl smiled into the electrified silence that followed. “I’m sorry to interrupt. But if enough slapping and hair-pulling has ensued, I’d like to get back to business…if that’s all right with everyone.”

    Blackwell and Nechayev suddenly appeared mortified and could no longer meet each other’s eyes. The assembly sank back into their chairs again. Paris and Ross stared vacantly at the tabletop while Jellico had come down on the edge of his seat, nostrils flaring like a boxer waiting for the next round.

    For his part, Vice Admiral Jon Owens was nothing short of thunderstruck. He held many of these officers in near reverence. It was a disconcerting reminder that they were all mortal…just like himself.

    It took a while, but eventually their eyes drifted back to Quetzalxochitl.

    “This is the part where I’m supposed to scold you all for conduct unbecoming.” She exhaled a broken gust of air. “Truth be told, I’m just too exhausted to give a damn. Oh, and if you want a rousing speech you won’t get one of those, either.” Her tone took a softer edge. “Unlike the war, we can’t control this situation. Maybe the Inth will leave our universe and take their chaos with them. Or maybe they won’t, in which case the Federation will soon go the way of the Iconians.” She spread her arms over the group. “I have no words of comfort for you. No hope to offer. We may not be able to cure this disease. If not, let’s do our best to manage the symptoms.” She allowed a few extra moments for the group to gather whatever composer they could find. “Now, if someone would kindly retrieve my PADD, we’ll review your assignments…”

    ____​


    An hour later, the group shuffled out, stoically keeping each other at arm’s length—more out of lingering embarrassment than animosity.

    “Admiral Jellico. A moment, please.”

    Jellico had been seconds from escape. He turned away from the closing doors as Quetzalxochitl left her podium. Slowly, she made her way to him, padding by the long conference table. In contrast to her dynamic entrance, her steps now were slow and deliberate. He had time to consider how heavily current events were weighing on her shoulders.

    She looked up him, her brow heavy with castigation.

    He waited, fully resigned to what might come next. His future was already in doubt because of his performance at Betazed. Now he’d blown up in front of Quetzalxochitl—an unwise performance that if nothing else, might only secure his reputation as a reckless hothead.

    Be that is may, Jellico decided long ago that self-reproach was a luxury he couldn’t afford. If Quetzalxochitl were about to rip the braids from his tunic, so be it.

    After a moment, her steely attention moved from him to the broken glass and puddled remains of his ice tea. “So…you going to clean that up?”







     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2019
  2. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    I like Admiral Quetzalxochitl.
     
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  3. CeJay

    CeJay Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    Oh Jellico, you old hothead. In his defense, nobody at that power meeting comported themselves particularly well with the exception perhaps of Quetzalxochitl. But then who could blame them if, in the middle of a brutal war with the Dominion which already looks like it could lead to total defeat, they suddenly have to consider the reality of yet another civilization-ending apocalypse?

    As for me, I'm going to put my latinum on Aubrey and Intrepid in whatever battle comes next. I'm assuming this isn't the end of the galaxy as we know it, but I'm eager to find out what kind of rabbit they'll pull to keep one of the most destructive forces the universe has ever known at bay.

    Awesome to read more Intrepid, by the way. Hope there's more to come soon.
     
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  4. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2005
    Location:
    US Pacific Northwest
    The stress on Starfleet’s senior leadership can be seen rather plainly here. Already faced with a desperate situation, the possibility of an onslaught by the Inth is just the last proverbial straw. Even those officers who’ve risen to the highest level must eventually succumb to anxiety, sleep deprivation, and their own mortality.

    Aubrey, on the other hand, has now stumbled into a hornet’s nest of his own making. His own assumptions about his status vis-à-vis the Gorn have blown up in his face, and without the reluctant assistance of Hiroko, it’s likely the Gorn would have been pushed into the Dominion camp just out of spite.

    Wow. :eek:
     
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  5. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek
    Chapter 6


    USS Intrepid
    Deck 10 - Maximum Security Brig


    Gul Katorn, formerly of the Obsidian Order and most recently commander of the late warship Punisher, stared through the force field at the security guard, his mood pendulating between boredom and anticipation as he silently counted down the minutes.

    He had lost Punisher to this very ship during the Battle of Betazed. It had been a surprising loss to be sure, since Intrepid was crippled at the time, but he was even more surprised to have been taken prisoner. Even the “benevolent” Starfleet didn’t bother with captives after a major fleet engagement. There was little point, since their most common adversaries, the Jem’Hadar, didn’t allow themselves to be captured. More to the point, Starfleet was usually too busy running away these days to make the effort.

    Yet, here he stood. Katorn saw the hand of providence at work.

    His life had been spared not once, but twice. After abandoning ship, he drifted in an aging escape pod whose life support systems soon failed. A Cardassian warship happened upon him but refused to rescue Katorn because---thanks to the Dominion---his past with the Obsidian Order had recently become public knowledge. Much of the population held a dim view of the oppressive intelligence agency, so once it was disbanded; retribution by the new civilian government had been swift. Most of Katorn’s former associates were no longer among the living.

    At first he’d been enraged by his eventual rescue, thinking that Intrepid’s master had snatched him as a trophy. Yet, the captain never came to gloat. His only visitor had been an Andorian who attempted a laughable interrogation. Clearly, the man’s mind had not been on his work.

    He was left with only his jailer for company, a young human female, probably in her early twenties by Earth years. What he could see of her was mostly a dark ponytail bobbing up and down as she studied the vertically mounted screens built into her security kiosk. Occasionally her eyes would dart out just long enough to fix him with a hawkish glare.

    He rapped appreciatively on the cell wall with his knuckles. “Reinforced duranium mesh layered atop a neutronium base, if I’m not mistaken.” He paused, as if struck by sudden inspiration. “Of course, the word ‘neutronium’ is something of a misnomer, isn’t it? The metal in these walls wasn’t really made from a neutron star. Even if you could harvest such material, it would likely destabilize and explode once it was removed from the core. Not to mention that even a small quantity of actual neutronium would weigh millions of tons, making it very difficult to build cages from, correct?”

    The guard didn’t immediately respond to this latest effort to engage her. She rarely did.

    “No...’Neutronium’ is a term we use to describe a variety of substances---both manufactured and naturally occurring---that contain an unusually high density ...all of them very difficult to penetrate or destroy.”

    After an expectant silence, he was finally rewarded with a curt: “Thanks, Professor.” mumbled from behind a monitor.

    He craned up at the ceiling. “Ah...and a concealed phaser, connected to an autonomous biometric trigger that will stun me if any of my movements are deemed aggressive.”

    She poked her head up and frowned.

    Katorn kneeled at the entrance and ran his hand along the wall near the force field. “And I would bet all my latinum that...ah hah! Just what I thought...industrial replicators set into the bulkhead, programmed no doubt to erect a physical barrier if the security screen is compromised. Not standard for Starfleet. No indeed. I’d say this was all custom designed.” Noting her interest had been piqued despite herself, he beamed out a smarmy grin. “Don’t look so surprised, my dear. I’m quite intuitive about such things. It’s part of my job. Or rather, it used to be.”

    “Yeah. Good for you. Our security chief built that cell, so I wouldn’t try anything stupid.”

    His eyes widened. “Really? That castrated Andorian came up with all this? I wouldn’t have guessed.”

    “Hey, I have an idea. How ‘bout you shut your mouth now, Cardie? Or I’ll shut it for you.”

    He held out his palms in apparent submission, before bowing sarcastically to her.

    The stupid woman-child fancied herself his mistress, a fallacy he would soon lay to rest. But for now he’d remain complacent because it suited him. Her threat about muzzling him was real enough, after all. If she activated the audio dampening field, he would neither hear nor be heard and that would be something of an inconvenience for his plans.

    He’d made very good use of his hearing over the last day, as it was a sense that far exceeded that of other humanoids. In fact, he’d picked up a treasure trove of information just by listening to COMM chatter and whatever he could salvage from the PA system. And of course, keen deduction.

    The Inth were aboard. That fact, coupled with the surprises he had in store for this crew, would soon operate in concert, producing the grand finale his life deserved.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2019
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  6. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek
    Sickbay —CMO’s Office

    Doctor Kella Lisern looked quizzical as she regarded Aubrey from across her office desk. “Captain, are you sure you want Adol and Shantok to hear this? You don’t know the full results of my exam.”

    “Well, you’ve confirmed the Inth aren’t influencing me.”

    “Yes. But you understand that I’ve uncovered something that’s not related to the Inth.

    “Something that could impact my ability to command?”

    “Wouldn’t you rather hear this in private?” She hedged.

    “I appreciate your concerns for my privacy, but anything that could affect my performance will have to be disclosed anyway. So we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

    She nodded in slow motion, her mind heavy with fatigue. Before moving on to the next item of business, she fortified herself with another sip of T’Labba, a stimulate derived from the Bajoran root of the same name. Normally she avoided something so potent, but Kella was at the limits of mental endurance so it was either stimulants or join her patients in slumber. “Captain, regarding the crew...I regret to inform you that, other than you and Commander Shantok, no one else who suffered invasive mental probing will recover. The damage to there neural pathways is just too severe.”

    Her tone was resigned, which was unusual. Like many skilled physicians, Kella rarely surrendered.

    “Douglas Pal included?”

    “Yes sir. The pattern was the same in all of them. They were lucid for a short period, and then lapsed into comas. Even if they wake, all higher cognitive functions will be permanently lost. I’ve already informed Adol.”

    Aubrey closed his eyes, succumbing to despair. Most of his crew, the crew he had sworn to protect, were now worse than dead.

    And beyond saving.

    Kella shared the same misery. Feelings of loss and hopelessness that she had at first subdued, threatened to overwhelm her again. For a time they just sat together, mourning in silence.

    Finally, a weak smile flickered to life. She cleared her throat. “I do have some good news. You’ll be pleased to know that Commander Shantok is conscious now, just too weak to return to duty. I have her on mandatory bed rest after this meeting.”

    Aubrey had opened his eyes and seemed composed again. “Yes, I know. And there’s been no lasting damage.”

    Kella was taken aback. “You ‘know’? She just woke twenty minutes ago. And she’s been isolated in the ICU the whole time.”

    “Oh, yes. That. I’ve been in contact with her for some time. When she reached a certain threshold in the healing process she couldn’t speak or move, so she reached out to me telepathically. I’ve already brought her up to speed.”

    She almost laughed, thinking it was another bout of his dry, “English humor”. But amusement turned to concern when she realized he was deadly serious. “Telepathically? In her condition? That was very dangerous to say the least. Why didn’t she contact me or the medial staff, instead?”

    “Probably because you already knew her status. Don’t worry, I’m sure she wouldn’t have communicated that way if it meant putting anyone in danger.” He flashed a boyish smirk. “After all, no one wants to ruffle the feathers of our resident mother hen.”

    Kella didn’t return the smile. “You’re not just ‘anyone’ Jason. You’re the captain.” She leaned back and rubbed her eyes tiredly. “So you’ve been in communication with her. Does she agree with your...with this mission?”

    “Completely.”

    She tried to see him clearly through her mental fog, but failed. He was still hiding something from her, which made his revelation all the more maddening. But playing chess with him would have been a daunting task even with all her wits about her. She definitely wasn’t up to it in her current state.

    Shortly, Adol entered and took a seat next to Aubrey. Soon after, an orderly brought in Shantok. She was seated in a bio-chair, which floated on Aubrey’s other side. He felt a new stab of concern upon seeing his first officer’s paper-white complexion. The idiom “like death warmed over” wouldn’t have been out of place.

    “Let me get straight to the point. For the record, I have determined that Captain Jason Aubrey is not under the influence of the Inth.” She looked at Shantok. “Or the first officer, based on the detailed tests done during her treatment.”

    “That’s some good news.” Adol became slightly less stiff then when he first arrived.

    “Here goes.” She muttered under her breath. Kella tapped her desk twice and the holographic image of a human brain appeared over the surface. “Given that we’re dealing with telepathy, I performed a comprehensive neural-molecular probe of the captain’s brain structure. Now as I stated, I didn’t find evidence of telepathic influence, but I did find something else.” A new image materialized beside the second, looking very much like a shard of broken red glass. “This is a medical nanite. Or rather the remains of one. It’s no longer active. But there are millions of active ones clustered around the captain’s hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and the basolateral amygdala. As you can see, they’re in an excited state.”

    Aubrey paled, squinting incredulously at the holo as it rotated over her desk. It looked uncomfortably to him like a swarm of white ants were crawling over his brain. “What are they doing?”

    “I don’t know for sure just yet. But your engram cells---which are associated with memory recall---are undergoing a biochemical change due to this activity. And the nanites just happen to be clustered around areas of the brain that deal with memory storage, formation and retrieval. Taken together, I’d guess that your long-term memories are being affected.”

    “Nanites are used in a variety of medical procedures. Perhaps these are left over from the past and have begun to multiply on their own.” Shantok speculated.

    Kella gently shook her head. “The last time the captain had a major procedure requiring nano technology was in his teens.” She turned to Aubrey. “You remember the house fire incident, course. Your injuries were extensive enough to require a new set of lungs.”

    Noting the questioning looks from Adol and Shantok, he snorted dismissively. “I was young and bloody stupid. Trying to play hero.”

    “My point is that these nanites aren’t the ones used back then. There’s no Federation tag.”

    “Then how? Accidental exposure?” Adol asked in growing alarm. “Should we set up a quarantine?”

    She shook her head again. “I’d have done that already if it were needed. No, all medical nanites are tailored for a specific body, so they’re designed to shut down if introduced into the wrong patient. Also, they’re programmed to decay once they’ve completed their assigned task. It’s a safety feature, to avoid the creation of an artificial pandemic. These are no different in that regard.”

    “Doctor, what are you trying to say?”

    “Jason, the active ones are new. Based on their reproductive rate and quantum dating, I’ve determined they entered your body a little over seventy-two hours ago. And there’s more.” She pointed at the image of the broken nanite again, as she spoke. “This remnant bears a different signature all together. It doesn’t match the new nanites and it’s too old to be among those used on you as a teenager. In fact, I’d have to conclude that it’s at least thirty years old. And its construction doesn’t match nanites used during that period.”

    “Can you remove them?” Shantok asked.

    “There’s no radiotherapy that could destroy them all without killing the captain. Now, normally I would just deactivate them with a termination order---that is, a precise calibration of subspace micro-pulses that would shut down all the nanites at once...an ‘off switch’ so to speak. But the exact frequency and combination is unique to each family of nanites and I don’t know this one.”

    “How would someone know the right combination in the first place?” Adol wondered.

    “Federation medical nanites record the deactivation sequence on a tag that can easily register on any medical tricorder.” She looked tiredly at Aubrey. “The problem is, the ones in your body have no tags. I’d speculate that they were created on the black market.”

    “I bet you’re already working on a solution, aren’t you?”

    She sighed. “I do have an AI algorithm trying to find the right deactivation sequence by using known combinations and extrapolating outward, but Jason, there are trillions of possibilities. It could take a long time to hit on the right one, even for an AI.”

    “Old exposure and a new exposure. But to what end?” Shantok asked, seemingly to herself.

    “It’s obvious that someone is trying to change his memories.” Adol proclaimed with assurance.

    “Not so fast, Commander.” Kella objected irritably. “I said it was a guess. It’s too soon for a solid diagnosis. Captain, would you consider yourself symptomatic at this point? Have you had any new thoughts or recollections that may seem strange or out of place, for example?”

    “One or two odd dreams lately, but nothing too extreme.” He said though a poker face. “But assuming your guess is right...why would someone go to the trouble of changing my memories?”

    Adol interposed his own answer ahead of Kella’s. “Why? To begin with, you’re a Starfleet captain. Remember, our life experiences determine who we are. Change those experiences enough and you produce a different person.”

    The captain turned to face him. “Are you saying I’m a threat to my own ship?”

    “I don’t know, sir. But think about it. Instead of a Changeling impersonating someone and risking capture, they could just infect a person with these nanites. After awhile, an individual’s life history could be rewritten into anything the author wants. A loyal Starfleet officer could be molded into say, a Dominion sympathizer.”

    It was Kella who filled in the final blank space. “Captain, other than the Inth environment, you haven’t been off ship for weeks. If you were infected in the last few days---as the tests seem to indicate---that means we probably have a spy on board.”

    Adol’s body went taught. “Or spies. There could be more than one. And who knows how many others they’ve infected.”

    “What about that Cardassian we have in the brig?” Kella asked.

    “He only came aboard a little over a day ago. And I’ve had no contact with him.” Aubrey folded his arms thoughtfully. “However, I was on board Legacy for the tactical briefing with the other squadron commanders, just before the Battle of Betazed. I shook a lot of hands. I even drank coffee.”

    Legacy.... that was Caroline Hiroko’s ship during the battle, wasn’t it?” Kella reflected pensively.

    “Yes.” Adol confirmed. “The same person that Jellico sent after us. Interesting coincidence.”

    “I would advise against seeing patterns where none may actually exist.” Shantok said. “Fanciful speculation will only heighten our anxiety. Or rather, those of you that experience anxiety.”

    Adol smiled thinly at the clarification. “It’s going to be hard conducting an investigation under these circumstances, but I’ll get my staff on it as soon as possible.”

    “And I’ll try to locate any indictors that can help us more quickly identify the presence of nanites in other members of the crew.” Kella added. “In the meantime, maybe we’ll get lucky and the AI will find our combination.”

    “Good. Do what you can.” Aubrey stood up and moved to the office doors, causing them to sigh open. The view beyond was a reminder of the climbing toll both the war and his mission were extracting. The patient ward was full of injured bodies. With all the beds occupied, people were crammed into every available space, lying on gurneys, floor-mats and even floating on anti-grav cots above other patients. In the ship beyond, more injured filled up lounges, conference rooms and their own cabins. At this point, nearly three quarters of his crew were incapacitated, to say nothing of the fatalities.

    The Dominion. The Inth. Even Starfleet was working against him. And now, party or parties unknown were tampering with his mind. There were times when it was tempting to succumb to fatalism. How did that old saying go? It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

    Kella turned off the images and exhaled nervously. “Captain, I need more time to study what’s happening to you. I can’t release you to duty just yet.”

    Aubrey turned back from the doors as they snapped shut. “I would normally agree. But for now, I’ll need to stay in command.”

    Adol stood up and joined him near the exit. “Sir, that isn’t necessary. When you offered yourself to the Gorn you trusted me to complete this mission. Trust me now.”

    “I do, Mr. Adol. And I know I’ve given you reasons for doubt.” He patted the other man’s shoulder. “But right now, I’m going to need you to trust me as well. Even if it involves a leap of faith.”

    “Sir, I’m satisfied your not under Inth control. But this new situation is entirely different. Your life could be in danger. Also, with all due respect, it creates a security risk. I’m urging you to stay here and give Dr. Kella the time she needs to study this.”

    “I appreciate your concerns, but we’re about out of time. Archer IV is less than two hours away.”

    “Then let me be more direct, sir. The Chief Medical Officer has just declared you unfit for duty.” There was a grave pause. “You should know that I’m prepared to enforce that decision.”

    “That would be unwise.” Shantok said quietly.

    Adol blinked down at her, for a moment unable to process what had sounded like a thinly veiled threat. “How so?”

    “At Captain Aubrey’s behest, I made contact with selected members of your security team and other crewmembers throughout the ship, those who fully understand the urgency of the situation. They have assured me they will resist any efforts to relieve him of duty.”

    “And those numbers represent the majority of the crew.” Aubrey chimed in helpfully.

    Kella’s face slackened in shock. It took some effort to make her voice work. “Commander...you’ve...you’ve been communicating telepathically with the crew as well as the captain?” Her scrutiny swung to Aubrey. “By your orders?”

    He nodded impassively.

    As the doctor wrestled with that revelation, Adol was considering other implications. Most of his security team had telepathic communion with Shantok and not a single member had stepped forward to report it. That in and of itself spoke volumes. His antennae whipped forward in anger. “Sir, permission to speak freely?”

    “Denied. We don’t have time for a lengthy debate.”

    “Then I’ll say it anyway. Commander Shantok is one of the most powerful telepaths in the quadrant. Using her abilities in this way was outrageously irresponsible. She can influence, if not kill a person without so much as twitching an eyebrow.” He burned judgment at her. “What happened to your personal code of restraint? Your commitment to not use telepathy against others? Your vaunted ethical standards seem to be conspicuously absent, ma’am. Or maybe it isn’t Aubrey’s orders you’re following?”

    The captain scowled dangerously. “You’re out of line, Commander.”

    “I am following Aubrey’s orders, no one else’s.” Shantok broke in. It was clear that what little strength she had left was waning. Her voice was weak, barely above a whisper. “And while I’m not wholly comfortable with violating the privacy of others, it’s a discomfort I’m willing to endure. There are, literally, trillions of lives at stake—to say nothing of those lives yet to come. Civilization itself may be extinguished if we fail at our task.”

    Aubrey decided on a change of tactics. He showed off his beguiling half-smile. “Adol, let me emphasize that Commander Shantok did not in any way influence or control anyone’s thoughts. She was only communicating to me which crewmembers support our mission.”

    You just wanted to know who was on your side in case of a mutiny. Adol amended silently. “How do I know she hasn’t influenced anyone? At the very least, it’s an unforgivable ethical violation.”

    “At the very least, “ he agreed. “We’ll have to add it to the list. Right now, the stakes are too high to wring our hands over pithy ethical qualms. Remember, none of this will matter if the Alpha Quadrant is wiped off the map.”

    “I don’t disagree with your threat assessment, sir. The Alpha Quadrant is in danger. Which is all the more reason you should relieve yourself. With these nanites in your body, your judgment could be impaired at a critical moment. If the Inth absolutely insist that you be in charge during their ‘evolutional ascendance’, I can call you to the bridge when the time comes. Your absence in the meantime won’t change anything.”

    Kella looked imploringly at her captain and first officer. “Jason...Commander. He makes a good point. A logical point.”

    “It is logical.” Shantok conceded. “Moreover, were the circumstances different, I would be making the same argument myself. However, the Inth have made it clear that Aubrey must be in command during their transition.”

    “Why?”

    “We weren’t told. It’s enough to know that it matters to them.”

    “So the Inth our giving the orders.” Adol fumed. “Your assurances not withstanding. I’m glad we’re all clear on that.”

    “Jason, no responsible CMO in my position would release their captain to duty under these circumstances. I’m sorry, but I can’t—”

    “Doctor, I’m retaining command.” Aubrey stated with finality. His impish smirk was gone, replaced by a viperous, calculating stare. “I suggest you both come to terms with that.”

    Kella was familiar with this particular expression. It was a look devoid of sympathy or compassion. Up until now, she had always taken comfort from that look, because it was usually directed at an enemy—a mutual enemy. This was the first time she was on the receiving end.

    An uncomfortable thought surfaced; she wondered if the man she had known since his cadet years was a work of fiction. Could it be that this cold stranger was the real Jason Aubrey? A man who treated his own crew as potential enemies that had to be preemptively out-maneuvered?

    She pushed herself up from the desk and straightened her shoulders. “Then Captain, I’ll have no choice but to enter into my log your refusal as regulatory non compliance, pertaining to 104 Section C. I trust you understand the consequences?”

    “I do. This will no doubt be the final nail in my coffin. My career will just have to be counted among the causalities. I’ve already accepted that.”

    Adol moved to Kella’s desk in a show of solidarity. “My objection will also be logged as acting first officer.”

    They both looked to Shantok for solace, but she remained a dispassionate observer. The captain and XO had just effectively drawn a line down the middle of the room, leaving Kella and Adol on the other side of it.

    Bewildered, Kella searched Aubrey’s hard glare, looking for the man she knew. “Jason, this situation has---“

    The red alert klaxon wailed to life. “All hands, action alert, action alert. We have inbound hostiles, I repeat, inbound hostiles. Captain to the bridge.”

    “Aubrey to Rodriguez. What are we looking at, Lieutenant?”

    Sir, we’re tracking a Cardassian attack wing on an intercept. Six fighters,
    Lamphet-class and two destroyers. Probable firing range: twenty-seven minutes
    .”

    “One my way.” He strode forward, pausing just long enough to brazenly throw an order over this shoulder. “Let’s go, Mr. Adol. I need you on the bridge.”

    The captain didn’t stay long enough to gage his reaction. He was out the office doors before anyone could respond.

    Kella saw the Andorian reach for his sidearm. For a moment she was certain he was going to stun Aubrey before he could make it across the ward, even if it meant sending him sprawling into the patients at his feet. As it happened, he never did draw his weapon---but it was unclear if loyalty or pragmatism had won out in the end.

    Instead, Adol bolted after him, expunging a word-cloud of Andorian profanity on the way.

    An orderly removed Shantok while Dr. Kella gave orders to bring down the floating gurneys and secure sickbay for battle. Her skeleton staff went to work, protecting the patients as best they could.

    Before leaving her office, she slumped against the wall and used her palm to smother a dry sob.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2019
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  7. CeJay

    CeJay Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    Man, there's a lot to unpack here, I'm not even sure where to start.

    Katorn is definitely going to cause trouble and he seems intellectually superior to his 'woman-child' guard. That's never a good thing.

    And then there's everything else that's going on. The Inth, memory-altering nanites, ethics violations, a decimated crew, a captain going against his senior staff, Starfleet in pursuit and now a Cardassian attack. If this isn't just about the darkest day for the crew of the Intrepid, I don't know what is.

    You've done a masterful job of leaving me completely puzzled as to what is going on and what all of this means. There are just so many balls in the air right now and I am at the edge of my seat to find out what will happen next. I do have a feeling things will get worse here before they get better.

    Don't make us wait another 6 months for more. I needs to know.
     
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  8. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2005
    Location:
    US Pacific Northwest
    Holy hell, Aubrey has alienated most of his senior staff and gone completely out of the bounds of protocol, here. I get what's at stake, but nothing is every going to be the same with these officers. :(
     
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  9. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek


    Chapter 7



    Captain’s personal log, supplemental:


    Despite my repeated attempts to warn them off, the Cardassians insisted on pressing their attack. As I feared, the Inth responded with overwhelming force and decimated their ships. It sickened me to bear witness yet again to this type of slaughter. We may be at ware with the Cardassians, but to crush a defenseless enemy is dishonorable and cruel. It’s yet another reminder that these beings are only interested in their own welfare.

    After the attack, their bio-matter increased in size once again. It’s now enveloped the entire engineering compartment, making the area inaccessible. We’ve been fortunate that so far warp power hasn’t been affected---although I think that was more by design than luck.

    As for myself…throughout this ordeal I’ve shown unswerving resolve: to my superiors, to my crew and even our enemies. But as events come to a head, I’ve become plagued by doubts. Is it possible that all of us have become victims of an elaborate deception?


    Captain Zorek said this could all be a ruse, the true purpose of which is to restore the Inth to power so they can begin a new campaign of terror in our galaxy. If that’s true, then I may be ushering in our civilization’s demise, not saving it. The hell of it is: if I am being manipulated, I won’t have any way of knowing until it’s too late.

    At least the waiting will soon be over. In a matter of hours, my fears will either be laid to rest, or realized.

    It may sound like I’ve lost the plot, but I honestly wish the Inth
    were responsible for the nanites in my body, because at least that would make sense. But sadly, they’re mortal weapons, whose existence has only led to more questions.

    We’ve reached the Archer system’s outer boundary and I’ve ordered all stop. While there have been no further attacks, the territory ahead is heavily fortified with enemy vessels…



    “How many Jem’Hadar warships did you say they are?” Aubrey asked.

    From the tactical podium, Lt. Rodriguez pursed his lips worriedly. “Sixty-seven, sir. The majority are fighters, but eight read as heavy cruisers, varying in class and armaments. They’re forming a blockade.”

    “It’s an armada. It seems we’ve made an impression. Mr. Neqod, long range scan, please.”

    The Rigelian lieutenant ran his fingers over the OPS panel, not expecting success. But he soon turned back to Aubrey, his surprise evident. “Sir, they’re not jamming us. We have a clear window. I’m completing a full cycle now.”

    “They want us to see what’s out there.” Adol said from the portside first officer’s station on the upper deck.

    Aubrey glanced up at him in mute consensus.

    Neqod’s voice became tense. “Sir…Archer IV…something’s happened to it.”

    “Define ‘something’.” Adol demanded.

    “The planet’s suffered a major cataclysm. It appears the atmosphere’s been ripped away by a thermo-nucleonic event. The oceans have been vaporized… and the entire outer crust has become super heated magma. In my opinion sir, this wasn’t a natural occurrence. There are no signatures to indicate a planetary collision or artificially induced explosions. ” He looked back at Aubrey. “No life signs on the surface…but enormous Inth readings near the planet’s core. I’m just not sure how that’s possible.”

    The captain’s thoughts ran a dark path as he contemplated the millions of Federation citizens who were now gone. The last time they’d been here was as part of Tango Fleet, attempting to blunt the Dominion’s two-pronged thrust into this sector block of Federation space. Tango Fleet had been forced to withdraw, a failure that had foreshadowed their larger defeat at Betazed.

    At this point, he wasn’t sure who to reserve his ire for: the Inth, or the Dominion who had likely slaughtered most of the population when taking the system.

    “Captain Hiroko is hailing, sir.”

    “On screen.”

    Rodriguez tapped once on his board and Sentry’s skipper appeared on the main viewer. “Aubrey, I’m sure you’re seeing what we’re seeing. What do you make of it?”

    “The Inth destroyed Archer IV.”

    She lanced him with a smoldering glare. “Obviously. Almost all of our colonists were killed. You didn’t say this would happen.”

    There was no brash retort this time. Instead, Aubrey seemed to deflate into his chair with exhaustion. “I didn’t know, either.” He replied dismally. “Despite all they shared with me, my information is still limited.” He leaned forward again as her words caught up to him. “Wait a minute. What do you mean ‘almost all’ of our colonists were killed?”

    Of course. I forgot your sensors don’t have our reach. There’s a Dominion structure farther away, near the other side of the system. We’re reading fourteen hundred and twenty-two colonists and eighty-seven Jem’Hadar aboard. It looks like a detention facility. I’ll patch you in to our feed.”

    Neqod quickly confirmed the readings and then offered his own thoughts. “I see it now. Haphazard construction. They probably cobbled it together from one of their crippled warships after the battle with Tango Fleet. The superstructure took heavy damage during the planet’s destruction, but life support is stable. It was likely in orbit before being pushed away by the disaster.”

    Agreed.” Hiroko looked down at him appreciatively; wishing the same level of talent was available aboard her own ship, which was mostly crewed by glorified plebes. “Aubrey, how much time is left for these ‘Inth’ to join up with the rest of their race?

    “Less than an hour, now.”

    And how close do you have to be to Archer IV for this merger to take place?”

    “At least thirty-thousand kilometers.”

    Then let’s hope the Dominion has given up trying to stop you.”

    “Yes. Let’s hope. If you don’t mind following my lead on this, I’m confident we can make it through.”

    Of course I mind.” She groused. “But I don’t have much of a choice at this point. As to whether we make it through or not, It’s all going to boil down to how truthful the Inth were with you.

    He chose not to argue the point. “Thank you. Stay close. We’ll get underway shortly. Intrepid out.”

    “Uh…sir? I uh, think we might have a problem.”

    Adol looked over his shoulder to the engineering station just behind him, to find the edgy Cal Benjamin emoting more unease than usual.

    Despite his nerves, the command staff had learned long ago to pay attention when the young junior grade lieutenant spoke. The lad was gifted---gifted enough that the Project Renaissance people had chosen him to oversee Intrepid’s upgrade and recommissioning just before the war. And Aubrey respected the kid’s abilities to the extent of making him engineering chief. (A decision that many of the seniors in that department didn’t initially appreciate.)

    His confidence, however, was still a work in progress and often faded the farther he strayed from the engine room.

    “Bloody Christ, now what is it?” Aubrey grumped as he left his chair. He ascended to the upper command deck and joined Adol who was already leaning over Benjamin’s shoulder.

    The chief looked as rumpled as everyone else. He was pallid, had a five o’clock shadow and it was obvious that his black hair hadn’t seen the business end of a comb for days. “Ahem. Well, sir. Sirs…umm, now I’m not completely sure about this, well I guess I am pretty sure, but---“

    “Lieutenant, there isn’t time to dick around.” Aubrey snapped. “Whatever it is, spit it out and we’ll go from there.”

    Benjamin’s Adam’s apple clicked. “Yes sir!” He pointed to an algorithm that was scrolling over a pulsing, amorphous graphic. Data windows on both sides of the monitors were crawling with numbers, most of which were indecipherable to his audience. “I think the bio-energy matrix that the Inth are generating is close to destabilizing. If they use their power again to defend the ship, it’s gonna erupt into an uncontrolled reaction.”

    He was rewarded with skepticism. “No offense, Mr. Benjamin…but the Inth and their power are an enigma. I don’t see how you could possibly know any of this.”

    “Respectfully captain, they aren’t magical. There are still things about them that can be measured with established scientific methodology. Now, uh...I’ve been studying the matrix since it was brought aboard. After each use of power there’s been a dramatic loss of cohesion. It happened after destroying the Cardassians at Kokala, then again after the Gorn attack and just recently after the second Cardassian attack.”

    Aubrey and Adol regarded one another, their mutual doubts melting into concern.

    You came up with all this?” Adol asked, gesturing at the data streams.

    He shored up his resolution, hoping it wouldn’t fail under the Andorian’s blazing scrutiny. “Not just me sir, the computer ran an analysis and came to the same conclusion---ten different projections that all had the same outcome. So yeah, I’m sure.” He rubbed an anxious hand over his chin. “You see why we have a problem.”

    “It means we have to make it through that armada out there without Inth protection.” Adol’s rumbled.

    Neqod shot them a worried look from the operations post.

    “Benjamin, what’s our status?” Aubrey asked.

    “Uh, Forty-eight percent on the shields, phasers at sixty-nine percent.

    Warp core output steady at minimum operational levels.”

    “And our tubes are almost bare. We only have nineteen torpedoes left, four of which are quantums.” Adol contributed.

    Aubrey sank into the chair next to his engineer. “Even if we were in top condition, it wouldn’t make any difference. Not against these numbers.”

    “I’m sure the Inth would intervene again to protect themselves…” Adol postulated hopefully.

    “Yes.” The captain agreed. “And they would likely destroy their attackers, but in the process their matrix would destabilize. If that happens before they can join the others, they won’t be able to evolve. And then God help us all.”

    He drummed his fingers on the console, his mind racing. “All right…I’ll try to communicate with the Inth and devise---“

    “Captain, we’re receiving a hail.” Rodriguez interrupted. His tone was a blend of doubt and wonder. “It’s on a Dominion channel…someone who’s identifying herself as ‘The Female Changing’---and she’s asking to speak with you specifically.”

    Aubrey pushed himself back to his feet, but seconds went by before he could formulate thought. “The leader of the Dominion war effort herself wants to speak with…me?”

    “It would appear so, yes sir.”

    He turned towards the main viewer in awe. “Oh. Well…shit.”
     
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  10. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    Wow... pretty amazing stuff.
     
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  11. CeJay

    CeJay Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    So close and yet so far.

    They need to get to Archer in order to appease the Inth and possibly avoid the end of all civilization but in order to get there they need to get past a Dominion fleet. And the Inth are no help.

    Considering the destruction the Inth-powered Intrepid has already wrought, you'd think there might be a way for Aubrey to bluff his way through this.

    Really curious what the Changeling wants to talk about. I have a feeling it will only complicate this holy mess of a situation even further. Awesome!
     
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  12. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2005
    Location:
    US Pacific Northwest
    This transmission can't be good news.

    Aubrey's time is running out, and even his precious cargo is conspiring against him now. Negotiation might be the best option, but I have a sneaking suspicious the Founders won't be so obliging.

    More, please! :biggrin:
     
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  13. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek


    Chapter 8




    Aubrey had a bad moment in which he was sure that Rhonda Date, the little girl from his vision of the 20th Century, would be the one to appear on the viewer instead of the Changeling. She would point to her ear again and start saying: “I can’t hear you Jason, can’t hear you, can’t hear you...”

    He clenched his jaws and willed the intruding thought away.

    It was not Rhonda Date of course. It was only the Changeling who was knocking at his door---only her, and nothing more. She looked exactly like the visual files he’d reviewed from Intelligence, but he had to remind himself that this was no recording.

    Captain Jason Daniel Aubrey,” she began, her voice oozing with contempt. “This is an honor.”

    He showed off a counterfeit smile. “I’m flattered that you’ve even heard of me. I’m just a lowly Starfleet captain, one of many.”

    On the contrary. I’ve followed you career for many years.”

    More likely, she only knew his name because of current events. That fib aside, he realized this was a unique diplomatic opportunity to end the war. Success was probably unattainable, given that better people than he had already tried and failed. Still, he was obligated to at least make the effort. “Before we start, I’d like to state again that your aggression against us is unnecessary. The Federation has never meant you any harm.”

    I understand that you’re frightened.” She purred in mock sympathy. “You have reason to be. Your front lines are collapsing, your territories shrinking. It’s no wonder that you’re now pleading for you lives.”

    “If that’s what you believe, then you really don’t know your so-called enemies as well as you think you do.”

    Instead of a barb, she adopted the tone of one waxing philosophical. “Did you know that there was a time, ages past, in which solids kept us like animals in zoos? We were forced to entertain the spectators before being allowed to regenerate. Some of us were even experimented upon, others forced into slave labor. All of us terminated when our captors grew too weary or too fearful of our presence. And now, soon it is we who will be YOUR masters.” She leaned fractionally closer to the viewer. “And I can assure you…we will be every bit as merciful as you were to us.”

    Other solids did that to you, not us. You’re invading without provocation.”

    We’re doing no such thing. I’m surprised at you. Surely a tactician of your standing can see our operation for what it truly is." She waited expectantly for his answer.

    He shook his head in disgust. “A preemptive strike. Well, I can tell you from experience that most preemptive maneuvers lead to the very catastrophes they were designed to prevent.” He glanced remorsefully in Adol’s direction but the Andorian had his attention riveted on the viewer and missed it. “We value all life.”

    Really? Is that what you said to the Changeling on Narokis, just before you executed him?

    Taken off guard, he goggled at her vacantly until the meaning struck home. “Narokis? That was nine years ago. You mean the saboteur we caught back then was a Founder?”

    She remained silent.

    “I’m sorry to hear that. We had no idea. Understand...I was part of a Starfleet taskforce at that time sent to root him out. If we hadn’t apprehended him, he’d have sabotaged that world’s polaric energy network, killing seven billion inhabitants.”

    And based on that accusation, you put him to death.”

    “Don’t be absurd. I killed him in self-defense, an act that I regret terribly---even more so, now that I know the truth. If we could have established a dialogue with your people back then, we might have stopped this war before it began.” When she made no immediate reply, he cocked his head at her. “I hope you’re not suggesting that you went to war with the Alpha Quadrant over that one unfortunate death. Because if so, I’m not buying it.”

    She gently shook her head at him; as if to not only negate his words, but his very right to exist. “You’re a solid. What you believe or don’t believe is of no consequence.”

    “I’m sorry you feel that way. Then perhaps we should get down to business. What can I do for you today?”

    I come to you with a proposition. I’m prepared to grant your crew, and the crew on the other ship, safe passage out of Dominion territory. I will even allow you to take the prisoners of war in our detention facility with you.”

    “That’s a very generous offer.”

    She spread her arms and bowed slightly, as if to say: Of course. We’re a generous people.

    “And how much will this act of generosity cost us?” Adol asked warily from the upper deck.

    Isn’t it obvious? We request only that you leave your antiquated vessel behind.”

    Aubrey lowered his head in exasperation. “Then let me tell you what I told my superiors…” He leveled his gaze at her again. “The Inth will do no one’s bidding. Trying to use their power for your own reasons is as pointless as it is foolish. Furthermore, if we don’t let them evolve, they’ll become permanent residents of our universe again. It’s in all of our best interests that you let me proceed to Archer IV ---“

    Yes, yes…I know all of that.” She interrupted with condescension. “I have a diplomatic attaché of Vorta in the system who are prepared to take charge of your vessel. Rest assured, the Inth will be safely ushered to their destiny by us. In the process, we’ll have an opportunity to establish a relationship with them, just as you have done. And you will benefit from an opportunity to save your precious Federation lives while still completing your mission.” She paused, as if searching her memory. “What is that term your people are so fond of? Ah, yes…a ‘win-win scenario’ I think you would call it.”

    “With apologies, I’ll have to decline. Our special visitors have insisted I remain in charge of my ship.”

    A convenient claim.” She gave him a look of tired pity. “It’s a shame you aren’t the strategist I thought you were.”

    “Captain! Four squadrons of Jem’Hadar fighters just peeled off from their front lines.” Rodriguez exclaimed. “Two are headed for the detention facility, the other two are closing on our position at high impulse.”

    “Confirmed. I now have a total of eighteen fighters approaching on an attack vector.” Neqod added grimly from OPS.

    “Firing range?” Adol inquired.

    “Eighteen point five minutes, present speed.” Rodriguez answered at once.

    “Continue tracking.” Adol jabbed his finger at the tactical station. “Don’t take your eyes of that board for one second!”

    “Let’s be reasonable.” Aubrey said calmly. “By now, you know that trying to destroy us is futile.”

    That may very well be true. But the same can’t be said of the civilians we have in custody---or your compatriots on the Sentry. I’m afraid you’ve just condemned them all to death.” She reached forward to end the transmission, but stopped at Aubrey’s next words.

    “You’re already under assault by the Inth, aren’t you? Let me guess, gravimetric waves, reports of trans-dimensional creatures appearing out of nowhere…sound familiar? Wondering how I know? They shared with me, that’s how.”

    She remained frozen.

    “That’s really why you called, isn’t it? It’s you who’s afraid because if the Inth return, it will mean the end of the Dominion as well. You’re hoping for an alliance so they might spare you if things go wrong. Well, you’re too late. You see, I’ve already told them all about you.”

    Have you now?” She sneered, unperturbed by his revelation.

    “Quite. I knew we’d be traveling through Dominion space, so I was sure to advise them that you’re a ruthless, petty race who would likely try to control their power for yourselves. And I left them with the strong impression that of all the species in the galaxy, you were the most likely to interfere in their evolution.”

    She flicked her chin at him dismissively, but it was clear he had her attention.

    “I don’t have to tell you that these beings can occupy any sector in the galaxy they want at any time.” He continued. “Distance is irrelevant to them. You won’t be safe even in the Gamma Quadrant. The Inth that are manifesting now are just shadows of the real thing---foot soldiers. The worst is yet to come.” He crossed his legs and shrugged at her. “So go ahead, your Majesty…murder those civilians. Attack the Sentry and prove that all I’ve told them is true. Attack…and see what happens next.”

    There was an agonizing silence that stretched on for nearly a minute. Then abruptly, her face morphed into a jigsaw pattern of rotting flesh as she bared her teeth at him in rage. “You disgusting little creature! Go about your business! Just remember, when this is over, the Dominion will still be here. And after the Federation has fallen, I will personally oversee the extermination of every---SINGLE---solid in the Alpha Quadrant! And I will be sure to start with EARTH!” She slammed her hand down and her image disappeared.

    The crew was left absorbing her unbridled hatred in shock.

    Aubrey found that he was trembling; luckily not enough for anyone to notice, but it surprised him nonetheless. It had been years since he had had the shakes. But then, he’d never shouldered a trillion lives, either.

    Glancing at the faces around him, it was clear he wasn’t alone. His crew needed him.

    “She must have found out that I’m dating her daughter.” He deadpanned.

    There were pockets of uneasy chuckles throughout the room. Not much of a stress reliever, but it would have to do.

    “Fighters have halted their advance and are forming a bracketing formation dead ahead.” Rodriguez was fully composed once again. “It appears they’ve also stopped their approach to the detention facility. And sir…a hole just opened in the blockade.”

    “Tactical view on screen.”

    There it was. A corridor now lay before them, one that led directly into their enemy’s lair---as well as that of the Inth.

    “Mad dogs and English men.” Aubrey murmured under his breath. “CON, set your course for Archer IV, three quarters impulse. Tactical, inform Captain Hiroko we’re getting under way and pass along my suggestion that they maintain a defensive posture but make no aggressive moves. Advise also that they match course and speed.”

    The confirmations were smart and efficient.

    “Engage.”

    “Sir, may I ask a question that might not be strictly within the bounds of protocol?”

    Aubrey looked upon the Andorian with eyes that were both regretful and affectionate. “Go ahead, Mr. Adol…it’s the least I owe you.”

    Adol indicated the main viewer with a jerk of his head. “I was just wondering, sir…is there anyone out there who doesn’t hate you?”
     
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  14. CeJay

    CeJay Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    Well played, Captain, well played.

    Adol's observation was spot on as well. But hey, when you are trying to safe all existence as we know it, there's no time to make friends.

    By the way, I really want to hear about that Narokis story now. Aubrey is such a fascinating character with so much backstory, it feels like it could fill volumes.
     
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  15. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    Aubrey and Kirk seem to share some similarities. Good chapter. I patiently await the next installation.
     
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  16. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2005
    Location:
    US Pacific Northwest
    A bold bluff, but Aubrey's running on fumes at this point. So much could go so wrong in the next few hours. He's holding the situation together with bluster and force of will. Here's hoping these odds can be beaten.
     
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  17. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek
    Chapter 9



    Deck 10 - Maximum Security Brig




    “Your time is almost up, my dear.”

    Ensign Rosalie McDonnell fired back a look of annoyance. “Thought I told you to shut up, Cardie.”

    He smiled pleasantly. “Quite right. So you did. But very soon now, I guarantee you’ll be hanging on my every word and begging for more.”

    She rolled her eyes. “You know, I’ve had all I can take from you.” She tapped her security kiosk three times and activated the audio dampening field. “Finally some damn peace and quiet.” She quickly went back to scanning output readings. With the ship undermanned and engineering now completely enveloped by Inth bio-matter, she had been pressed into monitoring the EPS feeds, to make sure the injectors didn’t seize up, among other things.

    She kept Gul Katorn in view most of the time but hated having to look at him. Every time she saw him, he was grinning at her like a joker from one of those ancient playing cards.

    His empty threats were obviously meant to distract her. No big surprise there. Katorn wasn’t the first to underestimate her because of her short stature and young age. If he only knew I’m trained in Suus Mahna. She pondered smugly. If push came to shove, she could probably---

    The EPS current fluttered and then fell, causing an alert to sound. Her face screwed up in concern as she narrowed her focus on the screen. The fluctuation had come without warning. It was less than a point zero nine percent deviance, not enough to impact any key systems, but there was no discernable cause, for it either---or at least, none that she could see. But then again, hell…she was no engineer.

    “McDonnell to Lieutenant Benjamin.” She said, tapping her combadge.

    Uh, go ahead Ensign.”

    “Sir, I’m showing a signal leak across the entire EPS grid. It hasn’t fallen further, but it also hasn’t returned to normal.”

    A pocket of silence fermented between them in which she imagined he was confirming data on his end. “Yeah, I see it. Nothing major. Might be all that bioelectric soup on the ship, which is increasing the closer we get to Archer IV. I’ll keep an eye on it from here. Thanks, Ensign.”

    “Understood, sir. McDonnell out.” She breathed a bit easier now that the anomaly had been passed off to Intrepid’s star whiz kid. McDonnell had enough on her plate dealing with security matters, thank you very much. And those duties were never more pressing than they were today…

    Given that they were sailing into an enemy flotilla, Adol considered a boarding attempt likely, especially considering how greatly the Dominion prized their ship. Full security measures were in place and almost anyone well enough to hold a phaser---whether they could stand or not---had been deployed to critical areas to repel boarders and guard key systems.

    McDonnell had eyes on all teams and would coordinate from her position in the event of a security breach. The transport inhibitors were another headache. The emitters would overload if powered on for any length of time, which meant the spotty coverage would have to be rotated as the situation developed. (A daunting task during the potential chaos of deck-to-deck fire fights.)

    Another alert pinged from her engineering screen. The EPS network had spiked and then dropped three more percentage points.

    Benjamin’s on it, she told herself. So don’t get distracted.

    The next time she glanced up at Gul Katorn, he was still grinning at her.

    Only now his smile stretched from ear to ear.


    _____


    Intrepid
    and Sentry moved steadily by the flanks of Dominion warships, like two soldiers walking through columns of enemy troops on the promise that the opposing general wouldn’t execute them.

    “Stay alert, everyone.” Aubrey said from the command chair.

    “Sir, the Inth matrix has become highly active. Bioelectric output has already increased by two hundred and seventy-three percent and rising.”

    “Our passengers are getting antsy. Any impact on vital systems yet, Mr. Neqod?”

    “The only change has been a drop in EPS output, sir. Nothing else has been affected thus far.”

    “Benjamin?”

    “Yes captain, There’s been two more drops in current. I uh, sent crewman Viktorovich to Jeffries Tube Nine-Baker to check it out. He’s the only one available.” Noting Adol’s severe expression he hastily added: “Don’t worry sir, he wasn’t assigned to security detail. And I only allowed him five minutes…”

    The Andorian nodded grudgingly. “Is the matrix causing the problem?”

    “Well…uh, I thought so at first. But I’m not completely sure, anymore. This problem isn’t behaving like an external disruption.”

    “Keep me informed.” Aubrey called over. “And let’s have auxiliary power on auto feed to shields and phasers.” He continued to eye the status display mounted next to his chair.

    “Aye, sir.”

    “That Dominion battleship still has a weapons lock on us.” Rodriguez updated. “Looks like most of the fleet is either targeting us or the Sentry.”


    The CON officer was hunched over her board. “Captain, that’s the third fighter to swoop down on us. That last one came within a hundred meters of our dorsal shield boundary.”

    They’re just trying to rattle us. Mind your helm, ensign.”

    Maybe this is why those damn creatures wanted Aubrey in command, Adol considered. They foresaw this. They figured he had the best chance of getting us through enemy forces without disrupting their matrix…

    “Now on orbital approach.” The CON officer announced. “Thirty-two thousand kilometers and closing. Sentry has fallen back and is holding position dead astern.”

    On the viewer, Archer IV was a globe of swirling orange and red, looking more to the naked eye like a gas giant than the Class M planet it used to be.

    The response was immediate.

    “Massive bioelectric eruption is emerging from the planet’s core. Readings are off the scale.” Neqod said.

    “Lower shields.” Every head on the bridge swung in Aubrey’s direction at once. “You heard me.” He repeated gently.

    Adol’s antennae erected in surprise. “Respectfully, sir…we’re still being targeted.”

    “They’d have attacked by now if they were going to. Besides, our shields are in such bad shape, they’re little more than a formality anyway.” He turned his chair to Adol and put on his best mask of confidence. “Trust me. It has to be this way. The shields could interfere with the transference.”

    “Dropping shields.” Rodriguez confirmed nervously.

    Neqod continued with more updates. “Sir, a bioelectric energy plume is approaching. Massive Inth life form readings. Contact in fourteen seconds.”

    “All hands brace for impact!” Adol said in the COMM system.

    A twisting column of red and green energy, thousands of kilometers long, stood up from the planet’s surface like a solar flare and reached for the Intrepid.

    “Contact on the lateral hull!” Rodriquez nearly shouted.

    The deck began to rock gently beneath their feet.

    “Now, as they join with the other Inth, the bio-matter in engineering should dissolve into pure energy and we’ll be left with a matrix made up of billions of Inth.” Aubrey’s calm exposition was redundant---narration done mostly to ease his crew’s anxiety. It was a statement that all was going according to plan for this bizarre mission.

    “Sir, we’re still tethered to the energy ribbon.” Adol complained after a few minutes. “How long will this take?”

    “They didn’t exactly give me a detailed itinerary. But I got the impression at least twenty-five minutes or so.”

    It wasn’t long before Hiroko was on the screen again. “Captain, for what it’s worth, we’re watching your back out here. But I hope this won’t take much longer. The Jem’Hadar are becoming more aggressive with their flybys.”

    “Appreciated. The matrix is still unstable, so I’m afraid we have a ways to go.”

    “Just so you know…I’m picking up the prisoners from the detention facility before we leave.”

    He gave a despondent sigh. “Captain Hiroko…the Founder was only going to allow that if I accepted her terms. If you wander off, I can’t guarantee your safety.”

    Her voice resonated back at him with raw current. “I understand the risks. So does my crew. But I’m not leaving without those prisoners.”

    Seeing her resolution, if not downright stubbornness, he felt remorse creeping into his soul. “Caroline…if we don’t speak again, I wanted you to know how much I regret that you and your crew were dragged into this.”

    For the first time, he felt a hint of warmth from her. “Don’t get sentimental on me now, Aubrey. It’s a bad look for you.”

    “Perish the thought. I wish you Godspeed.”

    “To us both. We’ll make the attempt as soon as the transference is complete.” She signed off with a smart dip of her chin.

    He considered the empty screen after she was gone, unable to shake the feeling that their valedictions had been final.

    “Captain, you need to see this.”

    Aubrey walked up to the engineering station to find Adol and Benjamin wearing frantic expressions. He didn’t have to ask if there was a problem. It was clear by the red displays and chirping alerts that his ship was in trouble.

    Benjamin was speaking from beneath sheen of sweat. “Sir, we’re starting to suffer comprehensive system failures all over the ship; environmental controls, weapons…and now the containment field in the warp core is falling at a steady rate.”

    Adol turned to him. “And sir, it isn’t the matrix that’s causing the problem.”

    The captain’s brain almost went numb as it fought to process this new, implausible turn of bad luck. “Then what? How?”

    “A virus, sir. It’s been worming its way through every system on the ship.” Benjamin’s hesitant manner had evaporated under the new threat. “I’ve launched antivirus countermeasures, but the damage is already so extensive, it might be too late.”

    “That’s impossible.” Aubrey blurted.

    Adol seemed to share his outrage. “I don’t how this could happen either, sir. There was no indication until just minutes ago.”

    Benjamin was running his hands over the console so fast; he seemed to be growing extra fingers. “Sir, at the rate the containment field is dropping, we could be headed towards a breach in less than ten minutes.”

    Aubrey leaned over his shoulder. “What can you do from here?”

    “I’ve been trying to reroute energy pathways, shut down the ejectors, but nothing’s working. I can’t even perform an emergency purge of the anti matter tanks. Systems are collapsing too fast.” He banged a fist lightly on the board. “If I could get into engineering it might be possible to manually lock down the flow regulators…”

    Around them, the bridge lights began to flicker as a chorus of new alarms sounded from all stations…
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2020
  18. CeJay

    CeJay Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2006
    Damn you, Gul Katorn, damn you to hell!

    I'm assuming he's behind this latest crisis within a crisis. Because, let's be clear, nothing ever goes according to plan.

    I would say Intrepid and Aubrey a royally screwed but I don't think that does it justice.

    Can't wait to find out if there is a way out of this glorious disaster.
     
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  19. Gibraltar

    Gibraltar Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2005
    Location:
    US Pacific Northwest
    Just when you think things can't possibly get worse, somebody throws Cardassian treachery into the mix! :eek:

    And now Hiroko's determined to go off on an ill-advised errand of mercy while surrounded by Dominion forces.

    These characters are the epitome of the old Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times...'
     
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  20. Galen4

    Galen4 Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 27, 2007
    Location:
    Sol III, within the universe of United Trek
    Chapter 10


    Deck 10 - Maximum Security Brig



    Ensign McDonnell bolted to her feet as her console suddenly went dark. The lights pulsed overhead just as the force filed in the holding cell sputtered and crackled.

    “What the hell?” She tapped her combadge and called out numerous queries, only to discover communications had inexplicably and totally, crashed.

    Gul Katorn looked around amusedly. “Having trouble, my dear?”

    She pulled her phaser and leveled it at him. “How’re you doing this? How’re you doing this?”

    “Are you trying to intimidate me or the security field between us?”

    The field in question collapsed at that moment. A physical wall erected as the replicator fail safes kicked in, but the barrier that appeared was a thin, pocketed structure that refused to fully assemble.

    Katorn launched through it and the metallic particles shattered easily. The instant he crossed the threshold, the cell’s phaser beam hit him from behind. He staggered momentarily before charging forward. McDonnell fired her own phaser, but incredibly, the contact barely slowed Katorn’s approach.

    He smashed the weapon out of her grip and then hammered at her with a series of martial arts blows. To his surprise, she countered every one of this jabs and kicks before responding with a formable combination of her own. Each of her strikes was perfectly executed, landing on this throat, genitals, kidneys and major nerve junctions. If Katorn were an average Cardassian, he would already have been at her feet, gasping and incapacitated.

    Instead, he absorbed her attacks without feeling them. Yet, despite his gifts, it still took his entire skill set to get through her defenses. Finally, he was able to stun her by landing two blows---and two was all it took given his enhanced strength---before kneeing her in the gut. As she doubled over, he grabbed her by the hair and launched her headfirst into the bulkhead. She slid to the deck unconscious (or maybe dead, given how fragile humans were.)

    The relief security guard had the misfortune of entering just as Katorn picked up McDonnell’s phaser. The guard’s eyes bulged upon seeing him and he fired at once. The Cardassian ducked behind the security kiosk with unnatural speed. The beam hit the kiosk, which exploded into a shower of sparks, sending a plume of smoke into the air.

    Katorn’s returning beam hit the man in his abdomen, changing him momentarily into a figure made of orange fire… and then he vanished.

    He then moved out into the small corridor, phaser before him, ready to flash death at anyone who crossed his path.



    Bridge



    “Eject the warp core, if you have to.” Aubrey said to Benjamin as consoles around them began flickering on and off.

    “Aye, sir!”

    Adol gently took the captain’s arm. “Sir, that will leave us dead in the water.” He whispered. “We’re surrounded. And we’d have no further way to transport these creatures---“

    “One problem at a time, Commander. For the moment, let’s focus on not blowing up.”

    “Sir, I think I’ve isolated the ejection sub routines. If I can work fast enough, I should be able to get ahead of the virus and eject the core before I lose complete access.”

    “Stay at it, Benjamin.” Aubrey answered approvingly. “Mr. Neqod, what do you---?”

    “Security alert, main brig!” Rodriguez yelped out. “Sir, the holding cell has been compromised. Picking up phaser fire in the detention lobby, multiple shots.”

    “Adol to McDonnell. Report.” There was no response. “McDonnell, what’s going on down there?”


    This is Gul Katorn. Please activate your viewing screen.”

    Aubrey took a moment to wrestle with the angry knot in his stomach. Forcing himself to breath normally, he reached over and turned on a monitor just above the engineering console. He was greeted by the gray skin and slick black hair of a Cardassian. Or mostly black. Katorn had a strip of white that ran the length of his crown.

    Ah, Captain Aubrey. How nice to finally put a face to my opponent.”

    “Where’s Ensign McDonnell?” He shot back.

    Katorn shrugged indifferently. “Some of your security are alive, some aren’t. But since your ship is about to explode, I suggest we move our discussion along. Oh, and I wouldn’t send anyone else in after me. I’ve sealed myself into the security chief’s office.”

    You’re responsible for this?”

    Confusion drifted over his face. “Well, of course. Haven’t you already deduced that?”

    “You’re a liar!" Adol nearly shouted at the screen. “You’ve been in the brig the whole time!”

    Except, I’m no ordinary Cardassian, as I’m sure you surmised by now.” He made a comical show of glancing from side to side, as if afraid of being overheard. “Tell me captain, in your security briefings have you ever come across a project named “’Indissoluble’?”

    “The Obsidian Order’s attempt at creating Cardassian augments? I thought it never got off the ground.”

    Oh it did, it did. But Cardassian genetics are difficult to enhance, you see. After hundreds of trials, I was the only successful result. Before the program could be pursued further, well…you know what happened to our government.”

    Adol cocked a skeptical eye at him. “Unless you have the power to be in two places at once, I don’t see how you planted a virus on our ship.”

    Excellent point! You see...my entire body was engineered to become a weapon, my Andorian friend---one designed to activate upon detection of an enemy transporter beam. My DNA contains the dissembled blueprint for a virus, which your system unwittingly put together in the pattern buffer. When the buffer was purged it migrated into your vessel’s low-priority systems. From there, it spread. I’m afraid the moment you brought me aboard, you sealed your doom.”

    Aubrey was aghast. “You have that kind of technology?”

    Don’t fret, captain. I’m the prototype. This is one secret we didn’t share with our Dominion masters.”

    “There has to be a way you can stop it.”

    Of course there is, but I’m not telling.”

    Aubrey bunched his fist in rage, resisting the urge to put it through the screen. “You stupid ass. You have absolutely no idea what’s at stake.”

    Let me guess: The evolution of the Inth or the end of all civilization?”

    He paused. “How do you know about that?”

    “Enhanced hearing and,” He tapped his temple. “Limited telepathy. Nothing like your first officer, but then much isn’t needed with such an overwhelming presence aboard.”

    “You’re hoping to destroy them when we go up, aren’t you? Katorn, even a warp core blast won’t stop the Inth. All you’ll do is vaporize us and probably interfere with their evolution. If that happens, Cardassia dies along with everyone else.”

    Katorn expunged a dry, mirthless chuckle. “Captain…you misunderstand me. I’m not trying to destroy the Inth. Nor am I trying to help them leave our universe. I WANT them to obliterate the Alpha Quadrant.”

    “You crazy bastard!” Adol growled. “Why?”

    “Why?” He repeated shrilly. “Because the Dominion are going to win this war, you must know that by now! Because my people have sold themselves into slavery for the next thousand years. Ah, but the Inth!” He wagged his index finger in the air. “The Inth are nature’s great equalizers, nature’s galactic architects. They’ve been erasing empires for a million years, changing the very landscape of our galaxy. Now it’s time to once again burn away the deadwood. It’s time for new races to emerge---more worthy cultures who will become the next caretakers of our universe.

    “Very poetic. But you know, to me you sound like a coward who’s given up without even trying to fight your oppressors.”

    All at once, Katorn’s wild expression dissolved into calm. “Look me in the eye, captain, and tell me your Federation isn’t rotting from within. Tell me your haughty values aren’t eroding with every compromise, with every battle. Tell me that hidden dictators aren’t this very moment vying for power within your ranks. You know it’s true. Face it, we all deserve to be forgotten.”

    Warning: warp reactor containment field has been compromised. An emergency purge of all antimatter tanks is recommended.”

    “Sir, I’ve been locked out of the ejection subroutines.” Benjamin timbre began to rattle with panic. “We could breach at any second.”

    Quite right!” Katorn threw in cheerfully. “The virus was engineered to do just that. They’ll be no countdown, just sudden oblivion. More merciful that way, don’t you think?”

    Aubrey turned his back on the mad Cardassian and leaned over the support railing to address Lieutenant Neqod. “Status of the matrix?”

    The Rigelian’s face was taught with anticipation. “Internal sensors are going down, sir. But based on Benjamin’s last algorithms, we were at thirty percent stability.”

    Adol muted the connection to Katorn. “Captain, recommend we sound evacuation for the secondary hull. While we still can.”

    “See to it, Commander.”

    As it turned out, the orders never had a chance to be issued.

    It happened an instant later. The matter and antimatter joined together in a cataclysmic eruption of energy. The raw force generated would have been enough to render half a planet uninhabitable, had the accident occurred on a world and not in open space.

    The lights blinked steadily, then went out. The deck shook hard enough to cause standing crewmembers to stumble.

    When the lights came up, everyone exchanged bewildered expressions of relief. People climbed back to their posts. Slowly, terminals blinked back on and normal bridge sounds resumed.

    “What just happened?” Aubrey asked into the pregnant silence that followed. “Was the core ejected?”

    "No sir.” Benjamin was chewing his lip impatiently, waiting for the dark monitors to come back to life. “I’m pretty sure we’re on auxiliary power, though.”

    “Well, we didn’t explode. So what did happen?” Adol insisted.

    “I’ve got internal status back up. Let me see---oh, no.“ Benjamin spun his chair to face them. “Captain, we did suffer a breach. But the matrix absorbed all of the energy. It’s…it’s beginning to destabilize!”

    “Confirmed!” Neqod added. “I show a massive bio-electric disturbance expanding out of the engineering room.”

    The ship began to shudder, this time not from an explosion or external attacks but because something unnatural was occurring in its bowels.

    Rodriguez seemed shell-shocked as he recited the dire information that was now coming over his board. “Captain, I’m reading Inth bio-matter materializing all through the interior of the secondary hull. And there’s a sheath forming on the outer skin.”

    “Warn the crew down there to evacuate!”

    Still appearing stunned, Rodriguez looked up at him helplessly. “COMMs are down, sir. The secondary hull’s already been enveloped. Bio-matter will consume the primary hull in a matter of seconds.”

    “Captain, we just lost half the ship.” Adol advised tightly. “We have to save what’s left while we still can!”

    Aubrey nodded darkly. “Computer, this is the captain. Initiate emergency saucer separation, disaster sequence. Override all safety protocols. Authorization Aubrey-Echo-Five-Two-Seven-Complete.”

    Unable to comply. Decoupling actuators are offline.”

    The captain hopped down to the lower deck and slapped a palm over one of the terminals bracketing his chair. “All hands, abandon ship, I repeat abandon ship.”

    As a dull honking reverberated around the room, Aubrey saw his crew moored by indecisiveness. “Clear the bridge! NOW! Adol, get everyone to the escape pods!”

    The starboard doors opened and something walked into the room. It was biped, but the person’s legs were snapping with a chaotic rhythm, as though being powered by electric shocks.

    At first glance, it appeared to be Commander Shantok. That changed quickly as her face became a grotesque montage of overlapping features that were transforming with such speed; no one could keep their eyes on her.

    “Commander?” Aubrey asked, averting his gaze just enough to keep her in his peripheral vision.

    In response, Shantok’s upper body sprouted a dozen spiked tentacles that launched themselves like spears in his direction.

    Lieutenant Neqod stepped in front of the captain while drawing his phaser but wasn’t quick enough. A thorny mandible batted his weapon away, while another tentacle impaled him through the chest. He gasped in shock, clutching the protrusion with both hands before it swept him across the room to land on the forward deck.

    Adol vaulted the upper railing to land just ahead of Aubrey. He fired his phaser at maximum power. It hit the Shantok-thing, for a moment making it glow. Then it struck again. A slim javelin shot outward, running the Andorian through. He dropped the phaser and clutched the impaler, falling to his knees as he tried desperately to hold the slimy blade immobile so it wouldn’t disembowel him.

    Aubrey jumped forward. “STOP! Everyone remain where you are!” He held out his hands in a benign gesture. “It’s not too late.” He said to the creature with all the self-assurance he could harvest. “There’s another way. Reach out to the one called ‘Shantok’.”

    He immediately felt agony burst over his body from multiple wounds. Something hard slammed into his back. It took a few seconds for his dazed brain to realize it was the ceiling. He was being held aloft by a tangle of limbs. Aubrey watched in a dreamy stupor as his own blood splattered the command chair below him.

    “Still a…way…” He gasped out.

    Around him the bridge walls were being smothered in something that looked like vines. They formed with uncanny speed, like a time-lapse video of growing plants.

    The Shantok-thing was now below him. It’s maw stretched into a grotesque distortion of a shark’s mouth and Aubrey was assaulted by an earsplitting shriek…
     
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