EP 6 "ASSASSIN" - ACT 1

COMMAND SECTION, MAIN SHUTTLE BAY, 0857

Standing alone in the corridor outside the Command Section's primary Shuttle Bay, Christian sensed the familiar grip of pre-performance nerves. It was ironic that living with a touring acting troupe during his formative years and literally growing up on stage, unlike his parents he'd never felt comfortable speaking to large groups. Yet what filled him with dread about this particular performance was the audience he would be speaking to.

As had been stated several times in the last week, he and those who'd enlisted in Starfleet and similar services had knowingly accepted the risks that came with serving in hostile environments. These people hadn't made any such oath and yet they'd borne a succession of terrifying ordeals on successive days since their flight from the invading forces. Bad luck that many who'd travelled to the Outer Zone via the Qovakian wormhole had been escaping the very types of peril they now found themselves in.

Skimming through the various requests and concerns, in the main those who hailed from Federation member states expressed enormous resentment and anger for Starfleet, the UFP and their respective governments for their lack of preparedness and protection. They held particular hostility toward the Vekarians and the general Qovakian population for hiding the truth about the T'Kani from them. Their personal accounts of loss were difficult to read: family, friends and colleagues left behind on Helub, loved ones killed in the attack, and the fate of others unknown. And all the while the Fantasy headed further and further away, in a poorly maintained oversized ship with limited resources.

Rather than finding peace and the opportunity for a new start, they were now plunged into the middle of a violent, widespread military coup, cut off from any help from back home because of the destruction of the wormhole and the xenophobic Tholian annexes that stretched over tens of thousands of light years in between. Added to which they were on the run from the T'Kani, the hostile militaristic alien race who had swiftly assumed control by using wormhole-manipulating technology to create smaller conduits across the Outer Zone, quickly deploying their invasion forces to instantly stamp out any potential threat and seize control.

Having been appraised by Lt Commander Kohl of his experience with the Minister Re Lorken, by the Commodore of her interactions with Vekarians, and from Lirik and especially Ambassador Narli who had been forthcoming about the true power in Qovakia, the Captain began to understand how everyone had been so completely duped by the government.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrendous attack the civilian survivors had been forced to make a quick decision – stay or flee. Stay to hopefully find colleagues and loved ones in a decimated space port but doubtless be confronted by the T'Kani military and incarcerated or worse, or abandon them and escape with their own lives.

And having made that terrible choice, several among them had been affected so gravely they had taken their own lives. Christian was committed to preventing that from ever happening again. He'd need Lieutenant O'Hara and her competent helpers to do their best, but to his knowledge none were expert in counselling or therapy generally. He wondered if the Fantasy's vast bank of holoprogrammes might be able to fulfil that purpose or if there may be someone in their midst who possessed the necessary skills.

Christian recounted the personal accounts he'd read. Some of the stories notated by the Commodore from the youngest made for gruelling reading, equally from adults giving accounts they'd gleaned from children who had gravitated to them having been separated from parents and siblings. But there were also tragic stories of those who had lost their partners; and parents who had lost their offspring. The repeated detailed accounts had left Christian feeling anxious. If multiplied by several million, he supposed he would begin to have a better idea of the true extent of the impact caused by the T'Kani coup in Qovakia.

In spite of his anger with the diplomat earlier that morning, once calmed Christian had settled into reading through the padd Lirik had left him. He'd certainly done a proficient job of organising the Captain's time, and in the process saved both him and the Commodore hours of additional painstaking work. Christian pledged to thank the Yeoman regardless of his demeanour and unorthodox manner that grated on him so. (Although he decided that he would nonetheless enable a locking device on the door to his office should there be subsequent unwanted intruders)

Moments after Lirik's departure Hedra's tired voice announced over the ship's intercom that bathrooms fitted with sonic showers had been made operational on deck eight. Furthermore two clothing replicators were accessible also on deck eight, asking that any spare rags or clothing be dematerialised to help bolster limited pattern supplies. He heard she'd been up all night working with Kohl, Warnerburg and Murat to get the job completed; Lirik included this among various updates including the detail that Ambassador Narli would be organising a squad to inventory all the supplies destined for the archive planet that filled so much of the ship and be on the lookout for any useful items left over from the Fantasy's former existence.

Christian looked down at his freshly re-replicated uniform and heard his belly rumble from hunger. The ongoing issues with replicating food had left a few dozen brave test subjects with stomach upsets, so food replication was off limits for now. He scratched at his sleeves and the Captain suspected Hedra hadn't quite achieved the right fabric algorithm.

As a result of the food issue they were continuing on strict rations, but over seven days into their meagrely fed exodus they were mainly grateful to be clean and wear fresh clothes, despite some griping about the waiting times. According to an entry from Jackson the children in particular had enjoyed the sonic showers, laughing and playing with a verve none had heard in over a week and it brought those present such joy, even if it was masking what they truly felt.

Most had brought nothing except for the clothes they wore. Now they were possibly facing a prolonged period of hardship, perhaps greater loss - or if it came to the worst, ultimately capture and suffering at the hands of a powerful and ruthless enemy. Christian's task as leader was to give them the encouragement and support they needed to be able to move forward. As the ship's commanding officer, it was also his duty to insist that they all accept the difficulties of the situation and crucially request that they help in the task of making the SS now USS Fantasy, more habitable and better protected.

The double doors hissed open, breaking the Captain's reverie. Jackson peeped into the corridor. "We're ready for you, Captain."

Christian glanced quickly at the padd containing the key details of his speech, then straightened his jacket, walked over to the entrance and strode in. Skipping up the pile of crates to the makeshift platform that had been erected just prior he saw that Jackson had arranged the few he considered as acting department heads and team leaders into a neat semicircle in an 'at ease' stance. The Commodore bobbed her head and they stood to attention as one - well, almost. He was impressed – she'd done a good job in pulling the motley bunch together to set an example.

Surveying the rest of the deck the Captain was taken aback by the total number gathered; six hundred and forty one Collard had reported, according to the life scanning monitor on the Command Section Bridge. They nearly filled the shuttle bay. And he was personally responsible for all of them. The burgeoning sense of stage fright made him remember his mother's training – pick out one person, speak directly to them and forget about everyone else, before you know it the fear will pass. He could see certain characters he knew amid the throng – from the Engineering, Medical and Bridge crews plus Judge Madison, who was also standing to attention not far from the front.

The action of the command crew's drilled performance caused the chattering to die down and now all the faces - of all ages and races – fixed their gaze on him. Christian cleared his throat, then nodded to Jackson - who in turn had his primary crew stand at ease with a brow raise.

"A great man once said 'you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have'. Together we've endured much this past week. And you've all shown such great strength in spite of those adversities. I know a lot of you are uncertain about the fate of those you care about who were left behind on Helub. We will strive to find out all we can and in time to help liberate those that survived, but that may take a long while.

He gestured to those behind him. "We're all going through the same. For those of you who have tragically lost people, I know too well that grief can be chaotic – and not knowing whether someone is alive or not is a form of suspended grief. For scores of us this will be traumatic; what we've experienced is overwhelming, confusing, exhausting – numerous conflicting and quite probably debilitating reactions. But you're not alone. We are all here in this together and we can help each other.

"We cannot heal this amount pain we've all experienced overnight. So be patient with yourselves, be compassionate with one another, this will take time. Grief is part of our mortal experience but it takes fortitude to embrace the life that carries on. It takes all you've got. I know it's easier said than done but try to be proud of what you have overcome to get to this place. We're not a product of what happens to us, we choose what we want to become.

"This ship may be old and too big for our current needs, but it's brought us this far, and in the last few days we've picked up two extra survivors. We may find others. Yet since we left Helub we have also lost too many who came with us from Helub. Please, join me in a moment's respect as we remember those of our company who have sadly passed … Jaz Lepreneim, Sara Quanton, Amali Eizberg, Tony Grimsden, Lon Shi, Derba Volaszti, Unal Sek, Cherid Parsanek, Una Eardley, Po Nun and Kerbet Stom. May they rest in peace."

A few hushed 'amens' and some muttering and faint sobbing accompanied the pause; in agreement with the Commodore he'd not mentioned any of those who had taken their own lives, leaving that for another time.

"Be assured that as your Captain and your Leader, I will do everything in my power to honour their memory by endeavouring to keep the rest of you safe.

"You're not my Captain!" an unseen young female voice blurted from near the back of the deck. Several amused responses followed from various places, but they were quietened by louder tuts and shushes of distain. Christian was resigned to the idea that there would be hecklers and detractors like the Tiburonian who had previously confronted him. The important thing, as the Commodore had said, was to show strength and confidence.

"As long as you remain on this ship, I am your Captain. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Simeon Christian. I've served in Starfleet for twenty years, initially as an engineer, then as a command officer. I came to the Outer Zone to be Captain of the science and exploration vessel USS Firefly. She was destroyed by the T'Kani before I arrived, all 89 hands lost. Commodore Jackson has asked that I take command of this vessel, so I stand in front of you now as your Captain. This vessel, or part of it, was once a ship of the Fleet and retained its original registry listing, so as of today it shall be known once again as the USS Fantasy. It may be a former luxury passenger liner but I intend to run it as a Starfleet ship. Same rules, same principles, same ideals. We may need to adapt our structure to suit our circumstances, but fundamentally we will uphold the principles of peace and friendship, and of exploration. These individuals form its Command Crew," Christian heard several surprised noises behind him, some uncomfortable with his presumption, some appalled by his choices.

"I want to say thank you to all those who have stepped up; in Engineering, on the Bridge, the Computer Core and with Nu… Lieutenant O'Hara in the care of our injured, now thankfully very few. And you've carried out a multitude of tasks we've requested of you. Your contribution so far has been vital. But there is considerably more work to be done and we are in great need of extra volunteers. It's a big ship to run and in need of much attention. We're hoping to have additional replicators and bathroom facilities online in the coming days and we intend to move you all out of the Solaris Lounge and into proper accommodation as soon as we can, but it has to be safe to do so.

"I cannot stress enough that to bring this vessel up to spec is a huge undertaking. In the meantime it's an unknown potentially dangerous place so for now you will all be restricted to the designated safe areas. Do not venture beyond unless accompanied by a member of crew."

There was mild outcry at this, nearly all becoming fed up of their existence squashed in the Solaris Lounge together with very limited toilet facilities.

"Our chief priority has to be your welfare. And in that regard we have at least one major advantage. You may have noticed the black coating on the Fantasy. Somehow, this makes us essentially invisible, hidden from prying sensors, including the T'Kani. It should help keep us safe if we are also careful about maintaining our distance. But we cannot rely on that alone to protect us.

"I want to be completely honest with you, our situation is still grave. We currently have no defensive capability and no weapons. Because of this alone we will stay on our bearing away from Vekarian space.

"Aside from having no shields and no weapons the central computer core is not yet fully operational, meaning all our essential systems require constant manual supervision. Life Support is mostly stable, but we have a dangerous power network and only finite deuterium reserves limiting our range. Which is fundamental given we desperately need to take on supplies. For now food replicators remain offline but we also need to properly repair our waste processing system otherwise there's no point fixing them. Medical supplies and facilities are also limited. So until we make port, rationing of what food and water there is will continue.

Groaning anew, and several short bursts of angry conversation erupted.

"We have no transporters and an unknown amount of operational life pods leaving the runabout as our only means of evacuation in a critical emergency. The ship has rudimentary navigation, sensors and communications but none of those systems are fully stable. With the manpower we have at our disposal, at the rate we are going, it could take many months to fix…"

As expected his audience was expressing incredulity and surprise. Christian motioned for them to hear him out and waited for the noise to die down.

"I am disclosing to you all of the facts because you need to make an important decision. The truth is that we few simply cannot do all of this vital work alone. A ship of this size in this condition cannot be kept in good working order with such a small crew. We therefore need to ask every able adult present to do your bit. To help us all to improve our lot.

"Regardless of joining the crew you will all be trained, from the youngest to the oldest, in security, fire and emergency procedures. We will be interviewing each of you in the next few days and assessing you both physically and mentally. But first we have to focus on expanding our teams."

"That's all very well, but what's the master plan, Captain?" predictably it was the objectionable Tiburonian male who stood with his arms folded at the front. "Are we heading back to Federation space?"

The babbling grew louder, heads bobbing up and down in a mixture of upset and agreement.

Christian exchanged a worried look with Jackson. She remained impassive, not wishing to step in and upset the chain of command that Christian had now established. This was his duty and as such he needed to convince them of his credibility.

Among the files Lirik had provided was a slideshow he thought might be useful for the Captain when answering this likely line of questioning. He turned to the nearer high sided wall and held his padd aloft, projecting from its small but powerful lens a large computer simulation onto the largely plain metal. Commodore Jackson approached and took the padd from him holding it steady.

"This is a proportionate representation of the Galaxy." The picture zoomed in. "The yellow area is the Federation, the green area is Tholian territory and this blue wedge on the left, this is Qovakia." The image tumbled end over end, showing the full width and depth of all three areas. "As you can see, Tholian space is huge, and this shows it with the retracted borders. With the wormhole gone, even at maximum warp, traversing those borders would take decades, and we have no idea what we might encounter on the way."

"What about sending a subspace message back home?" an unidentified baritone voice with an Irish accent.

"Without any method of relaying a signal it would take a very long time to reach Federation ears," Christian stepped to the front edge of the stage. "But unfortunately, the Tholians not only prevent ships from crossing their territory, they also block communications as well. All subspace transmissions from outsiders are analysed and jammed as a matter of course. All the same, once safely out of range of the T'Kani, we will endeavour to negotiate with the Tholian Assembly - try and get them to make a special exception and carry a message for us. I won't lie to you," Christian said, "I wouldn't hold out hope of that. And besides, even if we could get a communication through, without a wormhole to bridge the gap we are too great a distance for rescue."

"On the other hand, won't the Federation be trying to find out what happened to us?" Judge Madison bellowed, clearly stepping up as a positive, encouraging voice. "Surely they have realised the wormhole is gone."

"Yes, of course," Christian said. "Thousands of Federation citizens, hundreds of vessels and quite a few senior dignitaries were all in and around Vekarian space when the attack occurred and I doubt that the UFP or our home governments will let our disappearance slip quietly into the background. But what can they do for us? Unless they discover another stable wormhole that spans Tholian space, or someone develops space folding technology, the route between there and here is a very long one.

"My view is that it would be unwise to rely on the hope of any cavalry coming to our aid," Christian could sense the wave of despair from the masses. He told himself the next item on the list would either get their adrenaline going or push them over the edge completely. "And besides, as I said already, we won't abandon those we left behind in Vekarian space. We need to work on a way we can help."

More nervous dialogue, unsure about what their future held, how safe they would be. Christian empathised, but he knew the best way forward was to deal with the immediate for now and deliberate their next move when they were able. He nodded to Jackson to move on to a series of several images Lirik had been able to randomly capture from the runabout Hudson, and their tricorders.

"You have all met the T'Kani up close. These are examples of some of their uniforms and their ships we've recorded so far. We will need to know all that we can about them. Our Helan compatriots," Christian motioned to the representative delegation of Helan clustered beside the left of the stage, "along with our Qovakian shipmates will be vital to this process."

"Hah! It was their blood fault this happened in the first place!" an older lady shouted, supported by a babble of supportive statements.

"Hey! We were just as misled as you were!" a young woman retaliated.

"You honestly think I'd put my family at risk?!" another man shouted, overlapping her.

"If you lot hadn't shown up the T'Kani would have stayed away!" a younger man blurted.

"How dare you! I lost my fiancée in the attack! I wish we'd never come here!" a middle aged man cried.

"Okay, okay," Christian waved them to calm down. "Let's keep this amicable. Blaming and fighting between ourselves won't serve anyone. We have to focus on our task ahead. And building up local knowledge is paramount in our survival. It will hopefully put us in touch with allies in this part of space."

This was met with low muttering from the crowd.

Jackson changed the projection back to one zoomed in to Qovakian space. Fizzling blobs filled a large part of the central region.

"When the T'Kani destroyed the wormhole, they created a quantity of smaller conduits throughout this region, maybe further afield. That meant they were able to take total control of Qovakia in a short amount of time. And it's another reason why we're on this continued trajectory. But that said, if the T'Kani possess the technology to manipulate wormholes, then we may be able to acquire that same knowledge and possibly utilise it for ourselves.

The crowd murmured in a more interested tone at this.

"We are aware the T'Kani were in alliance with other nations in and around Qovakia during their last occupation, we should assume they will be again this time. That means our intelligence efforts are vitally important if we are going to prevail, let alone have any hope of mounting a rescue. And I'm particularly addressing any of you who are from those same nations. We will not judge you by association, but you may be especially invaluable to our efforts."

Multiple chats bubbled up, it seemed several clusters were wary of others in their midst – exactly the same reaction some of those in the command crew had expressed toward the Romulan Murat.

Waiting for the chattering to die down Christian indicated for Jackson to move onto a holographic projection of the young Bajoran girl.

"This young girl was in our midst when we came aboard. She went missing several days ago and it is vitally important we find her. However, we believe she may be a T'Kani agent -"

An amount of laughter erupted at this.

"She's a little girl!" someone shouted.

"That's a Bajoran not a T'Kani!" someone else echoed.

Several other small cries rang out, cutting him off. One mother of a particularly perturbed child spoke up. "Excuse me, but my daughter played with her several times - she's merely a child."

"Yes," this time an elderly gentleman spoke out. "I looked after her and some other kids, there's no way she could be dangerous."

Christian raised his hands calling for quiet. "Please, you have to trust me on this, she is not what she appears to be. If you see her, do not approach, but quietly make her whereabouts known to a member of the crew."

"Er excuse me!" someone shouted from the back. "She was right here just a few minutes ago. She shouted at you earlier."

"What?!" Christian quickly scanned the back of the deck. "Where is she?"

Everyone spun around and split apart, some moving forward or to the side to get a better view, the command crew all walking forward to search the room from their elevated perspective, but she had vanished.

"Okay, that's enough," Christian waved to them. "If she was here she is gone now."

Christian heard the shuttle doors open and in walked Narli and Lirik – they must have slipped out to check the corridor; the Yeoman shook his head to Christian as they re-joined the others.

"Okay, settle down," the Captain said. He fumbled in his pocket. "Until we sort out a better way of doing this if you're not in a Starfleet uniform and working as part of the crew you will be wearing a bandanna on your arm," Christian held a white rag aloft, tied it into a knot and pushed it up his left arm. Lirik picked up a container and began to hand the rags out to those on stage not in uniform.

Christian stepped to one side. "Commodore Jackson will now introduce our Command Crew. If you have particular skills to offer please follow them to the standby bay at the end and wait in line. Volunteers may then return to duty." Several made for the exits. "No, not now. We'll say when." A mixed reaction to this with others shaking their heads uncomfortable with his authoritative tone. "But we appreciate your enthusiasm," he smiled trying to soften his tone. "Commodore."

As Jackson stepped forward, the Captain noted that regardless of her star ship command inexperience her very rank and seasoning over years spent as a desk-based senior command officer exuded from her as an air of confidence and maturity. Coupled with her braided uniform, her solid frame, elder years and angular glasses it all enhanced her air of authority.

"Unconventional as it may sound, I have elected Captain Christian to command this vessel. I remain Commodore and senior ranking officer present, but with regards to the ship's function and rank and file I will be the Captain's Executive or First Officer. I will deputise for the Captain in any given situation and take command of the ship in his absence. I will also be responsible for the conduct of all senior staff and for ensuring the Captain's orders are carried out.

"Our Command Crew from left to right, are as follows: Lieutenant Commander Kohl, our Chief Engineer. Ensign Collard, Head of Security. Lieutenant O'Hara, Chief Medical Officer. Commander Sarilev, Head of Operations. This is Reb, our principal Helmsman. Ambassador Narli will be leading teams exploring the ship and its contents, marking areas that are safe or hazardous accordingly. They will be taking an inventory of all our supplies and the Ambassador will work with those indigenous to the Outer Zone in sourcing what we need. Professor Karim is our leading Scientist on the Bridge and will manage our scientific research efforts. Miss Hedra is leading on repairs to our Computer, Replicators, Waste Reclamation and Transporter systems under Mister Kohl," the Commodore stopped as she heard Hedra giggle - a sharp look quietened her, but caused a flutter of laughter from the survivors. Kohl flushed a deep crimson in response. Christian, O'Hara and Lirik barely kept composure at the German's obvious awkward embarrassment.

"This is Yeoman Lirik," Jackson walked over and stood beside the portly man who merely scowled at them. "He will be organising all routine services as well as non-operational staff and activities. He will also be assisting the Captain and myself in our executive functions. If you do not put yourself forward for duty, it is Mister Lirik you need to speak to about any concerns you may have. To reiterate the Captain's instruction, anyone not helping will be obligated to follow directions given by any member of the crew, and the rank hierarchy will be observed, without exception."

Behind closed sliding doors Lirik had been suitably vocal about his displeasure to the Commodore 'babysitting scores of bellyaching civvies'. Lirik remained preoccupied with the Bajoran girl and had insisted Christian take the opportunity of his public address to try and find her. The Commodore also suspected that he was displeased at Sarilev's senior position in the command crew. Jackson suspected something may have happened between them on the runabout, but she didn't yet know what that was. The Commodore wound things up:

"As and when the time is appropriate we will make assessments to formalise crew appointments and issue ranks and hopefully uniforms. Important information will be posted to the functioning displays in general areas or passed on by word of mouth," Jackson continued. "Please listen for important announcements over the intraship comm system - you may be instructed at any time to evacuate to a certain location or to adhere to a certain procedure. For now, that is all. Current crew may now leave. Anyone else wishing to step up please make your way into the standby shuttle bay area to your right. Thank you."

Jackson watched the 'command crew', such as they were, file off the stage and into the standby bay, the couple of dozen helper crew at the front quickly made their way out into the corridor beyond going back to their stations. To both the Captain's and Jackson's surprise, only a small group from the gathered masses began to amble toward the smaller adjacent shuttle bay area. O'Hara had to corral several children and young teenagers back as they enthusiastically stepped forward; Jackson had made it clear that no one under graduated cadet age would be accepted as a member of the crew.

The Captain gave Jackson a worried expression; she signalled that he should prompt them.

"Please, if you have any skills to contribute, anything at all, step forward and speak to our staff, we can't get far without you." Christian worried that he may have sounded too desperate.

Lirik leaned in and whispered into Jackson's ear - inaudible to the Captain. Christian saw the Commodore reluctantly nod in agreement and she beckoned him to follow her. Lirik stepped up to the edge of the raised dais staring down at his charges, legs in a wide stance, hands on hips.

"Okay, then!" he shouted. "That leaves all of you and me."

The Yeoman recognised some in the crowds who had previously volunteered and now changed their minds. Aside from those who were truly bone-idle or ignorant of the extent of work that needed to be done, he assumed the rest were either too frightened, or truly supposed that they had nothing worthwhile to contribute.

Lirik glanced to his left. On the bulkhead's threshold Jackson was having a whispered argument with Christian over allowing Judge Madison to enter. Madison, awkwardly fumbling behind them, had been at the front of those who stepped forward, but Jackson didn't want anything of it. The Yeoman nodded to the Commodore as she activated the command to close the dividing bulkhead, separating the 'crew' from the rest of them. The heavy 'shunt' of the door closing heralded a sense of doom. Lirik had no idea what their reactions would amount to in the hours ahead.

Two Vulcan males who'd stopped behind joined Lirik on stage carrying armfuls of pads, still wearing their skimpy red and gold uniforms. A wolf-whistle came from somewhere in the multitude of faces and another rush of laughter swept forward.

"That's enough of that," Lirik commanded, not certain who was the perpetrator, but warmed by the normality of the reaction and appreciating the humour; he could easily understand why the muscle-bound Vulcans incited such a reaction.

The men's black boots were the single conventional item of clothing on them. Scant red panty-type briefs hugged their muscular hips and these were partly covered with a pleated belt-come-skirt of gold and a translucent material, cut slightly longer at the back simulating a shirttail. Two long bands of pleated red and gold chiffon crossed their chest from their waist (held in place by an embroidered ceremonial IDIC broach) and fell over both shoulders. On the back, the bands were intricately criss-crossed and fixed to the belt at the rear with a metallic service pin. However unlike their counterparts because of their predicament these men were not wearing the matching traditional head dress (a multi-spiked velveteen white and red tiara affair) or the black leather cuffs denoting their status.

Lirik recognised the men as Vavoth and Sulin, both of whom were unmoved by the reaction they were receiving, undoubtedly used to an amount of ridicule from off-worlders for such attire. These 'disciples of logic' were a strange breed. To those who grasped the intricacies of Vulcan culture, they were regarded as the brawnier, less intelligent on their planet, having spent a greater amount of time in physical training and practical skills than on developing their intellect, though they were proficient in aspects of meditation and traditional Vulcan discipline. Their bodybuilding was as much to intimidate aliens (who were used to equating size with power) as to build on their inherent Vulcan physical prowess. All were skilled in the arts of Suus Mahna and Sha'mura and various forms of neuro-pressure treatments usually for the exclusive use of whoever they were ordered to serve.

The Me'Ltran'Di Precinct, as their order was known, was the well-established supportive body available to all field-based Vulcan ambassadors and statesmen. Adequate pilots and space farers, they spent their time acting as a mix of personal aide and butler, assisting their ward in whatever endeavour they pursued - in the case of these men, as science lab assistants and analysts to Professor Karim. As well as their supportive and protective roles, the Me'Ltran'Di were also renowned for their excellent valeting skills. Lirik shook his head. Their uniforms couldn't be less appropriate to their position, but as with a lot of things Vulcan, they were traditional and ritualistic rather than practical.

Lirik dropped his hands from his hips, scrutinising his charges, trying to get a better sense of who they were.

"I must say that this really is a poor show," Lirik wasn't about to mince his words and made eye contact with those he specifically recognised as having helped before. A lot of the crowd weren't too happy about his insulting remark.

"There is no way that few," Lirik thumbed in the direction of the bulkhead door, "will be able to manage overhauling the ship and keep it running. I strongly urge the rest of you to re-evaluate your position. I am in no doubt that you could make a contribution, whatever you might think right now. You might not entirely enjoy the task you have to perform, but you'll be helping make all our lives safer and more comfortable. The sooner we get this essential work done, the more freedoms we can enjoy."

The murmuring had risen to a low babble, but not one of them challenged Lirik directly. The bulkhead opened enough to allow O'Hara to enter and take her place on the stage next to him.

"How's it going?" she asked softly.

Lirik watched one of the large tanned Vulcans bend over to pick up a padd he had carelessly dropped. "Oh, just peachy," he replied with a smirk. O'Hara offered a smile, wondering about Lirik's personal preferences, then thinking it was none of her business. Lirik clapped his hands commanding attention.

"Could all children and young people please accompany Lieutenant O'Hara for health and safety training," the Yeoman watched as the older orphaned kids filtered the information to the younger ones and gradually about 60 youngsters assembled to the left of the stage. "Those with young infants, you go along as well." He waited for the dozen or so adults carrying babies and holding hands of toddlers to make their way forward, those young families who were lucky enough to be intact kissed the briefest of partings to one another and separated.

Some children clung on to their parent or the kindly guardian who had taken them under their wing, not wishing to move. O'Hara moved in swiftly, and gently reassured the children and guardians. Several mid-teens gathered around the Nurse establishing whether they were classed in her group or if they should remain behind, but eventually guided all those deemed young enough out of the shuttle bay in one straggling herd.

As the doors hissed closed behind them, the remaining survivors were carrying on copious discussions and observations that had risen audibly in those few minutes.

"Okay!" Lirik bellowed. "Now pay attention! I want you to form into groups of ten." There was a hiatus as no one moved. "Come on, come on!" clapping his hands and causing his shield to ripple with static. "Double quick! We haven't got all day!"

Some reacted quickly, pushing and shoving; a smattering of giggles and angry exchanges rang out. The stubborn types hardly moved, smirking from superior embarrassment as they were knocked to and fro. After a minute or so the remaining hundreds had roughly banded together although not all groupings comprised ten, as had been asked of them.

He turned to the Vulcans who descended to the shuttle bay floor and distributed padds.

"These will show you recorded demonstrations of basic Starfleet emergency procedures and safety protocols for space travel. You'll review these details together, after which you will select one leader who will take your picture and record personal details using the directions provided. Understood?" There were a few thumbs up and the odd muffled response. "If anyone has a question, please raise your hand and be patient if I'm helping someone else," Lirik found he was standing, legs apart, with his hands clasped behind his back. The Vulcans resumed their position on the stage behind him, silent as ever.

Lirik watched the small cliques huddling together closely as the noise level slowly began to rise again. Some began to converse quietly, while some bickered over who was going to be in charge. The compliant groups viewed the safety demos first, as instructed, but occasionally across the deck individuals would turn to stare at him. Others gossiped and made suppositions. Lirik decided that, after his altercation with Christian this morning, it was turning into a very long day - and it wasn't even ten hundred hours.

* * *

COMMAND SECTION, STAND-BY SHUTTLE BAY

In the adjacent hangar space, the mood was less haphazard and nearly upbeat. Straggling lines had formed, the potential crew having quiet chats with their neighbours as the senior staff held interviews with each in turn. Christian made eye contact with nearly all his command crew, except for Reb who was noticeably uncomfortable with the whole situation.

Hedra milled around behind Kohl, letting the blushing man do all the talking. Reb hung behind Sarilev, the veteran determined to conduct the interviews for helm duty by himself. Jackson was interviewing the 'don't knows' and helping Professor Karim to identify necessary science roles that would be useful: not surprisingly, a large number of prospectors, miners, farmers and sales types with specialist knowledge had ventured into the Outer Zone, some sourcing new resources, others looking for the opportunity to work on mining or processing plants, others seeking a new life for themselves. The Professor was having a hard time relating to the swarthy prospecting types, and couldn't see their aptitude for a ship-bound role.

Both Vostaline, the Helan leader's eldest daughter, and Cadet Yip were moving down the lines taking advance details. Narli moved from Qovakian to Qovakian, establishing contact with any traders, merchants or those with supply-related knowledge of the local area.

Wheezy was taking details of those offering to help on behalf of O'Hara

Christian sidled up to Jackson busy taking someone's details. "I'm going back to the bridge, I'll leave you in charge here." She barely nodded.

Christian caught a snapped exchange to his right - Commander Sarilev was having a private 'word' with Reb about not using colourful language. The Captain measured Sarilev to be the best candidate for Second Officer, unapproachable demeanour notwithstanding, but until things settled down, he would shelve any decision to hone down a strict chain of command.

Christian exited the standby shuttle bay and headed for the turbolift, then changed his mind, thinking he would look in on O'Hara and the children to lend his fatherly/Captainly support. As he lifted his head, he saw a small figure at the end of the corridor. The light was dim and he couldn't make out its features, but as it raised its arm Christian's instinct kicked in, and he flung himself to one side.

The energy blast licked past his left arm scorching the material of his newly replicated jacket and he thudded into the corridor wall hard. Another round ricocheted off a support strut beside him, hitting the ceiling causing it to flash and split apart, pieces of metal loudly crashing to the deck around him. A third passed near his ear, close enough for him to feel its heat as it cast a long smouldering gash along the bulkhead behind him.

At the sound of the commotion Lirik then Sarilev, Jackson and Collard and shortly after O'Hara opened their respective doors, peering out tentatively. Christian watched the diminutive figure dart off out of sight down an access corridor.

"The girl!" Christian was puffing with excitement and physical exertion pointing toward her last location.

Lirik started to give chase, such as his large frame allowed, quickly overtaken by Sarilev and Collard, but Christian called out. "Not you, Yeoman," the Captain got to his feet and gestured at the shuttle bay. "You have your own responsibilities now." Lirik scowled, but held his tongue and ducked back into the shuttle bay.

Not half a minute later they came back. "We lost her, Captain, sorry," Collard was visibly aggrieved.

"She evidently regards you as some kind of threat," Jackson commented to Christian.

"Perhaps," the Captain said. "Or maybe I just happened to be the unlucky one who crossed her path." Bizarrely he could hear children playing loudly out of sight behind O'Hara's opened doorway.

Jackson frowned and rubbed her eyes under her spectacles. "Surely sabotaging the ship would be her goal."

Kohl came into view, behind him the more curious folk pushed forward to see what all the commotion was about. Ambassador Narli chinned above a broad shoulder behind: "That could be her intention yet?"

The Captain nodded. "We're vulnerable in engineering and command areas," Christian examined the burnt sleeve - his arm smarted. "Ensign, Command Section Engineering is your main priority. From there I want you to organise guards to all other relevant areas. Without internal sensors you'll need to form search parties. Call on other teams if you need extra hands, you can also ask all those reprobates in there if they would at least assist us in the search. Whatever it takes I want to flush this little bitch out once and for all."

Commodore Jackson flinched at his spiteful remark, but was as concerned about the agent's true intentions.

Christian winced from the pain in his arm. "Lieutenant O'Hara, take the kids back to the Shuttle Bay and tell Mr Lirik to lock themselves inside. We may well need your services. Everyone else, please resume your posts."

"Okay, you people who don't have assignments, come with us," Sarilev shouted to the helpers, before Collard got a chance to speak for herself.

"I'll get my medkit," the Lieutenant said to Christian, dashing back into her room. Jackson didn't move as people criss-crossed around her, most making their way to the turbolifts, a few ascending the jeffreys tube. O'Hara stood in the middle of the corridor with her kit herding all the children quickly across and into the Shuttle Bay.

The Commodore stood in front of Christian. "Lirik may be able to help," she advised him.

He moved his head close to hers, so as not to be overheard by the few waiting for a turbolift car. "Pardon me, Commodore," the Captain snapped in a hushed but annoyed tone, "but what the hell is this? The bloody Medusan fan club?" He saw Jackson's expression harden. "I don't give a damn what special skills that man may have, we already agreed Lirik's duties, and in this case his responsibility is the welfare of those who don't want to volunteer. Is that clear?"

"Loud and clear, Captain," Jackson said flatly and joined the departing crew in the turbolift bound for the bridge.

Christian looked around and saw O'Hara standing a few paces away, staring at him hard.

"Something to say, Lieutenant?" Christian barked. O'Hara didn't flinch, but merely raised her eyebrows and approached him in silence. O'Hara gently eased aside the ripped jacket and undershirt material and activated the skin regenerator. Normally she would have used it with a pain inhibitor, but there was none spare, so she knew there would be discomfort.

The Captain didn't want to show her how much it hurt. A few moments later, Christian relaxed, comfortable with her hand gripping his arm firmly. It felt nice to be touched, he thought, studying her freckles. In his experience, relationships between a CMO and his/her Captain were always close because of this physical intimacy that regularly came about. Often a commander would be closer to a commanding officer than an Exec. O'Hara finished her treatment and walked toward the Shuttle Bay.

"I just need to check on a few more children," she said and disappeared inside. Christian was impressed at her restraint.

All at once he was left in the corridor alone and exasperated. He took a couple of seconds to shut his eyes and regain some sense of poise. His conscience nagged at him, asking if he was being unfair to Lirik because of what had happened to his parents. He wrestled with the idea, walking quickly to the nearest turbolift door.

Everything about Lirik was beginning to annoy him. His plumpness and his receding hair. His unrefined English accent, that bloody whiter than white trim of the diplomatic corps and his ever-neat appearance. And the over-accentuated efficiency. Even the man's title grated on him: Yeoman. It was a word he had always associated with a submissive junior, and yet had now been transformed by Lirik into someone of status and power, outside of his jurisdiction. Ironically synchronous given that his First Officer was also his superior in rank. The man had previously agreed to set aside his privilege and follow Christian's orders, but it wasn't long until he reneged on that. How could he be sure it wouldn't repeat? Diplomatic Corpsmen were frequently involved in covert ops and he had no doubt Lirik was part of all that once upon a time, which probably meant he was both secretive and a loner.

"Bridge," Christian said, then remembered the voice interface of some turbolift cars were still faulty. He pressed the correct key on the lcars and the system gave an acknowledging 'bong'. As he saw his reflection in one of the shiny surfaces the four pips on his uniform glinted and it starkly reminded him of his training in personnel management for command positions. Protocol dictated that when a senior officer took a dislike to junior, they should spend time thinking of their positive attributes. The Captain considered the events so far where Lirik was concerned.

He concluded that in many ways the Yeoman had been one of the key players. Christian ran a hypothetical scenario of the same circumstances since the T'Kani attack without Lirik's presence acknowledging that without him they would not have escaped from Helub, let alone Vekarian territory.

The turbolift car juddered and stopped. Christian glanced around at the flickering lights on the car's wall and ceiling and his mind's eye visualised his position high up a vertical shaft within the ship. He stabbed at the lcars panel, but it wouldn't respond. Abruptly the car began to descend - albeit not out of control. Violently, it halted and proceeded for a few seconds along a horizontal course rapidly slowing to a stop. The doors slid apart to reveal blackness.

The lcars panel was blank, he had no idea where he could be, but there was heat, pressure and atmosphere in the dark corridor. The dimmed light of the car illuminated the two metre space outside but there was nothing to denote the location or function of this deck, aside from the standard grey-tan thin carpet of the command yacht section and bare bulkheads. He guessed he was somewhere within the Command Yacht but he couldn't be sure.

Without warning, the car began to vibrate. Fearful that it would shake itself free of the runners and plummet to the bottom of the shaft the Captain jumped out into the corridor, only to find the vibrations were reflected there as well. It seemed the whole ship was encountering a turbulent imbalance. He slapped his commbadge, hoping the ship's network would pick him up, despite the apparent lack of local power. "Captain to Bridge!"

There was no response. Without warning, the turbolift car doors slid shut and Christian was plunged into total darkness. He hit the car call button, but nothing happened. Several loud booms echoed through the structure from not too far away and the ship's vibrations jumped to a new level, throwing Christian violently to the floor.

* * *

COMMAND SECTION, MAIN SHUTTLE BAY

Lirik was trying to calm the stumbling, tumbling survivors as they all slid and fell in one direction. They were screaming, crying out, especially the children that O'Hara had deposited with him not several minutes earlier.

"Stay calm!" the Yeoman tried in vain to offer reassurance above the noises of grating metal and thunderous internal engine sounds. "Try and grab on to something!"

Emergency lighting had kicked in, and the red strips of alert status winked on and off all around. Steadied by his scantily clad muscular Vulcan assistants, Lirik made his way to a wall mounted console to try and contact the bridge, before a final lurch sent everyone flailing across the deck in the opposite direction. The ship was now making a violent roll to the right.

* * *

COMMAND SECTION, MAIN ENGINEERING

"What's happening?!" Collard shouted above the noise to Kohl, who was managing to hold an awkward standing position against the engine room's diagnostic table, working the controls whenever he could afford to let go with one hand. People were rolling and falling to Starboard. The ship lurched violently and one woman came flying down from an overhead walkway and slammed into the deck; two were propelled out of site over the guide rail around the core and into the deep warp shaft with chilling screams.

Ensign Collard was holding onto a support column, embracing it with all her strength. "Are we caught in a wormhole?"

"I don't know!" the German shouted back. "None of the controls are responding." Several explosions ripped apart machinery around engineering, and he covered his face from the molten sparks.

* * *

COMMAND YACHT, MAIN BRIDGE

The bridge crew were pinned to the floor having tumbled to one side; several had impacted on the consoles and chairs as they went. Jackson could hardly turn her head, such was the sensation of g-force winning over the gravity stabilisers and SIF.

Suddenly the feeling gone. Bright lights came on, and the sounds and noises of the Bridge were louder than ever.

"What the hell is this?" Reb cried in alarm, the Helm transformed into a larger, different configuration.

Jackson was helped to her feet by Ganhedra, the Helan leader, and saw that the bridge was fully operational. Where workstations were previously blank, now they were full of data and information.

The Romulan Murat, at the Engineering station to her right. "All bridge stations are now active. Many systems are coming on line - impulse and warp power, shields, weapons, sensors … voice interface and computer functions read normal…how is this possible?"

Jackson came up behind him, the amount of activity buzzing around them could not be ignored.

"Commodore!" Hedra called from the opposite side of the bridge. She was crouching over an unconscious Commander Sarilev, his temple bruised and bloody.

"Bridge to O'Hara," the Commodore barked.

There was no response. "Bridge to Captain!" Again nothing, so she grasped Murat's bony shoulder. "Are you sure communications are functioning?"

Murat nodded. "According to the diagnostic they are fully operational."

"Bridge to Engineering," Jackson watched Hedra trying to make Sarilev comfortable.

"No response," Murat stated the obvious.

She turned to the Helan leader who was intently staring at the view screen. "Gandedra, find a medic, I don't care who."

Murat was busy trying to discover the cause of their apparent return to full power. He blurted out some cursory sounding words that were impossible for the Commodore's commbadge to translate.

"What is it?" Jackson demanded.

The Romulan changed the angle on the view screen to reveal a receding view of a long cylindrical black vessel adrift and slowly spinning, a divot of white gouged out near one end spewing plasma and debris into space.

"What is that?" Jackson asked. One press of the Romulan's slender index finger zoomed in and they now recognised the shape of the Fantasy.

"It appears that the Command Yacht has been separated from the rest of the ship," Murat looked up at the Commodore, who was regarding the scene with disbelief.

Murat changed the picture back to standard viewer ahead. It was clear from the stars tumbling off to the right that the ship was making a hard turn to port.

"We're turning back on ourselves," Reb said from the Helm. "But I'm not doing it."

Jackson looked around the bridge, Ganhedra and O'Hara's helper Veana were attending to Sarilev. "Turn us about. Take us back," she said.

Reb's hands flashed across the helm station, but he shook his head. "I'm locked out. No navigational controls are available."

Murat analysed the ship's systems. "Main power controls are slaved to Command Yacht Engineering on deck 9 - we're being piloted from there," he said. After a few attempts, he said: "I can't override it." He paused. "We're on a direct course back to Vekaria."