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.

The story so far…

Following the discovery of a stable wormhole in 'free' Tholian space, contact has been established with the Qovakians, a civilisation located around 35,000 light years distant, on the other side of Tholian space at the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. Qovakia is similar to the Federation, its founders having come together centuries earlier to form a Union for peace, trade, cultural, technological and scientific exchange and free movement.

However, until five years ago, the Union had been overrun and ruled for over 50 years by a brutal and aggressive military race, the T'Kani – until they were eventually defeated by the Resistance.

The Qovakians are still picking up the pieces since their costly victory – and with the discovery of the wormhole they are very keen to form new alliances. So they welcome any and all peoples from the other side to come through and join them at the negotiating table – no matter who they are.

Unfortunately they are ill-prepared for the sheer number of interested parties travelling through the wormhole as wave after wave of vessels arrive on Helub, the region's vast primary space port located on the moon of the same name in orbit around Vekaria, Qovakian's seat of government located not far from the Tholian border and the wormhole.

The 'Visitors' as they have become known collectively are from all quarters of the Alpha Quadrant and beyond: there are those escaping the onset of the Dominion war, many official representatives of Federation and non-Federation states alike, including hostile forces, business representatives, independent traders, civilian families, couples and individuals either seeking fortune, adventure or just the chance to start a new life somewhere else.

Some months on, shortly before what would be the December holiday season on Earth, everything is set for the Trade Conference to begin. Many Visitor nations and organisations now have a small military presence in the region: Klingon, Romulan, Dominion and many other states besides. The Federation is among them, having despatched a small fleet of Starfleet vessels, including some their newest prototypes, mostly to assist in the exploration of the new Tholian 'free' space on the Qovakian side of the wormhole. They have also set up a regional HQ on Helub.

But the vast majority of people are still located on the space port moon, establishing contacts, settling in, and awaiting the outcome of the Trade Conference negotiations.

During all this time however there have been increasing rumours about sightings of T'Kani forces massing for an attack, even though they were supposedly decimated at the end of the uprising five years ago. Tension steadily increases throughout the port, though there is an amount of reassurance among some because of the presence of the additional Visitor military vessels.

While the opening ceremony for the Trade Conference takes place, a Starfleet Engineer and a Vekarian official make an impromptu trip to a remote, vast storage facility on Helub's less populated surface where they identify a huge passenger liner from Federation space in storage – that had been there since before the T'Kani lost power.

How it got there is not its greatest unknown as the vessel appears to have seen an amount of conflict since its mysterious disappearance almost a decade earlier, and it is also entirely covered in a strange, black coating. Unfortunately the mystery doesn't end there as the pair first discover an odd symbol – a T'Kani 'flag of invasion' impaled by an Ore 'spear of retribution' – and when things couldn't seem to get stranger, their runabout vanishes, forcing them to make their way back to the main port on foot; the Qovakian Minister is particularly rattled.

The situation on the port soon escalates as strange ion storms erupt throughout the sector and contact is systematically lost with all vessels beyond Vekarian space.

Some hours later, as the panic on the port reaches a critical level, and an ion storm erupts in Vekarian space, the Engineer who became separated from the Minister tries to warn Starfleet HQ of what he is now convinced is an impending attack, but is disbelieved.

Then, hours before the Conference negotiations are due to get underway, all the Trade Conference delegates disappear. There is disarray on both Vekaria and its moon. Within hours, the T'Kani make a sudden and decisive strike, obliterating or immobilising all military vessels, destroying the wormhole, severing the link back to Federation space, and decimating the surface of Qovakia's central space port moon in a monumental attack.

Main Players:

Captain Christian – Starfleet commander, ex-Engineer, en route to his first command, though he found his ship destroyed; father driven insane and mother killed recently after accidental exposure to a Medusan

Reb – a roguish pilot for hire, transporting Christian; mother was a Human, father a Ferengi

Commodore Jackson – Starfleet HQ commander on Helub, veteran officer

Lieutenant Jackson – the Commodore's son, a security officer

Lieutenant O'Hara – Starfleet medical officer, almost an MD, sort of seeing Lt Jackson

Crewman Lee – Starfleet Medical, assisting O'Hara

Ensign Collard – Starfleet security officer, recent Academy graduate, green

Hedra – an Orion thief, also green

Lieutenant Commander Kohl – Starfleet Engineer, discovered the passenger liner, bit of a nerd

Re Lorken – Vekarian government minister, assigned to Starfleet as liaison, mysterious

Yeoman Lirik – Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, primary aide to the Federation delegates; part-Medusan

Ambassador Narli – Andorian Trade delegate, old adversary of the Yeoman's; was elsewhere when the other delegates disappeared

Professor Karim – Vulcan Science Academy; Human, but raised a Vulcan

EP 2: INVASION – PART 2

PROLOGUE

DECEMBER 23, 9.04am (Vekarian Central Time)

THE VEKARIAN SYSTEM, OUTER ZONE

Reb came to with a start. Looking at his smashed up cockpit he could hear a fire crackling in the deck below without having to smell or see it. "What hap-"

"Hit by shockwave, taking us down!" was all Christian afforded him as he frantically stabbed at the thruster control panel.

Reb remembered the initial wobble of the vessel indicating the wormhole's demise, but that was only the subspace tremor. The normal space shockwave had hit a minute or so later, sending the Pod careering forward into the Vekarian system and the midst of many military ships, most either engaged in combat or damaged and adrift. At that point Reb had lost consciousness.

The Pod's current trajectory was nose straight down toward the charred and pitted surface of Helub. Across the semi-darkness of the smouldering destruction Reb saw plasma and electrical energies crackling around the scarred surface of twisted metal and plastic, bizarre frills of superstructure contorted around deformed girders and trunking lancing upward this way and that, clouds of debris barely billowing. Most of the edifices of the spaceport had been flattened across most of its surface, its many domes, towers and other elevated levels now a distorted mess of devastation.

Although much had been vaporised in the carpet bombing, a confetti sea of glass and metal fragments twinkled in the light as it all tumbled into the vacuum of space above the carnage. Reb, still coming to his senses watched as the Captain skilfully swerved the ship from side to side avoiding larger items of debris during their steep descent, though the sheer volume of smaller items couldn't be missed and they pattered against the only partially shielded hull. Reb grimaced at the unavoidable damage being made to his precious vessel as he deployed manual fire controls to douse the internal fires.

The shockwave caused by the wormhole's explosion had completely dissipated the magnetic storm. Moments before, Qovakian forces had been trying to draw the battle away from the port in an effort to spare lives when the wave unexpectedly hit, causing a number of vessels in close proximity to collide, some fatally. From what Christian and Reb had seen the T'Kani's fighter vessels were relatively unaffected.

Looking out of the pod's side windows, in the view receding above and behind, Reb watched the smaller, faster and more agile insect-like craft zipping around the helpless Federation and other vessels to assume boarding positions, though shots were still being exchanged. A single Qovakian patrol craft and a Norsican Warship, both evidently damaged, were managing a slow limp away, but were soon surrounded, the patrol vessel hit by a succession of blasts, exploding instantly, the other disabled in a flash of energy from its rear.

"Oh no," Reb uttered.

"One of ours?" Christian asked face grimacing from concentration as he manoeuvred the pod from side to side. Reb turned and frowned at him.

"If you mean Starfleet, no." The pod lurched wildly left and right.

"Sorry. You see they're not targeting civilian vessels, though?"

Reb looked back again and saw non-military ships indeed moving away at low impulse unhindered.

"Only a matter of time, Captain. We should get out of here as well."

"I doubt they've landed ground forces yet," Christian said, ignoring him.

"So?"

Christian saw light coming from several large impact areas amid the wreckage of the port, exposing the transit tunnel system. It appeared fairly intact within - presumably the space port was built to withstand major disasters, though probably not of this nature or extent.

"I'm taking us in."

"What?! Are you crazy?" Reb reached for the flight controls, but Christian grasped his wrist before he could change their course.

"Think about it, Ferengi!" Christian said the latter word more to get Reb's attention than to cause insult. "The wormhole's gone. Our ships are either destroyed or dead in the water. There's nowhere else for us to go."

"But… down there..?" he balked – he could only imagine the bloodbath and chaos across the port. "We should slip away while we can – you said yourself they weren't bothered with non-military vessels. We could find a planet, lay low till it's all over."

"So it's true what they say about your people?" Christian slightly regretted his choice of words as Reb turned to Christian, his face suddenly spiteful.

"I may be a coward, Captain, but I'm no damned Ferengi."

Christian shot him an intrigued look.

"And if you don't mind, Captain, this is my ship and she's my responsibility," with that he took control and angled the ship back down onto Christian's intended course. "I'll take you inside, drop you off as agreed, but after that you're on your own. I'll take my own chances out there."

Truth was, Reb also knew his Pod was unlikely to be able to make an interstellar journey in this condition.

Christian just nodded and stared out the windows ahead, completely trusting that he was in good hands, and feeling as though this newfound acquaintance was far from over. As Reb levelled the small ship to enter the port at a less steep descent both men looked up through the forward windows into the murk of the battle's death throws above. Several enormous, bulbous vessels had entered the system, each larger even than a Romulan Warbird. From their open bellies dropped dozens of ships, similar in colour and markings to the thousands of T'Kani fighter craft but bulkier, and clearly built to carry a payload. Each moved quickly into positions above Helub and around Vekaria.

"What do you think they are?" Reb wondered aloud, breaking the tension.

"What do you think," Christian repeated grimly as a statement of fact. The T'Kani were clearly not wasting time in securing Qovakia's ruling world and its space port moon. While the smaller craft continued to destroy and disable their adversaries, the larger personnel ships made a slow and steady descent, fanning out to pre-designated landing positions.

Just then, a brief flash of many tiny glints of light shone way out into space.

"What was that?" Reb pointed beyond the main battle out into the system toward its sun. Christian just saw empty black space.

Then it happened again, in a different part of the heavens.

"I saw it that time," the Captain said, and then watched it happen a third time. The fourth time, both men could make out dozens of small objects – ships of some sort on a fast trajectory.

"The cavalry, do you think?" Reb asked hopefully.

"If they are they better have a lot more friends on their way," said Christian.

A few T'Kani fighters immediately broke away from their pickings and began to fire toward the approaching mini-fleet. As they did the tight formations of vessels split apart, in all directions, and began firing back at the T'Kani – at least ten of the invaders were picked off instantly, but both men could see the cavalry were vastly outnumbered.

EP2 ACT 1

VULCAN SHUTTLE, ABOVE HELUB SPACE PORT, 9.10am VCT

Yeoman Lirik and Professor Karim together heaved the large piece of twisted wall panel off the Ambassador. As soon as it was clear, the Yeoman had his fingers on the Andorian's antenna.

"He's alive," he said, then checked his body for obvious wounds – there were none, and Lirik knew from experience that the tall, solid Andorian was made of tough stuff. "Help me move him, will you?"

Several minutes earlier, unable to escape the increasing chaos of battle around them, Narli had been waiting for a suitable opportunity to pilot the Vulcan shuttle aboard the USS Remmington. Lirik had sensed the wormhole's destruction and warned Narli that a massive energy wave was approaching at great speed. If he hadn't acted upon this they'd have slammed into the frigate and quite possibly destroyed. Heaving his big blue associate to the rear of the small flight deck a sudden dramatic, bright explosion just in front and to starboard filled the space with brilliant light. Seconds later the vessel lurched violently, sending them tumbling as debris from the destroyed T'Kani fighter slammed into them. Alarms wailed. Lirik could sense the emergency containment force shield as it shimmered in place over the triangular panel of transparent aluminium on the far right of the cockpit where a long angular crack was clearly visible. Noticing the moving vista of stars and ships outside he also realised the shuttle was adrift, momentum carrying it on its side toward the space port. The Yeoman glanced around for available crew to take the helm. The two Vulcan attendants on duty on the flight deck huddled in a corner as far as they could be from Lirik. One tended the other's wounded shoulder; it looked bad, green blood seeped through the first aid pad he was applying and he was obviously struggling to deny the pain from showing. The second Vulcan also appeared injured, trickles of blood running down the nape of his neck from a head wound as he pressed firmly on his colleague.

With Narli still regaining consciousness in Karim's arms, much to her silent discomfort, Lirik appeared to have little choice but pilot the vessel himself. Reaching the pilot controls he was relieved to see the console intact and still linked to the shuttle's main systems, though the containment shield's close proximity was causing minor interference with his own protective shield. Lirik dialled down the power levels as much as he dared – he couldn't afford to damage the device, but appreciated the Vulcans were likely hyper-sensitive to his Medusan ambient aura. Setting the matter aside, he worked fast, using his first hand knowledge of Vulcan technology to bring navigation systems online and re-establish the dampers.

"I've regained control, but power is fluctuating," the Yeoman said, more to himself than to the others. "The transporter is offline. Damage is pretty bad on our starboard side, but no breach aside from this one. We'll have to dock. I can see several openings directly ahead."

Lirik nosed the shuttle downwards and into one of the main entrances to the port, having to swerve this way and that as many small ships streamed out of the port and into space, one unfortunate caught by a stray volley from the dogfight overhead and suffering a fatal implosion. Passing through the entrance, Lirik could see the extent of damage to the upper sections. He glanced around to get a bearing from the tunnel's signage as Narli came to.

Looking up into Karim's beautiful face and ample bosom above his head the Ambassador smiled broadly. "Is this what they call Heaven on your world?" The Professor turned her head away and hauled herself out from under him.

"Sadly you're still alive, Ambassador. We are in fact inside the space port, which looks a lot more like Hell from where I'm sitting," Lirik glanced at the shuttle's worsening damage readout, they'd have to find a place to dock quickly or they could be in real trouble. "If I'm right, we're close to Starfleet HQ in the Old Fortress, though from up there it looked like that area of the port was pretty badly..." his voice trailed off as the shuttle turned a bend. Ahead, huge sections of the station had been pummelled into the transport conduit from above, blocking much of the path ahead; in the area in between dozens of battered corpses and numerous severed body parts floated among the debris.

STARFLEET CRECHE, 9.11am VCT

Several levels beneath the complex assigned to the Federation and Starfleet, a woman stirred from unconsciousness. Water from a broken overhead pipe dripped onto her cheek, and she moaned softly, letting some of the lukewarm, nutty-flavoured fluid into her mouth. She opened her eyes, squinting from dust gathered in her lashes.

She flinched as she moved her left arm to raise herself to a sitting position. Not broken, just bruised, she thought. Contusions in shoulder – and it was rather painful.

She tapped her commbadge. "O'Hara to Medical." No response. "O'Hara to Starfleet Operations." A moment later she tried again. "O'Hara to anyone who can hear me?" Still no response.

Her hair fell unceremoniously out of its cleverly woven bun as she looked about the room. Most ceiling panels had fallen onto the room's occupants, exposing pipes, electrical trunking and conduits now ripped - steaming, bubbling fluids falling into the room. Lots of whimpering, crying and moaning noises filled her ears. Only one emergency light on the wall behind her was working, casting a dim, eerie blue light about the twisted and broken heap that had been designated the Starfleet crèche, available for all children of Starfleet crews and primarily for those civilians who were helping the official parties in the Old Fortress facility, although other visiting Federation allied families had been allowed to send their young along as well.

Nurse O'Hara carefully rose to a standing position, and saw that most of the children had gathered at the far end of the room, around the unconscious form of Crewman Lee. She crouched low, ignoring the pains in her body, her hands flailing around the sharp, dark mess on the floor for her medical kit. The still-open medical tricorder shone out to her and she called to the children.

"Everyone listen to me," she waved the colourfully lit device to get their attention, "I want you all to move to the doorway over there." O'Hara pointed to her left, seeing that a group of teenagers and older children were already there unsuccessfully trying to get the door open manually. If there were any kids trapped under the debris, they were her next priority. "Is anyone hurt?" she asked, methodically scanning the wreckage for life readings. The faded vital signs of two small humanoids shocked her. Their hearts had stopped, multiple injuries and crush, but they were not quite brain dead and each had a minute amount of body heat, so death had been quite recent. The Lieutenant desperately clawed at the debris as fast as she could, but some of it was too heavy. Some of it was also sharp and she cut her fingers and palms several times. As she became frantic, a group of the oldest teenagers tried to help her, but it was still a struggle. By the time she had reached them, brain activity had ceased, their small broken bodies cold and quite dead. Several of the teens began to ball uncontrollably. "No…" she hung her head low, but only briefly, reminding herself there were still many other children alive here, and that they would be counting on her to get them out.

"Miss?" A young Bajoran girl gestured to the still form of Crewman Lee. O'Hara reached her quickly, and made a scan. Lee's leg was badly shattered in two places. She could treat the pain, but not the injuries - not here, anyway. Looking up, she saw that the steam had changed density; it looked like coolant.

Grabbing a hypo from the Crewman's emergency medical pouch, she jolted Lee into consciousness, following up with another hypo for the pain. It was a terrible wound, however, and the crewman writhed in discomfort. O'Hara called over to the group by the exit: "Bang on the door loud as you can, see if you can get someone's attention."

The children shouted in unison, though it seemed to make the younger ones more fearful. O'Hara saw many minor injuries that could become major if left untreated and tried to find her fuller med kit under all the junk.

Lee could hardly move. "Holy—!" she flinched from unexpected pain. "'Hara..?" she whelped.

"I'm here," she didn't stop hunting for her bag; the coolant was beginning to reach her nostrils.

"Explosion?" Lee managed, a bit slurred from the heavy dosage of painkiller. "Attacked…?!"

O'Hara glanced round. "I'd guess attacked." She lowered her voice and moved over to her. "Two of the children are dead."

Lee gasped and welled up.

"We have a coolant leak. It's serious. We've got to get out of here right away so you're going to have to move," she reached for her.

Lee shook her head in horror and tried not to look at her injuries. "No…can't. It's too bad."

O'Hara gripped her face with both hands. "Sorry, it's an order," she said firmly. The Lieutenant put Lee's arms over her head and in one move hoisted her up, causing the crewman to cry out and fall unconscious, despite the meds. O'Hara's injury smarted from strain.

With the dead weight of the crewman over her shoulder, fireman style, O'Hara stumbled over the debris to the door. "Come on, you're not being loud enough." She joined in the shouting and kicking. It seemed to go on for too long, coolant tickling O'Hara's throat and filling the room with its lethal fog, her whole body aching from her own injuries and the stress of holding Lee aloft.

Suddenly there was a noise from the other side of the door, and then another that seemed to come from the wall followed by a clunking sound. The thick doors made a slight movement and then a thin crack appeared where the doors joined. Suddenly the unmistakable long, sharp claw of a Bat'Leth slid through and began to prise the doors apart. Three pairs of horny gloved hands then gripped at the wider apart door sections and with the older children joining in from the inside they pulled them apart wide enough to step through. Three Klingon warriors each of a different generation stood before them, frightening a number of the smaller children and even a few of the older ones. While the children scurried out, one of the Klingons, the largest of the three, nimbly took Lee from O'Hara and led the children down the dark and smoky corridor toward the open section where the bar had once been.

"Thank you," O'Hara said to the two remaining men, one older and the other younger than the large man. As she glanced back into the room, she immediately saw her med kit among the detritus and held her breath in order to retrieve it. "It was the T'Kani, I assume?" she asked as she rejoined them.

The old man responded first. "We are betrayed by the Qovakians, the space port is all but destroyed."

O'Hara couldn't believe it. "So it was true all along."

"They fired volleys of powerful missiles from orbit without warning, our comrades lay dead and burning in the docks with not a single life taken in return," the other chimed in, sounding slightly mad as passionate Klingons often did, "so much death without honour". He was a thin, wiry man with wild, almost evil eyes. Yet his body language seemed controlled, sturdy. He did a slight heel click and bow. "I am Kluless, son of Bort."

"Lieutenant O'Hara, Starfleet Medical," the nurse responded, suppressing the untimely urge to laugh. "And you?"

"Kidron, first son of Qadar," the older, more fatherly Klingon spoke, staring down the blackness of the corridor. "My comrade Karless has taken your children to the other Humans we saw gathering along there."

O'Hara peered into the darkened, dust clouded corridor toward the vague noise of far off crowds, and then wondered about the bodies of the children in the room beside her. There seemed little point in moving them. If their parents were still alive, it was her duty to find them and tell them. Not something she relished. Casting a glance back at the crooked doorway and the little ones' final resting place, she followed the Klingon men toward the gathering throngs.

BENEATH STARFLEET HQ, 9.13am VCT

Collard felt as if she were about to throw up again. The large piece of wire sticking out of her thigh was less painful now, but the thought of how far it penetrated was making her feel queasy. She lay on her side, legs outstretched, back against the wall with her phaser pointed at the Orion woman who sat calmly opposite her. Debris lay scattered all around, a small fire licked at the far wall, smoke gathering above them.

"We can't just sit here," Hedra didn't want to provoke the security officer, yet this course of inaction was absurd.

"Someone will come," Collard swallowed hard, her eyes fluttered.

Hedra made a move toward the Canadian but the young Ensign snapped herself awake and pointed the phaser closer to the thief. Hedra ignored her.

"This is stupid," she said to the younger woman, "you're wounded, and you need a medic."

Collard half smiled. "What, you think I'm going to let you go.. and get.. go.." she passed out.

Hedra regarded the still young woman for a few heartbeats, carefully considering her next move. Ordinarily she would have bolted for freedom, but she couldn't leave the younger woman here amid this bedlam. Taking the phaser and putting it to one side, Hedra examined the girl's wound and took a decision. Gripping hard onto the wire and placing her hand around it firmly where it penetrated the skin she wrenched it out in one move.

Collard's eyes popped open as she screamed in agony, writhing back onto the floor. Hedra ripped at the trousers around the bloody wound. Tearing cloth from her cloak she first cleaned the injury as best she could, then took the phaser and set it to minimum. "This might hurt a bit," Hedra said. Collard just nodded, knowing it was a good course of action, and steeled herself as the Orion placed the phaser onto the wound and fired in several short bursts. Collard cried out, and partly sobbed.

Hedra tore another strip from her cloak and tied it round the leg over the wound. Stealthily placing the phaser in the folds of her clothing she then helped the young Ensign to her feet. Slowly, the two made their way toward the exit.

"Why didn't you just leave me?" Collard asked when her sobbing subsided.

Hedra replied with an unemotional expression: "If I'm right about what's just happened, you may be my best chance of getting away from here safely."

Collard wasn't quite sure she understood, but then, she only knew about Orion women from what she had been told by male colleagues.

FERENGI POD, 9.30am VCT

"Starfleet Headquarters, please respond," Christian had been trying repeatedly to raise someone since entering the spaceport tunnels, fiddling with the communications frequencies within known Starfleet bandwidths between each transmission.

Reb concentrated on piloting the pod safely through the mess of fallen girders, wiring and caved-in levels from above. In the outermost tunnels, they had passed some ships along the way, none of which were known to them, and none of whom wanted to stop and chat.

Moving deeper into the spaceport, things got a lot worse. There were no vessels passing them here, and a few ships had been badly damaged, ditched and abandoned on the ground, their crews presumably taking off in smaller escape craft or possibly on foot in space suits, though they'd seen no-one. Damage to the tunnel structure was also more pronounced. Most disturbing, numerous more bodies floated in the zero g vacuum of the transport conduits where bulkheads had breached.

Christian had pointed out some survivors within the space port, moving ominously, many in zero g, behind windows that lined the walls of the enormous tunnels. Although some had waved frantically for assistance, there was little they could do without a docking port, and with no transporter aboard the pod.

As they moved even further into port, the tunnel finally fell into complete darkness. The nature of the debris indicated more severe damage - surface structures had been pummelled into or through the levels above.

Reb hit the navigation lights which cast white, clinical circles of illumination on the path ahead.

"Can anyone respond to this signal?" Christian tried again, sounding almost desperate.

A few breaths passed then a fuzz of static responded, as if someone were trying to get through. Reb turned hopefully to Christian.

"Please repeat, your signal is weak," but Christian couldn't raise them again. Reb brought the Pod to a standstill - the tunnel in front was completely blocked by debris.

"Perhaps they're on the other side of that?" Reb suggested.

Christian reached behind the pilot seat, fumbling in his holdall. He retrieved a peculiar pair of binoculars of alien technology. Reb frowned.

"They were a gift from my last posting," Christian said, sounding a little defensive, "ornithology. A hobby. Well, a while ago anyway."

More than that, the binoculars had tricorder capacity and a computer logic centre for deducing probabilities of the images it scanned. Placing the eyepieces to his face he traced along the entire surface, studying its structure.

"Up there!" Christian pointed toward the tunnel's ceiling on the right. "The barrier is weakest at the very top, we might be able to punch our way through."

Reb was aghast. "Not with this Pod you won't!"

Christian raised an eyebrow and glanced around at the broken, blackened cockpit and out at the blackened, battered and scarred surface of the Pod's prow.

"Yes…" Reb acknowledged, nodding, "I can see the damage – which is just why I don't want to make it any worse. Have you any idea how much it will cost me to repair? Of course not, how could you with your so-called 'moneyless' utopia of Federation idealism? Well this is the real galaxy, pal!"

"Just… take us through." Christian didn't like having to ask Reb to sacrifice his only vessel, but given the circumstances there seemed little choice.

Reb snorted. "No! No chance. I'm not Starfleet and you have no power over me. The deal was I bring you this far, and given I'm now trapped all the way out here, and thanks so much for that by the way, I've gone light years beyond what was asked of me. And don't think that I…"

Christian frowned, Reb had suddenly stopped speaking mid-sentence. "What's the-"

"Shh!" Reb cut him off with a raised hand. He cocked his head, then his hands did a merry dance on the scanner console. An image flashed up on the cockpit's window showing an image of the tunnel to their rear. At first, they saw only the reflected light from their beams on the barrier in front of them casting a ghostly glow behind them, the tunnel fading to blackness in the near distance; but farther away it seemed to be growing brighter, just where the tunnel had turned a corner some way back.

They both saw the heat haze at the same time, and the light from around the bend was growing even brighter.

"Oh, crap," Reb powered thrusters and deftly swung the Pod about to face the tunnel to their rear. The air was rippling with heat, distorting their vision.

As the light grew yellow-white hot, a massive wall of white flame turned the far corner and came thundering toward them. Reb hit the accelerator, advancing the Pod toward the wall of fire as fast as he was able, the forward window auto-darkening against the bright light. Christian gripped his seat hard. At the last moment possible, the half-Ferengi flipped the Pod in a sharp arc and flew back toward the barrier of debris at maximum thrust.

"Where'd you say?" Reb asked above the thunder of engine and advancing fireball.

"There!" Christian barely had time to indicate.

At just short of half impulse, with weakened shields, the Pod only just managed to punch through the wall of debris, Reb angling down and away from the wall and decelerating hard. Thankfully, the barrier withstood the impact, its thickness fusing together in the intense heat, though a hefty plume of flame followed them through the opening they'd made like a rocket exhaust.

The burnished bronze pod was now a battered, scarred, scorched hue. Depressingly, a short distance ahead of them the tunnel was a dead end, but below their position, branching off the main conduit, were two smaller transportation tunnels, one on each side. Holding position at the mouth of the tunnel to their left was what looked like an old-style Vulcan shuttlecraft; it too appeared damaged.

"This is Yeoman Lirik, Starfleet Diplomatic Corps aboard the Vulcan shuttle craft T'Nass, please identify yourself!" The strong English accent came over the main speakers. It was the first 'friendly' voice they had heard since arriving in the Outer Zone.

"Thank the Lord," Christian whispered.

"Don't thank him yet, Captain," Reb replied, pointing up at the roof of the tunnel. It seemed the wall of fire had weakened the structures holding off who knew how many tonnes of debris and small cracks were appearing.

"Vulcan shuttle, this is Captain Christian, Starfleet. Yeoman, I strongly advise you ask your pilot to proceed immediately through the tunnel to your rear, the structure above us is about to collapse," Christian nodded to Reb, indicating him to move in behind them. Reb needed no prompting.

Inside the shuttle craft, Narli was propped up at the engineer's station, conscious, but in some pain. Karim and her aides assigned to the Bridge stood silently to the rear of the cockpit tending to wounds with their medical equipment. Lirik, dirt-smudged and sweating in the co-pilot's chair raised an eyebrow at the Captain's words and regarded the shabby Ferengi Pod with contempt.

"Thank you Captain, I'll ... let him know."

EP2 ACT 2

HELUB SPACE PORT, 9.40am VCT

"She's coming around.."

"Finally.."

"Wha..?" Commodore Jackson opened her eyes and looked around the dim and dusty thoroughfare.

She was being cradled by Lt Commander Kohl on one side and an elderly Vekarian woman on the other. Another younger Vekarian female was sponging ice cold water into her hair. Streaks of watery blood had already stained her face, neck and uniform. She smacked her commbadge.

"Jackson to Ops, Commander Inaami, please respond!" A sick feeling welled up inside.

"We tried, there's no response," said Kohl softly. "From anyone. Most of the levels above us have been levelled."

Jackson jerked away from Kohl's embrace. "Damn you!"

Her mind raced. Thoughts of Inaami, her other colleagues, that poor young Ensign… all dead, and her son, also caught up in this mayhem somewhere – at least she hoped he was still alive. She had to find out. Forcing herself to stand, she immediately felt weak with pain - bruised legs and arms, her back ached in several places, her right elbow and wrist where she'd fallen, and her head injury was throbbing; even her cheek was sore where she must have inadvertently bitten it. A figure moved to block her light, standing before her. A Human woman in her early twenties, blood on her face, hair singed. She was cradling a tiny cooing baby and Jackson then noticed the higher proportion of women and children present.

"Commodore," the woman's accent was a toothy, Southern drawl, "what are we going to do?"

Jackson scanned the surrounding crowd with the sudden realisation that they were all looking to her as the person who would know what to do. A veteran Starfleet Officer Jackson was thoroughly experienced in making critical decisions and taking responsibility for large numbers under her command. But nearly always it was within the framework of Starfleet and Federation regulations - rarely without the support and advice of the Fleet's Command or the back-up of the Ships of the Fleet. And while she'd had more than her fare share serving in conflict situations, this was beyond her experience. Her roaming gaze landed upon a group arriving, a large group of sobbing children, huddled around three Klingon warriors and the athletic Starfleet medic of her son's acquaintance.

"Nurse!" she called out to Lieutenant O'Hara. The Amazonian redhead gently and reassuringly peeled the many small grabbing hands off her arms and legs as she made to walk away, asking the men to help comfort the children and keep them from running off, which was met with fanged grimaces and grunts. O'Hara scanned the Commodore and took out her hand held dermal regenerator. "Just a flesh wound, Sir," she quickly healed the wound then applied a hypospray. "For the pain." "My back is okay?" Jackson felt the various pains as she spoke. "Bruises mostly, Commodore," O'Hara said, "but you'll be fine, the painkiller should kick in shortly. I've seen some very badly injured civvies, so I should ration my supplies."

"Of course," Jackson said, "thank you Nurse, carry on."
"Yes, Commodore," O'Hara disliked being referred to as a nurse, though technically that was what she was, having completed only two thirds of her MD training. Starfleet nurses were well respected, it was true, but as a field medic in the Marines she had been regarded as a lesser soldier by her peers and even now, though recently promoted to Lieutenant, she felt 'nurse' didn't quite capture her skills.

"Listen! Everyone listen!" Jackson bellowed for attention. She leaned on Kohl to stand on a fallen girder. The groaning and murmuring quietened a little. In her raised position, Jackson could see further down the long, wide corridor and guessed there were hundreds. It was a mess. Smoke and the smell of burning pervaded her senses, debris was littered everywhere. She needed to move everyone to a safer place in case of any structural issues from above. The last way that she wanted to go was by decompression. People had started to shout questions at her.

"Please, some quiet. Thank you. I'm sorry but I only know as much as you do, that there has been an attack on the space port. I'll do my best to find out what's going on. For now we need to find a way down to the lower levels, this structure could be unsafe - if the Vekarians could please lead the way."

As she finished speaking O'Hara returned, flushed but calm. "I'm sorry, Sir, aside from my injured colleague over there, I can't find any other Starfleet medics. In fact, I can't find any other Starfleet personnel at all."

Jackson glanced around the gloom - it was true, she could see no Starfleet uniforms - of any kind. She raised her voice again. "Are there any doctors, nurses or medics? Anyone with first aid knowledge?" The crowd didn't respond, many already shuffling in the direction of the Vekarians who'd begun to move away. She stepped down in front of O'Hara, the younger woman's face now looking down on her. "Ask around, some must surely have some medical training."

"You do," the Lieutenant said. Jackson fixed eyes and nodded. "Yes. I'll get to you as soon as I can." O'Hara nodded without further argument and turned to walk away. As she did, movement to her left caught her attention - an Orion woman, supporting a hopping Starfleet security officer.

"Probably feels worse than it is, Ensign," she said after a quick scan, adding, "Nice work with the phaser, though, I'm impressed. Look, I'm rationing my supplies, I'm giving you just enough to dull the pain but it won't take it away completely, I'm afraid. I may have the only med kit around here." Collard nodded and gripped on to the appalled Orion.

"This should repair the most damaged tissue, the rest should heal naturally, I don't think you'll be affected by it," O'Hara used her small tools with ease. "It'll continue to be painful for the next few days, but it shouldn't hamper you."

The Orion woman hung back as the medic aided the short woman in her first few repaired steps, then took her chance to slip away as the rookie sidled up to the Commodore.

Jackson was clearly very pleased to see her, even hugging her, slightly tearfully. "The others?" "I was in the basement levels of HQ when the attack came," she said, "I'm sorry Sir but I don't know." Jackson simply nodded, then asked her to help O'Hara with the injured and finding anyone with medical skills. The Commodore began to move from group to group, patiently gleaning information from the more recently arriving civilians who each had assorted stories of horror. A dark picture was forming in her head about the fate of her son, and her mind began to wander. She heard a small "Ahem" behind her and turned. Kohl. Halo-d by a crimson light, Jackson suddenly noted how attractive the man was, albeit rigidly angular.
"I'm told the docking ports were heavily targeted," she said, fighting the emotion in her voice and trying not to imagine her son killed. "Emergency bulkheads have sealed them off, though by the sounds of it there wouldn't be any ships left there, even if we could get through."

"I found a working media display in one of the shops behind us. There's been no word from the government or the T'Kani on any of the comms channels, though a news network is intermittently breaking through interference and has reported sightings of T'Kani troop ships landing in the less damaged areas," Kohl reported. "The media is suggesting the best course of action is not to resist."

Jackson frowned. "We need to get some order around here. There are many injured, we should make our way to a medical facility for a start-" she was rudely interrupted by Kohl's frantically shaking head. "What?"

"Commodore," Kohl moved close to her ear and dropped his voice, "with all due respect, there could be further attacks on the way. They destroyed our ships without hesitation. They might destroy us too. With foot soldiers coming to round us up, I think we need to act fast to find a way off of Helub."

"With all these people? How?!" Jackson couldn't be sure, but decided there were at least four hundred souls here, and those were only the ones she could see. "Besides, I just told you the docks are sealed, no access to any ships."

"I know of one somewhere safe that'll be big enough for everyone here and more," Kohl said.

TRANSPORT CONDUIT D4QP-S3E3/1 Following the Vulcan shuttle into the side tunnel, the Pod paused for a moment as Reb hacked into the emergency bulkhead control and dropped the half-metre thick door into place behind them, cutting them off from the raging plasma fire slowly burning through the wall of debris and the tunnel collapse that was imminent. "Hopefully that will contain it," he said. "Good work," Christian nodded, impressed.

"Captain," it was the English voice over the hail again, "there's a pressurised marina dock about three hundred metres along this transit tunnel. It backs onto the sublevels of the area adjacent to the Old Fortress where Starfleet HQ are located."

"Let's get going then," Reb replied, eager to move on. He flashed a look at Christian, who looked strangely sombre. "What?"

"Didn't you see the signage? This tunnel ends a short distance after the marina."

Reb didn't understand. "So? We're not going that far."

"I know, but that was our only way out," Christian thumbed at the sealed bulkhead. "Once we're moored, we won't be leaving again any time soon."

Reb's face dropped and blood rushed from his hands. "Oh, no! This can't be happening to me! Dammit!" He slammed the wall, then thought better of it, caressing where he'd hit her. "She's all I've got, Captain."

Once moored in the otherwise empty and poorly lit marina, Reb was busy thrusting what was left of his useless belongings into a number of designer bags. Christian thought about leaving his own holdall behind, but then decided for the moment it could come a bit further - he could always ditch it later on if need be. Christian popped the airlock door open and jumped down onto the wide quayside walkway. The air felt warm and smelled of burnt rubber. He could feel the heat off the Pod's hull and as he turned to face it he was shocked at how different it looked compared to the last time he'd seen it from the outside, burnished and shining on the shuttle deck of Epsilon IV Station; it had really gone through the wars. As he walked around the semi-oval-shaped marina, ten figures emerged from the side airlock of the Vulcan shuttle - including seven almost naked Vulcan males; several of them were clearly walking wounded.

"Reb, come on!" Christian urged over his shoulder.

"Just a minute, please!" whined Reb half angry, half pleading. "This is my whole life I'm leaving behind here."

"It looks like you're planning to bring it all with you," Christian quipped.

"Just a few valuables, that's all," Reb heaved at the laden bags and emerged from the Pod looking like an overworked bell boy. He stopped on the steps and looked lovingly back inside. "You'll never know the hardship behind my getting this baby…" he caressed the ship, slightly tearful.

"I didn't exactly plan on this either," Christian was in no mood for sentiment. Already in his mind's eye he had seen the ghosts from the wreck of the Firefly, all the smiling faces and names he'd scanned on his padd, so many lives cut short. The small but unusual delegation approached. At the head of the party, a portly 30 something man with receding hair, and what looked like a shimmering environment shield active about his body.

Christian wondered if the man had a communicable disease, or was too sensitive for normal Human environments. He wore a white sweater under his grey/black uniform but there were no rank pips. His commbadge had a red slash across it - this was clearly Yeoman Lirik of the Diplomatic Corps.

"Yeoman," Christian nodded.

"Captain Christian," the Yeoman smiled and then turned expectantly to Reb, brows raised.

"Er, the name's Reb," the renegade replied as the Yeoman too-obviously looked at all the luggage he was heaving.

"Planning on staying a while, mister Reb?" the Yeoman joked.

"Not if I can help it," Reb frowned.

"That's the spirit," the Yeoman grinned. He was coming across as slightly eccentric, almost a pre-requisite for the Diplomatic corps, Christian mused. The Yeoman gestured to the people behind him. "This is Andoria's Representative for Trade, Ambassador Narli," the blue man nodded his head, "and Professor Karim of the Vulcan Science Academy and her staff."

Christian's eyes widened at the Professor's captivating and voluptuous appearance. The woman was beautiful and reminded him of someone once very close - though the Professor was clearly not Vulcan, despite her trappings and demeanour. "Ambassador. Professor. You know the wormhole is gone?"

Lirik nodded. "The T'Kani's doing no doubt. From what we saw they were decimating any potential threat, including Federation – and non-Federation – vessels."

"Troops are already landing," the Captain said. "We should assume their intentions will be hostile toward us." Christian saw that Reb had turned pale green.

"With the wormhole gone, there's little hope of a rescue." Narli observed.
"I wouldn't argue with that, Ambassador," Lirik said, and Christian wasn't sure if there was a note of sarcasm.

"What do you suggest our course of action should be?" Professor Karim asked the Captain, her accent indeterminate Mid European or Middle Eastern, but spoken with all the flatness of a Vulcan.

"In the first instance we should proceed to the Starfleet complex," Lirik said before Christian had a chance. "Captain, you should know that with the exception of Ambassador Narli, all the other Federation – and non-Federation - delegates attending the trade conference were brought here to Helub in secret last night; their current whereabouts are unknown."

"You're saying the Qovakians knew the T'Kani planned to attack?" Reb uttered his first sensible suggestion to Christian's mind.

"Perhaps…" Narli said cryptically, and Christian noticed Lirik's jaw set hard. "Either way, the Qovakian administration hasn't answered any hails," Lirik said, "so we have no way of knowing for sure."

"We had better get moving. Professor, we may need what medical supplies you have," he said. "All our supplies were in our treatment bay, it was destroyed during our escape," she said impassively. Christian glanced at Reb who just shook his head – no medical supplies on board. Christian would have been surprised if it were anyone else. "Yeoman, if you could lead the way," Christian drew a phaser.

To his surprise, both Lirik and Narli reached behind their backs and also drew weapons. Lirik took point and led them into the dimly lit passage beyond the marina, Reb hanging back for just one last look at his beloved home.

Collard ignored the pain in her leg as she climbed over the twisted staircase and hauled herself back into the corridor level above. Jackson had remained with O'Hara and those deemed too injured to be moved over such treacherous debris, while the Ensign and Lt Commdr Kohl and all the non-local survivors had followed the Qovakians into the lower levels of the space port.

Surprisingly, after a sluggish start moving such a large number down through the emergency stairwells, just four floors below there had been full power and no apparent damage. Kohl decided that everyone should exit at this level in order for them to look for a faster transport to the lowest part of the port where the transport tunnels to Orlega One were located. Jackson had been highly sceptical of his summarised story, but had acceded that if there was a facility with many working spacecraft then at least a number of them may be able to escape from the invading forces. The halls and corridors had been surprisingly empty – the Vekarians explained that the majority of businesses had closed when the state of emergency was declared, most Helub residents either heading for the various old shelters dotted around the port or joining the masses who had made for the docking areas in the hope of gaining a transport out of the system.

The only evidence of the carnage above was the few dust-covered and stunned people they encountered who'd also escaped from the chaos. Some of the Qovakians made off at this point, mostly Vekarians heading to reunite with their loved ones, but the majority plus most of the locals they were encountering preferred to take their chances by joining their group on the journey to a ship that would hopefully take them safely away. Another reason for the empty corridors was that the attack had triggered emergency bulkheads to drop and seal off most of the main thoroughfares and transport routes, cutting off any hope of retreat for those who were en route to the docks, whilst also hampering the survivors' attempts to find a quicker route down.

But luck soon favoured them and Kohl assembled the gathering hundreds of survivors in a wide goods transfer area around a couple of large cargo elevators, and was preparing to take them in batches to the lowest level of the port. While he'd already appraised the Commodore of the ship and the transport tunnels, it wasn't until this moment that he conveyed their plan of escape to the gathering throngs.
Upon hearing this, the three Klingons in the group had immediately pushed their way forward and entered into a verbal fracas with the engineer, talking of his cowardice and how they should rather be regrouping in order to fight off the massing invasion force above. Some of the other civilians had chimed in similar accusations while others expressed concern over wasting time. A heated debate ensued. Collard had taken the paused opportunity to return to the Commodore who had been assisting O'Hara in the absence of anyone with sufficient medical knowledge. It was Collard's intention and duty to ensure that the Commodore return with her to the escapees gathered below. Some partners and family members of the injured had also remained with the Commodore, but there were far too many casualties for the inexperienced few to cope with and some of the injuries appeared very serious indeed.

Approaching Jackson, the Ensign noticed more than a few injured had since been covered over with items of clothing, their friends and families weeping over them; others were still writhing in agony, one young woman screaming from her pain despite O'Hara's attempts to help her.

Collard spoke quietly. "Excuse me Commodore, the rest of the civilians are safe several levels below. There's power there, and full life support." O'Hara raised her head. "I'm afraid we found no medics or medical facilities," she informed her. O'Hara didn't respond, impassively returning to treating the young woman's nasty chest wound.

"Any news as to what's going on up there?" Jackson asked, rubbing her sore eyes.

Collard hung her head. "No, Sir, but we found another internal public information screen broadcasting images of the port," she lowered her voice. "Commodore, I doubt there are many survivors in the upper levels. And from what we saw, the invasion forces have already landed. The battle in Vekarian space is all but over." The young Canadian recalled the nightmarish images of the pitted surface of the port with the hefty, multi-pronged alien vessels strategically positioned every few kilometres or so amid the debris. She had tried in vain to access communications through the same terminal.

Without warning, as Collard waited for Jackson to give her next order, a crashing sound to their right caused all those conscious and capable of movement to jump. Collard reached for her phaser, but she panicked to find it had gone. She and Jackson waited in trepidation for the dust cloud to dissipate. The Ensign's heart was pounding, wondering if this was the moment of her demise.

Thankfully a handsome Human male with four pips on his command sweater emerged, hair tussled and uniform scorched, torn and dirty. Another humanoid male, with a shimmering Starfleet uniform followed, along with a Human woman in Vulcan clothes, a half-Human/half- Ferengi, an injured Andorian and a group of nearly nude, burly Vulcan males, some of whom were also injured.

"Captain Christian, isn't it?" Jackson said, amazed. "I recognise you from your transfer file."

"Commodore," Christian looked at the dozens of people strewn about the floor. "Where are your staff?"

Jackson quickly brought the group up to speed, telling them of Kohl's plan and expressing her concern about leading so many people on a potentially fatal journey out to a remote location on the say so of just one engineer. Christian considered their options for the best part of a minute.

"With all due respect, Commodore, I don't think we have many options. I believe this Commander Kohl has the right idea, even if there's only a slim chance we can get hundreds to safety, we should do it. But we need to move fast, we must join the others below immediately," Christian noticed Reb, who had remained silent, (and carrying only two bags now), was nodding in furious agreement. "These people are too injured to be moved," the Commodore said, gesturing to the badly wounded. Christian stepped closer to her and lowered his voice. "There are hundreds of lives at stake below, Commodore. They should be our priority." Jackson nodded in the affirmative, though the thought of leaving them – and her son, if he was still alive, was almost too much to bear.

A scolding voice came from the floor beside them, a blood-stained O'Hara turned her head in the dim light as she stood up: "We can't just abandon these people here, Commodore." "I'm sorry," the Commodore said firmly, her shame tempered only by discipline, "but we have no option." "Then I'll stay behind," she said defiantly.

"Lieutenant," Christian's tone was plain and authoritarian, "you'll do as ordered."

"Then I'll bloody resign!" she said and made to remove her commbadge. "You know you can't," Christian said, genuinely, halting her action.
To his surprise, O'Hara turned on him. She was a couple of inches higher, and her flame hair framed face uncomfortably close to his as she spoke.

"Look, I don't know what tight-assed whizz-kid command training you've had, Captain big bollocks, but even you should know that our first duty is to protect-" her tirade was interrupted by a firm grip on her arm.

"That's enough, Nurse!" Jackson pulled the tall woman roughly toward her, asking herself what her son had seen in this mouthy, insubordinate woman. "We're well aware of our responsibilities, and of your Hippocratic Oath, but may I remind you that you are first and foremost a Starfleet officer." "And you also appear to be the only medic we have," Christian added. "We need you."

A young Bolian man, tear-stained, came up behind O'Hara. "No, please. These people need her help. You can't just turn your backs on them. My best friend," he glanced over to the now unmoving Bolian female, the screamer, "she's in a really bad way. Don't abandon her, I beg of you."

Before Christian could reply, from her nearby makeshift cot, Crewman Lee spoke through her obvious pain, her head and spine fixed in alignment with bits of debris and ripped cloth with suspected spinal damage as well as the badly broken leg. "Sir, I know how you feel," she smiled kindly at the tearful Bolian. "But, I mean, look at me. I'm hardly in a fit state to go anywhere now, am I? None of these people are." Lee turned to O'Hara, fixing her gaze on the Lieutenant's welling eyes. "It's just the way it is. Surely, if the people down there, all those children we were caring for ... have any chance of being okay, they're going to need you with them. And the Captain, and the Commodore."

"Lee," O'Hara dropped to the younger woman's bedside, "you're asking me to leave you here to be captured. Or worse."

Lee was shaking her head. "At least you - and the others - have a fighting chance to get away."

O'Hara, in her previous role as a marine, had been forced to leave her comrades behind before. But in those circumstances, she was secure in the thought that they, like her, had known the risks involved. It was the same for Lee, yet the thought of leaving these helpless, badly wounded 'civvies' to just die or suffer at the hands of the invaders - it was too unprincipled. Too cold.

"Mary-Jane, you know I'm right," Lee almost whispered.

O'Hara bit her lip and stood. Facing Christian, with a passionate scowl, she noticed the firearms Lirik and Narli carried. "At least leave them with a means to defend themselves."

"There would be no point," Narli said coldly. "Arming them may only serve to cause their deaths."

O'Hara half cried and half laughed at the response, but Lee's weak grip on her ankle steadied her from socking the Ambassador.

Lirik was appalled at his former comrade's attitude, but not surprised. Narli was Andorian after all. "I should stay," Lirik was surprised at his own words as they tripped instinctively off his tongue. "My duty is with the Federation delegates."

"They could be dead for all you know," Jackson said, "or may have been transported out of the system before the attack. You're coming with us." Christian noted that the diplomat didn't argue.

"Okay, let's move out," Christian slapped Reb on the arm, jolting him. "Anyone else not wishing to stay ... please, make your goodbyes brief."

The words almost choked Jackson and some of the others - although not the scientist or her crew, of course. Most civilians elected to remain with their loved ones. O'Hara kissed Lee on the forehead and whispered: "I'll be back for you crewman. That's a promise."

Lee just smiled and mouthed 'good luck' as the troupe, with just a couple of civilians, disappeared out of sight to the levels below.

EP2 ACT 3

HELUB SPACE PORT, SUB LEVEL AREA CODE 1.22.8-89 10.14am VCT

The number of civilians making the exodus really hit home for Christian as he and the others joined the last few groups to be ferried to the transit tube from the cargo holding area. His mind raced with thoughts of what their priorities were, what he needed to get done and what his own priorities were in aiding the Commodore, not least assimilating information about the attack and the attackers and all the events surrounding it. But while he tried to process the details, he also realised that currently he had no control over his situation, he was just another survivor following the masses. As the final group boarded the large elevator car he ensured he entered last of all. It was a tight fit and squeezed in behind him couples clung to each other, individuals stared into mid-distance clearly still in shock, and many were sobbing at their loss and distress. The doors took several attempts to close as those at the front were disrupting the infrared safety beams and had to shuffle back into those behind, pulling their clothing close. Once shut, the elevator car began its too-slow descent. The Captain felt slightly panicked. He wasn't claustrophobic, but he disliked feeling helpless, and he knew there was nothing he could do about anything until the doors opened on their destination.

Many of the group gasped in unison as they heard a nearby 'boom' and the elevator shook slightly, as if a bulkhead had given way or an unexploded shell had finally detonated. Perhaps the T'Kani had penetrated the levels above, he thought.

After several floors the elevator picked up speed and the group visibly relaxed. Jackson, standing beside him, pulled on Christian's sleeve and hauled his ear close to her mouth. She'd been wondering about this since Kohl had first put forward his proposal for escape to her – but now she saw a solution to her dilemma, even if it was unconventional.

"If we make it to the ship, you realise my experience as a base commander doesn't overly qualify me to take the centre seat don't you, Captain?" she spoke so that others could not overhear. "I mean, I did my command training the same as any other ranking officer, and I take regular refresher courses, but I've spent almost my entire career off-ship."

"You're asking me to take command?" he asked plainly.

"Don't misunderstand me, I most certainly outrank you, Mister Christian, but I have not been groomed to sit in the Captain's chair. You have." The Captain nodded slowly, though he wondered how that could work out in reality.

Lirik's environment shield fizzed against Christian's back and he moved slightly. "What's with this diplomat's shield?" Christian whispered, not able to resist his curiosity about the odd man any longer. "Is he sick or something?"

Jackson looked to a far away place before she replied, feeling the mild weightlessness as the elevator car began to slow. "We're here." The instinct of experience kicked in as she recalled the detail about Christian's parents and the Commodore decided to delay the inevitable, at least for the moment.

In just over a minute the elevator had descended to the bottom of the shaft - more than a hundred levels. The car bounced and the large doors slid into their housings to reveal a massive crowd of people gathering on the platform concourse Kohl had told them about.

Judging from the dispersion of survivors before him, Christian could see that the platform's two sides were curved rather than straight. It was wide even at this point, almost ten metres across from edge to edge, he guessed, sweeping out and away from him on both sides - plenty of room for both cargo and passengers at the same time. Looking over the heads of the crowd he could see what looked like an identical elevator structure at the far end of the platform, thrusting into the high ceiling above. The concourse was dimly lit by thin sticks of light suspended from a vaulted roof carved out of the rock. Christian wanted to get a better look at their location.

Standing on a nearby crate, he involuntarily shivered at the numbers suddenly revealed from this vantage, though he couldn't guess how many in the gloom – perhaps not a thousand, but more than a few hundred, certainly. Christian prayed that the ship Kohl was counting on would be suitable; for a wavering moment he felt the cold creep of despair; but only for a moment, for what else could they do now? They were already committed. Christian fixed his jaw at the volume of strangers glancing over at him, all races, some he didn't even know, though aside from the three women and the Yeoman he'd encountered there were no other Starfleet uniforms among the number. There were also, he noted, a lot of children – and many clung to each other, presumably separated from their parents. He averted his eyes from theirs, instead purveying the structure and layout of the station instead, trying not to see them; but as he looked around, Christian became totally aware of the crying and whimpering and occasional moans or gasps of pain from injury emanating from the crowds, noises he realized he'd been blocking out.

He told himself to focus. In the gloomy distance, some way beyond the end of the platform, the subterranean station opened out into a wide, circular atrium. Although his view was partially obscured by the elevator structure, it appeared that the two sets of tracks that ran either side of the concourse fed into this atrium where he guessed a junction split off into at least five tunnels that he could see were cut into the farthest curved wall. Three contained what appeared to be identical looking transports, menacing in the dark with each of their two windscreen panels partially reflecting the pale glow from the station like the eyes of predatory cave fish. The carriage on the far right of the atrium suddenly shunted forward and the Captain could just make out a figure standing inside the driver's cab, illuminated by the colour lit control panels. The sleek metal vehicle glided forward with a deep hum, across the junction and veered onto the track beside the platform on his left, internal lights winking on as it travelled forward. It wasn't utilitarian as such, but it certainly wasn't anything luxurious. The driver, he now saw, was a tall, angular blonde man sporting glasses and wearing a Starfleet uniform with a tan undershirt; Lt Commander Kohl, he presumed. Behind the driver's carriage were ten wide passenger and freight carriages.

The driver's carriage pulled level with the Captain and the officer inside slid his window down, speaking with a heavy German accent. "Commodore, do you think we'll be able to get everyone inside?"

"Moot point, Commander," the Commodore snapped, "please continue." She waved him forward dismissively. He did so without a further word.

Instinctively the many and varied assortment of lifeforms, many suffering from a variety of injuries, moved toward the platform's edge to board. The train sped up slightly, startling some of the crowd, but it slowed to an abrupt stop once all of its carriages were parallel with the long platform edge.

"Sir," O'Hara pushed forward to speak to the Commodore, not the Captain, "if we can take more people we should go back and collect the injured, it shouldn't take more than a few-"

"No, Lieutenant," Christian said, cutting her off, "I'm sorry, but we need to keep moving."

Jackson backed the Captain up once again. "There's nothing we can do for them now, Nurse. It's too dangerous to go back-" but O'Hara, disgusted, stormed over to the nearest carriage where most of the wounded had gathered, her shoulder colliding hard with Kohl as he jogged round the corner of the elevator structure to re-join the Commodore.

Christian called after her, "Lieutenant!"

"Leave her," Jackson said, seeing the man's contempt and adding. "At least not now, okay?"

Lirik stepped up behind Kohl and tapped him on the shoulder he was rubbing from his collision with the medic; the German felt the tell-tale tingle of sickening static and turned to face his nemesis.

"My hero," the Yeoman said deadpan.

The Lieutenant Commander wasn't phased by the sarcastic tone of the remark, instead addressing the point Lirik was clearly trying to make. "Yeoman, your runabout…"

"Yes," Lirik echoed curtly. "MY runabout."

Kohl half smiled and pushed his spectacles up his nose, flicking his hair slightly back. Lirik wondered if he were trying to appear cute or harmless to deflect Lirik's intent. If he was, then the man was turning out to be not as much of a nerdy fool as he'd first thought. "Would you believe that it just… disappeared?"

Lirik wiped his hands on his uniform and cracked a small smile. "Yes, Commander, given the last 24 hours I'm willing to believe anything." Lirik went to walk away but Kohl stopped him.

"It was intentional you know," he said, suddenly serious. "The deceit, about the attack I mean. The Qovakian government, they knew the T'Kani were coming back."

"Yes," Lirik fixed his jaw and nodded in resigned agreement; he'd been thinking as much since the shenanigans with the Federation representatives.

Despite everyone's keenness to get away it took several minutes for all of the people to load on to the train, many having to be told to move along to emptier carriages rather than pile onto the nearest which caused overload alarms to go off in the driver's carriage. Once everyone was more evenly distributed, and with a fair amount of room to spare, Reb, Christian and Jackson, Lirik, Narli, Professor Karim and Ensign Collard all squeezed into the driver's compartment of the antiquated transport.

"What's the hold up now?!" Reb asked impatiently when they didn't immediately move away.

Kohl nodded forward. Ahead, huge bulkhead doors had sealed the entrance to the tunnel network ahead. "They must have dropped automatically," Kohl shivered uncontrollably. "Perhaps because of the attack on the levels above. There should be a simple action to open them on approach." He hoped.

"Is it safe to go through?" Jackson asked.

Kohl nodded. "We're extremely deep here, I doubt the attack affected the tunnels."

There was a few minutes' pause as Kohl continued to consult what he thought to be the onboard flight manual, though he was also in his head trying to work out the correct path to the storage facility – he could only clearly remember the last couple of turns of his return journey from Orlega One, and didn't want to get lost part way. It was hopeless, the small book was in native Vekarian.

"Isn't there a voice interface?" Jackson asked.

"No, Sir," Kohl said, wondering if he should just follow his nose. He could feel the intense gaze of the party behind him - particularly that of the Yeoman.

Christian couldn't contain himself and instinctively tapped what he thought was a terminal access button; instead, the whole vehicle glided backwards and towards the parking tunnel it had come from.

"Sorry…" Christian said, embarrassed. Kohl located the stop control as the driver's carriage pulled level with the platform's elevator section once more.

"We need someone who knows Vekarian," Kohl shrugged, exiting the vehicle and rushing back to find someone in the carriage behind.

"Well, this is nice," Lirik said in mock enjoyment folding his arms and leaning against the wall.

Christian couldn't make any sense of the part of the control panel he could see, though he felt sick to the pit of his stomach that they were not yet moving off. He leaned forward around Reb (now only embracing one large holdall), to speak to the Commodore. "How many of us do you think there are?"

"I'm not sure," Jackson said, "at least five hundred perhaps...?"

Suddenly a group of survivors appeared on the platform beside the driver's compartment, and they didn't look happy.

"What now?!" Reb muttered in disbelief.

"Who is in command here?" a tall, bulky and rather resplendent looking Tiburonian male stepped forward.

Jackson looked to Christian who swallowed and stepped toward the doorway to address him. "I am, Sir."

"We demand to know why we are leaving!" he snapped. "What?!" Jackson couldn't believe what she was hearing.

Reb leant forward and chimed in: "If only we were."

"My staff are up there somewhere. I insist we turn around and go back for them!" he was flushed, and his facial feathers bristled. "These people," he nodded over his shoulder to the dozen or so individuals backing him up, some rather nervously, "and many more I suppose, agree with me!"

Christian had expected an amount of resistance to what would be harsh or difficult instructions following the earlier confrontation with the Bolian, but he hadn't anticipated an outright objection to the survivors making a get away in the first place – especially now that they were (mostly) on board the train and about to depart. It was almost laughable. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Sir, but we have no other choice."

"Of course we have a choice. Rather than abandon everyone we could choose to go back and help them!" The crowd rumbled a supporting murmur.

"Sir, as we speak, there are T'Kani soldiers moving into the space port above – a fiercely military force, as I understand it, a military force ousted from power five years ago returned to re-take what they had once established their own. I'd imagine they are not in the best of moods. There is a chance they might allow us to live, but I think it more likely it would be otherwise – possibly worse. You saw the destruction up there – it's very clear they make no qualms about killing anyone who they deem to be a threat." This was a difficult situation. If circumstances were to change, Christian realised, there would be too few Starfleet officers to resist mob rule. He should select his words more carefully, he decided.

"You know what I think?" the Tiburonian spread his hands, a gesture of confrontation in his culture – he clearly hadn't listened to let alone cared about what Christian had to say. "You are too scared."

Christian smiled (a Tiburonian put-down in the face of a challenge, he knew) and in a movement which surprised Jackson, rushed out of the vehicle to stand right in front of the taller man, happy seeing the nervous expression wash over his face.

"A coward is someone who runs and hides. What we are doing is making a strategic withdrawal rather than get captured." Christian craned his head forward close enough to the man to lick him, watching the feathers suddenly pulsing in trepidation. He stared into his eyes until the Tiburonian couldn't take any more and squinted and turned away in frustration and angst. The Captain took a step backward and glancing down the platform he saw that more passengers had disembarked to hear what was going on.

"Speak to them, Captain," Jackson prompted from inside the car. Christian didn't want to but knew that he had to in order to gain their trust. "Some of you might think this is a wrong choice, but look around you. We're in a war zone, we're in no shape to fight and even if we were we are vastly outnumbered. If this ship we're headed to offers a chance of escape I say we should take it. We can't do anything for those we are leaving behind except pray and with the wormhole gone there is no chance of liberation from back home. From this moment, we are on our own. We have only ourselves to rely on. Sir," he turned to the Tiburonian and spoke as sincerely as he could, "I share your indignity of running away, but you must realise that to do otherwise would be futile. We may be no match for the T'Kani military right now, but out there in the Outer Zone we may be able to find some way of helping our people. I don't know what that might be, but we need to be away from here to stand any chance of succeeding." "Even out there we are no match for the T'Kani," the Tiburonian heckled, "I say we take our chances here instead." "Sir, you are welcome to remain here," Christian turned to the others, "and that goes for anyone else. But I will say this. The T'Kani were defeated once before, there's every chance it could happen again."

"Gah! By then it may be too late for our loved ones!" an old Rigellian woman piped up.

Christian hesitated, then said: "That may be true, Madam, I'm not saying it will happen overnight, and it will certainly be a challenge, but we owe it to them to try our very hardest."

He turned to the group beside him. "If you feel that strongly, by all means, you stay!" he snapped harshly to the group behind the Tiburonian, "please, do stay, if you really want to, no one is forcing you to come with us."

The crowd murmured and about a third of the passengers immediately climbed back aboard, but Christian was surprised to see a large number along the platform hesitate, looking to each other – then reminded himself that he'd essentially suggested that they could die if they go with him and possibly die if they stay, perhaps not the most straightforward of choices.

"We have to leave," he called out, "if you're coming with us, climb aboard now." That was enough, the rest of the people on the platform made their way back onto the train, including the crowd of initial complainants.

As Christian turned to re-board the Tiburonian grasped his arm and said: "Perhaps, Captain, all you're doing here is delaying the inevitable."

"Perhaps," Christian kept his tone low, "but I'm damned if I'll leave that decision to the T'Kani." The man hissed the back of his fungus-like tongue and quickly climbed aboard.

"Ting!" an elevator sound echoed across the platform; Christian froze. "Ting!" another, "Ting! Ting!" all four cars were arriving – the first set of doors parted and the Captain steeled himself.

Sudden movement made his heart skip a beat, but instead of T'Kani soldiers, weapons drawn, four groups of people tumbled out, a number of them very badly wounded and poorly aided by their friends, partners and colleagues who in some cases had physically dragged or carried them, desperate to catch up with the survivors.

"For the love of…!"

Leading them appeared to be the Bolian male he'd argued with earlier, his expression a mixture of upset, rage and something determinedly paternal all at the same time – a powder keg, Christian thought. There were far more here than the number they had left earlier – presumably these were even more survivors who'd made their way to Starfleet's HQ for aid.

Christian rushed to join O'Hara and a few other helpers as they piled out of the train to help, as did the others from the driver's carriage, all bar Reb who remained rooted to the spot shaking his head; the Captain felt sure he heard him muttering the words '…ever going to get out of here'.

Jackson looked visibly shocked; some of the wounds were terrible. Christian noted that the Starfleet crewman O'Hara was friendly with was not among this group and neither was the Bolian male's friend. The Nurse's expression appeared to be an odd combination of satisfaction and fearful resignation at the amount of wounded she now had to tend for with the few assistants she'd found. Meeting the Bolian's gaze the youngster said to him, tearful and hurt: "She told me to take the others and come after you, right before she died." Christian just placed a strong hand on the man's shoulder and squeezed it.

As they hastily got back onto the train Kohl returned sheepishly to the driver's car with the Vekarian instructions.

"This isn't a manual," he said, looking away, embarrassed, "it's some sort of cook book." "Well how do we work out the controls?" Jackson almost pleaded with the Engineer.

Christian heard Lirik and Narli snigger. "You have a tricorder, don't you?" Narli prompted.

Kohl suddenly realised his own stupidity; as he'd done the day before he could use his tricorder's universal translator interface to interpret the controls; not only that, he could access its stored data to re-trace the journey back to Orlega One.

Correctly identifying the appropriate drive mechanism, the transport lurched forward; as it did, the bulkhead swiftly lifted itself up out of the way – it had been automated all along. In the darkness of the transport tubes the train quickly picked up a speed which belied its initial antiquated appearance and a rush of adrenalin coursed through most people's veins as they thundered toward what they hoped would be their freedom.

ORLEGA ONE FACILITY, 11.03am VCT

With relatively few turns en route, the train travelled close to its maximum speed for most of the journey, arriving at the facility in just half an hour. Dirty, dishevelled, battered and bloody, all the survivors poured out of the train into the underground station beneath the storage facility.

Despite their prevailing sense of urgency, en route the Commodore had made it clear that no one was to board any ship until it was deemed safe. Directed by Kohl, the masses made their way up to the ground level of the facility, advising that the badly injured should wait in the elevator lobby, and everyone else should gather in the large, empty observation rooms overlooking the vast hangar while they checked out the Fantasy's space-readiness.

Leading the masses into the observation room, everything seemed as it had done to Kohl the day before.

"This is the ship," Kohl gestured up through the viewing windows, but neither Jackson nor Christian could tell which one he was referring to because a huge black object filled the top third of the windows along this side of the facility's outcrop, blocking their view.

"Bloody hell!" Reb said, drinking in the vista of strange and infinitely varied space craft. "We could have one ship each." He turned to the Captain jabbing a finger at him. "You should let me have first choice of a replacement ship, it's the least you could do as compensation for the loss of my Pod."

Kohl stepped between them and pointed directly up at the huge, submarine-like-shaped vessel floating ominously above and in front of them. "So what do you think?" he said. They instinctively moved right up to the glass to see as much of its hulk as possible.

"That's a ship?! Oh my…! Are you serious?" Jackson balked, "It's… it's… huge."

"Surely we should find something smaller? Christian suggested, horrified, craning his neck to try and see her whole beam – but the window edges of the structure protruding from the support column masked the view of both ends.

"It's the SS Fantasy," Kohl said excitedly, as if it were a sufficient explanation.

"The old passenger liner?" Jackson recalled, looking at the glistening black monolith. "It was lost without trace some years back."

"Not so lost now," Reb stated the obvious.

"Originally it was the secondary hull of a 23rd Century Constitution Class Starship; more specifically a diplomatic and residential payload module rather than a drive section," Kohl said. "After several refits and changes of use it was eventually sold off to a private developer – a very long time ago. Since then it's been massively extended, enhanced and completely refurbished numerous times, although its engineering design and much of the layout stayed true to its original Starfleet parameters. Despite its several owners and long and chequered history it never lost its original Starfleet registration."

"It's sure to have familiar technology, then," Reb stepped over to join the senior officers.

"But it's so… big…" Christian felt flummoxed – there was no way of knowing what state it was in. A cold warp core could take a while to power up and the sheer size of the ship would surely consume a vast amount of energy. If there were no or few dilithium crystals, or indeed a lack of deuterium, their journey would be over before it started. "What makes you think that it's space worthy?"

Kohl's neck blushed slightly. "If she's as intact as she looks we stand a very good chance; she is in a vacuum up there. Minister Re Lorken told me this facility was primarily used as a pound for confiscated ships which the T'Kani would sell on for profit," he said, only telling half the truth, "So presumably they kept them in good working order."

Not caring that his input wasn't requested and in a rare moment of deep thought, Reb stared transfixed and spoke his thoughts: "But how did it get all the way to the Outer Zone? If she's been here since before the T'Kani were overthrown, that's more than five years according to what you said, so presumably she must have somehow travelled through the wormhole while it was still firmly in Tholian space. How is that possible?" That was a question Kohl couldn't answer, and Christian read the fact on the German's shying face.

Narli was the first to say what most were now thinking. "Forgive me for asking," he cradled his fingers, a Vulcan-like action, "but are you saying this a T'Kani-built facility?"

"Well, yes," Kohl said, watching the reactions of the others within earshot, "but it's been empty for years. I can't imagine coming here would be a priority for the invading forces." He didn't dare mention at this stage about the T'Kani flag or the broken Spear of the Ore they'd found; he didn't want for the second time in as many days his interpretation of events to be disbelieved.

A small bleeping sound elevated the tension. Lirik fiddled with a wrist-mounted control device, hidden beneath his sleeve.

"It's okay," he said, observing those who knew him watching intently, "the shield's just running low. Don't worry, my Medusan energies are still quite intact."

Christian swooned, hearing the word echo in his head. Realisation crept up on him, he remembered hearing mention of a Medusan-Human in Starfleet, but had assumed it was the person his father had been taken to see. He had no idea that he had been in the creature's company for all this time without realising.

"Erm," Reb was fiercely looking around the many ships in the hangar beyond the thick glass, "don't you think we'd better get moving, then, just in case they are headed here?"

"He's right," Jackson watched Christian staring at Lirik, who appeared oblivious for the moment to the current situation, "the first troops began to land two hours ago. Even if this facility isn't a priority, they will arrive at some point. Captain?" He glanced up and pulled himself together.

"Kohl, Ensign, assist me," Christian moved toward the corridor.

"I'll come, too," Lirik said, having finished reconfiguring the power outage of his shielding.

"No!" Christian barked. Lirik thought the Captain's tone had suddenly changed. "You stay here and help the others."

"Er, to do what, exactly?" Lirik wasn't used to being kicked into touch over an offer of assistance. "I'm of more use-"

"I said no, Yeoman. Do you have a problem hearing?" Christian was aware his voice had raised an octave.

"He may be useful, Captain," Jackson said firmly. As he was about to question her she tilted her head back in a movement of rank superiority; the Captain swallowed and gave a short nod.

"Reb, you come along, too," Christian called over his shoulder.

"Me?!" Reb dropped his last bag in shock, then followed the others out into the corridor and toward the elevators.

"Best speed, Captain," Jackson said urgently.

The short elevator journey was made in apprehensive silence, though Christian stood directly facing Yeoman Lirik, staring at him. Well practiced in keeping his reactions in check Lirik repressed his feeling of discomfort and simply stared back at the American, wondering what this sudden attitude was all about.

Once they debarked, the group made their way quickly along a straight passage to the wide circular corridor which ran around the outer perimeter of the massive structure support and docking column. Internal lights were off, but their way was illuminated by light from the hanger's overhead plant by way of the galleried viewing ports, each positioned at chest height, although they stopped short of each airlock entrance. The first two airlocks were closed, but a short distance away those leading to the SS Fantasy were invitingly open. Christian waved the small group to slow and approach in stealthy silence, weapons drawn.

Looking out through the windows they could see the gangway attached to the port side of the SS Fantasy, near to the very top of the unconventionally layered turret-like superstructure perched on the ship's dorsal hull toward its aft. The entry gangway was almost impossibly long, but it appeared to be the only personnel umbilical attached to the Fantasy vessel.

At the entrance to the gangway, Ensign Collard held out a hand for Lirik's phaser; reluctantly he gave it to her. Once gripped firmly, she thrust a tricorder she had repossessed from a fallen comrade into the unlit gangway and fired a low level energy burst down its length. Checking her tricorder readings and watching the phaser discharge ripple down to the far end she confirmed: "Corridor appears secure. No force fields or booby traps. Phaser pulse shows no anomalies."

Reb poked his head in alongside hers and grinned, attempting to be charming. She scowled and pushed him aside. Fiddling with a wall panel, she had the gangway lights flickering on in seconds – they seemed to accentuate just how far it was to the ship's airlock.

"No!" the Captain swiftly moved behind her and turned out the lights before they could settle. "Best not give ourselves away." Christian urged Kohl forward and patted the Ensign on her shoulder, though she was blushing from embarrassment at her foolish error. Lirik entered last of all, looking out of the gangway's windows at the enormous ship beneath them. "I don't remember any Federation passenger liner ever being painted black like this," he said, commenting on its glistening hull.

"That's correct," Kohl called over his shoulder, "the Fantasy was originally white. This coating appears to have been added more recently, perhaps after it arrived here?"

Christian stopped in his tracks. "By the T'Kani?"

"Well… possibly," Kohl answered nervously, trying to accentuate the positive, "but I don't believe it should affect the performance of the ship. If the T'Kani intended to sell her, it's only logical to assume that it's some kind of enhancement."

Poised just inside the umbilical gangway, from their high position through the small windows in to their left they saw the massively long, wide black vessel sweeping off into the distance. The tiered turret directly before them stepped down and outward to the main flat surface of the liner's topmost surface; forward of this superstructure were littered other, smaller protrusions on the same dorsal hull – domes, turrets, outcrops and more obvious (and some not so obvious) hull-mounted plant arranged along the surface to the prow. Through the windows to their right, the turret tiered down at a steeper angle to the main flat surface of the dorsal hull; some short distance behind this, two huge, chunky sections rose up on each side of the vessel and joined onto an angled slab of raised decks at the vessel's rear. Each and every surface was covered in the same black, slightly sparkling material, even the windows.

"This is crazy!" Reb scoffed. "It must be over a kilometre in length! You really think we can sneak away undetected in something this big!?"

Reb had a point, Christian thought, but kept it to himself.

"Actually I believe we can," Kohl said as confidently as he could manage. "Whatever it is, this coating throws off my tricorder scans. I can barely read the vessel even at this close proximity." "And presumably it would be difficult to see it against the darkness of space covered in this black substance, especially at a distance," the Ensign added.

"And space is awfully big," Lirik chimed in, but was ignored.
"You're fully familiar with this vessel's configuration, Commander?" Christian asked the Engineer.

Kohl looked at the others briefly. "Not exactly, no. But I have reviewed what history was available through Starfleet's database, and I'm sure I can figure her out, older technology is a hobby of mine."

"Lucky for us." Christian had no choice but to trust him. The group continued in silence, breaking into a jog at the Captain's request, though Lirik quickly fell behind. Finally they reached the distant airlock, Kohl getting his chance to study the black coating material up close for the first time; it was smooth to the touch, and cold, unsurprisingly. Gazing at the circular airlock, beneath the pitch-like substance he could just see the vague outline of a stylized bird, the emblem of the Fantasy's last owner which must have been embossed onto the outer airlock doors.

While Kohl scanned, Christian accessed the manual override panel next to the two metre high circular airlock hatch. As the German had suggested, it wasn't sealed shut and once open they both noted that the coating substance was only on the out-most surfaces and less than a millimetre thick. Christian paused when he didn't immediately recognize the internal mechanism's layout.

"It's a mixture of technologies, probably several decades old in parts, maybe more, but it's also had some more recent upgrades," the Captain said, flummoxed where to begin. "Standard Federation codes might work," Kohl said helpfully but continued his analysis of the black surface finally 'aha-ing' to himself. "As I suspected, I'm getting no readings whatsoever. This is a reflective substance with properties I believe would resist most conventional scanning devices. In short, Captain, it is a cloaking substance."

Christian looked around at this, taking on board the positive implications of a vessel shrouded in such a material before considering the negatives, which were rather few under the current circumstances.

"Fascinating," Lirik commented. Again, Christian wasn't sure if the remark was serious or sarcastic and cut him a look of distain, which didn't go unnoticed.

"Captain, you appear to be having trouble with the lock. Do you mind if I try?" Lirik chose to address the man respectfully, continuing to pretend to ignore his evident dislike of him.

After a hesitant moment, Christian just stepped aside, sneering at the Yeoman's stubby fingers trying to be delicate. As he wondered if everything the Yeoman did would annoy him in some way from now on the airlock hissed open and Lirik restrained a smile, instead gesturing for the Captain to enter.

Christian held the weapon Narli had possessed and edged into the airlock. He released the two sets of inner doors and revealed a subtly lit interior – mood lighting, as his father would have described it.

"There's light," Collard observed, "that means power." She held her tricorder up and it trilled positively. "And a breathable atmosphere."

"No fanfare?" Reb muttered and Lirik chuckled quietly.

"Ensign, wait here and keep an eye out for any signs of movement," Christian ordered, and led the way in.

Once over the threshold, Kohl read from his tricorder. "The hull is impervious to scans from the inside as well, as is much of the interior structure."

A large corporate sign opposite the door read 'SS Fantasy, formerly USS Fantasia, NCC1595' with the strangely simple dedication 'Over the Rainbow'. Next to it there was another, smaller sign which Christian read aloud; "Deck zero one." He turned to Kohl, "The Bridge?"

Kohl shrugged and read from his padd. "The ship is divided into three main sections; largest is the Passenger Section - that's forward of here, decks 14 to 47. The Command Section is the block at the rear – beneath where we are - decks 1 to 47."

Reb frowned. "What's the third part?"

"A Command Yacht," Reb replied, "embedded within the command section, the turret we're standing in is part of it; decks 1 to 19, corridors 10 to 28 by thoroughfares 20 to 30. There's mention of subsections also, but no further detail."

Turning left, the four men moved forward along a short, slightly inward-turning corridor clad in dark, matte metal panels. Tiny spots along the centre of the ceiling shone pools of light onto the chocolate carpet at their feet; the ship had the ambience of a chic leisure cruiser, even here on its presumed command deck. They passed a laterally aligned 6 person transporter housed within the thick outer wall. It reminded Christian of the Borg regeneration units he'd seen in several classified Starfleet reports. Much of the plant had been removed, as had the control panel on the console housed within in a shadowy recess in the opposite wall. Just beyond the transporter the corridor widened to allow space for a stairwell in the floor to their left; at the foot of the steep stairs they could make out a similar corridor on the deck below that led aft-ward into darkness. A couple of paces forward of this unconventional feature they reached an angled, two-panelled emergency bulkhead door with the elaborate sign-written words across it 'Bridge - Authorised Personnel Only'.

"I guess this is the Bridge, then," Lirik said.

"That's enough, Yeoman," Christian snapped, and once again Lirik swallowed back a retort.

Reb looked around. "If this ship has been here for years, isn't it a bit odd that there's light and power? Perhaps the T'Kani are aboard already."

"More likely our entrance triggered life support," Kohl depressed an oversized button, and the emergency doors slid noisily apart revealing the darkened interior.

In front of them a shaft of dusty light from a cluster of overhead skylights illuminated the Bridge's otherwise darkened interior. It reminded Christian somewhat of the Galaxy-class tactical/command layout, though here the tactical console was wider, thicker, more angular and cast in glossy black plas-steel and transparent aluminium. Presumably sensing their presence, all around the Bridge overhead panelled lights flickered on revealing a two-tiered command centre: both circular areas that met at a wide high arch in the centre, separated by a short central flight of stairs flanked by two command stations.

If the stairs were described as being at 12 o'clock, the group had just made their entrance at 7 o'clock, at the rear of the large bridge. Its layout was the conventional circular configuration of most Starfleet vessels with crew stations set around the outside, only on this ship, where the Helm would normally have been was a short staircase between two flanking forward-facing workstations. The stairs led down to a second circular area where the group could just make out what looked like the Helm station in its conventional place there, just a short way back from the viewscreen. Wide, high exits led into spot-lit corridors either side of the inactive viewscreen which itself was situated higher up the forward wall than usual, presumably for the crew on both the 'upper' and 'lower' areas of the Bridge to see it clearly.

The décor was more unconventional than Starfleet vessels. Both the 'main' bridge and the 'sub' bridge areas had a vaulted ceiling, though only the upper Bridge had the centrally placed skylights. The whole command centre had been crafted out of a combination of different materials - wood, metal, glass and the somewhat dated shiny black plas-steel. The overall silky varnished effect accentuated with gold fittings gave it a look of opulence. As they stepped onto the Bridge, they all noticed at once that the carpet underfoot was thicker and softer than any of them had experienced in such a space before. Kohl walked around the bridge, anti-clockwise partly reading from his tricorder: "It's an old-fashioned command deck layout. This is Science," he swept his hand to his right, the rear-most elaborately framed work station, recessed and beneath a cathedral organ-like arrangement of myriad display screens, some impractically high - all blank. He swept his other hand left and regarded the anti-grav seat dormant on the floor beneath the long workstation: "This is the Mission Coordinator Station for specialist assignments, also doubles as a Tactical post," he noted it had the second best view of the forward screen. Passing another set of angled doors (at 5 o'clock) leading aft he continued around the bridge: "Gravity, Environment - ah, Engineering." The latter station was at 1 o'clock from the central part of the upper Bridge, one of the two parallel stations flanking the central steps that lead to the lower bridge level.

Lirik stood at the 11 o'clock station on the other side of the steps and gave his report: "This looks like Communications, but I've no idea what that is," he thumbed to the workstation behind him, between 9 and 10 o'clock. Behind it, in the 8 o'clock position, a turbolift was slightly set back into the wall, just forward from where they had entered.

Christian walked down the tiered workstation areas to the Command chairs below Tactical. It comprised three individual seats in the centre and two benches positioned either side. He looked toward the grand, bulky workstation in front of the viewscreen on the level below. "Helm appears to be off-line," he said.

Reb skipped past Christian and down the steps to the Helm and began looking at its flat, blank surfaces.

"So where's Operations?" Lirik enquired.

Kohl was busy trying to activate the Engineering station: "It's a passenger vessel, Yeoman, Operations in terms of a command position isn't part of the structure. In fact," he looked over, "that station is probably for the Chief Purser – which I suppose is akin to Operations on a ship of this sort."

"If there's power for life support," Christian sidled up close behind Kohl, smelling fresh, clean soap on him, "why are none of the Bridge stations active?"

"I'm not sure," Kohl referred to his sketchy outline on the padd. "Hang on."

The German walked down the stairs to the lower level, to just in front of the engineering station, and opened a panel near to the floor. Christian followed him, while Lirik made for the 5 o'clock doors to the rear saying: "I'm going to check through here."

Christian locked eyes with the Yeoman and nodded slightly. Lirik flashed a brief smile, but lost it as quickly as it came, as if realising he was doing the wrong thing. He turned and walked off the Bridge.

As Lirik disappeared, suddenly Ensign Collard rushed in from the other corridor. "Captain!" She was excited, flushed and perspiring. "I saw movement. A light, some shadows. It was some way off in the hangar, half a click, maybe more, but I'm sure I saw something move."

Reb swallowed hard and stood shakily, gripping the Helm chair for support.

Christian watched the renegade's frightened response. "We're out of time. Return to the others, ask the Commodore to get everyone aboard immediately." Christian turned to Kohl who was busy studying the plant. "It's either this ship or nothing."

"Aye, Sir," Collard spun on the ball of her foot and ran out, just as sparks showered from several places around the Bridge and the consoles came alive.

"Well done, Commander," Christian said and Kohl went back up to the Engineer's station. The main lights dimmed as the now operational section adjusted the ambience for its working inhabitants. Consoles partially lit up, though many screens streamed static. Inset down-lamps beamed flat light onto each workstation and up-lighters around the domes made the Bridge glow warmly. Cooler air began to rush in, causing Reb to shiver.

Christian's eyes darted around the console as Kohl re-joined him. Curiously, some touch screen controls had transformed into push-button panels. A shimmering sound behind them caused the two to look round in time to see a command console materialise in front of the Captain's chair.

Kohl looked around the bridge, then up at the ceiling. "Holographic emitters," Kohl pointed to the cleverly disguised ribbons of emitters lining the walls and vaulted ceiling. "From what I read, during one of the last re-fits the entire ship was rigged for holographic interaction as part of its entertainment provision for all the passengers on board. It must have been lashed into the command areas as well."

"This is incredible!" Reb shouted back to them; it seemed the Helm had transformed into a state of the art piloting console with its own wide viewscreen at a perfect height for piloting.

"But unstable," Kohl warned reading the various displays. "Power is fluctuating, most of the computer core has either been shut off or removed from what I can tell. All sensors and communications are off-line."

"Can she fly, though?" Christian asked.

"The readings here indicate minimal impulse power, but we'd best check below, in Engineering. I will need assistance."

"Of course," Christian called over to Reb, "stay here, tell that Yeoman to organise the civilians below. And tell him to keep them out of the way."

"Sir, the database doesn't say which deck Engineering is on," Kohl tried to call up schematics on the Engineer's terminal but hardly any data was available. "Computer!" Christian called out. "Where is Engineering?" "Command Yacht Engineering!" Kohl corrected, and the Captain nodded. No response. "Turbolift?" Christian suggested, but as they approached it the doors didn't respond. The call buttons were also off line. "There's a Jeffrey's tube on the sub bridge," Kohl said and they returned to the lower bridge area.

The Jefferies tube dropped for many metres before Christian and Kohl reached an exit. The corridor here was on low power, only occasional lights operational; both men felt unnerved by the silence and were surprised to find the signage: 'Deck 2'.

"That's odd," Christian noted, "I could have sworn we descended more levels than that."

Kohl tried to activate what looked like an interface console on the wall, but it was lifeless; voiced commands here were met with a chilling silence.

"We'll have to do it the hard way," Christian said.

Both men rushed in each direction but quickly came back, agreeing this was probably not the Engineering deck. They re-entered the Jeffrey's tube and made their way to the next deck, but with the same result. They repeated the procedure several more times and with increasing nervous energy before they eventually found the Command Yacht's Engineering Section on Deck 9. Kohl had agreed with Christian it was logical to assume that a vessel with multiple Engine rooms would have the capability to control drive systems and power distribution for the whole ship from each location.

The Yacht's Engineering Room was located a short distance aft of the Jeffrey's tube. It was a strange place, small, almost claustrophobic. Its panelled walls and low ceiling were constructed of dark, charcoal coloured stippled wall plating fitted with an arrangement of consoles at standing height. Four thick columns of a similar material containing more control panels were spaced evenly around the room. The warp core area was sectioned off, they deduced, in an anti-room behind a set of black bulkhead doors at the back of the room. The two men had a sinking feeling when they found all controls to be off-line, every surface glassy black and lifeless. But thankfully the consoles responded appropriately when touched; and here they found a strictly conventional Starfleet lcars interface, if slightly old-school.

"There's little deuterium in the tanks, I can't tell how much," Christian reported after a short while.

"Drive control is slaved to Command Section Engineering," Kohl said, "I'm switching over now."

Christian watched as most of the consoles around him lit up. "Well that seemed to work," he said, "though many internal systems are off-line."

"Reaction chambers are active, EPS taps supplying power to the ship – well, most of it. Distribution net sensors are faulty, I can't get accurate flow readings," Kohl tapped at the IPS command screens. "That could be a problem."

"We may have to live with it. I'm not reading any warp system activity," Christian was repeatedly confronted with blank areas as he scrolled through command sequences.

"The SIF and IDF generators are active," Kohl said, "as are the reaction control thrusters."

"Gravity, life support and environment controls seem fully functional," Christian said, "although the aircon system is set a little cool." He changed it to Starfleet's standard on-board temperature.

"Captain, may I ask you a question?" Kohl turned to Christian causing him to stop and look over at the handsome man. "What if we're wrong, and the ship's not up to it? We could be responsible for killing hundreds of people."

Christian considered the man was slightly dark in his thoughts and crossed the small room to face him. "What's your posting, Commander?"

"Deputy Chief Engineer aboard the Draco," he said, a bit sheepishly. "While I was trying to find my way out of the tunnels yesterday they left orbit and headed out of the Vekarian system."

"Fortunate for us then," Christian smiled and Kohl instinctively smiled back, flashing his dazzling white teeth. "The Draco, that's Stockport's ship?" Christian remembered the arsehole from his last Academy year. Kohl nodded wearily, and Christian suspected they shared a similar feeling toward the Draco's commanding officer. "Well, what do you think? She good enough to go?"

Kohl looked around him again. "Systems suggest so, and we're not being sucked into the vacuum of the hangar, so I'd say she was airtight," Kohl turned to an empty wall, where there must have been a master display monitor. Coupled with the lack of database and systems it would make his job rather difficult. "We're blind in many ways. Aside from the navigational deflector, sensors are off-line, and we've no idea what condition the hull is in. I'm not so worried about structural integrity; she may have taken a battering but these old ships were built to withstand all kinds of the worst stresses of space, though we might well lose outer panels."

"I can't seal off any sections," Christian tried to access the computer's data banks again, without success; practically the entire ship was blind to them internally. "Truth is, we don't really have any choice in the matter, do we? And I certainly don't want to turn around and give myself up to the T'Kani; do you?"

"No, Sir," Kohl remembered Re Lorken's fear.

"You know, today was supposed to be my first day as Captain of the USS Firefly. My first command," Christian continued with the system checks.

* * *
A Short Time Earlier..
As Lirik passed through the starboard doors at the rear of the bridge, he found a turbolift on his immediate left. It wouldn't respond, and he turned in the bright overhead lights to face two sets of small conventional doors opposite, marked with male and female icons daubed in the same signwriting they'd seen earlier. He sighed, and cast a short look toward the bridge. Smiling, he entered the one with the male icon.

Lirik couldn't stop grinning to himself as he exited the small room a few minutes later, somewhat relieved and amused by his detour. Nice loos, he thought. Emerging from the head, there was a sudden power surge, followed by an adjustment to the ambient lighting. The corridor seemed more alluring, despite its damage; wall panelling had been stripped, here, network systems and power units dangerously exposed and, it seemed, tampered with.

Following the narrowing corridor toward the rear of the deck along the way he noticed some panelling had been removed, network junctions and plant exposed, and evidently some parts of it missing. Several paces on he found a Starboard airlock identical to the one on the other side of the deck, though this one was sealed. He passed two rooms on his right each with a large window and single door. The doors wouldn't respond, but peering through the glass he could see both were laden with cartons and packing materials. The corridor ended in a set of double doors that wouldn't respond. On either side shelved recesses were empty - presumably they were once display cabinets.

Lirik guessed at the room's purpose, and opened the floor panel for the manual 'pump' lever to part the doors, which took an amount of exertion he wasn't used to. He activated a light panel on the inside wall when the lights didn't auto-start, and watched as just two of the twelve or so elaborate light fixtures winked on. Centre stage in the low height room was a large, generally rectangular richly polished mahogany table stretching back into a wide recess at the rear of the room (the aft-most point on this deck). The table was smooth to the touch, and, he suspected, the real thing. "Beautiful," Lirik remarked to himself.

A deep bay of angled windows swept around the table at its aft-most end, lozenges of tinted glass that angled sharply up into the ceiling. At the base of this hugging the wall beneath the windows was a u-shaped row of uniform lounge seating with interspersed side tables. These were set far enough back to allow room for chairs to be placed around the main table at the same time, although there were none there now. It was as if the room expected some kind of cosy social function. The view through the window looked out over the rear of the Fantasy, and the ship-filled hangar beyond.

From his working experience of countless diplomatic functions Lirik guessed the table could comfortably seat sixteen; with the other seating it could accommodate up to 30 or so for a staff meeting. Lirik turned to face the flat, inner wall and was startled by the huge, gaping hole where, presumably, replicators and display screens would have been located for what he guessed was the Officer's Mess. Instead, the deep recess was blackened, as if removed after damage, dangling connection points revealing part of the guts that usually remained hidden on most space-going vessels. It was always a chilling sight to Lirik - making space travel seem more precarious and delicate than most travellers ever experienced when everything was hidden away.

To the left of the empty wall housing, another set of double doors - presumably leading back along the port side of the ship. Using a similar pump to open these, Lirik smiled in self-satisfaction when he saw, a short way along, past a Jefferies tube and three single closed doorways on his right, the open airlock and long gantry to the left.

Ensign Collard was nowhere to be seen so Lirik quickly continued on to the bridge to find Reb sitting daydreaming in the Captain's chair; he visibly jumped at the Yeoman's furtive appearance.

"Where did the rookie go?" Lirik asked, noticing most work stations now had an amount of power. "Gone to get the others," Reb said, "Captain's orders." "So we're taking her?" Lirik asked, looking around; he was a little surprised and confused by the decision given the lack of systems on line on the Bridge. Reb just shrugged. "Where is he now?"

"Back in Engineering," Reb rose to within an inch of Lirik's shielding, causing his nose to tingle and he rapidly flinched away, unable to stop himself from adding: "trying to keep as far away from you as possible, I suppose."

Reb walked past giving him a wider birth as he made for the Helm station beneath the still-blank viewscreen. Mildly rebuked by Reb's words, Lirik involuntarily let his Medusan energies swell slightly, pushing against the environment shield. Reb felt a rush of nausea and giddiness and stumbled – a strange sensation, he thought, as it seemed to be occurring in his mind, rather than physically.

Lirik wasn't bothered by his lack of control, Reb was obviously goading him. "What do you mean by that?"

Reb shuffled on his feet, regretting he'd brought the subject up.

"Tell me," Lirik demanded.

Although Reb wished he could take it back he now felt he had to justify himself. "Look, he… he doesn't like you, let's just leave it at that."

"But why?" Lirik asked. Reb stared back at Lirik, trying not to be forced into an admission of highly inappropriate snooping.

"Why?" Lirik was genuinely curious. Reb glanced away. "Come on, let's hear it." "I've said enough already," Reb said genuinely. Lirik stepped closer.

"Okay, okay, but only if you don't say it came from me," Reb felt awkward, but also slightly fearful of this plump official who appeared to be radiating a vague, sickening glow, "apparently a Medusan took the lives of his parents - well, his mother's life; his father is now institutionalised." Reb gestured parentheses over the last word, then circled his forefinger beside his temple.

The Yeoman's face flushed as he made the connection, "New France." Lirik's hand covered his mouth remembering the awful news – in a diplomatic capacity he'd seen the Christians perform on three occasions over the years, and he'd enjoyed each time. "Those were his parents."

"Right." Reb felt expunged. "Just don't say I said?" The Yeoman realised Christian hadn't known what he was at first; no wonder he had suddenly changed, yes, when he'd mentioned the battery.

Lirik had met a couple of victims of Medusan effect years ago and they were both beyond any help of a cure – though it was more common that humanoids would die as a result of prolonged exposure, as he knew himself only too well. He wondered what he could say to the Captain about it and then considered if he should even try - after all, it had nothing to do with him. But he knew he would be a constant reminder, and he didn't fancy being the butt of Christian's angst for the next however many days or weeks they might be together.

"He ah…. He told me to tell you that you are to look after the civilians," Reb said as Lirik stared up into the blank viewscreen, deep in thought, "he said you've to take them below and keep them off the bridge. The turbolifts don't appear to be working so the only access below is currently via that Jefferies tube." "That's hardly practical for our number, not least the injured," Lirik said, putting aside any further thought of his impending relationship with the Captain, then nodded aft. "There's not enough space for everyone back there, I'll go and check the forward section, see if there's a way down to the lower decks that way."

The port-side corridor forward of the Bridge was much wider than those in the aft. Brightly lit it formed an elongated arc, sloping down slightly and passing an access shaft (sealed shut), a turbolift entrance (also non-operational), multiple lifeboats and a few empty rooms along the inner wall. The short walk ended in a pair of large, ornate wooden doors decorated with distressed gold leaf. Each of the doors contained an inset panel of opaque glass at head height decorated with an intricately etched letter 'f' icon.

Passing through the softly opening doors, Lirik gasped at the incredible spacious area before him. All along the sloped front and steeper-sloped sides of the huge room, massive windows stretched floor to ceiling and partially overhead revealing the panoramic view of all the other ships held suspended in the hangar. More significantly they looked out over the forward part of the Command Yacht and the enormous generally flat surface of the Passenger Section beyond, which stretched for many hundreds of metres toward the prow. The windows were a feat of transparent aluminium engineering – he wasn't sure he'd seen such enormous angled, single-cut panels. They were tinted, he noticed – and then realised that when he'd looked down from the facility's gangway attached to the ship, he'd barely noticed them as all the windows had appeared covered entirely in the strange black coating. He surmised it was somehow a two way effect, appearing completely opaque from the outside and only mildly tinted from the inside; a fascinating development, he realised. The area was a bit tatty, but otherwise clean and large. Lirik could imagine its former function as a very impressive Observation Lounge that presumably doubled as a large function room; he could almost visualise a big old fashioned luxury liner type wedding taking place here with the backdrop of some exotic spacial phenomenon or other.

What little furniture there was lay strewn about, much of it completely broken or damaged, and again equipment had been removed from the internal walls. It reminded Lirik a little of the Ten Forward area of Galaxy Class cruisers, only this was at least three times as big and had larger windows that weren't just on the forward wall but also the long port and starboard sides. On the outside edge of both sides of the room a wide ramp dropped down and forward, towards the deck below. Unfortunately as soon as he passed the railing onto the port side ramp he found sealed emergency bulkhead doors just a few metres further on, and they wouldn't budge. It was the same on the other side of the deck. No floor pumps here, either. Deciding this would be the best available temporary location for the survivors, if a bit of a squeeze, he headed back to the Bridge.

Following the starboard corridor this time, he passed similar internal rooms, more lifeboats on the outer wall and another sealed access shaft along the way. As he arrived back on the Bridge Lirik saw the first large crowd of people surging forward from the upper bridge level in an array of levels of panic and distress. They were bottlenecking somewhat and Lirik shouted to the rear to slow it down and pass it back, lest they had a stampede or crush scenario.

"This way," Lirik called to the lead group, and waved them down past Reb and into the corridor beyond, "use both forward corridors," he bellowed, "go to the end and make room for yourselves on the observation deck there."

As the people filed continuously past, Lirik noticed that Reb appeared overwhelmed suddenly, eyes flitting over the many civilians and children and all the injured and weeping, tired souls; it seemed like he was seeing them for the first time.

Lirik spotted Narli amid the throngs (one of the first on board, naturally), and pulled him to one side, noticing that an Orion female had also peeled off from the crowds and lurked around the Science station at the rear. The first lot of survivors safely through, Christian reappeared on the bridge from the Jefferies tube, slightly smudged with carbon dust and perspiring somewhat. Lirik felt himself blush given his new knowledge, but tried to maintain a neutral composure.

"Mister Reb, I volunteer you as Helmsman. Thrusters and impulse engines should be at your disposal," glancing around Christian suddenly realised he wasn't in the company of Humans anymore, "we'll be moving out as soon as everyone's aboard. I suggest you familiarise yourself," Reb appeared stunned by the request.

"The first group of civilians are aboard, Captain," Lirik reported, voice steady, "I've put them in the Observation Deck, just forward of here," he gestured down the corridor. "It's as safe as anywhere. Shall I look at our tactical status?"

Christian fixed his jaw, not hiding his dislike now. "No. Find anyone with engineering experience among the survivors and bring them below. Deck 9."

With that, Christian was gone again, as a second, larger number of people piled onto the bridge, many on makeshift stretchers in this group. As they were ferried past, Reb dropped into the Helm seat and found he now had power. He began checking controls, hands trembling.

"Doesn't like you, does he," Narli stated.

"Who, the Ferengi?" Lirik was staring at the Jeffrey's tube Christian had disappeared down.

"Half-Ferengi!" Reb called out – clearly his hearing was as good as any of his half kin.
"I like him," Narli smiled at the dishevelled pilot. "But no, not him. The Captain."

Lirik shared a friendly smile with the Andorian. "Apparently I'm the wrong kind of half-alien." He said this last statement loud enough for Reb to look over and sneer.

"You are more familiar with being on a Starfleet bridge" Narli said decisively, "and I appear to be unoccupied, so why don't I go and find engineers while you, er, do that interfering stuff that you so like to do."

Lirik said genuinely: "Thank you, Ambassador," adding: "but I haven't forgotten about earlier."

The Andorian left the bridge in strides, Lirik turning to the lower Bridge support stations to make an initial assessment of the station functions – mostly support stations for engineering and science, though they could equally be slaved to other functions. The Orion woman, he noticed, was doing a similar thing at the Science station.

Ensign Collard's heart was pounding. It had been a full twenty minutes since she spotted movement. Not even half the people were aboard yet. Her short journey from the outer airlock of the Fantasy down to the observation area had been scarier than anything that had happened to her so far. Her senses had worked overtime, as had her imagination. Alone in the elevator, images of the carnage and destruction she'd witnessed in the badly damaged levels below Starfleet HQ flashed through her mind. What disturbed her more, however, were the imaginings about what may have become of her classmates… her friends. It had taken a too-tight grip on her arm by Commodore Jackson followed by a reassuring pat and rub on the back to bring her out of her stunned reverie. Although the elevators were large, they each only had a capacity of up to 30 people, but with the injured and distressed antics of the young, far less were being taken in each journey; there was still a large number of people left to ferry up to the gangway.

A group comprised of the fitter and more desperate among the survivors had peeled off, sensing the urgency of the current situation, to look for a more conventional means of ascending to the boarding platform. Jackson failed to stop them, but did prevent Collard from attempting to accompany them, saying they were going at their own risk and against her better judgement. Just then, it happened.

Something caught the Ensign's eye from across the hangar complex; lights had come on in the far wall opposite. Then she saw figures in a third, maybe fourth level window. "Commodore, we have to go, and now."

Jackson was ushering the next group along to the waiting elevators. "Move along there, people, try and squeeze a few more in if you can."

A number of painfully long minutes later Jackson and Collard, weapons drawn, kept watch while O'Hara tended the last of the casualties who needed to be under her watchful eye; thirteen in all. The Klingon warriors had also remained as had four of the Professor's Vulcan aides, the Bolian male, and a dozen men from various races to help carry those who couldn't move themselves. Each silently prayed that the others would quickly disembark on the level far above so the elevators could return and at least whisk them away from the ground level which felt very exposed.

"Maybe they haven't seen us," O'Hara suggested. "I mean, they wouldn't be expecting anyone to be here would they?" "How long since you saw movement?" Jackson asked.
Collard swallowed. "Long enough." The more handsome of the Klingons joined them, swinging his Bat'Leth in a combat form. "Let them come. We will be ready."

EP2 ACT 4

SS FANTASY, ENGINEERING DECK, 12.18 VCT

Christian's eyes widened as Ambassador Narli entered the small Engineering room accompanied by just three people. They were an odd bunch: two ageing humans and a young, grey-black clad male, tall, thin and unmistakably the archetypal Romulan junior officer in his iconic square-shouldered uniform. He appeared gangly and nervous.

"Is this all…?" Christian uttered in disbelief at seeing a Romulan. He hadn't noticed him before now, and neither it seemed had Kohl.

Narli nodded stiffly and stepped to one side and gestured to introduce themselves. The oldest spoke first.

"Er, Cally Warnerburg, Captain. I joined the USS Florence when I graduated from Starfleet Engineering, spent a five year tour as Engineering Second Hand on a deep space mission," the late fifties woman said. "When I returned to Earth I was promoted to Lieutenant and transferred to the Corps of Engineers' Research and Development Division, and that's where I stayed until I retired ten years ago. I know that's a while back, but I've always kept myself up to date."

Kohl looked anxiously at Christian.

"Jaz Lepraniem, businessman," the next man said confidently. He was portly, well dressed and evidently confident. His bright teeth and squinty eyes hinted at not a little cosmetic surgery, "As a younger man I used to work in the engine rooms of various old merchant ships. You may have heard of my business, it's called-"

"Good, good," Christian said, interrupting. "Thank you, Mr Lepraniem."

"Captain, is it true the wormhole was destroyed?" Warnerburg asked.

"I'm afraid so," he said, not elaborating for now. He turned to the Romulan. "And who might you be?"

The Romulan gave Narli a look of fear - seemingly a reference to an earlier altercation. Christian noticed his disrupter holster was empty. "My name is Murat. I was the sub engineer's third mate aboard my ship, the Prilatin."

"Third mate, eh?" Kohl wasn't sure how qualified that was. "Are you familiar with Federation technology?"

"We have studied some, yes," Murat offered, though Christian wasn't prepared to trust him. He pulled Kohl to one side.

"Keep an eye out," the Captain spoke very quietly in Kohl's ear, "we don't really know who any of these people are."

Kohl nodded hoping that the usual camaraderie among engineers would surpass the odd mix of a long-retired veteran, a businessman and a Romulan as his support crew.

"Captain," Narli said, "Lirik has requested your presence on the bridge."

Christian scowled.

Happily leaving what turned out to be three very competent and adaptive engineers under Kohl's supervision, Narli and Christian climbed out of the Jefferies tube onto the bridge just as the last group of survivors made their way forward to the Observation Lounge, Christian noting that the Ambassador had barely broken a sweat, despite his older age and the long ascent. Both men looked at the scene before them in alarm as a steady line of injured individuals were carried on makeshift stretchers down the stairs from the upper Bridge and on through the large exits either side of the Helm station. Though most of the injuries were covered up, some weren't, of which Christian noted puncture wounds, compound fractures, major burns and severed limbs that left several drips of blood and fluid along the carpet. Behind the last stretcher the Klingon warriors carried three of the more conscious casualties in their strong arms; last was Lieutenant O'Hara, carrying a small child with a nasty looking head wound. As she passed him she gave the Captain a brief look of contempt but said nothing.

"Captain!" the Yeoman's distinct voice caught his attention. Looking up he saw that Lirik was seated at the Communications station, fingertips to one side of his head intently listening to an antique looking earpiece. Jackson stood behind him. As Christian climbed the stairs he noticed an Orion female was also present, with her back to him, at the rear of the bridge in front of the oversized Science console.

"I have partial comms," the Yeoman said. Christian noticed a spaghetti of wiring and circuitry had been pulled out from underneath the console. "The main array isn't functioning, but I've patched the diagnostics into the deflectors - we won't be able to send, but we should be able to pick up sub-space chatter."

Christian scowled. "You were told to assist the civilians."

Before Lirik could reply a large group of exhausted, breathless individuals poured noisily onto the Bridge from the rear corridor, out of breath but laughing and embracing, clearly relieved to have got to the ship safely.

Ensign Collard ran onto the bridge behind them. "Commodore, that's the last of us. I've disconnected the gantry and sealed the airlock."

"Thank you, Ensign," Jackson replied.

"Hey! What are you doing?!" Collard lunged toward the Orion woman sat at the Science station controls.

"Whub-wib-weerzzzzz-" the audio system on the bridge surprised everyone. Lirik and the others turned in unison to look at the two women.

Hedra was clinging to the arms of the bashed-up seat in front of the Science workstation as Collard tried to manhandle her out of it.

"Ensign, that's enough!" Christian ordered.

Pulling free of the Ensign's grip, Hedra stood and said: "I've accessed the Command Section's mainframe. It's a bit of a mess but I found some command protocols still intact."

"Er, excuse me but…who are you?" Jackson asked.

"Someone who wants to get the hell out of here," Hedra glanced at Christian as he approached her, and their eyes met. It was an instant attraction that Christian felt in response.

"Sir," Collard pleaded in, "I arrested her for stealing from our supply stores just before the attack."

"You never arrested me!" Hedra corrected and Collard blushed.

"Well I caught you attempting to break into -" Collard was cut off by the Orion.

"And I didn't steal anything," the Hedra added.

"No, but you would have if there hadn't been-" Collard was cut off.

"Computer!" Hedra addressed the ceiling of the Bridge. "Stand by for immediate automated departure."

The computer over-chimed a response, and tried to say something but failed. Hedra tapped a few more buttons but the audio channel merely bleeped and hissed at her.

Christian smiled, "Looks like there's more work to be done, carry on."

"Sir, she's a thief!" Collard was shocked this woman was being entertained and jumped to an immediate conclusion for that.

"And she nearly got the computer audio interface working," Christian said in the beautiful woman's defence, much to Collard's ire.

"Beggars can't be choosers, Ensign. We're not exactly a perfect crew," Jackson chose to back Christian up, at least in part.

"Ha! You got that right," Reb shouted up from the Helm.

Christian turned to him. "Are you all set?"

"Actually," Reb said, suddenly serious, "we've got a major problem."

Jackson and Christian trotted down to the lower part of the Bridge. "Two big-ass docking clamps, one forward and one aft, and I can't disengage them," Reb pointed at the relevant display.

Christian checked and re-checked the readings; two flashing stripes flashed in urgency - one at either end of the graphic silhouette representation of the ship in profile. He entered commands, but it made no difference.

"Computer!" he tried, "disengage docking clamps!" There was no response and no change.

"We'll have to disengage them manually," Lirik said quietly.

Christian realised that it was the horrible truth. He looked Lirik in the eye and the Englishman just nodded - a response to a question he hadn't even asked, and that slightly impressed the Captain.

"Go back out there? Surely it's too dangerous?" Jackson's eyes flitted about the Bridge at all those present, doing the cold math about expendability. "Can't we just pull ourselves free?"

"No," Christian said nodding toward the Helm displays, "they are very powerful mooring beams. And even if we could we may damage the ship irreparably in the process."

"I volunteer to go, Captain," Ensign Collard puffed out her chest.

"You can't go," Jackson half pleaded, half ordered the Captain, ignoring the young Canadian's bravado, "your place is here."

Lirik turned to the young Ensign: "Ever disengaged an alien docking clamp manually?"

The Ensign shook her head, feeling a little hurt, "Of course not."

"Have you?" Reb said sarcastically.

Lirik smiled at the young pilot. "You'd be surprised what I've done."

"Ship needs a tactical officer," Christian smiled at Collard warmly then glanced at Ambassador Narli.

"He stays here, and that's non-negotiable," Lirik said in a more authoritative tone, following the Captain's gaze. "The Ambassador is the most senior Federation representative and too valuable to lose."

Narli raised a hand to his breast and looked mock-moved. "Bless you."

"Agreed," Jackson acceded to the Yeoman.

"What about her?" Collard sneered at Hedra who quickly rose from her seat. "She clearly has the expertise."

"Well could someone go, please!?" Reb shouted, adding. "Er… I can't go, I have to pilot the ship."

"The Corpsman and I will go," Christian said, using the term as one of respect.

"We'll wait for you," Jackson decided. "Ensign, reattach the umbilical and open the airlock."

Collard nodded and ran off again.

"You will go without us, if you have to," Christian said. "Don't jeopardize your escape for the sake of us two. The needs of the many, and all that."

"Well in this case the many need you, both of you," Jackson said gesturing at the hotchpotch group gathered on the Bridge. "So make sure you get back here."

Lirik hadn't considered the possibility of being left behind – he was so busy trying to be brave, or, he wondered, in trying to prove himself to the Captain.

"Good luck," Reb called over as they started toward the exit, though by the reactions of the others he realized it must have sounded more for his own benefit.

With the Fantasy's airlock safely secured behind them Lirik and Christian moved with desperate legs along the length of the boarding gantry umbilical at a half-crouching sprint, occasionally bobbing up to peer through the viewports onto the hangar below; they saw no sign of any T'Kani.

As they crossed the threshold to the circular corridor of the hangar support column they noticed the air had become chilly like the grave, just as it had been programmed aboard the Fantasy, and each looked at the other duly noting that the internal environment had been purposefully altered. There was no question, the enemy was somewhere within the facility.

Christian and Lirik once again stood at opposite sides as they descended in the facility's elevator, the Captain staring at the Corpsman hard. The Yeoman met his gaze as best he could, forcing himself not to blink, just as the Captain had when confronting the Tiburonian. Christian cleared his throat and swallowed.

"I'll take the forward pylon, you deal with the one to the rear - it's closer."

Lirik only nodded, hearing what he thought was a kinder tone in Christian's voice but also acknowledging that he had been simultaneously snubbed as the less fit individual. Glancing down at his belly that had for a number of years now masked his crotch area from his eyeballs he admitted to himself that it was an unfortunate truth. He studied the Captain, an attractive man he decided, and considered how he had made his rank at such a relatively early age; he didn't strike him as the usually demonstrative, outgoing starship commander type.

"You.. can do this?" Christian asked awkwardly.

Lirik blinked once then nodded with a forced smile.

The Captain kept staring him down.

"How, exactly..?"

Lirik gave him a dumbfounded look, raised his phaser then re-holstered it.

"And if that doesn't work?"

"Look, I've been around, Captain," he said as plainly as he could, "I've picked up a few tricks along the way, just the same as any other vet." Lirik reminding him they were both long-service, ranking officers and part of Starfleet. But the rift was deep between Starfleet Command officers in the field and those in the Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, and ingrained over many decades of conflicting interests, and Christian's facial expression didn't lead him to think this would be any different.

A short time later the two officers jogged out onto the hangar floor, weapons drawn and all their wits about them. The ship above seemed vast, dwarfing the other nearby ships. With a parting nod, Christian sprinted off toward the front of the vessel. It was about a kilometre from their exit point, and he only slowed in order to jump over boxes and trailing conduits.

However, as the Diplomat neared the rear of the ship he slowed, as much from exhaustion as from fear of attack. Climbing onto storage boxes and making his way slowly along the shadowy wall of several storage containers, he stopped every so often to check for movement on the other side of the hangar. The lights were still on in the levels Collard had monitored across the way but there didn't appear to be any movement there now. Lirik could see his destination, a pylon reaching up through the force field generating a thick column of invisible energy that moulded to the rear of the ship – invisible to his normal eyes, but his enhanced perceptions felt its power.

Heart in mouth, a modicum of sweat trickling off him, Christian had made short work of the distance to the forward pylon. Here, he saw for the first time the prow of the Fantasy. The almost flat wide ventral hull of the vessel stepped up and forward in a series of angular levels beneath a long overhang. Forward of this the prow swept steeply up at a slight forward angle; this almost flat hull section stretched upward for most of the height of the ship and housed not one but three navigational deflector dishes. Above these the gently curved surface became increasingly acute in the middle until it arced up and forward into a short rounded point around which it was fully embraced by the unseen column of energy emanating from the forward pylon. The Captain had to climb several feet to reach the pylon's control panel and by a process of elimination began to enter commands to try and override the power regulators, regularly checking around him as he did; it was going to take a while.

Lirik, on the other hand, had other plans. Standing precariously above the control panel of his pylon, he brought his boot heel down as hard as he could, causing it to crack. He heeled it again, increasing the crack, but it took several more attempts to finally smash it into smithereens, using an amount of his Medusan energies pushing downward through his foot and into the mechanism and firing several phaser shots down into the guts of the mechanism. The controls overloaded and exploded dramatically in multiple showers of sparks as he leapt awkwardly clear.

"Shit!" As soon as he had done it, he wished he hadn't; if anything was to attract the attention of the T'Kani, it was this fireworks display. But then he noticed the vast bulk of the black ship above him drift slightly, now free from the pylon's grip. Belying his flabby frame Lirik slipped down to the main deck and dropped into a low crouch glancing this way and that, determined to spot movement before it spotted him.

With the rear pylon off-line, Christian's panel was working overtime to compensate for the extra power it required to hold the Fantasy steady, making Christian's job impossible. In the end, Christian decided Lirik's explosive move had at least had the benefit of being speedy; he picked up a discarded piece of thick heavy pipe and smashed at the controls several times and fired. Once the module's power waned and died Christian looked out over the hangar floor - still nothing.

Then, there was a sound behind him - it was the faintest of noises, but it gave the soldiers away. As Christian threw himself to one side, energy bursts coursed past him, crackling through the air where he had been. Christian hit the ground in a bone-banging forward roll then made a break for it, running back toward Lirik's position. The Captain darted this way and that as erratically as he could; several blasts from behind came very close but thankfully none made contact – more by chance than skill, he told himself.

Choosing his timing carefully, Christian jumped and twisted in the air, sliding backwards onto his front, facing his attackers. Bringing his phaser up, he waited for the soldiers to show themselves – all the shots had been fired from behind, so he assumed there were no others flanking him. Tentatively, figures appeared making their way over the pylon junction and Christian hesitated. These soldiers were not only short, they were varying small sizes – just like children, and seemed to move as such. As they fired at him again, he reminded himself they were the enemy, took aim and fired instead at the structure in their midst, phaser on full power. The pylon exploded, scattering the small soldiers about the place.

Christian leapt to his feet and continued to run the rest of the length of the vessel. Several seconds later, the firing began again, though he tried to convince himself it was a good deal less than before and erratic. Suddenly from a distance in front of him a Federation phaser began to fire past him, presumably Lirik shooting at the T'Kani pursuers; he prayed he was a good shot – not many would be at that distance. Glancing up Christian noticed the Fantasy was peeling away under what he guessed was thruster power – that was it, then, he and Lirik were stranded.

Saliva white hot in his throat, he finally bounded over a line of storage crates and came crashing down next to Lirik's firing position.

"Hello," the Yeoman smiled at the furiously panting Captain and continued to fire at the soldiers.

Christian caught his breath and looked up at the ship drifting deeper into the facility, the very rear of the vessel slowly swinging into view.

"Look," Christian said.

Lirik followed his gaze – in the sheer face of the stern, near to the bottom of the vessel, a rectangular shaft of light shone out; unmistakably a shuttle bay. And it was of no use to them whatsoever.

"We could try and find access to another ship?" Lirik suggested. Christian just shook his head and joined Lirik, firing at the soldiers, now pinned down against the wall of the storage pylon some forty metres away.

"Think we can make it back to the train?" Lirik asked.

Christian looked around and behind him, his eyes then falling on what could only be a miracle. "Keep firing," he said and moved off. The Yeoman continued to fire intermittently, occasionally changing his firing position.

"Yeoman!" Christian called to him.

Lirik glanced around and saw Christian over by the storage containers hauling on a large plastic sheet, revealing underneath storage boxes and bits and piece of equipment strewn about and, amid it all, what looked like three anti grav bikes. Setting his phaser to automated, random fire, the Yeoman perched it atop of his hiding position and clambered down to join the Captain.

"You mean…" Lirik looked back at the ship moving slowly away and realized what Christian was suggesting. "We don't have any pressure suits, by the way. It's a vacuum above the environmental forcefield."

"It can't be more than about eighty metres to the shuttle bay, maybe less if we go through the forcefield as close to the vessel as we can," Christian was checking one of the bikes, prepping it for take-off, "if we go fast enough, we should make the crossing in a few seconds."

Lirik straddled a bike of his own, copying the Captain's movements and still watching round for T'Kani. Both men hit the ignitions and the bikes rose slightly off the floor.

"What if the force field isn't passive?" Lirik asked.

"Then it will be a short journey," Christian quipped.

"What if your charming friend decides to turn the ship suddenly?" Lirik asked. "We could splatter ourselves against the hull."

Christian revved his bike. "Have a little faith."

With that, he took off, keeping low and heading away from the ship and the T'Kani soldiers to gain enough distance to both hold a straight course and gather enough speed to make the vacuum crossing as brief as possible.

Lirik rapidly caught up. "This is such a bad idea," he said, "a very stupid and bad idea." But given the situation he knew there was little choice if he didn't want to be left behind.

Like two small planes taxiing for take-off, the Captain and the Yeoman slowed and turned to put themselves in line with the Fantasy's rear. The T'Kani were still amazingly being held off by the random phaser fire. The two men glanced at each other and Christian nodded; they were away.

As Christian raced up toward the ship, gathering speed all the time, Lirik's Sky Bike gave a phut-phut sound and slowed to a full-stop, pausing in mid-air. Lirik pulled on the handle bars and made small jumping movements in his seat, but despite his efforts the bike wouldn't respond. He was a sitting duck.

Christian afforded the shortest of glances over his shoulder, and immediately realised Lirik wasn't behind him anymore. He made his decision with Starfleet instinct, turning the bike in a sharp arc, just glancing the forcefield, and headed back toward the panicking Yeoman. As he did, more figures appeared a short distance away beneath him. Christian noticed these child-like characters were all wearing strange, jester-like uniforms, a patchwork of colour and individual design, though each were uniformed head to toe, not one physical feature on display save their obvious humanoid form.

Energy beams lashed out from what Christian could see were some kind of head-mounted weapons. Approaching Lirik, he heard the Yeoman saying "Bloody thing died on me." He didn't waste any time sliding in behind Christian on his bike as his own took two direct shots, sparks showering them; its anti-grav failed, the bike crashed to the hangar floor.

Christian was already accelerating hard. Lirik instinctively cranked up his environmental shield and wrapped his arms around the athletic man, drawing drew his Medusan energy within as much as he could. The Captain was trying hard to ignore the tingling sensation of the Yeoman's environmental shield behind him and even more the overwhelming urge to vomit.

"Exhale your breath and hold it!" Christian ordered, weaving slightly to avoid shots being fired at them.

At the last possible moment Christian aimed the bike onto a direct line for the centre of the shuttle bay of the Fantasy now above and in front of them; he heard a popping sound like light bulbs exploding in his ears as they passed through the containment field. Sound then stopped as they passed into the vacuum and a crushing pressure began to build in his head and groin; neither man could see clearly and there was nothing they could do until it was over, one way or the other. Christian's thumb moved the accelerator and both men felt the indiscernible pull of the vehicle they gripped onto with their thighs.

The brief seconds seemed to last a lot longer as Christian felt his blood surge, his skin tingling.

Eyes still tightly closed, he was suddenly aware of the suffocating envelopment of a cushioning force field as the heavy bike beneath him fell away in the gravity and big rubbery straps pressed into his face and side cushioning his fall. Forcing his watery eyes to open, he saw the bike crash into the deck, almost on top of Lirik who lay sprawled on his back, thrown clear on impact.

As Lirik looked up at the Captain, stunned, Christian appeared like some kind of swashbuckler hanging from the rigging and smiling down on him.

The Yeoman was too stunned to respond; the whole experience was a first and, he vowed, a last.

Meanwhile on the Bridge, Reb was frantically entering commands at the helm controls but the configuration kept changing, counteracting his actions. "This doesn't make any sense," he said. Jackson standing nervously behind him.

"Any luck getting the main viewscreen on line?" the Commodore asked, glancing over her shoulder.

Narli was sitting at communications, Collard seemed busy at Tactical, in close proximity to Hedra who sat quietly working at the Science station.

"I'm sorry, Commander, I can't get anything," Narli said. Jackson looked over to Collard who merely blushed and shrugged.

The bridge consoles were winking on and off at regular intervals, and the distant groaning sound of the ship's movements put Jackson even more on edge. Suddenly, Hedra shouted from the back of the bridge:

"Yes!"

Jackson and the others looked at her as she rose and walked forward to stand beside the security Ensign, much to her disapproval. "Computer, activate Emergency Command Hologram!"

Almost instantly, a young Captain Jean Luc Picard materialised into the command chair, wearing the older style Starfleet jumpsuit uniform with the red piping around the collar bone. Standing, adjusting his duty shirt front and back, he said:

"Please, state the nature of your command emergency."

Jackson was impressed, even the voice was Picard to a tee.

Reb, Narli and Collard exchanged looks of disbelief. Hedra explained:

"This ship was a state-of-the-art, luxury passenger liner, the safety of its passengers and cargo were paramount. This is one of a number of safety features I've found listed in the database."

"But…Picard?" Jackson mused, and the hologram looked at her.

Picard walked down the steps to join her on the lower bridge area. "Actually, although I have his appearance, I have the knowledge, tactical experience and memories of over 200 captains, both Starfleet and civilian. Now," Picard turned to look around the bridge, "is there a command emergency or not?"

Jackson spoke. "Yes, we are the survivors of an attack on an alien world and we are a long way from the Federation. We need to get out of this facility and the local star system as quickly as possible, but we're unfamiliar with this vessel, and it seems in a state of disrepair, some critical systems are off-line."

"You are in command?" Picard regarded her uniform and Commodore rank pips.

"I am the senior most officer present, yes, but my background is not in starship command," Jackson felt embarrassed to admit that in front of the others, but frankly if this hologram could help, she was all for it. "There are two more of our people stranded outside the ship attempting to release us from the docking tethers – can you do that for them and beam them back aboard?"

Picard cocked his head slightly, an action aping one of his own crew, Jackson thought.

"Transporter systems are non-operational. Internal and most external sensors are off-line. Communications - reconfigured. Computer interface, severely limited." He looked at the viewscreen. "I can give you an external image - forward view only. Other than that, you have only my experience at your command. Man your stations."

Jackson looked at the others and back to Picard, who realised this was not currently possible. As the viewscreen flickered on, Reb said: "We're free! They did it. And I now have helm control."

Reb adjusted attitude and held them steady, just as O'Hara entered from the observation corridor. "Has anyone found the sick bay yet?" She stopped in her tracks when she saw Picard.

"Emergency Command Hologram, the entire ship's rigged for holographic interface," Jackson confirmed for her. "Ensign, can you locate sick bay?"

"Crew sick bay is on Deck 15," Picard interjected. "However, turbolifts and intra-ship transporters are inoperative. And there is currently no access beyond Deck 9."

"Computer," O'Hara said, "Activate Emergency Medical Hologram."

The computer bleeped unceremoniously.

"The medical database is unavailable," Picard said flatly.

"Great!" O'Hara was seething, "I'll sort it myself." And with that she disappeared back down the corridor.

"Helm," Picard continued as if the Nurse had not been there, "dead ahead, thrusters only."

As Reb complied, the ship lurched and lights winked off then on. Picard's image shimmered.

"What's happening?" Jackson asked.

"I'm not sure," Picard replied, "my program seems to be destabilising."

Hedra frowned. "I'm on to it," she said as she flopped into the Science chair again.

Jackson felt useless. She remembered Narli. "Can you pick anything up?"

"Just this," he pointed to a small display on the communications console to his left which was a swirling mass of colours and lights. "I've never seen anything like it."

Jackson looked at him, then at the viewscreen. As the ship moved forward, a combination of tractor beams and tethering arms moved the field of lifeless ships aside, clearing a path forward for the massive passenger liner. Shortly after, the vessel took a slow turn to starboard, heading for a long conduit and a vast set of doors in the distance.

"Well, bugger me," Lirik commented.

Intact but powered down on the starboard side of the large shuttle bay, in what looked like a smaller, secondary bay and transfer area, was the runabout Hudson.

"It's my shuttle, the one that Lt Cmmdr Kohl borrowed and said he lost."

Christian scanned the rest of the space. Port side of the main shuttle bay was what looked like a repair yard. To the aft, the still open shuttle bay doors and their left, operations booths, observation windows and exit doors set back under the balconies and control areas.

"Let's get the doors closed," Christian suggested.

It was an easy operation, the massive single door sliding down from its upper housing with little noise and only the faintest of shunts as the seals locked in place.

Suddenly, the lights went off. In the total darkness, Lirik's environment shield shimmered slightly, a ghost like effect about his person.

"Captain!" he managed to warn just as the lights came on again, and the two found themselves surrounded by a group of tall, athletic looking humanoids.

There were a few moments of silence before a young, attractive woman, plainly dressed and hair tied back in a long pony tail which ran down to the middle of her back stepped forward.

"Please, do not be alarmed," her voice had a vague lilt as she spoke her best English.

She could easily have been human herself, were it not for the two large, fleshy antennae that protruded from the front of her crown and swept back into her silky hair.

"Who are you?" Christian asked.

"My name is Vostaline, and these are my brothers," she indicated the half dozen men encircling them.

"Did you bring the runabout on board?" Lirik asked, fingering his sleeve in case he needed his Medusan energy to protect him.

"We have been stowed away on this ship for some time," she said - hence the power, Christian thought.

Lirik noted her avoidance of his question.

"Do you have access to the rest of the ship?" Christian asked. "The Command Section's Engine room, specifically."

The woman stepped forward and Christian could almost smell the youth and vitality she exuded amid the strange spicy aroma. "You are taking the ship as your own?"

"Actually, we're trying to save our necks from the T'Kani," Lirik said. "You do know what's going on out there, don't you?"

The young woman merely nodded. "We only have access to this rear-most section of the ship," she said, "the rest of it is cut off."

"You're referring to the passenger section," Christian confirmed.

"Yes," Vostaline began to lead them toward the exit, "but I will take you to this Section's Engine room."

Entering the functional corridor beyond and stepping into a Jeffrey's tube, Lirik asked: "What race are you? Are you Qovakian?"

The woman called down the ladder: "We are Helan, from just beyond the far side of Qovakia."

"What were you doing living on board such an isolated ship as this?" Lirik pressed. "And how did you get aboard?"

"Please, we will answer all of your questions in good time," Vostaline called from above, "but for now be assured that we are not your enemy, and that we wish to be of help in getting away from here as quickly as possible."

"You opened the shuttle doors, didn't you?" Christian asked gesturing back to the shuttlebay.

"You required an incentive to come back aboard," Vostaline said and continued to climb.

Leg muscles tensing, Lirik had to stop climbing part way up. As the others continued, one of the Helan men stopped with him while he caught his breath.

"I really need to work out more," Lirik panted, putting his head between his knees. He looked around the empty corridor. A sign indicated they were only on Deck 35. "What's your name?"

The much younger, peach-blonde man, overly muscular and slightly docile of movement responded with a broad smile. "Fraxon. Vostaline's little brother."

'Little' wasn't a word Lirik would have used to describe any of the men. "How long have you been living aboard The Fantasy?" Lirik used his most disarming tone but Fraxon looked confused. "Here, on this vessel?"

"Many cycles – since just after the T'Kani left," he replied. "And how are you called?"

The Yeoman smiled. "Lirik; Tix Lirik. Pleased to meet you Fraxon." He offered his hand.

The younger man looked at it awkwardly, then suddenly threw his massive arms around the Yeoman, causing Lirik's protective energy field to collapse with an audible 'pop'. Before Lirik could react the musclebound man kissed Lirik hard on the neck, once on each side. Lirik managed to push the bigger man away, fearful of how his Medusan energies would affect him – close physical contact without his shield in place usually caused an amount of trauma in most humanoids.

"I apologise, it is our way of greeting a new friend," Fraxon said, almost hurt, "I'm sorry if I offended you."

"No, no, I'm far from offended," Lirik chuckled, swapped energy cells in his wrist control, and re-activated the shield, "you just surprised me, that's all. Do you feel okay?"

"I feel fine, but I sense the energy within you," Fraxon said.

"You do? But you feel no sickness? No headache or dizziness?" Lirik asked again. The man shook his head and smiled. "Fascinating; come on, we better catch up with the others."

Lirik felt butterflies in his tummy - it was rare indeed to find a species unaffected by his Medusan energy, least of all a humanoid species. As quickly as he thought it, he dispelled the line of pondering fearing where it might lead, though couldn't help but look at the Helan scaling the ladder above him in a completely new light.

A short while later Lirik and Fraxon joined the Captain in the large Engineering area on Deck 26, the Yeoman sweating and panting, completely out of breath, chest pounding. Christian was clearly unimpressed.

Unlike the sleek, compact, efficient engineering section in the Command Yacht, this space was on a much bigger and grander scale. The décor was clearly as much to impress any visiting fare-paying passengers and invited dignitaries as it was to fulfil its primary function. There were even pieces of artwork on its walls, though there were only shadows in some places where they'd been subsequently removed.

The reaction assembly itself was encased in a golden lattice, the large lifeless funnel cutting through openings in the floor and ceiling. The entire column was situated within a larger, surrounding box frame that indicated it could be sealed as a room within a room, isolating the core entirely from the rest of engineering. The port and starboard power transfer conduits and reaction chamber were slightly out of view, underneath the floor area, surrounded by a suspended gantry and accessed by four short ladders.

Set before the open sides of the box room were four control consoles mounted on pedestals, equally inactive. The rest of the engine room had the usual wall consoles and displays, some protruding, some recessed, with an executive control suite to one side and doorways to offices and supply areas. Here and there ladders, crawlway accesses and open Jefferies tubes accessed adjacent plant as well as the deck below and above, including elevated walkways and ramparts that led to other parts of the warp assembly and engineering area toward the rear of the vessel.

At the forward-most point of the engineering deck, a gigantic bulkhead was firmly in place, presumably cutting off access to the passenger section of the ship beyond, though both Starfleet officers decided the Command Section hull had to be a further distance beyond their current location.

Suddenly, from the Jefferies tubes and side rooms, more Helan emerged, a good many not as young as their scout party. Lirik noted that Fraxon appeared to be among the youngest.

"This is my father, Ganhedra of Ikira," Vostaline gestured to one of the oldest individuals, then gasping as if she had said the wrong thing.

"Greetings," the old man didn't seem phased by her words, despite her furtive looks to her peers.

The man looked strong and fit for his years, Christian noted, and was clad in similar plain clothing to the others. His antennae were scarred - perhaps a sign of age in their species.

"Your engineering team have made some progress," he walked them over to a large monitor display. "The warp engine is still inactive, but the impulse engines are so far sixty per cent on line."

Christian scanned the display noting the status of the impulse engines - Kohl appeared to be bringing the half dozen drive systems to standby from the Yacht's engine room.

"If you are familiar the engines then perhaps you can assist us in getting that warp power back online?" Christian asked.

"We will do our best to help in whatever way we can. We are experienced space travellers, it is true, but we do not have anything to compare with your technology."

"But you managed to maintain power, life support and gravity..?" Lirik observed.

"When we came aboard some years ago, the ship seemed to respond to our presence automatically," he said. "It's been like this ever since."

"Another redundant safety feature of the ship, perhaps," Christian suggested, "we've noticed similar elsewhere. And you've never needed to carry out maintenance or repairs?"

"No. We weren't looking to go anywhere, Captain," Ganhedra said, "just find a place to live in peace and seclusion. We had air and a modicum of heat, access to a replenish-able water supply and somewhere to grow our crops and tend our livestock. I guess it's been able to sustain our frugal needs."

Lirik rapped on a side wall, charred and black with apparent phaser fire. "What happened here?"

Vostaline stepped forward. "The ship was unoccupied when we came aboard," she said, "all we know is what we found here. Much of the equipment had been stripped, but there are many crates and other goods stored throughout the ship. There is indeed evidence of fighting, and also of fires and even flooding in several areas, but nothing to indicate why or when that may have occurred. Many important items have been removed from engineering and particularly drive systems, and most of what remains is integrated into the ship itself, although by our reckoning there had been an attempt to carry out extensive repairs."

Christian studied the power supply boards and tapped a few controls. "Huh. Well there it is. You seem to have been running off an unusually large amount of battery power for years. When it began to run out, the emergency systems brought an impulse engine back on line in order to recharge the energy cells, though it's since been powered down for some time. That's quite an amazing emergency engineering system."

"Captain, there's something you should see," Lirik was standing beside what looked like deflector controls. Christian and the others joined him. "It appears Reb has manoeuvred the Fantasy to the exit. We are now stationary in front of a large wall - presumably the doors leading out of the complex. I've gained quite a bit of field communications experience, Sir," Lirik said. "I might be able to find a way to trigger the doors to open."

"Okay, let's get back to the bridge," Christian walked over to the Jefferies tube, and heard Lirik groan behind him. He turned, looking the plump man up and down; "You, mister, are way out of shape."

Reaching the yacht's engineering section, Kohl was startled by the alien entourage. He elected to remain in the small control room, having had his group familiarise themselves with the equipment there and feeling more confident in their abilities. Christian brought Kohl up to speed and both men agreed it would be wiser to use low impulse initially, and address the rest of their engineering issues later on. It was a gamble to attempt their escape at low sub-light, but the Captain hoped they'd be able to sneak away unseen because of their cloaking effect.

The Fantasy, long and sleek, was indeed poised only metres from the massive space doors. As yet, the team on the Bridge had been unable to work out a way of opening them. Jackson was concerned. The holographic Picard was becoming less stable, phasing away and back every few minutes.

"Without re-building the entire communications array," Narli said, "I doubt we can do anything."

"Not necessarily," Lirik called over from below between heavy breaths – spurred on by the more real possibility of escape and buoyed by the larger group and not least the Captain verbalising his weight issued, he had managed to keep up with the lead group.

"Captain!" Jackson and Collard seemed the most pleased to see them. On heavy legs Lirik trotted up to join Narli, when Collard suddenly drew her weapon, seeing Vostaline and Ganhedra behind them.

"Lower your weapon, Ensign," Christian said, "they're with us." Christian spotted the hologram in the Captain's chair, oblivious to their presence. "Jean-Luc Picard?"

"The command equivalent of an EMH program," Jackson rolled out again, "but its programme is rapidly degrading. There's very little left of it now."

Lirik called over to the group. "The Comms have some kind of algorithm issue. If this were a Starfleet vessel, Sir, I'd request a science officer for help with this kind of problem."

Christian nodded. "I'll go get her."

On the observation deck, Christian's face became serious again. Suddenly, the situation he saw before him brought back the enormity of what was happening here. Many standing, but most sitting or lying on the floor, the worried talking and sobbing was still apparent. Hundreds of people in such a small space gave the room a stale, uncomfortable odour. O'Hara looked up at the American as he entered, then returned immediately to her work. A bulky alien appeared to be helping her. Christian noticed one of her patients now had a shawl covering his face.

"Professor Karim!" Christian yelled. The sleek woman stepped forward from her group of Vulcan attendants and approached him. "Please assist Yeoman Lirik on the bridge." She nodded, stony-faced, and exited, casting a short glance back to her party.

"Captain," the Tiburonian man suddenly appeared again, as angry as he was before and no doubt always would be, "what's happening?"

Christian addressed everyone present, though a good many people he noticed didn't even bother to listen:

"We're just sorting out these bulkhead doors," he gestured through the forward windows and stopped, suddenly taken aback by the vista before him – the doors he spoke of were in fact over a kilometre away, just beyond the end of the vast liner. And the panoramic view was quite breath-taking."

"As soon as they're open, we'll be on our way," he said, realising even less people were paying attention. "We should find a way to get you below very soon."

"And we can access the sick bay?" O'Hara was suddenly hopeful, barely looking up from her work. He took a couple of steps toward her

"We encountered some friendly locals below decks. I'm afraid they informed us that sick bay was gutted," he said. "But we may be able to locate medical supplies from elsewhere."

O'Hara nodded. "My scouts informed me there are no working replicators on this entire deck. I tried interfacing with the holographic system but there's only enough matter and energy to display non-physical characters and control interface panels. My med kit is almost out of supplies and there's simply nothing on board to recreate the equipment or medicines I need to keep some of these people alive," O'Hara was almost desperate. "And besides, our Mister Picard tells me all medical files have been erased from the computer's memory."

Christian knelt down next to her. "I'm sorry. Once we get safely out of the system it'll be our first priority. You're doing a great job, Lieutenant."

"Really." O'Hara spat. She continued to rip clothing to make more bandages.

Christian decided to say no more and return to the bridge. He squeezed O'Hara's shoulder and left - perhaps Vostaline or the others could help her. At the last instance, O'Hara turned and watched the Captain's rounded butt disappear through the door.

"It's a multi-band signal, this is the visual component, comprised of a whole host of complex colour and light patterns," Karim explained to Christian who looked at the small screen's display.

"Their way of communicating?" Jackson asked.

"Undoubtedly," Picard piped up from behind. The group turned to face his almost invisible form. "I've been using what power I have left to analyse the signal and find a way to help you - I think I may have found it."

Reb pushed forward. "So… is this the ship speaking…?"

"There's a sensor node, attached to a deflector, capable of transmitting a short burst of signal," Picard disappeared, then a breath later reappeared. "If you copy the signal you're receiving, and aim it in a tight beam at that doorway, on the Frequency Delta One One Nine of the pre-set hailing frequencies, it might just work."

The image faded further as Lirik's hands danced over the panel. He cursed as he made a mistake and re-set the hail, then transmitted. Slowly, gracefully, the doors began to part. Picard smiled. "I'm almost out of time," he said, "Captain, I wish you and your crew good luck and Godspeed."

"Wait!" Reb tried to grab the hologram, but his hand passed through it. "You must tell us how the ship came to be here!"

But the image just turned to him and closed its eyes, fading forever and leaving the command chair poignantly vacant. Reb looked at the others to explain his outburst. "The ship may not have come to Qovakia through the wormhole. Perhaps there's another way back home?"

Christian fleetingly thought of the USS Voyager - Janeway and her crew, stranded in another distant part of the Galaxy. "Don't worry, we may be able to recover his program."

Reb nodded and returned to the Helm seat, bringing systems on line. Through the viewscreen, the vista of Helub's bleak but tranquil surface, rocks and small mountains reaching up to the star-studded expanse above.

"I'm taking us out," Reb called, as the rest of the crew dispersed to get the best view of the main screen.

Once clear of the massive storage complex Reb angled the ship sharply up and to the right; the ship screeched and juddered, as if under fire. Jackson ran out to the observation deck and pushed her way through the crowds to the windows to look across the ship. Thankfully it remained intact, and the vessel continued to ascend from the storage facility.

As the ship turned to head away from Helub, the passengers were silent. They were all looking at the Starfleet and other vessels being tractored in the distance high above the space port by the insect-like alien vessels. They were even more shocked when they saw the vast amount of destruction throughout the port.

Jackson smacked a hand over her mouth as tears came to her eyes. It hadn't been completely evident before, but now that she saw the devastation with her own eyes, the realisation of what it implied hit her. "Oh, my God," she prayed. The others around her were equally shocked and moved. Thankfully, the images only lasted less than a minute or two before all they could see was the expanse of stars in all directions.

Christian had entered the Observation and stood to the rear, watching the reaction of the hundreds of people gathered here. As the Fantasy increased speed, accelerating out of the Vekarian system, a surprising rush of paternal feeling washed over him. He knew that as of this day, everyone on board would be looking to him.