Prologue

Kesmet Sector, near Cardassian space
Stardate 52749.3

The deck shook wildly beneath her feet as another wave of firepower struck the crippled vessel.

She couldn't help but stumble as the ship lurched around, her head slamming into the cold metal wall to her side. Acrid smoke filled the air, turning her once familiar surroundings into an eerie and unfamiliar environment. As she struggled back to her feet, she choked back a ragged breath of the toxic atmosphere that was blinding her senses.

She fought off a rush of nausea resulting from the noxious cocktail now in her lungs and forced herself onwards, through the disorientating smog and the wailing alarms.

Somewhere in the distance, she heard a scream of agony. Part of her desperately wanted to stop, to render even the most palliative of aid. But a greater part of her knew that it was already too late for whoever had cried out. And so she forced herself to overcome her instincts and remain focused on her own vanishing hopes of survival.

"Move," she whispered to herself through gritted teeth, urging her own legs to keep going.

She blindly felt her way along the inner wall, inching forwards and ignoring the panicked shouts of two figures staggering through the haze in the opposite direction. Like just about everyone else she had seen since the attack began, there was no logic in their movements, no destination in mind. Despite all of their combat training and drills, and all of their recent experiences in battle, a state of blind panic had descended on the crew at the shock of the sudden attack.

From her compromised location inside the saucer section of the Excelsior-class USS Navajo, she had no way of knowing how many Jem'Hadar ships they were dealing with. The only thing that was certain was that the battle was going badly.

"This is the bridge," the voice of Captain D'Vora sounded out, still calm and measured despite the tumult, but heavily flecked with static over the dying shipwide comlink, "I repeat: Abandon ship. All hands to the escape pods."

The battle was going very badly indeed.

She forced herself on to the next intersection. Peering through the smoke and the flare of the emergency lighting, she was sure she was getting close.

Another volley of weapons fire smashed into the ship, pitching the deck from under her once again. She hit the ground with a thud, instantly picking up on the tell-tale sound of snapping bone that told her at least one of her ribs were now broken. Fighting against the stabbing pain that pulsed through her body, she got back to her feet and dragged herself around the next corner. There, she was greeted by the sight of a row of escape pods, doors open, ready for boarding.

Her breathing was getting even more ragged now, her displaced rib digging into her lungs and sending a fresh spasm of pain through her body with every forced intake of air. Summoning up her final reserves of energy, she staggered to the nearest pod and slumped onto the floor inside, allowing herself a few seconds of relief.

"Warning, structural integrity failure in progress," the curiously calm voice of the ship's computer intoned over the carnage.

Hell of a pep talk, she thought grimly.

With a pained grimace, she pulled herself to her feet and moved over to the pod's door controls.

"Help me!"

The cry came out of nowhere, but it stopped her in her tracks, her fingers hesitating over the sleek black panel to the left of the pod's door. She peered back out into the smoke-filled corridor. She saw him immediately. The ashen features of the young ensign stared up at her from where it lay on the deck, a few metres further down from her pod.

One side of his face was covered in plasma burns, while blood seeped out from a wound under his torso. He was lamely trying to drag himself along with his right arm, his left arm trailing uselessly behind him. He was moments from death, weakening by the second. There was almost certainly nothing that she could do for the unfortunate young man. Still, her first duty was to at least try.

But she didn't move.

He reached out with his arm, his bloodied face a canvas of fear.

"Doctor, help me!"

She wouldn't quite have described it as an out of body experience. But in the moment, as it was happening, it felt as though part of her wasn't there. As though she wasn't really doing it. Her index finger moved imperceptibly down, gently making contact with the cold surface of the panel.

She tapped the controls. The pod door began to close.

The young ensign stared up at her.

She stared back.

Slowly, but surely, the door slammed shut.

'*'*'


'*'*'

Escape Pod NC-12c separated from the underside of the saucer section of the USS Navajo. The maneuvering jets fired up automatically, propelling the tiny lifeboat away from the shattered hull of the mothership. The three Jem'Hadar fighters circling their quarry paid no attention to the insignificant speck, focusing on finishing off the crippled starship. The pod zipped away, partially shrouded by the debris from the battle.

She slumped into one of the seats at the front of the pod and accessed the barely functioning computer systems of the Navajo, downloading a single file from her personal database. As the computer chirped out confirmation of the download, she leaned back and closed her eyes, wiping a tear from her cheek.

Lieutenant Natasha Kinsen, junior medical officer for gamma shift onboard the USS Navajo, had escaped. She had survived.

All of a sudden, a bright flash of light illuminated the interior of the pod. Although she couldn't see from her vantage point, the pod's sensors dispassionately informed her that the Navajo was no more. Some four hundred lives extinguished. She let out a stifled sob into the empty pod, and fought back the urge to vomit.

The sensors also registered the shockwave from the explosion. A shockwave that immediately enveloped the pod and its prone occupant.

Her world lurched violently all over again as the wave hit, the controls in front of her shorting out in a shower of sparks as the pod began a rollercoaster journey, riding the final surge of energy from the Navajo's destruction. As it bucked and rolled, she was flung to the ground. She heard another bone snap, but had no time to figure out which one or localise the new surge of pain before she was thrown to the back of the out of control craft.

As she was tossed about like a rag doll in a spin cycle, she caught a glimpse of a new warning light flashing wildly on the pod's barely functioning control panel. Even from her less than optimal vantage point, she could see that it was a proximity warning.

She clawed her way back into the seat and frantically checked the cause of the alarm. She needed to know whether it was the Jem'Hadar fighters approaching, ready to finish her off. Or whether this was something else. A fate perhaps worse than the immediacy of death from a Jem'Hadar disruptor blast.

When the Navajo had been attacked, it was leaving a barely-habitable planetary system on the fringes of Cardassian space, on its way to rendezvous with the fifth fleet. But it hadn't cleared the system before the attack began.

The readouts in front of her confirmed that the Jem'Hadar were not the source of the alarm. Escape Pod NC-12c had been caught in a gravitational field after the shockwave had knocked it off course.

"Warning, impact in 45 seconds," the computer soberly confirmed.

She was heading for a planet.