SS FANTASY, COMMAND SECTION COMPUTER CORE, 0903 HOURS
Lieutenant Commander Kohl ascended the long ladder to the Control Room, inspecting repair work as he climbed; it was going better than he'd hoped. On Kohl's instruction the Romulan engineer Murat had managed to persuade a group of wary and weary passengers in first clearing out the debris – and cleaning off blood smears - caused by the Captain's struggle to deactivate the holoprogram the day before. Mercifully, with so few memory units in place when Christian run amok, most of the damage was cosmetic.
The volunteers had found an abundant supply of replacement frames, connectors and circuit housings in nearby stores making their refit no more challenging than an intricate 3D puzzle, though the Captain agreed emphatically with Kohl that any of the fragile transparent aluminium panels that had shattered and caused him injury should be replaced preferably with more durable opaque aluminium or plasteel sheeting.
The volunteers made their task even easier with the discovery of a comprehensive holo-blueprint of the entire layout of the structure embedded in the redundant emitters surrounding the core that effortlessly directed where every panel and every corresponding memory card, rod or chip should be placed. Despite this, everyone involved knew the reinstallation of the many thousands of data storage devices was going to be highly labour-intensive, not least because they currently lay strewn around the surrounding decks in great drifts.
Those few rods that had been destroyed in Christian's rumpus could no doubt be physically replaced once replicators were operational or additional stores located, but the data on them most likely could not unless they could locate back-ups in memory containment elsewhere.
All fragments removed had been carefully packed off to Professor Karim and her helpers for analysis, including the rod that had initiated the T'Kani defense holo-programme in the first place.
Peering down past his feet to the lowest two levels of the core's shaft through the transparent flooring Kohl saw Murat's troupe busy sorting the dumpster loads of data containers, categorising them according to type and destination for systematic re-insertion, carefully following the schematics provided. The oldest-style command data cards had been easy to pick out by their size and bright colours, plus they were proportionally fractional in number. Once these were inserted into the lower levels of the core a number of automated and redundant systems came back on line; mostly related to basic power, life support, internal security and general utilities.
A short while earlier, after Ensign Collard's visit to Engineering, Kohl had gone to check on Hedra in the Solaris Lounge and was surprised to hear from O'Hara that she had been given the all-clear. After he'd regained consciousness following the T'Kani's surprise attack on the Command Section Bridge he and Hedra had been hauled down to the Spa by the brutal soldiers for medical attention, and he could see she had a very serious wound.
Such a blow to the back of the head would have gravely injured if not killed most humanoids; however, according to O'Hara, Hedra's superior genetic make-up gave her denser bones and musculature as well as resilient organs and accelerated healing, more akin to the Klingons than her fellow Orions. Hedra had not wanted to remain idle and insisted to the medic that she return to duty, and O'Hara had agreed.
Kohl determined Hedra would be back in the lofty Control Room of the computer core continuing with her assignment to assess active systems as they came on line and coordinate as best she could the most appropriate reactivation of the monoliths and local caches surrounding the core and the core itself. Christian had requested that Kohl work with Hedra to ensure local and ship-wide networks were fully up and running in the quickest time possible and any major problems flagged as a matter of urgency.
At Hedra's previous personal and passionate request amid the unorganised hubbub of civilian helpers, Kohl had politely instructed everyone to stay out of the Orion woman's way as she worked; she'd asked that only he have direct contact with her. But as the morning's hours had evidently passed with no word from her to say she was back in the control room, let alone how she was getting on, the engineer was growing uneasy about the reason for her silence. According to Ensign Collard she was a felon, "nothing more, nothing less".
The Lieutenant Commander usually kept an open mind about such things, wanting to make his own mind up about people by their deeds, but he wasn't certain about the full extent of her skills and was growing fearful that she might make unintentional mistakes that could land them all in serious trouble again.
Finally at the apex, limbs aching only slightly, Kohl stepped onto the narrow metal grill gangway leading around the perimeter of the concave ceiling to the control room on the far side, his boots echoing loudly with every advancing step.
"Who is it?!" Hedra's muffled cry came from the slightly open doorway.
"Lieutenant Commander Kohl!" he replied, quickening his pace, noticing the observation window was opaqued out, in privacy mode, blocking his view inside.
"I'm… I'm busy with something, can you come back later?" came the short-breathed response.
"Why? Is there a problem?" Kohl tried not to panic.
As he reached the door he paused, waiting for her to ask him to enter but when she didn't he became even more suspicious given the dimly lit interior and what she might be up to, or have inadvertently done, and he flung the heavy door back.
Inside, Hedra was hunched over, hurriedly pulling her trousers on, but was otherwise naked.
"Oh!" Kohl froze for a second, then pulled the door quickly shut, holding onto the handle as if to ensure it wouldn't open again, her almost nude silhouette imprinted on his eyelids.
"It's okay, Commander," Hedra called after him, struggling with her clothing. "I was just… exercising – I was losing concentration so I thought some physical activity would help." There was a pause.
"…Naked…?" he responded, bewildered.
"…it's how we do it on Orion," she said, then stopped dressing. She had a good body, and what Kohl just did would have been considered insulting on her home planet. Feeling a pang of ingrained pride she marched to the door and yanked it open, the handle slipping out of his hand.
"Are you… embarrassed to look at me?" she asked, sounding incredulous.
Hedra's pants weren't fully zipped up, sitting low on her hips, and her jacket was still partially undone.
"Well, I, I, I, I…" he stammered.
"I have a body that was crafted to exacting standards," Hedra said, quite flatly if cryptically, and evidently in support of her previous question. "I have nothing to be ashamed of."
Kohl conceded in his head that she was indeed intensely beautiful, but he'd never been comfortable around nakedness growing up or while at the Academy, or even in service since, borne out of his childhood mostly.
"I'm ah…I mean you are er…that's…" Kohl spluttered. "But…" he felt rooted to the spot.
"But what…?!" Hedra scalded him.
Kohl's face flushed red and without another word he walked swiftly away, leaving Hedra to rock her head back as he quickly disappeared down the ladder, purposefully not looking back.
"Humans!" she scoffed, then stepped back inside, trying to slam the heavy door behind her without success. In an act of defiance she quickly removed her clothes again, flinging them across the room.
Walking to the main desk Hedra disinterestedly flicked a switch, and her morning's hard work flashed up on the displays all across the walls around her. Slipping into the soft leather chair, feeling its coldness sticking to her bare skin, she surveyed the systems and knew that Kohl would no doubt have assumed that she had not been working at all.
* * *
RUNABOUT HUDSON, 0924 HOURS
Two eagerly consumed runabout-replicated coffees later, the Captain (standard skinny cap, double sweet) and the Commodore (Columbian 33 blend, extra strength black filter, no sugar) had finished reading Lirik's reports. Christian had raised his eyebrows several times while perusing the diplomat's rudimentary analysis of T'Kani weaponry and technology, and shook his head at the detailed report of Lirik and Reb's visit to the magnetic planet, their encounter with the indigenous people and the T'Kani planetary shield generator they'd infiltrated and used to good if not daring and dangerous tactical advantage.
By the time he got to details of the rescue of Commander Sarilev and Cadet Yip, the retrieval of supplies from the wreckage of the USS Papillon and the impossibly hazardous journey back to the Fantasy through the dense asteroid field, he had joined Jackson's more relaxed and intent posture, occasionally glancing up at the Yeoman. It was impressive, but Christian wasn't over the fact that Lirik had disobeyed a direct order and reneged on the promise to serve under his leadership.
Having finished on details of what Lirik described as their rescue of the Fantasy and his encounter with the Bajoran girl on the bridge, the two command officers finally both leant back, Jackson puffing her cheeks.
"You and Reb have certainly been busy since leaving us," she said, glancing at Christian who was revisiting certain points in the reports and grimacing hard. "Some of this is quite incredible."
"What about this transmission you picked up? Can we hear it?"
Lirik held up a finger, as if saying "exactly, Captain" and depressed the table's inset control padd. The words were played over the audio speakers once, then twice. Both Jackson and Christian assessed the computer analysis Lirik projected onto their padds.
"There's no doubt, that signal definitely originated from the Fantasy," Christian said. "Yeoman, are you suggesting that this girl who you assaulted on the bridge was the same person who sent the message?"
Jackson intervened, interpreting Christian's unwarranted intent.
"If what the Yeoman suggests is true, Captain, then the girl wasn't having any old temper tantrum. She was deliberately trying to stop the ship from going to warp and escaping those advancing T'Kani ships who had clearly received her message and triangulated our position. And it's highly likely she's no mere girl."
"Precisely," Lirik said, acknowledging that the Captain believed him capable of casually assaulting a child. "I searched all over the known parts of the ship for her early this morning, but it came as no surprise when I couldn't find her. That's why I came down here. I guessed that if she is some kind of agent for the T'Kani, then she might try to destroy the runabout or damage any intelligence we may have gathered."
"Or use the runabout to get away," Jackson added, "I mean, the Fantasy would hardly be in a position to stop her."
"Now hang on, let's not get carried away," Christian raised his hand. "As far as the Bajoran girl is concerned, right now this," he smacked the topmost padd he held with the back of his hand and tossed it on the table, "is all pure speculation."
"Mind control," Collard chipped in, putting her empty soya latte mug on the table.
"Excuse me?" Christian said.
"Sorry, Ensign?" Jackson asked.
"I was considering how they might have influenced the girl so quickly - what with the Bajorans and others races having been in the Outer Zone for such a short time, Commodore," Collard explained weakly.
"No Ensign, as the Commodore suggested it's more likely she isn't Bajoran at all, possibly a native Qovakian and her appearance has been surgically altered," Lirik suggested. "Though we don't know much about the T'Kani, so currently we shouldn't rule anything out."
"I agree," Jackson said, peering over her new spectacles at a blurry Collard. "The communication diagnostic couldn't verify her race after all."
"From experience," Christian folded his arms, "we Starfleet officers can sometimes rely too much on these sophisticated diagnostic systems. Occasionally they are just plain wrong - that's why they give a percentage of accuracy rather than a definitive answer."
Lirik drummed his fingers on his thighs, wanting to bring the discussion back on track.
"If she is a T'Kani agent as I believe then of course it is more plausible the girl originates from the Outer Zone; at this stage her exact racial profile is irrelevant. But Captain, one thing stands out - the girl's apparent age," Lirik said. "If you think back to the T'Kani who attacked us in the Hangar on Helub - they were of more childish proportions as well."
"They were small, I grant you that," Christian agreed reluctantly, "but they were also completely covered from head to foot, so there's no way to be sure. And they certainly didn't behave like children."
Jackson raised her eyebrows at that but said nothing.
"But," Collard interrupted, now confident in her participation, "the T'Kani who took over the ship yesterday - in the holo-program - they were very much adult."
"Well if the girl is an imposter, she had me fooled," Jackson said, thinking back. "She chatted as a normal girl would about various things all the way to the medical area, then ran off to play with some other kids as soon as we got there. So if she is the agent then the T'Kani must know an amount about our cultures and behavior for her to be so convincing. It's quite chilling to think of her in their midst."
"Oh I don't know," Lirik responded. "Hiding in plain sight is one of the best methods of espionage. We may have taken it for granted that some apparent child wouldn't possibly be a threat."
"Aside from you," Christian said sarcastically. Lirik shrugged.
"Did you recognise her voice?" Christian asked. Jackson shook her head.
"I couldn't be sure."
"Captain," Collard spoke up again. "Yesterday on the internal scans we saw on the Secondary Bridge, there were only the two main groups of people; one in the main shuttle bay and the other in the beauty spa. The couple approaching our position we now know to have been Lieutenant Commander Kohl and that Orion woman, but aside from them we saw no other life signs." The others looked blankly back at her. "If this girl was hiding in the observation lounge during the incident, as the Yeoman described, then why didn't the internal systems recognise her? Do you think she's another holographic program?"
"Oh I really don't like the sound of that at all." Jackson shook her head.
"That's not possible," Christian said. "We halted that part of the computer core's functions before Lirik got to the Bridge, and she didn't disappear. So she would either be some form of self-generating, self-sustaining hologram we haven't encountered to date, or she is some kind of life form that doesn't show up on standard life form sensors." Christian drew his index finger along his lips. "Look, before we go any further with this we really should find the girl first and try to verify who or what she is. I want evidence before I go pointing fingers at children, Mister Lirik - a voice match would be good. O'Hara could examine her as well, try and establish whether or not she really is Bajoran."
"She could be dangerous," Collard said.
"Undoubtedly," Lirik agreed.
"We should form a search party," Jackson said.
Christian nodded to Collard. "Make it happen."
Lirik felt absolved, at least his fears were now being acted on. "On another matter," he stood and walked over to the wall monitor, bringing up an image of the hostages in the shuttle bay as recorded by the runabout. "Lieutenant O'Hara told me about the bodies of the Vekarian senate officers you discovered in the turbolift."
"Ah yes," Christian tossed the other padd he was holding casually onto the table, "our other mystery."
"Oh that's right, what did O'Hara say about their cause of death?" Jackson asked the Captain – who felt marginally embarrassed he hadn't appraised her of the autopsy.
"Their hearts were…crushed," Christian said. "By a humanoid hand."
"Oh my-!" Jackson exclaimed.
"Really?" Lirik was intrigued.
"What?" Christian looked at Lirik and back at Jackson. "What?!"
The Commodore responded. "I spent a lot of time talking to the Qovakian survivors this last week. It is said that the Ore – the ferocious warrior people who joined the Resistance and helped defeat the T'Kani previously, did so by crushing their enemy's hearts with their bare hands, such was their physical prowess."
"Really?" Lirik said again, deep in thought.
Christian deliberated for a moment. "Lieutenant Commander Kohl told me that he saw an Ore object - a staff or spear, I believe - in the T'Kani hanger prior to the invasion. His tricorder indicated it had been driven into the metal deck by a humanoid hand. The unusual thing was that it had been placed there recently."
"But that's not possible," Collard said. "I heard that the entire Ore people were wiped out in the final weeks of the war."
"One or more of them could have survived," Jackson suggested.
Lirik saw Christian staring in thought.
"You suspect the Helan are involved somehow," Lirik stated.
Christian frowned. "I didn't say that, but the Qovakians I have spoken to don't seem to know a lot about these Helan people, saying they hadn't even heard of them until after peace resumed several years ago."
"But they've been helping us. And from what I've observed they are hardly a military race. Their connection is surely circumstantial?" Collard said, unexpectedly animated.
"Not necessarily," Jackson leant forward. "Mister Lirik can back me up on this; since my arrival to the Outer Zone, I've heard little talk of the Ore, or their demise. I have seen much evidence of the T'Kani occupation and the rebellion and ensuing war, but I haven't seen one image of the Ore people – no memorial, not even a dedication plaque. Sort of strange for a race that was pivotal in helping save the whole of Qovakia, don't you think?"
Lirik had his own information and opinions on the topic, but instinctively opted to endure the brainstorm rather than divulge all he knew at this juncture. He tapped on the display screen showing a recorded image of the survivors under the watchful eye of the T'Kani in the shuttle bay.
"Indeed," Lirik said. "Well here's one last thing. This holographic program that took the ship from you," Lirik saw the Captain shift in his seat at his phrasing, "it was clearly a security measure installed by the T'Kani when they possessed the Fantasy. The program appears to have been simply to round everyone up and keep them detained until otherwise instructed. But why did they separate the Helan from everyone else?"
"Not just the Helan," Collard added pointing at the image. "Ambassador Narli was also segregated along with them. And they were all under heavy guard, as if they were a particular threat."
"What has Ambassador Narli got in common with the Helan?" Jackson asked to no-one in particular.
Lirik thought briefly about that. He knew Narli of old, as did Jackson, but neither of them could distinguish a plausible connection with the T'Kani at this stage. He held up the Vekarian minister Re Lorken's transparency.
"Perhaps this may provide an answer. It's a communique I found in Re Lorken's bag left on the runabout when the Helen took it aboard the Fantasy," Lirik waved the clear sheet covered in scribbles and icons.
"Yes, and how did they do that without being detected?" Collard asked, but Lirik was intent on his own direction.
"It's between Qovakian officials and makes specific mention to the Andorians - as well as the Romulans and the T'Kani among others. I've been trying to transcribe it, but it's in a written form of language unique to an inner cadre of Qovakian politicians - a secret code, if you will – though they use standard Federation symbols to describe those races and this glyph here seems concurrent with the description Kohl gave of the T'Kani flag of invasion he discovered."
Christian looked up, slightly shocked. "That he discovered after that transparency was created..?"
"But… that suggests the Qovakians knew of the impending attack…?!" Jackson swooned.
"I'd guess that was probable, Commodore," Lirik said, "Although I think-"
"Bridge to the Captain," the voice over the runabout's intercom broke the intense brainstorming. Christian pressed the comm button on the table.
"Christian here, go ahead Reb."
"The Helan leader Ganhedra is saying we need to change course. But Ambassador Narli reports a faint distress signal in our direct path. A beacon; probably an SOS."
"I'm on my way," Christian stood and spoke to the two women. "This can wait till our staff meeting later. If you don't mind, I want a moment alone with the Yeoman."
Jackson grasped Lirik's arm as she passed, feeling the shield tickle her skin and a welling of nausea in her tummy and quickly let go.
"You did good work, Yeoman," she said, glancing over at Christian.
Lirik lightly tapped her arm in gentle acknowledgement and watched the Commodore and Collard go. He straightened his uniform and faced the Captain stoically.
"I've let Reb off the hook concerning your disobeying orders, he already told me he had nothing to do with it and you acted on your own. I trust you will take full responsibility for what happened?" Christian spoke with genuine displeasure.
"Of course, Captain," Lirik replied quietly not surprised by Reb throwing him under the shuttle.
"I personally don't condone your actions, however… the Commodore has convinced me of your reasoning behind it. Your subsequent actions on the magnetic planet and in the asteroid field were commendable and the information you have gathered will I hope come in useful, as will the two crewmen and all that you managed to salvage from the USS Pappillon. But let me make one thing plainly clear," Christian stepped closer to Lirik, "as long as I'm in command on this ship you'll get no special treatment. Diplomat or no diplomat, if you disobey my orders again I'll personally throw you off the ship at the nearest available location. Got it?"
Lirik was on thin ice and he knew it, despite having the weight of Starfleet law behind him. He bowed his silent acceptance and felt the Captain brush past him hard as he quickly exited. He was about to sit down and recommence his research when the Captain shouted to him from the threshold:
"I require your presence on the bridge, Mister Lirik. Secure the runabout."
* * *
MAIN BRIDGE, 0950 HOURS
Ganhedra fiddled with his sleeves, waiting beside the centre chair for Christian to arrive. As soon as the nearby turbolift doors parted, he was babbling wildly.
"Wait, please, give me a few moments," the Captain raised a flat hand at the energetic man. "Mister Narli, have you translated the signal?"
"I have, it is transmitting on a localised frequency, presumably their long range communications are damaged. The syntax of the universal translator may be a bit off, but it reads along the lines of: emergency, help, rescue, death soon…and then follows the co-ordinates. It repeats every few seconds."
The Captain noted that Narli hadn't needed to refer to his displays and continued to evoke a confidence that could rival any seasoned Starfleet officer.
"The signal is coming from the border of that nebula dead ahead, from a narrow strand of asteroids," Reb confirmed before Collard had the chance to.
Christian noticed for the first time that the young pilot had made himself at home: his trademark leather jacket was slung over the back of his seat, empty paper cups lined up along the top of the helm console and an assorted stack of small boxes were tucked into the side of his chair – rich pickings, he assumed, from the Fantasy's hoard, then comprehending that petty pilfering of the ship's many and varied contents could be more widespread; he'd need to raise that with the Commodore and Collard at the earliest convenience.
The old Helan leader stepped into his view, a pleading expression on his face.
"And you don't want us to go there?"
"My people are wise to this nebula, Captain," the old man visibly calmed somewhat, relieved to finally be having his say. "This is a dangerous region of space - separate from the Qovakian union, with questionable borders and shipping rights. There are a number of independent nations within, many of whom are aggressively territorial, although others are fanatical isolationists who are even less forgiving than the Tholians. I would recommend we change course lest we encounter any of their vessels."
"During the last occupation, were any of these nations aligned to the T'Kani?" Lirik asked, pushing forward to furtively glance down at Narli's console, checking the Andorian hadn't got it wrong.
Ganhedra chewed his cheeks in deliberation. Lirik exchanged a quick look with Christian.
"No," the old man said finally, "they were not. But some of them are equally ruthless."
Jackson dropped ungracefully into the seat to the right of the Captain's chair. "We are Starfleet officers, Ganhedra, we have a duty to respond to a distress call whether from a known friendly or potential hostile."
Lirik was surprised by Jackson's gung-ho comment, but it was surprisingly Ensign Collard who advised caution.
"Captain, I must advise that we are far from battle-ready should we be drawn into conflict." Jackson turned her head, unamused at having her word questioned by the junior, but Collard appeared determined. "With no sustained warp drive, no weapons, shields or transporters, we have no means of defense and very limited rescue capability as it is."
"Only a bad workman blames his tools, Ensign," Christian said, slipping into the Captain's chair in support of his fellow command officer. "The Commodore is correct, we are obligated to respond." Christian tapped the controls on the small arm of his chair, pleased to finally be performing a more 'normal' Captain's duty. "Engineering."
"Kohl here, Captain," his voice was controlled, if quiet.
"Standby to take us to full impulse."
"Confirmed." In the engine room, Kohl crossed his fingers at his team who copied his gesture and prayed.
Christian turned to the Commodore.
"Our best chance of rescue is via the runabout. Take an away team and report to the shuttle bay at once."
Jackson bobbed her head - she couldn't quite bring herself to say 'aye sir' for the time being and she tapped her own comm panel.
"Mister Kohl, is Commander Sarilev still assisting you down there?"
"Aye, Commodore," he replied, "he's helping out in one of the workshops."
"Have him meet me in the main shuttle bay on the double," she signed off and reconnected to the makeshift sickbay. "Lieutenant O'Hara, please report to the shuttle bay immediately."
"Why?" came the incredulous mid-Atlantic voice eventually.
"Rescue mission," Christian said without reprimanding her for the lack of protocol, but the Nurse was having none of it.
"Captain, you can't be-"
"Lieutenant," Jackson snapped, "just get moving."
Christian tapped the control again to cut off O'Hara's continuing protests.
The Commodore nodded to Christian, smiling, as if to say 'I can handle her, don't worry' and stood to leave.
"Ensign, Miss Warnerburg," she said to the nervous rookie and veteran, "you're also with me."
As she passed by the Comms station she heard Narli murmur to Lirik:
"Causing trouble are we?"
The Yeoman just rolled his eyes and walked down to take her still warm seat beside the Captain.
As the three women entered the turbolift, the Captain turned to Lirik just before his bum touched down.
"Man the tactical station, Yeoman. Keep an eye on navigational sensors for any ships. Ambassador, you may hear them before we see them."
Narli and Lirik shared a mutual glance as Lirik wearily made his way to tactical – both wondering if perhaps the Starfleet Command hot-shot was finally showing some metal.
"Full ahead, Mister Reb," he said, parking the issue of housekeeping etiquette around the helm for the moment.
"Aye that, Captain," Reb aped the Bridge-speak to everyone's amusement.
As the ship rapidly approached the string of asteroids, the purple-green gasses of the nebula filled the entire view screen, bathing the bridge crew with its radiance.
"Runabout Hudson standing by, Captain," Jackson said across the commlink.
"Helm, hold position here," Christian waited for Reb to slow the ship to a halt. "Proceed runabout."
* * *
The Hudson lifted off the hangar deck and banked swiftly toward the open bay doors. Christian was impressed by the piloting of the vessel as it swept up and over the length of the Fantasy and away from them - he presumed it was Sarilev at the helm. In many ways the experienced Commander was easily his equal, having served as the first officer of the downed USS Papillon. The only differences were that Christian was several years younger, and also the one to whom Starfleet had granted a command.
"Hudson, anything?" Christian asked after nearly a minute's silence.
Sitting in the co-pilot seat beside Sarilev, Jackson selected the comm response control.
"We've found her, Captain, crash-landed on an asteroid - we think it's a science vessel by its sensor configuration but the Vekarian database doesn't recognise it."
"Gandhedra?" the Captain asked the Helan leader if he recognised it.
The old man stared intently at the screen and tightly shook his head. "Without a visual image… it could be any of a number of races."
"Two humanoids, both weak life signs," Jackson said, double checking the sensors.
"The ship's badly damaged," Collard said, seated at the runabout's mission specialist station, currently in the configuration for tactical control. "Sensors indicate they were attacked, but I detect no other vessels nearby."
"Tactical concurs, Captain," said Lirik across their commlink.
O'Hara examined more sensor data at the science station. "They breathe the same air we do. I recommend we beam them directly aboard."
"For safety's sake, we should treat them on board their own ship if we can, Commodore," Sarilev addressed Jackson directly.
"I'm afraid we don't have that option," urged Warnerburg, sat at the engineering/ops station, "their engine has started a cascade failure."
"Beam them out then raise shields!"
Warnerburg had already made a pattern lock on both aliens, despite the Commander's initial misgivings. O'Hara rushed into the rear of the vessel in time for the materialisation.
"Do you have them?" Christian asked over the comms.
"Well?" Jackson urged.
"One moment, Sir, they're in the buffers for unknown species protocol," Warnerburg said referring to the diagnostic systems making a thorough scan of physiology, vital signs and any other potential threat. "Signal is green, Commodore. Wait… hang on… yes, it's fine. Must have been some kind of random glitch."
"Are you sure? Run it again," the Commodore urged noting Sarilev had slaved his console onto the transporter diagnostic.
"The results are fine, Commodore," he said. "They're in the clear across the board."
Momentarily the two unconscious humanoids materialised onto the main table in the rear of the vessel, one male, one female. Sarilev raised shields, quickly backing the Hudson away as the damaged ship convulsed in a white ball of light and was gone, along with most surrounding rock.
"They both have extensive internal injuries," O'Hara reported to the Commodore as the older woman entered the aft section.
"Oh!" Jackson reeled at the strong heady sickly scent in the air. "Is that them?"
"I guess," O'Hara was overwhelmed by the smell also but focused on analysing her readings. "They're close to Takaran physiology in many ways. Their brain activity is extremely low, they've gone into some kind of self-induced stasis, perhaps a natural response to physical damage. The smell could be a side effect, or it may be normal for them."
"Can you treat them?" Jackson asked, noting the Nurse had stripped down to her Starfleet standard issue vest, her shirt and jacket cast aside, both too blood-stained to be hygienic any longer.
"I can treat anyone," O'Hara quipped, "but whether I can heal them I can't say. I don't exactly have a proper sickbay for full analysis, let alone specialist equipment or medicines for administration, but at least I have the transporter data to work from." She scrolled through the readings on a padd.
"What about the replicator?" Jackson walked over to the unit.
"Already tried," the nurse said with a tone of disappointment, "it can give me an approximation of just about any foodstuff or beverage in the known Universe and can produce bespoke items like your glasses there to pre-set design, but it can't provide me with any equipment I don't already have and its programming for medicinal purposes appears restricted to natural remedies, narcotics and alcohol. Potentially useful but not in a triage situation like this."
The Commodore patched into the comms interface on the replicator control panel. "Jackson to Fantasy: the survivors are safely aboard. We are returning to the ship."
"Acknowledged, Hudson. Lieutenant O'Hara's helpers are standing by in the shuttle bay. Once the casualties are transferred I want you, Collard and the Commander to take the shuttle back out and standby for further orders," the Captain advised, his voice a little scratchy across the speakers.
"Understood," she said and faced O'Hara. "Can I help?"
"This one is hurt the most. Keep that arm elevated and press hard beneath the gash there," O'Hara manhandled the male patient's wounded arm offering it to the Commodore, brown blood trickling out of the broken skin.
"Is that normal?" Jackson asked and O'Hara shrugged.
Jackson stepped forward and complied, standing very close to the younger Lieutenant. After a minute or so, Jackson felt compelled to speak her mind, even though it felt like it was against her better judgement.
"Your bad attitude hasn't gone unnoticed in the past, has it Lieutenant."
O'Hara appeared not to hear at first, carefully cleaning the main wound and intermittently taking scans of brain activity in both patients with her medical tricorder.
"Is that a statement or a question?" she asked.
Jackson ignored her diversion. The truth was that when her son had appeared interested in her back on Helub, the Commodore couldn't resist a peak at O'Hara's service file. The detail within described the woman's hot-headed nature expansively.
"Running your mouth off won't win you any respect from Command officers."
Incredulous, O'Hara stopped what she was doing and looked up. "Could this not wait? …Sir?" she added, surprised at feeling slightly choked up. "I am kind of busy."
Jackson felt a rush of anger and responded quickly. "You can work and talk at the same time, Lieutenant, I've seen you do it all week."
The redhead resumed, pursing her lips tightly, resisting as hard as she could the desire to respond, but in a few seconds more she couldn't hold back.
"I am a medical officer, when it comes to the welfare of my patients I'll always speak my mind whether senior officers like it or not."
"That's not what I meant and you know it," Jackson raised her voice, then lowered it with O'Hara's quick scowl as she concentrated on suturing the wound. "It's the way you go about it, all your persistent knee-jerk reactions. You have to rein it in a bit, Lieutenant. Well… more than a bit."
The Nurse shook her head, feeling her frustration rising again.
"I say what I say because I need to say it. You can't have failed to notice I'm not alone in that regard in our profession," she snapped, almost throwing her tool down and picking up another to remove fragments of metal from another wound, "and if you want to interpret that as a bad attitude, well that's on you." Jackson slightly reeled from O'Hara's aggression. "This hasn't exactly been easy on me. You know only one in five successfully transition from the Marine Medical Corps into Starfleet Medical? And here I am, graduating near the top of my class, with several years of experience, just one final exam away from becoming a Doctor and you, the Captain and everyone else still insist on referring to me as 'Nurse'. You know how insulting that is?"
"But you are a Nurse," the Commodore goaded her, knowing it wasn't what she would normally do; she had clearly got under her skin more than she'd realised.
O'Hara stopped and the two women faced each other. "I'm a Lieutenant!" she said as profoundly as she could. A pause. She then grabbed the elevated arm from Jackson's grip and lowered it. "Here, cut those leggings off." She handed the Commodore a pair of surgical scissors while she finished tending to the worst of the wounds on the torso.
The alien's clothing was already shredded and bloodied in parts, his upper left leg appeared to have a large wound. The scissors felt strange in her grip, she couldn't remember using a pair since she was at the Academy, but quickly she sliced through the thin granular material exposing surprisingly hairy flesh beneath. As she cut up the other wounded leg O'Hara turned to the other patient and began to deal with the worst of her injuries. She glanced over her shoulder at the Commodore.
"Well take them off then," she said, passing the Commodore some makeshift swabs and tweezers, "and clean up all the blood you can see."
Jackson carefully manipulated the strips of clothing off and out from under the patient, dropping them onto the floor. Turning back to the nearly naked alien she repressed a smile, thinking how in her long experience humanoid races from all across the Galaxy could be so similar and yet so utterly different at the same time.
"I do hear you, Lieutenant," the Commodore returned to the previous exchange as she dabbed at the wounds. "And under normal circumstances that trait might well be tolerated to an extent among a regular Starfleet crew. But this situation is entirely different. There are so very few of us trained officers aboard the Fantasy in proportion to the number of passengers, and as you well know many are completely traumatised by our experience. It's a delicate situation. You've seen how some have reacted already. It could easily become a powder keg."
O'Hara's back remained to the Commodore who was unable to read her reactions.
"Which is why we need to follow protocol, maintain discipline, more than we normally would. We need to set an example and provide a sense of routine and authority so the passengers feel confident in us and respectful enough to follow our lead. Acting out of line could easily compound an already delicate situation, lead to others acting out of line, or worse."
"Seven minutes to the Fantasy," Sarilev's deep voice said on the speakers.
O'Hara turned back to the male patient, avoiding looking at her superior, though her eyes widened at the appearance of the alien's lower body. "Oh." Undeterred she began to deal with the deep laceration in his thigh.
"Take the advice of this older woman who has served more years than you've been alive," Jackson spoke more softly. "If you want the Captain to listen to you, you're going to have to do it by the book. If you can work as part of a team, follow protocol and follow the Captain's orders, then you will earn his respect - and mine for that matter."
O'Hara was shocked to feel a couple of hot tears rolling down her cheeks and felt an overpowering head-rush feeling, like a wave of unsettling euphoria. When she wiped her teary eyes and regained focus she saw the Commodore crying also. She then saw in her superior the strong resemblance to her son, O'Hara's recent handsome lover, and forgot all about her patients instead recalling the memory of the last time she had seen Lieutenant Jackson alive…
…On the morning of the attack he had quietly written her a note, believing she was asleep, and placed it on the pillow next to her along with a replicated Cardassian rosebud – a reference to a personal joke between them. She had watched through one almost closed eye his fit body ease tightly into his security uniform, dark skin pronounced against the tan collar, muscles pressing firmly against every seam as he left the room to go on duty.
Laying there in a cocoon of warmth she had felt it odd to be so very far away from home - in alien territory, sleeping in a strange bed, alone in her lover's apartment. It was even odder that his mother (who also happened to be the HQ commander) had been in the next room. With a couple of hours snooze time before reporting for duty, O'Hara had gazed up through the overhead windows at the increasing traffic departing the Helub space port. She watched the initial formation of the electromagnetic storm with its purple and orange clouds and telltale flashes of green and yellow whiplash energy, unaware that its beauty heralded events that would so quickly lead to the downfall of the Qovakian Government and their subsequent exodus.
As Commodore Jackson struggled to contain the overwhelming emotion she watched O'Hara stare at her almost catatonic, tears continuing to pour from her eyes.
"Lieutenant!" she reached over the patient and shook her arm, pulling her from her reverie. "What's… happening?"
O'Hara opened her mouth to respond but could only croak a strange noise, the feeling of such complete misery hadn't been with her since childhood. She fell forward, hands barely supporting herself, watching a mix of snot and tears pour out of her mouth and nose and eyes onto the table, powerless to do anything about it.
Jackson walked around the table and supported the Lieutenant, grief and sadness catching in her throat, her face contorting to a noiseless sob. Something told her to go to the comms panel, but the awkward physical embrace felt too powerful to let go of.
* * *