OUTER ZONE

An original fanfiction serialised story (© the Author) based on the Star Trek (© CBS Studios) franchise, (canon) set in uncharted space at the edge of the Galaxy (dubbed the Outer Zone) around the time Starfleet entered into hostilities with the Dominion.

Last time on ST:OZ…

The T'Kani have attacked, re-invading Qovakia swiftly and in great numbers, decimating the surface of Helub, the space port moon orbiting the governing world of Vekaria, killing thousands and destroying or immobilising all military vessels in the region. With the wormhole destroyed, there is little hope of rescue from home for all those that came from the Federation and beyond.

Led by a handful of Starfleet Officers and other volunteers, hundreds of civilian survivors, indigenous Qovakians as well as Federation and other Alpha Quadrant citizens, had made their way to a remote storage facility on the moon where they boarded a former luxury passenger liner from Federation space, the SS Fantasy, and made their escape undetected.

How the huge, infamous liner which mysteriously disappeared five years ago came to be in a T'Kani spaceship pound 35,000 light years from home is only slightly less of a mystery as the unknown black substance that now covers its entire surface, rendering it effectively 'cloaked' – but perhaps slightly more intriguing than having found a small community of people from the outskirts of Qovakia living peacefully aboard the abandoned vessel. With the Helan's help and an amount of luck, the makeshift crew manage to pilot the vessel off Helub and out of Vekarian space and immediate danger.

Although safely out of the clutches of the T'Kani for now, their continued freedom is less than certain aboard such a massive, ageing ship, unused for years, much of it in urgent need of major repair..

Main Players:

Captain Christian – Starfleet Captain, newly promoted; ex-Engineer; he had been en route to his first command, but found his ship destroyed near the mouth of the wormhole; in recent months his father was driven insane and mother killed after accidental prolonged exposure to a Medusan.

Reb – a roguish pilot for hire who had been transporting Christian to the Outer Zone and barely escaped the T'Kani when they exited the collapsing wormhole; mother was Human, father Ferengi. He had to abandon his beloved Pod to join the other survivors in their escape.

Commodore Jackson – Starfleet regional HQ commander based on Helub, veteran officer, somewhat lacking in starship command experience, but is the senior officer present among the survivors.

Lieutenant Jackson – the Commodore's son, a security officer who had been assigned to the docks when the T'Kani strike took place; he is presumed dead.

Lieutenant O'Hara – Starfleet medical officer, former Marine medic, not quite fully qualified MD; had been courting Lt Jackson, the Commodore's son, before the attack.

Ensign Collard – Starfleet security officer, recent Academy graduate, green as heck but keen.

Hedra – an Orion thief, also green; when the attack took place, Collard had been trying to apprehend Hedra but was wounded – the two made their escape with the rest of the survivors

Lieutenant Commander Kohl – Starfleet Engineer, he had been the one to discover the passenger liner, bit of a nerd; technically he is awol from his own ship the USS Draco; led the survivors to the vessel.

(Minister Re Lorken – Qovakian politician of Vekarian birth allocated as liaison to Starfleet; to her surprise she had been assigned to assist Kohl in his quest to find out if a ship from Federation space was present in the Outer Zone; she was even more surprised they were permitted to go to the former T'Kani facility to investigate; she had been spooked when she discovered a flag there, the T'Kani Flag of Invasion, staked to the floor of the hangar by an Ore Challenge Stick – the Ore were a nomadic people who had joined the resistance having been attacked by the T'Kani, helping it to succeed, but who were believed wiped out in the process; in the same trip their transport, the Runabout Hudson, had disappeared, but later was found aboard the Fantasy, evidently 'stolen' by the Helan, for reasons as yet unknown)

Yeoman Lirik – Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, long serving primary aide to the Federation delegates; part-Medusan, wears an environment shield to protect others from his nauseating ambient energy; escaped with the rest of the survivors.

Ambassador Narli – Andorian Trade delegate, old sparring partner of the Yeoman's; was elsewhere when all the other delegates disappeared; made his escape with Lirik.

Professor Karim – Vulcan Science Academy; Human, but raised a Vulcan; she and her assistants helped Narli and Lirik to reach Helub during the attack where they made their escape with the others. (Note I created this character's background, Human science specialist raised on Vulcan, in about 1985 when I first devised this story)

Cally Warnerburg – retired Starfleet engineer; survivor who has volunteered to help Kohl in the Fantasy's engine room.

Murak – a Romulan engineer, separated from his crew found himself among the survivors; was volunteered to help Kohl.

Jaz Lepraniem – entrepreneur, survivor and former engineer who volunteered to help Kohl.

Karless, Kluless and Kidron – three Klingon warriors separated from their brethren on Helub, reluctantly made the escape with the other survivors.

Ganhedra – leader of the Helen, the group of OZ aliens found living aboard the SS Fantasy; an odd man.

Vostaline – daughter and heir to Ganhedra.

Fraxon – Vostaline's 'little' brother; evidently the Helan are immune to Lirik's ambient Medusan energy field.

SS Fantasy – a large passenger liner over a kilometre in length, 47 decks deep, comprising three main sections: the Command Yacht, the Command Section, and the Passenger Section, the largest section of the vessel – the latter is currently sealed off and impenetrable.

PROLOGUE

The huge dark length of the SS Fantasy, vintage passenger liner and escape craft for the hundreds of survivors of the T'Kani attack on Helub, stealthily continued its progress away from Vekarian space at low sub-warp.

DECEMBER 25, DECK ONE, 0600 hours

A stocky figure wearily exited the darkened Observation Lounge into the dimly lit port side corridor, took a couple of paces and paused for the gilded doors to slide softly closed behind them. Once alone, Commodore Jackson slumped into the wall and wept. She placed a hand over her face, momentarily unable to comprehend her terrible loss and giving over fully to grief.

Just hours earlier, as the Fantasy left Helub, she and all those gathered before the huge observation windows witnessed the panoramic view of devastation across the vast port and in the space around it. Thoughts of her son, probably dead, had been thankfully cut short as the collective weight of miserable suffering she subsequently witnessed among her fellow escapees distracted her entirely.

As the vessel limped unnoticed out of the system at much less than full impulse she had circulated among all those assembled in the oppressively vulnerable chasm of the glass-walled Observation Lounge, trying to make personal contact with as many as she could. The Commodore had tried to look composed, portray some semblance of stability and leadership, but the raw emotion she felt from the hundreds of distraught people crammed into the relatively small space for such a large number was overwhelming.

She had remained there regardless, for a long time, moving among the crowds of unfamiliar faces, many races she didn't recognize, reassuring and comforting, occasionally stopping to hear people's stories - using all her maternal nurturing skills to try and help them feel at least a little safe and hopeful, as well as subtly extracting information to build a picture of all her charges. But through it all the dozens of moaning, groaning voices of the injured and the dying just a few paces away was impossible to ignore. And the relentless looks of terror, shock, grief and defeat written on every face was punishing – and made worse by the large contingent of children inconsolable and weeping for their mummies and daddies in the arms of each other and of complete strangers, or sleeping fitfully from mental and physical exhaustion. Eventually, when a sense of calm and quiet had finally fallen, the Commodore had finally chosen to step out and give over to that which was boiling beneath.

Despite her base emotions, her mind was also a frenzy of questions and suppositions: what had become of all those others they had been separated from? How many had survived? Surely a substantial number were dead, so widespread and instantaneous was the bombing. And likely her own handsome son was among them. But there would be many who survived, not least those who were on Vekaria. She squeezed her tired, sore eyes shut. Despair gripped her heart as her mind instinctively conjured up images of what might have befallen her boy. And what of the crews of all the Starfleet and other vessels that were immobilized – would they be killed? Tortured? Incarcerated? Enslaved? A vague cough from just the other side of the closed doors behind interrupted her thoughts – one among very many who were all now her responsibility. It was a much-needed interruption from her spiraling thoughts.

Jackson berated herself, considering the hundreds gathered so close by, all of whom were now depending on her and the rest of the rag-tag crew that had come together to enable their escape. As senior ranking officer aboard, despite her agreement to let Christian take the centre seat, she had no doubt in her mind that she was ultimately in charge of their destiny. And she was determined to not be inhibited by her own self-pity. Duty dictated that she had to try and set aside her own grief for now, however difficult it might be; ignore her personal circumstances and focus on the situation at hand.

Yet as she pushed herself away from the wall she faltered; her chin quivered defiantly. The port area where her son had been sent flashed into her mind again. She was certain he had been assigned there. But there was a glimmer of hope – a chance that something may have miraculously prevented them from reaching it, diverting his team elsewhere.

Jackson glanced down at her dirty, torn uniform. The once reassuringly authoritative feeling of her rank and the insignia that she so proudly wore felt suddenly inconsequential and without substance for the first time in her career. Out here in the farthest reaches of space, cut off from the comfort of the Federation and the support structure of Starfleet they were merely embellishments and she was just an overweight, middle-aged woman among hundreds of other souls, hoping against hope and feeling completely out of her depth.

At that moment a small shudder rippled through the ship causing her to stumble slightly. She regained her footing and paused to make a petition to the Almighty.

She closed her eyes. "Please let Joseph be alive," she barely murmured through clenched teeth.

Jackson had buried her husband too soon, and felt sick at the thought of a dead son as well. Her mind then turned to thoughts of her colleagues, loyal staff Petri, Inaami and Djansky, and she berated herself that they were so late into her thoughts. She had not been at her post beside them during the attack. By all accounts, if she had she wouldn't have survived, but it still hurt her deeply losing all those people at once, each one of them were so special, so experienced and dedicated to the service, and they were also among her closest friends. All gone now, all their shared experiences, all that talent, their unique camaraderie and individual effervescence snuffed out.

The Commodore took a minute or so to breathe deeply and compose herself. As she slowly proceeded to the Bridge she reminded herself that as well as her responsibility for the survivors onboard the Fantasy, she was likely the sole ranking officer obligated to help liberate the civilians and servicemen from all across the Federation and beyond left behind in the Qovakian system.

Those people would know the wormhole was gone, so they would also know it would be a long time before they could hope for a rescue – and they would be right, no wormhole meant support from Starfleet was now over 35 years away. It pained Jackson to think they were currently running away in the opposite direction, getting further and further away from those they left behind. But she also knew it was currently their only safe option and would likely be so for some time to come.

When she was several metres from the bridge the ship suddenly lurched violently, tipping her off-balance and throwing her heavy frame onto the floor. Gravity momentarily fluctuated then returned to normal but the already dim overhead lights flickered then winked off. She crawled forward toward the bridge, but darkness pushed against her eyes. As they slowly adjusted to the blackness she could make out vague profiles in deepest grey under the starlight from the segmented overhead skylights on the upper, rear part of the Bridge.

Captain Christian and the other Bridge crew shouted questions and suppositions to each other in the gloom when without warning parts of the wood panelled bridge walls became illuminated – stripes of a rich, crimson hue that bathed the entire deck and the people present in its devilish glow. The blood red space suddenly seemed a lot smaller than it had before, the people contained there monochrome and insignificant.

"Emergency lights," Christian observed. "Reb?"

Jackson scrambled awkwardly to her feet and saw the nearby half-Ferengi turn in his chair to respond, his hands palm up in defeat.

"No power, no helm control," he said.

The Commodore saw nothing but reflected red light on the glassy helm station in its most basic configuration. The main viewscreen before and above it was equally dead, its ugly, concentric projection strips exposed.

"We're still moving," Lirik said from somewhere in the shadows at the rear of the bridge. Jackson could just make out a vague profile looking up through the viewports, the faint haze of the environment shield glistening in the dark; if there was movement from the stars, it was negligible to her more Human gaze.

"I'd better get to engineering," Christian was addressing her, she realised. Jackson rubbed her sore eyes – seeing clearly was beginning to be even more of a problem.

In a rabble of noise and concern, survivors began to pour onto the bridge from the Observation Lounge, demanding to know what was going on. Jackson turned toward the sound and waved them back. Licking her lips she spoke over her shoulder to Christian who had stopped to check control boards beneath the engineering stations on the lower bridge, though they appeared equally without power.

"The Observation Deck is not a great place to be, we should try and move everyone below," she stepped closer and lowered her voice. "And we'll be needing food and water before long."

Christian flushed - though it didn't show in the red ambience - in his race to resolve engineering problems and get the hell away from the clutches of the T'Kani, he'd forgotten all about their most basic survival needs. He felt instantly hungry.

A figure stirred from the shadows to one side.

"We can help," Vostaline, the young Helan, stepped forward, surprising the two officers, "our resources aren't unlimited but my people need very little. We keep a few pet Cratek for milk and Krep for the young ones, and grow water beats and a few other staples in hydrogel – we have water and also have a large supply of sluff grain for bread and animal feed. But there is a cargo bay several decks below which has a large number of containers filled with preserved foods that should more than provide for your needs until you can take on supplies."

Jackson nodded, wondering how long it would take for the Engineers to repair the food replicators. She tried to imagine what a Krep was - and a Cratek, for that matter. She smiled thinking of Djansky's curious collection of miniature ceramic bovine from all quadrants of the Galaxy and then felt greatly saddened that this Cratek was not to be a shared experience with her old friend.

She watched as Christian finished his assessment of the control boards and bolted for the Jeffreys tube, only to be accosted by Lirik en route. "Captain, wait."

"Not now, Yeoman," Christian snapped.

"No, I mean I'm coming with you," he said.

Christian cast a dismissive look. "Thank you, but no."

"You might need assistance," Lirik offered unwavering, though not wholly surprised at the rejection.

The Captain turned and glowered.

Lirik returned the look defiantly. "I can help," he insisted.

"And I already said no," Christian emphasized, then climbed onto the ladder and disappeared below decks.

The Yeoman turned to Jackson who grimaced at the open hatch and nodded for him to follow.

Lirik sighed wearily then stepped onto the ladder and started his descent – legs still wobbling from the long climb just hours ago.

As he heard the boots on the rungs above him, Christian shouted up. "I said no, Yeoman! Get back to the Bridge!"

"There may be injured," Lirik called down into the gloom, not stopping. "You can't deal with them all yourself."

The Captain chose to ignore him, but absorbed the information that Lirik was likely some kind of medic, logical with him being Starfleet's top diplomatic assistant, though he failed to see how someone with Medusan heritage could ever make a good nurse.

When he heard that Lirik was still pursuing him, he shouted up again: "I gave you an order, Mister!"

"And I'm disregarding it, Captain," Lirik kept his voice low and neutral.

"What?!" Christian stopped and locked eyes with Lirik in the darkness. "You're going to pull rank? You want to take command, is that it?"

"No!" Lirik said quickly. "I'm just trying to help."

Christian fully understood that a Corpsman had to have very good reasons for invoking their authority in any given situation, and although Lirik appeared to be taking a back seat for now he felt uncomfortable at the thought that he could do so at any time. Without a further word he continued to descend in deeper strides skipping every other rung or two.

Lirik blinked then tried to emulate the other man's deft movements; a big ask given his bulky frame and slightly shaky gait. Some way below his clumsy feet Lirik saw the Captain step off the Jeffreys tube into the crimson hue of a corridor.

Lirik was surprised to find the Captain waiting there, hands clenched, eyes boring into him, but with less hate than earlier.

"Keep up," he said softly and broke into a jog; Lirik fell in behind, trying his best to look casual and readying himself for the conversation to come.

After a few moments silence: "I know about what happened on New Paris," Lirik said, aware of his clumsy, unpracticed jogging style.

"No," Christian warned, suddenly angered. "You don't talk about that."

"Are you sure?" Lirik was aware of his saggy flesh lolloping with each footfall and hearing it echoed in his voice.

"Quite sure," Christian had no desire to talk about what happened, particularly with the Diplomat. "So you served in Medical, then?"

"Not as such, no," Lirik let the other conversation go, mainly as he felt embarrassed that he was already perspiring hard from the brief exertion, "but I know enough to help out."

Turning the corner, an emergency bulkhead had lowered, blocking their way forward.

"There's a forcefield in place behind it," Lirik said, feeling the energy resonate with his own natural field. "Might be a hull breach?"

Christian nodded an acknowledgement and used the underfloor release to disengage the locking clamps. Lirik taking one side and Christian the other, the two men heaved the doors apart. The air on the other side was a thin fog of smoke, so no hull breach, though a shimmer in the air indicated a force field in place keeping the mists at bay.

"Help me find the local access controls," he said and the two began scrutinizing the walls and floor. The Captain knew that all Corpsmen were an unusual breed, selected for expert knowledge or skill or for other unique qualities that set them apart, and guessed there was more to Lirik than his unique heritage, although that clearly gave him useful skills.

"You were a Yeoman when you transferred into the Corps?" Christian asked, casting his eyes up and down the Englishman with some distain. "That must have been a while ago."

"Nearly 22 years," Lirik said, not oblivious to the taunt. "Here, there's a concentration of power behind this panel."

Christian studied Lirik for a moment as the Yeoman struggled to remove the small panel from the wall. All Corpsmen were of one rank, warranted by the Federation Council, though they weren't part of the fleet's hierarchy as such. They all had far too much power, in his opinion, one shared by many of his fellow starship commanders given the envoys could overrule any regular Starfleet officer up to and including Admiralty if they felt justified. For a presumably fairly inexperienced Yeoman to have been granted such authority at an early age intrigued him, and he considered that he may have been underestimating the Englishman. He desired to know more.

"You ever served aboard a ship?"

The Yeoman turned and blinked at Christian, acknowledging the intentional lack of respect in his phrasing.

"Yes, before I transferred into the Corps I was on a deep space assignment for a number of years," Lirik said, purposefully not elaborating, at least for now, "but a good many of my subsequent assignments have been aboard a variety of vessels, Starfleet and non-Starfleet alike, and I've always tried to keep my hand in with the more useful disciplines – useful to my line of work, you understand."

"Hm," Christian felt the Yeoman might be teasing him.

"But if you're trying to ascertain my main skillset, aside from the obvious it would be Signals – Comms, Transporters, Sensors, it's been a hobby since childhood. I'm as nifty with a tricorder as I am with a sonic screwdriver!" he smiled, the panel finally pinging away, startling him, and revealing the old-fashioned junction control beneath.

The Captain nodded politely, though he'd not heard of such a device before. Whatever he thought of Lirik, he badly needed all the help he could get – and he'd be foolish to deny the Englishman just on the basis of disliking him for whatever reason. But he also wasn't about to be shackled with this onerous man any longer than he had to be.

"If that's the case then you're more use to me upstairs," he said, emphasizing that he was the one in command here, and testing the Corpsman's intentions. "We desperately need to see what's out there. Think you could give us some eyes as well as some ears?"

Lirik frowned, unsure of the change of tone. "Well, I can try, but I should really help you down here first. It could be bad."

"I'll handle it," Christian insisted. "But see if O'Hara can spare me a medic."

After a short pause he watched a reluctant Lirik jog heavily back toward the access shaft.

As Christian made the double bend toward the small engineering area, more wisps of smoke slowed his pace.

"No fire suppression systems," he muttered to himself, fearful for the lives of the small group of engineering crew.

Turning the final corner the smoke got even thicker. More pronounced than the acrid air in his eyes and lungs, he was almost knocked over by the rancid smell of burning plastic and another, sweeter aroma he had experienced only once before. It was an odd smell, but had an instant, horrific, memory-driven effect. Green and blue lights flashed before his eyes.

Reeling, Christian stumbled, his head swimming, falling into a bulkhead support column as he panted wildly, hyperventilating with the uncontrollable emotions rushing through his mind and numbing his body. Doubling over, smell still stinging his nostrils he threw up over his boots and then passed out, crumpling to the floor.

2354 Kedrafin Prime.

A very young Simeon Christian ran through the canopied narrow passages of Melallee, the spiritual focus of Kedrafin Prime. He giggled as the chox birds scampered out of his way and took to the air on their double wings. His feet bounded carelessly along in the point zero zero zero one differential gravity, older locals and tourists tutted and ahemed at his over-zealous activity.

A sizeable herd of overweight Bolian females - merchant wives on an afternoon excursion - caused him to slow and stop as they fussed around a boutique selling a variety of colorful textiles which resonated when caressed, blocking his way forward.

Crouching, he squeezed his small frame through their bulbous legs much to their twittering annoyance, and ignoring their protests he suddenly found himself at the edge of a vast piazza over a kilometre across, edged with many old buildings and towers, most constructed of the traditional yellow-green brick of the city's historical past.

"Custard Square," he mused to himself, and consulted a pocket guide. Sure enough, the Terran colloquialism for the 'Piazza of the Star Flame God' confirmed his supposition. He could see why - each of the paving stones were a rich yellow hue - caused by an organic material the pigment of which never faded, according to the guide. The colour contrasted dramatically with the over-blueness of the sky – energy emitted from the planet's orbiting shield generators protecting the atmosphere from the harshness of the ageing sun high above reacted with the natural light to produce the cobalt hue, the guide further informed.

Across the sunny vista there were many tourists - some walking but most making use of the horse-like-beast-pulled carriages to ferry them from one historical place of interest (or souvenir emporium) to another. A larger crowd had gathered to his right. Christian was curious.

Using his boyish charm and practiced dextrous moves, he pushed to the front of the crowd and saw, some ten metres away, a group of about 500 or so men, all clad in grey-brown hooded robes swaying slowly from side to side and backwards and forwards in single steps of tightly-knit formation.

He was listening to the people around him commenting on the strange 'monks'. Some boldly grinning tourists stepped into the space between the monks and the crowd to have their image recorded against the odd background. Christian laughed at the too-smiley faces and silly poses they performed for the cameras: tourists were so predictable, he thought. No-one present seemed to know who the men were exactly or what they were doing, but they seemed harmless enough.

Suddenly, from within the crowd of men came a muted 'thump' and a loud shrieking sound caused some tourists to jump. On the fringes of the group, some monks began to chuckle, or was it muttering - Christian couldn't tell. As he continued to watch, a single, high plume of flame shot up from the middle of the moving formation. The crowd around him 'oohd' and 'aahd' and some even clapped or stamped their feet in generous approval at the circus-like act.

Then, as if in slow motion, Christian watched as the monks began to shimmer. A rush of heat washed over him - it seemed to emanate from the army of monks. Then, an orange glow began to move slowly outward from within the ranks. Some of the monks on the outer edge instinctively stepped forward, only to be hauled back into line by other, better devotees.

The heat became intense, and the horrified Christian watched as a wall of flame swept steadily towards him, consuming all the monks in its path. Tourists were now screaming and running away, but Christian couldn't move. As the fire wall reached the edge, the flames turned upward, licking high into the air forming thick, blue-black billowing smoke.

The howling of the monks was deafening for several moments, then faded into silence, their slow moving smudged black faces and bodies numbed as nerve endings died and oxygen escaped from their lungs. In minutes the mass of men had all but crumpled to the ground, spitting and popping as fat rendered and gasses ignited before falling into just so much organic charcoal.

Christian sat slumped on the yellow pavings, singed and scalded by the nearby ferocious heat of the burning mass. His mouth wide, eyes staring, tears streaming down his cheeks, his entire person filled with the sickly acrid-sweet smell of burning flesh and the terror of the vision before him.

PRESENT DAY

In the stillness of the smoky corridor, Christian lay unconscious, a single tear crawling down his cheek.

EP 3 ACT 1

DECK 9, 0620 HOURS

"Captain, can you hear me?"

Lieutenant O'Hara was crouching over Captain Christian as his eyes fluttered in response.

"Is he okay?" Jackson asked, stooping behind. "Aside from puking?"

Christian became fully conscious as O'Hara's medical sensor passed over his head. She checked her tricorder saying. "No physical damage but some interesting brain activity.."

"I'm fine, Nurse," Christian smacked his lips as he spoke - the taste of vomit rasped his throat. "It must have been the smoke. The engineers?"

"We just got here," Jackson shook her head, helping O'Hara to hoist the Captain to his feet and proffering a rag to clean off his boots after which he dropped it on top of the puddle on the floor.

"Lirik said you asked for a medic," the Lieutenant said.

"And I tagged along," Jackson added.

Christian felt dizzy. "How long have I been out?"

"Ten minutes?" Jackson guessed.

The memory had been a powerful flashback; he'd never reacted that way before, despite numerous nightmares and a few panic attacks over the years of his childhood, and occasionally in the years since. At worst he'd woken in a sweat, but it was nothing like this. This time it was as if he had been compelled to totally re-live the situation, and it was all so real. He felt a presence behind him and whipped his head around.

"Captain?" Jackson asked, following his eyes.

Christian shook his head, gazing into the empty corridor.

"Nothing," he dismissed and quickly led the way to the engineering room. The smoke had since all but dissipated, leaving the mildest of grey-white fogs.

Crossing the threshold into the small control room, Jackson gasped as she saw the unidentifiable corpse in their immediate path, limbs akimbo and rigid - burned black to a crisp and stiff, no distinguishable features save it was humanoid. The wall to the right was a twisted, gaping maw of smoldering black, and debris lay scattered across the floor. Christian froze, his eyes widened, nostrils filled with that same smell again, but this time there was no reaction.

"Hello?! O'Hara shouted, snapping Christian out of his residual fear. "Is anyone in here?"

Spotting something against the far wall, Christian pointed "Over there."

Huddled against the sealed bulkhead door that led to the small warp core anti-room they found Cally Warnerburg slumped on the floor, bent over the equally unconscious Kohl, his head cradled in her lap. Her left leg was soaked in blood, and she held a small oxygen mask in her bloody hand - it was empty.

O'Hara studied the emergency item. "Oxygen," she said immediately.

Jackson complied, reaching for two more emergency respirators in a strut recess. As the Nurse fitted them onto the patients, Christian located the ventilation control panel and manually tripped the extractors. In seconds the remaining smoke had disappeared.

Looking around at the workstations, there was nothing but blank surfaces.

"Can you wake him?" Christian asked, crouching next to the red head as she prepared to make a full assessment of the engineers' injuries.

O'Hara glowered at the Captain, but seeing his firm look back at her she ran her sensor over her two patients, checking the tricorder once again.

"He has a mild concussion, two cracked ribs, first degree burns on both hands and he's inhaled a lot of smoke, so you can't talk to him. But she's relatively okay apart from the obvious wound, she must have fainted. I'd rather not wake her though; I don't have the painkillers to spare, not for this wound," O'Hara nodded at the oozing gash in her leg. It was against Starfleet protocol to deny treatment to those who needed it, but in this situation and with few supplies she'd resorted to her marine triage training, at least until she could replenish supplies.

In the warm dim room, Jackson wondered what the Captain's response would be, then pre-empted him.

"I don't think we have a choice, Lieutenant," she said. "We need to speak to her now."

Christian glanced at the Commodore.

O'Hara grabbed a hypo from her sparsely equipped medical bag and gave the unconscious woman a small shot. The effect took a few seconds, but the discomfort on the woman's face was immediate.

As Christian carefully took the woman's wrist comfortingly in one hand, he guided her chin up to face him with the other.

"What happened? Tell us everything."

Her expression was a little vague, and O'Hara wondered if she'd missed something in her analysis. The woman fumbled in her trouser pocket and retrieved a small case of pills. She took one and seconds later she seemed much better.

"For my bone condition," she explained to the Nurse then turned to Christian, half smiling, "too many years spent in differential gravity."

"What happened to him?" Christian rephrased the question as O'Hara took the rest of the pills from Warnerburg and analysed them.

"It all happened so quickly. Impulse energy output had become erratic so the Commander ordered us to increase flow to smooth fluctuations further downstream. It had no immediate effect but as we were trying to resolve that issue we had a sudden failure in in the directional control matrix, everything sheered hard to starboard and locked out."

"That would explain what caused the ship to lurch so violently," O'Hara commented.

"Quite." Cally brought her hand up to her bruised head.

"Environmentals went offline but only momentarily. We fired stabilizing retros and tried to shut down the impulse engines but there were red lights on most controls. With deuterium potentially pouring into one of the still-active chambers we had just minutes until catastrophic overload. The Commander sent the Romulan boy to shut the valves off manually while we worked on the system issue. But we then had multiple energy feedback spikes in the plasma relays on several decks. Unfortunately as we focused on that issue, we failed to notice power build-up behind our own wall." Cally looked over at the burnt crewmate and winced.

"Go on," Chistian prompted.

"Sir, the engineering systems are a mess, safety features are missing, and many working parts have been stripped out. Hence the relay behind the wall couldn't handle the spike and exploded, hitting Jaz at point blank range before engulfing him in a lethal plasma fire." She looked down at Kohl's angelic face. "The Commander was thrown against the wall in the explosion, I was cut, but we managed to shut systems down successfully and switch to reserve battery power. My lungs were full of smoke… I had to stop, but the Commander carried on, took care of the fire and then he fell unconscious. I must have passed out myself."

"Okay, that's enough for now," O'Hara moved forward, physically cutting Christian off from her patient.

The Captain, complying with her desisting move, rose and stood next to Jackson, arms folded. The Commodore was just staring at the body of the dead civilian who had cheerily volunteered to help.

He caught Jackson's eye. "Poor guy."

Jackson quickly turned away and strode out of engineering.

O'Hara noticed the scene and rose to her feet, guessing what had caused Jackson to depart so rapidly. She stopped Christian from following with a firm grip on his shoulder.

"The Commodore's son is a Starfleet security officer. He was stationed in one of the main docking areas when the attack occurred."

Christian turned to look at the Nurse, surprised to see her also fighting back tears. She must have known Jackson's son as well, he assumed. Christian was about to comfort her, but the Lieutenant stiffened, sniffing loudly and cocking her head with a forced smile. "Worst Christmas ever."

MAIN SHUTTLE BAY 1100 HOURS

The runabout Hudson sat squarely in the middle of the large standby area of the main shuttle bay. Its clean, off-white hull was broken only by functional spaces for outboard machinery; the thick, smoky glass viewports reflected the flashes of overhead emergency lights - amber/white whirling hazard beacons in this section of the ship.

Yeoman Lirik worked under the swirling lights walking around the vessel's perimeter for a third time. He was no leading engineer, not by a long chalk, but knowing the minutia didn't concern him. He was only intent upon looking to see if something was wrong, if something was different to how it had been before. He'd still not had a satisfactory explanation for why the Helan had stolen the runabout Hudson, forcing Kohl and the Vekarian minister to make their way back toward the space port on foot, and it both intrigued and worried him.

Crouching low, and waddling awkwardly on his haunches, he checked the nacelles and part of the vessel's outer underside, occasionally running his hand along the cold, smooth surfaces to check for the slightest indication of damage or tampering.

The silence of his methodical inspection was shattered by Reb's arrival. He gave the Yeoman a look of distain and climbed onto the starboard nacelle to observe the older man.

"I don't get it," Reb said, his voice rippling with antagonism, "why would the Captain, who dislikes you intently, as we know, and the Commodore, who they say hasn't got a clue what she's doing and is an emotional wreck following the loss of her oldest son, put a man who has only reached the rank of Yeoman who plays nanny, secretary and valet to a bunch of diplomats in charge of taking this vessel outside? And a dangerous half Medusan energy creature at that. I mean, just what kind of Starfleet crewman are you?"

Lirik stood and fixed eyes on the renegade as he opened the runabout's airlock, leaning close to the skinny man, bristling his electromagnetic field through the shield device.

"Bit of advice. You really don't want to piss me off," Lirik smiled. "The Captain insisted you pilot the vessel, so I suggest you get on with your pre-flight checks."

Disappearing inside, Reb was left, brows raised, to chortle to himself in defiance. Jumping off the nacelle he slouched and followed the Yeoman inside.

On the Bridge, bathed in crimson light, Christian watched Lieutenant O'Hara approach and sensed the conflict in her gait before she even opened her mouth.

"Medical report, Captain," to his surprise, O'Hara spoke almost with respect in her voice; she was making an effort to be civil. He nodded. "We just lost another survivor. If you include Mister Lepraniem, that's three since we left Helub." Christian barely nodded, maintaining eye contact.

"Eight people remain in a bad way, I'm not sure what else I can do for them but at least for now they are stable," she said, watching Christian's right hand grasp his chin attentively. "There are dozens more with less serious injuries, but without proper treatment, and soon, some will start to deteriorate - some quicker than others. If we can't find medical supplies or a medical facility in the next twelve to twenty four hours then I will have no choice but to perform emergency field surgery on those worst cases. With no replicator, a finite amount of anesthetic and a basic makeshift surgeon's kit I don't relish the thought. I certainly wouldn't consider operating without a full blood bank and a host of other caveats."

Christian swallowed visibly – but there was little he could do.

"The Commodore tells me you are a former Marine medic. I have no doubt you are more than capable. Do whatever you have to do," Christian acknowledged. O'Hara seemed visibly shocked by his response, but she continued to hold her tongue.

"A great many of the remainder of us have minor injuries sustained in the attack; most are uncomfortable rather than serious, but some could get worse over time if untended." She paused, but Christian didn't react.

"Ms Warnerburg and the Romulan are both recovering well," she said.

Murak had been found in one of the crawlways leading back from the deuterium tanks semi-conscious, suffering minor burns and smoke inhalation. Christian understood the young Romulan officer had risked his life to save the ship and everyone aboard from a potentially lethal explosion.

The Lieutenant continued. "Mister Kohl is back on duty against my recommendation, Captain."

"Noted," Christian muttered - he'd already had this argument with the Lieutenant twice and he wasn't going to stand for another one, his position had been made quite clear.

"Vostaline's people were correct," O'Hara looked around at the people on the bridge, "the sick bay has been stripped out, but there is something else."

"Oh?" Christian almost detected enthusiasm - or was it curiosity in her voice?

"That facility is too small and too municipal for a ship of this size and grandeur – I reckon it was designed for crew use. Kohl's guide to the ship is sketchy on the matter, presumably because it's a promotional database for prospective passengers, but a number of specialist treatment rooms and cosmetic surgery locations listed in the guide suggest there is another, larger medical facility in the main passenger section. Under the circumstances I recommend we make it a priority to find out."

Christian nodded. "That could take a while. The bulkheads between the Command section and the Passenger section are composed of layers of reinforced hard-pressed duranium in excess of fifty centimetres thick on both sides, and so far we've not found a way through. With no hope of dry dock we can't risk damaging them or we could scupper the whole ship… anything else?"

O'Hara seemed to be keeping a lid on her temper, and Christian wondered if he might be unconsciously goading her – his last response had been a little harsh, he thought – but she wasn't through yet.

"I understand from Lt Commander Kohl that there may be an emergency medical kit aboard the diplomatic runabout. Can I have your permission to requisition it?"

"Of course," he said. "Although you may have to wait, they're about to go outside for a sit-rep."

"It's likely to have finite use," she continued, "but it may enable me to treat a lot more of the minor injuries. I know the runabout's replicator won't be programmed to manufacture medical equipment or complex drugs, but without either it really will be touch and go for some patients, Captain, I cannot stress that enough."

"I hear you loud and clear, Lieutenant," he tried to smile but it felt as forced as it looked, "I'll make it the engineers' priority once we have the current situation under control." He nodded, as if in indication of an end to talking.

"I'm starting an intelligence network, see if anyone on board has healing techniques unknown to Starfleet. And I've asked my volunteer helpers to requisition any and all non-essential drugs and medications the other survivors may have on them – though few brought anything beyond the shirt on their back."

"Very good, sounds to me like you have things well in hand," Christian said, hearing the almost patronising tone of his own voice and kicking himself for not controlling it more.

O'Hara moved a little closer to the Captain, lowering her voice slightly.

"Sir, I'd also like to arrange immediate psyche evaluations; a lot of people have just suffered a traumatizing shock – many have lost partners, children – some their entire family. The majority of kids on board are separated from their families, possibly orphaned. Left unchecked, this could become-"

"Lieutenant," Christian cut her off, then paused, trying to keep his irritation in check, "I understand what you are saying, and we can focus on these matters as soon as is feasible, but right now there are more pressing concerns like restoring power and getting this ship moving again. Once we're safely underway we'll-."

O'Hara stepped even closer to challenge him again, raising her voice a little. "I'm sorry, but I don't think you do understand, Captain. I'm the closest thing you have to a CMO, but you don't seem to be taking me or the measure of the situation seriously; I'm talking about widespread-"

"Lieutenant!" Christian spoke firmly, but without anger. Others on the bridge stopped what they were doing and turned to face the confrontation. "Stop challenging me at every step. I fully comprehend what you are saying, and believe me, I understand the peril only too well. It may be harsh, but our immediate priority has to be getting this ship underway."

O'Hara furrowed her brow to try one last time: "Then surely you can -"

The Captain thrust his chin forward in exaggerated emphasis. "No, Lieutenant. I've given you my answer. You have your duties. Carry on."

Ensign Collard stepped cautiously forward, handing Christian a small box with a wire attached to the communications station. Christian stared at it, then placed it on the armrest of the centre seat. He noted that O'Hara hadn't moved and stood staring at him, mouth tightly closed.

As Christian turned to face her she finally backed down, though her heart was pounding. She was angered by his disregard for her needs. His complete lack of compassion by not making the sick and injured his priority was astounding to her. As she stiffly made her way off the bridge and back to the Observation Lounge she vowed that if he embarrassed her in public like that again she would handle the situation somewhat differently.

The young security ensign broke the atmosphere. "I've tested the links. The bridge has direct comm links to engineering and the external transmitter." Under Lirik's instruction, Collard had knitted together the connections with Ambassador Narli, running a micro-filament wire from the bridge all the way down to engineering. The desk on the bridge patched the three locations together, although they would not be able to communicate with the runabout until it was clear of the ship.

Jackson emerged from belowdecks with an empty expression. She almost tripped up the steps approaching Christian.

"Are you all right, Commodore?" he asked, guiding Jackson into the seat next to his.

"I'm just tired," she rubbed her eyes again and yawned as if to prove a point.

Christian glanced toward the Jeffreys tube. "How are the people getting on below?"

Jackson smoothed her tunic and pants, she'd become quite disheveled over the last 24 hours; and a bit smelly.

"As best as can be expected. Many are still in shock."

Christian swallowed at this, and Jackson seemed to be struggling to hold back from crying.

"I'm sorry," she wiped her tearful eyes which were beginning to sting.

He looked into her face, waited for her to look into his eyes.

"I heard about your son. I'm so sorry," Christian offered.

Jackson waved his sympathy away, fighting back emotion.

"I'm not giving up on him quite yet," she said, forcing a smile, though he could tell she was unsure.

Christian looked around at the helpers on the bridge. Having switched to local emergency battery power they were trying their best to access any system they could fine still operational, but it seemed futile.

Jackson continued. "I've never seen such misery. You know, we've got over fifty children on board, most of them separated from their families, some of them likely orphaned." She tutted, echoing O'Hara's clearly sensible and considered words that he had summarily dismissed. "Orphaned on Christmas Day, it's so tragic," the Commodore rested her head back into the high backed seat and looked up at the blurry stars above, trying to maintain composure.

"You're exhausted," Christian said honestly. "Why don't you find somewhere to sleep."

"Sleep? I think not," she said, shaking her head and wrestling to find inner strength. "Not yet anyway. One of the injured - she's been unconscious since before we left Helub, woke up a couple of hours ago – completely hysterical, but O'Hara couldn't spare any medicine. It took me and one of O'Hara's helpers the best part of an hour to calm her down before she was able to talk.

"Grace, her name is. She arrived through the wormhole only two days ago with her husband and newborn baby. They were oblivious to the situation, far too focused on starting their new life on a new frontier. She had left the hotel to shop for some essentials for the baby when the attack suddenly happened. She was knocked unconscious but rescued by other escapees," Jackson took Christian's hand and squeezed it hard. "The hotel was adjacent to our regional HQ - I was looking there as we departed Helub and it was gone."

"They may have survived," Christian said, swallowing.

"It's possible, but we have to accept that not everyone can have survived," she said chillingly.

Jackson shook his hand so that he turned to look at her and she shook her head. She seemed almost motherly to him. Tears hotly welled in her eyes then ran down her face on both sides and Christian swallowed hard, trying not to think of his own loss.

"What are we supposed to do, Christian? What hope do those people have on this enormous… this… ridiculous ship, with just a handful of us Starfleet crew to run it?"

Christian felt a little embarrassed by her evident vulnerability, despite feeling much the same, though he'd never show it in this way, and certainly not in public – he was aware of the volunteers pretending not to look over.

"Well, a little over a handful," Christian smiled, as much for their benefit, but she just looked blankly at him.

Jackson was not the military-hardened Starfleet officer he usually came across. O'Hara's warning flashed into his head – realizing it was possible the Commodore was herself suffering the effects of shock - then he reminded himself of how he had reacted to the death of his own mother and how that rippled on even now, and how he had fainted earlier, just the smell of the corpse causing such a powerful flashback of emotion it was enough to render him unconscious. Who was he to judge her?

"As I said to you before, what we do have is each other," Christian felt he was fumbling for the right words, but it was coming out a little melodramatic, "so far that's been a pretty good combination. We have our Starfleet training to rely upon, and this… 'enormous, ridiculous ship' that also allows us to stay completely hidden. This may not be the first command I had trained or hoped for, Commodore, but with your experience, your guidance, and the skills of these few Starfleet officers, I know we have a good chance of surviving."

At that moment a number of civilians appeared from the Jeffreys tube one after the other, adults and older children alike. They gathered on the sub-bridge as Jackson composed herself and joined Christian at the top of the short staircase above them. A well dressed, handsome man stepped forward with a beautiful, sophisticated woman on his arm and looked up at them both.

"Commodore, we want to help. We might not be Starfleet trained, but we can't just sit around while you few do all the work," the man said, nodding around at the other survivors who were helping out on the bridge. "We know we can be of use."

Jackson looked at Christian, almost welling up again. He straightened and stood taller. "Thank you, thank you all very much. We especially need technicians, engineers, anyone with some relevant experience."

Although some nodded, a number just looked at each other disappointedly, including the children.

"We also need look-outs, as well as people to run messages," Jackson said, addressing the youngsters.

Christian and Jackson exchanged a look and smiled at each other.

"Okay then," the Commodore said to the group, standing up, "let's snap to it."

EP 3 ACT 2

MAIN SHUTTLE BAY, 1130 HOURS

"It's time," Lirik said.

Reb rolled his eyes and burped. Lirik just gave him a look.

"Sorry," he apologized sarcastically.

The pilot rose from his seat and peered out of the side window toward the observation booth. Several metres across the now darkened hangar deck, behind the smoked glass, Hedra held up a "one minute" finger in response and activated the depressurisation sequence.

The atmosphere was imperceptibly sucked out of the large shuttle bay. The runabout's cockpit bleeped and chirped as automatic flight controls kicked in. Lirik resisted checking the readouts, concentrating on recalibrating sensors for a speedy analysis of their location and surroundings once they were clear of the shuttlebay.

Reb sat down, cracked his knuckles (prompting another look from Lirik) then manoeuvred the small craft into the larger bay and toward the doors he had opened earlier while leering at Hedra. He held position for just a few seconds before the green light appeared above the exit, and then guided them gently out into the star-strewn blackness of open space.

As soon as the runabout was outside of the Fantasy, the communication speakers immediately relayed background hiss, presumably from the Fantasy's external sensor rigged up as the commlink between the runabout, engineering and the bridge. The computer simultaneously gave a negative trill.

"What is it?" Reb's hands trembled in anticipation. The space around him looked black and oppressive. The thought of enemy ships flying around the sector paled him.

"Intriguing," Lirik said, "sensors can't verify the originator of the communication signal." He turned to Reb for dramatic effect. "Readings say the Fantasy isn't there. Captain, do you hear us?"

Reb, showing off, flipped the runabout in a two second twisting motion to bring them into position facing the rear of the Fantasy. He was hoping to make Lirik feel queezy in the process, but the Yeoman didn't even flinch as he seemed to enjoy the twisting vista.

"Loud and clear," Christian said eventually.

Lirik glanced at the flight controls. "We're positioned behind you. Mister Reb has matched course and speed, which is about 300kph. Bearing - about 40 degrees from standard."

Reb scoffed. "How could you possibly know the location of the centre of the galaxy without making a long range scan?!"

"I just know," Lirik stated factually.

"Copy that," on the Bridge Christian took a mental note of their speed and heading, and also of Lirik's ability to sense Starfleet's navigational reference; clearly a Medusan orientation skill and another string to the annoying Yeoman's bow. He wondered if the reputable navigational expertise of the Medusans was inbred in him, and if Lirik would therefore come in useful at the helm. No soon as he had spoken, another voice bellowed through the small speaker device, a strong German accent.

"We hear you, too," Kohl chipped in.

"Thank you engineering," Christian drummed his fingers, "let's keep chatter to minimum."

A few heartbeats later the Hudson's long-range sensors gave multiple warning warbles.

"Oh no," Lirik stared at the navigational display. Reb watched as the computer called up a 3D grid reference to indicate the location of the sensor readings. Multiple dots appeared all over the screen.

Reb swallowed. "That doesn't look good."

Lirik swooned, but kept his voice steady. "Captain, long range sensors are detecting over one hundred and thirty seven ships on long range sensors."

On the bridge of the Fantasy, Christian visibly stiffened. "One hundred..?"

"And thirty seven," Jackson was equally sickened.

"Affirmative," Lirik's voice spoke crisp and calm through the small box on the armrest, "and a group of them aren't too far away. They don't appear to match any familiar technology… they appear to be one of a number of small groups following standard search patterns - they're sweeping the region."

"Looking for us?" Lirik heard Jackson ask.

With death-knell like timing, the runabout computer gave a further warning which was audible across the commlink.

"The nearest group are breaking formation," Lirik informed them, watching the grid representation as four of the green dots diverted and headed toward the centre of the screen. "They may have detected us."

Reb shifted in his seat, hands flexing over the controls, ready to take the ship back inside.

"Get back aboard," the Captain's voice was urgent.

Lirik paused for a moment, conscious of Reb about to carry out Christian's orders.

"Sir, given my earlier sensor readings, I strongly doubt they've detected the Fantasy," he said, hands flashing across to the central command console mounted in the middle of the cockpit. "I have control," Lirik relayed to Reb, whose jaw dropped as he watched his flight control panel dull off line. Lirik veered slowly to port and then nosed down, turning starboard accelerating away from under the huge bulk of the Fantasy at one quarter impulse. "Captain, if we come back aboard, we'll disappear from their screens. They might call in help and search the area, discovering the Fantasy in the process."

"Yeoman, I gave you an order, turn back to the shuttle bay immediately," on the bridge Christian exchanged a sharp look with Jackson. He turned and stared hard at the silent voice box on his chair, willing it to comply.

A moment later, Lirik spoke again, quieter this time. "I know what I'm doing, Captain. If we can lead them away, they probably won't find you. No further transmission."

"Dammit, you have no means of finding us again," Christian yelled, but the feedback through the speaker seemed quieter.

Narli turned from the communications console, matter of fact. "He's broken transmission."

"Damn him!" Christian yelled.

On the runabout, Lirik turned to face his compatriot. "Call me that again and I make true on my promise."

"You can go to hell."

Lirik checked the sensor grid. "My hunch was right, the ships are on a pursuit course, looks like they haven't detected the Fantasy. We've got about thirty minutes' head start, but they are moving faster than we are."

"What, am I supposed to pat you on the back?" Reb snapped watching the Englishman adjust long range sensors.

"Our action may have just saved the lives of everyone aboard the ship," Lirik glanced over at Reb, "doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"'Our' action?" Reb scoffed. "I had no part in it! You disobeyed a direct order."

"He'll get over it," Lirik mused and noticed his compatriot leaning even closer to see what he was doing. "I'm looking for somewhere to lose them."

Reb called up a duplicate display on his side of the cockpit and watched Yeoman work at breakneck speed as images flashed across the displays.

"What about that nebula?" Reb suggested as it was replaced by another image.

Lirik shook his head. "Too small, but this," he had stopped scanning. "This looks more promising."

Reb sneered at the outline of a blank globe twirling on screen labelled 'awaiting image' - the runabout wasn't close enough for a clear visual - supplemental data streamed down the left side of the screen. "It looks like a planet smack bang in the middle of an active asteroid field."

"That's right."

"Are you mad?!"

The Yeoman took a breath, Reb's snipes were beginning to grate.

"For one, it's an M class world, for another its star system's only twenty minutes away at maximum warp," Lirik entered navigational commands onto his flight console and the runabout jerked as it changed course and accelerated to full speed.

"But if we land on the surface, surely we're an open target?"

Lirik was busy storing the runabout's flight path since leaving the Fantasy to increase chances of tracing their path back.

"I'm reading unusually high levels of EM activity emanating from the planet. It should play havok with their sensors and give us a chance to find somewhere to hide."

"Er," Reb laughed, "in case you weren't paying attention back there, those ships of theirs withstood both fierce EM storms and a wormhole's explosive shockwave with less than a fender scratch. So I hardly think this poxy planet's going to stop them."

"It's also as you said slap bang in the middle of a large, active asteroid ring, so they'll have a rough ride if they do decide to follow us," Lirik flexed his hands and fingers.

"We've got to get through that as well, you know," Reb shook his head, he was beginning to think the Yeoman really didn't know what he was doing.

"Lucky that you're here," Lirik smiled, flipping the pilot controls back to Reb.

Reb folded his arms in unconscious protest.

"How do you know they won't just wait for us in orbit?"

Lirik had thought of that, but it was a gamble he was prepared to take.

"Bloody hell, you are so negative, aren't you?"

"I'm part Ferengi!" Reb squeeked, then tightened up. There was a moment's silence in which Lirik both held back a snigger and appreciated the gravity of the situation from Reb's less combat experienced point of view.

"Look, perhaps you're right, but I don't have a better plan. Do you?"

MAIN OBSERVATION DECK, 1150 HOURS

Christian looked through one of the enormous windows with his tricorder binoculars, making a long range visual scan from left to right using the widest setting with the greatest depth of field. As far as he could tell from this angle at least there were no enemy vessels within visual range. He hoped to maybe spot the Runabout returning, but instead watched as the eyepiece flashed up data icons as he passed over the more unusual star formations in this region. Giving up he handed the device to a smiling young Bajoran girl standing beside him for her to do the same. He winked at her and she giggled and tried to wink back, looking disappointed when she could only blink oddly, and gave him a slightly hostile stare.

Jackson approached, watching the girl skip away to the port side bank of windows while studying the device keenly. Checking no one else was within earshot, at least as far as she was aware, she stepped up beside him.

"I have a question. If Starfleet Command thought you were ready for the centre seat, why do I get the feeling that you don't think the same?"

"Do you?" he asked a little defensively.

"I would never dispute the FC's decision," she said, sounding more hurtful than playful as she'd intended.

The Captain nodded. "Did you visit the Firefly?"

She shook her head. "No, but I saw her in orbit when she arrived. An interesting little vessel. I knew Commander Vancek from a previous assignment, she was an outstanding officer."

Christian swallowed hard, the loss of so many incredible people at the hands of the T'Kani felt suddenly overwhelming again, and was only tempered by his viewpoint looking out across the enormous length of the Fantasy and reminding himself how many more souls he was now responsible for aboard this ship.

"You know it was an all-female command crew?" he smiled.

She nodded. "It would have been interesting for you, I'm sure."

"It was what I'd been preparing for," Christian said seriously. "Not this."

The both stood in silence for a few moments.

"Do I really look that much out of my depth?" he asked.

She shook her head kindly. "Just enough for an old veteran like me to notice. Under the circumstances you're doing an exemplary job. First command is hard enough, but these last two days have been a baptism of…," she stopped, startled by her lack of forethought, suppressing mental flashes of her son's demise in a horrific conflagration. "You're doing fine, Christian. Better than me, anyway."

A groan of pain from the back of the deck brought Christian a timely reminder that it was about more than them. While the rest of the survivors had been somewhat fed, watered and relocated several decks below, a number of patients who couldn't be moved through the tight confines of the Jeffreys tube remained where they were under O'Hara's constant supervision, though they'd rigged a makeshift screen around them for some semblance of privacy. A number of older survivors had also been unable to make the descent, though they were making use of the various rooms available elsewhere on Deck 1.

"Commodore, about our next move… if you're ready to talk, that is..?"

She looked him squarely in the eyes, wiping a tear away and gathering her wits.

"You tell me what you think," Jackson said. She'd thought of little else in her spare moments and had her own opinions, but she wanted to hear his first, see if he was on the same page. While it was true she'd never dispute the FC's choices for Captaincy, from experience she knew of more than a handful who in her opinion hadn't been ready for the job, and a couple who had continually fallen short.

Christian sensed she was testing him.

"I know it goes against what I said to the survivors back on Helub, but even if the Fantasy was the most heavily armed vessel in the fleet we would need an entire armada behind us to stand any hope of returning to Vekaria and liberating those we left behind," he said. "The simple truth is that we're in no position to help them now or any time soon."

Jackson was waiting to hear what he could do rather than stating the obvious. "So what are our options?"

"Well we could set a course for home. We have more than 600 civilian souls on board, over half of them from in and around Federation space. Getting them far from here may be their best hope of staying alive. We could circumvent Tholian territory, though it would likely take us about what, about 40 years or so? 45?! The design of the passenger liner lends itself to being a generational ship and I'm sure the vessel could survive the trip with the right adaptations, even though many of us aboard would be octogenarians by then… or more."

"Are you serious?" Jackson frowned.

"She may be a passenger liner but the Fantasy is constructed to the highest specs with the safety of passengers as the primary aim. She's more than big enough for our needs. But more to the point, she has a cloaking substance that gives her a unique tactical advantage. We might end up being the only vessel to travel such a distance without encountering anyone at all," he was slightly goading her, more to see how she would react.

"Anything else?"

"There also appear to be extensive resources onboard that may come in useful," Christian sat on the cushioned step beneath a viewport and turned to see Jackson's bemused expression. He half chuckled. "Don't worry, I'm not suggesting setting a course home as a viable option."

"I'm glad to hear it."

"But it may well come to that."

"Not until we run out of all other options."

"But either way, this is the vessel we are on. She may not be in great shape right now, but she could be with some TLC. At the very least she is an excellent hiding place."

"Honestly I'm a long way from being convinced of us being aboard such a massive ship, even if she is 'cloaked'," Jackson said with parenthesized fingers. "We can't even access the majority of it currently. But to get back to our options, what you're saying is option two is we stay in hiding?"

"Initially, yes, I think that goes without saying. But to have any chance of staying alive whether in hiding or not, our first priority must be to make essential repairs and get underway again."

"Of course. But we need a proper crew to be able to do that," Jackson stated the obvious.

"Yes, and ideally we'd have a dry dock facility with specialist crew and equipment as well, but unfortunately we have neither, so we'll have to make do with what we have until that changes," Christian tried to appear more of a Captain than an engineer, but the situation made that hard. "We already have a swelling number of volunteers, perhaps with enough encouragement we could form an adequate crew from the souls we already have on board - with appropriate training of course."

"Even if we did muster enough numbers it would take a prohibitive amount of time to train enough people to make that happen any time soon."

"Not necessarily. We may have lost one engineer, but we are lucky enough to still have four skilled engineers aboard, three of them who are Starfleet trained. I'm guessing we would find more capable individuals among our number. With prioritised repairs focusing on essential systems first, and with training on the job we could be on our way sooner than you think. Some wouldn't even need much preparation for the work required, just orientation into the Starfleet way," Christian argued calmly.

"But our repair time would still be protracted," she insisted.

"Only relatively speaking," he rebuked.

"Not to mention the additional resources we would need to procure or scavenge," she said, pushing him intentionally. "And meanwhile the T'Kani are everywhere."

"They're not here," Christian said a bit too cleverly, gesturing out into space around them. "Besides, what other option do we have? Truly? Fate dealt us this ship and we need to make the most of her."

"Okay, and what then? Let's say we have the trained crew and the repaired vessel and we've managed to not get caught? What's our next move after that?" she asked.

"I think may depend on how successful we are with repairs. It still boils down to the fact that this ship is currently all we've got to play with. I realise in one light it may not seem much more than a floating hotel with a lick of invisibility paint right now," Christian said, "but as far as we know she has become in effect Starfleet's flagship in the Outer Zone."

Jackson couldn't help chuckle at the thought, which was soon mellowed by the thought of the loss of the Ajax and all her souls aboard.

"You say these volunteers will need to be trained the Starfleet way," Jackson said.

"Of course," Christian said. "Not an easy ask for some I'm sure. But we need quality crew, who can take orders, who are willing to do their duty, whatever it takes."

"It's been a while since I served aboard a ship," she said, "I'll also need a good refresher. Lirik too, most likely – and Warnerburg."

"And you and I will need to select a command crew together."

Jackson wanted to get to the rub – all this was obvious stuff to her. "But after all of that, then what?"

"Once we're underway our top priority is to try and sort O'Hara's issues," he said honestly, "then I guess we get Lirik and the runabout back."

Jackson crouched beside him, her knees clicking. She opted to sit sideways instead. "I disagree with the latter. Going after them is not an option in our condition. Even if we could it would simply put the ship in danger. As you said, our short term priority must be to stay hidden."

"Hidden, but not in hiding," Christian brushed some dust from his sleeves.

"Semantics?" Jackson jibed.

"We can't find a cave and disappear," he said. "Though we can't stay in Vekaria, we need to move further out, and quickly. We could also try and explain our situation to the Tholians, hope that they would do something to aid us, if only to pass a message to the Federation. Surely they must see these T'Kani as a threat."

"A threat they evidently kept at bay previously. I personally wouldn't hold my breath on that one," Jackson observed how Christian had taken a textbook approach to the problem, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. "What else?"

"Then we should try and make contact with Qovakian systems, seek alliances."

Jackson recalled several overheard conversations. "Not with all of them. During the occupation there were a number of Qovakian worlds that co-operated with the T'Kani, some of them were even major collaborators."

Christian absorbed that bit of information. "That poses a security issue - we may have Qovakians from those worlds on board. Not to mention the Romulan and other non-Federation citizens who could pose a threat."

"A small number of states in Qovakia that had enough leverage managed to negotiate neutrality, but the rest were either decimated or invaded, and by all accounts those who put up the slightest resistance were subsequently ruled with an iron hand. But I've also heard that on some worlds the story was completely different, where the T'Kani were almost revered, having helped some nations to make leaps and bounds in technology, solve some major problems to improve their quality of life," she saw Christian's furrowed brow. "And apparently there were also a few pre-warp worlds they made first contact with, brought them crashing into the modern age hundreds of years too soon."

"I would imagine at least some of those worlds would see the T'Kani as both powerful and benevelent," Christian watched Jackson think.

"Undoubtedly. On the subject of the Prime Directive, my personal view is that as far as our own actions are concerned, we're already in it up to our necks, making our independent actions lawful thus far," Jackson was slightly concerned that Christian being a fresher Captain might be over zealous in such matters.

"I agree. We should find out as much as we can from the Qovakians about this area of space. Learn who to trust and what to avoid."

Jackson nodded, but this hadn't been the conversation she was hedging for. "So we're going to have to tread carefully and gather intelligence. But to what end?" Jackson pushed him. "What's the ultimate mission?"

"The mission?" Christian didn't follow for a moment. "Well, ultimately of course we want to help our people back in Vekaria."

"Then our ultimate course is to find others and form a new resistance," he said, turning to face Jackson.

"A rebellion," a voice said from behind. The Starfleet officers rose and turned to face a figure in the shadows. It was Ganhedra, the whites of his eyes seeming to glow in the darkness around the electric blue of his irises. The rest of his face and body seemed almost invisible. "Sorry, I couldn't help but overhear. You were asking each other about what our next actions should be."

Christian stepped forward, his face firm. "Sir, this is now a Starfleet ship under my command. Whatever we do will be my decision alone."

"Of course," Ganhedra approached, stepping into the starlight his features became more solid, more human. "My people are travellers, we know parts of Qovakia well and can advise you, as can some of the Qovakians, just as you said."

"Your race is not part of Qovakia?" Jackson asked, acknowledging that the old Helan leader had listened to just about their entire conversation without either of the Officers realizing it.

"Our planet lies at the edge of Qovakia a long way from here. We have so much contact with Qovakians we consider ourselves to be one of them, but we are actually an independent nation," Ganhedra had fallen into drone mode, Christian thought. There were times when this man spoke that he found himself switching off or thinking of something else and missing the last sentence. "A century ago we-"

"Captain, you'd best attend to the engines," Jackson interrupted, also familiar with Ganhedra's propensity to waffle. Christian nodded and aimed for the door. Ganhedra called to him.

"One last thing, if you please, Captain?" Christian stopped and shook his wrists. The old man shuffled a little. "In this part of space, it is different to the Federation. Its people are different. So are its cultures. Many worlds here have been conquered and peoples oppressed. Things may appear very straightforward, but in fact are more complicated than at first appearance."

Christian frowned at the babble. "What are you saying?"

The old man's face changed to a beaming smile. "Speaking for my people, I just wanted to let you know that we're, er, right behind you. Whatever you decide to do."

"Thanks," Christian glanced at an equally bemused Jackson and departed.

1156 HOURS

The Hudson darted between tumbling asteroids above the night-dark side of the alien world. Planet colours always excited Lirik - each one more special than the last. This particular world was tinted yellow and ochre, its upper atmosphere carrying dust from the many asteroids in orbit.

Finally the vessel accelerated through an opening and into clear space. The pilot deftly flipped the ship over (twisting half inverse pike) so that it hung below the asteroid field high above the planet. As they crossed the terminator into daytime, the runabout cockpit was bathed in a yellowy pink light.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Lirik observed. "It seems the planet has technology which emits an intense sphere of electromagnetic energy that is at opposite polarity to that of the main elements in the asteroids. Thus they are mostly held at bay in orbit."

The runabout juddered slightly. "What was that?" Reb immediately thought the motion felt like the vessel had hit something in mid air.

Lirik peered at the sensor readings, then had a thought. He ran an analysis on the composition of the asteroids. "Part of the runabout's hull is the same composition as the asteroids. The energy from the planet is affecting us, destabilising our trajectory."

Reb fought to control the bucking runabout, narrowly avoiding collision with an orbiting asteroid travelling at great speed inches overhead. "Is there a weakness in the energy field coming from the planet?"

Lirik was wondering that as well and scanned the atmosphere below. "Over a large desert, the field is weakest there."

Reb captured the scanned co-ordinates and banked the runabout down into the upper atmosphere, lowering through occasional fluffy clouds. Several seconds later, the runabout dropped beneath the cloud level. Below, a vast, sunstreaked landscape of desert and plain stretched to every horizon point. The terrain was mostly flat, but occasionally there were layered butresses and a labyrinth of wide, deep crevasses giving way to waterfalls and more lush vegetation many miles below. Here and there, varying sized dimples in the landscape gave evidence of asteroid impact. Clearly at some point the planet had not been so protected.

As Lirik looked through the viewports, he realised what made the spectacle even more wondrous were the hundreds and hundreds of small shadows cast from the asteroid field above that blocked the sun's light in dalmation patches of shade intermingling with those of the clouds. The pattern was wild, and moving quickly across the ground. Lirik wondered what it must be like to live amid such a vividly animated landscape all the time.

Without prompting, Reb took the runabout down toward one of the largest crevasses. As they dropped below 1500 metres, the polaric energy eased off to a negligible level. The flight became perfectly smooth.

"There are caverns beneath the planet's surface," Lirik scanned further, "Crikey, it's like a Swiss cheese under there, stretches for many kilometres."

Reb smirked. "You don't even have to tell me that's where we're heading."

"Good," Lirik said matter of factly and stretched in his chair. Yawning, he slapped his chops several times then said. "How about a nice cup of tea?"

Reb was appalled as Lirik hummed his way over to the replicator.

1300 HOURS

"Okay! Here it is!"

Christian and the others in the Command Yacht engineering area gathered around the Commodore and her three helpers. Each carried large trays holding stacks of grey paper cups, jugs of milky green liquid and piles of small gold wrapped items."

"What's this, Commodore?" Christian opened a gold wrapper to find an opaque bar of hard, sweet smelling stuff.

Jackson winced slightly at the eagerly grabbing hands relieving her of provisions. "Someone found three cases of Risan Sunshine Sticks." Christian shook his head, unfamiliar with it. "They're used on expeditions and long-distance events as a light weight, portable slow release nutrition bar, once considered for Starfleet emergency ration packs."

Christian tried to bite but the substance was rock hard. Realising he had to suck it, he first licked it and then smacked his lips at the odd flavour. Something tasted musty. Checking the label he said, "This is five years out of date."

Jackson nodded. "O'Hara says they're still okay to eat."

"And this?"

Placing the tray on a console Jackson poured the liquid into people's outheld cups. "It's a strange animal, like a cross between a pig and a goat – with a bit of chicken thrown in."

"And this is its milk?" Christian tasted it and was intrigued and relieved to find it tasted very similar to cow's. "Not bad."

"How are things going?" Jackson asked when her jugs were finally spent; all around, people were taking the opportunity to relax a little and chat in pairs and small groups.

Christian shrugged and turned his head. "Commander?"

Kohl was dunking his Sunshine bar into the milk in an attempt to defy the stale taste.

"It's difficult to say right now, Sir, we're still assessing the extent of repairs required."

"Best guess?"

Kohl puffed. "It would be a complete stab in the dark, Sir."

Jackson grimaced at Christian. "His guess is as good as mine," he said honestly.

"Try," Jackson said to Kohl, trying to remain calm.

"If we were in dry dock, with proper scanners and repair crew working round the clock, with all the kit and supplies we need – well, I'd guess several weeks, possibly a month – maybe more, it really depends on what else we may find."

"It's really that bad?" Jackson was aghast.

"She is pretty busted up, systems-wise," Christian replied.

"Of course that's not taking into account the Passenger Section, Sir, I'm just talking about the Command Section and the Command Yacht."

Christian glanced between the too-honest engineer and the stunned Commodore, considering what she may be thinking.

"So what exact systems are the problem?" She gestured around her. "We appear to have power, life support, gravity and we're still watertight. Is it just the drive systems?"

The Captain nodded but decided not to respond, sensing the engineer's likely more detailed response might prove better than his more succinct approach.

"Well yes, and more. But before we can even start, we are lacking certain internal sensors and diagnostic routines, and the scanners we do have can't penetrate certain areas of these two sections. On top of that, we currently have no replicators, so we would have to either locate or manufacture spare parts required, however in saying that we also currently lack all the necessary tools for the maintenance work to be done. But more than that, we are too few qualified crew to carry out the work. You see why I cannot accurately estimate how long it will take us to complete repairs?"

Christian drained his cup and nodded to a Qovakian man who was staring at him. He paused for a moment to look hard into the man's face, wondering if he were an infiltrator or just what he appeared to be, a survivor pitching in to help out.

"We can't even move?" Jackson asked.

"Oh yes, we have thrusters, and we should have impulse power fully at our disposal in just a few hours," Kohl said. "Only trouble is, there are no safeties. Systems could blow out again, just like the last time."

Jackson looked at the Captain then at Kohl. "That hardly matters, does it?"

Christian and Kohl looked at each other.

"I beg your pardon, Sir?" Christian tried to ask as politely as possible.

Jackson became aware of those nearby listening intently. The atmosphere felt tense.

"Look, gentlemen. You've said yourselves you can't make repairs beyond your limited means. So we therefore must accept that this ship won't be safe until such time that we can get it into dry dock. The sooner we continue the sooner we might find that help."

Christian understood her logic and knew she was right, in one way, but he didn't agree with completely abandoning engineering ethics that could put them in even more danger.

"Surely you see that it's more prudent to keep moving away from the T'Kani search formations?" Jackson insisted.0

"Sir, we don't actually know for sure that they were T'Kani ships," Kohl said.

"I think we do know," Jackson reacted sharply.

Christian stood and walked over to Jackson, lowering his voice. "This ship isn't all we have. There's also the runabout to consider. If we could locate it we might-"

"I've already said, that's not an option," Jackson didn't want to get annoyed but felt right in her overview of the situation, even though she sensed she was a lone voice in the room.

"With respect, Commodore, I strongly disagree," Christian replied defiantly. "I think the runabout could help us enormously."

Jackson just sighed and shook her head.

"Sir, you said that I would be in charge of the ship-" Christian began.

"Of the ship and the ship alone, that's what I said. I still have seniority, and I say that for the safety of all the souls on board this ship, we need to forget about the runabout – at least for now – and keep moving."

Christian didn't want to continue arguing with his superior, but he was compelled to speak his mind. "We're as safe right here as we are moving through space-"

Jackson shook her head, "The longer they look, the more chance they have of discovering us if we stay where we are."

"They probably couldn't detect us unless they come within visual distance, and even then it would be difficult. And at least if we stay here continuing with repairs we also give Lirik and Reb a chance to get back with the runabout while also giving us more chances of continuing the journey in one piece and without further loss of life," he paused for that nugget to sink in. "With Impulse engines restored, full internal power should be back in less than an hour. Already we've found a way to get basic internal communications working – that shouldn't take more than twelve hours." Christian looked Jackson hard in the eye. "Please, give us time to continue repairs."

Jackson looked at Warnerburg and around at the crew who had all been eavesdropping. The idea of capture, of letting all these people down and possibly losing the chance to rescue those captured on Vekaria was unthinkable. "I still say it's risky. How about a compromise: we wait six hours, and if they haven't returned by then we move off."

"Twelve," Christian said firmly. Jackson was about to argue, but then saw the man smile warmly and couldn't help herself.

"You have a lot of cheek, Captain Christian," Jackson said, and immediately felt comfortable backing down to this strangely appealing younger officer, and possibly gaining the admiration of all those present as a fair leader. "Okay, twelve hours, but not a minute more." With that she turned and departed.

Warnerburg stepped over to Christian. "She can't mean that, surely? If we don't finish repairs before we get under way then what happened to Jaz could happen to any of the rest of us," she hoped Christian would change things.

The Captain suddenly felt the need to support his superior, if only to keep a sense of balance and camaraderie. "But she's also correct in one respect, we mustn't sacrifice ourselves just for two people and a runabout, no matter its usefulness. Many more people here are depending on us."

A flash of light from one of the dilithium chambers below the deck and a short scream heralded another in a long line of minor accidents. It was the Romulan - for the second time - he appeared to have a wounded hand.

"Get that seen to," Christian bellowed as the wincingly controlled young soldier emerged from the warp core.

A short time later, as he reached Deck 3, Murak stepped out of the Jeffrey's tube and strolled down the darkened deck, partly to catch his breath and rest his arms, partly to delay the expected unpleasant encounter with the survivor group's tall, red-headed medic for a second time. She'd been efficient enough in treating his previous burns, but her manner was aggressive to say the least, the look of mistrust and hatred in her eyes were palpable.

He'd experienced similar reactions on the few occasions he encountered non-Romulans during his career, once when his vessel rescued the Denobulan crew of a damaged cargo vessel, the other times on supply missions to various space stations and space ports. But at those times he was among his shipmates – this time he was on his own and a lot more exposed, and vulnerable, and sensed it was highly possible he may be attacked, just for being a Romulan.

Reaching underneath his tunic at his lower back he retrieved the concealed device that the Andorian had missed when searching him for weapons and communicators. He activated the powerful beam of light from the slim box and made his way down the dimly and partially lit deck, scanning stacks of boxes piled in several places, translating the inventory notes with ease. Turning into one of the side rooms, he saw many gurneys of various sizes, all stacked on their sides, along with piles anti-grav attachments for varying loads. Some of the devices looked very old, some looked of differing technologies, but evidently all the similar items had been placed into this one room. On a hunch, he went into the next room, where he found many small storage boxes, of varying design, in many stacks. Without checking their contents he moved on to the next room which contained larger storage boxes, and the room after that he found a curious mixture of mirrors, prints, paintings and picture frames.

As he reached out to leaf through one group lined up against the wall, his hand smarted again, and he realized he was still in pain, and dripping blood. He needed to get the wound seen to, and soon – there was no getting away from it. But on leaving the room he heard a 'thud thud thud thud thud' sound. It seemed not too far away, but scanning his light beams around the room, he could see nothing. He left with a bit more purpose, pausing one final time to scan the room behind him with his light beams, but heard and saw nothing more.

Arriving on the Observation Deck some minutes later, he could only see O'Hara's small team of helpers going between the patients. Gazing around the large space, he heard voices coming from beyond his view, down one of the exit ramps that were sealed closed. Making his way to the sound he found a small group gathered by the inner wall, a panel seemingly ripped off with brute force in order to access the plant behind it: the short Starfleet officer, Collard, and all three of the Klingon warriors along with the medic. All but Collard sneered at him, whereas she smiled sweetly. His face couldn't return the action, locked in trepidation as it was. On hearing the medic's curt query, he just held his burnt and lacerated hand up. She was visibly annoyed, and barked at him to 'wait there'.

Perhaps sensing the Klingons were about to turn on him, the young Ensign asked them to return their attention to helping open the door. The oldest one pointed at part of the mechanism, but the youngest scoffed and said it was not there, but here. But the middle aged Klingon shook his head and said they were both wrong – but none of their attempts did anything to help. Murak could already feel Collard's stare before she spoke to him.

"Excuse me, you're one of the engineering volunteers aren't you, perhaps you could help us?"

He swallowed, looked over his shoulder but the medic was not returning yet. He made his way tentatively to the wall and examined it closely, scanning every part with his eyes. He looked up inside and then down into the gubbins, crouching low to check what connected where. He then walked over to the opposite wall and rapped it in several places with his knuckles.

"Well?" the oldest Klingon asked, not any less polite than he normally would.

Murak shook his head. He stamped the floor in various places, and finally by the far wall he could tell there was an access panel there. He nodded down to it, and pointed with his foot.

The youngest Klingon grumbled, then strode over to where he was, retrieved his knife weapon, which he opened slightly threateningly, and then ripped up the carpet. Finding the circular access hatch he lifted it up, just as O'Hara returned.

Murak knelt down and peered into the controls. Tapping several buttons in a variety of combinations, it was no time before the large bulkhead door slid smoothly into the inner wall, revealing the way down belowdecks via the wide corridor.

O'Hara glanced at Collard and then back at him. She nodded toward his hand and he held it up for her to use her device on. Once again, she was efficient, but the procedure wasn't entirely painless.

As she finished, he spoke in his best English. "I found anti-gravity gurneys on Deck 3, several doors aft on the left."

She nodded, and he walked back to the Bridge, hearing her call after him. "Thank you, for a second time."

1323 HOURS, FANTASY TIME (FT)

The Runabout Hudson wafted long stretches of tall alien reeds in its wake as it skimmed at 30kph above a narrow stream that wriggled along the floor of a deep, sandy canyon. The ground around the stream was otherwise littered with rocks of all sizes, fringed with blades of hardy, dark green succulents. A high sun beamed directly into the canyon at this part of the day, peppered as it was by the sky born shadows that moved swiftly and randomly up the walls and confusing the path ahead, though Reb handled the controls with ease. Their destination was the subterranean caverns they'd previously scanned, accessible through a series of wide openings at the base of the rock face just a few hundred metres directly ahead, where the canyon's route turned sharply.

As Reb was about to lean back and relax, he spotted something larger than a bird in the sky way above them. "We got company."

Through the tinted windows of the Hudson in the shafts of dazzling occasional sunshine pouring in between the clouds and asteroids above, the T'Kani vessel's hull had a metallic, silky sheen that caught the light, a two-tone scaled shell of emerald and gold, with small bumps dotted across its surface – presumably T'Kani ships could retract the needle-like devices they displayed during their attack around Vekaria, Lirik thought. Its path seemed slow and considered.

"Shit," Reb felt their location didn't give them any room to manoeuver.

"I don't think they see us," Lirik observed calmly. "We can still make it."

Reb didn't argue and sped the runabout forward as fast as he could. Seconds passed slowly, the two men continually glanced up at the vessel that seemed to be passing beyond their position and heading away. Nevertheless, the cavern's darkness was a welcome relief as Reb slowed to a halt and hit the external lights. As his eyes adjusted, he realized he could see far into the distance without the additional lighting. The interior reminded him of the structure of a sponge. Endless long, twisted strands and pillars knitted together and splayed apart, the lime-white, almost vertebral rock formations illuminated by many small pock holes in the planet's surface high above. Lirik thought the path ahead looked more like a forest of giant bones.

"The electromagnetic energy the planet exudes seems to be concentrated in a number of locations, presumably artificial generators. I'm detecting several points of origin, mostly around the meridian, but also several at each pole. It's difficult to detect through all this, but as luck has it, the nearest one is only about 100 kilometres from here."

Reb raised an eyebrow. "You call that luck?"

"Just head for the coordinates, there's a good chap," Lirik smiled.

Reb gave him a sideways look then nodded at his display. "We might not be able to go that far underground."

"Well we won't find out sitting here, will we? Chop chop!"

Reb sighed and picked up the coordinates on his display, integrating them with the navigational scans as the guidance system indicated the available routes forward. Selecting the most suitable option he took the ship on manual and began to slowly weave a way through the maze of rock structures, glancing at his sensors occasionally to keep them on the right heading and best possible course.

"Are they following us?"

"Negative, no movement from behind," Lirik said with omen-like timing as the Hudson trilled a warning and a moment later the vessel shook slightly, rattling Lirik's teacup and saucer.

Reb instinctively reached for the shield controls, but Lirik had been a split second faster.

"Blimey! They're dropping some kind of explosive charge through those holes in the canopy up there." Lirik instinctively ran a couple more checks. "Wait, they're not targeting us, they're trying to destroy the structure around us."

Although splinters and pebbles tumbled down from above with each successive charge, the almost delicate looking structure was in fact made of much stronger stuff, taking quite a pounding and managing to hold itself together. Some shards eventually broke away and fell, and dust billowed from some strike points, but Reb found them easy to avoid.

"The rocks are clearly impervious to the blasts," Lirik said.

"Well, at least we're safe for now," Reb said.

Almost as soon as he spoke, the firing stopped. Seconds later the Hudson trilled a warning again.

Lirik's hands were over the controls again. "Incoming."

The two men braced for impact, but the explosion barely vibrated the ship. However, as detonation occurred, a radiated beam of red light lit up the interior of the runabout. The vessel trilled again.

"Shields down fourteen per cent," Lirik advised.

"We need to go deeper," Reb said, seeking a path that would take them to the lowest possible route.

"Here comes another one," Lirik said, as the vista before them flashed red. "Shields down thirty per cent."

Finally Reb found a wide route snaking downwards and guided the runabout into it. The vessel trilled again, but they only saw the faintest red reflection off the rocks around them.

"Shields holding, that's better," Lirik said, reaching for his cup and saucer and sipping at his tea. "You've got this."

Reb couldn't help feeling a little claustrophobic in these depths after the nakedness and infinity of open space just hours earlier. Glancing at the nav display, he saw they'd only travelled about 2 kilometres so far. This was going to be a long day.

FANTASY MAIN BRIDGE, 1338 HOURS

Hedra popped her head out of the maintenance pit beneath the communication station, nail file in her mouth. She was standing amid a nest of wiring and control boards, balancing the balls of her feet upon two support struts. "Try it now, Commodore," she motioned over her shoulder.

Jackson sat sweat-stained and dirty in the Captain's chair. In spite of their predicament, she and Collard were still chuckling at the noises of hunger coming from Professor Karim's stomach. Despite the physical need for food, the candy bar and milk offered to her earlier she described as unpalatable - her face and demeanour had remained impassive throughout. The Vulcan-trained human had unwittingly compounded the situation when she stated that she would not be offended at their fun, that she understood their emotional needs for amusement in a frightening situation and explained that controlling such primal automatic responses such as hunger was virtually impossible for human students of Vulcan teaching. The statement had been followed by the longest and loudest of belly groans which had fair split the bridge team in half. It was a welcome respite to the tension and sense of doom about their situation.

"Bridge to Sick Bay," Jackson said.

Immediately, a clear response rang out from the virtual speakers around and above them.

"This isn't Sick Bay, Commodore. We're in what appears to have once been a beauty spa."

Decks below, O'Hara, sleeves rolled up, hair re-tied in a tighter bun, stood hands on hips, impatiently diverted from her medical duties. Her uniform was disgracefully blood-stained, but with no other clothes there was little she could do. Vostaline had offered her a spare dress, but O'Hara somehow couldn't bring herself to agree to wear such a rustic looking amalgam of materials; or a dress for that matter.

Jackson almost enjoyed her sarcasm, but didn't verbalise. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering here," Christian called over from the piece of wall he was carefully reassembling.

Engineering and Sick Bay completed their tests successfully and Christian called back to the Bridge. "Commodore, Mister Kohl and I would like to know how Miss Hedra managed to get the voice interface back on line so quickly?"

Hedra removed the nail file from her lips and unconsciously filed down a nail without looking at it. "The network that had been mostly stripped out was actually a newer, replacement system for the Fantasy's original. I found it, integrated into the ship's structure itself – it was fully intact, just dormant. The hardware is about as old as the Andorian Ambassador, but it still functions well."

"Just like the old Ambassador himself," Narli joked, to little reaction.

"It was then just a matter of linking the network to the Main Bridge computer core to run a simple communications voice interface program," Hedra was pleased with herself, Jackson noticed, it was almost like watching the enjoyment of a child.

She wondered briefly about Collard's arrest of the young lady earlier. Jackson had only had dealings with two Orions in her life, one of whom she had lived to regret meeting ever since. But they'd both been male, and from what she knew about green skinned Orion females, Hedra must have suffered abuse at some points during her young life. Although prejudice toward Orions in the Federation had abated a little, (she had even heard of some from the more privileged and civilised parts of the Orion Empire joining Starfleet Academy), to the majority of Federation citizens simply being green skinned meant association with an illicit or immoral business of some kind.

Christian's ears had pricked back at mention of the bridge's core as it could help reduce repair time enormously. "How functional is the core?"

Jackson spoke for Hedra, to the younger woman's obvious annoyance. "What's there is mostly remnants of old deleted files; nothing of use, apart from the clear space of course."

"No access to the main computer core?" Christian felt himself grasping at straws.

Hedra managed to jump in on cue this time. "No, Captain."

After a pause, Christian gave his own report. "We devised a similar solution for repairing EPS controls. It seems the entire power grid for life support runs as a separate entity – there's even a duplicate back-up control grid, one of many redundant precautions we've discovered. Because they're both still intact and operational, we're converting the back-up life support grid to act as the command controls and regulators for all EPS functionality. Some of the existing network is already dysfunctional, so there are some areas of the Command Section where life support will be partially off line; basically it may get a little cold and clammy in a few of the lower decks."

Jackson sat forward, perching on the edge of her seat. She checked her tiny antique clock locket that had remained safely around her neck beneath her tunic. "Only seven hours to go, Mister Christian."

In engineering, a few looks were exchanged. "Message received," Christian hoped his choice of words were clear enough to Jackson.

EP 3 ACT 3

1414 HOURS, FT

"Did you say life signs?" Reb hadn't thought of running into any aliens, for some strange reason.

"Approximately two thousand, going about their business in and around the power emitter station," Lirik slumped back into his seat. "I hadn't detected them before because of the magnetic interference."

Having found a further network of larger conduits deep beneath the surface of the planet, the Hudson had covered a great distance in good time, homing in on the nearest source of magnetic emissions. The runabout's course took them up the inside of a large mountain range through the twisting network of lava pipes to come to rest in the darkness on a number of horizontal struts where they had spent the best part of an hour just waiting to see what would happen.

Positioned some one hundred metres inside and thirty metres below the mouth of an opening in the mountain's side near to its peak, the exit was located at the edge of a vast ravine that dropped down the side of the mountain to sea level and beyond, deep into the planet's surface.

On the other side of the crevasse was the castle-like structure containing one of the planet's energy emitters and presumably housed the alien life forms. The span was about twenty five metres wide from the edge of the cave mouth to the bottom of the structure's sheer escarpment on the opposite side. The only means of getting across was by way of a 'bridge' composed of a lattice of lava struts, no more than a foot space wide in places, and each spaced about a metre or more apart.

Inside the warmth and relative safety of the runabout, Reb could only think of one course of action. "The T'Kani may give us up for dead, we should just lie low in here then fly out under the cover of darkness."

Lirik stood and stretched, then found himself a pad and began making a few notes with an old fashioned scribing pen. "Nice idea, but I've detected the T'Kani ships twice in the last hour. They're still up there, and scanning the surface – determined to find us, it seems."

Reb also stood, for the first time since they'd left the Fantasy, his leg muscles shuddering in surprise. He felt an urge for the bathroom. "I gotta go take a leak. I hope you've got a plan worked out."

"I have," Lirik said, almost smugly. "Don't press the reclaim handle when you're done in there, okay?" Reclamation of waste was a field priority for Starfleet personnel, but given their circumstances, so was conservation of energy.

1453 HOURS

Hedra almost pulled too hard on Christian's sleeve as he approached the command platform of the bridge, exhausted from the long day and the long climb, despite taking the last number of decks via the newly opened corridor access ramps that zigzagged and arced up to the Observation Deck.

"Trust me, you'll like this," she said. Christian noticed Hedra had unbuttoned her blouse slightly, showing more of her cleavage, and had also released her hair in waves about her head.

"She's been asking to see you for some time," Jackson half smiled, knowing what the Orion had done – and much to Collard's ire.

Taking him by the shoulders, Hedra stood Christian facing the Bridge turbolift doors to the left of the Purser's station.

"I've been working with a few mining technicians on the system's mechanics, and we think we've got the turbolift system operational," she said excitedly.

Christian remained impassive. "Not the highest priority, Miss Hedra, but they would be useful," he said. His legs were behaving as jelly, it was true.

Hedra flipped the turbolift interface panel and inserted a couple of old rectangular isolinear chips she had found after a lot of searching. "It's not an operating network yet, it will be just one car for the moment. Another second and I'll have it open." Hedra replaced the panel, depressed a button, and stood with her back to the door, facing Christian and the others. "Ta Da!" She cooed as the doors slid apart behind her.

The immediate reaction of the people in front of her was not at all what she expected. Instead of smiles, they recoiled gasping and wide-eyed. Two volunteers even screamed in the split second that Hedra began to realise there was something horrific immediately behind her.

Before she could turn, the ragged corpses teetered and fell forward on top of her. She barely screamed, collapsing under their decaying weight, and smelling the vile air that had been trapped in their lungs as they exhaled on impact.

Face and neck covered in powdery remains and a slimy stench and still gibbering and kicking helplessly, Christian and Collard pulled Hedra free of the knotted limbs and let her fall sobbing into the still shocked Jackson's arms. Christian winced at the smell, but Collard ignored it to study the bodies up close. It seemed she was suddenly in her element.

She rolled one corpse over and first studied the grizzly face hard, then the clothes as she searched their empty pockets. "They're in uniform," she said. "Anyone recognise it?"

Ambassador Narli, who had witnessed the spectacle unmoving, stepped forward. "I think they are the uniforms of the Qovakian Senate Guard," he observed. "I wonder what they were doing in there?"

Collard scanned the inside of the turbolift and turned back to the gruesome heap. "No apparent wounds. Judging from their decay, they've been in there for some time."

Someone at the back of the bridge finally got the view of the little scene they wanted and promptly barfed.

"Get those civilians away," Christian ordered Jackson who palely nodded and began to usher everyone into the rear of Deck 1, corralling Hedra along with them.

Christian hit the command chair armrest panel. "Lieutenant O'Hara, please report to the bridge." He swallowed several times to free his mouth of saliva, feeling slightly in awe of the Ensign's control.

1506 HOURS, FT

Lirik tried the command sequence a second time, but the computer denied. He ran a diagnostic, then turned to face Reb. "Sorry, we can't transport in, there's too much interference."

Reb slouched. Transporting was preferable to walking at the best of times, but given the thin piece of rock lace they would have to traverse in the cold, high winds between each precipice made Reb feel even weaker in the fingers and legs. He would rather have stayed in the runabout, but Lirik was insisting he accompany him into the emitter structure. He didn't understand why, as the diplomatic aide seemed to be covered in all the tools and sensor devices he could possibly need. Conversely, Reb carried nothing and felt under-equipped.

As if in telepathic response Lirik opened the supply locker next to the transporter grid and reached for a commbadge. Pinning it as like a medal to Reb he told him: "Wear this in case we get separated."

Reb wondered if he meant 'if you plunge into the ravine'. "Okay." He looked down at Lirik's holstered weapon. "Can't I have one of those?" Reb was sure he was going to be refused.

Instead, the Yeoman responded instantly. "Sure," Lirik handed him both a phaser, which he set to stun, and a tricorder; "we're in this together, after all. Just don't fire it unless I say so."

Reb frowned. "How do we know these people aren't T'Kani soldiers?"

"There's been no communication between ground and air, and scans show the people aren't living within the structures over there, but rather around them in more primitive dwellings," Lirik was giving the runabout's onboard log sensor a verbal report, serving as much to reassure himself as to inform Reb. "Apart from the emitters, there are no other signs of civilisation on the planet. Not least of which, there is no other technology in use within or around the structure apart from the emitter itself."

"They could be T'Kani sympathisers, though," Reb suggested.

"You're being negative again, Mister Reb," Lirik observed and, phaser in one hand, tricorder in the other, opened the runabout's hatch.

1510 HOURS

"Nice," O'Hara commented on the four corpses. "They're definitely Qovakian. I'd say they have been there for about four to five years, although not always in a vacuum, otherwise they would have been almost perfectly preserved."

Collard nodded. "That would concur with the estimated time of arrival of the vessel to Helub and also corroborates the Helan story of when they came aboard."

"So who killed them?" Christian asked.

"If you're asking how did they die, I'd have to carry out an autopsy. But I don't relish the thought given the lack of a proper lab," O'Hara said. "If you ask my opinion, you'd start with why would the corpses have been put into the turbolift in the first place?"

Collard frowned. "If someone was trying to cover up their murder?"

"Then why not vaporise them, or eject them into space?" O'Hara questioned.

"Maybe it was just a convenient place to dispose of them at the time," Christian mused. "Nurse, I know it will be hard, but I would appreciate your greatest effort in determining the cause of death."

"Right," O'Hara said more out of duty than curiosity.

"For now, we've more important things to attend to," Christian turned to Collard. "Find some unsqueemish people to carry the bodies to - where?"

"Better be somewhere out of the way, it could be rather messy," O'Hara said.

"Ask Ganhedra's people, they should know somewhere," Christian said.

"I think I know just the Klingons for the job, Captain," Collard spun on her heel and headed for the Jeffreys tube.

"You should be able to use the turbolift now. It'll be a lot quicker," Christian offered.

Collard nodded and disappeared inside. Ignoring the stain on the floor, and the heavy smell that lingered, she studied the ornate elevator car, noting the quirky use of wood and silver panels and fine glass light fittings in the ceiling. "Deck 8," she ordered, inhaling the death smell after she spoke, and the car gave an unusual light gong sound in acknowledgement, closing the doors on the bridge.

1525 HOURS, FT

Before Lirik and Reb had reached the lip of the cave at the edge of the now much deeper looking crevasse, a group of humanoid people had deftly crossed the narrow beams from the castle structure beyond and waited for them. They were dressed in similar coloured clothing - a mixture of purples and yellowy oranges - and carried what looked like two metre long thin metal rods.

"What now?" Reb asked, caressing his phaser.

"We just talk," Lirik hoped. "Greetings. I am Lirik, this is Reb. We are travellers from far away and wish to rest for a while." He ignored Reb's snigger.

"Shappa! Shappa hini maela a nin," the tallest of the posse shouted in urgency. The sounds were more rasping than identifiable speech.

"I'm sorry, we don't understand. We would like to go across there," Lirik pointed to the emitter facility, and sounding like a pompous tourist, much to Reb's embarrassment.

"Imshali! Na shappa hini elanon forbidden," the man replied.

"The universal translator's kicking in," Lirik commented to Reb. "Did you build this place?"

The posse looked over their shoulder at the castle, then back to the two men indifferently.

"Aw, this is stupid," Reb balked, "by the time we start communicating the T'Kani might be right on us."

"T'Kani!" the man repeated, a lot louder and with great gusto. He turned to his friends, babbling in their alien tongue. Lirik almost pushed his left breast forward for the translator to hear better as the others joined in.

Reb huffed and stepped forward toward the lattice struts that perched across the abyss, but several of the aliens barred his way, holding their metal spears aloft.

"Reb, don't be foolish!" Lirik ordered, though it wasn't something he could help, he assumed. "Please, we have travelled all day and we need somewhere to rest. Can you give us food?" He hoped a plea for help would aid in their journey.

"Your cross, the way, the feeling long ago," a younger man spoke and stepped out of the posse toward them. "You understand?"

"Not quite," Lirik smiled. "Ever thought you'd be in a first contact situation, Mister Reb?"

The half-Ferengi merely snorted and folded his arms.

"Our people have lived here for a long time," the man said suddenly in clear English. "It provides shelter and warmth and some comfort in the darkness of the heavy shadow."

"May we go across?" Lirik asked again, aware he was sounding desperate.

"It is forbidden. Only those of our people may cross, but we can bring you food and water if you'll wait," the man and his people were clearly kind-hearted and hopefully with no violent intentions.

Lirik put his hands on his hips, wondering if they would have to just find another emitter for their plan to work - he decided there wasn't time. "Is there no way I can come across and see inside?"

The tall, aggressive man from behind shouted over-enthusiastically, "Eshaleka, the shadow dance!" And the others in the team cheered and roared, waving their spears in the air.

"Eshaleka?" Lirik asked.

The young man talking to him appeared less happy than his friends did, it seemed. "Eshaleka is the test of manhood among our people. It was also the ancient challenge to messengers from other warring tribes before they could enter our home and speak their piece."

"Oh really?" Lirik brightened, smiling across to Reb and back to his new friend. "I like a good challenge."

1543 HOURS

Christian strained his head forward into the dark oversized crawlway and shone a light ahead. About twenty metres distant, a large black object blocked the passage.

"It's the same here as everywhere," he retracted and turned to face Kohl, "the bulkheads between the passenger section and this part of the ship are firmly sealed. There's no way through it seems."

"Should we keep looking, Captain?" Kohl asked.

Before Christian could reply, Jackson appeared. He had a sinking feeling.

"Less than two hours to go, Captain," Jackson informed him.

Christian decided to update her on their progress, hoping she might understand the huge undertaking.

"We've got seventeen volunteers helping us now, which is great, but we've been unable to get through to the Passenger Section. All bulkheads are firmly sealed."

"Can we phaser cut our way through?" Jackson asked, feeling the chill caused by the rerouting of controls from life support in this area.

Kohl cleared his throat. "Being a passenger ship, the bulkheads have features which err on the side of safety, blocking our path. We could disable them and eventually cut through the plating, but without Federation supplies I doubt we would be able to repair them to their full capacity - which could leave us vulnerable should we need to separate the ship at some point. We may even then find it hampers our ability to reconnect after that."

Christian nodded. "There will be a way to open them via computer control, but not without an amount of effort. Once we have repaired the power systems and found a way to access the main command core, if we can get it functioning then it will simply be a programming challenge."

Jackson rolled her tongue around her teeth. "And this will all take time."

"Naturally," Christian almost laughed. "Commodore, this isn't a Starfleet ship. Hell, it's not even a regular ship of any design. It's old, it has integrated technologies from various sources and much of its guts are missing. We can't pull any rabbits out of hats here. The most successful approach to date has been to revert back to original operating systems – and that might be the way to continue, but I'd rather be commanding a frigate than a floatel."

"Captain," Jackson straightened, "don't give me sarcastic analogies. I'll say this only one more time to you. The lives of the people on board this ship take priority over a safe and cautious approach. Clear?!"

"Sir, yesSir!" Christian snapped, though his body language said something else.

Jackson ignored his machismo. "We're in no position to protect ourselves, and are only lucky to have got this far alive."

Kohl shook involuntarily from the dressing down, hoping for Christian to answer, but he was either too angry or lost for words to respond. The German flicked his hair back and filled the silence. "Er, we have a team cleaning out as much of the impulse drive plant as we can get to without rad suits. We could really do with an eva to service the vent plates, but there don't appear to be any space suits either. It's a shame we do not have the runabout."

"Cut to the chase, Engineer, are we in shape to get moving?" Jackson seemed to be growing sterner by the minute.

"Not right away, Commodore, no," Christian squared off to her. "In fact, we've run into a difficult problem, which is why we're down here trying to get through the bulkheads."

"Go on," she said, her voice toned as if she were addressing a child.

"As you know, the ship can break into three segments. Each of those segments has an engine room that can work as an independent unit, or operate in conjunction with the others to support the rest of the ship," he said. "Now that the power system has blown and we've rerouted power from life support, we've unbalanced the power flow, not to mention the structural integrity field that secures the whole ship."

Jackson didn't look as if she understood completely, so Kohl translated. "It's like the passenger section has just become a dead weight around our necks."

Jackson frowned, and rubbed her reddened eyes. "Then it's clear, you ditch the passenger section."

Christian shook his head. "That's just it, we can't."

"There's no emergency override?" Jackson flushed.

Kohl stepped forward. "No, Commodore. From what we have seen, the explosive packs have been removed and the fifty or so bulkheads between the two parts of the ship are acting like pins, making us inseparable."

Jackson clenched her fists. "Then you have to find another way. Go back to the original power system to get us moving again."

"It's not that simple-" Kohl began, but Christian butted in.

"Commodore, you just have to accept our limited options in the circumstances," he paused and motioned Kohl to leave them alone. When he had gone, Christian led Jackson by the arm further down the corridor to the large, heavy bulkhead that crossed it. "Do you really think I want anyone on board to be harmed?"

Jackson deflated slightly. "No, of course I don't. But I am responsible for those people up there, and I can see that drifting in space is scaring the hell out of them. It scares the hell out of me, I can tell you. The quicker we get moving, the quicker we can get away from the T'Kani."

Christian grasped her shoulders. "You may be my superior in rank, but we are both Starfleet officers trained in the same way. I know my limitations so surely, you must too? You have got to let me do my job, and that includes deciding when this ship can move and when it can't. I would trust Kohl to make that call as an engineer, and you must accept that of me as a captain." Jackson was still shaking her head. "Right now, we aren't going anywhere."

1555 HOURS, FT

Reb sat on a large boulder with a handful of pebbles tossing them over the precipice as Lirik wriggled out of the harness carrying most of his equipment.

"I knew you were a bit off the wall when I met you," Reb said without looking at him, "but I wouldn't have betted that you were suicidal as well."

Lirik laughed to himself. "There you go again, Mister Reb, with your negativity."

Reb swivelled on the rock and watched Lirik use part of the harness as a belt to which he firmly secured a tricorder. "Look, you may wish to throw yourself at every challenge and take risks with your own life, but what about me?"

Lirik approached him, looking up into the young man's nostrils. "What about you? I'm still going ahead with the mission-"

"What mission? There is no 'mission'!" Reb raised his voice, causing the nearby natives to look over. "You just went ahead and put us in one impossible position after another."

Lirik clenched his teeth. He wasn't used to being made to feel like a fool at every opportunity. "We're here alive, aren't we? All I need to do is get across there, and I can deal with the T'Kani ships looking for us. Simple. And seeing as you won't accept the challenge with me, it will be your job to collect data on what we CAN see, and that means taking some rock and soil samples." Lirik gestured at the survey pack he'd been carrying.

Reb shook his head. "I'm a pilot for hire, not a scientist."

"You don't have to be, just scoop the ground cover into that pack and leave the rest to the computer," Lirik said turning away.

Reb leant back. "Well I've learned one thing all by myself."

Lirik couldn't help his curiosity. "Oh? And that is…?"

Reb jumped to his feet, swaying slightly at the better view of the dramatic drop just a short distance away. Regardless, he pointed to a part of the structure opposite. "See those silos over there?"

Lirik followed the young man's finger, noticing that part of the building across the way seemed unkempt, more municipal than the aesthetically proportioned building surrounding it. He followed Reb's lead as the half Ferengi pointed out several other bits of similar looking machinery embedded into the rock face, almost camouflaged by their colour. "A mining operation?" he guessed. His train of thought caused him to turn and look back inside the cave mouth.

Reb nodded. "That's right, that labyrinth in there didn't occur naturally. It was mined."

Lirik whistled. "And we know how the T'Kani loved to exploit resources. They practically stripped this planet bare. Well done, Sir."

Reb did feel pleased with himself, but still begrudged it when Lirik gently tapped the survey kit with his foot twice before approaching the group of aliens. Reb slid down the boulder to watch the spectacle. Lirik knelt in front of the alien man.

"Do you understand the rules?" the young alien asked, gesturing him to stand.

Lirik did so, then rubbed his hands. "I think so. All I have to do is cross the bridge without letting a cloud shadow pass over me."

"And without falling off," Reb chipped in.

"Obviously," Lirik smirked. "And if a shadow crosses me, then you throw your spears."

"And you die," Reb concluded. He sidled up to Lirik and whispered, "Can't you just switch off your shield, let the Medusan monster come out?"

Lirik gritted his teeth, furrowing his eyebrows together. "These are innocent people, I won't harm them."

Reb shrugged. There was nothing he could do. If Lirik plunged to his death or got speared through the heart, he would just return to the runabout and go with his own plan. Already, as Lirik stood on the edge of the widest lava pipe he could see, Reb was running through a list of everything that he would need to do.

1607 HOURS

Christian looked down at the pink powder covering the carpet in the turbolift as it ferried him through the decks - Jackson had no doubt been successful in locating a cleaning substance to help dispel the stench of death. The odd smelling fragrance was almost worthy of a citation.

As the turbolift's movements quieted, its doors swished open, (sticking part way - another repair to follow), to reveal a large sign on the corridor wall opposite: 'Deck 18, Thoroughfare 4'. Taking a right as instructed, he walked some distance along the corridor where it then forked into three at a small 'courtyard' that had a deep scarlet lacquered dome and holo-emitter walls. He entered the right-most corridor that immediately sloped down and curved slightly. From what he had seen of the ship so far, each deck differed both in décor, purpose and layout.

Only the Jeffreys tubes and turbolift shafts were positioned fairly consistently – but even they had unexpected twists and turns.

Christian had come to realise that the Command Section, which he had assumed was a section of the ship devoted entirely to crew, in fact housed a good deal of passenger facilities and services. Looking closely at the architectural joins and mix and match designs in the areas he'd seen so far, Christian guessed the ship had undergone a number of successive refits and continuous regime of re-designs and augmentation concurrent with a ship that had a greater emphasis on the passenger. The former crew of the Fantasy must have found it hard to live and work within increasingly smaller confines as 'all welcome' areas encroached their own restricted areas.

Proceeding along the curved corridor, Christian felt as if he were heading inward, toward the central part of the ship. As the corridor straightened, he crossed darkened thoroughfares 23 and 24, the walls suddenly giving way to a more uniform, brilliant white 'conduit' - angular design blended into a generous 'pipe', the floor melting into the walls and ceiling lit from all sides. Through a large set of smoked glass doors, (only one of which retreated into the wall), Christian was dazzled as he stepped into a large, circular foyer.

The lighting was at full brightness, making the walls almost blindingly white - white floor, white walls, white ceiling and white furniture - what was left of it; again the Captain saw evidence that the ship had been stripped of equipment and furniture. Still intact were the ornately etched smoked glass partitions and doors leaking off the foyer into what must have been a Beauty Treatment Facility. (Even here, Christian noticed, there was holo-emitter functionality). The corridor continued opposite, but then stopped short at a bulkhead door.

Within each area, Christian could see many survivors from Helub gathered in miserable silence. He peered into the nearest room, looking for Lieutenant O'Hara and saw a small reception desk (complete with unsightly gaping hole where its console had been removed). Beyond was a smaller inner foyer constructed of russet coloured wood, mood-lit and housing a row of numbered doorways. These doors were either fully open or ajar and Christian could see into the spacious treatment rooms beyond groups of survivors (presumably families by the way they interacted) huddled together. In some, children were playing on the floor - having been given a 'make-do' present by the parents and assorted adults above them. The faint sound of a Carol made Christian's neck heckles ruffle.

Christian didn't linger. The next area contained a deeper, wider reception, no furniture, and the panelling was a lighter, knotted wood. The musty smell of cedar, pine and sandalwood led Christian to deduce this was a sauna. Something - perhaps the smell - drove him forward. Beyond the reception, two wide recesses contained wooden steps up and down. A young Bajoran girl came bounding down one of the flights of stairs, but stopped, gasping, in her tracks as she saw the red-eyed, tired looking Captain.

"Is Nurse O'Hara in here?" he asked in his friendliest voice.

The girl turned around, as if looking through the deck, to the upstairs space, then back at him. "No. Try over there." She pointed across the foyer to a set of double glass doors.

"Thank you," Christian turned and walked quickly in the corrected direction, hoping the girl would not follow. She didn't - instead, she hung back, chin on chest, sucking on two fingers. Christian glanced over his shoulder and noticed the girl still staring at him.

Through a set of the doors, Christian was shocked to see much of this area was in tatters. Support struts were naked, life support and maintenance ducts exposed, wiring hung loose, light fittings dangled precariously, partition walls had been removed and he could see through what must have been a dozen rooms across a good deal of the command section's deck. He could even see a turbolift shaft from the outside, its thick circumference cutting through the floor and ceiling.

Christian remembered once visiting Utopia Planetia and seeing a similar view inside a Sovereign Class prototype without any of its internal structure in place, aside from the decking and support struts. With gravity so vital to every Starfleet vessel, the deck plating project was labour intensive, giving a window of opportunity for a variety of tours, and he and his visiting command school group had stood on one side of the saucer section and could almost see clear through to the other.

Yet another reception desk, this one of transparent aluminium, had been moved to the side, a strip of metal signage lay upon it that read "Solaris Lounge". With most of the partitions missing, the area opened out into a wide expanse. Scattered in many groups were several hundred survivors trying to be comfortable on an assortment of beds, cushions, blankets, towels and piles of clothing.

Several metres away the captain saw many casualties lined up on mattresses, many sitting, but a number laying still on their backs. Nurse O'Hara had clearly turned this part of the 'spa' area and beyond into a makeshift refugee and triage centre. Christian was alarmed to see so many still incapacitated.

Just beyond them there was a long, high screen made of patchwork plastic and textiles that had been suspended across a corner area piled high with crates; he assumed this was in order to isolate the worst cases. Vague figures could be seen moving on the other side of the opaque partition; none of the refugees sat too close by. As Christian approached, he made a mental note of some of the patients; Human woman with head bandage, Risan male (unconscious) with bloody eye patch, teenage Human boy with leg in splint - there were many sleeping and many sitting quietly nursing an irritation; a few groups huddled round beds in soft chatter.

Passing through the plastic curtain, Christian flinched as he saw around twenty beds occupied by semi-naked people with a variety of nasty injuries, although some weren't immediately apparent. O'Hara, sleeves rolled up, was leaning over the head end of a male - New Fabrinian by his garb. A muscular Jetraleker clasped his head firmly as O'Hara inserted what looked like a piece of plastic tubing into the man's throat, using a sharp metal rod to ease its entry. An abrupt thin squirt of blood and mucus shot forth, patterning the nurse's sleeve and the floor, the end of the trail splatting at Christian's feet.

An odd group of volunteers were flitting between the other patients. Two handsome young men, one clearly a New Parisian by his hair and facial adornments, the other in formal business clothes, an ageing Catholic nun (a very unusual sight) and a hard-faced alien woman with gill-like slits on her cheeks tended to each in turn, checking pulses, temperatures and dressings. Christian froze as he realised three of the patients' faces were covered.

As a rasping, gurgling sound emanated from the New Fabrinian's neck tube, O'Hara and the Jetraleker relaxed, the latter looking over at Christian. The Nurse followed the eunuch's glance and saw the dishevelled, baggy eyed, unshaven young Captain waiting awkwardly for her. Wiping her hands, she murmured something to her compatriot and joined him. "Come with me," she said.

Christian followed the Nurse along a narrow path that cut through the high stacks of empty crates, fallen debris and panelling and before long they were out of sight and sound of the triage area, and seemingly beyond the spa as well. Shortly, passing into a dark aisle of some kind, the two reached a doorway. Using adhesive wedges, O'Hara parted the doors, and Christian followed her into what looked like a mechanical workshop. The interior surfaces were mostly metallic, tool housings on the wall empty, and weird, chain like gadgets hung from the concave ceiling.

"Where are we?" Christian looked around, eyes adjusting to the emergency lighting, and saw the circular bay had two entrances from perpendicular corridors and several open doors leading to workshops beyond.

As O'Hara pushed one of the closed workshop doors ajar, the smell hit Christian before her words. "The temporary autopsy room," she said. Only one corpse occupied the central bench, the others lay intact on the sides. One overhead lamp covered in wire mesh shone into the figure, covered with a sheet, in the middle. Christian knew O'Hara was going to expose what was beneath and hoped it wouldn't be too gruesome a sight.

"Have you figured out what killed them?" Christian blinked and swallowed hard.

The Lieutenant, eyes fixed on the Captain, flung the sheet back - to reveal the man, still wearing his clothes. Christian frowned, but then the Nurse lifted his shirt to reveal his torso. Five, deep, black indentations were positioned just right of the torso's mid point, each surrounded by extensive purple and brown discoloration.

"What caused that?" Christian asked.

O'Hara, eyes still fixed on the young American, simply placed her left hand into the wound, each digit fitting exactly into the black spots. "It's the same for each one, five deep punctures into the chest cavity and heart muscle."

Christian shook his head. "And you think a Human hand did this?"

"Not Human, sir, but the angle and spacing would indicate it was a hand, yes." O'Hara pulled the shirt down and led the way back to triage. "I found no other traces of injury, or of much of a struggle for that matter. But the person who's able to do that, well I guess there wouldn't have been much arguing with them."

Christian had a lot to think about now, which kind of pleased him, in an odd way. Although risk was part of every captain's business, problems and mystery solving were the fun part - even if that did mean a murder investigation.

Before they passed through the piles of guff, O'Hara could hear the Jetraleker and other voices shouting her name. Running out into the open space, the nurse and Christian saw the New Parisian coming towards them. "It's the Risan, he's gone into arrest."

O'Hara was then gone, and although Christian followed her he was surplus to requirements. He left the small group taking turns at CPR and counting, and headed back through the plastic screen. He almost didn't notice Commodore Jackson amid a group of women and children in the farthest corner of the triage space. He beckoned her over.

"Are you okay?" he asked, seeing the redness of her eyes.

"Most things are a blur now. I'm afraid my usefulness is wearing thin," she seemed exhausted. "After your little lecture I came down here hoping to lift moral. Ha! Like that was going to happen. Many people are convinced we're going to be captured or destroyed - they don't see any hope aboard this ship. And they show little faith in you, I'm afraid," she was being honest, but it smarted Christian nonetheless. "Or me, for that matter."

"I think we've got the power flow problem licked," Christian said, "but only for a few of the decks; we'll have to shut off power everywhere else to be safe, so all these people will need to be moved, I'm afraid. The Nurse won't be happy about that."

Jackson frowned. "Do yourself a favour, Captain. I don't think O'Hara likes to be called 'Nurse'. She's almost completed her MD training, and she's got more field experience than you could ever have hoped for in a regular Starfleet Medic - qualified doctor or not. We're lucky she's with us."

Christian looked toward the frenzy of shadowy activity behind the plastic curtain. "So what should I call her, 'your holiness'?"

The Commodore winced at the immature comment. "Lieutenant would do, I'm sure. Best keep her as happy as you can. After all, she's the next best thing to a CMO that you've got." Jackson walked with Christian to the exit - he shuddered at the thought of having O'Hara swing her weight as a CMO. "I'll take care of the move. To which decks?"

Christian looked nowhere in particular. "Not counting Deck 1, we're clear on decks three through five, plus main engineering. Everywhere else there's the risk of total life support failure or dangerous power surges. We can manage almost full impulse, but warp's out of the question until we get the core warmed and we work out how to deploy the nacelles," Christian said.

"Very well," Jackson turned away. She paused then turned back. "Captain, about earlier. I know you know your job. I didn't mean to sound unsupportive, I just don't want us to wind up captured."

"I understand," Christian said and squeezed the Commodore's tired shoulder. "In fact, if I'm going to command this ship and what crew there is, I'll need someone to give me alternatives or force me to look at the bigger picture if I become too focused in one area."

"You mean like an executive officer," Jackson said, then following his train of thought she laughed, cautiously. "Wait a minute, you're asking your superior officer to become your junior officer?"

Christian twisted his mouth, eking out the right sentence. "Only where ship-related matters are concerned, clearly as Commodore you'll remain my superior."

"An interesting proposal," Jackson thought for a moment. "We could really do with someone who has more experience in military matters," Jackson looked away, "like Fleet Admiral Street."

"But we don't have such a person, we're on our own," Christian said. "Speaking freely, sir, I wouldn't expect you to single handedly take responsibility for the fate of the survivors on this ship and everyone we left back on Helub any more than you would expect me to. But together, I think we could get this ship and crew in order in good time – and once that happens, we'll be better equipped to make a more considered decision about what we are actually going to do."

"Fifth column?" Jackson asked.

"Possibly," he said, "or there may be alternatives. But whatever we do, I'd rather we do it the Starfleet way."

The Commodore nodded. "Absolutely. Okay, I agree," Jackson said. She noticed the captain was smiling, clearly proud of his successful negotiation. "But it won't be easy, I assure you."

Christian grinned, exposing his teeth. "I'll be in engineering completing preparations. Meet me there when you're done. Number One."

"Don't push it."

EP 3 ACT 4

1615 HOURS FT

Reb stood at the edge of the lattice bridge spanning the bottomless ravine, considering his next move. Lirik's grip on the rock was clearly weakening, and already Reb could see a large shadow passing over the structure on the far side of the crossing and heading straight for Lirik's precarious position. If it were to pass over the annoying Yeoman, the natives would release their spears that were currently poised above their heads.

The hesitation passed. In three brave, gravel spitting leaps, Reb was above the Yeoman's dangling position and reached down to haul him up onto the lava pipe.

"You took your time," Lirik muttered as he was pulled to safety. Spinning around to see the large shadow only a metre away, the two men took a scream-charged leap of faith across the chilling gap to the pipe on the farthest side of the crossing. They teetered there, glimpsing down through the clouds below at the black nothingness beneath as the shadow passed behind them. Once balanced, they tiptoed forward to a broader part of the structure near the mid-point of the crossing.

From there, it was like a team game. The two men helped each other to dodge the oncoming clouds with ease and slowly they progressed to the other side.

Once there, Lirik slumped to his knees and put his scratched hands under his warm armpits to soothe them. Reb bent forward, grasping his thighs and catching his breath. The men with spears silently returned to the structures ahead of them as a small group of children came out bearing some kind of stew and what turned out to be an alcoholic beverage in crude ceramic receptacles. They left it all a few feet away, slightly fearful of the strangers, then ran giggling back to their homesteads.

Replenished, Reb threw back his unkempt hair from his shoulders. Lirik was surprised to see the half-Ferengi almost smiling. "You know, that reminded me of a dragons and dungeons game I used to play."

Lirik looked back at the lava pipe bridge, now drenched in the beginnings of a crimson-purple sunset with less nostalgia, but was surprised at Reb's comment nonetheless. "You play dungeons and dragons?"

"I did as a boy, yes," Reb said. "Why, don't tell me you play as well?"

Lirik slugged back the last drop of drink - it tasted like alcoholic dishwater but was welcomingly soothing. "Actually, I am a level two wizard. Though like you I haven't played for a while. If we ever get back to civilisation maybe we should get together sometime."

Reb sniggered to himself, shaking his head. "I can just see us in Brimlaw's Castle, a half-Human, half-Medusan wizard and a half-Human, half-Ferengi thief!"

Lirik appreciated the joke. "We'd fit right in, wouldn't we?!"

The two laughed out loud, almost forgetting their situation for a moment. Lirik scorned himself. "We should get going, while there's still light."

1639 HOURS

Christian and Jackson sat side by side on the bridge command chairs, Narli at communications and Hedra sat at science with Professor Karim looking over her shoulder. She was still shaken by the corpses, but insisted on continuing her work with the computer systems, wanting "to be brave for the captain". While there was little they could do in the current situation, the two women were exploring all possibilities of activating the main computer via the bridge, though Hedra was barrelling over everything the Professor suggested.

"Navigational display in the green," Ensign Collard said, glancing over at the Orion, but there was no reaction. She sat on the anti-grav chair at tactical, trying not to pay too much attention to the two civilian females behind her. There was little she had to do herself bar reporting from the same crude navigational display the rest of the bridge crew could easily see on their own monitors.

"Going to three quarters impulse," Lieutenant Commander Kohl sat at the engineer's post. He had lashed the helm control into his console, leaving Warnerburg and the other volunteers to monitor systems from engineering and had brought the Romulan Murat with him to stand in, should he be required to return to the engineering deck in an emergency. Murat sat at the environmental controls, his eyes darting between system readouts and what Kohl was doing. He could feel the other eyes on the bridge on him from time to time, wary of what these people thought about his race.

Suddenly, three civilians rushed in from the observation lounge, all shouting at once.

"What? One at a time," Christian bellowed.

"There's something ahead," a young woman said.

One of Professor Karim's Vulcan lackeys embellished. "It appears to be a spacial distortion, not unlike a wormhole."

"All stop!" Christian barked. Murat rose to stand behind Kohl and watch his every move. "Mister Kohl, Ensign, Professor, come with me. You have the bridge," he nodded to Jackson who barely had a chance to nod back.

The Commodore looked to her right as the men disappeared, watching the Romulan sliding slowly into Kohl's seat with the makings of a smile on his face.

Through the observation lounge windows, the object dead ahead was not immediately apparent. A young, barely teenage Bajoran girl handed the Captain his binoculars. Christian realised it was the same girl he'd given the device to earlier, and later encountered in the beauty spa - she smiled at his recognition and he managed a fake smile back, patting her awkwardly on the head, though she winced at this and grimaced at him fiercely.

The view through the binoculars revealed what indeed looked like a wormhole, but it was both small, relatively speaking, and also seemed to be leaking energy exponentially. The binoculars' logic centre was not able to compute an accurate reading.

Handing the device to the Professor, who had a beautiful, stoic look on her face and the vaguest of frowns, the captain said "Take a look and tell me what you think."

She raised the binoculars to her long-lashed eyes with delicate hands and re-focussed them. After a few moments, she lowered them. "Fascinating."

On the bridge, Jackson was becoming annoyed at the Romulan's seemingly frantic expression. He stabbed at controls and Jackson wondered what he was doing. Instinctively she looked over her shoulder, and realising the security ensign was not there, she rose and moved toward him. "What are you doing?" she asked with more than a hint of accusation.

The Romulan looked up, an almost frightened look in his eyes. "I - I believe we have not stopped."

"He's right," Ambassador Narli was checking his own navigational display.

Jackson could see no one in the forward corridors returning from the Observation Lounge. "Try again, all stop."

Murat hit the display - three stabs. "It's not working."

Jackson looked around the bridge, realising she was the one who had to make the next move. "Bridge to engineering! Why haven't we stopped?" Jackson thought for a dreadful moment that no one would reply.

"This is engineering, according to systems we HAVE stopped, but we can see on the nav display we're still moving," Warnerburg said through the speakers.

"Shall I try reverse?" Murat asked.

Jackson nodded. But there was no change to their status. A pip appeared on the navigational display at its extreme range dead ahead.

"We're coming up fast on that anomaly," Narli reported as the Captain's party returned - at speed.

"Report!" Christian shouted. "Why haven't we stopped?"

Jackson could feel herself flushing. "We didn't stop, so we checked with engineering. They said that we had stopped, so we tried reverse, but that didn't work either."

In a small part of Christian's brain, he laughed out loud, but outwardly he was composed. "Steer us clear, Commander."

"I don't understand," Kohl was already shaking his head. "Negative control."

"This is engineering," Warnerburg's voice cut in, "it's the same down here, all controls are non-responsive."

"Shut the bloody things down then, and fire retros - blow hatches, I don't care what, just don't let us go into it!" Christian flung himself into his seat and gripped the arms as Jackson reeled from his outburst.

"What is it?" Jackson said.

"Unstable wormhole," was all Christian said.

1705 HOURS, FT

In the dim light of twilight, with hand held torch flame to guide the way, Reb followed Lirik as he walked slowly along a narrow passage within the structure's walls, his fingers exploring the surface.

Reb changed hands again, the torch was heavy and he wondered how much longer Lirik would carry on. He felt dog tired and just wanted to fall to the ground, shut his eyes and sleep.

"Let's just try over there," the Yeoman said quietly.

"Oh, for crying - you've been saying that for the last half hour!" Reb lowered the torch in protest.

"Keep it up, Mister Reb, it can't be much longer," Lirik approached the offending wall and almost the moment he touched it he perked up. "This is it."

Lirik inched along the wall, hands fluttering over the surface, out to the side, up and below. Finally, his hands stopped moving. "Got it."

Reaching for his tricorder, he fired out a short range duplicate of the myriad random signals he'd recorded when they were escaping from the storage facility on Helub directly at the high windowless wall, and both nearly jumped as part of the wall melted away to reveal a door.

Reb was equally surprised. "And for your next trick?"

"Part of my heritage, I sense all kinds of energies but mostly in the electromagnetic spectrum. I deduced there would be a way into the control structure somewhere. You want to do the honours?" Lirik stepped back and drew his phaser in readiness.

"It may surprise you, but not all Ferengi are lock pickers," Reb stood his ground.

Lirik smiled and stepped up to the door's control. "Not in my experience. Besides, you said you were a D&D thief?" In minutes, the door was open.

Tricorder outstretched, phaser at the ready, Lirik led the way inside. Lights flickered on sensing their presence, and the entrance closed behind them. Creeping along a narrow passage, the two men passed through another door and into what looked like a workshop on four levels - one below, two above. In the apex of the room, Lirik saw what looked like the emitter machinery. The power it generated was immense for the size of the plant, and Lirik felt woozy.

All around, small displays were silently projecting machinery status. "Looks like the power source below," Reb leaned over the rail encircling the lower levels where a group of pods hummed deep and low.

Lirik finished his scan. "No evidence of life signs, it's been empty for some time. Curious; it's a sealed environment, so we're lucky the atmosphere is Human friendly – oxygen and nitrogen."

"Who built it? The design seems different to the T'Kani facility on Helub," Reb followed Lirik to the far side and up a ladder to the top-most gallery. There, an abundance of computer consoles winked their ever-present attendance to duty.

"This appears to be the main emitter control," Lirik approached a large, rectangular desk in front of an even larger display screen. Luckily the iconography on and around the control switches had symbolic significance, and Lirik easily activated the tactical display. The screen displayed a graphic of the planet surrounded by meteors. The latter disappeared, and the planet unravelled until it was a flat map covered with grid references. Their own location was identified by a hot, red triangle. There were over thirty more, slightly paler triangles across the planet's surface.

Using his tricorder, Lirik used the universal translator part of his commbadge to supplement the diagnostic program. Scanning all the surfaces in the control suite, the tricorder managed to decode several of the alien symbols. "I think I can actually do this," Lirik smiled.

Reb watched as Lirik called up an overlay map of the planet, then more and more layers of atmosphere on top until two pips appeared, travelling at a slow speed across the planet's surface. Lirik paused, then continued to add layers, passed a further pip, then finally another. "There are the T'Kani ships," he said. "I've used the emitter's diagnostic program to scan for anomalies in the projected field through a number of atmosphere layers. I've interfaced the tricorder to track the ships and project course and speed. Now comes the hard part."

Reb didn't know what Lirik was doing, and couldn't help looking around the room from time to time, instinctively making sure they were still alone. "What would that be?"

Lirik talked as he worked. "Basically, I'm hoping to deactivate certain parts of the magnetic field so that the asteroids held in orbit come crashing down on the T'Kani ships."

Reb nodded, then came to a sticky mental conclusion. "Won't they also rain down on the surface? What if they hit us - or other life forms on the planet surface?"

Lirik stopped to look at him. "Why Mister Reb, you DO care. Just not about the right people."

The other man hmphed and turned away, disinterested. Lirik felt the urge to explain himself. "Of course I don't want to harm anyone, Mister, that's why this is so difficult. I have to calculate a time when all ships are over uninhabited land and drop just the right amount of boulders to destroy them."

Reb suddenly straightened. "Sounds like a long shot to me," he said, walking back to the ladder. "It would be easier," he continued to climb down, "if you knew that they were all converging on the same position."

Lirik hesitated, then walked to the railing. Reb was almost at the doorway leading to the exit. "You're a bit keen to die, aren't you? First jumping to my rescue on the bridge, now expressing a desire to go down with the enemy?" However, Lirik couldn't help but see the logic in what Reb suggested. "Patch the runabout's comm system to the Alpha 3 coded frequency when you get aboard. I'll give you the co-ordinates to head for."

"Alpha 3, got it," Reb shouted back.

"And Mister Reb, don't abandon me here or I'll have your lobes for serving bowls, or at least ashtrays. Once the ships are down, I won't hang about. Pick me up by the ravine."

Reb nodded and was gone. Lirik suddenly wondered how his cohort would get back across the bridge in the dark chill of night, then decided he would figure it out for himself. Although the Yeoman hated complex computer programming, his training equipped him to be able to do it with ease, so as he worked, he also began to analyse his surroundings and what purpose the complex served for its creators now that they had abandoned the world.

1710 HOURS

"Time to wormhole?" Christian clipped, wiping perspiration from the top of his lip.

"Approximately two minutes," Kohl reported.

The Commodore shifted in her seat to face the Captain. "I don't understand, what's so bad about going through this wormhole? Surely it will take us a long way from the T'Kani patrols?"

Professor Karim, who had taken the seat the other side of Christian, spoke across him to the older woman. "The wormhole is fledgling, an unstable and unpredictable off-spring of the Vekarian wormhole created somehow by the T'Kani."

Christian chipped in. "The Professor has been studying the Vekarian wormhole for weeks."

"I believe the T'Kani destroyed the relatively powerful wormhole that spans Tholian space for the purpose of creating many more, smaller wormholes, throughout Qovakian space," Karim explained, with little expression on her face.

"What better way of deploying their forces great distances throughout Qovakia as soon as the Vekarian attack took place?" Narli added from the sideline.

Jackson looked at the display; the blip was frighteningly close. "Are you sure?"

The Professor's jaw dropped in disbelief and she responded as only a person from Vulcan could, standing and facing the Commodore sternly. "The Captain just told you I have been studying the wormhole for weeks, and given my extensive credentials on the subject, no other could be more sure."

Jackson pursed her lips. "A simple yes would have sufficed, Professor."

The Professor almost scowled, then strode off the Bridge, toward the Observation Deck.

Ambassador Narli quickly rose from his seat. "If there's no avoiding this event, then I want to see it with my own eyes." And he scurried quickly in the Professor's direction.

Hedra walked down to the Command area and sat in the vacated seat beside the Captain, much to the Ensign and Commodore's gall.

"I suppose two things could happen, either we'll be sent further away from Vekaria, or we'll go back to Vekarian space, and right into the thick of the T'Kani fleet."

Christian bit his lip – from what he understood about wormholes, they were each as unpredictable as the last, and this was likely no exception; in fact, from what he'd overheard of the Professor's preliminary scans, she was unsure the T'Kani would be able to predict how many wormholes they would be able to create, let alone where they would be located and in what state.

While Jackson didn't have all the facts, she privately gave them a fifty fifty chance of getting killed – not so bad in the circumstances. Kohl slammed his fist down on the console, making her jump.

"Anything?" Christian asked, though he clearly knew the answer.

Everyone on the bridge, but especially those in the observation lounge, swallowed hard and braced for entry into the wormhole.

1722 HOURS FT

"Okay, Yeoman, I'm here," Reb's voice came over the commbadge just as Lirik was in the middle of a difficult calculation. He dismissed the message and carried on until he was done.

"I repeat, Yeoman, this is-"

"I'm here," Lirik smacked his badge too hard, his fingertips tingling. "Stick to basics over the air. I'm called Tix."

There was a pause. "I'm sorry, did you say Tits?"

Lirik ground his teeth, sure that Reb was doing this on purpose. "Tee, eye, eks - Tix. Stand by, Hudson." Lirik finished his calculations - by his reckoning Reb would have to act fast. "Head for grid alpha, one nine-"

"No grid," Reb interrupted, "long and lat only."

"Fine!" Lirik went back to the main display and called up the global map with the overlays again. "If I'm Greenwich, you go to 315 by 94. Clear?"

Thankfully, due to Reb's mother being Human, he understood the word Greenwich. "Clear, Trix."

Lirik blinked hard, ignoring the jibe. "Step on it, Hudson. You need to be there now."

As Reb deftly manoeuvred the runabout out of the cave mouth, he brought her up into a sharp arc, apexing twenty metres above the lattice bridge, then twisting her nose and bearing down into the deep ravine that could so easily have been a final resting place – twice.

Steering through the ravines toward the general co-ordinates, Reb looked at the landmass readouts and intercomed Lirik. "I estimate co-ordinates in three minutes."

"Negative," Lirik insisted, "you've got to climb and accelerate. Intersect at an altitude of no higher than two hundred metres."

"I'll be exposed to enemy fire!" Reb yelped.

Lirik struck his forehead. "So help me, that's the whole idea! To lure them."

"I got bogies!" Reb shouted.

"Then raise your shields!" came the voice through the Hudson's speakers. The vessel zipped along above the land at over 400kph, skimming the last vestige of precipice as the terrain dropped away and flattened out to all surrounding horizons. Suddenly, the Hudson wobbled and began to shake violently. The negative magnetic effect releasing the asteroids above was affecting flight controls.

In the gentle hum of the emitter control, Lirik watched as the T'Kani ships converged toward Reb's position. They would soon be in firing range, but the asteroids were taking longer to topple into the atmosphere than he had anticipated. If he didn't manage to destroy all the ships in one fell swoop, here and now, he knew the Hudson wouldn't stand a chance. That was a risk he couldn't take.

"Reb, fire off your aft phasers, get them mad!" he shouted.

Reb couldn't believe his ears. "What? Are you crazy?" Then mumbled to himself about where the damn phaser controls were. Two energy bursts barely missed the runabout shields as the T'Kani ships closed in, prompting Reb to temporarily engage auto pilot while he located the panel, targeted the formation behind and fired.

Lirik could see the T'Kani ships were spreading out slightly to avoid enemy fire and clearly about to encircle the runabout to prevent its escape. The Yeoman's palms were sweating; it felt as if everything were about to go wrong. Lirik then acted unilaterally. He overcompensated on the negative energy zone, dropping the magnetic field across a wider radius. It was like opening the floodgates. Suddenly, dozens of asteroids tumbled out of near orbit into the gravity well from the low atmosphere, rapidly picking up velocity as they plummeted down. Lirik could see Reb was barely a thousand metres from the lead ship. He wasn't going to make it clear in time.

The large display showed the alien ships all in the clear line of assault from the asteroids - but so now was the runabout. Suddenly the Federation ship turned, heading back into the line of fire. "Hudson, what the hell are you doing?"

Reb had no time to respond. He was intent on the windows and his tactical display; he heaved the runabout's nose up, reduced speed and piloted directly into the downpour of asteroids. Using shields and aerobatic skill, Reb piloted the ship into the storm as the T'Kani ships were obliterated below. Only a small rock hit the ship at speed, causing a shower of sparks and a wail of alarm to flood the cockpit.

The incident was over in seconds, the downpour dissipating, only the odd asteroid tumbled down before Lirik restored full power to the energy field. Reb levelled and turned the Hudson on its side to survey the view below. A shock wave had caused a vast indentation on the flat surface of the world, but not enough to cause any catastrophic environmental change. But a huge cloud of dust billowed up from the impact site of the multiple asteroids.

"I read no more T'Kani ships," Lirik said over the speakers. "Return to me immediately."

"Roger," Reb wouldn't argue with that. He'd once witnessed a Vatcan rebel assault craft that had taken a pounding from armed forces, and even when forced out of the sky, laying smashed and powerless to move on the ground, the small ship had managed to pick off ten imperial fighters with its mighty guns. There was no way he would stick around to suffer the same fate.

1731 HOURS

"Engineering reports the navigation problem is now resolved, we're all stopped, Captain," Kohl felt responsible for the ship's earlier lack of control, even though the Captain realised it was as much his own fault as anyone else's. Christian was peering into the navigational display.

"No ships in the area, that's good. Any idea where we are?" Christian turned to Collard.

"Not without a reference point, sir," the Ensign replied. "Though I would guess we are nowhere near Vekaria."

Indeed, the navigational display clearly showed an immense range of asteroid fields, drifts of them spread out in all directions. Christian was pleased to see Ganhedra stride in from the Observation Lounge - he'd been called to deck one immediately they exited the wormhole.

"I think I know where we are," the alien said. "If the Professor is right, and the wormhole configuration lays on an axis away from Vekaria, then this could be the Wibbly Wobbly Way."

"Excuse me," Christian was astounded. "But I thought you just said 'Wibbly Wobbly Way'?"

Ganhedra was fretting. "I am sorry, your communication device is not translating this phrase well. It is not so much a proper noun as it is a description of what occurs here. The asteroid fields are constantly moving, sometimes coming together, sometimes apart. It is a treacherous part of Qovakia."

"Then we're still in Qovakian space?" Christian confirmed.

Ganhedra winced, moving his hunched torso from left to right and waving his hands. "Yes, well, maybe. Perhaps, anyway. Asteroid fields are prevalent throughout what you call the Outer Zone - certainly far beyond Qovakian space. For example, there's a range stretching from the wormhole all the way along the Tholian border for about 900 light years, and my guess is we're on the Qovakian side of that."

Christian rapped his fingers. "Can you suggest a safe course?"

Ganhedra clowned his thought processes once more, causing Jackson to squeeze the Captain's hand to keep him calm. "Upon consideration, I would say not. Qovakia is a vast area, as big as your Federation space. Many planets were sympathisers with T'Kani, it really depends on where we are exactly. It's probably best to trust no one. But one thing's certain, the asteroid field is largely uninhabited, particularly this stretch along Tholian space – if indeed that's where we are."

"Fine," Christian leapt to his feet, wondering if he could fully believe the odd alien. "Mister Kohl, we're going in. Ganhedra here will help to navigate. Commodore, Miss Hedra tells me the Captain's ready room is below us, I think I'll go check it out." He hand-signalled the Starfleet sign language for 'Head' and she acknowledged his action with a smile.

1802 HOURS FT

The runabout Hudson paused beneath the asteroid cover above, Reb waiting for Lirik to confirm the flight path back to the Fantasy. Lirik instead was studying plastic charts he'd removed from the Vekarian minister's case they'd found in the runabout's cockpit. Reb picked one up, it looked like maps of Helub.

"What are you looking for?" Reb asked finally.

Lirik handed over the plastic film. "Take a look at this - it's a two-dimensional representation of local Vekarian space."

Reb looked and immediately identified Vekaria, Helub, the wormhole and the Tholian border. Other locations were also identified, but he couldn't decipher them. "So?"

"Approximate the Fantasy's flight path from Vekaria," Lirik instructed.

Reb flipped his lips with an index finger as he studied the chart then projected the flight path. He then approximated the Hudson's additional leap to warp and their general heading. "Somewhere over there?"

"Almost," Lirik smiled and called up a detailed map of the local area.

"Wait – you have a map now?" Reb was annoyed. "Why didn't we use it earlier?"

"We didn't have it earlier," the Yeoman smiled. "I mistakenly accessed a starmap database in the facility, a Vekarian file labeled as current official navigational data for all of Qovakia and border regions, so I downloaded it into the tricorder. I had to dump almost its entire memory to accommodate it, but I think it was worth it."

Reb just shook his head – this Yeoman was proving himself to be a bit clever. "Oh, I see where we are," he quickly located the general area.

Lirik lifted the right arm of his chair and swivelled to face the young man. "If you were still on board the Fantasy, and the Captain had ordered you continue without the runabout, where would you have taken the ship?"

Reb looked back at the map. "I suppose I would have headed for these asteroid fields near to the Tholian border."

"That's what we should do," Lirik decided. "Head for the asteroid fields and wait for them there."

Reb frowned. "It could be months, even years at impulse, before they get there - if they get there at all. I mean, won't they be looking for us?" He was confused.

"Think about it, Reb. The passengers and the ship come first, they're hardly likely to come searching for us, risking their own lives. And if I know the Commodore she'll whip the Captain and Lt Cmmdr Kohl into shape. That ship will be moving at warp before the week's out," Lirik was only guessing - the ship might turn out to be a dud. He felt a wave of honesty coming over him. "Look, sometimes in Starfleet you just have to take an educated guess, or what you'd call a risk. My hunch is that the ship will make for the safety of the asteroid fields, so we should too."

Reb sighed and shook his head. "I think it's a huge gamble, but I guess you're the boss."

Lirik smiled. "No need to guess."

EPILOGUE

As the runabout Hudson flitted through the asteroid belt encircling the planet and warped toward the asteroid field along the Tholian border, in the cold early morning light a single rock wobbled on top of a vast field of rocks. It rocked again, this time harder, finally toppling away. A small hatch opened and a petite, humanoid figure dressed from head to toe in a figure-hugging, dark red suit littered with multi-coloured shapes hauled themselves free.

On closer inspection, the suit had bumps and lumps, presumably part of the wearer's physique, but maybe just the suit's design, or indications of hidden devices. It clambered and leapt balleticly from rock to rock, finally making it to the outskirts of the debris field and jumping down to the harder sun-dried earth.

The figure walked on, and on, for many days and nights, in heat and cold, climbing, slowly climbing the terrain until it reached the summit of a high mountain range. There, at the foot of a great lattice bridge, it nodded its greeting to the structure's reception party and deftly jumped across the bridge, avoiding all clouds with ease. It immediately passed into the homestead and made for a secluded wall down a side passage.

The wall became a door, which gave way to a passage and an interior. The figure ascended the ladder to the main control panels where it finally stopped. The figure entered several controls and the display showed a speeded up version of events as recorded internally a few days ago: Lirik and Reb entering the structure, Reb leaving, and later, Lirik leaving.

The figure walked over to another panel and entered several commands. This time, the display became alive with myriad colours and lights. Shortly, the screen image was replaced with a similarly masked and clad humanoid. Both the foreground and background was a confusion of colour and light.

As the figure watched the display in silence, the image grew more intense, then began to dim. Finally, the two people bowed their heads, and the screen blanked.