OUTER ZONE

An original fanfiction serialised story (© the Author) based on the Star Trek (© CBS Studios) franchise, (canon) set in uncharted space around the time Starfleet entered into hostilities with the Dominion

EPISODE ONE: INVASION – PART 1

PROLOGUE

SEPTEMBER 25, 2373

FORMER BORDER WITH THOLIAN SPACE

The Starfleet vessel USS Majestic, Miranda Class, Registration NCC 31060, dropped out of warp and arced up onto a new heading, the massive nacelles slung under its saucer section cutting through a gaseous anomaly and leaving two bright trails of green vapour in its wake.

"No damage, Captain."

"Good."

On Miranda's bridge, Captain Kitty Sullivan watched the main viewer keenly, not phased by the unanticipated encounter and remaining intent upon her goal. The navigational graphic overlay indicated the ship was now travelling at one half impulse, engines and flight systems at full efficiency. The graphic changed from pale grey to a pulsing scarlet red indicating the ship had crossed a border into hostile space – something that would need to be amended in the navigational database.

"We are now leaving Federation territory and entering designated 'free' space," Commander Shaka stated the obvious, his deep resonant voice sounding intentionally foreboding.

Sullivan smiled; her Chief Tactical Officer and Exec employed a strong flair for the dramatic on the Bridge, particularly when their gullible rookie Helmsman was at his post, and notwithstanding his outward bravura the lad was clearly currently nervy at having steered the ship into the small gaseous cloud.

"Sound yellow alert," Sullivan said, noting in her peripheral vision a few head turns from her more experienced Bridge crew, except for Shaka of course, who knew his Captain far better than a First Officer probably should. "Just to be on the safe side. Helm, continue on present heading, maintain one half impulse."

"Aye, Captain," Helmsman Alan Weston's voice pitched higher than usual, causing Sullivan's mouth to crease up slightly.

"Mister Langley, please make a full sensor sweep of the area."

"Aye, Captain," the Head of Science acknowledged and his command console lit up at not quite full capacity, adding "…though the defence fields will interfere with some of the finer scans."

"Noted," Sullivan responded. "Just make do for now, Commander."

Ever punctual, Records Officer Lieutenant Reeve stealthily appeared by the Captain's chair proffering the familiar padd to her commanding officer. She appeared as oblivious to the buzz of excited activity around her as she did at any other time she was present on the Bridge, calmly focused only upon her duty and the task at hand. As the Captain took the device the silver haired woman nodded impassively and quickly departed. Sullivan pressed her right thumb onto the padd's screen and then pressed a second time to override the flashing of the public recording inhibitor.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 49767.1," she began – her crew had long since become accustomed to her recording ship's log entries on the Bridge, and learned to stay quiet while she did so in order to hear all the details. Sullivan knew that they were all fully aware of the fact that she would record any classified details in the privacy of her ready room, however the pretence of transparency and inclusion from their commanding officer did a great deal for the morale of her experienced Bridge crew and it often gave them the first hint of what their next orders would be. "The Majestic has just entered free space, formerly part of the Tholian Annexes.

"Less than two days ago the Tholians sent an all-frequency transmission informing neighbouring territories that with immediate effect they were retracting borders on all sides; what had previously been Tholian space is now vacated, left in a state of … stellaris nullius – a region with no claim – to a depth of approximately twenty light years.

"Starfleet Command believes the Tholians have suffered a devastating epidemic that has wiped out trillions. Left with a decimated infrastructure and a much reduced military fleet, they have tactically withdrawn to a more manageable area, laying down a new border – though they insist they will protect it and all of their remaining Annexes with as much fortitude as they have in the past.

"Initial long range scans suggest that Tholian space is much, much larger than we had previously believed, extending to the very edge of the Galaxy and widening to what we estimate may be twenty five thousand light years across in places, perhaps more." Sullivan noted a couple of junior officers react to this, clearly trying to visualise such a vast swathe of space in relation to the Galaxy as a whole.

"Up to now our knowledge of Tholian space has been extremely limited, mainly due to routine deflection and blocking of scans. The Federation has invited all its members and associates to send any available research vessels to aid in the exploration and mapping of the vast area of now vacated 'free' space adjacent to our part of the Quadrant, though data from previous border incursions indicate it's sparsely populated if not entirely barren. Nevertheless, the survey must still be carried out.

"I have put the Majestic on yellow alert as a precaution; there are sure to be some non-Federation vessels, both neutral and aggressive, who will no doubt try to claim parts of it for their own people, possibly by force, and while we would hope to avoid any conflict current tensions with the Dominion make that somewhat doubtful."

Sullivan paused for effect, as what she was about to reveal would be news to the Bridge crew – all bar one, that is – and they knew her dramatic pauses well.

"Our destination is the region of free space adjacent to the new border that is closest to Cardassia. We will assist the Bajorans in mapping the region and also provide a military presence to deter any potential trouble. Twelve months ago representatives from Tholia signed a treaty of non-aggression with the Dominion, and given the fact that Cardassia recently became a member state, Starfleet is keen to learn if there has been any combined military activity in this area in recent months that could pose a threat to the Federation and the Bajoran region generally."

Sullivan thumbed the padd once again to stop recording and placed it in the slot on the side of her command chair for later collection.

The heady mixture of fear and anticipation from her crew was almost palpable.

"Mister Langley..?" she turned to her second officer as she walked down to the Helm position.

"No vessels within range, Captain; no planetary or other objects," he said shrugging, "it's just empty space."

"Glad to hear it. Mr Weston," she ordered, entering some numbers onto his console, "set a course for these coordinates, maximum speed for as long as the Old Girl will give it to us."

4 DAYS LATER

The Majestic had been scanning close to the new border for several hours. As instructed by Starfleet they were initially on a wide grid search pattern, the most economical way of covering such a large area in a short period of time, accepting they would miss detailed analysis of not insignificant tracts of space completely – but Starfleet was only concerned about the big stuff. As they entered their third mapping sub-sector a series of alarms sounded all around the bridge, spooking everyone.

"Report!" Sullivan sat more upright, leading by example.

"Three vessels on long range sensors," Shaka said, his long, thick fingers quickly dancing over his console. "One is Ferengi, another Bajoran, both science vessels I think, and the third appears to be a Federation civilian vessel… I believe it's a Coridan prospecting ship."

"Where?" the Captain demanded.

"Directly ahead, approximately 17 million kilometers," Shaka said. "That's odd…"

"What?" Sullivan swivelled her chair toward him.

"They're converging at low impulse on one point in space," Shaka said.

"Why? What's there?" she asked, turning again to the Science chief.

"I'm not sure, there doesn't appear to be any kind of gravity well or extensive magnetic field there indicating a planet or large object," Commander Langley said.

"A satellite of some kind?" Weston guessed. "Or a ship?"

"Negative," Langley said curtly, "I'm boosting sensor definition."

His console tribbled several times and he paused to digest the sensor information.

"What do you have, Commander?" Sullivan was eager for data that would allow her to change course and intercept, but wouldn't take that decision until she knew more about what they would be flying into.

"It's some kind of spacial disturbance… wait… I'm reading a massive increase in neutrino levels," Langley said.

"All stop," Sullivan said.

"All stop, aye."

"Sir, if I'm not mistaken," Langley hesitated, "…it appears to be a wormhole opening; it's similar in configuration to the one local to Bajor."

"Another stable wormhole?" Shaka suggested.

"Unclear," Langley responded.

"Lieutenant, get the Coridan ship on the comms, find out what's going on," she asked.

"Captain, I'm receiving telemetry from the Bajoran vessel. A ship is emerging from the event," Langley said, his more dextrous hands playing the console like a concert pianist. "No match to any configuration on file."

"Can you get an image?" Sullivan asked.

"Picture coming through from the Coridan ship now, Sir," Shaka said calmly and posted the distorted image to the main viewscreen. As he filtered anomalies the image became sharper; moving slowly out of the event was a large, bulky vessel, more like a cargo ship than a military one.

"The alien vessel is hailing," Shaka added, "audio only."

"Relay on speakers," Sullivan said softly, hoping that their language wouldn't be beyond the comm system's interpretive ability. After a few moments of delay the translation filtered through:-

"My name is Captain Ens Ablo of the goods ship Astivil, out of Vekaria and representing the peoples of the United Star Systems of Qovakia," the male voice sounded curiously North American through the universal translator, and by experience Sullivan knew that meant the speaker was likely to be Humanoid in appearance.

The rest of the Majestic's Bridge crew exchanged glances – they had expected to maybe find basic forms of life on some of the planets abandoned by the Tholians, perhaps the ruins of a lost empire, and possibly even a hastily abandoned Cardassian training camp, but they had not expected to encounter a new sentient species let alone a whole confederation of cultures.

"We have travelled through what appears to be a stable wormhole from the recently designated region of 'free' space on the other side of Tholia," he continued. "According to our data, we believe we have travelled over 35,000 light years."

A few gasps around the bridge caused Sullivan to glance at their faces.

"We address you with warmest intentions of friendship and mutual respect. Our culture is one of concord, and our peoples while diverse unite in common goals of peace, harmony, freedom of movement and fair trade. We gladly welcome all who respect our ideals to return with us to our home so that we may learn more about you, exchange goods and services, and share knowledge and experiences." There was a brief pause and then: "This is truly a fortuitous and momentous occasion."

Sullivan stepped down behind Ensign Weston's chair. "Set a course to rendezvous with the other ships, best possible speed. Commander Shaka," she turned to face him, "please send a priority message to Starfleet; inform them that we're about to participate in a First Contact situation with an entirely new civilization."

DECEMBER 22 - 84 DAYS LATER

VEKARIA, GOVERNMENT WORLD OF THE UNITED SYSTEMS OF QOVAKIA

The planet's green-blue daytime, flecked with dark storm clouds, shone silently foreboding in the star-spangled blackness of space. Positioned behind it, smaller and silvery bright, the crescent of its heavenly counterpart in the Vekarian system. Beyond, as an almighty backdrop, the density of stars that comprised the Milky Way galaxy.

Until recently no-one in the Federation knew Qovakia existed, wedged as it was between the border of the vast Tholian realm and the emptiness of intergalactic vacuum beyond. Qovakia - the very edge of the galaxy itself, some 10 years' depth of uncharted systems spanning the outermost Galactic star arms that arced out and around the Tholian empire for a great many light years and the Alpha Quadrant for even more.

Upon its discovery, the crew of the USS Majestic had been the first to give the region a nick-name that had been unofficially adopted by the rest of the service, calling it the Outer Zone...

The Starfleet Runabout Hudson made short work of travelling the distance between Vekaria and its grey moon. Although merely a low gravity piece of dead rock with negligible atmosphere, for millennia the moon was a mysterious heavenly body, known by many names and associations until civilisations formed and their understanding of the heavens grew. Soon enough Vekarians had reached for the stars themselves.

The Hudson swiftly descended toward the moon's surface, but veered away from the main concentration of the port and headed out instead toward the area where the surface was mostly barren. The runabout reduced speed and dived low to avoid busy approach and departure lanes overhead. She flew on thrusters at an altitude of just five metres, hugging the terrain, swerving from time to time to avoid jagged struts of rock and the occasional carcass of an over exerted spacecraft.

On board, two Humanoids stared fixedly through the forward window. Seated at the conn station was a Human male, blonde, classically chiselled and ripe in his mid-thirties. Beside him stood Minister Re Lorken, a proud, sixty something native Vekarian and high ranking Qovakian official swathed in purple and blue robes pinned together with the blue, gold and red circular badge of office.

She looked down at the younger man flying the runabout. Choosing to wear round brass rimmed glasses to improve his faintly weak eyesight gave him a studious, eccentric look, she thought, perhaps deliberate. His squinting eyes were focussed upon the horizon, only occasionally checking instrumentation for guidance.

He was calmer than earlier, she noted, and more manly in his intent somehow. She couldn't help staring at the silky fineness of his sandy-yellow hair and equally light colour of his brows and eyelashes; most Vekarians had dark hair, though sometimes tonally coloured so his natural hue intrigued and delighted her. The blonde man had appeared intense and awkward when she first encountered him, but here she realised he was a driven man with a physical presence unlike most of the others of his kind that she had encountered; naturally so, though he seemed awkward with it.

Re Lorken considered their trip and knew that her frivolous affection toward this alien male was an attempted distraction on her part from the anxiety and tension she felt over the task ahead.

One hour earlier:

The Minister sat in the Upper Gallery of the Qovakian Senate listening to the opening speech of the induction proceedings to the Trade Conference with all the gathered Visitors from the other side of the wormhole. A break in the overcast morning cloud beamed the local sun's light through the thin angular windows behind her reflecting up onto the vaulted roof space above, angelic beams of the divine, she was sure, an omen for a new cycle in the history of the peoples of Qovakia. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, hoping it would be true and listening to the bass tones of the Senior Senate Representative, her voice echoing and reverberating off the granite walls. It was an echo unlike any other, not least for the portent that it carried. The Minister opened her eyes, gazing up into the dusty beams of light that dimmed and dissipated as quickly as they had come, and then dropped her gaze down to the main Senate floor. It had been cleared of its normal furniture and instead was crammed full with thousands of delegates, officials and VIPs of many races, all slowly shifting from limb to limb and looking toward the main dais.

'Ahem', she heard a feeble cough above and behind her.

'Ahem', again. She considered it had a tone like someone she knew.

'Ahem', it persisted, slightly louder. Re Lorken looked around, as did a few other disgruntled people in the audience around her.

There at the top of the flight of stairs skulking behind the back-most row of seats was her skinny young aide. He gave a small wave, then tiptoed as fast as he could down toward her, his ritual robes rustling noisily as he did.

Alarmed at perpetrating yet more disturbance, Re Lorken shoo'd him back, shaking her head, but he persisted, shuffling side step along her row toward her, whispering apologies as he went, much to the annoyance of those seated there. She quickly stood and met him in a half crouch above the Minister of Agriculture sitting beside her.

"Sorry," she said with a begging smile, then leaned in for her aide to whisper in her ear.

"Apologies, Minister, but one of your Visitors is insisting on seeing you, says it's extremely urgent," his whisper was unfortunately loud enough to be heard for several rows.

"Shhhh!" someone said from behind her. "Shhh!" "Shush!" "Shooooosh!" "Be quiet" a series of others chimed in, the latter as much at the shooshers as at the pair of them.

Limiting further outrage, Re Lorken silently ushered her aide to retreat, and followed him quickly out, mouthing her sincerest regrets to both sides of the stairs as she ascended as swiftly as she was able to.

Re Lorken felt not a little annoyance for the interruption, this was the first time she had been able to sit still and feel unbothered about government business in too many weeks, enjoying one of the rarer privileges of high office in witnessing such a resplendent and significant occasion. Looking into the contorted face of her nervous assistant the feeling, she reminded herself, was also based on selfish desire, and quickly dispelled. Aeo Farek had not been the best candidate for the job as her Tertiary Aide, his socially awkward and nervy demeanour didn't lend itself to the role, but he had been keen and she had been impressed with this orphaned boy who had made at least something of himself in the wake of the former military Occupation, unlike the other more coddled and better educated applicants.

Aeo Farek had led his mistress rapidly along the circular corridor surrounding the upper level to a small lounge area where two Starfleet men appeared to be arguing. She stopped and held back the younger man to give them time to finish.

"Need I remind you that you should call our guests by their proper designations and not just as Visitors," she chastised the younger man. "It could be misconstrued."

"No Minister… yes Minister," he said uneasily.

She shook her head. "Just give them a moment more."

Her aide began to shake his hands and pad his heels slightly – she knew it was always a precursor to asking a difficult question. She turned to him and raised her eyebrows.

"Minister, have you noticed how many of the… newcomers have quarrels with each other?" he asked.

"No more than we do," she said, and gave him a look as if to say 'like I could have with you right now for pulling me out of the Chamber'.

Undeterred, he continued. "I hear that Starfleet may be on the verge of war," he said. "And that despite calling themselves explorers and peace keepers they have been involved in at least three protracted major interstellar conflicts in the last few centuries alone."

The Minister already knew these facts, although at this stage she wasn't party to the full amount of intelligence still being gathered by Qovakian spies. "You shouldn't listen to gossip, it could be your undoing. You go back, I'll handle it from here."

As he obediently shuffled away, Re Lorken ambled over to the clipped exchange taking place between the two Starfleet personnel.

She instantly identified one of the men as Lirik, a terse Starfleet diplomatic aide to some of the higher ranking Federation delegates attending the Trade Conference, and he didn't seem to be happy with this other bespectacled man. As Lirik gestured his frustration, Re Lorken could see the slight shimmer of the active environmental shield about his body. The other man kept his distance, but wasn't shying away from saying his piece to the older, chunkier and slightly shorter man who glanced over at her a couple of times.

Momentarily, Lirik withdrew with a polite nod in her direction. At once, the other man frantically rushed over to her.

"Minister," he spoke in their common English dialect but it was noticeably accented. "I am Lieutenant Commander Kohl, Deputy Chief Engineer of the USS Draco."

"Commander," she took his proffered hand as was their custom.

"I'm sorry to call you out of the ceremony like this, but it couldn't wait," he said, clearly nervous but also with a sense of urgency. "Will you come with me, please?"

He walked away at a pace and Re Lorken felt obliged to follow, she hoped it wasn't anything too serious. "What's this about, Commander?"

"Orders, Minister," he said, brandishing a small padd he carried in his free hand. "But I'm on a time limit, a 24 hour shore leave pass to be frank, so time is of the essence."

"What orders?" she asked.

"Well it's slightly unusual, Minister," he said, still nervous. "Earlier today I was browsing the Vekarian public records that were made available to us."

Re Lorken nodded, it had been her suggestion to the Upper Cabinet, a gesture of transparency and goodwill to the Visitors who had been arriving in great numbers through the wormhole for many weeks now.

"I was looking for a transportation museum – I'm interested in the technological development of alien cultures, especially in the field of space travel, and looking at specs of old vehicles is a hobby of mine," he tried to smile, but her confused and obviously irritated glance stopped him.

"Well, er… rather than a museum, I instead came across details of a large storage facility containing many interesting vessels evidently originating from a wide range of cultures."

The Minister had a sudden sense of foreboding.

"I can't be sure until we've verified it," he continued, "but strange as it may sound one of the ships listed especially caught my interest. Minister, I believe that this vessel may well have originated in Federation space."

The Minister didn't react to this other than to slow her pace slightly.

"The ship wasn't named, but it had a catalogue number and cursory technical spec against it. Some of the details didn't quite sound right, but nonetheless-"

Re Lorken finally stopped, interrupting his flow. "Commander, I'm sorry, but surely this can wait until the end of the-"

"If I may finish, Minister," he interrupted her in turn. "I contacted the Port Authority to enquire about paying it a visit, and shortly after, I received orders from Starfleet HQ to collect you and investigate without haste."

"Orders…? To collect me…?" the Minister was confused. Kohl nodded. "And these Orders came from the Commodore..?" she was surprised, as she'd only met with the commander of the Starfleet Headquarters here in Qovakia earlier that morning, and it hadn't been mentioned.

"Well, they actually came direct from Admiral Street," he said matter of fact, and started to walk on again.

"The Admiral?" Re Lorken echoed. She'd met the semi-retired Starfleet veteran several times. The small fleet of vessels she'd brought with her to the Outer Zone had been helping the Qovakians to map the area of Tholian free space on this side of the wormhole.

"But… what's the urgency?" she tried to stall him again, following cautiously behind.

He shrugged, clearly keen to complete his task before his pass expired. "We really need to get going."

But Re Lorken held back. Kohl stopped and encouraged her with a keenly waving gesture. "Come on, Minister," he smiled brightly, "if I'm right, we may be about to solve an infamous mystery."

Re Lorken noticed again the padd he carried. "May I see these orders…?"

The instructions were brief though explicit, the Admiral's signature was clear, and as the representative of Vekaria to the Starfleet organisation it would be expected of her to act as chaperone on such a trip. But while she'd been instructed to be as helpful and accommodating as protocol would allow, she wasn't about to start taking orders from an alien military force – not again.

"Commander, this is a restricted facility, I would need to get permission for you from the Security Minister, and most likely we would need to arrange for a military escort. And given current events that could take a while."

"Ah, I forgot to add," Kohl took the padd and tapped the orders footnote, "the Security Minister has already given approval."

Re Lorken looked at the appendix in disbelief, it appeared genuine but if that was the case why hadn't the Minister or one of her team briefed her beforehand? This was all highly irregular.

"I'm sorry, Commander, I need to speak to someone about this."

The old politician removed a personal communicator from her robes and walked away to a darkened alcove. She was confused by the situation but hopeful in the knowledge that any attempt to get verification would be delayed because of the current ceremony taking place.

Kohl paced back and forth as Re Lorken, a short distance away, casually and confidently contacted the Vekarian Security Minister's office. Although her words were too quiet to hear, several sentences into the conversation she paused for a long while before continuing in even more hushed whispers. Kohl strained to hear, but it was just beyond his range. Sure enough when she emerged from the shadows the Minister seemed quite upset.

"Everything okay, Minister?" he asked.

Re Lorken squared her shoulders and stared at him for a moment, glancing down at the padd she offered back to him.

"It would seem you are more informed than me, I am indeed to accompany you."

"Good," Kohl nodded. "Odd they didn't let you know, though?"

"An oversight. Understandable in this busy period," she smiled disarmingly and they walked off again together.

"You have already arranged transport, I'm told?"

The German chuckled. "It didn't go down too well, but yes, I have transport."

A short time later at the gangway leading to a small Federation runabout vessel a breathless guard had handed the Minister a small case and a hand-written note from the Security Minister herself. Kohl noticed that reading the note seemed to trouble the Minister even further.

Once aboard, Re Lorken noted her compatriot was suitably distracted, grumbling to himself as he re-calibrated many customized defaults on board the Runabout assigned to the Diplomatic Corps to ferry delegates to and from Vekaria. She was only partially aware of Kohl's intermittent muttered suppositions about the ship they were going to search for, but as her instructions were to be as fully co-operative with the Starfleet officer as possible she responded with an appropriate amount of nods, murmurs and official smiles.

So here she stood on the deck of the Runabout Hudson heading for a little known and rarely visited bunker installation on the 'dead' side of the moon with a set of instructions that could well change not only her own life path, but the very course of current events for the entire region. The Minister genuinely had no idea what to expect or how she might proceed, so she focused more on remaining calm and keeping a clear head for what awaited her.

"We should be very close now, Commander," Re Lorken glanced out of the forward view ports to the rock stacks that littered this part of the terrain and referred to the printed map she had removed from the gilded ministerial case along with several other documents and objects provided by the Security Minister's office.

"There," Re Lorken pointed to the elevated skyline ahead, "just beyond that ridge is the Eg Maha Sea – this moon's largest crater."

The internal systems chirped an endorsement of Re Lorken's orienteering skill as they passed over the apex of the ridge and dropped steadily down the rocky side into a vast shallow bowl of a crater that stretched into the distance. Some way out to 'sea' was a huge structure, itself many kilometers wide, and apparently even longer end to end.

"Mein Gott…! In the Alpha Quadrant, this storage complex would dwarf many of our larger Starbases," he said, eyes excitedly taking it all in.

Re Lorken smiled in accordance with diplomatic etiquette, imagining what a 'star base' might look like.

As they approached, the sheer size of the installation was more than impressive. Steep sides rose up to a mostly flat roof though there were a number of shallow outcrops and masts. Its surface was the same colour as the moon dust that surrounded it, presumably camouflaging it from space, Kohl thought. As the runabout levelled out from the side of the crater he accelerated forward across the flat pebbled surface.

The gigantic structure dwarfed the runabout as it made its final approach; Kohl could see no sign of activity, the very few window spaces dotted along the edifice were sealed closed. Moon dust banks lapped unmoving against the steep sided walls indicating years of disuse. There was no sign of any other traffic in the vicinity. He brought the runabout to a full stop twenty metres from the structure.

"We need to find a land vehicle entrance; the main space doors cannot be accessed from the outside," Re Lorken said, scanning the facility's surface intently with her eyes. "I have the necessary codes."

"You haven't been here before?" Kohl had assumed that a Minister representing Qovakia, especially one who had lived all her life on Vekaria, would be familiar with all major facilities in and around the moon, especially one as large as this.

The Minister paused, staring out through the windows and chose her words carefully. "This place has not been visited since Elequin Foradni, shortly after the rebellion's victory," Re Lorken reached for the case she'd been provided with and removed a set of old films inscribed with computer-printed coded language.

"That was four years ago," Kohl had picked up a little about Vekarian time measurements during his overnight stay in the cosy comfort of a renowned hotel. He guided the runabout slowly along the base of the building, adjusting sensors to hunt for a land vehicle entrance. "I can't believe all this has remained unused for so long."

Re Lorken stiffened. "The toll of the occupation on our people was great. As I intimated earlier, the rebuilding and recovery after it ended is still ongoing. It has taken the Qovakian people all of their time and resources just to bring a sense of normality back into our lives, and there is still so much more to be done - many things were just not a priority. You aren't exactly seeing us at our best, even now five years on."

Kohl could feel that Re Lorken was not talking pat diplomatic speech now. "I guess that's why I didn't find much detailed information about the recent occupation in the Qovakian databases," Kohl said, adjusting the sensors to account for the interference being given off by the strange composition of the colossal structure before them. "Many of the vessel inventory files I was analysing were very patchy."

Re Lorken gained composure slightly at this. "The full facts of what took place are still being compiled, as is an updating of many reference sources, including inventory. As I indicated, there are just not enough resources and more important priorities, frankly. Our own records of the occupation itself are limited, of course: personal accounts mostly, though I'd rather not remember too much myself, much less read about the suffering of others."

Re Lorken was using emotion to try and prevent Kohl from questioning further, but she suspected he would continue anyway. One thing she had learned about Starfleet types in this short time: they had an unquenchable desire for data.

"The race who had been in power," Kohl said, "the Kantari...?"

"The T'Kani," Re Lorken corrected, saying the name in clear contempt.

"What were they like?"

"Cruel, of course; cold," she said quickly, "ruthless and divisive. Tyrants, as you would expect. Although not everyone got to see that side of them. There were many groups under the misguided impression that they were a gracious occupying force."

"But they were highly militaristic?" Kohl asked. Re Lorken nodded.

"But even after fifty years of occupation and these five years picking up the pieces, we still know relatively little else about them," she said. "They had a predilection for secrecy, kept their distance from the day to day of the Occupation as much as they possibly could – seldom were they seen in public and rarely individually. But even when they were, they never revealed their true form, always remaining completely covered up from the top of their heads to the toes of their boots."

"But they must have had to speak with representatives?" he asked, trying to build a mental picture.

Re Lorken smiled. "They never spoke in person; most communication was synthesised or in text form, though they had a basic amount of crude non-verbal communication when necessary. Mostly if they needed to speak publicly they forced local officials to speak for them, or utilised their assorted allies, commonly the AI life forms they'd had created or the various mercenaries they'd recruited to do their dirty work."

Kohl reminded himself to keep an open mind and thought back to his training at the Academy – one Vulcan tutor in particular had emphasised the need to remain neutral until all the facts were gathered. It was clear the Minister had a deep hatred for the T'Kani, and understandably so. But her demeanour since she'd been given her orders had completely changed – like she was internally conflicted.

"But they were Humanoid?" Kohl pressed on.

Re Lorken shrugged, becoming drained by his questions.

"Yes: two arms, two legs, a torso and head shaped as ours are – males and females similarly distinguishable us – but who only knows what their true appearance was beneath the garb they wore." She saw his quizzical look and added: "All T'Kani remained fully clothed always – no one ever saw one out of their uniform. Each and every soldier was equipped with a self-destruct device woven into their suit; they'd disintegrate the moment they were compromised so no-one ever looked upon their form. I once witnessed a T'Kani female snag and tear her uniform on a nail, which was enough for the device to activate; she disintegrated before my eyes without any reaction." Kohl tried to imagine such an event.

"If they had ruled the whole of Qovakia, they must have been very powerful indeed. It must have been a long and bloody war to get rid of them." Kohl continued.

The Commander reminded himself that, for a society living under a cold-blooded regime for so long he'd seen surprisingly little evidence that an occupying force had ever been present on Helub or Vekaria, aside from some newly constructed areas of the port, presumably because of battle damage. Something just didn't ring true.

"The T'Kani were ambitious if not arrogant. They believed that the whole Galaxy would be better off under their rule and pushed as far as they could in every direction," she explained. "Even though they were unable to penetrate Tholian space they continued on to other areas beyond Qovakia, and in doing so spread their forces pretty thin. A rebellion had chipped away at them for decades but with little or no effect. Yet at some inevitable point… something… happened, things changed, and a series of events, terrorist attacks, focused insurgency strikes, localized uprisings and the like, all culminated in a sudden and significant turn in the tide. In the end, they were overthrown by a ... combined effort of force, shall we say."

"So where are they now?" Kohl asked, adding: "In the Senate earlier I thought I overheard a conversation among some local police about T'Kani ships spotted in the outskirts of Qovakia."

"Oh, no, that's not possible," she chuckled. "What remained of the T'Kani fleet was decimated in the final battle at Merova, their vast number of battleships and stations overwhelmed by such determined resistance. As far as we know, all surviving T'Kani self-terminated when they finally surrendered."

"And their supporters," Kohl prompted, "these non-T'Kani allies, did they self-destruct also?"

"There were some who were captured alive after the battle," Re Lorken said, "all non-T'Kani as you say. But they had no information about their former masters that was of any use." Re Lorken looked up into the stars. "They were imprisoned on Cell Ships and sent to live out their days in the Moriban Nebula, at the very edge of the Galaxy."

"Really?" Kohl couldn't shake his scepticism and it showed to Re Lorken.

"The T'Kani were highly organised, Kohl," she said emphasising her point, "not amateurs. Everyone who supported them performed only the role they were given, none knew anything beyond what they needed to. The only contact these individuals had was with their immediate peers and a superior only; all claimed to have been just following orders, of course."

"But there must have been someone in charge, if only a figurehead? The orders had to come from somewhere?" Kohl was beginning to pick up a faint reading, perhaps a door, and shunted the runabout closer to take a look. "Are you saying you don't know who their leaders were?"

Re Lorken shook her head, "There was never mention of any one significantly higher up in authority. You see, understanding their military hierarchy is to understand their entire society, as they are one in the same. From what we observed and surmised everyone played a part from the youngest to the oldest; it's their way of life – but that is about all we do know. To this day we can only guess about their culture and know nothing of their history. Though we do understand their purpose all too well," Re Lorken paused for dramatic effect, "to invade and assimilate."

Kohl skipped a heartbeat at that all-too familiar word and whispered: "Like the Borg."

"The who?" Re Lorken could see a glimmer of fear in his piercing eyes.

"Trust me, you're better off not knowing."

The engineer made several fine-tune adjustments to the sensors. "I still don't understand, though. If the T'Kani were so mighty, with control over such a large area, surely there must have been some who could have retreated, regrouped-" but Kohl was cut short by Re Lorken's dramatic cry.

"There!" she almost shouted to drown him out. "I see an entrance. Configure an infrared beam of the following coded algorithm and signal configuration." Re Lorken shakily handed Kohl a plastic sheet of ornate designs.

Kohl took his cue, placed the sheet onto the runabout scanner and entered his commands into the beam controls, "Computer, scan the cell and reconfigure to an infrared signal."

"Ready." The computer voice said.

"Begin transmission," Kohl watched his controls affirm the transmission, but nothing immediately happened. He was about to re-send when a square section of the wall in front of the vessel shunted inwards and upwards into an unseen housing. Kohl instinctively swept the dark hole with sensors, his spare hand hovering over the shield control, and studied the readings carefully. Moon dust billowed slightly as the entrance lifted, suspended in the vacuum in soft, slow motion undulations. Using the directional sensors he could make out a fifteen metre conduit leading to an inner pressure door, just big enough for the runabout to enter. Kohl skilfully guided the Hudson into the entrance.

Re Lorken tensely sat down in the co-pilot seat, pulling the ornate case onto her lap. She placed a decorative headband over her blue-purple tightly curled hair and discretely checked her wrist-mounted sensor bracelet to ensure the device on her head was recording efficiently then glanced at Kohl. The Lieutenant Commander appeared to have thought nothing of her actions; presumably not aware of the disguised security devices she carried with her, she thought.

Re Lorken reached a hand over to the comms panel, surprising Kohl. She paused at his reaction. "May I use your communicator?"

"Of course, Minister," Kohl was wondering whether she had been briefed on the layout of Starfleet controls or whether she had logically guessed the panel configuration. She tapped a few keys to align the comms to a specific frequency.

"This is Minister Re Lorken aboard the Starfleet runabout Hudson," she licked her lips and waited.

A soft voice replied, "This is Security Minister At Arin, go ahead."

"We are now entering Storage Facility Orlega One, expected duration..." she turned to Kohl, brows raised.

"About three hours?" Kohl suggested glancing at the time display – that would still give him enough time to return the runabout to Lirik and get himself back to the Draco before his pass ran out.

Re Lorken blinked impassively. "Expected duration one hour."

"Acknowledged, one hour from mark." And Re Lorken closed the comm.

Kohl could feel his face flushing at the blatant put-down and wondered at the extra precaution of timing their visit so short with Minister At Arin herself. Re Lorken smiled that disconcerting expression again. "Despite appearances I have a busy schedule, Commander."

As the Hudson came to a halt inside the small conduit, Kohl activated the external search beams. The outer door section to the rear of the conduit automatically closed off the exit behind them and shortly after, their airlock began to descend a few metres beneath the surface. When they stopped, the pressure door in front of them split apart.

The conduit continued on for a short distance in front of them, then dropped away to either side, phasing out onto the floor of a panoramic internal space, much like the inside of a Starfleet space dock. The lights of the runabout didn't have much effect penetrating the darkness, though Kohl could make out many vague shapes above them and one very large, far off black object hanging in mid air stretching into the distance – perhaps an inner part of the complex.

Using manoeuvring thrusters, Kohl guided the runabout out of the conduit into the open space. There were many shapes littering the area above them, objects all suspended at varying heights, blending into the retreating darkness. As the runabout skimmed across the floor small floodlights suddenly winked on hundreds of metres above them high up in the roof, causing Re Lorken to gasp. The ineffective light cast myriad shadows off the hangar's many contents, though their contours were now more visible.

"We must have tripped some sort of automatic power-up sequence," Kohl stated the obvious.

The hanger was vast, the outer walls constructed of a material that was heavily patterned, almost marble-like; the space twisting off in other directions hundreds of metres distant. Kohl guessed there were probably thousands of variously sized vessels suspended in the vacuum overhead. They were of many designs, all unfamiliar, some battered and space-weather-beaten but most appeared intact. Looking down at his console, Kohl was faced with indiscernible readings as the runabout sensors were bounced around by the superstructure and some of the alien hulls; although he gratefully noted there were no signs of life.

The biggest object in immediate view seemed to be a black, glistening hull in the far distance that swept off to either side for hundreds of metres and upwards for many decks - it was enormous, a kilometre in length he guessed, possibly more and what looked like a flattened thick cylinder in shape, though much of its mass was masked by a field of other vessels in the foreground.

Using conventional viewer enhancers, Kohl traced along the bits of hull that were visible, noticing some of its more recent fate - he saw a line of round portholes and the vague outline of hull panels on his display, though all were beneath a strange, glimmering pitch-like substance that covered the entire vessel. There were also more conventional window shapes, and what he had thought at first to be a separate vessel above he realised was rather a tiered section of upper decks belonging to the same black, monolithic ship. Toward the bottom of the vessel he saw large pockmarks and presumably the odd hull breach which had been covered up with what looked like makeshift panelling – but all still covered in the same black glistening layer. There was similar patching where external devices had been removed - this old bird had certainly been through the wars, Kohl thought, but must have been repaired in order to make her space-worthy.

"What is it?" Re Lorken asked casually, glancing over his shoulder at the large object he was studying, "Some kind of… passenger ship?"

It suddenly dawned on him; having a passion for famous and infamous spacecraft of the past, Kohl immediately knew this was the vessel he'd been looking for, though he couldn't quite believe it.

"Yes!" he beamed, and mini-punched the air. "We found it!"

Aside from its unfamiliar black coating - and its lack of apparent warp nacelles - which had at first thrown him, the overall size and shape was unmistakable and matched the limited details the database had provided.

Kohl was excited but astounded. He eagerly punched up the onboard Starfleet database as he guided the Hudson toward it.

"Minister, may I present the SS Fantasy, formerly the leading luxury passenger liner of its day. It had a succession of owners ... last listed as the property of the Genoise Corporation, a legitimate business believed funded by the Orion Syndicate. Her final position was logged in Federation territory, close to New Fabrinia while making deliveries of various goods to the Federation's Historical Preservation Depot on Verigan 6." He looked round into the Vekarian's face. "It never arrived, lost without trace despite several extensive searches."

"Fascinating," she said, although the Minister clearly thought otherwise. Kohl took another general look about the structure of the vast hanger again; there was something not quite right.

"Am I mistaken, or is the architecture here different to that around Helub and on Vekaria?" Kohl noted the efficient and uniform yet organic design of the structure.

"No," Re Lorken stood and peered cautiously at their surroundings, "you are not mistaken. This facility was built by the T'Kani."

Kohl had begun to suspect as much by Re Lorken's actions and words. The Minister picked up another transparency and glanced at it.

"After we had secured Helub for safe habitation following the final defeat of the T'Kani, Qovakian security carried out a rapid and extensive reconnaissance of all facilities. This one was visited twice, once to initially ensure it was secure and free of any T'Kani forces, followed by another to carry out a fuller albeit limited appraisal of the contents; though it's common knowledge that the T'Kani used this primarily as a vehicle pound."

"A pound?" Kohl was intrigued.

"Yes, they brought vessels here from all over Qovakia and beyond to sell on via agents in the main port – or back to their original owners for way over the odds, if they were still alive. Just one of many ways they filled their coffers," she noted his frown. "You've clearly forgotten that the Union of the peoples of Qovakia is founded on trade. Use of local currency or an acceptable equivalent in all of the …ah… Outer Zone as you call it, is a founding principal."

"And this ship, the Fantasy, it would also have been for sale?" Kohl guessed.

Re Lorken shrugged. "Location doesn't always dictate function," she quoted from ancient Vekarian history, "but it's a reasonable assumption. Although I'm not sure who would have been in the market for such a vessel during the occupation."

"I'm guessing she would have cost a fair bit, too," Kohl said. "I wonder if her contents are still intact? Were the ships here boarded – by your recon party, I mean?"

"There is no data here about that. The records say they decided it was nothing more than a storage facility, designated it as Orlega One, and as it was low priority in the general scheme of things to be done it was left as it is and only a list of the vehicles it contained were detailed in the report. In fact, it's not due for a thorough examination for…" Re Lorken checked her own files again, "...another seven months, by your chronology."

Kohl was astounded.

"Please try to understand?" she asked, almost snappy. "We are still recovering from over fifty years of agonising occupation – frankly there are other urgencies."

"Of course," Kohl said, "I'm sorry."

The runabout squeaked a warning startling them both. Kohl checked the flashing readout on his sensor and tactical panels.

"A passive forcefield is forming above us, underneath the spacecraft stored here. It's covering the entire complex. Now an atmosphere and gravity envelope underneath," Kohl compensated his flight controls accordingly. "Another automated system. It seems that from ground level to eight metres there are habitable conditions. Above it's still zero g and vacuum, perfect for storing spacefare. Now that's fascinating."

Kohl steered the runabout along the floor of the cavernous hanger until he came to one of several sloping projections protruding like spokes from one of a number of giant structural support columns dotted along the hangar floor like massive trees. Although some random items lay scattered across the floor, many crates and barrels were piled up against the walls and around these outcrops, along with other unknown objects covered with heavy duty plastic sheets.

One such spoke attached to the column nearest to the Fantasy contained a row of progressively higher windows, most likely an observation lounge of some kind. He eyeballed an open doorway near to it, presumably leading to control and administration rooms and, he hoped, engineering rooms within the large column. He lowered the runabout to the floor and cut engines, then paused before opening a hailing frequency to the temporary Starfleet Command Headquarters in the spaceport.

"Commander Kohl to Starfleet Headquarters, may I speak with Admiral Street?" Static replied. Kohl ran an analysis. "Strange. The structure is causing unusual subspace communications interference."

Re Lorken nodded, "The T'Kani experimented with a variety of new materials to shield themselves from sensors and block communications without the use of energy fields. Some of their constructions could cause sensor interference or reflect communications."

"The T'Kani were both powerful and hard to find? I'm beginning to be amazed at their defeat," Kohl made some mental comparisons to the Romulans - theirs was a military culture, too. He called a Yellow Alert in his head. "I want to take a look around on foot, care to join me?"

Re Lorken shot him a look that he couldn't determine. "Are you sure it will be safe, Kohl?"

"You'll be fine," Kohl clipped a phaser and tricorder to his belt, smiling sweetly. "You said yourself this place was cleared as secure and has been abandoned for years. Besides," Kohl offered a hand, "I may need your guidance."

Re Lorken took his large, strong-fingered hand and allowed him to lead her to the runabout's exit.

Kohl and his tricorder were as one when the runabout outer door retracted. Stepping into the oxygen rich atmosphere made Re Lorken reel slightly. "Oh, my!"

The Lt Commander steadied her then reached back inside the runabout to grab a small medical kit. He retrieved a hypo and selected the appropriate solution cartridge.

"Here," he injected himself then Re Lorken, "this should help."

"Thank you," the Minister was putting a brave face on the situation, Kohl could tell. Something was scaring the wits out of her.

Standing underneath the assorted vehicles, the hangar seemed even vaster. The multi-recessed roof seemed even higher in the first person, though it was difficult to study fully due to the banks of floodlights racked up there. Kohl walked toward the open hatch in the side of the sloping wall, scanning all the time and running routine analysis in his head, but Re Lorken did not follow him. Something else had grabbed her attention and pulled her in another direction.

Nearing the access, Kohl turned, sweeping his tricorder in a 360 degree arc. Readings were still indeterminate, though he noted cable connections and some personnel gantries attached to some of the vessels, including one leading to the SS Fantasy from the support column high above. Re Lorken had stopped some distance away, staring up into the rafters.

Kohl decided to leave her alone, thinking this could be a profound or difficult moment for her. He stepped through the hatch, tricorder scanning all the time, and found himself in a small airlock illuminated by a single white light above. He opened the opposite hatch and squinted as he stepped into an anti-room, totally bare, with an underlit floor and bright, shiny walls and ceiling. A single doorway in the adjacent wall automatically slid open as he approached, allowing egress to a corridor that curved off toward what he guessed was the centre of the support column structure. A short way along, a double doorway in the opposite wall split apart to reveal the large, wide 'lounge' area he'd seen from the outside that swept forward into the extended length of the column's 'spoke' protrusion. The vantage looking out across the storage facility was impressive through the high windows, the top third of which was filled entirely with the black mass of the Fantasy's underbelly. Re Lorken was nowhere to be seen, and he wondered if she may have returned to the runabout, but didn't concern himself – mainly due to his own curiosity about whether he could access the Fantasy.

The lounge had a high ceiling, shiny grey flooring and several long and rather municipal looking grey-blue sofas; it was certainly sparsely furnished. What looked like a serving hatch from an inner wall was sealed closed. Aside from a few strips of metal and a couple of large piles of packing materials the space was otherwise empty – not even any signage.

Toward the back of the lounge, away from the windows, were several more empty rooms, two of which led on to other equally empty rooms. Kohl made his way back through the lounge to the corridor and walked along to the central part of this column facility. At the end of the corridor the doors slid apart to reveal a wide circular space where the massive support structure at this point had been weaved together to form a high atrium of twisted girders. In the centre of the floor a barrier encircled a flight of wide stairs that spiralled down to lower levels. Spaced around the outer cylindrical wall of this central foyer were doorways that led to four more corridors leading to the other 'spokes' and also four very large elevators that appeared to access both upper and lower levels – the lowest being for an underground transport network if his tricorder was interpreting the graphic signage here correctly – the highest providing access to the boarding gantries on different levels within the column above.

Kohl was tempted to ascend but pressed on for now, looking for some kind of machinery or computer equipment he could access, but there appeared to be very little, most plant was, he assumed, incorporated into the walls and floors around him. He walked into a corridor opposite the one he'd entered from and found himself exiting through a similar configuration of bright anti-room and airlock in the spoke on the opposite side of the column and out into the hangar space again, closer on this side to the centre of the belly of the Fantasy.

He looked up at her enormous bulk safely parked above, noting the many large bay doors along the port underside; the same could be found on the starboard side, he knew, leading off a level which the limited SS Fantasy guide on his padd referred to as the Marina Deck. The bays would have accommodated passenger's private vehicles during its many voyages, Kohl recalled, as well as provide egress for the liner's own launches. The tar-like surface covering the ship was not part of its original design, however. In its day, the liner had been gleaming white, surely a dazzling vision to behold in the night black of space. This surface coating had obviously been applied later, after its disappearance, he assumed, and had even more of a reflective effect than the hangar walls as his tricorder's readings were unclear and scans bounced clean off. For many minutes he strolled along the underside, staring up at the huge bulk, frustrated that nothing was being picked up on his tricorder, it was as if it wasn't even there; and in doing so he'd lost all track of time.

Feeling a slight crook in his neck, Kohl glanced around and remembered Re Lorken. At a fast walk, he made his way around the sloped protrusion and peered across the next angled spoke to see that Re Lorken had not apparently moved, eyes fixed now on the floor, though there appeared to be something in front of her. Tricorder still running, he jogged over to where she stood, head hung low. As he slowed, he saw a large piece of colorful cloth, charred and ripped at the edges had been staked to the thick metal floor by a long, elegant, ornately carved spear, though the spear was snapped, the other part lay askance on the floor. It was the strangest site – and he didn't remember seeing it when they arrived. The cloth reminded Kohl of a flag design, though the curves, lines and ellipses that made up the image were unfamiliar. The spear appeared older, elaborately carved with strange creatures, and apparently made out of a dark wood.

The scene before them was symbolic to say the least.

"What is it?" Kohl saw that Re Lorken had apparently discarded her headband as it lay on the floor a short distance away, her hair was disheveled and out of place – he assumed where she'd wrestled to take it off. Her cheeks were flushed, particularly on her left side, and she looked totally distraught.

She whispered: "It is the T'Kani flag of Invasion. It flies wherever they claim ownership."

Kohl scanned the objects with his tricorder and frowned. "I know this flag may look old, Minister, but if these readings are correct the flag was manufactured less than a month ago."

Re Lorken didn't react. Instinctively, Kohl drew his phaser and scanned once more for lifeforms. He continued his analysis.

"The spear is much older, perhaps several hundred years I'd say, though readings show the break is fresh. Interesting. The spear is made of a dense metal and the angle is concurrent with the trajectory of a manually directed impact." He translated in plain language; "It's as if the spear was thrust into two inches of solid metal floor by someone, or something, and then snapped in half."

Re Lorken's face was colourless and she visibly shook, though she remained silent. Kohl was trying to work it out. "Minister, is the spear T'Kani as well?"

Re Lorken shuddered. "No," she murmured, "it is a Challenge Stick, a symbol of retribution once used by The Ore."

ACT 1

SECTOR KAPPA NINE NINE SIX OF FREE SPACE, ADJACENT TO THE NEW THOLIAN BORDER (FEDERATION SIDE)

EARTH DATE: DECEMBER 22

4pm Vekarian Central Time

A larger than average Ferengi Pod, license JZ2-KV-Q6, bronze-burnished and dripping with tacky add-ons, pumped a steady warp two through the new Free Territory bordering Tholian space.

In its tiny lower deck, amid an oil-stained and smoky hued excuse of a cabin, a handsome thirty something Starfleet officer slept oblivious to the slender, bony hand deftly reaching through the open hatch and extracting his personal holdall. The name badge stamped onto the side read 'Commander S.L.I. Christian', though there were heavy scratch marks over the first word.

In the low bunk, the officer shifted slightly, pulling the threadbare rug across his shoulder, his stupor fretful and restless…

Christian dreamt of the fateful anniversary celebration that had taken place only 2 months ago. He hadn't been there in person, though that had been unintentional - an incident with the Cardassians saw to that. And because of the 'snake skins' he had also missed the celebratory 10,000th performance of his parents' acting partnership, suitably played out upon the infamous stage of the Theatre Imperial in Jeuneaux, capitol of the New Paris Colony of Napole, where the two had first met and fallen in love.

On the grand and cavernous stage, the post-performance party was swinging with pulsing party lights and up-tempo music, but Christian felt out of place, puzzled as to how he could be here, in the past. He reminded himself this was only a dream, and felt sick at the thought of what was to come. He wanted to leave, to wake up, but he couldn't. As he thought of escape, Counsellor Skorran appeared beside him, devastatingly smart and upright in his Starfleet uniform, his eyes mirroring the blue of the sciences department colours that he wore. The Deltan's very appearance was breathtakingly soothing, but his words were firm:

"Do not resist your dreams, Commander, they are your unconscious path to peace."

He'd said as much to Christian back aboard the USS Venture. But the words didn't help him then or now. He was perspiring, heart racing; his parents were nowhere to be seen and he felt the urgent need to find them before it happened.

There were Starfleet top brass mingling about the stage area, along with several Federation dignitaries visiting the colony, plus local stakeholders, as well as the actors, dancers and crew of his parents' troupe, some of whom Christian had known since he was a boy. As he pushed through the crowd he overheard snippets of conversation complementing his parents' latest performance:

"I think their choice to perform The Taming of The Shrew on their Anniversary was quite aptly an 'omage to their wildly turbulent courtship."

"With two mature actors playing the leading roles, it gave the play a whole new edge, don't you agree?"

"Have you seen the Christians' Anthony and Cleopatra? It's truly primal."

"Do you remember that time they did 'The Shrew on Vulcan? Talk about over their heads!" Much laughter at this.

Pushing through a clump of alien musicians, chattering and clucking to each other between sets, Christian finally found his parents, holding hands as usual and politely holding court. They were delighted to see him:

"Son, you made it. We thought you were stuck on your ship, light years away."

"How's my favourite Executive Officer? Not got himself a Woman or a Ship of his own yet, I see."

Christian laughed, his parents were very fond of him, and he missed them when he was away for too long. Ordinarily he would have thought of a witty response, but again reminded himself that this was only a dream, and he was merely an observer.

Suddenly, behind his parents, a blue-white flash of electrical discharge was accompanied by a single scream and much scuffling. The crowd parted quickly, and Christian saw a steel blue Medusan casket rocking back and forth in slow motion on the charred wooden boards of the stage, energy crackling about its main systems and a very obvious wide gash in its casing. His parents stood motionless, staring into the fluorescent green light popping with flashes of intense colour as the crowds, shielding their eyes, fled into the wings in literal blind panic.

Silently, a figure dressed in black from head to toe rose out of the stage floor in front of Christian, blocking his view. Before he could respond, or move the strange character out of the way, the faceless figure seized him by the shoulders and dragged him off the stage and into the auditorium at a pace. His parents began to scream, but didn't move. Christian couldn't stop his assailant, and his mouth was an open vacuum of empty sound as he got further away from his parents now standing alone on the stage. The Medusan entity seeped uncontrollably from its casket, bright green-yellow radiance sparkling with such acid intensity that the light filled the entire house.

Christian's parents were silent, rooted to the spot, unable to resist looking at the hideous energy creature. He tried to call out to them, but could only shed a single tear. His mother fell convulsing to the floor, and it was only her action that caused his father to wrench himself away, covering his eyes and swaying over his wife - driven mad by the Medusan effect.

Christian struggled against the shrouded figure, but the grip was unbreakable. He turned away from his father and looked into his assailant's black visage. As he stared into the figure's infinite face, still trying to wrestle free, tiny sparkles of Medusan energy appeared from within, crackling where its eyes should have been. Christian found the energy eyes irresistible, almost beautiful. But they did not affect him, as they should have. It seemed with this character the Medusan energy had no potency, as if the figure did not wish him harmed. Realising that his own mind wouldn't be taken, that he would not be joining his parents in their fate, Christian could only flop into the faceless figure's chest and sob at his loss…

Christian slowly came into consciousness, his clothes sodden from sweat and tears rolling down his cheeks. It had been another vicious nightmare. Counsellor Skorran had said they would continue to flourish until he had truly put the whole experience behind him, but that would take time. Counsellors were always so smugly accurate in their diagnosis, but living it, Christian felt, was another matter entirely.

Christian had tried hard to come to terms with the reality of what had happened to his parents, but he freely admitted to Skorran that he held much anger toward the Medusan delegation for their part in the 'accident'. He felt his loss could not be more unjustified. A badly maintained power regulator had caused a malfunction in the anti-grav of the casket. Coupled with the particular angle in which the casket fell, the faulty component had caused the power overload and the resulting explosion which ruptured the outdated casket releasing the unwitting alien.

His parents hadn't realised what had occurred until it was too late and they were mesmerised by the energy form of the Medusan. Christian's mother had died almost immediately. Metaphorically stated by the New Paris pathologist in his clearly apathetic coroner's log, her brain had been "fried to a crisp". That was yet more pain to add to his already agonizing bereavement. Seeing colour-treated security logs from the theatre's auditorium had helped Christian to acknowledge her death, but somehow, with them being on the stage like that, it had just seemed like another performance to him. The realisation that it had been real, the pain, the horror of it all, had come to him later, one night, when he had wandered the corridors of the Venture completely asleep and completely naked, crying out for his parents like a lost little boy. Embarrassment to add to his suffering.

Immediately after the incident, Christian's father had been transferred to the orbiting USS Intrepid where the Vulcan team of medics, said to be the best in the field of mental illness among Starfleet's medical personnel, spent three long days making their diagnosis. The Medusan entity, Korlan, had been safely retrieved from the theatre by automatons, and was reported devastated by the incident. Messages of condolence from Korlan via Medusan representatives on the Federation Council to Christian had later been returned unviewed. He had also filed an official complaint against the Medusan delegation and the technicians on the New Paris Colony responsible for maintaining their equipment. In truth, they were unsatisfying attempts at reprisal on Christian's part. All he got in return were official reports as to what happened, and apologies from the parties involved with an indictment that such an incident would not happen again. Empty promises for his grief.

Although Christian, still aboard the Venture, had been informed of the incident and reviewed all the reports, the Cardassians continued to delay his flight to his father's aid.

In his absence, the crew of the Intrepid journeyed to Starbase 211 where they took the counsel of a seemingly ancient telepath who understood the Medusans like no other, but to no avail. The prognosis was that he was beyond disjointed – he was mostly aware of his surroundings, of that she was certain, but locked in his own mind, unable to communicate. There was nothing she in her infinite experience could do for him.

By the time Christian finally made a rendezvous with the Intrepid, his father was mostly sedated and held in restraints for his own safety. Doctor K'Pa, the ship's CMO, described his father's condition as being like standing on one side of a vast lake, only vaguely aware of what was on the other side, but unable to see it clearly, much less get there. In between were many veils of consciousness, each with their own imagery, causing his perception to be distorted. Physically speaking, his father was fully functional, could even perform certain reflex and routine tasks to seeming perfection, but mentally he just wasn't all together, and too often would have violent outbursts.

On K'Pa's recommendation, his father underwent emergency surgery to permanently inhibit the parts of his brain that caused him any violent distress. He also ordered a short leave of absence for Christian, for his own state of mind as much as anything. His mother's funeral on New Paris was as beautiful as it could be under the circumstances, and very well attended, but his impassive, drooling father beside him had made it an agonising experience.

The USS Intrepid then transferred him with his father to the planet Elba IV, where the doctor had arranged permanent care. High up on the sheer face of a spectacular mountain range with magnificent views over much of the northern continent, a huge care facility and research establishment had been constructed partially within the mountain and the rest under a massive environmental dome.

It was primarily a facility for psychiatric research and provided a safe home for the mentally ill; a place for treatment and, in some cases, even cure. The nurses and doctors were excellent, many from nearby Betazed and a large proportion from Starfleet's Medical Corps. Having spent nearly two weeks on extended personal leave there, Christian felt comfortable leaving his father in their hands and ready to return to active duty. His father's nurses promised to keep Christian informed on a regular basis wherever possible and Christian found that reassuring.

During the last afternoon he spent on Elba IV with his father, Christian received shocking new orders. Instead of returning to the USS Venture as Executive Officer, a post he had been in for only six months, he was to be transferred via Starbase 11 and several onward vessels to a command position aboard the USS Firefly, a science vessel currently assigned to the newly discovered Outer Zone. Without warning, he had made Captain. He cried as he told his father the good news, but all the old man could do was murmur gibberish. Before he left, Christian promised his father he would do his parents proud, and that he would return to visit him at the earliest opportunity.

The journey to Starbase 11 on the Runabout Solent had felt long and uneventful, giving Christian time to read up on the data gathered so far on Qovakia. Once there he waited for several days for onward passage, sending communiqués to his friends and to his father and trying to come to terms with his new command. When it arrived, his next transport nearly knocked the wind out of his sails.

Aboard the USS Enterprise, Christian had only the briefest of meetings with Captain Picard in his ready room. The Frenchman congratulated him with a warm handshake and immediately proceeded to talk about Christian's unusual childhood and his own love of Shakespeare. Clearly Picard had fleetingly read Christian's resume and picked a subject to ease the flow of the meeting he was obliged to have with another of equal rank. Christian wished he had chosen another subject.

The conversation for some reason, perhaps because of the unusual setting, had brought Christian embarrassingly close to tears, reminding him of his parents, and he suspected Picard had realised a faux pas as he cut the meeting short. Counsellor Troi had dropped by his quarters repeatedly after that day to drag him away to a variety of events. Spending time with her was okay, but he preferred his women a little less ... emotional.

But Christian did have some quality time with former classmate Geordi La Forge one evening. In recent years La Forge's published papers on adaptive field engineering and his experiences gained during various tours aboard the Enterprise had captivated Christian, who had made the transfer from engineering to command just four years previous. As the two talked engineering theory in Ten Forward Christian found himself missing his old engine rooms when hearing all about La Forge's adventures. It had been a precious and reassuring reunion…

Back in the humming, and spicy smelling cabin of the Pod, Christian rubbed his face and carefully rose to a crouch. Stepping through the small hatch into the closet-sized access corridor, he knocked his head against the multifarious curious and mostly tasteless memorabilia strung up on the ceiling; trophies and souvenirs of the owner's travels, no doubt.

But something didn't feel right. He turned and looked back through the hatch, noticing his holdall was missing. 'That damned Ferengi!' he thought…

Just under a week ago there he had been, reclining in the comfort of his resplendent temporary quarters aboard the Enterprise, reading the specs on the small, but amazing Firefly science vessel and downloading the personnel files of his interesting new crew to his personal padd, when an urgent priority reassignment of the Enterprise left Christian dumped onto the Starfleet Communications Relay at Epsilon XIV, transported there hurriedly and unceremoniously at near-warp.

As a deep space facility the Communications relay had always doubled up as a border outpost. But in more recent months its subsidiary function had become a coordinating base for Starfleet and local patrol vessels in and around the new Tholian 'free' space. The station was unconventional in design. The communications array formed the largest part in the form of two hexagonal 'wings' attached to a central column tapered at either end. At one apex was a large, donut shaped module containing storage silos and secure holding cells and at the other, a clump of cube shaped modules containing administration and operations centres, accommodation and support services sections and, slung underneath, a docking and refuelling hub and an intricate external repairs turret. A number of additional modules had been bolted on to various parts of the superstructure over successive months as the relay station's needs exceeded its capacity.

Despite its enhancements it was basic to say the least, and its personnel the isolationist, rugged types one tended to find opting for a remote posting. The Relay's CO, Commander Troppa, didn't like Christian and didn't hide her feelings about it. She seemed against him from the moment he fell off the transporter, posting him the smallest of quarters adjacent to the constantly whirring and 'plopping' reprocessing plant and being actively uncooperative concerning his onward passage to the Outer Zone. Perhaps it grated her that he had been granted command at a relatively young age. Or maybe she didn't like Humans, or Americans - or men. Christian didn't much care, and felt no qualms in pestering her office repeatedly for news concerning his transport, hoping that his constant nagging would eventually pay off.

Three long, head-splitting days later, in the middle of the night, Troppa had awoken him from a fitful sleep, informing him by comm-link that she had managed to arrange onward passage and would he meet her in the shuttle bay for immediate departure. Christian didn't stop to wash or put on underclothes, he pulled his uniform and boots on roughly and grabbed his holdall - he had refused the temptation to unpack - and took pleasure in hitting the small shuttle deck less than two minutes after the Commander's message.

His suddenly woeful expression must have been amusing to Troppa as he saw his carriage. An oversized Ferengi Pod, unusually double decked and clad in burnished silver and bronze outfittings sat pointing towards space. The shuttle bay doors were retracted, revealing the Epsilon XIV nebula remnants beyond, a passive forcefield holding the bay atmosphere in place. The Commander was smiling as a civilian Norsican security officer exited the turbolift and led a handcuffed, rough looking character who was still half asleep towards them.

Christian saw that the offender had Ferengi parentage, though he looked more Human than he did Ferengi; a tallish, thin man, with wild long, fine hair covering whatever head bumps might be there, and small lobes above his eyes that swept into the man's temples without forming heavy ridges. His nose had faint markings where there would have normally been scaling, and he had piercing green eyes. Then the smell hit Christian, a heady aroma of stale alcohol and musky bachelor, which matched the unkempt hair and well tarnished leather apparel; this half Ferengi even had the makings of a beard - and was that chest hair Christian could see? 'A man could not look more renegade if he tried', Christian thought.

As the security officer unbound the yawning, unfocussed man, the Commander had made a short speech:

"This man is Rebbik."

"Commander, darlin', you know I prefer Reb," he smirked at her.

"He calls himself a trader..."

"I Am a trader," he said, hurt, and the security guard elbowed him hard in the ribs to be silent.

"He also professes himself as a pilot for hire, though in my experience he mostly traffics illicit goods."

"Nothing too illicit," he winked at Christian, gripping his side in exaggerated pain.

"We brought him in on minor smuggling charges yesterday…"

"I told you, those drugs were placed on my ship by Kalassus," he turned to Christian again, "he's never liked me since I slept with his grandmoth.."

"Will you shut your filthy mouth!" Troppa bellowed angrily. "Or I'll have the Sergeant shut it for you."

Christian felt sure she had been about to add: "again" as Reb just glanced up fearfully at the smirking Norsican security guard. She stepped closer to Christian, excluding Reb from any further opportunity to chip in.

"You are in a hurry to reach the Outer Zone and I really can't be bothered with the paperwork for this jackass, so I've decided to waiver his penalties on the condition that he ferry you the rest of the journey, through the wormhole to Qovakia and all the way to Vekaria." She made a move to leave.

"In this?!" Christian said reflexively gesturing at the crude vessel. "It will take days."

"Maybe a week," the Commander paused only to smile slightly wider. "But it's the best we can do under the circumstances... Commander."

With that she spun on her heel and bounded out accompanied by her stooges. Christian flushed red. He had forgotten to put his extra pip on his uniform, leaving himself wide open for a departing jibe from Troppa. He turned to the half-drunk man who grinned stupidly and held out a slightly shaking hand. Christian rolled his eyes, ignoring the offer of acquaintance and walked toward the pod's entrance.

Reb was obviously very proud of his vessel, as for two hours after departure he constantly hammered on about all the close scrapes he had been in. Christian admitted to himself the man did seem to be a competent pilot, and certainly used his skill as a technician and engineer to customise what would have been a standard issue vessel into something far superior. Yet his constant bragging, most of which was clearly vastly exaggerated, and the scratching, belching and farting forced Christian below; this was going to be a very long journey.

And it was. He had tried to spend most time in the tiny berth, but claustrophobia had forced the Captain to spend many hours in the mercenary's company in the small cockpit – though he soon made it clear to his pilot that he preferred to keep conversation to a minimum. Only reading up on the minutia of the USS Firefly's technical specs had kept him from losing his cool, and he was thankful that the journey was nearing its end…

As Christian climbed the short ladder to the upper deck, he could hear Reb sniggering and coughing as he viewed Christian's recent personal log entries.

"The HELL..?! Have you no respect?" Lunging into the cockpit area, Christian snatched the padd off the startled young man and kicked his legs off the vacant co-pilot seat. He noticed Reb had got most of the way through a bottle of Saurian brandy and was now frowning in inebriated annoyance.

"Hey, what you kick me for?" Reb was drunk all right, Christian thought.

"You," Christian fought for the words, knowing the man would only understand something basic in his state, "are ... in BIG trouble."

Reb paused, then his face contorted into wheezing, almost silent hysterics that wouldn't stop for a minute or two.

"Dear God..." Christian murmured to himself and cast his eyes upward in defeat. But there was no relief there as holographic pictures of assorted naked couples and groups in a variety of explicit poses filled his vision. He closed his eyes in controlled disgust, seemingly making Reb ha and haw even more.

Reb continued to splutter and choke for breath, before shaking his head and quietening down, "Man, you are a picture. Oh, dear..."

As Reb wiped a tear, Christian frowned at the readings on the pod's flight control panel. He hit a few buttons for confirmation, causing Reb to become agitated at his interference. "Hey! Don't touch that!"

"You idiot!" Christian couldn't believe it. "We're light years off course and ... I don't… we're in Tholian territory!"

Reb smiled assuredly, shaking his head and holding up a telling-off forefinger. "No, no, no, you mean we're in free territory that USED to be Tholian space."

"No, I mean you're the worst pilot I've ever had the misfortune of meeting."

Reb paused a moment then glanced at the readout information, trying to focus on the data and having to move his head forward and back and squint through his eyes to see it clearly. The colour drained from his face. Spurting out a descriptive curse in Ferengi he was suddenly a crazed man over the flight controls, flipping the pod on its side as he turned it around in a sharp arc and headed back toward free space at maximum warp.

A moment later a warning chirp intensified the atmosphere, Christian trying not to look at the displays. "Don't tell me..."

"Forget it," Reb's hands were lightening fast with the familiarity of his ship's systems, and the man found the courage to play down the situation, "just a couple of Tholian patrol vessels. Nothing to worry about."

"Oh, great," Christian slumped back in his seat, folding his arms. He waited a couple of heartbeats, a seeming eternity as Reb floored the accelerator and kept the ship steady on course. The warning signal chirped again. And again. And again. Christian couldn't take it any longer. "Time to free space?"

"Ah... just about… two minutes," Reb tapped a couple of buttons, "and before you ask, they'll be within firing range in about one and a half."

Although his voice seemed more clear and controlled, Christian could see the man had begun to perspire. Christian had been in similar situations twice before, once aboard the Shuttlecraft Panama in battle simulations around Saturn's rings, and once aboard a Lethean scoutship in the Romulan Neutral Zone. In both cases the ships were in dire situations and in both cases his actions to either take control or assist the pilots in their work had done nothing more than interrupt their concentration and cause more problems; he had vowed not to interfere a third time.

Christian sat on his hands as his tension rose, and couldn't help make a suggestion. "Open a channel to them," he said.

Reb scoffed; "You know they won't listen."

"Just do it!" Christian had stiffened with angst and took a deep breath to relax. "We should at least try, stall for time."

Reb hit the autotransmit but it wasn't acknowledged. "See?! We're running away from them well inside their borders! I don't think stalling for time is an option." Though that gave Reb an idea.

Christian had sat forward now, hands gripping the console but resisting the temptation to operate controls, mulling over their limited options. A panel flashed red in front of him.

"They're trying to lock weapons," Christian reported.

Reb was calm, but busy, stealthily avoiding the lock becoming true whilst also entering a number of commands into the main drive system processors, which seemed more than a little strange to Christian. "I'm going to try something."

As the half-Ferengi brought several redundant systems on-line, Christian watched, trying to follow his actions to work out what he intended to do. It seemed Reb was setting the structural integrity field for a massive overload, and the engines to reinitialise at emergency speed after stalling.

"Er... is that such a good idea?" Christian knew that when performing such a dangerous manoeuvre in anything less than a Starfleet ship it was touch and go whether the inertial dampeners would come on-line before the vessel jumped to warp.

Reb ignored his question and activated the rear viewer on the panel below Christian; "Tell me when you see them fire their torpedoes."

Christian looked at the man beside him in disbelief, then at the viewer in front of him as the images of the arrow head shaped ships closed in. He was conscious of swallowing hard. Suddenly there was a flash from each vessel. "Now!" Christian shouted.

"Hang on!" Reb throttled back and spun the Pod into a tight reverse corkscrew, cutting engines. The ship gave a deafening groan and systems popped and sparked all around them as both men were flung forward at full force while the Pod fell out of warp speed and twisted violently in a circular motion. Both missiles overshot their target and exploded into two balls of energy webbing a few hundred thousand metres in front of them. The Pod's systems flickered back on line as the Tholians also dropped out of warp but had to swerve to avoid collision with the Pod, giving Reb just enough time to jump to warp. In less than a minute, and in one piece, they were finally out of range and in free space.

Once they were safely over the border and there was no sign of pursuit, Reb slowed the pod to sub-light to make a full systems check. "Don't tell me, I know. That was really stupid."

"You said it," Christian said coolly, still aware of the man's inebriation, even if he was more alert now and pumped with adrenalin. "We're damned lucky we weren't blown into space dust."

"I suppose you are going to report me for this?" Reb seemed pathetic to Christian in this state.

Christian snorted at the man's incredulity and shook his head. "What do you think?"

He resisted the urge to pop him one. But he knew damn well that he couldn't report Reb for the incursion without facing a reprimand of his own; as far as Starfleet regulations went, simply by being on board he would be considered an accessory to the incident. Then again, he thought, he didn't have to let Reb know that. Finally he felt it was time to take charge.

"I'm laying in a revised course for the wormhole. Taking in our minor detour, we should be there in ..." Christian slumped, "... oh, crap… about sixteen hours."

Christian reached across in front of the now forlorn man as he entered instructions into the pilot's console and realised for the first time that Reb was probably only a few years younger than himself. "Why don't you go below and sober up," he suggested.

Reb didn't answer, but nodded. He stood and ducked back through the hatch toward the galley and head in the rear. He stopped on the other side of the hatch to say, "For what it's worth, I'm... ah... I'm genuinely sorry, Captain."

Christian didn't respond, but a short time after he realised he still hadn't put his extra pip onto his uniform; Reb must have discovered he had been promoted through reading his padd and he thought it odd that this character would be apologising - much less give recognition to his official rank. 'Must be the Human in him,' thought Christian, 'that or the Saurian brandy.'

STORAGE FACILITY ORLEGA ONE, HELUB, 4.30pm VCT

"Re Lorken, did you hear me? I said who or what is the Ore?" Kohl wasn't sure what frightened Re Lorken more, talk of the T'Kani returning or this Ore object.

The Minister just shook her head and turned to him, staring into his face, less of a politician now, more of a matriarch with a look of what seemed like disbelief.

"We should leave," she said quickly and picked up her headband, turning toward the runabout. "Yes, we should leave. It may not be too late."

Kohl stared at the broken spear and flag as she walked away and was about to ask her what she meant when he heard Re Lorken cry out. She had stopped dead in her tracks only a few paces away, hands covering her mouth. Beyond the spot where she stood, the hangar floor was empty for as far as he could see. The runabout had gone.

EP1 ACT 2

STORAGE FACILITY ORLEGA ONE, HELUB, 4.31pm VCT

A brief moment of disbelief later, Kohl was using his tricorder to find out what happened. Interference made his analysis impossible. He tapped his comm badge instead; "Kohl to Runabout Hudson."

But there was no response from the computer, and he snapped his tricorder shut in frustration. Moving to her side, he could see Re Lorken was shaking. He looked all around and above, trying to eyeball the runabout or some movement within the hangar, but there was nothing except the hundreds of dead ships suspended in silence.

"Where the hell is she?" Kohl was more puzzled than afraid. "What happened?"

Re Lorken turned her head as if something had caught her attention. Kohl followed her eyeline.

"What do you see?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said vaguely. "We need to get out of here, Leonard, and quickly."

"But… shouldn't we wait here? You told your security people we would only be an hour - I assume if they don't hear from you soon they will come out here to find us?" Despite having a missing runabout to explain, Kohl considered this an opportunity to take a closer look at the Fantasy, maybe take an elevator to its boarding gantry high up in the raised section toward the rear of the giant vessel.

Re Lorken faced him, it seemed she had composed herself once more. "That's still a while away yet and we should not remain here any longer than necessary."

"You're suggesting we take one of these ships instead?" Kohl gestured above them. "I don't know if that's wise."

"Of course not," she said quickly, marching toward the airlock. "There is a transportation network under this facility, and tunnels that connect with the port. We should find some means to convey us there at speed."

Kohl was still searching the endless nooks of the hangar. "I don't understand, the runabout couldn't have just disappeared ... unless there's a temporal anomaly of some kind in here." He recalibrated the tricorder with new enthusiasm.

Re Lorken raised an eyebrow. "No, I don't think it's anything as far fetched as that."

She was right. There were no identifiable temporal anomalies here. Kohl began to distrust this ageing politician. "Are you keeping something from me, Minister? Do you know what happened to the runabout?"

Re Lorken appeared to change before his eyes, straightening and firming her jaw. She stepped closer. "If we find a means of transport and leave now we should reach the outskirts of the Space Port by evening. In fact, I may be able to get a signal with security once we're safely beyond the perimeter of this structure; I can ask them to send a party to meet us along the way." She walked toward the hatch leading to the complex beyond.

Kohl took a final look around the hanger, at the broken spear and flag, and then decided to stand his ground. "No, I'm not going until you give me some straight answers."

But Re Lorken was indifferent, calling over her shoulder: "As you wish," and disappeared inside.

Kohl paused, wanting to be firm, and looked through the empty doorway. After several moments he decided that the ageing Minister may require his aid, so excused himself to hurry after her, just in case.

USS FIREFLY, ON ASSIGNMENT IN FREE SPACE (QOVAKIAN SIDE), 7.02pm VCT

In the dim light of the evening shift, the all-female bridge crew silently carried out their duties. The doors to the turbolift hissed open to reveal a sweaty middle aged woman dressed neck to boot in quilted, figure hugging, black-trimmed midnight blue.

Duty Officer Lieutenant Sarilev jolted everyone to attention. "Captain on the bridge!"

"Good evening, ladies," Commander Vancek exited the turbolift and walked down to the command chair. Sarilev stepped aside and made for the vacant science stations to the rear of the bridge as Vancek watched her go. "And that's Acting Captain, Lieutenant."

She flopped down into the command chair. It had been a particularly demanding game of Parisses Squares on the holodeck, but she felt truly alive.

The officers on the bridge turned to their cheerful Acting Captain.

"I take it your team won, Sir?" Ensign Shirley Braxton smiled from her conn station.

"And then some!" Vancek quipped, wallowing in self-adulation.

"Captain," Lieutenant Sarilev, now serious, called over from science station four, "sensors are detecting multiple magnetic storms erupting throughout the sector."

"Multiple…? On screen," Vancek didn't want to walk all the way over to the readout panel; she was too comfortable where she sat in her post-match after-glow.

The standard two-dimensional viewer-ahead star field faded to black and a three dimensional holographic representation of their current sector of space materialized at the front of the Bridge, filling the gap between the helm and the wide viewscreen, a feature unique to this prototype class of science vessel.

The map showed the newly established Tholian border sweeping across the background. In front was the area recently declared as free space and on the far right at the extent of their short-range sensor limit was the stable wormhole's location – a fizzling graphic appeared close to it, on the periphery of Vekarian space. Three similar but smaller graphics could be seen on the far left.

"Those are the storms," she said.

Entering a command into the chair's small arm-mounted lcars, Vancek overlaid grid squares and their course so far, the various clusters of stars and other spacial objects they had scanned brighter on the display; several areas were completely blank, greyed out, representing the as yet uncharted areas of free space.

"Captain, there's significant space chatter on the Comms," communications specialist Ensign Crosby raised her handsome face toward the CO, "several other Starfleet vessels are reporting similar anomalies."

"I'm linking in telemetry from other vessels and probes in the local area." Sarilev changed the viewer setting, zooming out to show the full extent of their sensor limit beyond their sector to include much more of Qovakia. As she continued to add detail, more storms appeared, scattered randomly across the whole region.

Vancek guessed there were several dozen. Around some of the storms, the holographic map began to ripple and fade to black; it was clear they were interfering with sensor scans.

"There are so many ... are they a natural phenomenon?" Vancek asked.

Sarilev cross-referenced readings with the Qovakian database recently downloaded to the Firefly's computer core.

"They are not uncommon in the Outer Zone, particularly surrounding the wormhole or other spatial disturbances where electromagnetic activity is high. But in all my years of service I've never heard of so many appearing at the same time. That's odd," Sarilev tapped at her controls twice, "the Qovakian database contains references to magnetic storms, but much of the detail is classified."

"Classified…?" she scoffed. "Why would files on space weather be classified..? Focus on the storm nearest to our position, Lieutenant," Vancek ordered, wiping sweat from her brow with a forefinger, sliding it on her game outfit and sitting forward with her elbows on her knees.

The holographic display morphed and zoomed in toward the right of the map. At this magnification they could see the Firefly, now on the far left of the display, traversing the Tholian border.

The ship was represented by a small Starfleet insignia, its name above and registry below it, barely moving at sub-light speed from left to right across the holo display. There were no planets or stars nearby - though the entire area was peppered with swathes of asteroid fields. The storm could be seen on the far right of the display, in the area between the wormhole and Vekaria.

The event, Vancek concluded, was still several hours away at maximum warp.

"Inform Starfleet Headquarters we are diverting toward the magnetic storm nearest to the wormhole for a closer analysis," Vancek said.

"Aye, Sir," Crosby grabbed Vancek's speech part from the live log for relay and opened a channel to Starfleet.

Suppressing a yawn, Vancek walked over to Ensign Braxton. "Lay in a course for the storm, Shirley, Warp 4."

Braxton had grown accustomed to the Commander's non-regulation familiarity. It made the intimacy of such a small ship more bearable. "Course laid in, sir. Estimated time of arrival ... three hours, fifty one minutes."

Crosby shifted in her seat. The storms had begun to cause slight interference to subspace communications. She recalibrated the signal and finally got through. On pinging with the Headquarters based on Helub, a stream of communications flooded back down the comm line. "Captain, I'm receiving an update from HQ on all the fleet's space chatter for the last few hours."

Vancek heaved herself up the few steps toward the turbolift with a slight groan. The game with Lieutenant Commander Stryker's team had really taken it out of her. "Relay all non-classified communiqués to senior officers and department heads, I'm off for a shower."

On the way to her quarters, Vancek slumped dog-tired against the walls of the turbolift and wondered what it would be like to have the only man amongst a command team of women sitting in the centre seat. Having come aboard as First Officer, Vancek's immediate promotion to Acting Captain had been a pleasant surprise and the experience more than a little enjoyable. She had built up an immediate rapport with the rest of the crew, but hoped she hadn't overstepped the mark in terms of familiarity with her senior officers. It could be difficult for Captain Christian to integrate.

"Krishnamurti to Vancek," the relayed commlink from one of the science heads jolted her eyes wide.

"Vancek here. What is it, Lieutenant?"

"Sarilev tells me we're about to investigate one of many unusual magnetic storms that have just appeared around Qovakia," her voice conveyed more than a little concern. "Captain, the Craybourne reported one such storm appearing in their vicinity almost an hour ago - HQ hasn't been able to raise them since."

Vancek recalled that the Craybourne was a Steamrunner class vessel, crewed by the team that was so successful aboard the USS Preston until it was trashed in the conflict with the Borg almost a year ago. She had been friends with Bretton and Leung, the surviving tactical and operations chiefs, and knew them both to be cautious, mature officers.

"Turbolift, halt!" Vancek put hands on hips and thought for a moment. "Krishy, call all senior officers to the briefing room immediately."

"Aye, sir." In the comfort of her small quarters, Krishnamurti turned her attention back to her divining board and suddenly slapped a hand over her mouth in horror at what she saw.

Back inside the small turbolift, Vancek re-routed her journey back to the bridge. Before the doors had fully opened, she called out to Sarilev: "Lieutenant, call the crew to duty stations and sound yellow alert."

DESIGNATED VISITOR AREA 13, HELUB SPACE PORT, 8.37pm VCT

The Old Fortress hadn't been used for many years by native Vekarians; a dilapidated square block of twenty five levels, it had served as one of several interrogation centres during the recent military occupation; now it was designated as Visitor Area 13 and teeming with life anew. The port sprawled out around it for thousands of kilometres and hundreds of levels below its now mostly man-made surface, boring deep into the rock of the ancient moon. Helub was a thriving civilisation in its own right and had expanded over many generations. Most Vekarians now lived and worked here full time - a mere 22 million still lived their daily lives in the natural air of the lush planet below.

In the depths of the space port numerous cavernous docking areas were interlinked by enormous transport conduits capable of allowing up to four lanes of standard medium sized cargo and passenger traffic at any one time if necessary - though the majority of vehicles that used them usually consisted of much smaller transports shifting goods and people from one area of the port to another. Off the main conduits, labyrinthine transit tunnels spilled off to smaller marinas and private berths, and even narrower transport tubes, some with passive force fields containing pressurised jetties and dry docks for easy Humanoid access.

Wedged between the spaceward edifices crammed together on the surface and the transportation, cargo and docking levels far below, a slab averaging around a hundred levels contained the main living and administrative facilities of Helub. It was something of a megalopolis in its own right, split into many varying districts of industry and commerce, factories, schools, accommodation zones, environmental parks and public spaces, shopping facilities, hydroponic farms, power plants and an inordinate number of leisure, entertainment and general support services.

In one such shopping and entertainment area, off an off-ramp from a subway that connected to the local main pedestrian thoroughfare that ran alongside the base of the Old Fortress complex, some determined Starfleet officers had managed to sniff out the conducive atmosphere of a small taverna-like establishment.

The Old Fortress had been assigned to official Federation and Starfleet Visitors and was more recently also being used as spill-over accommodation for Federation citizens – though many were unhappy to be housed in what had once been a place of vicious and frequently lethal information extraction. The bar was on the side of a five metre wide corridor directly opposite the door to a maintenance shaft that extended up into the Fortress – it was one of millions of similar access shafts that latticed through the structure of the port providing access to all the hidden plant machinery and pipework. For the past few weeks the shaft had provided unofficial but easy access for off-duty staff to slip straight out of the back door of Starfleet HQ and down into the intimate bar.

Lieutenant O'Hara sat with her fellow officers in one of the window booths, watching the diverse range of Qovakian citizens go by, and took another swig of the strange purple liquid. She gave Lieutenant Mellors a sideways glance and sniffed at the drink again.

"Are you sure this is just fruit juice?" she screwed up her nose and gave it back to Lieutenant Gravant.

"That's what the guy said," Mellors smiled, and drained the remaining ale from his own glass. The burly security Lieutenants Jackson and Japell smiled and followed suit.

"It most definitely is more than just fruit juice," Gravant shook her head in conclusion, but continued to drink it all the same.

Gravant was O'Hara's charge for the evening. She hated going out without a female companion by her side ever since her antics of exclusively hanging around with male cadets at the Academy had earned her a reputation that wasn't (wholly) true. Junior Lt Gravant had become her unwitting sidekick for tonight but she clearly wasn't much of a drinker, and O'Hara wondered if she would last the course of the evening.

"Your round, I believe, Nurse," Lt Joseph Jackson smiled wickedly and swept the empty glasses toward her with his large hands.

O'Hara couldn't help react to the use of the word 'nurse' (she was practically an MD in her final year of study) and wouldn't miss the opportunity for a return dig at the muscular man. "You are SO the son of your mother, aren't you?"

The others giggled. "Don't knock my mother, Lieutenant," his eyes glinted, "you may regret it."

O'Hara turned to Japell and Mellors, mouth agape in camp fear, but she clearly didn't feel at all threatened. If anything, there was an air of flirtation about her response.

Gravant suddenly roared with laughter, a little too loud, urging O'Hara quickly toward the bar. As she stood waiting to be served, she noticed through the entrance to her left a heavily shrouded figure loitering around the doorway of the maintenance hatch that led up to the Fortress. O'Hara couldn't see what race or nationality, but guessed it was a young woman by the general stance and shape. As she thought of mentioning it to her security colleagues, a scuffle broke out in the bar to her right.

It was over by the time she saw the unlikely perpetrators - traveller types with well-worn faces and expressions of hardship and woe. They quickly gathered their belongings and stormed out.

The bartender caught O'Hara's eye; "What'll it be, miss?"

"Two ales – no, make that three ales and another, what was it, Darkiller Berry Punch?" O'Hara noticed where the scuffle had occurred the locals were huddled in intent, agitated discussion pointing fingers and shaking heads, a couple covering their mouths, their eyes showing genuine alarm.

The bartender was smiling, watching Gravant flailing her arms about as she relayed what she considered to be an amusing story to the three men who were clearly not in the least amused. O'Hara gritted her teeth at the sight, but the bartender nodded toward her table. "Don't worry, I'll add a shot of Disahol to her drink. The more she sups, the more sober she'll become."

"Thanks," O'Hara was amazed that the bartender had a supply of the drug. "How did you come by that?"

As he added it to the purple liquid, the barkeeper thumbed upwards. "Your Commodore up there personally told me to keep this bottle on hand for any of you Starfleet types who start getting the worse for ware."

"Did she, now?" O'Hara looked over at Lt Jackson - she decided he would probably be completely oblivious to his mother's actions. Personally she felt insulted by the direct action of the commanding officer of the Starfleet HQ above. As golden liquid was poured into the long cylindrical glasses, O'Hara glanced over to the now louder discussion among the locals. "What's going on?"

The bartender shook his head and waved her down. "The things people get upset about..." One glass was frothy-full.

"What?" O'Hara urged.

"Oh, just some rumour. Well, not just any old rumour, it's a rumour I've heard many times in the past few years, but nothing's ever come of it, though come to mention it people have been talking about it a lot more in recent weeks. Perhaps it's because of the new era we're entering with you folks from the Other Side," he smiled broadly at her as another glass of ale slopped down beside the first. O'Hara found this form of manual service quaint, but unpredictable. Give her a replicator-assisted service every time.

His lack of detail was frustrating. "What? What rumour?" O'Hara pushed.

"That the T'Kani are returning," the bartender said it matter-of-factly, and smiled, clearly not believing it himself. "Silly, I know."

"That's the military invaders who were overthrown a few years ago?" O'Hara asked. Like all Starfleet personnel arriving through the wormhole she had received a scant briefing on the people and culture of Qovakia and its main points in history. Starfleet's anthropologists had likened the Qovakian society as being similar to the Bajorans in their state of affairs just after the Cardassians withdrew, but on a much larger scale.

"'Overthrown'?" the barkeep slopped the last glass down. "Well, you could put it like that, I suppose."

"Why would they be so convinced the T'Kani were coming back?" O'Hara handed over a few notes (too many, but the bartender skilfully pretended not to notice). "We've heard nothing to that effect."

"It's said their fleet has been spotted – again – out in the far quarters," the bartender said. "Don't ask me by who, because no-one seems to know. No one ever seems to know, it's the same old story. I personally think it's the merchants on Melndis spreading these rumours, myself. Ever since the T'Kani left Helub, our rivals' trade has plummeted." The bartender raised a calming hand to an almost hoarse Vekarian sluice cleaner who had been hollering for his attention for the last minute or so. "Will there be anything else?"

"No, thank you," O'Hara knew that Melndis was another free port, smaller than Helub, and that it had been less affected by the T'Kani occupation, but since that had ended most residents and traders had gradually returned to Helub and business on Melndis had all but dried up save the faithful regulars and those with little other choice. They had been trying to tempt traders back with wild offers of hospitality and O'Hara knew that Starfleet was considering relocating Starfleet's regional HQ there; a good offer, she thought, considering the cramped space and hectic lifestyle on Helub.

As she walked back to the table carefully balancing the drinks, O'Hara glanced through the taverna's glass frontage over at the maintenance door opposite. The figure had gone, so she put the incident down to her own suspicious nature and thought no more of it. O'Hara sat down and handed the drinks around, guiding the freshly filled antidote drink safely to the lips of a violently hiccupping Gravant. As the boys opposite chuckled amongst themselves, she caught Jackson's eye, noticing it carried that lustful look again. O'Hara flicked her fiery red hair back over her shoulders and pretended to not notice.

THE OLD FORTRESS, STARFLEET HEADQUARTERS, LEVEL 24, STORAGE ROOM 2423, 8.55pm VCT

The Starfleet engineer snapped his toolbox shut, scratched his crotch, broke wind with gumption, giggled, and began the long climb up the ladder to the complex above. He muttered to himself his options for the evening as he disappeared through the hole in the ceiling, failing to notice the figure hiding in the shadows behind a clump of pipes in the corner of the storage room beneath.

Hedra breathed a heavy sigh and stretched her limbs: that idiot had taken a full fifteen minutes to repair a faulty circuit and she ached from the strain of keeping still in one position. Flipping back her hood with gloved hands, she flexed her tensed muscles and stepped cautiously into the dim light, glancing up to the maintenance ladder. There was no sight or sound of the now off-duty worker.

Most of the room in which she stood was occupied by a caged area, about five metres square and as many high, but within it was the means for making a lot of money. Hedra walked around the meshed sides noting the clearly labelled Starfleet contents and adding up the expected black market values of each in her head as she did, trying to calculate a differential for trading in the Outer Zone.

She caught her reflection in a shiny metallic container and quickly looked away. Hedra was breathtakingly beautiful, as were nearly all females of her kind. Her face was perfect, with sultry eyes and full mouth, all of varying lush green hues. Her hair was died a darker green rather than the traditional brunette (which was more for show for outsiders), and tied back in a neat, tight bun. Her figure was breathtaking; nubile, athletic – truly everyone's desire. But while she used that frequently to her advantage, it was only out of necessity; actively looking at her reflection had become something she despised, hating that person who looked back at her.

Hedra, satisfied that this latest job would be sufficiently lucrative, took out her small flat pouch of tools and set about making a thorough scan of the supplies and the cage's security system. Her recce complete, she swathed herself once more, deciding to return in the morning, just after the first patrol passed through. Luckily for her, a few hours earlier she had overheard a security officer discussing personnel deployment to the docks for the next day and how numbers were being increased due to a dramatic jump in the amount of traffic requesting departure slots, so she assumed that meant less security personnel would be on duty in the complex.

Already she had witnessed scenes of pandemonium with many Qovakians deciding at the same time to try and get immediate passage off world. Either everyone had suddenly decided to take a holiday, Hedra had originally thought, or something was seriously up.

Having covered a good deal more of the space port than most Visitors in the weeks she'd been on Helub, Hedra had become aware of the increasing speculation about the return of the militia who had ruled Qovakia until relatively recently. But upon seeing the dozens of powerful Starfleet ships and even more warships from other Alpha Quadrant states pouring in and out of the port, Hedra was convinced that nothing would stand a hope of succeeding in an attempted coupe here, maybe not even the combined might of the Dominion.

Through the crawlway space and into an air duct leading to the main access shaft that descended to the off-ramp entrance, Hedra had to briefly hold her heart as a group of Starfleet officers wended their way back into the Fortress above. Pressing flat against the dark recess, she watched through the grill as two security officers followed by a moaning science officer and two bad-tempered medics clambered their way up a thin-runged ladder. From what she could hear, it seemed the CMO assigned to Starfleet Headquarters had recalled all off-duty medical staff for an emergency briefing.

Hedra waited until it was safe, then pushed the grill open, being careful to replace it and cleanse it before deftly dropping to the floor below. The coast clear, the Orion woman skilfully exited the doorway and blended into the gathering crowds flowing past and up into the main corridor beyond.

Before she knew where she was, Hedra was swept into a heaving mass of people crushing slowly in one direction - toward the local passenger transport docks. There were literally thousands moving as one big mass, many shouting and a few screaming out; most were laden with personal belongings, shoving this way and that. It was an exodus.

It took a few bruises and much physical strength on Hedra's part just to wrench herself free of the squashing streams of people and grab on to the relative safety of a wall support. She couldn't believe her lack of luck. The local situation was clearly getting much worse, and might even jeopardise her plans for tomorrow. Carefully she made her way back to the lower level she'd just come from and entered the taverna, where she ordered a strong short drink and sat in a window booth opposite the access doorway to consider her options.

EP1 ACT 3

DOL BATTAKI INTERSTELLAR HOTEL, VEKARIA, 10.27pm VCT

Tix Lirik sat on the edge of his bed staring into mid-distance waiting for the communication. He glanced at the clock; it had been a full seventy minutes since the Vekarian authorities had begun to look for the missing dignitary and Lirik was broiling at their shambolic attentiveness.

The hotel comm cheerfully trilled and Lirik hit the receive button a little too hard. "Yes?"

"Secondary Officer La Barami, Sir. Your Ambassador has not been located in the hotel complex or any of the government buildings," the male voice reported, placidly.

"So... you have no idea where he may have gone?" Lirik felt exasperated.

"Not at present. I'm afraid I'm rather short handed - many of my men have been relocated to Helub to assist with public order duties. However I have checked passenger logs of ships leaving Vekaria and he wasn't listed as being aboard any of them, so he must still be within the city limits somewhere." The security officer had decided that the Ambassador was probably out enjoying himself, and didn't understand the Yeoman's over-concern.

"Okay," Lirik resigned himself to getting no further with the local police; Narli had slipped away successfully - yet again. "Just let me know when he shows up, will you?"

"I will, sir." There was an uncomfortable pause, then: "I wonder, could you confirm his physical description again? I'm not sure I'm reading the details correctly."

Lirik swallowed hard, not bothering to complain that he'd given a full and accurate description to one of La Barami's subordinates hours earlier and decided it would be simpler to just repeat the description and get the hell off the line. "He's one metre ninety, about 120 kilos with bright blue skin, white hair and a couple of jaunty antennae sticking up from his head. Goes by the name of Narli."

There was silence at the end of the comm line for a moment and then the line was terminated.

Lirik was bemused; perhaps the universal translator had overlooked some nouns in its programming.

He flopped back onto the bed and loosened his uniform; he felt warm and if it weren't for the atmospheric controls he would also feel moist from the turbulent weather beyond the glass wall of his hotel suite. He could feel in his gut the marked change in electromagnetic density of the air outside - there were more storms coming. Wherever Ambassador Narli was in the city, it was not the sort of night to be outside. That's if he was still on Vekaria, as he could easily have conned his way off-planet bypassing the passenger lists, Lirik knew all too well.

Eyes closed, Lirik ran through the possibilities of where the Ambassador could have got to on this occasion and for what specific reason. Shortly after arriving in the Outer Zone Narli had disappeared for several hours on three consecutive days, presumably information gathering or making secret negotiations behind closed doors. This latest escapade, the night before the presentations were due to begin, left Lirik feeling irked; the two men may have gone back a long way, sharing pivotal moments in their careers, and begrudgingly acknowledging the other as a sometime friend, but it was more out of mutual respect and neither man felt he owed the other anything.

At that moment Lirik instantly had a change of heart - Narli knew the score and here he was overstepping the line again. This was taking advantage once too often and there was no other option than to make it official.

Lirik hit his commbadge. "Yeoman Lirik to Commodore Jackson." It was late, but he didn't doubt Starfleet's regional HQ commander would be available for him given his role as a Diplomatic Corpsman and aide to senior UFP Council representatives.

There was a slight delay as Lirik's speech pattern was picked up by the local net, forwarded to Starfleet HQ on the Helub moon above, verified by automatic voice authorisation protocols and re-routed to Jackson's location.

On Vekaria's moon, in a plush penthouse at the top of one of the Old Fortress's many turrets, Commodore Jackson reclined into the soft depths of a large sofa with a loud sigh, ruffled a small towel through her still damp hair then pulled her robe more securely across her ample frame; in her later middle years she was still a handsome woman, though perhaps not quite in the shape Starfleet Academy Fitness Instructors would approve of as a role model and command veteran.

On duty for more than 16 hours straight with no chance for a proper break she had been physically aching, but the rare opportunity of a conventional powered water and steam shower had since turned that feeling to a pleasant almost numb buzz. The family sized quarters allocated to her and her son were luxurious, resplendent in rare black and cream woods, tawny furs and panels of smoked glass and shiny plastics. The bathroom was no exception, having both a proper bath and an amazing shower room; and not to be forced to use a sonic shower in what were essentially field quarters was an extravagance she wasn't about to waste. The quarters had previously been used by one of the military commandants employed by the occupying force to 'manage' the interrogation facility, but as that was now five years in the past, and the facility had been specially refurbished for Starfleet's use by the Vekarians, Jackson felt an amount of discomfort but no remorse about staying here.

As a veteran organiser of regional Starfleet operations she was still juggling a dozen questions and as many reminders and concerns, and had a constant background tone of nagging voices somewhere at the back of her head, though the feeling of freshly washed skin and hair, the welcome silence of her empty accommodation and the chance to lose herself in a tasteless novel was mellowing that noise.

"Yeoman Lirik to Commodore Jackson."

She shut her eyes and paused a moment, trying not to take it personally. His was a call she could not ignore.

"Jackson here," swinging her legs off the sofa she scooped her Starfleet issue slippers back on and put her book down beside her warm drink on the coffee table – an oval slab of thick glass borne on the back of a pewter-like replica of a many-headed Vekarian mythical beast.

"If it's about your runabout, Yeoman, I'm afraid there is still no word on its whereabouts - it has been rather chaotic up here today, but I'm sure Lt Commander Kohl will look after it."

Jackson couldn't remember much about Kohl. He had intercepted her very early in the morning and cited a little known Starfleet regulation to requisition the Starfleet-registered vessel on permanent loan to the Diplomatic Corps – with so many other matters to contend with she hadn't the time or the inclination to check and gave him cursory permission, something she was now beginning to regret.

Jackson's day had begun in the early hours because of a fight within the Federation complex between civilians and Vekarian police, and right now a misplaced runabout assigned to the Diplomatic Corps was the least of her concerns. After a head-pounding day, this was her statutory 30 minutes of quality time before retiring to bed, and she wasn't prepared to be delayed any longer than necessary.

Thankfully Lirik's role as a liaison with the Federation's High Council set him apart from the majority of fellow Diplomatic Corps members who performed personal assistant functions to individual Federation delegates, so dealing with him had the speedy, efficient, by-the-book procedure she rarely found these days, yet it was probably his knowledge of Starfleet protocols and how to manipulate procedure to his own end which made dealing with him so easy. It was no wonder that Lirik had been so maddened by Kohl when the engineer played the diplomat at his own game, even though he hadn't given his runabout up without a fight.

"N=ccccz=no-o," the quality of the transmission began to deteriorate and Jackson heard the vague bleeps as automatic compensators cleared up most of the interference, "it's not about that, though I would appreciate its return by morning, Commodore. Do you know where he took it?" Lirik adopted the friendly-formal approach rather than pull rank as a diplomat. He found he stayed on the better side of people that way.

"Not offhand, though I'm sure Vekarian authorities would have logged his flight plan – someone in HQ Ops should be able to help you. So if it's not about the runabout, what is it that you want?" Jackson turned her head as the elevator doors behind opened and her son stepped out and waved, a little over-enthusiastically, she thought. She returned the wave with a knowing smile while listening to Lirik.

"I'd like to report Andorian Ambassador Narli as missing," Lirik braced himself for the Commodore's reaction. "I've already been in touch with the local authorities, but they've been unable to find him."

The Commodore clutched her hair in frustration, but said nothing; it was the third thing Vekarian security had screwed up that day and she was beyond getting upset with them. "I'll inform Starfleet security here, Yeoman, and tell them to keep an eye out for him. No doubt he'll eventually turn up as he has before."

"Thank you, Sir. Will you be coming to the trade proceedings tomorrow?" The static on the channel was getting worse, despite the computer's best efforts.

"Ah... no, I won't have time," Jackson was kissed on the cheek by her son, which was also a little unusual. As he walked over to the food replicator the Commodore wondered what news he was about to impart. "Just make sure to inform my office if the Ambassador shows up."

"Aye Sir," Lirik said, automatically acknowledging her rank despite his own status – something he still forgot even after many years in the Corps. "Lirik out."

In the dim light of her quarters, the Commodore depressed her commbadge and informed the Duty Officer in HQ Operations to get security straight onto a trace for the Ambassador. When she was finished, Jackson kicked off her slippers, leant back on the sofa, folded her arms and put her feet up, wiggling her toes and watching her son seated at the dining table tuck into a bowl of steaming Gagh and Eggplant Stew - since his exchange to a Klingon Outpost months ago, he had developed some nasty food preferences.

"So-" she said in a maternal tone, but was cut off by his too-quick reaction.

"'So'? What do you mean, 'So'?" he scoffed. A gagh dangled out of his mouth, its juices dribbling down his chin.

"Well, you've either had a reprimand ... or you've fallen in love again," Jackson said, smiling. "I bet I know which. Let me guess who..."

The Lieutenant hated his mother's uncanny intuition, and sulkily tucked back into his stew.

"Lieutenant Chappell?" She was fishing, he thought, but it was only a decoy. "No, that redheaded Nurse with the big chest, Lieutenant O'Hara."

"Ha!" he protested, hoping his eating would hide the obvious gulp of guilt and affording a secret glance over his shoulder. "And she's practically a Doctor, for your information."

"But not quite yet," she reiterated. "It is her, isn't it? Don't try to deny it, son, I've seen the way you look at her," Jackson smiled.

Joseph stopped in silent protest, then carried on chewing while dangling a fork at her menacingly. When he finally swallowed, he said; "Have you been following me on security cameras again?"

She laughed at his almost convincing naivety, and decided to head for bed. Cradling her book she walked with her drink over to where her muscular son sat stuffing his face. She kissed him on the crown of his head. "I'm sure she's a very nice young lady."

He looked up and smiled at his mother, who was clearly thinking up a negative to go with the positive, but could only manage "A bit of a handful, but I guess you've always liked a challenge. Just promise me you'll take it easy."

The Lieutenant drained his bowl and grinned, saying: "Trust me, she's not that great a challenge."

The Commodore raised her eyebrows and headed for her room, turning back to him as the doors opened. "No doubt I'll be up early again tomorrow, so I won't see you probably. Take care at the docks tomorrow, it's getting a little rough down there with all these panic rumours flying about."

"I will, mom, don't worry," he tried to look relaxed. "Night."

"Night, son. Love you." She disappeared behind the closing doors, and he waited for her traditional reappearance nag. True to form a few seconds later she popped her head out. "And don't forget to record a message to your brother."

"No, mom, I won't."

She disappeared once more and there was silence. Jackson jnr recycled the bowl and fork through the replicator and slowly passed his mother's door. It seemed quiet enough, so he walked over to the turbolift. Pressing the door button it swished open and he whisper-called up into its roof. "She's gone to bed, you can come down now."

"'Not much of a challenge', eh?" O'Hara dropped silently from the ceiling.

"Just making conversation," Joseph grinned.

She smiled back at the burly security officer and glancing over at the Commodore's room snarled: "I'll give her 'Nurse'."

Jackson smiled, took her hand, and the two tiptoed toward his room just as the main commlink in the room twilled loudly and said, "Ops to Commodore Jackson."

The Lieutenant's door closed behind them just as the Commodore appeared from her own room, now in her matching two-piece crimson silk bedclothes. Glancing around at the suddenly empty room she marched over to the main screen.

"What is it, Commander?"

The face of a middle-aged Troyian woman appeared, subtle blue-green beads framed her face, only a hint at her people's evocative culture. "Forgive the disturbance, Commodore, but we're receiving a hail for you from Admiral Street."

"A bit late for her, isn't it?" Jackson quipped. "Pipe it through, will you, Inaami?"

"Presently, Commodore," the Troyian looked over her shoulder and moved closer to the viewer. "We've also got a rather hysterical Lieutenant Commander here demanding to speak with you. Kohl, of the Starship Draco."

"Oh, good God," Jackson had had more than enough of this saga today and placed a forefinger and thumb to her temple.

"He's not making much sense," Inaami said truthfully. "Says he's acting on the authority of the Admiral, but he's insisting on talking to you."

"What for?" Jackson asked.

"He says the Vekarians are liars and that the rumours are right, the T'Kani are coming back," Inaami said, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "Says we should evacuate Helub and leave the Outer Zone immediately."

Jackson paused, open mouthed. "Is he high?" Inaami shrugged.

"We really haven't got time for this. Okay, get him to file a report and tell him I'll see him first thing in the morning, but get him to make an appointment this time. Oh, and tell him to get the diplomatic assistant's runabout back to Vekaria double-quick."

"Aye, Sir. I'm putting the Admiral through now."

The on-screen image cut to that of an elderly, but keen-eyed Admiral sitting in the centre seat of the USS Ajax, in orbit above Vekaria. There were strands of static flashing across the screen - some kind of subspace interference, Jackson guessed.

The Admiral, a Bahamian in her eighties, moved her arms and head with the grace of an elegant young woman. In her time, she had been one of the best among the fleet's captains, and her daring deeds aboard the Ajax-B were popular, though not recommended, reading at the Academy. It was clearly in her honour that she had been given the Ajax-D as the temporary Fleet command ship in the Outer Zone.

"Good evening Admiral, forgive my attire," to date, Jackson had not been on the friendliest of terms with Street - they were at opposite ends of the Starfleet spectrum. Street, a spinster, married to her job with a soldier's heart and a captain's soul; Jackson, a family woman, widowed, with two grown sons, a desk-based veteran organizer, diplomat and skilled administrator.

In an earlier time, the two may have been best pals, but in a crisis-ridden Third Contact situation such as this, they were both strung out and shouldering for their own particular area's needs: Street for the ships of the fleet in the Outer Zone and their activities, Jackson for the Federation citizens, Ambassadors and other representatives in the sector. Jackson's HQ facility served as a base for Starfleet's activities in the region, as well as a clearinghouse for all the administration and any and all associated activities with the Fleet, so the two veterans had to keep the lines off communication open, even if it was only due to strict protocol at their level of responsibility.

"Very nice. You should know that I'm ordering the launch of all fleet vessels in dock, Commodore. I don't know if you've heard, but we've got one heck of a magnetic storm brewing up here, and it's just one of many throughout Qovakia." The old lady stood and walked sure-footedly over to the science stations to the rear of the bridge where Captain Ubu was assisting his crew in trying to make their technology work in the increasingly active space.

"I wondered what the communications problem was. Does the local storm pose any threat to Vekaria or Helub?" Jackson's priorities were many; not least of which was safety of all Federation and Starfleet people within the spaceport; already she had been forced to personally deal with a number of criminal proceedings concerning Federation citizens - both victims and perpetrators.

Off-screen, Captain Ubu turned and shrugged at the Admiral.

"No, Commodore," the Admiral was playing down concern, "but the storms are affecting subspace communications and warp capability. We've already lost contact with nine of our more distant ships, and our Alpha Quadrant associates are not faring any better. I want all our ships launched and on yellow alert, just in case."

"Should we go to Yellow Alert down here?" Jackson was no soldier; she admitted that freely and always sought the guidance of those more experienced in such matters. Though as a base commander she was well versed in the rules concerning all states of alert, and she particularly remembered her drills from the time she began her career as an assistant personnel officer aboard the accident-prone USS Clarion.

"I don't think that's necessary at this moment. I hear rumours of a possible T'Kani invasion are causing you enough problems as it is. You wouldn't want a riot on your hands as well," the Admiral smiled, referring to the lost tempers and crowd gatherings around the port departure terminals. They had begun swelling in number as soon as the rumours of a possible invasion were turned into news stories with unconfirmed reports of 'strange goings on' in the depths of space. As yet, however, there was no evidence of this.

"Admiral, talking of that, I have a Lieutenant Commander Kohl downstairs saying similar things about the invasion, very concerned apparently. He says he's been acting under your orders..?"

Street paused and thought. "Kohl?" she shook her head. "I don't know that name."

Jackson tightened her lips repressing her anger. It would seem that the Commander had got swept up by the local rumours and probably was under the influence. She looked forward to dealing with him in the morning.

Qovakians, Jackson had determined, although shrewd were almost religiously superstitious. Decades of occupation had made them submissive and paranoid - even cowardly some would say - but Jackson also saw the strength of character they had when faced with many, some more powerful, races descending upon them in large numbers.

Her arrival on Helub, some seven days after First Contact, was a whirlwind of events that seemed to have continued right up until now. Before the cargo ships and passenger-carrying vessels started to arrive, the native Vekarians had been overwhelmingly generous and welcoming. It was only when wave after wave of ships carrying thousands of fortune and adventure seekers began to arrive and the administrative nightmare of coping with such a huge, needy influx set in that she and her colleagues saw another side to their otherwise warm personalities.

Getting hold of reliable information had been the worst problem. Jackson had gone for days on end without being able to speak to a single Qovakian in sufficient authority to deal with the escalating accommodation problem as tens of thousands had arrived through the wormhole, resorting eventually to handling the problem herself via direct negotiations with many of the port's hotels local to Visitor Area 13. One of the last details to be ironed out was provision of adequate medical facilities and access to the Qovakian medical database - the Qovakian government it seemed was cautious about giving even such important data as this; already her own staff had alerted her to the fact that the so-called general database access provided by the authorities had a good deal of data missing.

A makeshift sickbay had been adapted into the upper decks of the Fortress, cannibalising non-essential parts from Starfleet vessels and using the skills of Starfleet's engineering corps to create something from virtually nothing. Medical staff were working flat out with engineers to make the place sterile and workable, while at the same time dealing with a host of medical ailments from the hundreds of civilians who flooded into the facility daily. This had been compounded by an outbreak of a particularly nasty flu virus which was spreading like wildfire throughout the Visitor population.

"Understood. Admiral," the Commodore added, "Doctor Beintz is trying to get on top of an outbreak of Vekarian Flu which we currently have no natural immunity to."

"Excuse me," Street had turned to someone off-viewer. She turned back to Jackson, frowning. "We've lost contact with another two of our ships."

"Magnetic radiation increasing exponentially," the Captain shouted from the rear bridge station, "a cloud is starting to form in the Vekarian system."

"Got to go, Commodore. We'll keep you all at HQ Operations informed," Street said and cancelled the communication - her face was instantly replaced by Inaami, not surprising Jackson who knew that her associate monitored all important calls to the Commodore.

"Sir, I recommend the base goes to Yellow Alert status," the Troyian never held back an opinion from her long-time colleague.

Jackson thought for a moment, biting a finger. "Give me the low-down on today's incidents around the port again."

Inaami recited from memory: "There were 342 reports of near-misses, 53 minor collisions and 4 pretty bad accidents as traffic leaving Helub stepped up a pace. The Port Authority pride themselves in having a perfectly safe record, their trafficking system is so reliable. Because of these incidents they have ordered a very limited scheduled-only departure roster with immediate effect and no exceptions. Unfortunately, this seems to have been understood by the native Qovakians as an unofficial confirmation of an ensuing attack. One can only assume that Admiral Street's orders to launch all Starfleet vessels will compound the issue." Inaami broke off, noticing Jackson's shaking head, "You know how paranoid the Vekarians are. Consequently, literally thousands of requests for departure windows poured into Traffic Control, and simultaneously hundreds of thousands of people took to the corridors and transit tubes, most trying to get passage on any departing ship. Docking areas A1 through G10 are still overrun and Vekarian police officially reported 96 incidents of crowd violence and disorder – there were probably a great many more."

"I think that says enough," Jackson said. "There's no way we could cope if word got out of a Yellow Alert. It'll be difficult enough down-playing the Fleet's alert status."

"And what if there IS an impending attack?" Inaami was almost Vulcan-like in her analysis. "Not that I believe this fruitcake here, but that rumour is rife."

Jackson didn't buy into it. Not with so many Alpha Quadrant ships in the sector. Her thoughts turned briefly to Brian, her eldest son, fighting in the skirmishes around Bajoran and Cardassian space that made up the inevitable gathering war with the Gamma Quadrant inhabitants.

"Let's just pray there isn't," Jackson said and signed off for the night. She noticed Inaami's slight eyebrow movement before the link was severed, clearly her old friend was not in agreement with her. Jackson had kept her tight-knit administration team together since her first command of an outpost on Ferenginar. Inaami, Jackson, Petri and Djanksy had been the top team for assignment to new territories and allies over the last seven years.

Jackson knew that Inaami would inform her the moment the situation changed, and rather than be troubled with worrying thoughts, she was able to switch off from responsibility and sleep the moment her head touched the pillow.

STARFLEET HQ OPERATIONS, HELUB, 10.55pm VCT

Inaami hovered by the communications console debating in her mind what could follow. A raised German accent caused her to look over at Kohl. His uniform was dirty, puffs of dust rising off him as he explained the events of the day animatedly to the security officer assisting him at the desk. In spite of his excited, but otherwise evidently coherent explanation the Troyian could see that he was physically exhausted.

"Commander!" Kohl shouted, noticing her looking over. "I must see the Commodore immediately, or speak with Admiral Street." Inaami didn't immediately respond.

"Sir," Lieutenant Commander Petri called to her from the records interface station, glancing over at Kohl in a disapproving way, "the USS Draco recalled all officers two hours ago." She stared at Kohl who shifted from side to side as he listened. "Mister Kohl did not respond, so they left without him."

"It ... it must have been the interference from the structure I was in," Kohl tried to justify himself to the command officer, not quite believing how events were unfolding. In different circumstances he may have remembered with irony the many old 20th Century movies he had endured with his Academy roommate Winston Winston where the main protagonist was disbelieved at every turn, and seemed to do nothing but get himself into deeper trouble until, usually single-handedly, he could turn the plot around to a gratifying denouement. He wished for his own fate to be the same.

"Where's the Draco now?" Inaami was distracted by a crowd of off-duty and clearly un-busy crew gathering around the large bank of security monitors.

"She was ordered out of the Vekarian system at 22:30 hours. Current location ... unknown"

"Communications status?" Inaami looked over her shoulder to Djanksy.

"Getting worse. There's interference on all subspace frequencies. Signal range is currently limited to within the Vekarian star system only, but my guess is that will also deteriorate." Commander Djansky looked almost white with tiredness. The oldest of the group of friends, she was a systems specialist and invaluable in keeping the communications and information relay systems operational.

Due for retirement several months ago, Djansky had been granted an extension by Starfleet Command at Commodore Jackson's personal request. As soon as the Outer Zone headquarters were secured she would be going home to her family in Gdansk for good. There was just enough time for one more adventure with her old friends.

But pulling a double shift was clearly taking its toll, and Inaami doubted she could last till midnight. "With the Commander's permission..?" Djansky smiled.

"Of course, Sara, you're relieved."

"Excuse me, Commander," The German accent at such close proximity caused Inaami to spin around. Kohl was standing immediately behind her, frowning urgently. "I realise you are busy, but I think this is very urgent and pertinent to our situation."

Inaami stepped back a pace. "If it's the Commodore you need to see, then that will have to wait until the morning." She was becoming increasingly concerned about the murmuring crowd gathered around the security monitors - must be more trouble in the spaceport, she thought. Kohl was rooted to the spot.

"Then you will have to do," he said. Inaami raised an eyebrow. "I was in a disused T'Kani storage facility earlier today on the other side of Helub," Kohl held up his tricorder for the Commander's perusal, but she didn't look at it. Instead she looked into his eyes trying to read his emotional state. Kohl continued regardless. "There were many ships there, one of them was from Federation space, a liner… but that's not what's urgent...well, ha, it was to begin with…"

Kohl was momentarily distracted by the security displays visible between the heads of the Starfleet personnel - throngs of people were filling the main transit tubes.

"Anyway, we set the Runabout down on the hanger floor-"

"'We'?" Inaami interrupted, listening carefully. In spite of his keenness to get his message across to her, he appeared easily distracted - a very 'Human' reaction to stress, she thought.

"I was accompanied by Minister Re Lorken," he explained quickly. "As I say, we had set down in the main hangar area of the facility and left the runabout for a visual reconnaissance…"

"You are referring to Yeoman Lirik's runabout?" Inaami confirmed. "So you have now returned it to him?"

"Well…er, no. You see the runabout… it disappeared."

"'Disappeared'?" Inaami repeated. Perhaps she had read his emotions all wrong - initially she thought he was just tired, but what he was saying... perhaps there was more to his situation than was immediately apparent.

"I scanned for it, hailed it - it had just vanished. So we had to journey back to the space port by other means. We found an anti-grav sled in the transport tunnels under the moon's surface, but it was slow going; it's taken me since mid afternoon to get here." Kohl smelled of an acrid, spicy aroma, Inaami noted.

"Where is the Minister now? Is she alright?" Inaami looked around, just in case, concerned for the older statesperson who had been one of the few cooperative Qovakians they had dealt with.

"She's fine. In fact, we only travelled a short distance together. Shortly after our designated mission time was up we were intercepted by Vekarian Security and the Minister was taken away in a small patrol buggy… they must have picked up her personal locator as soon after we passed beyond the perimeter of the storage facility. The transport wasn't big enough to carry us both; they said they would send another back for me. None came, though I was sure I heard at least one other nearby. I tried to raise them, they didn't respond. Contact with you wasn't possible. I was just left there with the sled to find my own way back... and I got a little lost on the way."

The journey had been painfully long and arduous gliding above the mag-tracks of the disused transit tube network - an endless, intensely warm and poorly lit labyrinth of mostly cylindrical tunnels bored into the solid bedrock that had twisted, turned and forked for too many kilometers. His path had been blocked by immoveable bulkheads; the few transit stations he'd reached were each sealed up and even at these locations he couldn't get a signal through to the levels above. Finally he realized with some sense of stupidity that he could use his tricorder to track the path of the Minister's patrol buggy and once he'd retraced his pathway and picked it up he slowly followed it back to what appeared to be a main terminus and depot sited, as convenience would have it, deep beneath the Old Fortress itself. There he had also found several of the actual cargo and personnel trains that had once operated along the network.

"And then you came straight here?" Inaami asked.

Kohl nodded; "I kept trying to raise you by communicator but I couldn't get a signal until I reached the lower levels directly below here, but even then my attempts to get through were being redirected, and by then I knew it would only be a few minutes before I could speak with you in person. But Commander – none of this is what matters." Kohl frantically stabbed at the tricorder and called up the image of the broken spear and flag on its tiny screen, dangling it in Inaami's line of sight. The tiny image did not seem impressive on the tricorder's display. "We found this on the floor of the storage facility. According to the Minister it has a great significance, and I'm convinced is to do with what's going on with the exodus."

As if on cue, the crew around the monitors called over to Inaami. She frowned at the silly image on the tricorder and then at Kohl. "Wait here."

The security guard watching over Kohl folded his arms and regarded his charge with renewed contempt - clearly he didn't think much of Kohl's version of events, particularly the "disappeared" runabout part.

Inaami wasn't about to lose her sense of priority. A missing runabout was a serious matter, of course, but what was happening in the port right now meant that many Federation citizens could get hurt. Inexperienced in dealing with such events, the Vekarian authorities weren't blessed with the best of crowd control tactics, and the numerous broadcasts on Qovakian entertainment and news channels throughout the day had fuelled its population into a frenzy of speculation; great for ratings, terrible for the smooth running of the port.

A warning alarm sounded around the complex and Lieutenant Commander Corrigan at the Security Monitor board called out: "Commander, the Vekarian Port Authority has just declared a state of emergency."

"What?!" Inaami walked through the parting crowd to look closer at the monitors and read the directive communications. Corridor after corridor around the now sealed departure gates were packed solid with people. Traffic had come to a standstill in overcrowded transport tunnels. Beneath the Old Fortress complex, many Federation people were gathering to seek protection or a safe transport off world; it seemed they were just as gripped by the belief of an invasion by the previously occupying force as their new Qovakian neighbours.

"Commander, please!" surprisingly, Kohl had followed Inaami again, his breath hot on her sensitive neck, he was so close; this man had no boundaries with personal space. This time she would sort him out once and for all. She turned to face him again. The gathered crowd of officers and crew flanked him. Inaami hesitated.

"Don't you people have quarters to go to?!" she bellowed sternly to the observers and hangers-on. They immediately dispersed. Kohl's face was almost contorted with frustration, which Inaami mistook for a look of hurt and anger. She lowered her voice and stared hard at the engineer. "Mister, technically speaking you're already AWOL, missing your ship's hail and departure. I can't imagine Captain Stockport would be happy losing his Deputy Chief Engineer at a time like this."

She was right about that, Kohl thought. Stockport wasn't his biggest fan to start with - nor indeed were the rest of the senior officers, which was part of the reason Kohl had taken shore leave so far removed from his shipmates – and why he'd not bothered to inform them what he was up to. The discovery of the Alpha Quadrant ship in the database had at first been a curiosity, yet quickly turned into a convenient diversion for his 24 hour pass, which he usually took in his quarters.

Inaami looked as if she were about to brush past Kohl, but instead took him firmly by the arm and led him toward the exit, her genetically muscular frame easily manhandling the sinewy Engineer. In the circular reception area she stopped and whisper-talked to him, off the record. "You've clearly had an eventful day. Your missing runabout will be reported to the Space Port's authorities. I suggest you go and get some rest and come back at 0800 hours when you've calmed down-" Kohl had closed his eyes and shook his head in disagreement.

"You don't understand. It's all true!" Kohl pointed toward the security monitors. "Don't you see, the T'Kani ARE coming!" Inaami was fast losing patience while Kohl was desperate for the Commander to believe him. "Otherwise, why would my runabout have been taken?"

"Taken..?!" the Security officer nearby had overheard and couldn't stop himself from responding.

Kohl tried to ignore him and carry on. "And why would the Minister have been so afraid?" he almost cringed at the sound of his own pleading voice. He could see that in the light of the apparently unfounded hysteria gripping the spaceport currently, his story sounded crackpot. "I realize this may sound far fetched, but I'm a Starfleet officer, Commander, and an engineer. I know the difference between irrational thought and reality-"

Inaami held a hand up, just inches from Kohl's face causing him to stop. "Please.. don't say any more, Commander, just leave. I have to get on. Prepare your evidence if you want, I'll see someone gives it some thought. The Commodore will see you in the morning."

"Can I at least speak to the Admiral?"

"No. You are not to contact the Ajax, they are having a rough time of it. Do you understand me?"

Kohl wavered, then seeing her look of resolve he finally nodded in compliance. Already two of her staff were calling for her immediate attention. As the Commander retreated, Kohl walked over to a comm panel in the waiting area.

"I'd like to speak to Minister Re Lorken, it's very urgent," he waited a few long seconds before the reply came.

"The Minister has retired for the evening, please call back in the morning." The polite but empty voice relayed.

"Then let me speak to an assistant, or Qovakian security..." Kohl insisted.

"I'm sorry sir, there is no one available. The port is on a full security alert and no one can assist you right now. However, if you would like to report anything to the automatic message system-"

"No! I want to speak to someone in person."

"I'm sorry, sir, there is no one available." The clearly computer controlled interface was becoming tiresome. Kohl saw that Inaami was looking over in his direction from back at her post. "However you can file a report in person in one of our patrol booths after which someone will be happy to assist you."

Kohl suspected that the police would just file his report away until the spaceport's current crisis was over – if indeed he could get to be seen given the current situation. By then it could be too late. He decided the situation needed direct action - he would go to the Commodore's apartment, with or without Inaami's approval.

He walked over to the private elevator that would take him to the top of the complex, and the senior officer's suite. However, the elevator had been locked down for the night. Commander Inaami's voice called to him from the reception desk. "Leave the complex immediately, Commander, or I'll have security take you to the brig."

Kohl blushed. Entering the personnel elevator he hit his commbadge. "Commander Kohl to Admiral Street."

After a pause: "Commander," it was Inaami's voice again, "this is your final warning. Next time you try to contact either the Commodore or the Admiral, I will have you arrested."

Kohl dropped his head and chose one of the levels beneath the Fort where Federation civilians were gathering; he was sure he was right about the impending attack, but he needed to be able to convince them somehow. Perhaps by talking to the locals he could get enough people to believe him.

Swallowing hard the Engineer reconsidered the fact he'd missed his ship's departure; at first it had seemed unimportant in the scheme of things. But now, in light of what Commander Inaami had said, and in the cold, claustrophobic space of the turbocar, he realised he could be in very serious trouble.

FIREFLY, ASTEROID FIELD NEAR THE QOVAKIAN WORMHOLE, 11.11pm VCT

The Firefly dropped out of warp and slowed to a full stop two thousand kilometres from the Asteroid field. The vessel was one of a group of new ships that had been jointly designed by Starfleet and various Federation member states, in this case the Brakonians, and it was just as unique as its strange-looking counterparts.

Vancek thought it looked like a squished-up Intrepid class ship: less like a shoe-tree than that design and more the overall appearance of a bulbous insect – hence the name, she supposed. The shape could be described as having three general features: the top, like a rounded bird's head with the beak tapering to a flat, wedge-like prow and the sloped top rear and sides a more conventional curvaceous Starfleet design; generally Intrepid-like at the rear top where dumpy impulse wings and warp nacelles protruded horizontally from just beneath a tapered engine and hangar deck section; and old-school Excelsior-like underneath, although the ribbed, curved sides that gripped the dumpy main hull were cut short at the front beneath the deflector 'wedge' at the prow, a series of powerful sensor devices, deflector and shield technology plant slicing through its belly to the aft all along the central part of the ventral hull, distinguishing it as very much a science vessel.

Crewed by only 89, the ship was built primarily for science expeditions - capable of withstanding the worst kind of space storms and other hazardous phenomena, every available space was crammed full of scientific research devices for every conceivable mission. The crew was equally specialised - even its command crew had been selected for their skilled science or technological background.

Vancek and the rest of the Bridge crew stood around the holographic representation of the area of space before them. The Bridge lights were dimmed and the pulsing of red light behind the bridge wall fittings indicated they were now at full alert mode.

The New Tholian border was closest to the Bridge's main. Just in front of it, a purple-blue whirlpool depicting the wormhole and in front of that, the near-stationary asteroid field, which spanned several thousand cubic kilometres. However, only the peripheral rocks were visible as the rest were obscured within a massive, thick, impenetrable yellow-green gaseous cloud.

The Firefly was now represented by a miniature version of itself that currently held position just in front of Vancek at the perimeter of the holographic image, just in front of the Helm.

"Have you ever seen anything like that…" it was more of a comment than a question from their Acting Captain, clearly flummoxed and slightly in awe of whatever it was; either way, it didn't feel particularly reassuring to the rest of the crew.

Sarilev made several calculations on her hand-held padd. "The electromagnetic radiation appears contained within the cloud for the present."

"Then there's no danger of it reacting with the wormhole?" Braxton chipped in.

"Not for the moment, no." Sarilev stepped over beside Vancek, looking at the amazing amount of detail on the tiny holographic Firefly in front of them. "Although if it does connect, I wouldn't want to be around when it happened."

"It's awfully quiet, isn't it?" Vancek said almost to herself. "I mean, that magnetic storm should be sparking and flaring wildly all over the place."

"As we know them, yes," Sarilev said, "until they either stretch themselves too far and dissipate or connect with a greater force. But this could be something new."

An ashen-tan skinned woman with a red dot of powder smeared on her forehead slowly walked around the image, as if looking beneath the surface of the cloud formation to see what was within. "You said 'contained'..." she looked at Sarilev in an eerie way, causing the others to feel a little spooked - Krishnamurti had made several divinations for her fellow officers since their arrival in the Outer Zone and was popularly thought to have the gift of foreseeing certain events, "... do you mean there could be a force containing the energy within the cloud?"

"If there is, it's something new to me. The very cloud itself IS the magnetic activity, it's just not behaving as we would expect." Sarilev referred to her padd, still no change to any readings. "I've found nothing in the Government databases."

"Why am I not feeling surprised at that," Vancek said, wondering seriously if these data omission were for a reason.

"But according to the reports from other ships," Ensign Crosby said, "the rest of the storms across Qovakia are behaving just as a regular storm would."

"That's right," Sarilev wondered briefly to herself if she were just trying to make a best guess in light of not enough data, but quickly decided to trust her gut instincts; she pointed at the cloud, "but this may be how those storms began."

Vancek looked at Krishnamurti, who looked wizened with angst. "Let's go round it. We'll enter the asteroid field at 8 by 13 degrees from point and monitor its activity closest to the wormhole."

Braxton replaced the holographic image with the standard view ahead and the group returned to their stations. Despite the previous image of the situation, the cloud seemed immense on the viewscreen, even at normal magnification. "Course laid in, arrival time thirty nine seconds."

"Lieutenant Vaughn," Vancek spoke to the Tactical Officer behind her, an enormous hulk of a woman with the thickest neck she had ever seen on a Human female.

"Aye, Sir?" by contrast, Vaughn's voice and mannerisms were the most feminine of all the bridge crew.

"Raise shields," Vancek heard the immediate 'zoop!' of the activating energy fields and turned to Crosby. "Anything on hails yet?"

"Negative, Captain," her fingers tapped at her console, "too much interference." The comms specialist added a graphical overlay on the right side of the viewscreen showing the current signals status of the Fleet, all but a few glaring red. "We're not the only ones, it's right across the board."

Vancek could see from the display that Qovakia was essentially blacked out - static and wildly inconsistent digital traffic jammed practically all subspace frequencies. Reviewing the list of fleet ships it appeared that contact had been systematically lost with them all.

"Keep on it, Lieutenant," Vancek said.

"Now approaching co-ordinates, Captain," Braxton flipped the viewer's image back to standard ahead. Skilfully, she picked the easiest and safest course for the Firefly to pass into the asteroid field and observe the distance of littered space between the edge of the cloud and the wormhole. The image of the gaseous anomaly at close range brought a gasp to Krishanmurti's lips.

Immediately after she did so many hundreds of thin, needle-like spines began to protrude slowly from the thick yellow cloud. Longer and longer they emerged, black spines which expanded to form the noses of many small ships. Shades of black and dark green and sleek in shape, they had hundreds of shorter, spiny protrusions covering their hulls, the most significant of which formed into two hollow wings sweeping up and back from what was presumably the cockpit area at the apex of the nose.

"Analysis!" Vancek snapped, thinking to herself that in a funny way, their ships looked like a more menacing insect design than that of the curvaceous Firefly: like a swarm of black wasps come to attack her. They moved slowly, and as one, those that were nearest turned in formation to point their bepricked prows towards the Starfleet vessel.

"Indeterminate readings," Vaughn said, "they seem to be pulling electromagnetic energy from the cloud."

"No response to hails," Crosby had interpreted Vancek's nod an instant before.

"Back us off," Vancek said. From the visual sensor readout panel on Vancek's command chair arm she noted there were more than 800 of them, and their stealthy and silent presence were enough to make the Acting Captain react accordingly, "get us out of the asteroid field. Quickly!"

"I'm reading a massive energy surge!" Sarilev called out from the science stations, which she had rigged to get a clearer picture of the alien ships.

"I think they might be firing," Vaughn called out as a green-yellow shimmer began to form around each ship.

"All power to the forward shields!" she bellowed to Vaughn and added, "Evasive manoeuvres if you will, please, Conn."

It was a tall order, even if Braxton had been a veteran pilot. The bulbous Firefly was retreating at such speed, picking a quicker exit through the asteroids, though knocking against a few small ones in the rush to move speedily out of range.

Krishnamurti turned from her science post next to Sarilev and relaxed her body. Pretending to operate controls, she had spent the last minute of her life preparing for the death she knew was inevitable. In her trance-like state, the bridge appeared to glow with intensified colour, radiating light where life pulsed fragile. She saw its crew moving in slow motion, a mixed reaction of astonishment and panic on their slowed-down faces.

On the viewscreen she watched as each enemy ship's needle-pointed prow began to glow white-hot.

The light intensified, and beams of energy shot from each ship toward the Firefly. Even in this heightened state of awareness where time slowed for Krishnamurti, the attack was swift. As the beams made crackling contact with the shields, the ship lurched violently. Krishnamurti was thrown on to the deck and could only manage to turn her head briefly to see the mixture of light, energy, fire and debris envelop the bridge as the ship was ripped apart.

EP1 ACT 4

DECEMBER 23, FEDERATION COMPLEX, 4.15am VCT

The comm panel trilled again and Sarah-Louise Jackson opened her eyes. The chronometer on the desk beside her bed was a surprising relief; at least she had achieved several hours' rest before being disturbed. Something caught her attention, twinkling lights dancing around her darkened room from outside.

Hauling herself up on her elbows she peered through the bedroom's high windows. In the space all around and above her, ships were jockeying for position to leave the system, like a massive interstellar traffic jam. What was hindering their departure were many whiplash tendrils from a fierce magnetic storm spreading across the local space. The energy was filling much of the vista between her lunar residence and the planet Vekaria below. There were even ships hovering just above the port structures; in her short stay on Helub, Jackson knew these were not normal shipping lanes. She remembered the comm signal.

"Jackson here," she rose and took a better look at the scene outside.

"Sorry to disturb you, Commodore, but we've got thousands of people outside the complex demanding asylum," a thin voice - Inaami must have been called elsewhere, Jackson thought. "The Port's on total lock-down, we're in a state of emergency but we're not able to raise anyone in authority."

"I'll be right down."

Minutes later, the Commodore passed her son's door. She thought about going in, but saw the door panel displayed the privacy lock.

Arriving in the lobby of Operations, the doors opened to a significant amount of activity. There were many Starfleet security officers forming groups, and she could see her core team had gathered around the main status displays in the distance.

Instinctively she looked around, wondering if Kohl or some other officer was laying in wait for her arrival, but there was no one. Through the crowd she thought she glimpsed her son, and a curious thought crossed her mind about the door lock, but the face disappeared as soon as it had shown itself, and Jackson decided she must have been mistaken.

As she crossed the foyer, she collided with a short, young security Ensign.

"Oh!" the Ensign absorbed the impact, but still stumbled. The Commodore's bulk had kept her own position steady. "Commodore, I'm so sorry-"

"It's okay, Ensign...?"

"Collard, Sir," the Canadian accent had a French lilt, and the blonde-bobbed youth was blushing from her eyelids to her collarbone.

"First deep space assignment?" the Commodore noted how the young woman's uniform looked awkward on her frame. The Ensign just nodded and glanced nervously over to her unit who were all regarding her with a little jealous contempt.

Jackson always took a moment to talk to junior officers if the situation ever arose, and as she could see that Inaami was organising the pandemonium of Operations with ease, she took this moment to pause briefly before her long and arduous day began proper.

"Keep your eyes open, Ensign. Carry on." Jackson sidled into Ops leaving Collard to answer an explosion of questions from her comrades.

The situation was dire. Jackson listened as her staff reported how the level of panic on Helub had reached a critical level. Many ships had launched, unauthorised, and held illegal and dangerous positions for a clear flight path away from the star system but were being held back by the storm. Many more ships were now contained within the port by the local authority - outer doors sealed. Their crews were not happy, and nor were the Qovakian citizens who were crying out for protection from what was in their minds an impending attack from a rebuilt T'Kani fleet. Official port-side broadcasts from the government had pleaded for calm and tried to reassure its people that the storms were just an unusual disturbance and that apart from pure conjecture, there was no evidence of a T'Kani fleet in the vicinity.

Still, the overcrowding situation had brought much of the port's normal activities to a halt. Communications off-world were inoperative, and contact had also been lost with the fleet beyond Vekaria because of the storm. Now many Alpha Quadrant citizens, from all nations, were converging on the Starfleet and Federation complex for shelter and news. Repeated calls to the various authorities had been unacknowledged. Some dialogue had been established with fellow Visitors the Ferengi and the Klingons who still had ships in port.

"We'll do the same as we did on Rinarto 6," Jackson decided, "using soft forcefields to split the crowds and move the smaller groups into safe areas."

"We have received a request from the Vekarian police," Inaami said, "they say they are desperately under-resourced and they would like to supplement their number with our security teams to help in and around the docking bays."

Given the predicament and current state of diplomacy Jackson had little option but to agree, it was as much in their own interest as that of the indigenous people. "How many officers do we have available?"

"300 at our disposal - they said they would need them all to be effective."

"Keep several back to secure the complex and give them the rest," Jackson turned to Djansky – there was nowhere else for them to go after all. "We must establish communications with the Fleet. We may need them should evacuation become necessary."

"Evacuation?!" cut in Corrigan, acting somewhat the egocentric with so many personnel under his command. "You actually believe the invasion is real?"

"Whether I believe it or not is irrelevant," Jackson said sharply, "but with so many civilians under our charge we must be prepared for the eventuality."

"I'm not sure that's possible," Djansky said. "The magnetic storm is too great."

"You must try. Use whatever means necessary – keep talking with the Ferengi and the Klingons, perhaps between us we can find a way. Petri," Jackson spoke to the slight South American, "help Djansky with this. Use administrative staff as foot messengers if you have to. Now, how is the medical department faring?"

Inaami spoke for the absent CMO, Doctor Beintz. "Medics have been treating people round the clock - partly for the flu but mostly as a result of injuries caused by the overcrowding. The hospital facility is only operating at about 30% capacity, but every available engineer is working on increasing that."

Jackson then noticed the lack of engineers present in Ops. "Any word from the Qovakian authorities?"

Djansky shook her head. "They're receiving our communications down the local net, but not responding. I've even tried invasive commlinks, but I've been cut off every time. Only the police are speaking to us, and they seem to know as little as we do. I'll keep at it, Commodore."

"Very good. Any contact with our people on Vekaria?"

"Same situation," Djansky frowned, "everything's off-line. It's a communications nightmare."

Jackson thought for a moment. "Okay. I'll try and get hold of someone at the Senate then speak to the crowds down below. Inaami, implement Alert Status 2."

"Aye, Sir," Inaami agreed.

"Dismissed," Jackson strode into her office to begin the arduous task of trying to get hold of someone who would listen.

Inaami turned to the security teams who were moving out to take up positions and spied the Ensign who had collided with the Commodore earlier. "You, there! Ensign!" Collard turned and snapped to attention. "I need someone to monitor internal security."

Collard hesitated - she didn't like being apart from her team, and she was horrified to have discovered old technology being used in the base's Operations centre, something that wasn't her forte. Everything at the Academy had been state of the art, and using older systems, especially when of non-Federation design, required a change of mindset that to Collard felt unnatural. Nevertheless, she wasn't about to turn down the chance of working with the top brass.

"Aye Sir!" She briefly turned to her disappearing friends who were clearly envious of her opportunity to be in the nerve centre of what was going on as they made their way to the docks.

DOL BATTAKI INTERSTELLAR HOTEL, VEKARIA, 5.18am VCT

Lirik stirred in his bed and sat bolt upright. He hadn't been dreaming, but he had awoken with a terrible feeling. The bedclothes were soaked and he felt exhausted. His stomach churned and for a second he thought he was going to be sick.

He walked over to the drapes in his room and pulled them apart, peering up at the dark, pre-dawn sky. Thick clouds rumbled with thunder, and gave a hint of the violent magnetic energy storm taking place above the world. Lirik knew that it was there, he could feel it pulsating and wrestling, lashing out at the gathering ships in Vekarian space and feathering across the upper atmosphere. The storm had subtly affected his Medusan energy while he slept, a time when he had least control over that part of his heritage and the main reason why he'd taken the precaution of keeping the rooms adjacent to his vacant.

Shutting his eyes he took a few deep breaths and pulled his Medusan focus inward. Meditation had not come easy to such a pre-occupied and active mind, but this one technique he had learned to master early on.

Once feeling calm and settled, Lirik took the precaution of adjusting his environment shield to a higher setting on his wrist band. The shield provided the added protection of containing his ambient Medusan energies. While these were a part of him that he could control, and usually contained beneath his skin and out of the view of Humanoids, the energy's invisible peripheral aura still caused most people anxiety and stress when in close proximity, and a violent attack of nausea and fear if in direct contact with his skin. When he concentrated he could release the energy outside of his body, let it seep out and become visible and even use it to paralyse or render someone unconscious – or worse. But most of the time he managed to contain it, kept it hidden, and used his shield to avoid accidental contact with others.

There was a soft but rapid succession of knocks at his door.

"Who is it?"

"Chabal." The female voice answered. The Antarian was a freelance bodyguard for her people's Ambassador to the Federation. The Diplomat had met her a couple of times socially - she was a pleasant, quiet person, not afraid of his Medusan energy like others were, or at least, not apparently afraid. Lirik opened the door, pulling on his robe. The bodyguard was also dressed in her night robe and looked concerned.

"They're gone," she said, sounding more confused than surprised.

"The Antarian delegation?" Lirik assumed.

"Everyone," she replied, "all the delegates are gone." Lirik didn't quite believe it. "I check in on the Ambassador every hour. He was there one hour ago, but now he's gone. I ran into the Vulcan security guard in the corridor outside his room and she said the same had happened to her people."

Lirik reached for his communicator badge and tried to raise several delegates without success. Lieutenant Hiller, a wiry Australian command officer assigned as one of several 'pool' pilots to the Federation delegates appeared in the hotel corridor behind Chabal.

"There's the mother of all magnetic storms up there," he was clearly excited, "communications off world are down."

"Have you come from Helub?" Lirik wondered.

"No, I tried to go there to pick up supplies from the port, but was forced back." He ran his fingers through a mop of sandy hair, his golden arm and hand hairs catching the light and distracting Lirik. "Listen, I was on my way to tell you, I just heard that all the delegates have been called to start the proceedings early."

"On who's authority?" Lirik couldn't quite believe that all the delegates would have disappeared from the hotel without anyone's knowledge, especially his. It went against all protocol.

"I don't know, the front desk told me," he replied matter of fact.

"Unbelievable." Lirik thrust hands on hips. He walked over to the comm panel, turning back to the Lieutenant and sharply pointing his right index finger. "Don't you move anywhere."

FREE TERRITORY, FORMERLY THOLIAN SPACE (FEDERATION SIDE), 7.36am VCT

The final leg to the wormhole had passed slowly. For the last hour, Reb had joined Christian in the cockpit of the Pod and the two had sat in silence.

"Look, about reading your personal logs..." Reb began to apologise.

"You seemed to find them quite amusing," Christian remained facing forward as he spoke.

Reb decided to be honest, "I'm not exactly in a position to laugh at anyone else, now, am I?"

"Really? I assumed it was a hobby of yours."

"I was drunk," Reb said, then sighed, shaking his head. "I've got a big chip on my shoulder, you see, Captain."

Christian turned to face the renegade, whose weaker voice resonated with suppressed anger.

"Let's just say I'm a product of my own heritage," Reb slumped back into his seat. Christian expected more, but there was none.

A proximity alarm sounded.

"Approaching the wormhole co-ordinates," Christian confirmed. "Care to take over?"

Reb sat forward and complied. Christian moved back into the aft. Reb was puzzled. "Don't you want to see her open up?"

Christian turned and shrugged, "I've seen wormholes before."

Reb watched him drop below decks and turned back to the task in hand. As the cloudy blue, pink and golden flecked purple hued orifice swirled open, he flipped the controls to manual and the time-lapse device on. The wormhole journey would be comparatively longer than that of the Bajoran wormhole, requiring entry and exit at low sub-light speeds - the exit point was set on the edge of an asteroid field, and Reb didn't want to reach a swift demise as one over-eager pilot had done in one of the first wave of ships to enter the Outer Zone.

QOVAKIAN SENATE BUILDING, VEKARIA, 7.43am VCT

Having established that the delegates had indeed been awoken in the early hours to begin negotiations ahead of time (apparently harking back to a "quaint and ancient tradition in Qovakian diplomacy", he was told), Lirik and the markedly increased number of abandoned attendants made their way rapidly to the government buildings in the heart of the city. Security was over-tight and it took them more than twenty minutes to get into the main concourse outside the Senate auditorium. However, all doors were sealed and there was no apparent sign of any delegates.

Lirik tapped on the clerk's desk again. "Excuse me," Lirik was smiling his disarming expression, "do you know what's happening?"

The clerk flushed, mostly from his distinct lack of knowledge - he only knew he was to tell people to remain where they were until further instruction. "I'm afraid not, sir, but as soon as I do -"

"You'll let me know, okay," Lirik straightened and turned, leaning on the clerk's desk, much to his annoyance. An aggressive exchange was taking place between another Vekarian clerk and the Bajoran assistant to his world's representatives attending the conference. Thirty minutes ago, Lirik and all the other administrative and support staff had been ushered into the main lobby area outside the huge senate chamber. Only the delegates themselves were missing.

"Excuse me," the clerk said, placing his hand on Lirik's shoulder, causing a slight ripple in Lirik's active environment shield. "Oh!" The clerk withdrew his hand as if burnt.

"It's okay," Lirik said, "I have to wear this personal energy field for ... medical reasons. No harm done." Lirik checked the field generation control under his sleeve, just to be sure.

The clerk nodded mutely, swallowing hard, and touched his earpiece, cocking his head slightly. "Senate security have intercepted a man in our docking port. He just arrived on an unauthorised transport and is demanding to be released to attend the proceedings. He claims to be a Federation delegate."

It was only a short distance away, and Lirik decided that this distraction would at least relieve the boredom of waiting for word on the goings-on within the Senate chamber. "Tell them I'm on my way."

Five minutes later, in the small yardmaster's office, a cylindrical tower overlooking the stylish boarding gates of the Senate building, Lirik beamed mockingly at the detained delegate.

"Ambassador Narli. We've been worried about you."

The older Andorian sat unflinching, a gaunt, almost impassive look on his face. "Sorry. I was delayed on urgent business in the spaceport above."

"Well, better late than never, eh," Lirik resisted the temptation of humiliating the obstinate man for his unauthorised absence and lack of protocol. "I'll take it from here, officer."

Lirik led the Ambassador out into the vacant plaza in front of the boarding gates. He stood at least a head and shoulders above the plumpish Yeoman, his pert antennae adding several inches to his overall height. He waited until they were sufficiently out of earshot.

"So, do you know what the hell is going on here?" Lirik turned to face him, his tone collaborative, talking more as an old friend would.

Narli remained silent.

The diplomat continued. "First we had rumours of an impending attack, the resurrection of a supposedly decimated army, then panic in the space port, the unusual magnetic storms, and I'm told contact has been lost with most of our ships ... so if you have anything to share, please tell me what you know!"

Narli almost smiled. "You were never this impertinent in Starfleet Intelligence."

The Englishman pointed at his comm badge that had a single, thick red diagonal slash across it. "Diplomatic Corps, my Ambassadorial friend. It gives me the right to kick your blue butt from here to the Federation Council Chamber if I want. Now, answer the bloody question."

Despite his verbal agility, Narli wasn't fond of these Human exchanges of antagonism. On his home world, men would kill each other over less. But then, on his world such exchanges were rare if not held in high esteem. Narli knew that Lirik understood this would rile his Andorian instinct, and resented the Yeoman's blatant attempt to make him uneasy. Tactics were called for.

"What do you know of the Ore?" Narli said so abruptly Lirik had to repeat the sentence in his head before responding.

"I don't recognise that name. Should I?"

Narli shook his head. "Perhaps it's not important. However, my getting into the Senate chamber is."

"Ah, well, that's what you get for being tardy my big blue friend. I'm afraid they won't let you in," Lirik said. "They started proceedings hours ago and they're not letting anyone in or out."

"We'll see about that," Narli launched himself toward the Senate house in long strides, causing Lirik to skip a little to catch up.

CIVILIAN SERVICES LEVEL C, FEDERATION COMPLEX, 8.05am VCT

In a large disused storage room several levels beneath the Old Fortress, now converted to a crèche-come-schoolroom, Lieutenant O'Hara surveyed the rolling, tumbling mess of children surging around the colourfully painted, brightly lit room, a rampant cacophony of shouting and giggles. Kids were never her strong point - the youngest of a large family, she'd grown up knowing only the ways of older children. Crewman Lee, medical technician, was not much help, hiding as she was behind O'Hara's officerly skirts.

"This looks like fun," O'Hara quipped.

"Oh, come on," Lee muttered, "inoculating them should take all of twenty minutes... shouldn't it? Just get them into two lines, and hey presto."

"Let's find out," O'Hara said hopefully and moved into the middle of the room. "Please, can I have your attention?"

Aside from the few teenagers and older children, only present for their flu jab lurking nervously in one corner of the room, the majority of much younger children took no notice.

"Hey, everybody, let's play a game!" she was louder, but only responded to by one little boy beside her who shrieked a tiny 'yay'.

Waving her arms about, O'Hara tried another tactic. "Hello, please stand still and listen!" Her voice must have been heard, but there was still no response.

Lee shrugged her shoulders at O'Hara, who pouted for a moment, stuck her fingers in her mouth and gave a high pitched whistle then hollered in her loudest ex-army voice: "SHUDDUUUP!"

The children were as stone.

The Lieutenant smiled. "That's better. Now, you need to get into two lines so we can give you all a little injection-" as soon as she said the word several shrill screams preceded several more that reached a frenzy of noise and movement from the disturbed little ones seeing this as another opportunity to disobey the grown up, race about and let off steam. The teenagers seemed to fold their arms and resume huddled conversations.

This was going to be a long morning.

QOVAKIAN SENATE BUILDING, VEKARIA, 8.12am VCT

Leaving the plaza, Lirik and Narli were confronted with a sea of people rushing toward them. They seemed to be heading for the docking bay.

"What's going on?" Lirik blocked the path of a Vekarian policewoman, but she didn't reply and bodyswerved to avoid him.

A Brakonian clerk behind her answered Lirik's question. "Apparently all the delegates were air-lifted to the Space Port hours ago."

"What?!" Lirik cried. "They can't have." He thought for a moment then said in sudden realisation: "They were never inside the Senate! They were taken directly from the Hotel up to the Port. What the hell is going on here?!" He hated being duped.

"I suggest we head back to Helub as well," Narli was very anxious. The two men jogged to try and get ahead of the main crowd.

"Your transport?" Lirik suggested.

Narli shook his head. "It was damaged in the trip here. What about your runabout?"

Lirik was as the thunder above. "Not available."

"Then we must find another way."

WORMHOLE CONDUIT, 8.29am VCT

Christian dropped into the co-pilot seat as Reb adjusted controls for exiting the wormhole. Multiple warning lights flashed across the command panel.

"EM readings are very high dead ahead," Reb translated, the concern all too apparent in his voice. "And there's a lot of activity out in normal space."

"The asteroid field?" Christian asked. Reb shrugged.

Reb flinched as two black objects shot past the Pod at close quarters heading in the other direction, setting off yet more alarms. "Whoah!"

"What the Hell were they?" Christian couldn't get a fix on the rear viewer. "Escape pods? Torpedos?"

Reb nodded toward the window in front. "More to the point, what's that?"

Up ahead the bright blue-white and purple-silver energies of the wormhole were flashing alarming shades of green and yellow.

Reb's proximity alarm sounded. "Objects ahead, lining the conduit," he nodded forward.

"What is it?" Christian asked as the Pod travelled into the effect and the vessel began to vibrate. Both men then saw what looked like thin black streaks all around them, extending away toward the distant exit point of the wormhole into real space, gathering together on one edge on their starboard side.

Christian tapped the console and called up an analysis of the curious black tendrils using the Pod's limited sensors.

"Some kind of technology – I can't identify many of the composite materials, presumably they are native to the Outer Zone. They're generating energy… no, they're altering the energy I think, and siphoning it off."

"What? Why?" Reb asked. "How?"

Christian raised an eyebrow at his pilot's confusion and shook his head, the cockpit was suddenly illuminated by flashes of electrical discharge. The wormhole appeared to be losing cohesion, creating hazardous EM spikes. The Pod wasn't happy, shuddering then bucking in protest.

"There's a dangerous power build-up outside the Pod," Reb acted instinctively. "Hold on!"

He hit the accelerator command to shorten the journey time out of the wormhole. Beyond the fast approaching portal he could make out the ominous shapes of the dense asteroid field dead ahead, and he prayed to whoever was listening that his reflexes wouldn't fail him.

Leaving Reb to focus on his piloting, Christian watched closely out of the viewports as they crossed the threshold into normal space, following the line of the massed tendrils. He saw they all fed into a large, pebble-shaped black vessel stationary on the outer lip of the wormhole's billowing exit point – he didn't recognise its type and assumed it was native; it wasn't like any technology he had seen before. But whatever they were doing was evidently not good news.

By chance, fate or divine intervention Reb chose to plunge his small vessel downward on exit, drawing Christian's attention back to the main viewpoint. The Captain flinched and thrust a finger forward. "Look out!" he shouted.

Reb was already one step ahead, knowing it would take all of his speed and skill, and the enhanced drive systems of his beloved Pod, to avoid collision with the clearly active asteroid field looming fast.

Firing all impulse brakes at full power both men were thrown forward – an automated force field holding them safely back from impacting on the steel-like glass. But the Pod's momentum was still too fast, and a barely moving rock the size of a large house was only moments away.

Despite the invisible energy restraint billowing around his torso Reb managed to push his hand onto the flight control panel and swerve the Pod sideways at the last, activating all available reaction control thrusters to slow the vessel as much as possible. The Pod smacked into the side of the large asteroid at just under 50kph, causing sparks to fly and power to fluctuate.

"What shit was that?!" Reb studied the Pod's environmental, SIF/IDF and engine readings, pleased and slightly amazed they were still in one piece, though several minor support systems were currently down and he'd sprung a couple of micro leaks that he swiftly dealt with.

Christian couldn't offer an accurate answer as the sensors and communications displays in front of him were off line. But the clear view through the cockpit's angled window above them showed a chilling scene: thousands of small identical fighter craft were gathering around the large black vessel.

Reb swallowed; had he chosen to fly up in any direction, he would have taken them smack into the centre of what was clearly a large military fleet.

"Are they Qovakian? As in, are they friendly?"

"I don't know," Christian said, "but it doesn't look good". His gut offered an answer, though; it was something sinister about the huge vessel on the rim of the still open wormhole. As the Pod drifted away from the asteroid slightly, the Captain saw that on the opposite side of the black vessel cables stretched into a huge, strange cloud formation. The cloud was curiously maintaining cohesion in the vacuum of space, something Christian hadn't seen before.

"What is that?" Reb asked following Christian's gaze.

Flashes of energy raced along the tendrils from the wormhole and moments later appeared flashing along the cables on the other side of the ship and into the cloud.

"Is that some sort of power converter?" Christian asked rhetorically. "What the hell are they up to?"

"Perhaps they're going to invade the Alpha Quadrant?" Reb made a wild guess.

"I don't know, the wormhole looked pretty unstable to me." Crackling energy was building around the wormhole's opening.

Without warning, the Pod lurched violently, its hull knocking against the too close asteroid. A weapon had been discharged at them from below starboard, missing them by a small margin but causing them to feel its effect nonetheless.

"Which way?!" Reb's eyes darted around for a safe passage.

"Away from them!" was Christian's reply as a strange, spiny vessel came alongside and turned for another head-on shot.

Reb was quicker and reined the Pod's prow up and away between three colliding rocks. The vessel pursued, but being of a longer length than the Pod, had to pull back and select an alternative route.

As Reb quickly hit the perimeter of the asteroid field, a further debris field lay ahead. In front, still crackling with energy, was the ragged carcass of the Firefly, its name and registry just visible on the thin slice of ship which was all that remained of its destroyed upper section.

"Oh my God," Reb was horrified.

"...my ship ..." Christian could only manage. Then: "Life signs!"

Reb didn't have to speak; the familiar negative beep-beep informed them that sensors were still inoperative. As another energy blast coursed past them, though admittedly at long range, Christian knew they wouldn't have time to be certain there were no survivors.

"Go," Christian said quietly.

"Go where?!" Reb wasn't used to feeling this much out of options.

"Vekaria," the Captain watched as Reb engaged maximum impulse and the remains of his first command were left behind.

QOVAKIAN SENATE, DOCKING BAY, 8.42am VCT

"Coming through! Make way!" Lirik was moving through the crowd of delegate aides to the front where armed police and soldiers guarded the entrance to the departure gates. He was carefully supporting the Ambassador, who seemed disoriented and weak - his right antenna was decidedly crooked.

Reaching the Vekarian policewoman in charge at the point, her colleagues formed a solid wall behind her.

"This man is seriously hurt," Lirik pleaded, and the Ambassador groaned and stumbled to add to the effect. "I must get him to our medical facility immediately."

The Vekarian shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir, my orders are to hold everyone here. Magnetic storms are preventing a safe passage, anyway."

"Do your orders include being responsible for the death of a senior Visitor Representative?" Lirik said in his most superior tone.

The guard didn't want to be seen as obstructive, but nonetheless had to verify the man's claims. "Name?"

"Lirik, Yeoman Tix Lirik, Starfleet Diplomatic Corps," Lirik stated, "and this is Andorian Ambassador Narli."

The woman grabbed the Vekarian equivalent of a padd from a soldier beside her and entered a few commands. "Ship's name?"

"Ah, well.." Lirik had to think fast, "my vessel has been relocated to the space port, however, there are other transports here that are authorised to take me."

The woman regarded the padd again. Lirik was growing restless and jabbed Narli to make another loud groan.

"Is this going to take long?" Lirik pleaded. "This man could die if he doesn't get treatment soon."

The officer looked over the padd at him and Narli.

Lirik added: "I have full jurisdiction and security clearance." He began to think the woman was seeing through his ploy and thought of another tac. "At least let me aboard a vessel with Federation medical equipment, we should be able to treat him there."

The officer turned to the soldier who in turn called a more junior rank over. "Take them to the Vool-can vessel. I'll request soonest clearance once I'm authorised."

"Thank you," Lirik proceeded, much to the annoyance of those he was leaving behind. A swarm of angry people surged forward wanting to know why he and the Ambassador had been given priority over them to pass beyond the gates.

Narli grumbled, no doubt in protest to being forced to continue with the uncomfortable charade for longer than expected. The soldier led them through the gates and into the empty plaza beyond. Through a long bank of rain streaked high viewing windows, Lirik could see the fifteen or so transports docked, mostly occluded by the thundering rain.

The Vulcan craft, about six times the size of a runabout, was of minimalist design. Once a long-range shuttlecraft, it was now home to a scientist of some repute. With the guard leading the way in front, the walk to the gangway gave Lirik the opportunity to think aloud his assessment of the situation with the silent Narli.

"From what you have told me it seems the Vekarians have lied not just about the situation as it stands, but also about what happened years ago, at the end of their rebellion. And now the T'Kani are back for bloody revenge."

Narli grunted.

"Okay, allegedly back. And then the Federation delegates are whisked away, but why? Safety from an attack, perhaps?" He glanced up into the dark sky. "And the magnetic storm up there is getting worse. No, Ambassador, this situation is not good." Narli couldn't respond in his disoriented and nauseous state.

Reaching the outer airlock of the angular vessel, Lirik used the external comm panel to patch through to the flight deck.

"This is Yeoman Lirik, I'm on official Federation Council business and need immediate access to your sickbay." 'And your flight controls,' he thought to himself.

"Yeoman Lirik," the soft male Vulcan voice replied, "we were not expecting you."

"Andorian Ambassador Narli has been injured, he needs immediate treatment," Lirik could feel Narli was truly waning now.

"Our sickbay facility is limited, surely a Vekarian hospital-" the Vulcan was only trying to be helpful.

"Look! Just open the airlock. Please!" Lirik could feel the soldier's gaze.

A couple of breaths later, the airlock opened to reveal a beautiful Human woman of apparent Middle Eastern descent, regaled in Vulcan attire and attended by Vulcan men wearing very little indeed. Lirik repressed a smile.

As hestepped over the threshold the two attendees recoiled in shock, though managed to maintain their outward emotional control. The Human woman was puzzled, but as Lirik came closer, she could feel it as well; while Vulcans had learned to suppress and ignore their emotions, they were by nature very sensitive individuals. The Vekarian soldier had purposefully held back to keep distance from Lirik and observe the whole scene, so hadn't felt it.

"What you are feeling is the ambient effect of the Medusan energy which exists within me," Lirik handed the Ambassador to the two almost reproachful looking attendants. Once Narli had left him, he increased the environment shield to full power.

"Our medical unit is this way," the woman said and gestured to her left. Not more than six paces away, a small recess in the corridor wall provided medical scanning for the Ambassador's dislocation. The woman started scanning the Ambassador. Lirik knew it would not take long, so he had only a few minutes. He turned to the soldier who had followed them inside.

"This may take a while," Lirik lied. "I suggest we both remain on board until the crisis is over."

The guard moved back to the open airlock and spoke into his helmet mike. He then nodded to Lirik and jogged back to the boarding gates.

Once he was out of eyeline, Lirik grabbed Narli's antenna and roughly snapped it back into position. The Andorian yelped and reeled back, his perceptual senses taking a nasty jolt - but aside from a splitting headache, Lirik knew he would be fine.

The woman didn't react, except to ask, stony-faced: "Why were you deceiving him?"

Lirik ignored her. "I need to see your Captain."

"There is no Captain," she said softly. Lirik found Vulcans annoying at the best of times. Humans who simulated Vulcan behaviour, he couldn't help feeling were a bit fake.

"Well, whoever is in command then!" Lirik could feel the minutes ticking by, a knot growing in his stomach of what might come to pass.

"The crew are under my command, but-" she managed to say.

Lirik turned to Narli. "You okay?" the (paler) blue man nodded. "Then let's get to the flight deck."

As the woman quickly led the way Narli asked, "What's your name?"

"Karim. Professor Karim of the Vulcan Science Academy," she responded. Lirik caught Narli hungrily looking at the woman's figure. She was slender with jet-black hair, greased back in a retro Vulcan style and her clothing clung to every part of her body.

Reaching the compact flight deck, the trio found two more Vulcan attendants. There didn't appear to be any obvious rank structure. Instinctively, Lirik moved to the pilot position and looked out of the viewports to the skies above; of course, nothing could be seen beyond the clouds or even the thick rain that continued to team down from the sky. Even with the best hull composition, there was no escape from the distant hammering on the roof like thousands of booted mice. The Vulcans didn't react when Lirik began to check their displays and read the sensors, such as they were.

"Is there a problem?" Karim asked, almost Human.

"There is indeed," Narli said, sidling closer to the Professor. "We feel it would be in our best interests to ignore the current flight restrictions and return to the space port above."

"Indeed we do," Lirik reiterated. "We believe Vekaria, perhaps all of Qovakia, is in danger of imminent attack."

"From the T'Kani?" Karim asked, then added in explanation: "It has been widely speculated on today's news broadcasts."

"Professor," Lirik regarded the woman, and decided she had a superior look about her, "I could quote you a whole stack of Federation regulations in order to requisition this ship, but it would be much easier if you just let us take her out."

Karim thought for a moment, then nodded. Narli dropped into the pilot's seat and Lirik sat beside him.

"Great, no docking clamps," Lirik reported.

"Inform your crew to brace themselves," Narli turned back and gave Karim an up-down look, "it could be a bumpy ride."

Narli deferred the drive system coming on line until all other systems were at the ready, giving him the few seconds he would need in case the dock had a tractor beam.

"Still nothing on subspace communications," Lirik reported - he wondered if a Starship would be a better destination than the spaceport.

"Here goes", Narli disconnected from the gangway attached to the side of the ship, closing the outer doors a hair's breath later, much to the relief of a Vulcan who was passing by the airlock and hit by a rush of hot, wet wind from outside.

The moment Narli engaged manoeuvring thrusters, the yardmaster was hailing them. Lirik didn't respond. Internal systems on-line, Narli twisted the vessel to point straight up and pressed the engage button. There was no resistance from the Vekarians.

STARFLEET HQ, 8.46am VCT

Ensign Collard focused all her attention on her security panel, but nothing had changed since she'd sat down. Save for the panel's viewscreen showing random images from around the complex, there was no other activity. Inaami had successfully secured the complex and ushered civilians into wider corridors below the Fortress using soft force fields. There was still no word from the fleet and total silence from the local authorities, although the crisis within the port had only escalated. It was pandemonium.

A single, minor sensor flickered briefly. The security net detected nothing, but it was an unusual reaction from her equipment. She boosted the system, giving her added vision, and this time there was a steady, repeated anomaly on the board.

"Sir!" she called to the Commander. "We have an unauthorised entry to one of the lower storage bays."

Inaami looked around quickly - she and Jackson were reviewing the corridor layouts around the complex for possible egress routes. "We're okay up here, Ensign, but a bit thin on the ground. You'd best go take a look yourself; could be a civilian who's lost their way."

"Aye sir."

When she had gone, Petri called over. "Commodore, Vekarian police have reported that one of our officers is stirring up trouble among the civilians and he's refusing to cooperate."

Inaami and Jackson walked over to the monitors and saw a man in Starfleet uniform standing on a chair shouting and gesturing at the massed crowds beneath the complex - they appeared riled and angered by what he was saying.

"Kohl!" Inaami said the name through clenched teeth.

VEKARIAN SPACE, 8.47am VCT

Reb's Pod, dented and slightly charred valiantly thundered toward Vekaria at full impulse.

"Still no sign of pursuit." Reb reported. "I wonder why they broke off?"

Christian studied the visual images of the alien ships as recorded by the Pod's sensors, trying to work out what was going on. He scanned back a few frames, zoomed in and watched again. This time he could just make out, beyond the conduits running from the monolithic ship back into the magnetic cloud, a steady stream of vessels heading into the magnetic cloud – and not coming out of the other side. Each flash from the wormhole's mouth preceded a flash inside the cloud.

"That's odd..." Christian said.

"What?" Reb was instantly worried by the Starfleet officer's trepidation.

But the computer halted any response, noisily heralding their arrival at the border of Vekarian space.

Reb instinctively ducked as several small ships scooted past them at close quarters, hurriedly making their way from the system in all directions. But the attention of both men was now turned to the heart of the star system.

Masking the sun, a huge magnetic storm cloud was spewing forth angry tendrils of energy as were many tiny ships of exactly the same configuration that they had encountered beside the wormhole. They were engaging Federation, Qovakian and other vessels with great speed and ferocity and they clearly had the upper hand as wave after wave appeared from the cloud firing mercilessly on the unprepared ships. Although return fire was occasionally destroying individual invading ships, many more continued to pour out of the cloud to take their place, the sheer numbers overwhelming the Starfleet vessels and making it impossible for them to move out of the system.

Christian looked again at the stored images on the pod's display.

"I believe they are somehow using the wormhole to create some kind of smaller wormhole to jump their fleet into the heart of Vekarian space," Christian said in realisation. "With that kind of technology they could potentially deploy troops throughout Qovakia."

"We should head back, then," Reb asked, fearing for his life and the further safety of his Pod, "get help from Starfleet Command."

Christian shook his head. "We wouldn't stand a chance. Besides," he deleted the image on screen, "the wormhole could have become too unstable."

"You mean ... we're stuck here?" Reb felt panicked.

"For the present. I suggest we head for the moon," Christian, Reb then noticed, had now added the extra pip to his collar.

"Through that?" Reb watched as explosions ripped through several starships as the waves of attack ships made successive runs. The magnetic storm wasn't helping any.

Christian saw several more small dots shooting away from Vekaria, but they weren't targeted. He scanned the vessels as best he could.

"From what I can tell, they're only attacking ships with weapons capability. You have none." Christian turned to see Reb staring at him. "In your own time, Mister."

Reb turned back to face front in time to see a Starfleet vessel explode in a blaze of brilliant white/orange energy and both men gasped in shock at the destruction of the Galaxy class vessel: it was the Ajax.

SUB-LEVEL 27, BENEATH STARFLEET HQ, 8.48am VCT

Jackson heaved her way through the crushing crowds towards Kohl's raised position. He was yelling at the top of his voice, telling people about an imminent T'Kani invasion and advising people to take cover deep below the complex. Some seemed to be listening to him, surging towards the down-ramps and stairwells leading deeper into the complex.

"Commander!" Jackson bellowed at him. He almost laughed at her appearance, having tried to contact her for so long. Civilians shouted many questions at the Commodore, pulling at her for attention.

"Commodore, I am so glad to see you," Kohl looked genuinely relieved.

"You've got a lot of explaining to do, Mister ... consider yourself relieved of duty!" she shouted above the hubub from her pinned position.

Before Kohl could respond, Jackson's comm badge trilled. Jostled by civilians, Jackson had trouble hearing Inaami speak.

"Commodore, many unidentified vessels have appeared in Vekarian space and are attacking Federation and Qovakian ships...oh my Lord, we've just lost the Ajax..."

Jackson stared at the scurrying people about her and hardly heard Kohl speak: "I told her! I knew about the invasion!"

Jackson paled. "Go to Status 3, Commander. I'll be up as soon as I can."

SUB-LEVEL 23, BENEATH STARFLEET HQ, 8.49am VCT

Collard crouched low in her hiding place. The Orion woman hadn't seen her. Just as she was about to make her move, the complex became alive with the sound of evac klaxons, startling the thief. Collard launched herself at the slender woman, knocking her to the floor.

Hedra, not unfamiliar with unarmed combat, easily absorbed the impact and hoisted the small security guard up and over her body.

"Damn!" she cursed. She'd had a horrible feeling about the job this morning, and had been in two minds whether to proceed or not. Now she wished she'd stayed in bed.

8.50am VCT

O'Hara and Lee could barely hear the klaxons above the noise of the children. When they did, they gave each other a horrified look. The cargo bay was a designated shelter, so O'Hara and the group were required to stay there until further instruction. Thankfully, the children didn't seem to know what the invasive sound meant and just carried on with their childish antics.

8.51am VCT

Inaami looked out through the Operations windows overlooking the space port to the west. An evacuation order had been given, as had a final destruct sequence for technology throughout the complex. As she looked up she saw hundreds of small ships heading directly towards the moon, presumably to attack defensive points and key Vekarian military bases. Despite the Commodore's earlier expression of confidence, Inaami could see that Starfleet and other forces were losing the dogfight above; the swarms of enemy vessels were too fast and too great in number.

Inaami looked back at the ships heading for the moon. On rapid approach, they had not changed trajectory at all. Too late she realised, albeit briefly, that they were not ships at all and they were on a direct heading for the Old Fortress and everything around it.

8.52am VCT

Narli brought the Vulcan vessel bucking wildly above the storms into the high atmosphere and finally into space that was lit up by the magnetic storm and a fierce battle taking place. The carnage in front of them was a shock - even Professor Karim stood and gasped at the horrifying scenes of destruction. Suddenly, on the moon above, they saw what looked like dozens of streaks of light flash across the surface; then it happened again, and again… and again. There was no mistake - the spaceport was under heavy bombardment.

8.53am VCT

The lights quietly winked on and off above Jackson, Kohl and the panicking civilians and a hush fell over the crowds. Multiple, far-off booming noises shook the port, then several electrical systems overloaded around them with a shower of sparks; the lights then flickered and went dark - there was a brief moment of panic before a tremendous rumbling noise shook the corridor violently and the ceiling tumbled down on them.

8.54am VCT

The bass reverberation following the far off numerous explosions shook O'Hara to her core – it was a familiar sensation felt during her times in various theatres of war and from the feel of this one it was far worse than any she'd experienced. As lights flickered off dozens of tiny screams filled the air. In the next instant the room seemed to blow apart as O'Hara was knocked violently onto the floor feeling debris pile onto her as she lost consciousness.

8.55am VCT

Although Collard now had Hedra pinned, the loud explosive noises from above caused her to release her grip and the Orion slid free. Instead of running, however, she stood, facing the small Canadian. They both looked up, feeling the whole room rattle around them. Lights flickered, a rumbling sound grew louder and the space above their heads was suddenly filled with fire and debris and the two women threw themselves down on the floor.

8.59am VCT

In the area of space above the moon, away from the dogfighting, Christian and Reb looked at the devastation on the port below. It spread for hundreds of kilometres, but he knew the port was far from destroyed, though there would clearly be many thousands dead and injured. He saw Reb's look of disbelief when suddenly the comm panel chirped.

"A message, on all frequencies," Reb said.

"Let's hear it," Christian's face was a contorted mess.

Through static, the Ferengi-style Universal Translator (programmed to speak in English) converted the language to a computerised voice – indicating this was not spoken but downloaded as code and translated into base speech. "Attention, this is the T'Kani fleet. Stand down your weapons and surrender. Any ship that does not comply will be destroyed."

"Huh! Bit late for –" Reb started but stopped when without warning the Pod bucked as if suddenly in a choppy sea. Christian checked the limited sensor information in front of him. He spoke without looking at Reb.

"The wormhole ... it's gone."

= TO BE CONTINUED =