EP 5 ACT 4
MAIN SHUTTLE BAY, 1300 HOURS
Hedra watched the runabout rise from the deck, bank hard left and pass through the passive force field, then swiftly turn to the right and disappear from view. It left a knot in her belly, the tremendous if absurd sense of responsibility and dread – she wanted to believe Narli would return, but as she knew full well in life there were no guarantees, particularly where older males were concerned. And as for her being left 'in charge' - would anyone even take her seriously?
Walking quickly to the exit the tall Violacean couple who'd volunteered to stay behind to watch over Jackson, O'Hara and party stared at her nervously. She nodded at them and they mimicked her nervously. Not entirely reassuring, but acknowledgement at least.
Ascending to the Bridge she felt cognisant of the sheer size of the vessel about her, even though she was in one of the smallest spaces on the ship. Unable to shake off the words of the female survivor she seriously considered what may happen if Narli really didn't return? It was entirely possible given what Ganhedra had said to the others about the dangerous location of space they were in. What if she and the other few individuals still conscious had to manage running this behemoth of a ship between them – could they possibly stand a chance? She was a fair engineer, but not a leader, or at least not one with much experience of it.
The turbolift doors parted revealing the near-empty Bridge, only three others present, and thankfully none of them were either bothered by her arrival or demanding her attention.
Hedra walked down to the Command area and sat with some confidence in the Captain's chair, tensely watching the view screen as if expecting to see something happen. She checked her display for signs of any other ships on the long range navigational display – even though the young lad was doing the exact same job above and behind her at the Tactical station.
The female sitting at the Engineering station who'd remained on the Bridge throughout the incident broke the silence, making Hedra jump.
"The runabout has gone to warp."
"Okay," Hedra said awkwardly.
Just before departure Narli had re-checked the destination coordinates on the Hudson's screens and he estimated that if he had to go all the way into the star system he would not return much before three days, possibly more.
Hedra's thoughts turned to their basic needs and how they might feed themselves until he got back - and she continued to hope that he would be back, at least for now. With the amount of preserved prototype foodstuffs previously identified by the Helan she knew they had plenty to last them for a long time to come. And if she put her mind to it, she believed she could get several replicators up and running in no time at all.
Current water supply was diminished, but she guessed it would be sufficient to last several weeks, if the ship held out that long. Hedra realised the enormous challenge they'd face in trying to keep the unconscious hydrated and fed somehow – and then felt even more sick at the thought of possibly having that many dead in their midst. According to one of the red-hued survivors even the flock of pet Krep the Helan kept were unconscious due to whatever was affecting the rest of them, and she had no idea how long they would survive.
Usually fiercely independent and fixated on her next goal, Hedra found herself contemplating all the problems and responsibilities she potentially faced and decided that she wasn't much enjoying this Acting Captain role. She wished someone else could take over.
As if in divine response, Figg strode in from the forward Observation Lounge. Could she dare…? she wondered.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Figg asked. "Everyone's been made as comfortable as they can be."
"Um… actually, yes." In spite of herself, Hedra couldn't resist the strong flutter of excitement in her belly at the prospect of relinquishing the centre seat to another. She stood and addressed her 'crew', such as they were. "I'm going below, to the Captain's office. There's something the Ambassador wanted me to check on," she said, adding, "urgently."
Not her most convincing lie, but Figg seemed keen and no one challenged her.
"Okay, you have Command," she said. "Contact me immediately if anything changes."
Figg nodded, beaming from ear to ear, sharing a mutual glance of endorsement with the young man at Tactical and getting a cooler eyebrow raise from the yellow-hued woman sat at the Engineering station. The lime skinned individual at the Helm barely moved, intent upon his console and the view screen.
Swiftly making her way for the down ramp to the deck below Hedra was stunned by the sight of the long line of unconscious Bridge crew and volunteers stretching back into the starboard corridor, Christian among them, all placed there by the volunteers to make them more comfortable and keep them out of the way.

Ignoring the macabre image and the temptation to check if they were still alive, Hedra descended the steep slope as quickly as she dared and jogged to the Captain's office at the rear.
She made a rapid visual scan of the eclectic room, noting its coffered ceiling and the sloping multi-paned glass window behind the Captain's desk, but her thoughts turned to her lying to the others just now and reneging on her obligations. Normally if it served her she felt no remorse, but this situation was somehow different, and she didn't appreciate the level of guilt.
Hedra reminded herself of all the milestones that had led her to this place. No, she told herself, she was not about to waste an opportunity for those who probably regarded her as mostly everyone else did, purely because of her heritage and the reputation of a contingent of her people.
Not espying anything of worth save possibly the artwork she checked out the layout of the rest of the room noting the curious external 'balconies' before being drawn to the inconspicuous single door on the starboard side of the room, to the right of the fireplace. A wall-mounted control panel had been removed, and she deduced the Captain had been attempting to gain access to the room beyond. Hedra hoped it was a private bathroom that had a working sonic shower.

Delving under her garments she retrieved a small, dark brown suede pouch from a hidden pocket and unwrapped it to reveal a cigar shaped object scored with very thin lines. Driving a nail into one of the lines the device split apart into several dainty plastic and metal instruments she always kept tucked away for certain eventualities.
As she worked on the panel, Hedra was intrigued and impressed by a couple of stealthy security measures in place to keep the average lock picker at bay, but she was no average lock picker.
Within a matter of minutes Hedra had skillfully bypassed the lockouts and she was just about to activate the doorway when her survival instinct kicked in.
"You stupid, stupid…" she muttered as she suddenly realised in her eagerness that she had no idea what was on the other side of the door. The horrific memory of the Qovakian Guard corpses falling onto her flooded back and she pulled away, staring at the lock and the door.

Hedra sat for several minutes in the area behind the Captain's desk staring over at the door. She considered going to retrieve a tricorder from the Shuttle Bay or Engineering – likely no one would question her or be the wiser of her intent. But she found her thoughts turning once again to her deceitful words on the Bridge and to the sense of duty the senior Federation official had bestowed on her in his absence; she realised this was more than being just about saving face in front of others.
Over the last few years of her life Hedra had become accustomed to manipulation, subterfuge and outright lying to stay safe and achieve her goals, she had also learned how to play tricky situations to her best advantage. If she and the other survivors somehow managed to endure, this vessel would likely be her home for the foreseeable future. Even though Ensign Collard and Professor Karim weren't her biggest supporters, others had accepted her more readily for the skills she offered, not least the Captain and Commander Kohl, and she'd felt a sense of purpose and respect from others that she hadn't experienced before. Could she risk jeopardising that by not stepping up?
She scoffed at her ridiculous train of thought and mulled over her situation. Until this last couple of weeks gaining any sense of belonging or relishing the idea of finding security and permanency among others hadn't been a luxury she could afford, but now that the wormhole had been destroyed and they were entirely cut off from her life back on the other side, things were entirely different. How could her past possibly catch up with her when it was tens of thousands of light years behind her? It was a game-changer. Also, she thought, ironic in that the tragedy others were experiencing was instead giving her a sense of hope.
Hedra turned to kneel up on the cushioned bench seat and look out of the rear window. The view of the high multi-level wedge section to the rear of the Fantasy reaffirmed the immense size of the ship once more. She speculated what the section might contain, and smiled that her thoughts had turned back to a form of normality once again.
It was an odd protrusion in some senses – she understood the aesthetics of star ship design, so for the Captain's view to be partially blocked in such a way made the choice of window here an odd one. Hedra could only assume that during its formative years the Yacht must have spent significant periods of time away from the rest of the ship.
Sliding back round she sat cross-legged and took in the impressive high wall of paintings and the dark fireplace opposite. She tried to visualise how the room may have been used during such 'away' missions when functioning as a passenger liner. Glancing left and right she got up and took a better look at each of the unusual balconies either side of the 'snug'. Such an odd thing to have in the vacuum of space, but spotting the various safety features Hedra presumed they were both functional and more than adequately secure when force fields were in place. When it came to safety features there was no doubt the ship was constructed to be as safe a vessel as it possibly could be for its passengers and its crew.
Hedra had a lightbulb moment. She walked back to the locked door and placed a hand on it, as if trying to 'feel' if it was a safe environment beyond. To date, none of the ship's protections were in doubt. So why would this doorway be any different? Surely if there was a vacuum on the other side or some other danger then the door would be configured to simply not open. It was a risk, but was it a risk worth taking?
Without another thought she placed her finger over the touchpad and pressed, letting fate decide, but ready to jump back should any more dead bodies fall out on her.
The door shunted to the left, revealing another door immediately behind that swiftly followed suit. Ahead, she was surprised to see not a room but a long corridor stretching before her, dropping down several metres ahead and angling to the left. Pinpricks of light winked on in a line over the centre of the corridor, illuminating her pathway.

Cautiously she moved forward. Here, as with many places on the ship it seemed some hardware of value had been removed from walls, saleable technology, she assumed, ripped out to leave pipes and mechanics exposed here and there. The air smelt a little musty, but not unpleasant, though stepping further along she felt a cooler temperature and what appeared to be misaligned gravity plating.

Continuing her casual pace along the corridor, taking in all the details, she concluded the removal of items seemed haphazard, with some pieces of saleable equipment left intact while others had been wrenched unceremoniously free; the process had not been methodical or particularly skilled.
The bulkhead to her left was less damaged and she guessed that it was a basic wall behind which were the offices that could be accessed via the doors in the portside corridor leading to the Captain's Office.

A number of metres on, passing an intact old-style two-person escape pod on her right, the corridor narrowed slightly and several steps led down to an archway that contained an emergency pressure door, currently housed overhead.
Continuing on a few paces, the corridor angled inward to her left, down a few more steps, and widened again as it curved right to continue forward.
Here were several more, larger escape pods to her right and a buckled door to her left. There was no signage to say where the door led, but Hedra sensed it was around the same point as the Starboard stations on the Lower Bridge but several metres or so lower. She couldn't be sure what had caused the door to buckle, but it must have been a powerful force. Realising what she thought was her position relative to above she guessed the jeffreys tube that led down to Engineering and beyond was somewhere on the right between two of the escape pods, though there didn't appear to be any access to it on this level.

A short way further on the corridor angled sharply in toward the centre of the ship again, and a couple of metres on turned sharply back to continue forward. Hedra guessed she must now be somewhere beneath the View screen or beneath the offices forward of the Bridge. Several more bulkhead archways straddled the corridor ahead that ended with a double door.
The door didn't automatically open, but responded to her touch when pressed. The view before her was breathtaking, much like that of the Observation Deck high above. There was no doubt she had entered the Captain's private quarters.
"Wow," Hedra exclaimed aloud, taking in the four thick, stylised mock-Aztec pillars deeply carved and symmetrically placed around a luxurious open plan lounge area ahead of her, the centre furnished as a living space with plush chairs and storage units, many antique, with a few contemporary pieces mixed in. Some were vaguely familiar, many were from a variety of unknown cultures, all left apparently untouched.

The backdrop to all of this was a bank of angled, almost three metre high floor to ceiling windows that wrapped around the front perimeter of the Deck and the apartment space from her 10 o'clock to her 2 o'clock. Judging by their slant they would have looked from the outside of the vessel to be a continuation of the sloped line of windows similarly arranged around the Observation Lounge on the Deck One.
As with the view in the space above, the vista through the windows that looked out across the length of the Fantasy stretched into the distance with its various turrets, domes and protrusions, light from the nebula bathing her in its rich colour. The entire space was huge. There was a large dining area near the end of the windows on the port side and a more relaxed raised seating area on the starboard side, with a sunken luxurious fur-lined seating area in the middle

Walking through the large space and over to the windows forward of the sunken area she looked up but the angle was such that she couldn't see the Observation Deck above, and neither would anyone gathered there be able to see into the Captain's quarters below. She took a few minutes to look out across the ship, from this position seeing the general shape of the Command Yacht that tiered down ahead and around her, and then some way below and beyond stretched into the distance with so many domes, towers and outcrops. She hadn't spent much time at all on the Observation Deck, so really had no awareness up to this moment of how complex a vessel it was, as well as being a mammoth size. The dark coating made it difficult to discern what the various locations might be, and Hedra knew she couldn't afford any more time trying to work that out.
She turned around to survey the rest of the Captain's quarters. A darkened space with the telltale yellow lines indicating a private holodeck area was positioned to the right of the entrance, as she looked at it. The areas to the left and further to the right were behind bulkhead walls, which she immediately explored.
Walking into the corridor in the space to her right, on the portside of the ship, were a number of rooms including a compact workout area, a treatment room, two small restrooms, a micro-lab, storage space, two escape pods, a kitchenette and hospitality service area, and a small guest bedroom with en suite and even more storage.
Returning to the main lounge and living area she entered the starboard area, first entering a luxuriant master bedroom area containing a large, inviting bed, and behind it an escape pod and state of the art classic bathroom. Several doors leading further to the rear were sealed. The bedroom's forward wall was retractable, allowing access to the lounge and a view through the windows on the starboard side; a housed retractable curtain could separate it instead of the wall.

Hedra realised she had been gone from the Bridge quite some time now, and didn't want to be absent for too much longer. Quickly she went back to the master bathroom and checked the sonic shower. Prying open covers and examining all the internal circuits, she seemed satisfied she could get it working.

A matter of minutes later, Hedra had stripped off stood inside, clutching her clothes in her hands and shaking them around to get them equally clean in the shower of sonic vibrations and licks of transporter signal as extraneous debris was removed at the tiniest level. The faint burning smell was delicious where once it had seemed unnatural to her; prior to leaving her Orion birthplace, she had only experienced bathing with liquids and the jelly creatures preferred by her native coastal dwelling people. She sneezed wildly as days of grime was buffeted away from her nostril and ear hairs. Satisfied that she was clean, she stayed in the shower for a few moments longer, making sure her clothing was getting a thorough seeing-to.

She blue her nose on a small cloth and took a soft towel and walked out through the bedroom at the front and across to the sunken seating area. The thick fur carpet felt gorgeous through her toes, it was even thicker than the one in the computer core. Her body responded to the cool air, but it was overcome by the lavish feeling of feeling clean and dry. She was sorely tempted to curl up there and then for a nap but resisted.

The feeling as she started to put her freshened clothes back on was sensational. The view she had as she glanced up through the forward glass windows, however, was not.
Approaching from about a kilometre or so away, just beyond the end of the Fantasy's prow in the distance, the distinct shape of the runabout was pointing directly at her.

"What?!"
Hurriedly slipping into her variously laddered but clean underwear, leggings and boots she continued dressing her upper half as she rushed as fast as her limbs would allow, retracing her steps along the haphazard corridor. She hesitated in the Captain's Office at the door she'd unlocked – there was too little time to cover her tracks now, so she continued round the portside corridor, up the ramp and onto the Bridge.
The Bolian stood at the Tactical station beside the young violet lad, who tried his hardest to not watch her finish buttoning her clean blouse top.
Figg could smell the iron-sharp telltale aroma of a sonic cleaner, realising what she'd really been up to, but said nothing of it.

"That was damned quick. Has he signaled? Is everything okay?" Hedra demanded, assuming bad news.

"I thought I left you in charge?" Narli interjected over the comm system, audio only.

Hedra's mind raced frantically, but her mouth was already doing the talking.

"Did you make contact with the aliens?" She walked round the station and down to the Command area.

"In a way," Narli replied. She couldn't discern any emotion and wondered if he was bearing good or bad news.

Behind Hedra, Figg gasped and tapped the mute control and then wrapped hard on the tactical display several times to get her to turn to him.

"There are ships, three of them, they're-"

Hedra turned back to look at the view screen again.

"I see them."

Three vessels, slightly smaller than the runabout, emerged from their in-line position directly behind it. Two moved to a flanking position, the third rose up but hung back from the rest.

"Make ready for us to come aboard," Narli said and cut the channel.

The five individuals on the Bridge exchanged looks of concern, wondering if their situation was about to get even worse.

* * *

Leaving the yellow-skinned woman in charge on the Bridge, Hedra and Figg stepped onto the hangar deck several minutes later. The Violacean couple were taken aback by their sudden arrival.

"Everyone is still unconscious," the female hurriedly said. "They don't appear to have got any worse."

Hedra nodded, her and Figg's eyes fixed on the open space as the Runabout Hudson came into view, much to the couple's alarm.

"What happened?" the male said. "Is everything okay? Is it the T'Kani?" He clung onto his wife.

Figg and Hedra looked at each other, hoping it wasn't, but they were unsure.

The runabout gently passed through the force field and came to a vertical landing, Narli tucking it as close to one side of the Shuttle Bay as he could. Its airlock hissed and opened, and out stepped two brightly-hued individuals each carrying a small case.

"Oh!" the purple woman exclaimed, and they both shuffled backwards, away from the new arrivals.

Hedra froze, thinking them at first to be T'Kani, but then saw that the multicoloured surface was in fact skin, not clothing, and was deeply textured – even translucent in places, showing vague signs of fluids moving and internal organs pulsing. The overall body shape and facial structure appeared to be the same as the images of the alien casualties she'd seen, only these were much more brightly coloured. Perhaps they were another, possibly rival species she wondered.

The two aliens immediately approached the fallen people, opened their bags and removed an assortment of odd instruments that emitted musical tones which they wafted over the officers and volunteers.

"This one has additional recent trauma," the male said of Collard, "let's treat her first."

As they continued working they chatted in an elaborate almost theatrical way.

Narli then appeared at the Hudson's airlock, supporting a moaning Lirik who dropped down onto the step, exhausted and pale.

"I assume they are here to help us, then?" Hedra asked watching the aliens busy themselves.

"Uugh," Lirik groaned.

"Still no power of speech?" Hedra stepped closer, but making sure she didn't get too close to the pallid part-Medusan.

"No, actually," Lirik said with much saliva, "I just feel like shit."

One of the aliens sympathised. "You may well feel low or depressed for the next few days until you get over the effects of the radiation."

"Radiation?" Hedra was confused.

"Ohh," Collard groaned, coming around.

Without warning first one then the other two alien vessels appeared in the space outside the Shuttle Bay forming a line, and entered one at a time, passing through the force field and setting down in a row in the remaining spare area of the deck, sending the Violacean couple who'd already been cowering near the exit hurrying away into the corridor.

"It's okay, they're all here to help us," Narli called after them, but they were gone already. He turned to Hedra. "They'll stay for as long as it takes to treat everyone onboard."

"You might have let us know before," Hedra scolded.

"Doctor Bluey," Narli introduced the alien helping Collard to sit up, "this is Hedra. She can take your colleagues to our Captain and those on the Bridge. Mister Figg here can take you to our people in the Solaris Lounge. You can get those two out there to take the rest of your fellow Ere to Engineering and the area where the Helan gather."

"We also came across some people scattered elsewhere in the Command Section and Command Yacht," Figg said. "Though I'm not certain we found everyone."

The Canadian Ensign looked up. "If I can get to the Command Section Bridge I should be able to identify where they all are," Collard said with a croaky dry mouth. "I can direct you to them on the ship's intranet."

"Excellent," Narli said. "If you're up to it?"

"I'll be fine," she said bravely.

Lirik got to his feet, awkwardly but determined. "Well I don't care what anyone says, I need a drink and a change of clothes, in that order." And he disappeared back inside.

Hedra was still a bit confused. "But what about the two injured…er.."

"It's not 'Er', it's Ere," Doctor Bluey corrected. "And they are us," he said nodding at his compatriot who smiled back before continuing to tend to Commodore Jackson. "This is how we usually look."

Narli led Hedra and Figg over to the other vessels as their crews were disembarking, each individual carrying their own small case.

"I didn't get too far before I encountered them, out looking for their compatriots who'd gone missing," Narli explained further. "After a short confused exchange we were able to communicate. They tethered up alongside, came aboard and managed to treat their companions and Lirik within minutes. The radiation is quite debilitating, but its treatment is remarkably quick. The Ere are a race of accomplished scientists, doctors and surgeons. I feel the Nurse will be beside herself with delight once she regains consciousness; in addition to treating everyone for the radiation as recompense for coming to the aid of their two colleagues they've also offered to treat all the casualties under O'Hara's care."

Narli saw Figg swallow, thoughts of his dead friend left back on Helub still tormenting him.

"So what was this radiation that caused it? And why couldn't we detect it?" Hedra said as nine Ere of varying colourations approached them.

"We call it Yaxiran Radiation," a taller female said. "It's quite rare, thankfully, and like you and the Ambassador we normally have a tolerance to it because of our skin pigmentation. Only these weren't exactly normal circumstances."

"Ah, this is Doctor Orangey, Doctor Orangey this is Hedra," he beamed.

"Doctor Orangey..?" Hedra frowned at him wryly. "And… Bluey..?"

"Your translator cannot sufficiently convey our proper names and it was easier for the Ambassador to call us by our primary hues," she smiled. "But we shouldn't talk now, your comrades are in great need and the Ambassador tells me you are many hundreds in number, which could take a while. Shall we…?" she gestured to the exit.

Once the Violaceans had been reassured and dispatched with their charges to the relevant locations, Figg took his contingent to the Solaris Lounge to make a start on the wounded and all of the other survivors gathered there, and Collard headed for the Command Section Bridge alone.

Hedra led her two Ere up to the Main Bridge. On arrival she waved Dr Orangey and associate, calling himself 'Dr Pinky', to the unconscious lined up in the rear portside corridor indicating the Captain should be the first to be treated.

As soon as they began their work with the strange devices Hedra excused herself and took her brief window of opportunity to swiftly race downstairs to re-lock the door to the Captain's quarters, leaving it as she'd found it, even plumping the cushions in the snug area on her way out in order to fully hide her transgression.

Making her way quickly back to the Bridge she was relieved to see Christian was barely conscious, briefly unaware of his surroundings and requiring Hedra's reassurance that the aliens were helping him.

Five hours later the exhausted Ere had finished treating everyone and were heading back to their vessels for the journey home, escorted by Ambassador Narli who had offered an accord on behalf of the Federation should they ever wish to become allies in the future. As a sign of goodwill, having sought permission from the Captain and Commodore, he would use the Runabout Hudson's resources to provide an isolinear chip containing the history of the Federation and charter of the UFP as a parting gift.

The Captain, Helan and most of the volunteer Bridge crew were back at their positions, feeling groggy but grateful in the knowledge that their ordeal was over. Commander Sarilev, treated for his injuries, had been sitting beside the Captain but was now in conversation with some of the volunteers on the lower deck. Collard was at Tactical keeping a beady eye on her nemesis since she'd returned from the Command Section Bridge.

Hedra, said nemesis, was seated not several steps away at the Purser's station where she'd been for the duration, previously assisting a begrudging Collard in locating the number of scattered life signs of additional fallen survivors who had been outside of the key areas when the radiation took hold, directing the kindly Ere to them. Once the stragglers had been taken care of the Ere converged on the Solaris Lounge to assist in treating the remaining unconscious survivors.

Back on duty Commander Kohl reported warp engines as being somewhat operational, low warp now available as promised, though he would provide a fuller report at their reconvened meeting. He also reported minor power fluctuations across multiple decks at the perimeter where the Yacht sat flush within the Command Section, and dispatched three parties to investigate, one under Mister Figg, one under Cally Warnerburg and the other under the Romulan Murat.

The turbolift doors parted and the Commodore and Nurse O'Hara walked down to join the Captain prior to their first staff meeting. The Nurse appeared tearful and Christian wondered if she was somehow still feeling the effects, but her tears it transpired were for another reason altogether.

"As ordered all non-volunteering survivors have gathered in the Solaris lounge," Jackson said. "The Helan not on duty are contained in their cargo bay area. Everyone else is either on the Bridge or in Command Section Engineering."

"Thank you," Christian said. "How are you doing?"

Jackson shrugged.

"Captain," O'Hara said self-consciously. "I can also report that all but a handful of the injured have been successfully treated for their various injuries and conditions and released from my team's care. Those few remaining just need a few more days recouperation, but they'll soon be physically well enough to leave. Some will need ongoing care, but nothing I can't provide." Her words seemed almost slightly tinged with sadness.

"The unfortunate news is that the Ere were unwilling to supply us with any equipment or medicines," Jackson said, having pleaded with their visiting party at length. "Much as we do, they have a strict policy of non-interference with less developed cultures. And while treating us for the effects of the radiation and our injuries was one thing, they said they could not supply any technology or substances to less developed societies as the punishment is extremely severe. And as it is they could have contravened their rules by helping us multiple times in the eyes of their ruling body and isolationist government."

Christian nodded. "Yes, I had the same experience when I asked if they could provide technology or assist in helping in some other way to speed up our repairs."

"Captain," Judge Madison spoke from the Communications station, "Ambassador Narli reports the Ere have disembarked."

"Thank you, Mister…" Christian left his sentence hanging, not wishing to draw attention to Madison's identity at this moment. Glancing at the Commodore she was staring at the man with an inquisitive look, not quite recognizing him, much as the Captain had earlier.

Christian pressed the comms panel. "Mister Kohl, will you be joining us soon?"

After a pause the German responded he'd be on his way momentarily.

The turbolift doors opened once again and Professor Karim exited, stony faced but with an air of embarrassment, Christian thought, followed momentarily by Reb.

"Ah…" Christian stood as she stepped over to the Science station and Reb walked down to the Command area. "Where exactly were you two earlier?"

Reb looked at the Professor. "Apologies, Captain, we were otherwise delayed-."

"Circumstances beyond our control," Karim quickly added in a tone that she hoped would end the conversation.

"I can tell you, Captain," Hedra smiled, much to Karim's shock and Reb's deflation. "Evidently the Professor had managed to lock herself in a bathroom on Deck 9. Reb had heard her cries and been trying to free her for quite some time when the effects of the radiation overpowered them both."

Jackson looked at Christian who looked at them both, but neither said a word.

Just then the turbolift opened and Commander Kohl appeared, not expecting to see the others still on the Bridge. "Are we going to be long?" he asked.

The turbolift opened for a third time and the Ambassador entered the Bridge followed by a disgruntled Yeoman Lirik.

"Ah, glad you could join us, Yeoman" Christian said, emphasising Lirik's former rank. Hearing that he was once again languishing on the Runabout he'd ordered Narli to collect and bring him to the Bridge immediately.

Christian stood and turned to the woman with vari-hued yellow skin who had been present on the Bridge throughout most of the crisis.

"Your name is Dayarr-Mellet?" he asked.

"Duar-Melret," she said, "Enshlesss Duar-Melret"

"Qovakian?" he asked again.

She nodded. "Anchrinarian, part of the Partek Beust Star Cluster Confederation."

"My colleagues inform me that you've done an exemplary job today," he said.

"Thank you Captain," she said.

"We'll need you to step up for a little while longer while we have our meeting. Maintain this heading, contact me at the first sign of trouble."

"Aye sir."

"Right then," he addressed the Bridge loudly. "I think we're all here. Time to talk."

DECK ONE, CONFERENCE ROOM/SENIOR OFFICERS' MESS

Christian sat at the head of the table. To his left were Commander Sarilev, Lieutenant Commander Kohl, Ensign Collard, Lieutenant O'Hara and Yeoman Lirik. To his right were Commodore Jackson, Reb, Ambassador Narli, Ganhedra, Professor Karim and Hedra.

"I still don't understand," Hedra spoke first, breaking protocol, "what exactly was this type of radiation that affected us? Well, you at least. Do we know how to detect it in the future?"

"With the data we recorded on the runabout and that provided by the Ere I should be able to recalibrate our sensors to detect it, yes," the Professor replied. "I spoke with them at length as they were treating me and Rebbik. They explained this form of radiation is rare and mainly restricted to this particular region of space, but it's mostly benign. A neighbouring race called the Maak, a violent species who spend most of their time at war amongst themselves, had recently developed a way to harness the radiation, refine it and weaponise it. They were testing it on several of the asteroids close to where Doctor… Bluey and his assistant were engrossed in carrying out research, and the Maak either didn't check or didn't care that they were in the vicinity. So when they-"

"If I may, Captain, I have an alternate theory," Ambassador Narli smiled politely.

"Oh?" the Professor took some exception to being questioned.

"I had plenty of opportunity to discreetly scan the Ere's vessels," he said, "and I found they are fitted with an array of unusual emitters across the hull. Checking the Runabout sensor logs during your initial rescue I could see that an almost imperceptibly small section of their badly damaged ship was cloaked."

"Of course," Commander Sarilev's richly gritty voice commanded attention, "it makes sense that if they had known of the Maak's weaponisation they would have sent a contingent to spy on the tests."

"Exactly," the Ambassador agreed, "and also why I encountered their other vessels so quickly."

Christian found himself staring at the beautiful scientist. "Go on, Professor, you were saying about the radiation."

"As was the case with the Ambassador and other individuals aboard the Fantasy with colourful skin tones, the Ere normally have a resistance to the radiation. But close to the blast zone and in this concentrated form, and given the physical injuries they sustained from the blast's damage to their vessel which lowered their metabolism, they were overwhelmed and rendered unconscious. The radiation bloom drifted away from their general direction and out toward the runabout and then the Fantasy, neither of which had a means of preventing it from permeating the hull and affecting everyone, or nearly everyone, on board in a relatively short space of time."

"And that smell?" Collard asked. "That was the radiation?"

"No, that was the two Ere," O'Hara confirmed. "A side-effect of their self-induced coma, a natural physical reaction to their unconsciousness and the damage they sustained, and an instinctive natural reaction among their species to warn others of danger."

"Well hopefully in all this we've gained our first ally in the Outer Zone," Christian said paternally.

"I doubt that very much, Captain," Narli said firmly. "We may have made some personal allies but it's highly doubtful their government would want anything to do with the outside."

"They may not have a choice if the T'Kani come knocking," Reb said.

"Well, they at least provided their medical assistance and we now have an almost entirely healthy complement," Christian said trying to sound positive.

"I wouldn't go quite that far, Captain," O'Hara asserted herself, causing him to feel deflated; he was sure the recent events would have improved the Nurse's mood no end. "That's the third major trauma we've all just been through – first the initial attack, bad enough in itself, then the T'Kani holoprogram and now this radiation. Those of us who serve have been trained to deal with sustained trauma, or at least to a point. But most of the general populace of survivors wouldn't have been through anything like this. Many are trying to cope with the separation from loved ones and colleagues, not knowing what happened to them." She glanced at the Commodore who stared unmoving at the table. "Others are experiencing overwhelming traumatic grief. I feel it's imperative we get a handle on this, start assessing people as soon as possible."

The Captain nodded slowly.

"And now that you are free of patients, or thereabouts, you and hopefully those who have helped you so far will have plenty of time to devote yourselves to issues of trauma and mental wellbeing," the Commodore said. "But Captain I think we need to go beyond that. We need to interview everyone fully, gather information about who we have aboard, and… I'm sorry but what risks they might pose. And also build a comprehensive picture of what happened, who are left behind, who are missing, and who perished, and gather as much intel as we can on the T'Kani."

Christian was nodding throughout, realising the meeting hadn't been formally started, and no recording seemed to be in progress.

"Yeoman, is it possible to somehow record this meeting?" he asked.

Lirik stared him down and Sarilev let out a snigger. Even Narli was smiling.

"Yes, Captain," Lirik said flatly, "I'm sure it is."

Reb chuckled to himself, catching Sarilev's disapproving look. When it was clear Lirik was answering him literally Jackson quickly intervened, placing a small padd on the table and hitting the record mode. Christian's face was tight with anger but refused to react.

"Captain," Collard broke the tension just as swiftly. "What of the Bajoran girl?"

Lirik tutted and shook his head. Jackson again intervened rather than make a big deal out of it and quickly explained to those who weren't aware of the situation that had arisen from the Yeoman's discussion with them early in the day.

Narli was keen to speak. "Yes, yes, the Ere were all given her description by Lirik before we even arrived back at the Fantasy, but none have seen her."

Gesturing at Hedra Collard said: "We were directing the Ere to all the life signs beyond the main areas, reaffirming that she does not show up on life sign scans."

"Mister Kohl, what's your status?"

The blonde man repeated the details for those who hadn't been present earlier. "Our fuel reserves are very low. If we don't take on supplies soon we'll run adrift, though back-up generators could last us a long time. There are still a great many repairs left to carry out, also the computer core is far from full working order. My group of helpers while enthusiastic aren't experienced except for a handful. I worry things will get worse before we get a chance to make any improvements."

"On the contrary, I think we've all made an impressive amount of difference so far," the Captain said. "But yes, it doesn't detract from the fact we need more experienced crew."

"But that's just it," Reb said, "we're not crew. I'm not. She's not," he nodded to the Professor, "or the Ambassador, or Ganhedra or Hedra, or any of those people out there. Maybe a couple of retirees. And this isn't a Starfleet vessel." He saw Christian crestfallen slightly and the Commodore ready to come back at him. "Look, I'm not trying to be negative, but what you really need is a proper crew if you want to get things done. And you don't have that."

"Then we ask them," Jackson said.

"We would function a lot better if we did things by the book, to Starfleet standards," Kohl said. "That's how we've approached all our work so far and we know it works. It just takes time."

"But getting others to do the same…" Collard shook her head.

"We train them," Sarilev said. "Simple."

"We can't exactly send them off to the Academy," O'Hara scoffed.

"Then we train them on the job," Christian said. "This vessel is equipped with a huge amount of holotechnology, it must have extensive library database. I'm sure we could put all that to good use."

"But would they be willing?" Lirik asked. "Sure we have the Helan, the Vulcans and a bunch of other volunteers, but the vast majority haven't put themselves forward up to now. What would make them do otherwise?"

"I don't wish to add to the difficulties we face with the survivors, but we really do need to organize the survivors better, find them all decent accommodations," Jackson said. "They can't stay spread out across the spa, it's not fit for purpose."

"And we need to get the latrine situation sorted," Hedra said. "And replicators and sonic showers. I'm sure I could-"

The doors to the starboard side suddenly opened and Mr Figg entered.

"Apologies for the interruption, Captain… Commodore, but…" he said, looking gravely serious. "We've found several bodies."

"More bodies?!" Hedra said shocked, thinking of the corpses of the Qovakian Senate.

"No, not like that," he said swallowing hard. "A young couple in one of the toilets. A man in a stairwell. And a young woman and two young infants near to the engine room."

"Murdered?" Lirik asked, thinking it might be the agent. But Figg shook his head slowly.

"Oh, no…" O'Hara dropped her head in her hands.

"Oh my God!" Jackson said as the penny dropped for her and everyone. Reb got up and left the room quickly.

"We've taken them to the temporary morgue," he said softly. "I thought you should know."

"Thank you Mister Figg," Christian said and the man left.

"Obviously they wouldn't have shown up on the life sign scans," Collard stated out loud thinking how elated she'd felt when she and Hedra had located who they felt were the last of the unconscious.

Christian cleared his throat. "Lieutenant O'Hara, you were right to raise this concern before and again earlier, but please understand there were other priorities-"

"You don't need to say anything, sir," she said stoically, "I understand."

"We will make this an immediate priority first thing tomorrow," he said, "starting with addressing the crew's compliment. For now, I'd like to pay my respects."

"I'll come too," Jackson said. "Carry on everyone."

Everyone left except for Sarilev. Alone in the officers' mess he thought of his own dead crewmates, and he thought of the number of civilians who had just passed. He wondered what type of crew they would become. He wasn't overly enamoured with his fellow crew, but they were all he had now. Watching through the rear windows the nebula slowly shrink further behind he left the mess he wiped away a single tear and marched out, the lights automatically extinguishing themselves as he did.

Several moments later, from the darkest shadowed corner of the room, a small figure emerged, casting a faint shadow in the starlight, its profile stretched along the mess table, most notable of which was the distinct ridged nose bar of a Bajoran.