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  1. From the Ashes Chirakis Kirel, Captain, CSEC, SI-5 There are times when handing duties over to a junior officer for night shift is not a good idea. This was one of those times. CnC’s chronograph kept a steady rhythm, ignoring everything but the passage of time. Shifts that should have changed did not. Some voluntarily left; others either decided to stay or became oblivious to time, mesmerized by unfolding events. Captain Ramson had left on Aegean to intercept a ship that was assigned to a stellar survey, then, either willingly or not, took another path—hostile and dangerous. To Kirel, the Tok-Pan-Jri would become another Vladivostok, whose crew paid a heavy price for entering that nebula unescorted. This time, Task Force Aegis—USS Missouri, USS Ramius, stealth destroyer USS Warren, and their support vessels—accompanied Aegean, and for that Kirel was thankful. Captain Ramson passed Aegis command onto Commander Coleridge, who was immediately drawn into another snare known as Starfleet Command. With him buried in his office to endure hours of mostly-idle chat filled with questions he could not answer and not a little posturing on their part, Kirel became Officer in Charge. Was it her deadly glare that kept Lt Cdr Tarisa, Ens Jackson, and Ltjg Lackey on shift? Kirel preferred to believe that they were dedicated, determined to stand the watch and see this through. In retrospect, she was correct in that assumption. Those three, as well as Midshipman Kenyon and Commander Cayne, kept her on an even keel, although it probably did not seem so to them. Her words were clipped, her expression grim, and the instant responses she demanded often became unbearable. Although she was not the only one on Aegis who remembered the incident, her personal memory of USS Vladivostok’s emaciated crew remained fresh. It cut her to the quick. “It will not happen again.” Just over three months ago, on an artificial cave on a cold, desolate planetoid within Nebula 236a, the crew of USS Vladivostok barely survived. Some did not. Stardate 2388.006 - January 6, 2388 Breath came at a premium for James Belton, captain of the USS Vladivostok. Several broken ribs, especially one that angled dangerously close to his left lung, hampered his breathing. Abrasions swelled his face and neck, and bruises covered most of his body. But he was still alive, which is more than he could say for… how many of Vladivostok’s crew? He pushed the thought aside. He had to focus on the future, absorb as much of his surroundings as possible, watch their captors, understand what he could from their language, movement, and mannerisms, and use that to survive, to plan an escape. The sudden awareness of a warm body brought him out of his thoughts. “Here, Jim,” a deep voice said softly, “we found the mylar blankets. They’ll warm you up.” Only then did he realize he was shivering uncontrollably from the heavy dampness of the cave and the icy water that dripped along its walls and ran in rivulets through tiny cracks. Aboard ship, he had almost cursed their uniform material, but now he was grateful. It was keeping him from pneumonia in this hellacious atmosphere. Two strong arms lifted him gently into a sitting position against the granite wall, wrapped the blanket around him, then carefully lifted his chin and peered into his eyes. “You’re doing okay, Jim,” said Cdr Alex Worley in encouragement. Beneath a forced smile, Belton new differently. He was lucky to be alive. Worley eased the captain’s chin and body back to their original positions, then pulled a blanket around himself before settling down next to him. Vladivostok’s executive officer had always been the crew’s encouragement. “We’ll be outta here soon,” he said. “She’ll send someone. We’ll be fine.” Belton blinked, disoriented and confused. “Logan?” “She got away,” Worley said quietly as he leaned close. “She stole one of their ships. She took the data crystal.” “Right. The crystal. She took it to…” “She took it,” Worley interrupted as his eyes darted around, looking for evesdroppers. “She’s good. We’ll be outta here soon.” The clank of metal on granite echoed from above. Soon several guards, accompanied by what looked like servants, passed among the crew, doling out a soup that looked and smelled suspiciously like the partially digested innards of some hapless invertebrate that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Belton wanted to retch, but Worley pressed the cup to his lips before he had a chance. “Easy,” he said. “A few sips at a time. It’s not exactly home cooking, but it’ll keep your strength up. You’ll feel better.” As soon as the captain dropped off to sleep, Worley waved a crewman over to take his place. The captain was in serious condition, but there were others who needed his attention. As a science vessel, most of Vladivostok’s crew were doctors and scientists, but their medical supplies were waning. They made do with whatever they could scrounge from emergency kits. Since their capture three days ago, Worley had wondered about this cavern—why it was so symmetrical, the walls so smooth, and why it seemed to lead nowhere, only from the surface to a few hundred meters below. As he wandered through, he watched, listened, and encouraged the crew to stay as positive as possible in this hell hole. The remains of those who had died in the starship’s takeover had been carefully laid out close to the snow-covered planet’s surface. The aliens that held them? They didn’t seem to care, as long as everyone was compliant. There were no interrogations or intimidation. Worley stood at the entrance, watching the snow swirl in soft eddies around the bodies, blanketing them in their sleep. “Maddie,” he whispered across the void, “tell me you made it. Please, tell me you made it to Aegis.” Stardate 2388.009 - Deep in Neutral Space The stealth fighter, Drakkor, slipped silently through space as the dark void thirstily swallowed her jet-black hull. The vessel seemed to relish its freedom, as did her pilot, Chirakis Kirel, Starfleet Intelligence Division 5 operative and former commanding officer of Sky Harbor Aegis. Closing her eyes against the firmament, she sank deep into the custom pilot seat, both pondering and trying to ignore what could be in store when she reached her destination: a covert base where SI-5, SI-6, and Tal Shiar operatives gathered when the Federation and its allies were in danger. “Destination Rendezvous October,” Kirel spoke quietly into her helmet communication system as soon as the computer signaled neutral territory. “Run dark. Engage avoidance maneuvers and random course changes at random intervals.” “Compliance.” The computer’s synthesized reply did not hold the concern of its master, offering instead a sense of calm. It allowed her to relax, if only for a few minutes. “Unknown vessel on intercept course.” Drakkor’s synthesized voice woke her instantly. Given the immensity of space, the odds that two fighters would just happen to be on an intercept course were astronomical, and the possibility that someone had detected Drakkor’s presence was highly unlikely. “Identify.” “Insufficient data.” “Vessel description.” “High warp capable starship, fighter configuration nine meters by five meters, one occupant, standard armament.” “Species of occupant.” “Human female.” “Are weapons engaged?” “Negative. Weapons are inoperable.” Inoperable? Strange. “Time to intercept.” “Ten minutes, 43.7 seconds.” “Projected destination given its present course.” “Sky Harbor Aegis.” “Kahless!” she growled. “Change course to parallel the unknown vessel. Maintain a distance of 5,000 meters. Commence audio and visual record. Track trajectory. Arm all weapons, but do not target.” “Compliance.” Soon a strangely configured fighter passed and faded in the distance. Drakkor’s data analysis revealed recent scoring of the fighter’s hull, though there was no major damage. Her pilot was indeed human, but lifesigns were low, and given the speed of the vessel, its fuel supply would not last long. It seemed odd, especially because this particular area of space was truly a void. Kirel took manual control of Drakkor and came about for pursuit. Not long after, she approached the vessel, now dead in space and beginning to drift. Her pilot, slumped forward and barely alive, wore the uniform of a Starfleet officer, though that did not guarantee it was a Starfleet officer. Kirel drifted wing-to-wing with the unknown fighter while her systems verified that there was no trap, no failsafe, and no danger in boarding the other vessel. But a nagging suspicion remained. The slow rise and fall of the occupant’s chest and the occasional twitch of her left hand indicated she was still alive, though given the state of her vessel’s life support, she would not be for long. Kirel locked Drakkor's emergency escape hatch with the other fighter. She eased through the passageway into the cockpit. The fighter was old, and its configuration was stranger inside than out. The console was worn and ordinary, but the language was a bizarre mix of Klingon and Romulan, and barely readable. As fresh air surged in from Drakkor, the young woman came around, drinking in great gasps and thirsting for more. Soon she slumped back into the pilot’s seat, her head lolling against the headrest for a minute or two until her gaze fell on the still-helmeted Kirel, who had left the helmet's black reflective visor in place as a precaution. “Who are you?" the girl breathed, her face pale and looking more like a girl's than a woman's. "I would ask you the same. Lieutenant," the captain countered skeptically. "Not until you tell me who you are." "It would appear,” Kirel replied, “that you are in no position to bargain. If you refuse to answer I will leave.” She shrugged. “Which means that you will be dead within the hour. Of course, someone else could come along, but it’s highly unlikely given this area of space." Clearly suffering from hypoxia, the girl gave her a blank stare. “Can't you at least let me see your face? Please? So I know this is real and not a dream?" Kirel’s hand grasped the girl's arm in a vice grip, releasing only after she cried out. "There. You are awake. Now tell me who you are." "Lieutenant Madelyn Logan, Operations Officer, USS Vladivostok." "And your destination?" “I don't know. The captain gave me the coordinates. I stole the fighter and entered them, then pressed what looked like the button to engage." "You stole the fighter? From whom?" "I don't know. They were all masked, and their bodies were completely covered. When they were around us they didn’t talk except for grunts, so…” she started to fade, then took a deep breath, “...so we don’t know… I don’t know who they are… they were….” “You said ‘the captain’ gave you the coordinates, and then mentioned ‘they were all around us.’ Who is ‘us?’” “The crew… our crew… the crew of Vladivostok.” A few labored breaths, and she asked, “Please, do you have any water?” “I do. Are you able to move?” “A little.” “Then come. Use the hatch to enter my vessel. I have plenty.” For a moment, the girl’s blank stare returned, but she shook it off as she struggled out of the pilot’s seat. “You still didn’t tell me your name.” “In due time. For now, you may call me Captain.” Leaving the aged fighter behind, Drakkor continued its silent slip through the void, changing course at random intervals toward Rendezvous October. A few sips of water and the girl was asleep. The DNA sample from the young lieutenant’s water bottle verified the girl’s identity as Madelyn Logan, Lieutenant, Operations Officer for USS Vladivostok, age... 19? Recruited at 14? Her small frame curled snugly in Drakkor’s second seat spoke of a naive child more than an officer. What had happened to the Vladivostok? Why had no one reported it missing? How did the stolen fighter just happen to be in the same area as Drakkor exactly when its occupant needed help? Kirel had found a data crystal in the lieutenant’s tunic pocket. A thorough scan had verified its authenticity, it took several hours to decrypt, and it was difficult to analyze. The young officer stirred, stretched, turned, and straightened up in her seat. She picked at the ill-fitting flight suit Kirel had furnished, then looked around in confusion. "Where am I?" “You are in my fighter en route to our destination, Lieutenant," the captain replied, casually. “We should arrive within the hour. How are you feeling?" "Okay I guess," she said, frowning, possibly trying to remember how she got there. Then she glanced through the canopy as she rubbed her eyes. “But I’m kind of hungry." The captain retrieved a small, green package from the food locker and passed it to her, along with another bottle of water. "Eat slowly,” the captain advised. “This has everything your body needs. And continue to hydrate." “Thank you…." The girl stared at Kirel’s flight suit, looking for something. “I know I’m supposed to call you Captain, but can you tell me your name?” “Chirakis.” It didn’t seem to register. “I am Captain Chirakis, Lieutenant.” Kirel nodded congenially. “Oh. Okay. So, thank you, Captain Chirakis… for the food. And for well... you know... saving me.” The girl waited, seeming to want a response. Kirel gave her customary short nod. Madelyn fumbled with the package and eventually conquered it. She took a tentative bite, then studied the wrapper, reading the contents thoroughly. Smiling at Kirel, she took another bite, chewing thoughtfully as she regarded the captain’s PADD. “Something else, Lieutenant?” Kirel asked finally. “What are you reading?” “Information possibly needed at my destination.” “Oh.” She took another bite, then fished in her tunic pocket. Confused, she stopped to strain her eyes toward the PADD. “The answer to your question is yes. I took it from your pocket.” The captain’s gaze met hers. “Where did you get it?” “The captain… my captain… Captain Belton? He gave it to me. He said it was important. I was supposed to give it to the commanding officer at my destination when I arrived. Well… actually… he said if I arrived.” “And what was your destination?” She shrugged, taking another bite, then disposing of the wrapper. “I really don’t know. He just gave me some coordinates. That’s it.” “And why did Captain Belton send you instead of your helmsman?” She stopped chewing and stared at the floor for a moment, then swallowed hard. “He’s dead.” After a pause, Kirel stowed her PADD and shifted her seat to piloting position. “We will be landing soon, Lieutenant. I suggest you prepare. Your helmet is behind the seat. Put it on and do not remove it until I tell you to. Do you understand?” “Yeah. I mean… yes, Captain.” * * * * * * * * * Just over an hour later, they reached the docking bay of Rendezvous October, situated below ground on an asteroid between Federation and Ferengi space. When Madelyn removed her darkened helmet, her mouth dropped open and she froze half-way out of the seat.They were in a cave. Well, kind of a cave. At least it looked like a cave. It had this weird lighting, kind of like a fighter bay. But the only thing that made it look like a fighter bay was... well... the fighters. And the plane crews. And the bay chief. And the equipment. And the floor. And the…. She blinked. There must have been over a hundred workers in the bay. Some of them were armed. And they were all standing still. Their eyes were fixed on the captain’s fighter. Oh no… they were fixed on her… and their weapons were pointed…. A firm grasp on her upper arm jerked her out of the seat. “Now, Lieutenant. State your name, rank, and posting.” “Yes, ma’am,” she squeaked, then swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to ignore the stares that came from every angle. “Lieutenant Madelyn Logan, Operations Officer, USS Vladivostok.” After a moment, “Voice print is verified, Captain,” came from the intercom. “Welcome aboard.” “Thank you, Chief. Lieutenant Logan.” The captain turned to her. Madelyn was shrinking away from one of the plane crew who stood on a platform ladder at her side, his hand extended as he waited to assist her. The rest of the crews had returned to work, and the hum of activity resumed. Slowly, the lighting returned to normal, and her pupils had adjusted; she was in a fighter bay, but somewhere underground, and probably somewhere super-secret, like in the movies…. “Lieutenant. Logan.” Her head snapped to the captain. Yeah, she was ticked. “Yes, ma’am?” “Sergeant Murphy will be your escort while you are here.” She nodded to the young man whose hand was still out, waiting. “He will take you to our medical personnel and then to billeting.” “I don’t bite,” said Murphy, smiling. “Let’s get you settled in, make sure you’re okay, get you some chow. How about it?” “Uh… yeah, okay. Murphy?” Only when she took his hand did she realize how weak she was. Her legs were trembling, and getting out of the fighter would have been a major accomplishment if he hadn’t been there. “You can call me Tim,” he said with a congenial smile. “It’s a lot easier than Murphy.” * * * * * * * Kirel stepped out of the cockpit and slid down her side of the fighter, landing easily on the tarmac. “Walk with me,” she said as she handed her gloves and helmet to the crew chief. “How many are we?” “Close to four hundred by last count, Captain. More coming in every day, but we’re slow in vetting them.” He handed her a PADD, which she read through and signed, then passed back. “A lot of records were purged when they were declared persona non grata.” “Understandable. Where is my team?” “Deck 8, substrata.” "And Admiral Solokov?" "CnC, with Admiral Mulligan." “Thank you, Chief. Take good care of Drakkor. You might be interested in her upgrades. Have a look, but don’t touch.” “Of course, Captain. We’ll keep her secure.” Equidistant from Federation and Ferengi space, a small group of asteroids floats, tethered to each other by a fragmented planet’s gravitational field. There, in collaboration with the Federation and to their mutual benefit, the Ferengi Alliance built a commercial complex where several corporations developed and tested new technology. One asteroid used by a number of technology corporations was devoted to ASTech (/Aztec/), Air & Space Technology, the premiere developer of cutting-edge technology for military and civilian spacecraft. A variety of unmarked spacecraft, especially fighters and specialized small craft, came and went from their facility with ease. It was the perfect place to house the base known as Rendezvous October. Beneath a dome that furnished both atmosphere and security, ASTech’s corporate headquarters was nondescript. Beneath the storage and maintenance levels, and the ASTech corporate landing bays, was Rendezvous October, with coded access through the corporate bays. Here, Drakkor had landed, only one of many fighters and other craft used by operatives from the Allied Powers, chief among them being Starfleet Intelligence and the Tal Shiar. "Admiral Solokov." Kirel acknowledged the gray haired officer who turned as her escort admitted her to October’s Command and Control center. "Captain Chirakis," said Solokov, moving to greet her, then turning to gesture toward the others present. "You know Admiral Mullins of Federation Security,… Captain Raza of Starfleet Intelligence, Division 6,... and Riov t'Aldani of the Tal Shiar." "I do," she said, greeting each superior in turn before they resumed their business. “Any word from USS Vladivostok?" she asked. “Vladivostok?" A brow shot up as he gave it some thought. “Not that I am aware. She’s a science vessel, Oberth class, specially modified to explore areas of high radiation, stellar prominences, emission nebulae, that type of thing, so they are not usually in this area of space. There’s really no reason for them to contact us. Why do you ask?" "Twelve hours ago I rescued their operations officer, Lieutenant Madelyn Logan. She was drifting in space, in a cross-platform fighter, on a direct course to Aegis, to deliver this." She handed the data crystal to Solokov. “What kind of cross-platform?” the admiral queried, regarding the crystal. “A strange mix of technologies and a different hull configuration, with a Klingon-Romulan console.” His brow furrowed. “Go on.” “She said she did not know her destination, that Captain Belton had only given her some coordinates, gave her the data crystal, and ordered her to deliver it to the commanding officer at her destination, which, of course, would have been me. Sergeant Murphy, SI-5, is escorting her. He is expert in… casual interrogation through relaxed conversation.” The Admiral regarded the crystal again, lips tight, and gave a knowing nod. “In any event,” Kirel continued, “the information on the crystal may or may not have something to do with Argesil. However, if the Vladivostok is missing we might want to investigate.” “Of course. Lieutenant Kapar," Solokov turned toward a prominent display, "Get me the last known location of USS Vladivostok." "Yes, Admiral.” A few taps of the young man’s console brought a report onscreen. “Its last known location was…” he paged down, “...the outskirts of Nebula 236A. They were investigating signals in the nebula that were inconsistent with data they gathered a year ago, Admiral. Do you want me to go into the nitty-gritty and read the specifics of the science report?" "No, Lieutenant. When was that report filed?" "Six days ago, sir." “Is there any evidence of weapons fire or debris?" Kirel asked. Kapar swiveled to face her. "We can't detect weapons fire or debris at this distance, ma'am, but we haven’t received any reports from that area." Solokov turned the crystal over in his palm several times before handing it to Kapar as he spoke to Chirakis. “I'll let you know what we find." Aboard USS Missouri Three Days Later - Stardate 2388.012 Captain Je’rit d’Ka strode smoothly from Missouri’s command lift onto the bridge. “Commander Lei’ri, the conference room, now. Mr. Tan,” said d’Ka speaking to the operations officer, “call Colonel Anastis and Commander Grigori to the conference room immediately. Mr. Doland, continue on course. Mr. Tan, you have the conn.” A series of “Aye, sir,” followed the officers as they left the bridge, the door to the conference room closing swiftly behind them. “They have found the crew of USS Vladivostok,” d’Ka began as he rounded the conference table and tapped its top to engage the wall screen. Lei’ri’s expression brightened as he joined d’Ka at the screen, arms crossed to listen. “One of their crew escaped and delivered a datacrystal to Rendezvous October.” “October?” Lei’ri raised a brow. “Who on Vladivostok has October clearance?” “No one,” d’Ka replied. “According to the report, Captain Belton gave the crystal to their operations officer. She stole an alien craft, entered the coordinates the captain gave her, and left, not knowing where she was going or what was on the crystal. She was bound for Sky Harbor Aegis when her vessel lost all power, and she was rescued by Captain Chirakis. “Colonel. Commander.” D’Ka and Lei’ri turned to the opening conference room door. “Join us. We have an urgent mission.” The captain’s swipe along the tabletop opened several screens to show a remote area of space. “The crew of USS Vladivostok has been located on a remote nebular planetoid, here.” One screen zoomed in. "It is reported to be cold, but not uninhabitable, composed mostly of granite with little to no vegetation. We are presently en route to Valaria, but will change course within the hour and run silent at best speed for extraction. "The aliens…." Another screen took precedence. "....are believed to be humanoid. Head and face are always covered, reason unknown. We have no idea who they are, and know nothing of their capabilities or purpose, but we do know that they are technologically advanced and possibly hostile. "Their ship….” Several images filled the screen. "....is similar to the one we have been watching. However, the presence of older Federation craft, Romulan warbirds, and customized small craft are noted here, and here. Where these images were taken is unknown, so we will expect at least some craft to be on planet unless we hear otherwise in the next few hours. “Colonel Anastis, your Nightmares will conduct planetary reconnaissance and serve as overwatch and backup. Commander Grigori, your Banshees will move in to rescue. The nebula is dense and will not allow transporter use, so it will be a shuttle recovery. Missouri’s Crusaders will provide atmospheric cover. Missouri will stay within weapons range. Questions so far?" The two officers studied the screens, then gave a collective, “No, sir.” “Vladivostok’s crew numbered 128. Some are known to be dead, and some are severely injured. Pull all your medical personnel into the operation. Missouri’s medical will assist—from Peacekeepers if needed—but your teams should be prepared to carry the injured out. Get with your teams, formulate your plan, and coordinate with the squadron commander. Questions?” “Yes, Captain,” said Grigori, manipulating the planetary screen. “Do we have any more information on the planet, itself? Gravity, tectonic stability?” “What information we have on the planet and the crew’s exact location has been uploaded to your personal slates, but we will not rely on it. When we are in range, Cdr Stevenson in science will give us a more comprehensive assessment.” “Armaments? Ships in orbit?” asked Anastis. “Do we know where these images came from?” “In answer to your first, we know of no ships in orbit, but we will know when we arrive. As for the images, Vladivostok’s commanding officer, Captain Belton, furnished them.” Belton's image appeared onscreen. “They were in a file delivered by an escapee. Starfleet Intelligence has examined them and determined them to be genuine. As for armaments and orbital protection, we will learn more when we arrive.” Grigori’s frown deepened as he read through the information on his slate. “How long have they been there, Captain?” “Vladivostok entered that nebula for exploration over three weeks ago. And no,” d’Ka interjected, anticipating his question, “we do not know if they are alive, but until we have proof that they are dead, they are alive.” After a few moments of checking the screen and referring to their slates, the officers seemed satisfied. “ETA to the planetoid is five hours. You will be informed as soon as updates arrive. If there is nothing else, carry on.” A few minutes after the officers left found the Sindar captain and his Qr’var first officer staring at the closed conference room door. They remained there for several minutes, lost in thought. Finally, knowing the captain’s telepathic abilities, Lei’ri broke the silence. “Are they alive, Captain?” “Yes, ‘Ri,” he replied, his eyes becoming the deep purple of concern. “They are. But they may not be for long.” USS Vladivostok’s Planetoid 5 Days Later - Stardate 2388.017 Cdr Alex Worley Executive Officer, USS Vladivostok “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” ― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye Twilight melted into darkness as Cresta Sanchez watched the makeshift honor guard lay her husband next to the nine others who had died since the crew’s capture. When they withdrew, she knelt beside his body, but the tears that should have come did not. Frail as well as grief-stricken, she was wasting from a strange disease that threatened to run rampant through the crew unless Dr. Gardiner could stop it. After a few minutes, Commander Worley gently squeezed her shoulders, then helped her to a stand and led her back into the comparative warmth of the cave, away from her husband. The planetary sub-zero cold, made more bitter with sunset, would keep the body intact until they were rescued. Then he would receive the burial he deserved. They would drape his coffin with a Federation flag, render him full honors, and lay him to rest at home. Leave no one behind. Put your tears in a box. Lock them away. Turn your grief to determination. Survive. As soon as Worley had her settled, he returned to their temporary morgue, just shy of the cave’s entrance, where he could gaze across the wasteland, as barren and frozen as they were in time. His jaw set, he stared at the stars with a childlike hope: the belief that if he watched, if he thought hard enough and waited long enough, someone would come. Then, half believing that his thought was folly, he would remember the young operations officer, Madelyn Logan, who risked her life to save theirs, daring to believe she could escape and go for help. She made it, he told himself, beating back the doubt. He would not lose hope. They could take everything from him, even his life, but he would never lose hope. “Commander?” “Yes, Salak?” Worley half turned toward the astrophysicist. “Captain Belton wishes to see you.” Within the Vulcan’s stoic expression was an alarming hint of sorrow. Worley dashed down the slippery rock floor, stumbling a few times until he rounded the corner to the warmer area where most of the crew huddled. Jim Belton lay propped up with several blankets wrapped tightly around him, his face like wax, his eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, his lips blue, and parted for nothing more than shallow breaths. Stacey Gardiner, ship’s doctor, knelt next to him, choking back her emotions as she watched his vital signs fade. Catching his breath, Worley dropped down next to her as she shook her head. “He has the disease,” she whispered in his direction, fighting tears. “I don’t know what to do beyond holding his hand. His injuries…” she left off, swallowing back a deep pain Worley knew all too well. “One at a time, I could deal with it…,” she continued, pleading, “but his injuries…. He’s just too weak, Al. He’s just....” “It’s okay, Stace,” he whispered, squeezing her hand. “I’ll take it from here.” Rage Against the Darkness "Do not go gently into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night The rolling hills of New Zealand shone more vibrant than he remembered. The path was smoother, the grass more lush, fragrant, and full—if that were possible. The scent of new mown hay hung in the air, and hedgerow blossoms bowed, heavy with pollen and eager honey bees that darted to and fro, across the path he had wandered as a child. Herds grazed or basked in the late afternoon sun, soaking up the warmth of mid-summer, and he laughed. Here he was, making plans for the beach while the North American continent was suffering one of the worst winters in recorded history. He shouldn't laugh, he told himself. Then he laughed again. This day, this place, was perfect. Absolutely perfect. In the distance, one long blast signaled the ferry’s last departure for the mainland. From the top of the hill, Jim Belton watched it pull noiselessly away from the dock toward open ocean, Dace Lingo at the helm, maneuvering it with the intricate skill of a master helmsman. It would be a short trip, just shy of an hour. Three related families had purposely chosen this island for their herds and crops. “Close enough for convenience and far enough away for privacy,” his father always said. “Jimmy...." His mother’s call drifted uphill on the breeze. It triggered a ravenous appetite, and he checked his chronograph. Homemade sausage, mashed potatoes with fresh churned butter, sliced deep red tomatoes still warm from the sun, and rich, dark coffee was waiting. Belton hopped the hedgerow then jogged downhill toward the main house, still amazed at his mother’s vigor and the carry of her voice, despite her age. His father was the same: strong, determined, hard-working, and openly opinionated as to how his farm, the island, the country, and the Federation should be run. They were a hearty people. Their ancestors had settled this island somewhere in the mid 19th century, and countless generations had inhabited the house, additions built as family size demanded, and pastures widened according to need. “Tea’s ready,” said his mother as he bounded up the steps and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “I made your favorite for your homecoming. It is so good to have you home again, but c'mon now; we’ve waited long enough.” "So've I, Mum," he sighed, content. "So've I." Thankful that his arduous journey was finally over, Belton paused on the porch for a moment, then turned to watch the ferry disappear, and to inhale the crisp salt air. Only then did he notice dark clouds looming on the horizon. Coming from that direction at this time of year meant that it would not be an ordinary summer rain. In fact, it could be devastating. Heavy, black clouds choked the setting sun, billowed into the stratosphere and took ominous aim at the island, rolling across the water with uncommon speed, churning the waves into a witch’s cauldron and spewing foam onto the shore well before the crests reached land. Mesmerized, Belton ignored his mother's plea to come in, his eyes fixed on the storm’s apocalyptic advance. When he finally turned to lead her to safety, his hand smacked against a cold, dank wall, and the echo of a heavy drip… drip… drip came from somewhere behind him. His mother was gone, as was the house, the yard, the farm, and the roiling sea, replaced with a hell he barely remembered. A residual slime clung to his hands as he fumbled and slipped through the darkness, feeling for an exit, or at least a handhold, fighting against confusion, disorientation, and panic. Then came the stench, and the putrid taste of death on his tongue, trickling down his throat and raging throughout his body until a surge of adrenaline opened his eyes and he stopped cold. After several forceful blinks, his eyes focused on a strange creature kneeling beside him. One of its hands held his mouth closed, and the other stroked his head—much like a parent would a child—while it made a strange humming sound. A blanket swaddled his body, pinning his arms to his torso. Belton swallowed, then struggled to retch in the realization that the putrid taste of death was real, coming from a mass of decayed vegetation the creature had stuffed into his mouth. His chest heaved as he choked, trying to breathe, until the creature tilted his head enough to open the airway, just before he passed out. Belton awoke… several hours later? He wasn’t sure. Time didn’t seem to mean anything anymore. The creature was gone, along with whatever it had put into his mouth. But the taste was still there, like soaked deadfall from a hundred year old forest floor where some animal had left its mark long ago, and its droppings had made a sick infusion. “Jim? You’re awake?” said a hesitant voice beside him. Belton’s head lolled in that direction, but the darkness was nearly total. Still, he knew that voice… from somewhere... from another time, another place…. “Al?” Belton’s wide-eyed struggle ended as an emergency chemlight brightened the immediate area, lighting the face of his first officer, Alex Worley. “Jim?” Worley breathed, still uncertain, his expression a mix of confusion, hope, excitement, and incredulity. “Jim! You’re alive!” Belton stared a minute. “Yeah,” he said, “I think so.” Then another face joined them, but it took Belton a minute to recognize Stacey Gardiner, Vladivostok’s chief physician. “Captain!” she whispered in awe, her eyes darting from his to Worley’s and back. “What happened?” “Happened?” Belton thought a moment. “I have no idea.” Aboard USS Missouri 2 Days Later - Stardate 2088.019 0100 hours, mission relative Colonel Anastis and Commander Grigori flanked Captain d’Ka as a small, barren, ice-covered planet appeared on the forward viewscreen, hanging like a glistening gem against a backdrop of oblivion: an irreconcilable oxymoron. As planets go, it was on the low end of the spectrum, and perfect for a penal colony. That it was even found was puzzling, except for the abundance of heavy metals. But heavy metals abounded in other, more accessible and workable places, such as asteroids. Why this planet? “They haven’t done any mining,” mused the science officer with a shrug, “aside from one long tunnel where we’ve detected the life signs, there’s no evidence that they even explored.” “You are certain the crew is alive?” said d’Ka, pensive. “Not entirely, Captain. The mineral content is both blocking and creating echoes in our readings, which could falsify the results. But I would say there is a very good chance that they are alive.” “Temperature on the surface?” “Negative thirty one degrees Celsius, estimated to drop another ten degrees within the operation window. The wind is presently at 25.7 kph from the north, holding steady, well within the tolerance of the teams’ equipment.” A glance at his Special Operations officers for affirmation, and d’Ka nodded. “Very well. Colonel, Commander, the mission is yours,” he said, returning to the command chair. Onscreen, two Starfleet Special Operations elements in Arctic operations gear, left the safety of their runabouts and advanced in a moonless night against a cutting wind that whipped ice against their full-face visors and plastered their suits tight against their bodies as they leaned into it. Having landed in seclusion far from their objective, their ETA was well over an hour. Given the atmospheric conditions and disruption from the planet’s mineral content, they knew it could be much longer—possibly creeping into the range of two or three hours. One hour turned into two, and still the teams advanced, keeping constant contact with the ship for verification of their position. Temperatures continued to drop, but so did the wind, making progress easier. At 0352, their objective came into view, and they stopped to regroup. * * * * * Not far from the SPECOPS teams’ objective, Commander Worley stepped wearily down the narrow path that served the crew as a guide to their makeshift settlement within the cave. Three standard days would pass before dawn would break the horizon and the planet’s surface temperature would rise enough for them to survive outside the cave. Until then, they drew every blanket, emergency Mylar covering, and piece of clothing close. They huddled together in groups inside crude shelters made from rocks and the few packs they managed to bring from their ship. Then they slept, making the prolonged darkness easier to bear, and conserving what energy they had left. The commander made periodic rounds, praying they wouldn’t lose any more to cold, starvation, or disease. Captain Belton and the others who had been treated by the aliens seemed to be recovering. Doctor Stacey Gardiner’s hope that many of the crew would survive was tempered by their lack of nourishment. But survival hinged largely on will, so she wisely kept her thoughts to herself. “Stace,” said Worley as he squeezed into a space next to her. “You holding up okay?” “Um…” she replied listlessly. “As much as anyone can under these conditions. What are they doing out there?” “Piling crates against the walls, making the outlet smaller. I think they finally got the idea that we’re cold.” His tone and smile came off as more sardonic than lighthearted. “You don’t think they’re boxing us in?” “Oh, no. If they wanted to do that they’d use rocks, or maybe fuse the cave shut with… whatever those weapons are.” “Phasers? Disruptors?” Worley shrugged. “They don’t look like either. I think the name and nature’s up for grabs.” He hugged her close. “Warm enough?” “Warm as I’ll ever be, I guess.” * * * * * “Doghouse, this is Bulldog.” The call from SPECOPS unit commander Lt Ed Lytle came through clearly. “In position, how copy?” “Copy, Bulldog,” Grigori replied. “Copy is solid, but visual is limited. Do you have eyes on?” “Negative, Doghouse. Request you verify the position of the hostile.” The lieutenant’s voice held a tinge of confusion. “Transmitting now, Bulldog. Stand by,” Gregori replied as d’Ka pointed to his tactical officer. A few taps on his console, and Sojek looked up, puzzled and seemingly speechless. “Mr. Sojek?” d’Ka’s chair swiveled in his direction. "There is no sign of the alien ship, Captain, nor are there any life signs other than those below ground." D’Ka took a moment to process that. “Has Ramius detected any ships leaving the area?” he said, with not a little skepticism. “No, Captain. Their report clearly states that there is not even a residual emission trail. Also, both their tachyon detection grid and their graviton subspace field-current scanner show negative.” “Mr. Ellis?” He turned to the science officer. “As far as our scanners are concerned, there’s nothing there, Captain,” she replied, as puzzled as her Vulcan counterpart, “and there never has been.” D’Ka, Lei’ri, Gregori, and Anastis exchanged glances. “Watchdog, Doghouse. Do you have eyes on?” Anastis commed the recon team this time. “Doghouse, Watchdog. Negative.” “What do you see, Watchdog?” “Well, sir, a whole lotta blowing snow, ice, and rocks. HUD* shows nothing in the area, no evidence of landing, not even pod marks. We’ve been around the barn a few times, and, well, sir, there is no hostile evidence outside the cavern.” “Can you see anything inside from your position?” “Yes, sir. Ten frozen bodies, humanoid, Starfleet uniforms, and a bunch of boxes piled at the entrance with just enough opening to get in and out.” “What kind of boxes?” “They look like ‘Fleet supply boxes, sir. We would have to move in to verify the contents.” In answer to Anastis’ look, d’Ka said, “Proceed.” “Watchdog, Doghouse. Proceed with caution,” said Anastis, automatically looking up at the viewscreen. The images were barely visible, but their movement patterns, enhanced by the computer, would have to suffice. ______ *Heads Up Display * * * * * Aboard USS Missouri Stardate 2388.021 - 2 days later En Route to Aegis Although activity on the bridge of USS Missouri had settled to a normal pace, an undercurrent of apprehension veiled the atmosphere. Heavy. Palpable. A curtain of suspicion and fear that was disturbing enough to distract Captain d’Ka from reading the After Action Report he had just received from Commander Anastis. It was common knowledge that the remaining crew of USS Vladivostok had been rescued and were recovering in sick bay, and many had attended the ceremony for the ten who had been laid to temporary rest in the morgue. The cogs of the rumor mill were hungry. Feeding on observations and whispers, they eagerly ground them up and spit out enough fodder to fill the void for months. The minimal hiss and vague scent of mocha that drifted through the opening lift doors went ignored by Captain d’Ka while he continued to read, his expression grim. “Captain,” said Commander Lei’ri as he secured the captain’s mug in the command chair’s holder, “the replicator is still not sure of the formula, but a few in science are familiar with the herbs. Hopefully they fashioned something closer to the original.” “Um…” mused d’Ka continuing to read, “thank you, ‘Ri.” After a moment he looked up. “Any progress on the rumors?” “Department Chiefs are working on it,” Lei’ri replied, settling into his chair, coffee mug in hand. The captain’s brow knit, his lips pursed. “My ready room, Commander,” he said. “Mr. Sojek, you have the bridge.” The tactical officer’s acknowledgment was barely heard before the ready room doors closed and d’Ka strode across the room. “Working on it, is not enough, Commander,” he snapped, tossing the PADD on his desk where it clattered to a stop just short of the opposite corner. He stopped, took a moment, then forced a slow exhale. “Apologies, ‘Ri,” he said quietly, then turned to wave his executive officer into an easy chair before settling wearily into the other. “I feel everything on this ship… see everything... hear everything. It is the price I pay for agreeing to command a predominantly human starship.” He sighed, sensing his counterpart’s scrutiny, the Qr’var sensitivity on which he depended. “The rumors must stop, ‘Ri, and they must stop now. Do whatever you must to accomplish that.” “Yes, Captain.” “These alien beings are formidable,” d’Ka continued, “and the crew’s suspicions threaten to make them even moreso. Contrary to their belief, these aliens are not ‘omniscient,’ they are not ‘ethereal,’ they have no ‘supernatural powers,’ they cannot ‘poof into thin air,’ and they are not... ‘cannibals.’” His eyes flashed dangerously close to violet as he stared across the room. They sat for several minutes, the silence disturbed only by the gentle hum of Missouri’s engines. “Keann-aí,”* Lei’ri said finally. “Your anger is more than I have seen since Grathor. But it is not against the crew or the aliens, is it. There is something more, something deeper." "Yes,” he admitted after a long pause. “I rage against myself for waiting too long. Against Starfleet for not finding them sooner. Against the situation... against the universe... against creation itself.” A sadness crept into his expression, then a sardonic smile that vanished as quickly as it came. “I rage to control the grief. “Theirs was a senseless death, ‘Ri. They died out of their captor’s ignorance. Doctor Shazarim informed me that the crew did not lack the proper nutrition; they lacked the proper amount of nutrition. The beings tried to adjust both the substance and the quantity, but what they concocted was so revolting that most of the crew could not eat it without regurgitating. When Missouri entered the system the alien vessel left, but they left crates of Starfleet rations at the mouth of the cave.” The captain’s eyes searched the room. “Why, ‘Ri? Why did they wait? The food was there all along. The crew was starving. Why did they wait? “I can think of several reasons, Captain,” Lei’ri offered cautiously. “If they were ignorant of the humanoids’ needs, they could have been ignorant of the crates’ contents, unable to read the label, unable to understand that the contents were edible, or they removed the crates without looking at the contents and simply left them behind.” “Um,” d’Ka replied, the pangs of anger, grief, and helplessness subsiding, if only a little. “You are wise beyond your years, ‘Ri,” he said on a sigh, then straightened up. “Doctor Shazarim also confirmed that the fermented leaves the beings fed to Captain Belton and the others who fell ill saved their lives. That, in itself, speaks well of the alien culture. Commander Worley gave him samples that will be passed on to Dr. Pavilion. Aegis’ advanced medical and science facilities should be able to analyze them. “But back to the rumors. We have no evidence that these particular beings are here for a hostile takeover of Allied space. In fact, we have evidence to the contrary. What the crew of Vladivostok endured is inexcusable, but the beings did not kill them, nor did they torture them for information, nor did they act as hostile invaders in any other way. “However, if these rumors continue, the crew will soon be convinced that they are up against an unconquerable foe. They will shrink in a crisis, jump to conclusions, or mistake an amiable gesture for a hostile one. And if they do that, these formerly friendly beings will retaliate and become hostile. Deal with the rumors in any way you can, 'Ri, and do so quickly. You have free rein.” ______________ Keann-aí - the Sindar word for captain, used when showing great respect.