The Mysterious Case of Neelix's Lungs
Episode 1x3: "The Mysterious Case of Neelix's Lungs", by starswordc & worffan101
Rewrite of "Phage" (VOY 1x04)
Author's note, by StarSwordC:
I always felt the Vidiians were criminally underused compared to the Kazon. Here we have a perfect lens through which to look at a species on the verge of extinction, the lengths people will go to in their desperation to survive. It's much like how Deep Space Nine showed us what the Federation is willing to do when pressed, no matter their pretensions to being "more highly evolved". It's why I voted for the Vidiians over the Krenim when Star Trek Online had a poll going over which Delta Quadrant race we wanted to see in Delta Rising. (On a side note, I suspect the Krenim won that poll because people wanted a Krenim lockbox. Oh well.)
And yet Berman and Braga decided that a race that tried to be threatening but inevitably came off as the Star Trek equivalent of the Three Stooges were more compelling as villains, and the Vidiians were reduced to a one-note caricature and then had their arc dropped and wrapped up offscreen. We aim to fix that.
Main and recurring cast:
Gul Aman Evek, CO CDS Vetar: Richard Poe.
Acting Dalin Hogue Marritza, tactical officer, CDS Vetar: Eric Etebari
Gil Kalar, operations officer CDS Vetar: Sean Maher.
Glinn Emil Tarak, security chief CDS Vetar: Nathan Fillion.
Glinn Nirymer, CMO and chief therapist CDS Vetar: Murphy Guyer.
Gil Daran Taril, helmsman CDS Vetar: Alan Tudyk.
Glinn Alina i'Kevratas t'Aimne, sensor officer CDS Vetar: Morena Baccarin.
Gil Kerani Ocett: Gina Torres.
Captain Veronica Stadi, CO USS Voyager: Alicia Coppola.
Commander Tuvok, XO USS Voyager: Tim Russ.
Lieutenant Harry Kim, operations chief USS Voyager: Garret Wang.
Lieutenant Commander T'Pai, CMO USS Voyager: Aly Michalka
Lieutenant Lyndsay Ballard, ChENG USS Voyager: Kim Rhodes.
Lieutenant Kepa Ayala, security chief USS Voyager: Tarik Ergin.
Lieutenant Emergency Medical Hologram, deputy CMO USS Voyager: Robert Picardo.
Lieutenant JG B'Elanna Torres, deputy ChENG USS Voyager: Roxanne Dawson
Ensign Tom Paris, helmsman/tactical officer USS Voyager: Robert Duncan McNeill.
Crewman Celes Tal, sensor chief, USS Voyager: Zoe McLellan.
Ensign Samantha Wildman, chief xenobiologist USS Voyager: Nancy Hower.
Chief Warp Core Engineer Seska Harani, reactor chief, USS Voyager: Martha Hackett
Security Officer, Second Class Ivrahanla sh'Phohlhi, noncom, USS Voyager: Vanessa Angel
Security Officer, Third Class Peter Durst, noncom, USS Voyager: Brian Markinson
Neelix: Ethan Phillips.
Kes: Jennifer Lien.
Dereth: Cully Fredricksen.
Motura: Stephen B. Rappaport.
Deep Space, Delta Quadrant
Federation Stardate 48532.4 (13 May 2371 Earth Standard)
Cardassian Unified Date 4701.7.15/44
"Alright," said Neelix cheerfully, loading the last dishes of Terran-style macaroni and cheese pasta into the makeshift buffet bar. "Dig in!"
"Wait!" said Lieutenant Kim, holding up his plate and utensils before the lunchtime scrum could begin. "Let's first remember who made us this! Macaroni, Talaxian-style salad, and what should be a good approximation of Tellarite stew—let's have a big round of applause for our chef, our hydroponics chief, and their helpers!"
The men and women behind Harry cheered, clapping and cheering as Neelix modestly thanked them and his helpers, four women who had been rescued from the Kazon on Ocampa Prime, smiled cautiously.
"Let's eat!" shouted Paris, and who was Harry to deny that charming voice?
"Let's! Here, Wildman, you go first, you look starving."
"Thanks, Lieutenant," said the xenobiologist gratefully, taking Harry's spot in front of the pasta. "I've been starving the last couple of days, and I haven't been able to eat my normal dinner; everything's just tasted odd, and I can't really replicate different things with the replicators on rationing."
"Sorry to hear that. Stew?"
"Oh, no, I can't—it smells… I can't."
"Alright, then, to each his or her own. Hey, more for the rest of us, right?"
Wildman laughed at that, loading her plate with a massive amount of pasta and very little salad.
"Morning, Lieutenant," said Ayala politely, taking Harry's just-vacated spot at the stew. "Or afternoon, really."
"Afternoon, Ayala. Call me Harry."
"Harry, then. Damn, this stew looks nice and chunky—just the way I like it."
"Wildman seemed to think it smelled funny."
"Really?" The big man lifted his bowl to his chin and smelled it. "Seems fine to me. A bit spicy, maybe."
"Yeah. She mentioned this morning that she was going to sickbay later for nausea."
"Damn, that's no fun," said Ayala as they walked over to a table. "How's that pasta?"
Harry took a bite and chewed slowly. "S'good. Bit spicy."
"Spicy?" chuckled Ayala. "Well, let's try the stew."
He took a sip, and his eyes bulged out.
"Ayala? Are you—"
"HOT!" Ayala screamed, grabbing his glass of water and draining it in one giant gulp. "Damn, there's a lot of spice in there!"
"Is there a problem?" said Neelix, hurrying up with a worried expression.
"Uh, yeah," said Harry, as Ayala rushed off to refill his glass. "There's just a bit too much spice in the stew for Ayala, apparently."
"Ah," said Neelix. "Thank you; I suppose that Humans must not like their spices?"
Harry shook his head. "I grew up on this—my family's originally from Korea and Grandma's Vietnamese." Neelix looked at him uncomprehendingly and Harry mentally kicked himself and explained, "Regions on my homeworld's eastern continent. Anyway, it might be a bit much for the other humans aboard, not to mention the Andorians and Vulcanoids."
"Good to know," said Neelix. "Attention, everyone! Um, my apologies, but the stew seems to be a little overly spicy. I'll cut some of the spice out of the recipe for later, but for now I must advise you to get something else to eat if you have sensitive taste buds. I hope that this isn't too inconvenient, and that you enjoy the rest of your meals!"
"Scans are back, sir," said Crewman Celes. "We are detecting what appear to be dilithium deposits on a nearby planetoid."
"Good," said Stadi. "We can get some surplus drive crystals. How far away is it?"
"Three hours at warp 8."
"Good, right in between breakfast and lunch. Stadi to Evek. We have detected a dilithium signature on a nearby planetoid. Sending you the coordinates now."
"Evek here, Stadi. It looks promising to me; Taril, set a course."
"Course laid in, sir," said Paris from the helm station.
"Let's go," said Stadi.
"It's fine, Neelix," said Ayala with a smile. "It's fine food, just spicy."
"I'm so sorry," worried Neelix. "I hate to serve subpar food. Are you sure that you don't need me to make you something quickly?"
"Nah, it's fine. I don't mind spice that much, I just like a little warning," chuckled the security chief, cleaning his plate and sucking down a hefty glass of replicated milk to dull the capsaicin.
"I see," said Neelix, somewhat reencouraged. "Well, if you have any complaints, please, do not hesitate to bring them to me."
"Needs a bit more salt," Seska Harani, a dark blonde Bajoran from Ayala's old crew, now the reactor chief, said of the pasta.
Neelix jogged over to the counter and got her a shaker. "Want more milk, Mr. Ayala?"
"I'm good, thanks," said Ayala with a smile. His combadge chimed. "Hang on—Ayala here."
"This is Captain Stadi. We have detected a dilithium signature on a nearby planetoid. We're heading there to pick up some spare drive crystals; at warp 8, we should arrive in three hours."
"Yes, sir. I'll have a team ready to help."
"Something wrong?" asked Harry, finishing off his macaroni.
"Eh," grimaced Ayala. "It's just a pain since none of my men have training in mining; we normally just steal stuff from Cardassian ships, and Starfleet has starbases to refuel. Hey, Neelix! You know anything about dilithium mining?"
"Just the basics," shouted the Talaxian across the mess hall. "I can't run anything more complicated than a one-man laser drill. Spent two years in a Haakonian internment camp for smuggling before I went straight. What do you need?"
"Are you free in three hours for about… an hour? Maybe a little more?"
"Um…" said Neelix. "It'll be close, time-wise. I can shake up the menu and make something with replicated greens—a salad or something, maybe even a sandwich dish."
"Right, we'll try to keep it short; it's just we're arriving at a planetoid in three hours to mine some dilithium for spare drive crystals. If you could help us with the laser drills…"
"Of course!" smiled the Talaxian. "I'm always happy to help."
Lieutenant Emergency Medical Hologram's AI program was a quite pleasant and caring person, despite his prickly personality. And, like any good doctor, he always put his patients first.
"Hormone levels are slightly abnormal," he said, his photons-and-forcefields avatar holding a medical tricorder. "With your permission, Ensign, I will perform a full scan."
"Yes, please," said Ensign Wildman, who still looked a little queasy.
"Excellent. Just sit here on the biobed, please."
"Where is Doctor T'pai, anway?"
"Training session. She's learning telepathic therapy. Well… well, well, well!"
"What?" asked Wildman, somewhat concerned.
"Congratulations," said Lieutenant EMH. "You're pregnant, Ensign. Looks like a perfectly normal embryo so far. Lie down, please."
"I'm what?" asked Wildman, lying down. The doctor closed the biobed's hinged sides and tapped at its console.
"Pregnant," said the hologram tersely. "Looks like… Human/Ktarian hybrid."
"Yeah, that'll be my husband Greskrendtregk. Damn. 70,000 light-years from home and pregnant."
The doctor ignored his patient's complaints. "I am not familiar with the developments of such hybrids, but given Ktarian biology I would expect relatively slow development. Seems stable and healthy. Cranial anatomy is unusual but not problematic. I want you to come back in two weeks for a follow-up, and to avoid being hit in the abdomen."
"Um…" said Ensign Wildman, who was not reassured by the hologram's matter-of-fact delivery.
"I will prescribe some prenatal vitamins, and ensure that you do not need to use your replicator rations to procure them. I also have some recommended dietary data on file…"
The door to Sickbay hissed open, and ChENG Ballard hauled Ensign Paris through.
"Doc!" shouted Ballard. "This numbskull tried to hit on my second and she broke his nose!"
"Over here!" snapped Lieutenant EMH, prepping a biobed and sending a command to the Sickbay replicators for an analgesic and an anesthetic.
"Beautiful," muttered Paris, his dopey expression only enhanced by the pancake in place of his nose. "God-damn beautiful. Ow! That hurts!"
"Yeah, should've thought of that before you told her she had nice tits, jackass," said Ballard without a trace of sympathy as the EMH swatted at Paris's hands.
"Calm down, you fool!" complained the EMH, trying to hold the Ensign still so that he could work on fixing the fractured nasal bone. "Ballard, can you stop him from interfering?"
"Want me to stun him, sir?" Paris' eyes widened.
"I think that to prevent re-injury, he should remain conscious during this operation. But if he continues to struggle, I would not be averse to a judicious use of a phaser." The EMH jammed a hypospray into Paris' jugular.
"Darn,"said Ballard, grabbing Paris's hands and pinning them to his chest.
"What the hell happened?" Wildman asked, sitting up.
"Asshole was off-duty, hanging around the lounge trying to pick up women. Torres told him to beat it unless he wanted to get a Klingon woman to the face. He told her that'd be pretty fun, et cetera. Took three of us to pull her back, and she still broke his nose and maybe even a rib."
"Yes, one of his ribs has a hairline fracture," said Lieutenant EMH with a certain degree of smugness. "Honestly, pilots… they never care about their health! Worse than captains, even!"
"I think I'm in love," Paris murmured to no one in particular.
"… Aaaaaaaand break," said Nirymer. Stadi groaned as she stood and stretched.
"That was interesting," she remarked as T'pai stood alongside her. "I'm glad we got that in before reaching this planet."
"Indeed, it was most illuminating," said T'pai calmly.
"Okay, post-mortem," said Nirymer, trotting back from the door. "Stadi, you're still keeping your mind rather closed-off. Now, we all have bits that we like to keep private, but I want you to try to open it up a little more. T'pai, your control is good, but you're falling into the classic Surakian trap at times; emotions must sometimes be worked through, not suppressed. Now, that was a perfectly decent stab at a basic dampening by both of you. For the next exercise I want—"
"All hands, all hands, this is Gul Evek," the intercom interrupted. "Assume combat readiness. We will be exiting warp at our target site in five minutes. Dalin Marritza to CIC. Evek out."
"Hold that thought," Stadi said with a smile.
Nirymer gave her what looked like it was supposed to be a long-suffering grimace, although the Lethean's tusks sort of ruined the effect. "We'll take it up tomorrow."
"Establishing standard orbit, Captain," Paris reported from the conn, his hands flying across the board. Stadi wondered why his nose was so red.
"Beginning detail scan," Celes added from sensors. "All right, uh… Huh, that's weird. Decent-size cavern in the middle of a dilithium deposit, coordinates 55 by 107, 300 meters below the surface. Also reading a breathable oxy-nitro atmosphere, though it's little thin."
"Ayala, is your team ready?" Tuvok asked.
"Yes, sir," the security chief answered from the transporter room. "Evek's security man said that he's sending Gil Ocett and her squad in case we need more hands. Neelix is going to help us with the drills, since he has some mining experience."
"Good. You may proceed. Tuvok out."
"Alright," said Ayala. "Now that we've got these laser drills working, split up. Wherever your tricorder detects a dilithium signature, get it out. We're going to need a lot of spare drive crystals for this little trip."
"I'll take Neelix, Katar, and Hartman down this passage," said Ocett. "You going to be okay with those two, Ayala?"
"Yeah, we can cover enough ground. Alright, people, try to stay in sight of each other; scans showed no native wildlife, but accidents happen."
"More to the point, something's gotta be generating this atmosphere," Petty Officer al-Jabiri added, adjusting the sight on his phaser rifle for the umpteenth time.
"Yeah, that too. If you find out what's made this place habitable… try not to shoot it," said Ayala. "If it's a sentient, don't attack unless it does. And if it's a machine left here alone, call it in, and definitely don't touch it or damage it. I was on a station once when they turned off the atmo by mistake. Almost everyone lived, but those were not a fun six hours. The numb-nuts responsible never worked again, either. Oh, and everyone double-check your emergency breathers, too."
"Now that you've sucked all the fun out of our sort-of shore leave…" chuckled Ocett. "Alright, campers, let's get moving!"
"Rekkhai," reported Alina t'Aimne from the Vetar's sensor station. "I'm getting an unusual energy signature. Celes on Voyager says she's getting it as well."
"Show me," ordered Gul Evek, coming over to the Romulan's console.
"Here, sir. Looks like some tau-neutrino emissions… single-point source, sir. Hard to pin down the exact location but it looks like there's something there."
"Interesting. That could mean some form of sensor masking."
"Maybe the Kazon stole some actual functioning brains," Hogue Marritza deadpanned from the gunnery station.
"Perhaps," said Evek as t'Aimne covered a bark of laughter with a hacking cough. "Taril, take us in towards those neutrino emissions, nice and easy."
"Yes, my Gul," Taril said as he eased the Vetar towards the emissions at one-quarter impulse.
"Emission source is moving!" t'Aimne reported. "I still can't pin down its exact location but it looks to be moving around half impulse…"
"A cloaked ship," surmised Evek. "Taril, notify Voyager and sound general quarters. We may have a problem…"
"Stadi to Evek!"
"Evek here, what is it?"
"We just beamed back the mining team! Something tried to kill Neelix, he's badly injured from what Ayala said."
"Evek to Ocett! What happened?"
"Something stole his lungs, my Gul! I'm in Voyager's infirmary right now, he can't breathe!"
"Sorry, Ocett," Marritza sent disbelievingly, "I think your transmission came through garbled. I heard 'something stole Neelix's lungs'."
"Confirm, sir! Something transported his lungs right out of his body!"
Precisely one minute previously, Neelix had been scouting the cave network on the planetoid with Ocett's team, when he had seen a short side-passage.
"Sir, there's a bit of a cave here. I'll check it out, no need to wait."
"Good man," said Ocett. "Hartman, I want you to stay here and check the ceiling while Katar and I scout ahead.
"Yessir," said Hartman as the Cardassians moved off.
Neelix moved in to the little cavern/short passage. Odd—it looked almost artificial, despite the rock formations and stalactites.
Neelix shrugged off his suspicions. It was just a barren planetoid, after all, and not claimed by any species he knew of. The cave showed up as empty of dilithium deposits to his tricorder, so he turned to leave…
and then suddenly he couldn't breathe; he tried to gasp, to suck in a breath, but all he got was a horrible, wet, burning gurgle as blood and interstitial fluid rushed up through his trachea.
Neelix caught a faint glimpse of somebody rounding the corner in front of him as he collapsed half in and half out of the main passageway, his tricorder clattering on the ground. Hartman spun, then cursed and slapped his combadge.
"Crewman Hartman to Voyager, medical emergency! Neelix has been injured! Requesting emergency beamout!"
"Talk to me, Lieutenant," said Lieutenant Commander T'pai, yanking down the blouse of her scrubs.
"Commander," said the EMH. "Mr. Neelix appears to have had his lungs removed via means that I cannot identify. I have him on a blood-gas infuser, and am programming a basic set of cybernetic lungs into the replicator." He panned a tricorder over the Talaxian and snatched a hypospray off a shelf. "40 cc's of tri-ox compound!" he barked to the drug dispenser.
"Good. We will install the artificial lungs, and then set up a collagen matrix to build a new live pair from Neelix's stem cells."
"Standard procedure, understood," said the EMH with a sharp nod.
"NEELIX!" screamed Kes, bursting through the doorway. "I heard you were hurt, I came as soon as I—Oh, no!"
"Stay back," said Ocett gently, grabbing the Ocampa woman and pulling her back as gently but firmly as she could. She felt Kes stiffen, and relaxed her arms. "Just stay back and let the doctors work. Federation medical science is the best in the galaxy. Neelix will be fine." I hope, she added to herself, but she didn't say it aloud.
"Get me a morphine drip and general anesthesia, now," snapped T'pai, calm and collected as ever.
"On it," said Lieutenant EMH, his AI replicating an IV and a bag of morphine solution.
"What happened to him?" asked Kes in horror.
"Some vole-fucker transported his lungs right out of his body," hissed Ocett. "They're going to implant an artificial pair, and then replace them with a pair grown from his stem cells in a couple of months."
"Will he die?"
"It remains a distinct but highly unlikely possibility," said T'pai, checking a laser scalpel quickly. "Gil, please remove the bystanders from Sickbay. Hartman and Kes may watch from the medical office if they wish to do so."
"Yessir. Come on, let's minimize the distractions they have to deal with. Computer, seal biohazard doors behind us."
"Reading v-fib!" snapped the EMH as Ocett pulled the Human and Ocampa out of the operating theatre; the doors slid shut and clicked locked behind them. "He's going into cardiac arrest! Hold the surgery, sir, we need to restart his heart."
"Proceed," said T'pai, stepping back immediately. The EMH grabbed two defibrillator leads from the underside of the biobed.
"Two! One! Mark!" He pressed the paddles to the comatose Talaxian's chest, and electricity hissed. "V-fib's still there… two, one, mark!"
Electricity arced again.
"Normal heartbeat restored."
"Excellent," said T'pai. "Are the artificial lungs prepared?"
"Here, sir." The EMH held up a rather complicated set of electronic lungs.
"Good. Opening the chest cavity."
T'pai activated her laser scalpel, cutting into the dying man's chest. "Suction." The EMH dipped a vacuum wand into the mess of liquid while T'pai carefully removed several segments of Neelix's ribs and placed them on a sterile tray.
"No signs of trauma; patient's lungs have been removed without a trace. Trachea shows a clean cut. Impossibly clean, in fact: I suspect some form of transporter technology. Viscera have moved to fill the space. Implant."
T'pai carefully held the more important organs off to the sides of Neelix's chest cavity, then slid the artificial lungs in, followed rapidly by a power cell. "Power supply charged."
"All systems reading green, sir."
"Grafting implant to trachea. Lieutenant, hook up the pulmonary vessels to the lungs and activate the cellular stimulators, now."
"Yessir," said Lieutenant EMH. "Tracheal graft reading green."
T'pai faintly heard the sickbay's outer door slide open behind the biohazard seal. "Activating startup cycle in five, four, three, two, one, mark."
"Initial cycle has activated. Sensors reading gas transfer rates in the green."
"Synch with the patient's neural net."
"Synching now… systems reading green… green… We are clear! The device is synched with the neural net, adjusting the stimulation to pump some extra oxygen in—"
"That can be done remotely. Ribs."
"Here, sir," said Lieutenant EMH, passing the ribs over one by one. T'pai sealed them in place with bone-knitters and started closing the incision from top to bottom.
"Prep the biobed for monitoring. Close the hinges when I've sealed the incision."
T'pai ran a dermal regenerator over the last layer of skin over the wound, having finished the muscle and lower skin layers. "Close the biobed and program it to monitor for brain damage and repair the muscular fascia while the patient is in the coma. Time elapsed?"
"Fifteen minutes, sir. Well done."
She walked away from the biobed and stripped her gloves, coat, and mask, dropping them in a recycler. "Captain," she said, greeting Stadi, who stood just inside the doors.
"Commander. Is our guide stable?"
"Yes, for now. We will replace the implant with lungs grown from his stem cells at a later date."
"Good. Thank you, T'pai, I knew I could count on you."
"What was it that removed Neelix's lungs? I have never encountered technology like that before."
"No idea, but Evek found a cloaked ship in orbit. They made a run for it less than five minutes after Neelix was attacked. Vetar is pursuing now, and I have security teams sweeping the cave system."
"Ayala to Captain Stadi," crackled through the Betazoid's combadge.
"Sir, you're going to want to come down here. We found a cave. There's some equipment here and what looks like an alien medical lab."
"On my way." Stadi stormed out of sickbay, headed for the ship's armory.
"Marritza, distance to target," Evek requested.
"Five astronomical units and closing," the tactical officer answered. "Overhaul in four minutes, twenty seconds. T'Aimne, any luck penetrating their cloak?"
"Ie, rekkhai. It's much cruder than we use in the Galae s'Shiar Rihan. Roughly equivalent to what we had a century ago. I've got a good lock on her warp drive and a rough idea of her capabilities. Heavy frigate mass at best by our standards, roughly the equivalent of an Amarcan-class warbird in terms of power."
Evek gave her a look. "Not familiar to me."
"Sorry, possibly before your time. Um, maybe a Steamrunner-class Federation starship?"
"Ah. That one I know. Larger than a frigate but not a proper cruiser, either. Marritza, prepare disruptors, strike to disable shields, weapons, and engines. Evek to Tarak!"
"Tarak here, my Gul."
"Get a squad to the transporter room, you'll probably be needed for boarding action."
"Yessir, on my way."
"My Gul," the gil at communications announced, "message from Voyager."
"Onscreen." The dark-haired Betazoid captain appeared on the screen, black eyes glistening with anger. "What do you have for us, Captain Stadi?"
"Apparently there was never any dilithium on that planetoid to begin with."
"What? But the signals—"
"Allow me to rephrase," Tuvok said from behind Stadi. "The crew of the ship we pursue did have a dilithium-based matter/antimatter reactor on-site, but the bulk of the signals were fake, produced by signal generators. They were likely meant to lure others to the planetoid."
"For what purpose?" Marritza asked.
"We found a large cache of humanoid organs and tissue from over two dozen species in a hidden room off one of the main passages," Stadi growled. "Do the math."
"Be advised, that ship likely has very good electronic countermeasures," Tuvok added. "The technology involved is possibly better than even Starfleet or Romulan designs. Be careful, or they will have you firing at shadows."
"We'll join you when we can," Stadi finished. "We're about half an hour behind you. Do me a favor, Gul Evek?" The Cardassian raised an eyebrow. "Leave some for me. Those bastards nearly killed one of my crew."
"Understood, Captain. I shall endeavor to oblige you. Vetar out."
"Organ traders, rekkhai?" t'Aimne suggested. "We know the Delta Quadrant's replicator technology is far behind your government's."
"A good theory," Gil Kalar agreed. "But, uh… Okay, granted, I mostly only know battlefield first aid, but I think it would take a very good understanding of immunology to transplant organs between multiple species."
"So," Evek summarized, "we're dealing with a species with a very advanced knowledge of medicine and electronic warfare, but no replicators—"
"Or nothing medical-grade at least," Kalar interrupted.
Evek acknowledged with a tilt of his head. "—and potentially a couple decades behind us in terms of ship design." He tapped his fingers absently on the arm of his command chair. "Odd combination of traits, wouldn't you say?" There was a muted chorus of agreement from the bridge crew.
"Approaching extreme firing range, sir," Marritza announced. Then, more urgently, "They're dropping cloak! Reading shields coming online!"
"Forward torpedoes. Fire two shots across his bow and give me a hailing channel."
"Firing, fore tubes." A pair of photon torpedoes shrieked out of the dual torpedo tubes on the leading edge of the Vetar's fin, warp sustainer engines kicking in and carrying them across the gap, past the ship. Two momentary stars flashed into existence and were just as quickly quenched by the vacuum.
"This is Gul Aman Evek of the Cardassian Fourth Order to unidentified starship," he spoke into his microphone. "You are ordered to drop to sublight and prepare to be boarded. Next time we fire for effect."
He waited. "No resp—Wait, possible aspect change in target," Marritza said. "They're changing course, headed for a dwarf planet in the Oort cloud of that blue supergiant."
"Close to disruptor range and target his warp drive. Status on Voyager?"
"They're gaining on us but we'll get there first."
The two ships continued their breakneck pursuit, with Marritza calling out the range. "Entering extreme disruptor range."
"Raise forward shields. Lock onto his starboard nacelle with the main spinal mount. Fire in five, four, three, two, one, now!"
A golden-yellow stream of particles lanced out from below the CIC, ripping through the Vetar's warp field and jumping the distance to the fleeing ship in an eyeblink. "They barely felt that one, sir," reported Marritza. "Minimal damage to the starboard nacelle. Wait, target is slowing. They're dropping to sublight!"
Daran Taril wordlessly crash-translated the Vetar below c and the fish-like starship wheeled in space after its prey, making a beeline for an isolated dwarf planet a couple hundred kilometers wide. Marritza fired again and reported damage to their shields.
"Why aren't they shooting back?"
"I have no idea, sir. Targeting their impulse drive—Shtel! They just ducked into a cavern. Shall I pursue?"
"Get after them, Taril."
"Getting after them, sir." The Trill swung the ship into the narrow gap, standing it "up" on one fin to fit through.
"Mind the paint, Gil, and bring the rear shields up. T'Aimne, do you have a sensor lock?"
"No, sir; they've reactivated their cloak and the interior of the asteroid's reflecting everything I try with active scanners."
"Ie. Looks like whatever it is is bouncing particle and EM scans right back off."
"My Gul!" Marritza shouted. "Reading a serious energy drain in shield control! We'll lose shields in thirty seconds or less!"
"Marritza, I have an idea. Put the shield power to maximum, then open fire with all of the weapons at minimum power in every direction. At that power level and with the shields up, we won't be damaged, but—"
"—we'll be able to pinpoint and target the alien ship! Brilliant, sir!"
"Oldest trick in the book, when you know you've got a cloaked ship trapped but you don't know where. Just light up the immediate vicinity. Ready?"
The disruptors pulsed in every direction, and ray after ray of blazing light reflected back and forth across the asteroid's interior, bouncing off of Vetar's shields to little effect…
And slamming into the cloaked ship, dealing little damage but lighting it up as clear as day on Vetar's sensors.
"Target engines and shields with all disruptors! Open fire!"
Golden lances of light spat from the dorsal gun battery and the spinal mount, hammering into the target. A secondary explosion punched back out of the cloak, which quickly dropped. The enemy vessel came hard about and Marritza fired again as it rocketed over their heads so close he could see the hole in the side of the hull with the naked eye.
"Come about!" Evek ordered. "Get a tractor beam on him!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying! His ECM's too good! I can't get a lock!"
"Taril, by Cardassia, get after him!"
"He's making a run for the entrance!"
Marritza fired again and again. T'Aimne shouted, "Their shields are down to twenty percent—strike that, they're diverting power aft!"
The lights dimmed briefly. "We're losing our shields!" Kalar cried.
And now the enemy ship fired. A blue-white bolt, like controlled lightning, erupted from the target and crashed into the starboard fin. The CIC shook and Kalar announced a hull breach in the crew lounge. "Nobody in there, fortunately! But we've got a malfunction in the main computer! It was some kind of ion cannon meant to take out our electrics!"
"They're approaching the entrance!" t'Aimne called out frantically.
"We're starting to lose engine power!"
Then a splotch of pale gray appeared on the monitor, still staticky from the enemy attack, and orange lances of light smashed into the enemy ship's unprotected bow.
Voyager had arrived at last.
"Their forward shields are down," Crewman Celes called to Stadi. "Reading two humanoid life-forms aboard!"
"Lock transporters and beam them directly to the brig."
"Transport commencing!" Kim confirmed.
"Paris, get a tractor beam on that ship. Mr. Ayala, prepare a boarding party to go over, make sure there aren't any surprises left."
"Kim, Tuvok, grab your weapons. You're with me." She hit the intercom key. "Security team to the brig. Unknown alien hostiles in Number Two."
The comm system chimed. "Captain Stadi, this is Gul Evek. Your timing is impeccable."
"You're welcome. Any casualties?"
"Not this time, fortunately. I'm heading off the bridge to supervise damage control."
"Understood; I'll let you know if I need anything."
A turbolift ride and a trip to the armory later, and they were outside the brig with five heavily armed goldshirts. Ayala even had on a dark gray combat vest he'd found somewhere, with a dozen stun grenades dangling from it. Stadi looked on in bemusement. "Ayala, we're interrogating prisoners, not occupying a planet. Isn't that overkill?"
One of the other goldshirts, Durst, she thought his name was, snorted. "Captain, there's no such thing as 'overkill'."
"Yeah, there's only 'open fire' and 'I need to reload'," Ayala agreed.
Tuvok raised one Vulcan eyebrow, but remained silent. "Clearly you two were Maquis for too long," Stadi remarked. "All right, let's get this over with. Durst, take point. Three, two, one, go." She hit the door panel and they rushed into the room, phasers ready.
"We surrender," said one of the aliens glumly, holding his hands in the air. Both were humanoid, but their flesh… it was mottled, rotted, like a piece of spoiled meat, the eyes bloodshot, the nose and mouth lumpy masses of ruined flesh. The taller one had no ears, gaping, putrescent holes in their places.
"Madre de Dios," Ayala breathed. "What the hell are you?"
"I am Motura," the shorter humanoid introduced. "This is my honatta Dereth."
"We are citizens of the Vidiian Sodality," Dereth added.
Stadi hit her combadge. "Stadi to sickbay. Is Neelix awake yet?"
"Yes, Captain," T'pai answered.
"Ask him if he's ever heard of a 'Vidiian Sodality'. They're the guys who stole his lungs."
"Yes, sir," T'pai replied.
"Frisk 'em," Ayala ordered, shaking off his surprise.
Two of the security men moved up and patted them down. "I'm Captain Veronica Stadi, of the United Federation of Planets Starship Voyager."
"They were each carrying one of these, sir," Petty Officer sh'Phohlhi said, holding up a blue-black object the size of a phaser pistol.
"Tuvok, what do you make of it?" asked Stadi.
The Vulcan caught the strange implement as the Andorian passed it to him and pointed it at the ground. "I am uncertain," he remarked, scanning it with his tricorder. "It resembles a tricorder, but there appears to be a miniature transporter in the body of the device; these needle-like implements seem to be a targeting system. I believe that these are the controls. It appears to have a computer core in the pommel; I surmise that it is designed to automatically target and beam out organs from a body."
"Yes," said Dereth. "It sends them to a secure lockbox, which we keep on-site; when a Vidiian needs a transplant, we take the box, link it up to a device, and beam the new organ in. It's mostly automatic."
"Monstrous," one of the other petty officers growled.
"You think I wanted to steal organs?" cried Dereth. "Before the Phage claimed me and my family, I was an author on the homeworld! I wrote fantasy novels and children's books! The Phage claimed two of my children, my mother, six of my cousins—every Vidiian could tell you a similar story; we're desperate! It's been two thousand years since the first case, and now more than eighty percent of our population has it, despite our best isolation measures, treatment attempts, and so-called cures. The infected population grows every damn day, and our people are a shadow of what we once were! It's evaded every single attempted cure or treatment that we've thrown at it! It eats organs like acid! We don't like using live people's organs; we try to get recent cadavers, but there just isn't always time—"
"So you value your lives before those of others?" snapped Ayala as the door slid open. Stadi checked over her shoulder; it was T'pai, holding a PADD. Stadi accepted it; it was a set of notes on what Neelix had said about the Vidiian Sodality.
The Vidiian, Dereth, stopped, turned towards Ayala, opened its mouth, shut it, and collapsed backwards onto the holding cell's bench.
"Yes," whispered the Vidiian. "I do. We all do. You hate us for taking organs from live subjects? You think we have no justification? I do it because I've seen people killed, families torn apart, states broken, hell, half the Sodality practically collapsed by the Phage. It adapts to every damn thing we throw at it, it kills half the people it hits slowly and painfully and leaves the rest rotting alive—I will do anything to stop it. Anything at all. And maybe that makes me a monster. Hells, it does, I won't lie to you. I kill people on a weekly, even daily basis. This disease… it's not just a plague, to us, it's like a living thing, a monster… we hate the Phage. Hate it. We've hated the Phage for so long, it's festered in our souls. And you know what? At this point, I don't care anymore. Hells, if you gave me a cure for the phage in exchange for destroying every other civilization in this sector? I and every other Vidiian would exterminate every other species in the damned quadrant in a heartbeat for even a hope for a cure for that damned plague! Do you understand now? DO YOU?"
"No," Stadi admitted with a sigh. "I guess I really can't. This seems like one of those things that you need to experience to understand."
"I've had the Phage for thirteen years," whispered the Vidiian. "Thirteen years of pain. Thirteen years of my body rotting as I live. Thirteen years of watching my friends and family die around me, knowing that one day, that will be me. Thirteen years of unending, merciless pain, that is only made worse by the fact that I want to live. I'll do anything to be rid of this plague, once and for all."
"I do not believe that we are capable of curing this disease," T'pai broke in suddenly, "but we may be able to help you, in exchange for your species' support."
"What are you—" protested Stadi before Tuvok cut her off with a hand on her shoulder and began to whisper T'pai's idea in her ear.
"The Federation has long been capable of growing artificial organs using stem cells stimulated to grow on collagen matrices," T'pai explained. "Furthermore, we have several cybernetic organ designs, although they are generally of suboptimal efficiency and do not work well with individuals who have chronic diseases. The grown organs, however, should be very useful to your species; simply ensure that a supply of Phage-free stem cells is kept growing at all times, and growing replacement organs will require nothing more than two weeks of nutrient baths and chemical stimulation."
"It's not a cure," Dereth noted. "At best it keeps the disease at bay."
"But it's a start!" Motura countered. "Captain, our people are naturally pacifists. Before the Phage we were respected by all save the Trabe. It's just sheer desperation that's forced us to raid passing ships."
"And, well, speaking frankly, the pickings in this sector have grown thin lately," Dereth added.
"People noticed?" sh'Pholhi wryly observed. Dereth gave a wordless acknowledgment.
"What do you want in exchange?" Motura asked. "Vidiian money is not likely to do you much good outside of our territory, and we have little in the way of trade goods."
"There is little more valuable than information," T'pai said. "It takes great skill to transplant organs from one species to another without risk of rejection. I propose a trade. Your knowledge of immune biology for our knowledge of cloned organs."
"Done," Dereth agreed. "I am a honatta. Procuring and altering replacement organs is my profession. I will tell you all I know."
"One more thing," Stadi said, jabbing a finger into Dereth's sternum. "You attacked one of my crew at the start of this, and I gave serious thought to blowing you both out of space for that. Take a message to your people. If I ever encounter your kind again, I will do whatever is necessary to protect my people from this harvesting of yours. Any aggressive actions against this ship or it's crew will be met by the deadliest force. Is that clear?"
"Quite," Dereth said, cowed somewhat.
"We can get you and your companion ship a transponder marker granting safe passage through Vidiian territory," Motura offered, "although I cannot place any guarantees on its effectiveness, and it will take some time to disseminate your techniques throughout the Sodality."
"That will have to do," muttered Stadi. "Right. Ayala, finish up here. I have to go do some personnel reports, and talk to Paris about sexual harassment lawsuits."
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Captain Stadi?" Gul Evek asked over comms as the Vidiian ship went to warp.
"No, but then I wasn't sure trusting you was a good idea, either. I'm still not sure," the Betazoid added after a moment's consideration.
"Touché," the Cardassian said in an amused tone, smiling. Then he sobered. "By Cardassia, we went through all that to improve our power generation reserves and between the chase and the battle we come out with less than we started with. Our number six crystal will go within six weeks."
"Well, in addition to the medical information Mr. Ayala managed to extort a few new star charts out of the Vidiians," Stadi said. "There's a spacefaring people a few dozen light-years down the road called the Sikarians. Might be able to get some new drive crystals from them."
Evek nodded. "Your security chief's initiative is commendable, Captain. Plot a course."
Personal log, Commander Tuvok, first officer, USS Voyager. Stardate 48535.72.
My beloved T'pel.
It would be illogical of me to not admit that I miss you. While barring illness or unusual accident we should both be alive by the time Voyager returns to the Alpha Quadrant, I do not wish to be separated from you for longer than is absolutely necessary. Therefore, I have decided to compose this message so that you may receive reassurance that I am indeed alive if we discover some method of sending rapid communications home.
I am alive and physically intact. I have assumed the role of First Officer on the Voyager, under Captain Veronica Stadi, formerly assigned to conn. She is a promising young officer. We are joined in our journey by Gul Aman Evek, an officer of the Cardassian Fourth Order. He appears to be an ethical man, and has proven himself to be an effective commanding officer.
We have made First Contact with five species so far; the Ocampa, a species whose biology has doomed them to imminent extinction, the Kazon, a profoundly unintelligent race of nomadic tribes, the Ha'ni, a reptilian species from a parallel timeline, the Talaxians, represented by a trader named Neelix who has joined us for the journey as a guide, and the Vidiians, a species afflicted by a virulent plague for centuries. Our diplomatic negotiations have been effective with all but the Kazon, who appear to be universally violent and aggressive as well as misogynistic and highly illogical in their conduct and technological level. I am overall satisfied with our progress.
Please inform our son that I will not be disappointed if he does not perform adequately at archery. If he continues to be concerned with his physical education, please inform him that I myself have never been able to master the lirpa.
I hope that your conference was adequately productive. The Council's plan for the Bajoran colony worlds is illogical and risky; you are correct in stating that additional medical supplies are a necessity for colonization in such unstable times. I recommend connecting with Beverly Crusher, on the Enterprise, and Adavithra zh'Planahath of the Shanghai. Deep Space 9's Doctor Bashir may also be a useful contact considering proximity. Together, you may be able to sway the Council's decision on Starfleet Medical policy.
I remain forever yours.
Permanent documentation file, Marritza, H. Dl., tactical action officer, Cardassian Fourth Order Destroyer Vetar.
That was damned embarrassing having to be bailed out by Stadi. I'm running full diagnostics on all systems and I'm having the soldiers that remain to the space warfare division reverse-engineer the damage, find out exactly what those Vidiian mongrels hit us with.
Mongrels, heh. I need to remember that one. Because they're a conglomeration of—wait, you're a computer; why the shtel am I explaining a pun to you?
I miss Cardassia. The Mekar Wilderness especially. It's springtime there now, and I can almost smell the kanar flowers. I have to ask Captain Stadi if I can use her holodeck sometime. Though, there's some things you can't duplicate with a holodeck. Too few women on this ship: just Ocett and that Romulan, and Ocett's practically my little sister. Rather typical of my luck—after being passed over for promotion a dozen times in favor of incompetent sons of jaguls and legates, I finally get a position worth mentioning and I've got nobody to celebrate it with. Maybe the Feds are onto something.
Supposedly there's a reasonably civilized planet coming up and we can get a decent break, some shore leave. We all need it, even Gul Evek, though he'll never let anyone see it.
Shtel. That was damage control. We'll have to swap out two of the coils on the main forward shield projector—they're crispier than a zabu flambé. Back to work.
Captain's log, stardate 48535.72. We have released the Vidiians to return to their people. I was conflicted about the decision, but Neelix, the victim of the Vidiians' attack, requested that I be lenient. He said that vengeance only begets vengeance, and that it would be better to help the Vidiians so that they don't need to attack people for their organs in the future. He's an optimistic man; I only hope that time proves him correct.
Neelix's body has accepted the electronic lungs that T'pai and the EMH implanted. He will have to be careful around EPS conduits and such until the implant is replaced by a lab-grown pair, but he is up and walking again, which is good. T'pai has informed me that she has already extracted stem cells to begin growing the replacement organs, and Neelix has returned to the galley on light duty.
Lieutenant Ayala has suggested forming a specialized assault unit for future emergencies such as the cavern search, formed from members of ship's complement with advanced surface combat training. He's suggested the name Hazard Team. I have given him permission to begin screening candidates, and recommended (at Lieutenant Kim's request) that he take some time to set up hand-to-hand combat training for non-Security personnel. Given the violent nature of the Delta Quadrant that we have seen so far, combat training and physical conditioning may mean the difference between life and death.
We plan to reach the Sikarian home system in a little over a month; we should be able to acquire spare drive crystals there. Lieutenant JG Torres requested permission to study some of the tetryon weaponry that we salvaged from the alien array back at Ocampa Prime; she's going to have to work around standard shifts, but if she can do it we might have a few extra tricks up our sleeves by the time we get home.