Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Acceptable Losses"

Cover art by Ralph and Sarod. Text by Christina Moore.
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“Any Starfleet vessel in range, come in. This is the U.S.S. Andromeda—do you copy?”

The garbled transmission was desperate. On the main viewscreen, the static-charged image of the Andromeda’s bridge and its commanding officer, Captain George Ramsey, hissed and popped.

“This is Captain Dominic DeLuca of the starship Messenger.” Deep concern creased crossed the brow of Messenger’s commanding officer as he sat in the Intrepid-class starship’s command chair—he knew George Ramsey. “George, we can barely read you!”

Turning to look over his shoulder, he regarded the Roylan manning the operations console. “Can you clear up that static, Sully?”

With his usual aplomb, Lt. Sullek’s small hands flew over the controls. He shook his head in frustration. “The signal is breaking up at the source, Captain. My efforts to boost the gain have not been successful,” the lieutenant added.

“Damn.” DeLuca turned back to the main screen. “George, what’s your situation? Captain Ramsey?”

The image cleared up enough briefly enough for the bridge crew to see Captain Ramsey grimace in pain. His message continued to fade in and out. “Messenger,” he pleaded, “… need assistance. Some kind of dis… aboard… My people… dying. Can you respond?”

“Immediately,” the captain answered him. “We’re locking onto your coordinates now.” The image sputtered and snapped, flashing from clarity to obscurity and back.

“Dominic, wait!” Ramsey gasped suddenly, painfully, his eyes staring straight ahead at DeLuca. “Keep… keep your distance. Warn… warn Star—” And the image went black before the view returned to a starfield.

“What happened?” DeLuca demanded, whirling around to face Sully.

“The signal’s just … gone, sir.”

“Ensign Tucker,” the captain said, looking back toward the front of the bridge at his helm officer, “lay in a course for the Andromeda’s last known position.”

“Captain, are you alright?” the ship’s counselor asked as Charlaine Tucker was acknowledging his order.

DeLuca turned slowly to look over at the Muus-an sitting on the bench seat to his right. Generally she referred to all the crew by their given names rather than their rank—Amalys claimed it was a habit borne of her upbringing, because the Muus-a always called each other by name. He was the only one she ever addressed by rank, and then only in front of other people, which she had further explained was in deference to his position as commanding officer of the ship. Whenever they were alone, however, he got the same first-name treatment as everyone else.

It was one of the habits the somewhat mysterious elf-like woman had that he didn’t really mind; he agreed that calling a person by their name, in her profession, brought things to a more personal rather than professional level, and often made her job easier when her patients could relate to her. What he still hadn’t gotten used to—even after knowing her for just over a year—was her uncanny ability to sense when he was uneasy.

And right now, he was definitely feeling uneasy.

“George Ramsey,” he began slowly, “is an old Academy classmate of mine. He helped me through Basic Weapons and I helped him with his Astrophysics papers.”

“He was a friend and you’re worried about him,” Amalys Tyr’lylth observed.

“Course laid in, Captain,” Ensign Tucker called out.

Without acknowledging Amalys’ words, DeLuca returned his attention to the matter at hand. “Maximum warp,” he said to Tucker. “Passiamo.”

*****

Captain’s log, Stardate 53551.1.

The
Messenger is responding to a distress signal from the starship Andromeda while en route to Cardassian space. Captain Ramsey’s signal also appeared to contain a warning. A warning about what, I’m not exactly sure

*****

“ETA to the Andromeda, two minutes,” Tucker announced from the helm.

“Take us to half-impulse,” DeLuca said, standing as he watched the streaking stars become stationary on the main viewer.

“Yellow alert,” Lieutenant Commander Jaarid announced as he stood from the first officer’s seat and moved to stand on DeLuca’s left, and the alert panels around the bridge began to flash yellow a moment later.

DeLuca placed a hand on the railing separating the command level from the helm level of his bridge. “Let’s see what’s out here. Lieutenant Hollen, scan for any other ships in the area. Be alert for anything that might reflect a cloak distortion.”

”Aye, Captain.” Lt. Yvala Hollen’s scans took only moments. The Trill was a thorough a tactical officer, and if there was a hostile craft about she would find it. Her meticulous efforts, however, proved otherwise. “Sensors show nothing else in the immediate vicinity, Captain. We’re as alone as a shadow in the dark.”

Ahead of them, the Andromeda drifted eerily in space. The largest of Starfleet’s cadre of vessels, the Sovereign-class starship appeared to be strangely lifeless with her blinking marker lights the only sign of any activity.

“Try hailing them,” Jaarid ordered.

“No response, Commander,” Sully replied.

“There’s no evidence that she was in a fight,” Lt. Tyrone Ja-Nareth, Messenger’s senior science officer, said as he was intently studying his own set of sensor scans.

“And the life pods appear to be in place,” DeLuca agreed with him. “Why are they so quiet?”

“Can’t say. Radiation levels are nominal,” Ja-Nareth said with a shrug.

“No weapons signatures detected, either sir,” Hollen piped in.

“Any lifesigns?”

“I’m getting some very weak readings from over there,” Sully reported. “Whatever happened has incapacitated the entire crew.”

DeLuca turned to look at him. “Warp plasma trails?”

The Roylan consulted his console. “No, sir. Nothing but our own and Andromeda’s.”

“Do you want me to move in for a closer look, Captain?” Tucker asked, turning to look at him as she did so.

DeLuca stroked his chin in contemplation. “Ramsey was trying to warn us. He said for us to keep our distance. I’ve never known him to tell anyone to shrink from a challenge.”

“Smart is safer than dead,” suggested the gray-skinned R’naari standing to DeLuca’s left.

DeLuca nodded at this suggestion. “Close to a distance of one thousand kilometers, Charlie. That should give us a decent buffer.”

“Aye, sir,” the pilot replied, turning back to the helm to input the commands.

Turning to his first officer, DeLuca said, “Assemble an away team. Get over there and see if you can find out just what the hell happened.”

Jaarid nodded resolutely, his longer-than-regulation black hair falling over his forehead as he did so, his silver eyes taking on a resolute expression. “Lieutenant Hollen, Lieutenant Ja-Nareth, I desire you would accompany me,” the younger man said, turning and moving quickly toward the turbolift.

DeLuca watched as the two officers left their stations and joined the XO in the turbolift, then turned his eyes back to the viewscreen, where the Andromeda floated in her eerie silence. He sensed Amalys stepping up beside him and glanced over at her, but all she did was look back, then turn her attention to the viewscreen before them.

*****

The away team materialized on the bridge of the Andromeda not quite ten minutes after their captain had given the order to investigate the ship. Jaarid and Hollen immediately swept the command center with their weapons. Ja-Nareth and Maureen Killian—Messenger’s Chief Medical Officer—took out their tricorders and began scanning their surroundings, while Ensign S’Lene from Engineering walked across the bridge to the engineering stations. The room was unnaturally empty and the only sounds were the intermittent chirping and beeping of the unmanned consoles.  

At Dr. Killian’s request, each member of the away team was wearing a personal sterilization field generator. It was a device that emitted an invisible forcefield around the wearer of the armband, and had proven successful on many occasions to prevent contamination from radiation and airborne pathogens. Killian had asked (insisted, really) that each member of the team wear one as they had not yet determined whether or not the atmosphere within the Andromeda was contaminated.

“The ship is functioning within established parameters, Commander,” S’Lene reported, “although the communications systems, both intraship and subspace, are completely inoperable and without any apparent sign of a malfunction. All of the life-support functions appear to be nominal as well.”

“Radiation levels, Doctor?” Jaarid asked.

Killian looked at her tricorder display. “According to my readings, the air shows no signs of contamination. Whatever happened here, it doesn’t appear to be an airborne contagion.”

The R’naari turned to their science officer. “Mr. Ja-Nareth?”

Ja-Nareth, who had mirrored S’Lene and gone to the science stations to examine one of the consoles there, turned his bright blue eyes to the first officer, saying, “Ensign S’Lene and Dr. K are right, we’re all safe to breathe the air. I’ve no records here of any environmental hazards on the ship in the last several months.”

“I desire a deck-by-scan scan of this ship,” Jaarid ordered with a nod. “S’Lene, I would have you down in Engineering performing a full Level One diagnostic. Let us be sure that everything is really functioning as it is supposed to be.”

The young Vulcan nodded and moved to leave the bridge.

“Ty, relay yourself to Astrometrics and get me a full rundown of the Andromeda’s flight path for the last week,” the XO went on, addressing his science officer.

“Yes, sir,” the older man said, jogging after S’Lene, who was already holding the turbolift for him.

“Hollen, take yourself to the security center and review all of their security logs, same time frame. Dr. Killian, check out Sickbay. Captain Ramsey said that his people were dying. Maybe there’s a record about it down there. I shall remain here, checking out the ship’s logs.”

“Yes, Commander,” the doctor answered, and she joined the Trill in another lift.

*****

The astrometrics laboratory was as empty as the rest of the ship appeared to be. Ja-Nareth immediately went over to the main console and after a few minutes of scanning the logs, he came to the conclusion that nothing whatsoever was wrong with the lab or its equipment, and there had been no abnormal findings in the last ninety-six hours. He opened up his tricorder and laid it down on the console so that he could interface it with the Astrometrics computer system and download the flight plan information.

“Is there something wrong with my console?” a feminine voice asked him from behind.

The Efrosian spun around to see a beautiful Boslic woman wearing a Starfleet science uniform. She languidly brushed a strand of magenta hair away from her temple.

“Where did you come from?” he asked her with surprise.

Ignoring him, she glided forward with a sleek, sensual gait. “I was beginning to think that I was the only one left on the ship.”

“Who are you?” Ja-Nareth asked her.

“Shouldn’t you introduce yourself first?” she asked him with a seductive smile. “You did come onto my ship uninvited.”

“Lt. Tyrone Ja-Nareth, Senior Science Officer of the U.S.S. Messenger.”

Gently and deliberately, she took his hand into hers, which was incredibly soft and warm. Ja-Nareth felt an instantaneous rush of tranquility and found himself feeling completely at ease, even comforted, by her touch.

“You’re part of the crew?” he asked her, his voice taking on a dreamy quality.

“Silly Tyrone…” She stroked his cheek gently with her opposite hand and he closed his eyes. There was calm at the center of his soul. “So many questions. Don’t I make you feel good?”

”Yes,” he whispered with a sigh. “I feel so good.”

“But, of course, you do,” the woman replied sweetly. “Now be a dear and give me your DNA.”

*****

Jaarid stood quietly on the bridge of the Andromeda for a moment, trying to get a grasp of why Captain Ramsey’s message had been so distraught. What could have gone wrong? The ship was operating normally and there wasn’t the slightest indication of a battle. Sitting down in the first officer’s chair, he brought up the most recent ship’s log entries. Since ship’s logs were considered “public” domain, he did not need a security code to access the files. Were he to find nothing in these logs, he’d have to contact Captain DeLuca for assistance in accessing Ramsey’s personal logs, as he didn’t have the clearance.

The logs discouraged him when they offered no insights into what had happened to the ship and her crew. In the last five days, the Sovereign-class starship had catalogued twenty gaseous anomalies, seven micro-subspace rifts, and had collected fourteen asteroid samples from the nearby Yodalt Belt. There had been no contacts with any other species, hostile or otherwise, since their restock of supplies from the U.S.S. Hellespont seventeen days ago.

The trouble began ninety-six hours before Messenger had received Ramsey’s cry for help. Nearly the entire gamma shift had reported to Sickbay with vague flu-like symptoms. Their chief medical officer, Dr. Karen Middleton, had given them the standard treatment before returning them to duty. During the shift, there were forty-two medical emergencies that required medical teams to be dispatched from Sickbay, ranging from simple fainting to a crewmember who had suffered a cardiac event. The ship’s log wasn’t any more specific since it was meant to be an overview of operations. The medical logs would be more telling and he would have tried to gain access to Ramsey’s personal logs but he didn’t have the command codes. He once again considered that he would contact Captain DeLuca about it later if it was necessary. After the captain’s ready room, Sickbay would be his next stop.

Closing the ship’s log, the R’naari tapped his commbadge. “Jaarid to Killian.”

Killian here, go ahead,” the doctor replied.

“Anything to report, Doctor?”

Nothing so far, Commander. I’ll keep looking.”

Jaarid stifled a groan at hearing she’d had no better luck than he’d had. “Please let me know the moment you do,” he told her, even though he knew the request was unnecessary.

Of course. Killian out.”

Standing up from the captain’s chair, Jaarid grimaced in thought. There was one painfully obvious thing that he had forgotten to try—he hadn’t done it because he knew that the answer would likely prove to be just as frustrating as the logs had been. Despite his misgivings, he asked the computer, “Computer, locate Captain Ramsey.”

Captain Ramsey is in Astrometrics.

Pleasantly surprised, Jaarid tapped his commbadge again. “Bridge to Ramsey.”

Of course, there was no answer. He should have known better. Double-tapping his commbadge to close the first channel and open another one, he called out, “Jaarid to Ja-Nareth.”

Again, he received no response.

“Computer, are you sure that Captain Ramsey is in the Astrometrics lab?”

Affirmative, the computer replied.

“Locate Lt. Ja-Nareth,” he tried.

There is no Lt. Ja-Nareth assigned to the U.S.S. Andromeda.

This time, Jaarid allowed himself to groan as he realized his blunder: naturally, as none of the away team were listed on Andromeda’s crew roster, the computer wouldn’t recognize any of their names. “I’m aware of that. Locate all non-crew Starfleet commbadge ID chips and tell me the location of Lt. Tyrone Ja-Nareth.”

Working… the computer told him with a chirp. A minute later the matronly female voice that was standard on all Starfleet ships reported, Lt. Tyrone Ja-Nareth is in Astrometrics.

Jaarid tapped his commbadge again. “Jaarid to Ja-Nareth, respond please.”

Still nothing, and it wasn’t like Ja-Nareth not to respond to a summons, unless he was engrossed in one of his numerous experiments. A knot of concern began to form n his stomach, and he tapped his commbadge again.

“Jaarid to S’Lene.”

In the split second it took the Vulcan to answer, he prayed to the Goddess Anaar (for whom his people had been named) that she actually would answer. Killian had managed to do so, but he hadn’t gotten anything out of Ja-Nareth, and that worried him.

Yes, Commander?

He breathed a sigh of relief when S’Lene’s voice came through his commbadge. “Have you glimpsed Ja-Nareth in the last hour?” he asked her.

No, sir—haven’t seen him since the lift dropped him off on Deck Eleven.”

Okay, that was not good, because she was the last person to have seen the science officer. “Are you alone down there, Ensign?” he queried, suspecting suddenly that perhaps they were not alone on the Andromeda after all.

Affirmative, Commander.”

“Have you found anything yet?” Jaarid asked, already anticipating a negative answer.

He was right on the latinum. “Not yet sir. So far all the propulsion systems appear to be functioning within parameters. Andromeda is just sitting at all-stop.”

Jaarid hung his head for a moment before he acknowledged and, after advising her to alert him the moment she found anything, he closed the channel and contacted Lt. Hollen. He was able to get through to her as well, thankfully, but her report was the same as the doctor’s and the engineer’s: nothing yet, everything appeared normal. All the security logs had told her was that the security chief had been running battle drills up until the crew began getting sick four days ago. And she hadn’t seen Ja-Nareth since he’d left the bridge, either.

Jaarid shook his head and started for the captain’s ready room, stopping short when the door swished open suddenly, revealing a rather pretty woman. She had short, raven-colored hair, gray eyes and she wore the teal green divisional color of a science officer.

Still, despite the Starfleet attire, given the fact that he could no longer locate one of his team he slowly drew his phaser and pointed it at her.

“Where did you come from?” the woman asked, obviously startled by his appearance.

“I’m Lt. Commander Jaarid, U.S.S. Messenger. We came in response to your distress call. I desire you would tell me who you are.”

The woman took a tentative step forward, examining Jaarid as if he might be an illusion. “Lt. Lyriye Telek,” she said, “Senior Science Officer of the Andromeda, Commander.”

Jaarid also took a step closer, noticing her slightly angled eyebrows and the delicate points on her ears. “’Telek’—is that Vulcan?”

“No. Romulan, actually,” she said. “Inherited from my grandfather—the rest of me’s Betazoid. Have you found anyone else aboard?”

He continued to study her, wanting very much to believe his eyes but knowing he could not. Jaarid lowered his phaser but did not holster it while retrieving his own tricorder from a pouch on the tool belt he’d donned in the Messenger’s transporter room. Flipping it open with his thumb, he deftly used the digit to press the buttons allowing him to run a biological scan. It confirmed what she had said about her genetic heritage. He chose, for now, to give her the benefit of the doubt, but even as he put his tricorder and phaser away, he made a mental note to watch for any signs of deception.

“I have found no others, and it would please me much if you are able to shed some light on what’s happened here.”

“I’m afraid that I won’t be much help, sir,” Telek said with a groan. “I finished Beta shift and returned to my quarters. It had been a particularly busy day since we collected fourteen asteroid samples—nodules, really. Our scans told us they were almost completely composed of kesrinite.”

“Kesrinite is not common to this sector,” Jaarid said. “If memory serves, it is only found in the Gamma Quadrant.”

“Precisely. So you can see why we were so curious about them,” she continued. “Anyway, after my shift, I had dinner and went to bed. When I woke up, I was alone on an empty ship.”

“Did you feel ill at all?” the R’naari asked her. “The ship’s logs mentioned something about the flu.”

Telek smiled grimly. “Despite being only one-quarter Romulan, sir, I’m pretty resistant to most Human influenza strains. Pointy ears and angled eyebrows aren’t the only thing besides my name I inherited from Grandfather Perad—I somehow ended up with the green blood and strong immune system Rommies are born with.”

“Be that as it may, Lieutenant,” Jaarid said slowly, his eyebrows rising at her use of a word that was generally considered derogatory toward her grandfather’s species. “I desire we head down to Sickbay that we can get you checked out just the same.”

”I’ve already been to Sickbay since I woke up, sir. There’s no doctor or anyone else there.”

Jaarid grinned and gestured toward the turbolift. “Fortunately, I brought my own. Shall we?”

*****

Killian grumbled a Gaelic epithet as she clicked through one useless report after another. Muscle pains, gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches… All of these were symptoms of a standard influenza virus. Several of the Andromeda’s crew had suffered from self-resolved syncopal episodes. The only “odd” medical chart was that of a young lieutenant who had suffered from a myocardial infarction and subsequently died. There was no record of an autopsy performed, only the name of the patient. She needed to cross-reference this with the other files but she was unfamiliar with the Sovereign-class starship’s sickbay records system, as she’d never served on one before. Prior to the Messenger, her postings had been two different starbases, an Excelsior-class, and a Miranda-class. The Mess, as her ship was affectionately called by the crew, had the most sophisticated medical facility she’d had the privilege of working in.

Until now. The Sovereign medical facility, though similar in layout, had at least twice the biobeds and equipment.

After many futile attempts, she hissed in frustration, then remembered the Emergency Medical Hologram. If the Andromeda’s doctor had been inundated with patients—as the records she had been reading clearly indicated had been the case—then perhaps she would have utilized the program to assist her and the other doctors, and the EMH’s memory might contain the information she sought.

“Computer,” Killian commanded. “Activate the Emergency Medical Holographic Program.”

An image of a middle-aged, balding humanoid wearing medical blue appeared in front of the desk in the doctor’s office, where she had sat to do her research. “Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” the simulation said, which Killian knew was the standard greeting.

“There is no emergency right now, Doctor,” Killian said. “I do, however, need some information.”

“I’m a doctor, not a computer terminal,” the holographic doctor replied with a mildly insolent air. “I suggest that you consult the medical database.”

The red-headed Human smiled, already well-versed in handling the Mark I EMH—Messenger had one (though she couldn’t help wondering why the Andromeda didn’t have one of the newer models), but after nearly four years of running the night shift, their own had developed a much more genial attitude. They key to dealing with the Mark I model, she had learned, was not to engage him. They seemed to respond the way you wanted them to when you got straight to the point. “I need access to your memory files for the last ninety-six hours,” she told him mildly.

The hologram blinked suddenly and looked around—even moving to duck his head out of the office to look into the treatment area—as if just realizing she was someone he didn’t recognize. Killian suspected then that Andromeda’s doctor had not yet downloaded the new Facial Recognition subroutine, which would likely have included her own face as she had been given the “honor” of being the face of the Mark III EMH. “What are you doing in my sickbay?” the EMH asked. “Where’s Dr. Middleton? Where’s the rest of the medical staff?”

“I’m Dr. Maureen Killian, Chief Medical Officer of the U.S.S. Messenger. We came in response to your distress call.”

“Distress call?” the EMH questioned. “I wasn’t informed of any distress call.” Ignoring him, he glanced up towards the ceiling. “Computer, access the general ship’s log for… ”

Killian cut him off with a wave of her hand. “We haven’t time for that right now, Doctor. Just accept my word that we responded to a distress call from the Andromeda. Now, a member of your crew, a lieutenant, suffered a cardiac arrest recently. I need the files pertaining to that incident.”

“Of course. The crewman was Lt. Lyriye Telek.”

“Cause of death?”

“No autopsy was performed, so final COD has yet to be determined. The procedure was superseded by an inundation of patients for which I was activated to assist in treating by Dr. Middleton.”

“Yes, I know,” Killian said. “The records say there was a flu outbreak.”

“The crew presented influenza-like symptoms, yes, but no definite diagnosis had been reached at the time,” the hologram corrected her. “Where is Dr. Middleton? She would be more help to you than I am.”

“Of that, I’m sure,” Killian answered, “but unfortunately, the entire crew is missing. That leaves me with you.”

”Missing?!” the hologram exclaimed excitedly. “How can an entire crew just disappear?!”

”That is exactly what we’re endeavoring to find out, Doctor,” Killian countered, standing then. “Now where is the morgue on this class of ship? I need to perform an autopsy on Lt. Telek to see if she might be able to give us some answers.”

The EMH led her through Sickbay and into the morgue. He accessed the single terminal in the room to locate which unit the lieutenant’s body had been put in. Killian eyed the readouts from beside him. “It’s empty!” she said with surprise. “There are no bodies in any of the freezers.”

“I don’t understand. The records are accurate,” the Doctor replied. “I … I suppose it is possible that the body was mislaid.”

Killian frowned. “Do you or do you not know if Lt. Telek is dead?” she asked.

“My database says that Dr. Middleton pronounced her dead at precisely 2203 hours on Stardate 53141.9.”

“Ninety-six hours ago,” Killian muttered after a moment thought.

“I’m afraid that I didn’t catch that,” the photonic man beside her said.

“Nevermind,” Killian told him, then said, “Thank you for your help. Computer, deactivate EMH.”

“And thank you for remembering to deactivate my—” the EMH replied with the first smile she had seen on him, his praise of her interrupted as he faded away.

The Human stood staring at the small screen on the morgue console, tapping her manicured fingernail on the smooth surface as she pondered what to do next. “Blood samples!” she thought suddenly. “Middleton must have taken blood samples of the crewmembers who came in.” She accessed the layout of the Sickbay complex and located the medical lab, which was on the other side of sickbay from the morgue. Once there she began to review the lab results of each patient. A moment later, the analytical projections combined together to reveal a single strand of infectious proteins slowly rotating on the screen.

”Yes!” Killian exclaimed with a grim smile.

*****

As they stepped into the turbolift, Jaarid pressed his commbadge. “Jaarid to Hollen,” he said, hoping the Trill hadn’t suddenly disappeared like Ja-Nareth.

Hollen here, Commander,” came the reply, and he sighed minutely in relief.

“I am headed down to the Astrometrics lab. I desire you would meet me there.”

I think I’m done here anyway, sir. I’m on my way. Hollen out.”

“Deck Eleven,” Jaarid told the turbolift computer after tapping his badge again to close the commlink to his security officer.

“I thought that we were heading for Sickbay?” his companion asked as the lift began to descend.

“I have decided to visit Astrometrics first, as your ship’s computer insisted that Captain Ramsey is there.”

“I don’t know how much I’d trust the computer,” his companion replied. “It’s been giving me false reports since I started looking for the crew.”

Jaarid frowned at this information. “I was afraid of that. It would please me to go and look anyway. I have a crewman down there who isn’t answering his commbadge.”

“You think that’s bad? Watch this,” Telek said. “Computer, locate Lt. Telek.”

Lt. Telek is in her quarters, was the computer’s answer.

“Pleasant,” Jaarid said, wondering what else could go wrong.

Lt. Hollen met them outside of the lab as she had said she would. Her eyes widened and her hand reached slowly for her sidearm when she noticed that Jaarid was not alone. “Commander?” she queried casually.

Jaarid glanced at Telek, than back at Hollen. “This is Lt. Telek, Andromeda’s top squint. I found her in the captain’s ready room.”

“What were you doing there?” Hollen asked.

Telek looked between the two. “I had hoped that the captain’s office terminal would tell me something none of the other computers on this ship could—like what the heck happened to everybody. I’ve been alone on this ship for hours.”

“I’ve scanned her, Lieutenant. My tricorder confirmed what she told me,” Jaarid told the Trill. “Unfortunately, Ms. Telek is as clueless about what happened here as we are. Let us now remove ourselves to Astrometrics—Ja-Nareth didn’t answer when I tried to reach him a short while ago.”

“Why didn’t you say so, sir? If it’s all the same to you, I’ll go first,” Hollen said, drawing her phaser pistol and holding it in the low-ready position.

Jaarid nodded. “You’re the Security Chief, Lieutenant.”

Hollen nodded curtly and, lifting her weapon to mid-ready, stepped closer to the double door of the Astrometrics lab and triggered it to open. Inside, she turned in a semi-circle, sweeping the single room thoroughly including the high, domed ceiling.

”All clear,” Hollen announced.

Jaarid and Telek entered the lab. A stunning display of the sector was spread out on the mammoth screen on the far side of the room; a particularly spectacular spot on the map was the Yodalt Belt with its huge, rolling asteroids. Some of them were big enough to be classified as planetoids.

“Here’s something,” the security chief said, picking up Ja-Nareth’s tricorder and handing it over to Jaarid.

“Is Lt. Ja-Nareth the type to leave his equipment lying around?” Telek asked tentatively.

Jaarid shook his head. “No. Once in a while he gets scatter-brained, but that’s usually only when he’s in the middle of an experiment.” He tried him for a third time on his communicator but again got nothing. Hollen tried as well, and even Telek tried to contact him. After they all failed, Jaarid turned his attention to the tricorder in his hand, looking up the device’s last reading.

He frowned after a moment. “This greatly confounds me,” he said, turning the device around and showing the information to Telek and Hollen.

”A malfunction, perhaps?” Hollen suggested.

Telek was wide-eyed with bewilderment. “I agree, this can’t possibly be right—according to these readings, there were over six hundred people in this room with him. Except for me, that’s the entire crew.”

****

“Might I be some assistance to you, Ensign?” a young man wearing an engineering uniform asked as he walked around the pulsating tower that was the Andromeda’s warp reaction chamber.

S’Lene looked up from the main engineering display, which she knew was often called a “pool table.” “I was not aware of your presence, Lieutenant Commander.”

”Benito Sanchez,” he said firmly to her. He strode up confidently toward the young Vulcan. “I’m Chief Engineer of this ship. May I ask who you are?”

S’Lene stood slowly, perplexed by his behavior but not confused. She had checked the crew manifest in the ship’s computer first thing upon arrival in Engineering, and there was no doubt that this was Sanchez. However, she was mystified by how he was able to remain unseen during the hour that she had spent in Engineering.

“I’m Ensign S’Lene, a warp propulsion systems technician from the U.S.S. Messenger,” she said, introducing herself. “I’m here as part of an away team—our ship responded to a distress signal from the Andromeda. How many members of your staff survived the incident?”

Sanchez met her gaze with a doubtful look. “Ensign, as far as I know, there hasn’t been an incident where we would require a rescue.”

S’Lene felt her eyebrow rise. “As Chief Engineer of the Andromeda, I believe that you would be aware of any such emergency. To state otherwise would be illogical, Commander.”

Ignoring her challenge, he gestured to the master control panel. “As you can see, everything’s operating within normal parameters.”

S’Lene turned to examine the readouts on the console herself. “I agree with your analysis. That does not, however, change the fact that a distress signal was sent by your captain and received by my ship. Can you tell me where I might be able to locate Captain Ramsey?”

“Right here.” Lieutenant Commander Benito Sanchez’s voice changed in pitch from a tenor to a bass as he drove a disabling chop against the Vulcan’s exposed neckline.

*****

“I have glimpsed enough,” Jaarid said, looking at Telek and Hollen. “I believe it prudent we collect S’Lene and Dr. Killian so we can find Ja’Nareth and get back to Messenger. Perhaps we can come up with some answers to what happened here on a starship we can trust.”

Hollen nodded in agreement as he tapped his commbadge.

“Jaarid to away team, assemble in Sickbay at once.” The badge offered no sound other than the usual chirp so he touched it again. “Away team, acknowledge.”

His commbadge remained silent.

A sudden throb echoed through the empty ship with a deep, vibrating rhythm that meant only one thing to the three officers: the engines were coming on-line.

“We’re moving,” Hollen said with alarm in her voice.

*****

“Captain…” Ensign Tucker called out from the helm.

DeLuca looked up from his review of the Sovereign-class schematic displayed on the monitor between the two command chairs. “Yes?”

“It’s the Andromeda, sir. She’s moving away from us at one-third impulse and increasing speed.”

“What?” On the forward viewscreen, he watched as the Andromeda elegantly turned to port. Her impulse engines glowed red as maneuvering power was fed into them, and the warp field grilles on the nacelles began to shine their bright blue.

“Don’t lose her, Miss Tucker,” DeLuca ordered him. He stood and turned to Sully at Ops. “Do you have a lock on the away team?”

“Not all of them,” the diminutive officer replied after checking his readout. “Only Commander Jaarid, Lt. Hollen, and Dr. Killian. I’m getting weak lifesign readings from Lt. Ja-Nareth and Ensign S’Lene that I can’t lock onto.”

“Have you tried their commbadges?” asked Lt. Carla Mallory from the Engineering station.

“No signal, Carla,” Sully said.

The ensign who had taken over at Tactical called out as an alarm beeped on his console. “Captain, the Andromeda’s shields just went up.”

Damn, DeLuca cursed silently. Raised shields meant they couldn’t beam the away team back. “Messenger to away team.” Silence was the only response he received.

“Captain, she’s firing up her warp drive,” Tucker informed him.

“Away team, do you copy?” the captain repeated. “Ensign Hillstrand, scan the bridge. Let’s find out who’s driving.”

Zachary Hillstrand pressed several controls, then shook his head as he looked up at DeLuca. “I’ve got nothing, sir. My scan says the bridge is empty.”

“Confirmed, sir,” Sully said a moment later. “I’m showing no activity on Andromeda’s bridge. No lifesigns.”

“That’s impossible. She can’t be flying herself.”

The captain turned to the tactical station. Target her drive systems,” he ordered. “I don’t want that ship getting too far away from us.”

“Aye, sir. Phasers standing by.”

“Warp engines are ready to engage!” Mallory warned anxiously.

“Fire!” DeLuca said firmly, turning to the viewscreen again, watching as their phasers flashed impotently against the larger vessel’s superior shielding.

“Fire again,” DeLuca called over his shoulder. “And ready a photon torpedo, Ensign.”

“She’s going to warp!” said Tucker.

“Follow that ship and fire torpedo!” the captain called out.

A small, orange-red sphere erupted from the Messenger’s forward torpedo tubes. Seconds later it detonated brightly against the larger vessel’s shields.

“Only knocked her shields down ten percent, Captain. Should I fire another torpedo, or perhaps a spread?” asked Hillstrand.

DeLuca shook his head. “Negative, Ensign. Best conserve ammunition—I have a feeling we’re going to need it.”

“Warp three and climbing, Captain,” Tucker informed him. “We can run up to nine point nine seven-five, but we can only maintain that speed for an hour. Sovereigns max at 9.99, which they can maintain for thirty-six hours—if they go that fast we’ll never be able to catch them.”

DeLuca sighed. He hated having to fire on another Federation ship, but there were members of his own crew aboard the Andromeda and she was flying away with them. “I’m aware of a Sovereign-class starship’s top speed, Miss Tucker. You keep us close and I’ll worry about stopping her.”

At least, he thought, she’s not firing back at us.

He turned and dropped back down into his command chair, bracing an elbow on the armrest and stroking his chin as he considered various ways of stopping the larger, faster, and overall more powerful ship.

“Captain,” his young pilot spoke up again. “I’ve computed the Andromeda’s course.”

“Which is?”

“She’s on a direct course for the Bajoran wormhole at Deep Space Nine.”

“The wormhole? That’ll take them straight into the Gamma Quadrant.”

*****

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” Telek asked as the trio of Starfleet officers were flung against a corridor bulkhead.

“That would be our captain,” Jaarid said grimly. “I daresay he is trying to keep this ship from leaving.”

“And where is there to go?”

“According to popular opinion,” Hollen deadpanned, “space is very big.”

“Who’s driving is the bigger question,” Jaarid said.

Killian to Jaarid.”

“Jaarid here,” the R’naari called out, flushing with pleasure that their commbadges were suddenly working again.

Come down to Sickbay, Commander. I’ve got something to show you—I believe I know what happened here.”

“Already on my way, Doctor,” Jaarid told her. “I’ll be there in due course.”

The three of them ran for the nearest turbolift, hoping to make it there before another volley of fire could strike the Andromeda.

*****

DeLuca stood again suddenly and went up to the top level of the bridge to stand beside Hillstrand at the tactical console. “I have an idea, and we’ve got to do this carefully—I want them stopped, not blown to atoms. Let’s remember we have some of our own people over there.”

Hillstrand nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said.

Two torpedoes,” DeLuca said. “Set them to detonate fifteen hundred meters behind the Andromeda, nacelle-width apart. That should be enough to bring her shields down. Got it?”

Hillstrand nodded again. “Understood, Captain.” His fingers flew across his board as the younger man figured out the shooting solution, and the last tap on his console was followed by the double ping of launching torpedoes.

“Ready phasers, Ensign,” DeLuca said, watching on the viewscreen as the torpedoes streaked across the distance between the two ships. Seconds later they bloomed in two brilliant, orange-white flares against the Sovereign-class starship’s shields. The Andromeda’s rear deflector fluctuated under the shockwave and vanished.

“Aft shields are down,” Sully reported. “Some some structural damage sustained as well.”

“We’re about to cause more, Sully. Ensign Hillstrand, target the warp drive and fire,” DeLuca said. To his pilot, he added, “Tucker, prepare to drop to impulse.”

Both officers acknowledged their orders. A moment later, Messenger’s phasers gouged a vicious tear into Andromeda’s engineering hull. Several explosions lit up along the ship and were quickly snuffed out by the cold vacuum of space. With her warp field collapsed, the Sovereign-class starship slowed to sub-light speed.

“Go to impulse power,” DeLuca called out even as Tucker was easing the ship out of warp, expertly placing her five hundred kilometers behind the Andromeda.

“Great job,” DeLuca told his bridge crew, walking across to the operations station. “Lock onto whomever you can and beam them out of there.”

Sully consulted his board. “Aye, sir.”

“Uh, Captain,” said Hillstrand. “Andromeda is coming about—and charging her weapons!”

DeLuca turned his attention toward the main viewer as the starship on the screen made a sweeping, graceful turn and aimed straight for them. The phaser strips on the top of her hull began to glow red-orange with lethal energy.

“Full power to forward shields,” he ordered quickly. “Evasive maneuvers!”

Well, Dominic, he thought, you managed to piss off who—or what—ever is controlling the Andromeda. What now?

A second later, the upper phaser emitters of the Andromeda’s saucer section fired on the smaller vessel. Messenger’s ovoid-shaped forward shields flashed blue and faded, holding up against the onslaught. On the bridge, panels sparked with electricity, smoke poured from vents, and damaged optic cables fell from their overhead compartments—but she held together.

“Our port shields are down to thirty-one percent,” Hillstrand said.

“And that was only a glancing blow,” Tucker said, pulling herself up off of the deck.

“Damage reports coming in,” Sully said. “Minor fires on decks four and seven. Power fluctuations on all decks, some structural damage. Injuries from falls including knocked heads and a couple broken bones.”

“Deploy medical and damage control teams,” the captain said as he coughed from the smoke in the air and headed back down to the command level.

Messenger, he mused, was infinitely more maneuverable than the Andromeda based on size alone, but according to the bottom line, his ship was a light cruiser and her opponent was a battleship. Any contest between them would surely result in the Messenger’s destruction.

His thoughts were interrupted by the angry voice of Arkhet djan Zabrak, Messenger’s Chief Engineer. “Engineering to Bridge,” the Tellarite lieutenant commander shouted over the intercom. “What the hell are you doing to my ship? Testing the structural integrity field against a bunch of frelling asteroids?

DeLuca had to grin as he took his seat again. Even though he was the captain, Zabrak always referred to Messenger as his ship. “Not quite, Commander. I don’t think the asteroids would have caused as much damage.”

“She’s coming around for another pass,” Ensign Hillstrand warned.

Great, DeLuca thought. Here we go again.

*****

Jaarid and the two women with him walked into Sickbay, a little surprised not to find her in the main treatment area. “Doctor Killian?” he called out.

“In here, Commander,” her voice replied from the right, and he led his companions into what appeared to be the medical lab. The doctor turned around at their entrance and gasped.

“You!” Maureen Killian cried out, pulling her phaser from its holster and aiming it at Lt. Telek. “You’re dead!”

Jaarid stepped protectively in front of Telek. “Calm down, Doctor,” he told her calmly.

“Jaarid, according to the medical records, this woman suffered from a cardiac arrest—I’ve seen the file. The ship’s doctor pronounced her dead!”

“I’ve already scanned her and verified she’s alive, Doctor. One-quarter Romulan and three-quarters Betazoid.”

Killian emitted a low groan of disapproval. “Commander, I can’t cover her and explain the situation at the same time. If she’s who and what I believe her to be, then she’s a danger to all of us.”

Jaarid turned to Telek. “If Dr. Killian says there’s a reason to be concerned, I am inclined to believe her. Is there anything that you desire to tell us now?”

Telek’s eyes and voice were full of confusion when she spoke. “I have no idea what she’s going on about. Except for earlier today, I haven’t been to Sickbay since my last required medical examination, and that was four months ago. And since we’re talking to each other, I’m obviously not dead.”

Jaarid studied the scientist a long moment. “Hollen, observe Ms. Telek while the good doctor shows me her data,” Jaarid said. Hollen nodded and rested her hand on the butt of her gun, but did not remove it from the holster as yet.

Stepping over to stand next to Dr. Killian, who continued to glance suspiciously in Telek’s direction, Jaarid asked the woman, “What did you find, Doctor?”

“This,” she said as she finally turned her attention back to him, pointing at the small screen over her console.

Jaarid looked at the simulation models that ranged from single string-like organisms to single-celled, multi-celled, and higher lifeforms that he didn’t recognize. Though at almost 29 years of age it hadn’t been that long since his academy days, he found he honestly had no clue what he was looking at.

“Pray, what is this? Some kind of virus?” he asked, making a wild guess.

“Very perceptive, Commander,” Killian said with a smile, “but this is even more insidious than your regular virus. It’s practically a parasite. The tiniest infectious lifeform known to medical science is the prion, a single strand of protein that can invade and conquer a cell, causing that cell to do its bidding.”

“Dr. Killian,” the younger officer interrupted, “we have a dire situation here. I have not the time for a lesson in microbiology.”

Just then, the distinctive sound of weapons fire reached them.

“That was Andromeda’s phasers, I think,” Hollen said.

Messenger stands very little a chance against this ship,” Jaarid said with concern. “But who is firing? Andromeda is incapable of operating by herself.”

“I have the answer to your question, Jaarid,” Killian pointed out.

Jaarid ignored her for a moment. “Computer, disable weapons and shields.”

That instruction requires command authorization codes, the computer replied to his request. He ought have known that tactic wouldn’t work—not being assigned to the Andromeda, he didn’t have a voiceprint that this ship’s computer would recognize.

Suddenly his commbadge emitted Captain DeLuca’s voice. “Messenger to away team.”

Tapping his badge, the R’naari replied with, “Jaarid here, Captain. Go ahead.”

Commander,” DeLuca said, his voice muffled by static. “We’ve taken out the Andromeda’s warp drive but we can’t get close enough to strike at the weapons systems. We’re dodging as best as we can but we could use some help with that on your end.”

“Acknowledged.” Jaarid said, then gave his captain a quick rundown of what Dr. Killian had discovered before closing the comm channel and casting a look at Lt. Hollen. “Take the weapons offline any way that you can.”

“Aye, sir,” the Trill said with an ominous grin as she turned and ducked out of the medical lab.

“Now, Doctor, you were saying?” Jaarid queried as he returned his attention to Messenger’s chief medical officer, whom he found once again pointing a phaser at Lyriye Telek.

“I’d like the lieutenant to enter a medical containment field. Then I’ll explain.”

Jaarid didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to argue with her. He turned to Telek. “Would you mind, Lieutenant?”

“Not at all,” she answered, shaking her head in bewilderment. As she walked over to the single biobed in the medlab, Killian followed her with the phaser in her hand. Once Telek was close enough to the bed, the doctor reached down and pressed a control that erected a forcefield around the lieutenant and the diagnostic bed. Only then did she return her weapon to its holster once more.

“Observe, Commander,” the Human said, drawing Jaarid’s attention back to the monitor. “This is something that I only heard being theorized about by a Dr. Mora at Starfleet Medical before the war. It’s called a muta-prion and it was theorized to be the building block of Changeling DNA.”

DeLuca looked at her with his silver eyes wide. “You mean shapeshifters? As in the Founders? As in the Dominion?”

“Yes,” Killian confirmed, “that’s right, Commander. According to the critical care chart, Lt. Telek suffered from her cardiac arrest after examining the kesrinite nodules from the Yodalt asteroids. That’s also about the time that the crew started coming down with the flu.”

“So you think that she’s infected with muta-prions that she picked up from those nodules?”

Killian’s distressed grimace deepened. “No, this is much more sinister than that.” She flicked through the models on the screen to show that each time that a muta-prion met with living tissue, it evolved into a higher form. Then that cell would engulf another, grow, and transform again. “You see, Jaarid, these prions would have been enough to completely engulf her cellular structure. I think that she’s a Changeling even now.”

“Supposing that is true, where’s the rest of the crew?”

The physician’s expression became even darker with this question. “Absorbed. I believe that they’re all inside of her.”

“Changelings have been known to replace people if I remember the SI reports correctly, but never absorb them. How could this be possible?” Jaarid asked doubtfully.

“The records regarding Changeling physiology are exceedingly spare. The case files accumulated by Dr. Julian Bashir before and during the war have been sealed for security reasons, but I surmise that these muta-prions need enormous amounts of cellular matter to create an entire Changeling.”

“The readings from Ja-Nareth’s tricorder indicated that there were over six hundred distinct biosigns in the Astrometrics lab with him,” Jaarid said as he looked at Telek now with deep suspicion. The only Changeling that he had ever heard any detail about was Odo, Deep Space Nine’s former Security Chief, but given what he had read in the aforementioned Starfleet Intelligence reports, he knew enough not to trust his own eyes. Or a tricorder scan.

“That would be consistent with my research, Commander. The prion-Changeling would retain many if not all of the biochemical and bio-electrical signatures of its converted hosts.”

“Are we looking at some kind of Scorched Earth weapon that was left here by Dominion forces to mutate us all into shapeshifters?” Jaarid was thinking of a history lesson from his first year at Starfleet Academy, in which he had learned that the Ancient Romans of Earth had been known to poison an enemy’s water supply when they were forced to withdraw from the region that they were invading.

“Rather evil, isn’t it?” the doctor asked, truly worried. “As the Klingons would say, it is certainly ‘without honor’.”

Jaarid grimaced even as he nodded in agreement. “I think even Captain DeLuca, with his distaste for Klingon cultural tenets, would agree with that assessment, Doctor.” He then jerked his head in Telek’s direction. “Scanning her is likely useless, though when I first met her I scanned her and I only got one biosign, not seven hundred. What about a blood sample? I remember that blood screenings were being used during the war as a detection procedure against Changeling infiltrators.”

“We shouldn’t go near her. I doubt that our sterilizers would protect us from the sheer number of muta-prions that she must contain in her blood stream. It’s a miracle, really, that she hasn’t tried to infect you already, or Lt. Hollen.”

“Hello? Maybe because I’m not some Changeling Frankenstein?” Telek piped up from across the room.

Jaarid glanced at her briefly. “Then we use the EMH.”

“Of course!” Dr. Killian said brightly, then called out, “Computer, activate the Emergency Medical Hologram.”

“Please state the nature of …” The EMH stopped upon seeing Killian. “Hello again.”

“Hello, Doctor. We need you to draw a blood sample from the woman behind the containment field.”

He briefly glanced over his shoulder at Telek. “What for? If whatever she has is possibly airborne, I’m afraid you’re both already exposed,” the hologram said.

“Just do it, please,” Killian said.

Looking between Killian, whom he knew already, and the tall, imposing form of Jaarid, the EMH simply nodded. He walked over to an instrument table and picked up a hypospray and a clear, empty tubule and walked through the field like it wasn’t even there. He reached out for the woman to take a blood sample but stopped. “This is Lt. Telek—but she’s been pronounced dead!”

“So everybody keeps telling me,” Telek commented wryly.

“You have your orders, Doctor,” Jaarid prompted him from behind the lab console. “Take the blood sample. We need to know if Lt. Telek is a Changeling.”

His eyes widening a fraction in surprise, the EMH nodded. “Of course. Just hold still, Lieutenant,” the hologram said lightly to his patient, setting the hypo to draw instead of express before holding it against her neck and pressing the control button. The tubule he had inserted into the bottom of the device promptly filled with rich, dark green blood. The hologram withdrew the hypo after a few seconds and popped out sample capsule, shaking it and holding it up to eye level before looking once again at Jaarid and Killian.

“You can run further tests on this if you want, but she’s not a Changeling.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Jaarid said with a nod of his head. “Computer, remove the containment field and deactivate the Emergency Medical Hologram.”

The EMH seemed surprised at having been thanked for his work. “You’re welcome,” he said before once again vanishing away.

Telek picked up the hypospray and the capsule with her blood in it, which had dropped to the floor when the hologram dematerialized, and carried it over to them. “I told you that my green blood was tough.”

Killian frowned skeptically at this statement. “But this still doesn’t explain why Dr. Middleton declared you dead.”

“Do you have a sample of the muta-prion?”

“I could isolate one from one of the crew’s blood samples.”

“If you would please, ma’am,” Telek replied, tapping a series of instructions into the computer. A moment later, she introduced her blood to the sample that the doctor had isolated. On the main console monitor, the muta-prion was instantly devoured by the greenish-black macrophages in her blood.

“In this case,” the Andromeda’s science officer said mildly, “resistance is excellent.”

“Wait,” Jaarid said. “During the war, the Founders were able to impersonate a high-ranking Romulan official.”

“Mimic, yes,” Killian said. “Absorb, no.”

Telek nodded. “These muta-prions are the basic building blocks of Changeling morphology. They could survive in the sterility of space but not in a hostile host like me. It was probably the Romulan hibernation reflex that Dr. Middleton mistook for cardiac arrest. It decreases all bodily functions except the immune system, which during the reflex is hyper-stimulated. It’s sort of like routing all of the power of a starship to the shields.”

“I agree,” the Human said with a slow nod. “Your vital signs during that phenomenon would have been undetectable even by a medical tricorder.”

“Surely Dr. Middleton knows that Lt. Telek is one-quarter Romulan,” Jaarid interjected. “She is the Chief Medical Officer.”

“Many medical practitioners mistakenly assume that because they share common ancestry, Vulcans and Romulans are physically equal. They are, in fact, rather different,” Telek pointed out.

“I thought that Romulans and Vulcans were the same species but with different philosophies?” Jaarid queried.

“We’re not identical anymore,” Telek said. “There are many differences that have evolved between our species since the Great Schism. For example, Romulans no longer experience pon farr. Some of them also have pronounced cranial ridges, whereas Vulcans do not. Most times it takes a microcellular scan or a blood test to tell the difference. Truthfully, there aren’t many healers outside of the Romulan Star Empire who are even aware of the hibernation reflex. From what I see from Dr. Killian’s models, my immune system must have been overwhelmed by these muta-prions, which triggered the reflex.”

Killian confirmed this information with a nod of her head. “To be perfectly honest with you, it’s absolutely amazing that your body can even perform the hibernation reflex with only one-quarter Romulan genetics. You’re really very lucky, Lieutenant, as it’s obviously what saved you from being absorbed like the rest of the crew. It’s also incredible that you’re the only member of the crew with Vulcanoid blood, as nowadays there’s usually at least two Vulcans on every Starfleet ship—at least that’s been my experience. We’ve got three on Messenger.”

“So if Dr. Middleton set her tricorder for Betazoid and Vulcan scans,” Jaarid surmised, rubbing his chin, “then she would have pronounced you dead. The chart indicates that you succumbed in your quarters.”

“Soon after that, Sickbay was inundated with patients. She must have left you in your quarters to respond to the crisis here,” Killian added. “So to you, it would have seemed that you just went to your quarters and slept.”

“Yes,” the Betazoid-Romulan hybrid affirmed, “and once my hibernation reflex had accomplished its task, I awoke to find myself alone aboard the Andromeda.”

They heard the doors to Sickbay swish open and all three officers walked out into the main treatment center to see Ensign S’Lene, a phaser grasped firmly in her hand, shoving a disheveled Captain George Ramsey into the room. “I believe that I have discovered a Changeling among us. He first appeared to me as Chief Engineer Sanchez,” the Vulcan reported, “before he changed into this form in an attempt to subdue me. His martial skills are lacking.”

“You’re crazy!” Ramsey shouted at S’Lene before turning to Jaarid. “Lt. Commander, contact your captain. He knows me!”

“He did say he knew a George Ramsey,” Messenger’s first officer said, circling the medical console with his own phaser drawn. “I also know just how perfectly a shapeshifter can imitate a Human.”

The Changeling appearing as Captain Ramsey lunged at Jaarid, his fingers spreading into gelatinous claws. S’Lene fired her phaser and a hole opened up in the man’s torso, allowing the beam to pass through him, leaving him unscathed. The phaser beam struck the medical console and sent sparks flying everywhere. Killian and Telek ducked for cover but not before the doctor managed to initiate another force field around the shapeshifter. The Changeling howled angrily when it contacted the energy barrier. Trapped, the creature began to shift from one crewman to another, its facial features and body styles flowing and twisting into inhuman angles and contours. It made movements that no lifeform with a skeleton could accomplish.

“Obviously your physiological similarities are close enough to prevent the shapeshifter from absorbing Ensign S’Lene,” Jaarid commented to Telek, who nodded in agreement.

“Am I missing something?” Messenger’s engineer asked.

“The ship has been invaded by some kind of Changeling virus, and having green blood seems to make you immune to it, Lieutenant,” Jaarid told her.

“That Vulcans have a superior immune system is only logical,” S’Lene said with a grin.

Killian cursed in Gaelic. “Commander, they’re all in there, the entire crew of the Andromeda! I’m reading DNA signatures for everyone in the ship’s medical database.” She consulted the tricorder she held pointed at the Changeling for another second before adding gravely, “Ja-Nareth’s in there too.”

“Great Goddess, have mercy!” Jaarid exclaimed, his worry for his friend increasing ten-fold. “Can you separate them?”

“I’ll have to run a few models but I think I have an idea,” she told him before bending over a console to work on her theory. Her fingers fluttered over the control board at a pace faster than Jaarid had ever seen a Human’s hands move.

“Messenger to Jaarid,” the R’naari’s commbadge chirped again. It was DeLuca’s voice, only the signal was much clearer now.

“Jaarid here. Go ahead, Captain.”

The good news is that Andromeda has stopped shooting at us, so thanks for that,” the captain informed him. “We’ve sustained some damage and Zabrak is pretty tweaked about it. As usual.”

Jaarid chuckled as he took in the knowing glances of Dr. Killian and S’Lene. “And the bad news, sir?” he asked, guessing that there was bad news to come.

“Andromeda’s resumed her course for the Bajoran wormhole and the Gamma Quadrant at full impulse. According to Sully’s scans, it also looks like the warp engines are being repaired at an impossible rate—it’s almost like they’re regenerating themselves. If the ship goes to full warp, we won’t be able to keep up with you in our current condition. We’re going to alert Starfleet Command and Colonel Kira on DS9 to apprise them of the situation.”

“Understood, sir. We’ll do our best to stop Andromeda from here. Jaarid out.” 

“The muta-prions must have invaded the bio-neural circuitry. That’s how they’re able to control the ship,” Telek surmised, receiving a confirming nod from S’Lene.

Hollen entered the biolab once more. “The weapons systems are off-line,” she said, her wicked grin revealing that she had enjoyed her work. “Permanently.”

Then she turned her gaze to the monster trapped inside of the force field. “D’ezgra Changeling,” she cursed in Tellarite. “They’re always like a serpent in the shadows, waiting for the chance to strike.”

“Except that this Changeling is apparently carrying the entire Andromeda crew inside of its amorphous form,” S’Lene informed her.

“I have a lot of friends on this ship,” Telek said. “I’d hate to attend their funerals.”

“Well, that is truly unfortunate,” Hollen said gravely, “for the only good Changeling is a dead one.” She patted the grip of her weapon for emphasis.

“I mean to avoid that outcome if possible, Yvala,” Jaarid said, glancing at her with a warning look. “S’Lene, I understand that the standard operating procedure for reducing an infection inside of the bio-neural gel pack system is to raise the ship’s internal temperature. Give it a fever, as it were. Can that solution work for us here?”

“The principle is sound since it has worked before with bacterial infections. However, I am unsure if the muta-prion organism, while being bacterial, would succumb to such an action.”

“She’s right,” Killian said without looking up from her calculations. “A lifeform that can withstand the harshness of naked space could hardly be affected by raising the internal temperature fifty degrees.”

Jaarid frowned. “Well then, how many gel packs are there aboard a standard Sovereign-class starship? Perhaps we can just tear them out of the primary systems.”

“There are four hundred bio-neural gel packs on this class of starship,” Telek replied, “located throughout the vessel in most of the key systems’ data transfer relays. It would take the five of us ten-point-six hours to remove and replace them all.”

Messenger’s first officer sighed. “And by that time, we’d be deep inside of Dominion territory—if Starfleet does not stop us first.”

Lt. Telek nodded, then Ensign S’Lene picked up the narrative. “Furthermore, while they have proven they are controlling the ship via the gel packs, there is currently no proof to the contrary that they are not in the standard mechanical and electrical systems as well. Without guaranteeing those systems are clear, replacing the gel packs would be an inefficient use of time, as they could potentially become infected again.”

Hollen shrugged indifferently. “The shields are down and the ship is defenseless. We can beam out, stand off, and destroy her.”

Jaarid’s jaw tightened at the very suggestion. Being left behind wasn’t a subject that sat well with him. He pointed a finger at the continuously morphing monstrosity inside the flickering containment field. “We don’t leave our fellow officers behind. Not even in that kind of hell, Lieutenant. We must try and save them if we can.”

Hollen scoffed. “With all due respect, sir, if we’re facing a Dominion weapon here, then this ship and its crew are acceptable losses.”

“I do not believe in acceptable losses,” Jaarid said, his tone suddenly bordering on furious. “Are you forgetting that this thing has Ja-Nareth too? Or is Tyrone no longer a friend of yours?”

“If this is a Dominion weapon, then why are they heading back to their natural habitat?” Telek asked, trying to divert the commander’s and the security chief’s anger from each other. “You’d think that they would head for a populated area of Federation space like Earth or a shipyard. Somewhere they could generate a blow to the Federation as a whole.”

“Or a planet!” Jaarid exclaimed, now seeing the larger scope of the situation. “They are not heading for the wormhole—the prions are heading for Deep Space Nine so they can destroy it, maybe to absorb everyone there, thus leaving the quadrant open to invasion again.”

“This ship has no weapons. There’s no way they can accomplish that,” Hollen said.

“They can if they overload the warp core and ram the station at the same time,” Jaarid retorted.

“Doctor,” Telek asked, “may I interrupt you for a moment?”

“What is it, Lieutenant?” Killian asked, clearly not wanting to be distracted.

“Bio-neural gel works on the same principle as a living being’s nervous system,” Telek began.

“Yes, they do. Please get to the point quickly, Miss Telek, as I’m trying to figure out a way to save your shipmates.”

“Is there some kind of paralytic agent that we can use on the system to interrupt the neural conduction?” the Betazoid-Romulan asked her. “If the prions can’t communicate with each other, they can’t run the ship.”

Killian looked up from her board then, considering the question. Before the doctor could reply, though, Hollen spoke up with, “There’s one compound I know of that would assure such an outcome: theragen.”

“That is a deadly Klingon nerve gas,” Jaarid objected to the security chief’s suggestion. “Killing the ship’s neural circuitry would eliminate the life-support systems as well as several others. We desire to stop the prions, not kill ourselves in the process.”

“In its purest form, yes,” Killian interjected, “but we can synthesize a diluted form of theragen that would deaden the synapses in the gel packs.”

“Can we isolate certain vital systems, S’Lene?” Jaarid asked, turning to the engineer.

The Vulcan gave a curt nod. “It can be done, but I am somewhat concerned about the use of a Klingon military weapon. Surely there must be another medication that can be used to accomplish the same task.”

Hollen scowled at her. “Are you questioning my judgment, Ensign?”

“Not at all, Lieutenant,” S’Lene replied, “only your penchant for overkill.”

“Nerazuron,” Dr. Killian suggested. “It disrupts the neurotransmitters in most living things and it should work here.”

“Lt. Telek, start synthesizing the drug. S’Lene, set up a system to introduce the drug and while you’re at it, eject the warp core. That should buy us some time,” Jaarid ordered. Both officers acknowledged their instructions before leaving.

“Jaarid,” the Changeling called out, this time taking on the form of Tyrone Ja-Nareth.  “You can’t stop us. The warp engines are repaired. We’ll be at the wormhole in three hours.”

“Your side lost the war, Changeling,” the R’naari snapped at the creature. “You surrendered.”

“Did we?” the Ja-Nareth-Changeling taunted him. “Or have we just fallen back to a strategic position where we can wait for this opportunity?”

Jaarid moved closer to the field. The creature looked like Ja-Nareth, right down to the tiny mole on his left earlobe that he refused to have removed. He remembered him tugging at it in thought on many occasions. These things were good at impersonation, he’d give them that.

“You have heard what I said to my security chief,” he told it. “I do not believe in acceptable losses. But a very wise man once said that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and I do believe in that. If we get anywhere near Deep Space Nine, I’ll destroy you and this ship.”

“But didn’t you just say you wanted to save the one you call Tyrone? Or is he no longer a friend of yours, R’naari?” the Changeling taunted him.

Jaarid stepped even closer, so close that he could feel the electricity generated by the forcefield tickling his skin, and looked into a set of vibrant blue eyes that mirrored Ja-Nareth’s exactly. “You have Tyrone Ja-Nareth inside of you, and yes, he is my friend. My friend also knows that when faced with the choice of saving him or saving millions, I will choose the millions, and he would not have it any other way.”

“You don’t frighten us, solid,” the Changeling said with a sneer.

“Dr. Killian is one of the finest doctors in the Federation…”

The sound of the warp engines gearing up for action cut him off, and that was fine by Jaarid—he was tired of arguing with this thing. The prions were carrying out their mission and it wasn’t this Changeling that was important. It was the prions inside the gel packs.

*****

“Captain, they’re going to warp again,” Tucker told the DeLuca, looking back from her console.

“Do your best to keep up with them.”

“Captain,” Sully spoke up, “we’re receiving a transmission from Starfleet Command, Priority-One.”

“Onscreen.”

The image of Vice Admiral Tattok appeared on the viewscreen and while he was an old, little man, the Roylan certainly cut an imposing figure from his office in San Francisco. “Captain DeLuca, this coded channel is open to you and Deep Space Nine.” The screen split into side-by-side views with Colonel Kira Nerys joining the admiral on the right side of the large monitor.

“The Andromeda must not reach Deep Space Nine,” he ordered with a scowl. “Colonel Kira, you have my personal authority to stop that ship at all costs.”

Kira nodded. “Commander Kyle is aboard the Defiant right now and they have laid in an intercept course from the station. He’ll be joined by the U.S.S. Nemesis from the Badlands. We’re also fortunate to have the Tortuga docked at DS9 which will be joining the task force as well.”

“Admiral,” DeLuca appealed to him, “is all of this really necessary? Commander Jaarid’s team has rendered the Andromeda weaponless so she wouldn’t do anymore harm. There’s also a chance to unlock the Founders’ secrets, as they can still be as every bit as dangerous as the Borg are to this quadrant. Can’t we contain these…muta-Changelings? Cordon them off somewhere so they can be studied?”

Tattok’s face was weary with burden but he did pause, rubbing his chin with his three-fingered hand. “Colonel Kira,” he said after a moment. “Are there any hospital ships in your vicinity?”

Kira looked at something off the screen, and DeLuca could tell she was working another console. “The Virginia Apgar is conducting physicals at Leytra, Admiral.”

Tattok nodded, his expression thankfully less grave now. “Contact the Apgar and tell them to proceed to the rendezvous coordinates at their best possible speed.”

Messenger's captain forced himself to contain a sudden rush of excitement upon hearing the name of the closest hospital ship—now was not the time to be thinking about a certain beautiful blue doctor. Forcing his thoughts back on track, he thought quickly over the admiral’s vague indications, and then suddenly he realized what he was trying to do: Olympic-class hospital ships had the most sophisticated quarantine systems of any vessel in the fleet.

He was giving them the chance to save the crew of the Andromeda.

*****

Captain’s log, supplemental…

I’ve just informed the away team about Starfleet’s decision to destroy the Andromeda if she cannot be stopped. Dr. Killian has come up with a method of separating the Andromeda crew from the muta-prions infecting them. The Starfleet task force assigned to intercept us will be within rage in the next fifty-three minutes, at which time the separated members of the Andromeda’s crew will be transported to the quarantine facilities of the hospital ship Virginia Apgar—as will all of Messenger’s away team. They’ll remain there until such time as the Apgar’s medical teams determine they’re all free of the muta-prions.

As for the Andromeda, if we are unable to purge the ship of muta-prions before the rendezvous, there will be no choice but to destroy the ship in order to prevent her from coming into contact with another vessel, space station, or planet.

*****

S’Lene to Jaarid,” the engineer’s voice came through his commbadge. “I was unable to eject the warp core, sir. The prions have taken complete control over all of the engineering systems.”

Jaarid swore silently. “I have discerned as much. How’s the paralytic inducer system coming?”

The nerazuron inducers are in place, awaiting your order.”

“Engage when ready, Ensign,” he told her.

Acknowledged. S’Lene out.”

Jaarid turned to Dr. Killian who was working on her computations at the control console in Transporter Room One. “Our time is growing short,” he said.

“I know. I’m working as fast as I can, Commander.”

“Are you sure that you can separate the biosigns so that the transporter can siphon out each individual?”

The Human woman spoke even as she continued entering equations. “I studied genetic theory in medical school. I’m certain that I can identify the pertinent genetic markers.”

“The transporter’s biofilters and memory of each individual should be able to do the rest,” Lt. Telek advised from beside her.

“And you said the trick is keeping the Changeling in the transporter while you select the proper sequences?” Jaarid pressed, aware of the fact that Ja-Nareth’s biopattern would not be in the Andromeda transporter’s memory banks.

“That’s why S’Lene’s in Transporter Room Two,” said Killian. “I believe syncing both transporters will keep the Changeling in a constant state of disassociation.”

S’Lene to Jaarid. The medication has been administered but there has been no change. Warp engines are online and the Andromeda’s ETA with DS9 is forty-four minutes. I am now in control of Transporter Room Two.”

“Damn!” Killian cursed under her breath as Hollen grumbled, “Looks like we should have used theragen after all.”

“The task force will be onto us before that time has elapsed,” Jaarid was saying to S’Lene. “Wait for the doctor’s signal.”

I am ready, Commander.”

Killian finished her reconfiguration of the transporter controls and with a satisfied nod, she said, “Killian to S’Lene, begin!”

Initiating transport,” came the Vulcan’s response.

On the transporter pad, the trademark sparkle of energy began to swirl and oscillate. Dr. Killian kept at her work and a second later, a humanoid form began to take shape on the platform. She adjusted the confinement beam and a bewildered Tyrone Ja-Nareth appeared. Telek stepped forward and quickly escorted him from the transporter room.

“Jaarid   to S’Lene, we’ve retrieved Lt. Ja-Nareth. How are you faring down there?”

I have the Changeling encompassed within the matter stream, Commander. You may begin retrieving the Andromeda crew.”

After thirty minutes, Dr. Killian had managed to siphon out seventy-two members of the Andromeda crew including Captain Ramsey, who, despite his ordeal, remained at Jaarid’s elbow to oversee the operation. The rest of the survivors had been placed outside in the corridor with Lieutenants Hollen and Telek, where each of them had been told to sit down and await instructions. Dazed and confused, they complied without any questions.

DeLuca to Jaarid.”

“Jaarid here, Captain.”

Our time just ran out, Commander. Austin Kyle is here with the task force and they’re assuming formation around the Andromeda.”

“Thank you for letting us know, sir,” Jaarid said. “Doctor, keep working. I’m going to try and acquire us more time.”

“I’m coming with you,” Ramsey said. “Perhaps two of us will be able to get through to them.”

“Agreed.”

*****

“What is your status, Andromeda?” Commander Austin Kyle said without preamble from the bridge of the U.S.S. Defiant as he appeared on the bridge viewscreen.

“Commander, we’ve barely ten percent of my crew separated from the muta-prions,” Ramsey reported. “Can you give us more time?”

Kyle shook his head. “Negative. Our orders were to begin immediate transport of the infected to the Apgar as soon as we arrived. They can handle the rest of the procedure. What about purging Andromeda’s systems?”

This time it was Jaarid who answered. “Unfortunately, the nerazuron didn’t work. Dr. Killian has recommended we try again with a diluted form of theragen.”

“And how long would it take to preprare?”

Jaarid sighed, not wanting to answer because he knew Kyle wouldn’t want to hear it. “One hour.”

Kyle shook his head. “That’s too long. You have ten minutes to prepare yourselves and your crews for transport to the Apgar. Keep the muta-Changeling in the transporter buffers and discontinue separating the biosigns from the prions. Apgar’s top biohazard team will finish that task. I regret to say that the U.S.S. Andromeda must be destroyed.”

Jaarid and Ramsey looked to each other, then back at Kyle and nodded. “Understood, Commander.”

With a curt nod, Kyle cut the connection.

Ramsey turned to Jaarid and held out his hand. “Commander, I can’t thank you enough. You saved the lives of me and my crew.”

“Sir, I am sorry that I could not do more for you,” Jaarid said as he took the proffered hand and the two men shook. “I cannot tell you how sorry that I am about the way that this is turning out. I wish we could have saved your ship as well.”

“It’s not your fault. And as much as I hate to say it, I even agree with the reason they’re doing it.”

Jaarid nodded, and the two men quickly headed for the turbolift to prepare their crews.

Eleven minutes later, after all biological readings had been cleared from the ship, the Defiant and the Nemesis, with assistance from the Tortuga and the Messenger, opened fire upon their fellow Federation starship.

A minute after that, the Sovereign-class U.S.S. Andromeda was no more.

On a monitor in a quarantine ward on the Virginia Apgar, George Ramsey watched as his beloved ship was destroyed. When it was over, he switched the monitor off, leaned against the wall beside it, and hung his head in sorrow.

*****

U.S.S. Virginia Apgar, en route to Starbase 375
24 hours later…


“Am I cleared? I am the only one left and you walked in here without a hazard suit on.”

Dr. Tir’Shaan of the Virginia Apgar studied the PADD he held for another moment, then looked up at Jaarid.

“You are free from any signs of contamination, Commander,” Tir’Shaan told him. “It does not appear that the muta-prions had any means of becoming airborne. Based on our tests and the testimonies of your away team and the Andromeda crew, they could only travel via physical contact between the host and the intended victim.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Jaarid said with a wan smile.

Just then the doors to the quarantine ward opened, and in stepped Captain DeLuca and a Deltan female wearing four rank pins on a blue collar. Jaarid recalled that she was the Apgar’s new captain, recently promoted to the job, but had chosen to continue wearing the blue of her medical background, at least for the time being.

“We were listening in observation,” Captain Alora Danon said, “and thought we would take this opportunity to invite you to a briefing, Commander.”

The R’naari frowned slightly and looked between her and DeLuca. “A briefing on what, may I ask?”

“On the muta-prions. A Starfleet Intelligence officer happened to be at Leytra when the Apgar got the call to assist, and he interviewed the entity before it was separated from its last host,” DeLuca informed him.

Jaarid’s eyebrows winged up. “Truly? Then by all means, Captain, lead the way.”

He hopped down off the biobed that he’d been sitting on, then paused and turned back to the Lyafri physician. “That is, with your permission, Doctor?”

Tir’Shaan nodded. “You are free to go, Commander. And it is very pleasing to see you again, Mr. DeLuca. May I offer you belated congratulations on your promotion.”

Jaarid watched as his captain smiled lightly. “Thanks, Doc,” he said. “Too bad Dr. Nir’ahn’s not here—it would’ve been nice to see her again.”

Tir’Shaan nodded. “I do not doubt that she would have liked to see you again as well, Captain. She is on leave at home on Andor, and will be sorry to have missed you.”

“Guess we can’t always get what we want,” DeLuca said with a shrug.

Jaarid again offered his thanks to Tir’Shaan and followed the two captains out of the ward.

*****

In the Apgar’s conference room were seated the captains and first officers of the hospital ship, the Messenger, and the former Andromeda. Four admirals including Alynna Necheyev, Tattok, and Elliott Haywood, as well as the director of Starfleet Intelligence, were on the large viewscreen on the wall.

Standing at the end of the table, where Alora Danon would normally sit for staff briefings, was a man wearing Starfleet Intelligence gray. He had no rank pins on his collar, and the only name he had given them was Alok. Dominic DeLuca observed that his ears had muted points suggesting Vulcanoid ancestry.

“You may begin now, Mr. Alok,” said Alynna Necheyev from the screen.

Alok nodded. “When we were down to just one host for the entity known as a muta-Changeling,” he began, “I conducted an interrogation. At first the entity refused to answer my questions, but then I believe its arrogance got the better of it.”

“I thought it was some kind of bacteria that took us over like a virus?” Captain Ramsey interrupted.

Alok looked at him for the briefest of moments with one eyebrow raised, then it fell. “You are correct, Captain, to an extent. They were programmed to act like a bacterial infection, one that was artificially engineered by the Founders as a back-up plan for their galactic domination agenda. Unfortunately for the Founders, however, they gained their own intelligence far too quickly. They…disagreed with being controlled, so they rebelled.”

DeLuca, from his vantage point to Alok’s immediate right, watched with interest as the muscles in his jaw flexed, as though he were grinding his teeth in anger.

“In a manner similar to the hive mind of the Borg, the bacterial parasites—a more accurate description for them—began to communicate with one another and attempted to overthrow their creators. This happened in the medical laboratory of an asteroid base in the Yodalt Belt. Knowing they had to abandon the plan but reluctant to simply kill the parasites outright, the Dominion scientists confined the prions to fourteen nodules of kesrinite and discarded them in space.”

“Did the individual tell you why they weren’t simply destroyed?” asked the SI director. “Certainly it couldn’t have been out of the goodness of the Founders’ hearts?”

“Indeed not, sir,” said Alok matter-of-factly, ignoring the sardonic tone of the admiral’s voice. “The muta-Changeling said that the Founders were hoping to one day revisit the project, but the war effort was, at the time, a priority and the resources were thus redirected.”

“Could these things really turn people into Changelings?” asked Livina Cullen, Virginia Apgar’s first officer.

Alok flicked his eyes her way. “In sufficient numbers, yes—but due to their microscopic size, they needed a vast amount of organic material to… I hesitate to say reproduce. Once the initial host was selected, all the prions would congregate in that one person. They would then pass a few of their members from the host to other victims, and after just a few minutes the person would be absorbed by the original host entity. Once enough material had been collected, they would then be able to divide the mass and operate separately to achieve the same goal.”

“And the muta-Changeling was hell-bent for leather to get to DS9… why?” asked Captain Ramsey.

“I’d be interested in that information as well,” said Starfleet’s Commander-in-Chief.

Messenger’s away team had it partially correct in their initial summation, Admiral,” Alok said with a glance at DeLuca and Jaarid. “Their primary goal was the wormhole, so that they could get to the Gamma Quadrant and destroy the Founders.”

“Destroy the Founders? What was their reasoning, Mr. Alok?” queried the Roylan admiral seated between the two Humans. This was the first time since the briefing had started that Tattok had spoken.

“Revenge.”

A moment of silence passed as his audience absorbed that information. “The muta-Changeling wanted to wipe out their creators for imprisoning them in the kesrinite and dumping them in space,” Alok continued. “Then they would have returned to the Alpha Quadrant and come at us, simply because it’s what they were programmed to do.”

“It seems to me,” said DeLuca slowly, “that they wanted to create a whole new Dominion.”

“Indeed, Captain DeLuca,” spoke up Admiral Haywood for the first time. “The question remains, however, would they have conquered us or consumed us?”

“Fortunately, we will not have to face that scenario, Admiral,” Alok said, once again in a succinct, matter-of-fact voice. “After the last Andromeda crew member was freed, the entity was executed as ordered.”

DeLuca felt his eyes widen and he glanced sideways at his first officer. Capital punishment was rarely, if ever, enforced in the Federation; individual worlds were still permitted to carry out the action if it were a part of their laws before they had gained membership, but he knew that most convicted criminals were sent to penal colonies and rehabilitation centers. He honestly couldn’t say that he’d ever heard of a sentient being having been executed within the Federation in his lifetime, yet here was a man speaking about it as if it were simply another thing on his to-do list.

He suppressed a shudder at that thought.

“Thank you for seeing to that difficult task, Mr. Alok,” the SI director was saying. “I know it is not easy for a man to take the life of another sentient being, even if the doing is justifiable.”

Alok’s expression was an unreadable mask as he replied, “I was following orders, sir.”

Before anyone else could speak, Admiral Necheyev cleared her throat lightly and said, “Thank you all for your diligence to duty. I wish we could have saved the Andromeda as well, but the loss of one Sovereign-class starship is acceptable when compared with the number of lives that were at stake. Captain Ramsey, I am pleased your crew was spared.”

Ramsey laughed mirthlessly. “I’m glad we were spared, too, Admiral, believe you me.”

“If that is all, I believe this briefing is concluded,” the senior-most admiral in the fleet said then.

Alok affirmed that he had told them everything, and the meeting broke up. Both the Apgar and the Messenger were headed for Starbase 375, where the former vessel would offload the Andromeda crew and the latter would conduct repairs before delivering a cargo bay full of prefab housing materials to one of the refugee colonies on the outer edge of Cardassian space.

“Captain DeLuca, might I have a word with you?” Alok said as he and Jaarid were exiting the conference room.

DeLuca stopped. “Yes, Mr. Alok?”

“I understand that your vessel is on its way to one of the Cardassian Union’s border colonies,” he said.

DeLuca nodded slowly. “That’s right.”

“I am aware that repairs will take two weeks’ time, but I was hoping I might persuade you to allow me passage on your ship,” Alok went on. “I have some business in Cardassian space I must see to.”

He raised his brow in curiosity. “I’d be happy to help you, Alok, but are you sure you wouldn’t rather take another ship? Surely there’s another that can get you there sooner.”

“I can wait two weeks.”

DeLuca waited for him to elaborate further, and when he did not he simply nodded. Intelligence officers, he mused, could be so damn cagey. Getting a straight answer out of them was like trying to get milk out of a brick wall.

Messenger would be happy to have you, Alok. If you’re finished with your business on the Apgar, you can accompany Commander Jaarid and myself over there now,” he told him.

Alok nodded. “I am ready to go, Captain.”

“Excellent,” he said then looked at the R’naari man next to him. “Jaarid, let’s go home.”



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