Monday, June 10, 2019

"The Welcome Home"

Background art by unknown artist. Image text and story editing by Christina Moore.


On Stardate 50776.7, the USS Aurora, NCC-72321 -- a newly commissioned Nova-class science vessel -- embarked upon a three-year deep space assignment to explore and map a region known as the Aries Expanse. Under the command of Captain Nathaniel Collins, the ship, with her crew of seventy-five people, mapped over thirty-eight star systems, made First Contact with twelve civilizations, and gathered an enormous amount of astronomical data. 

Meanwhile, the United Federation of Planets and their allies have negotiated a peace with the Dominion and the war is over. The major powers of the Alpha Quadrant have begun the monumental task of rebuilding… but on the fringe of explored space, a new threat looms for Federation citizens on the Khymerian frontier. Bands of pirates have begun raiding the newly established colonies in the area, plundering their vast wealth of resources. These pirates, known only as the ‘Blas Maraug’ have taken advantage of Starfleet’s weakened condition, attacking and capturing ships of the Khymerian Trade Guild and hiding the depths of the Motaabi Nebula. 

Unfortunately for the Aurora, throughout those three years in deep space they were beyond all communication with Starfleet, and completely unaware of the dangerous trap that they were sailing into…


Captain’s Log, Stardate 53778.2... 

With our mission complete and our journey now drawing to an end, we are only seven hours away from the Khymerian frontier, or what many of the crew have referred to as ‘the ends of the Earth’ since it is the edge of Federation and explored space. I’ve decided to make a brief stop at Khymeria Prime before we set course for Starbase 523, to allow the crew a few short days of rest and relaxation. 

Khymeria isn’t exactly the best vacation spot in the Alpha Quadrant. It’s a hot, rocky, arid world. The few natural wonders that the planet has managed to spawn have been all but ruined by the growth of the Khymerian economy and their heavily overpopulated cities. I suspect that after being cooped up aboard Aurora for three years with only the occasional shore leave, everyone will appreciate the opportunity. 

Throughout the mission, I am pleased to report that this ship and her crew have functioned well, and I have no doubt that the data we’ve gathered will take stellar cartographers and anthropologists decades to study. The past three years have been memorable, to say the least, and though it will be great to be home again, I will deeply miss these fine officers. As we travel along the final stretch of our journey together, I can only wonder what the future holds for us. 


Ship’s Mess, Deck Two

Commander Scott Bishop entered the mess hall and stood for a moment, spying a table with four of his friends seated around it. He walked over and joined them, sitting in one of the vacant chairs. The room was filled with officers and civilians who had gathered together for a homecoming party to celebrate their return to Federation space, after three years in the Aries Expanse. The sound of Risian jazz played lightly in the background as many officers rose to help themselves to the smorgasbord laid out across several tables. 

“Well… I know for sure that the first thing that I’m going to do when I get back to Earth is go on a nice long trip in the Caribbean. Maybe Jamaica. Then I’ll go see my folks. It seems that just before we left, they sold the farm in Yorkshire and moved into a flat in London. I’d like to see them before I continue my work,” one of the civilian scientists, Ian Reilly, said in his familiar British accent. 

“What about you, Scott?” Ensign Renee Bowen asked as the chief science officer took a sip of her champagne. “Where are you going to go when we get back to Earth?” 

Commander Bishop grinned. He didn’t even have to think about it. “Halifax, Nova Scotia. There’s an old Irish tavern there called McGinty’s. My friends and I used to beam over there for drink now and then when we were at the Academy. They have the best India Pale Ale that I’ve ever tasted. Brian Lafferty, one of my oldest friends, owns the place now and I’m looking forward to paying him a visit.”

“You know, all of this talk about Earth,” said Lieutenant Nalarithren ch’Dalvis, the Aurora’s security chief, “I was only there while I was at the Academy and I don't see what’s so great about it. It may be paradise to you, but nothing really exciting ever happens there. It’s really dull. Now, Andoria, on the other hand…” 

Bishop let his mind drift away from the conversation. From where he was sitting, Aurora’s first officer could see out the window and into the cold vastness of space. Besides the regular stars streaking across the window, there was a large, greenish-blue gas cloud that was slowly getting closer and closer. He had never seen anything like it before and he was stunned by its beauty, realizing that this must be the famous Motaabi Nebula that they would be passing by to get to Khymeria. 

Lieutenant Marissa Kowalski looked over at Bishop and noticed that he was staring out into space. She turned around to see what was so fascinating. He noticed her turn and snapped out of his daze. 

“It’s the Motaabi Nebula,” he explained to her. “It’s so beautiful.” 

Everybody else around the table looked out the table and admired the beauty of the nebula as well. Just then, the mess hall doors opened with a whoosh and Captain Nathaniel Collins joined the party. He was ten years older than Bishop and had risen through the ranks of Starfleet rather quickly, but he was well-respected by the crew. Bishop had known the captain longer than anyone else on the ship. They had been friends since their early days in Starfleet when he had served aboard the Ontario as a science officer. When they had the opportunity to serve together again, Collins had made him his First Officer aboard Aurora.

As he entered the room, he was greeted warmly by the other officers. Pouring himself a glass of champagne, he headed over to Commander Bishop’s table. Grabbing the last chair, he sat down with them. 

“How is everyone enjoying the party?” he asked them. 

“Fine, sir,” replied Kowalski, the ship’s helm officer. “It’s good to see you here.”

“We were just talking about where we’d like to go when we get back,” Timeure explained. “We have several months of shore leave awaiting us. What do you think you’ll do, Nate?” 

A smile spread across Collins' face and his brown eyes glowed happily “I’m going on my honeymoon!” he exclaimed. 

A few days before the Aurora departed Starbase 86, Bishop remembered being at his best friend’s wedding -- it seemed like it had happened so long ago, and he was sure that it seemed even longer for the captain. 

“That’s right. How could I forget?” he said. “It’s too bad you can’t send a subspace message to Miranda. That nebula is in the way, blocking all communications.” 

“I can’t wait to talk to John either,” Lieutenant Kowalski echoed the captain’s sentiments. “I’m glad that we’ll be past this nebula by tomorrow.” 

“Yes, it feels almost bittersweet,” Collins said. “On the one hand, I'm happy to be home, but on the other hand, I feel like I’m going to lose a bunch of good friends.” 

“We’ll just have to make every day count,” added the first officer.

“Either that or we sign up for the next three-year deep space assignment aboard the Aurora,” Ian Reilly joked. 

At that moment, Captain Collins stood up and held his champagne glass high. The crew noticed this gesture and the talking ceased. As he strolled into the center of the room, the crew crowded around him. He glanced around the room at every crew member with a smile before he spoke. 

“It’s been a fun three years together. We’ve cataloged more than three dozen star systems and learned more about the worlds and planets beyond our frontier. Most of all, we’ve learned about ourselves and what we’re capable of. Here's to the finest crew that any captain could ask for!”

The crew clinked their glasses together, proudly, as they toasted their successful voyage before heading back to their tables. Collins went over and poured himself another glass of champagne before sitting back down at Bishop’s table. 

“So, Captain, where are you planning on taking your honeymoon?” Ensign Bowen asked as soon as the captain made himself comfortable. 

“Well… I hadn’t--” he began to say. 

Bridge to Captain Collins,” interrupted the voice of Ensign Zagora. The young junior officer had been given bridge duty for the night. 

Captain Collins excused himself from the table and walked out of the mess hall and into the corridor outside. He tapped his combadge and said, “Collins here. What’s up, Zagora?” 

I’m sorry to disturb you, Sir. I know that you’re in the middle of a party--”

“Yes, I am,” Collins replied, a little impatient. “Well? Get on with it, Mr. Zagora. I haven’t got all night.” 

Yes, sir, sorry, sir. It’s just that Stellar Cartography would like to take this opportunity to study the Motaabi Nebula in more depth. They have requested that we conduct a close sensor pass. With all of the radiation and metreon gas, sensors are unable to scan much of the interior. We’ve calculated that our shields will be effective for approximately two hours inside the outer edges of the nebula. After that, we’ll have to leave. Of course, the nebula will slow our speed--”

“Alright,” interrupted Collins. “That’s why we’re out here, to explore. Besides, I think that extending our voyage by a few hours won’t hurt anyone. Studying this nebula will make the perfect end to our journey. It’s worth a peek.” 

Aye, sir. Enjoy the party.” 

Collins sighed and re-entered the mess hall, ready to relax and have some fun. He was also enthusiastic about the great view of the nebula that he would have in a few hours. 

* * * *

“Computer, what’s the time?” asked Lieutenant Nalarithren ch’Dalvis. He set down his fifth glass of synthehol on the table beside him. 

The time is zero one, thirty-seven hours,” answered the ship’s computer. 

“You’re not thinking about leaving yet, are you?” Collins asked, leaning back on the comfortable couch. He and Nala were the only ones left in the Mess Hall since everyone else had gone to their quarters. Even the ship’s services staff had gone to bed, resolving to clean up the mess early tomorrow. 

“It’s after one-thirty, Nate,” Nala complained, grabbing his gray and black uniform jacket off the back of a nearby chair. “I’m tired and I’ve had my fun for the night. I want to be awake when the Aurora reaches Khymeria Prime.” 

“Oh, there’s plenty of time before that,” persuaded the captain who still had lots of energy left. “Who else am I going to talk to now?” 

“You can talk to yourself. Or have some sense and go to bed like me,” replied the cranky Andorian security officer. “Goodnight, sir.” He walked out of the mess hall and into the corridor, leaving Captain Collins alone in the room. 

Looking around for something else to do, he noticed the green and blue lights of the nebula, which now surrounded the ship. Collins got up from the couch and walked over to the viewports. This was what he had been waiting to see the whole night. His fellow officers had distracted him and the party had gone on late. Now that the nebula had his undivided attention, he found himself staring deep into its mystical glow and soon, as if it had cast a spell upon him, a feeling of great peace and tranquility swelled within him. 

Just then the doors to the mess hall slid open and Commander Bishop walked slowly into the room and towards the replicator. He spotted Collins staring out the viewport at the nebula, not even aware that he had entered the room. 

“In deep thought again, are you?” he asked from across the room. 

Collins turned around, surprised to see his old friend standing beside the replicator terminal. 

“Tea, hot,” the commander ordered. “That’s one habit that you’ve never been able to break. That, and going to bed late.” 

Collins smiled and walked over to a table near his First Officer and sat down. Bishop took the tea that materialized in the replicator slot and sat down beside his commanding officer. 

“Penny for your thoughts?” Bishop took a sip of his tea. 

“Oh, nothing important,” Collins replied to his inquiry. “Just thinking about all of the things that happened to bring me to where I am today. All of the places and the sights…” 

“I suppose you’ve seen your fair share of the final frontier. Maybe a little more during the Cardassian Wars?” 

Collins’ face twitched when he mentioned the war. “I was thinking more about the days that we had aboard the Ontario. Those were probably some of the best days of my career.” 

“Yeah, those were good times,” Scott agreed with him. A smile formed on his face when he remembered his first assignment after he graduated from Starfleet Academy. He had been a junior science officer while Collins had been the chief science officer. The two of them had gotten to know each other quite well by the time that Collins had been promoted to the position of First Officer aboard the USS Venture. “We’ll have to make sure that we serve together again.” 

Collins was silent as he stared out past Commander Bishop and through the window. 

“So what’s keeping you in here this late?” He knew that Nate wasn’t the greatest sleeper but he usually didn’t stay up alone. That is, unless he had something he needed to think about. “There’s something on your mind.” 

Collins nodded his head and cracked a small grin. They had been friends for ten years and after the time that they’d spent aboard the Ontario and three years of being aboard the Aurora together, they knew each other all too well. 

“I’m going to miss serving with you, Scott. The time that I’ve spent in Starfleet has been the highlight of my life.” 

“I don’t understand,” Bishop asked him, confused by his friend’s remarks. 

“When we get back to Starbase 523, I’m not going to command another deep space assignment or any assignments at all for that matter. I'm going to resign my commission from Starfleet.” 

“What?!” Bishop exclaimed. He couldn’t believe what his ears were hearing. Leaving Starfleet was the last thing that he had expected someone like Collins to do. Like him, he was the adventurous type, always wanting to go to new places and try new things. 

“I promised Miranda that this would be my last assignment before I resigned. I’m planning on moving with her, back home to Earth. I want to settle down and have a family.” 

“I can’t believe it! You? Settle down?! I thought it was your dream to become a starship captain? Isn’t that what you worked your whole life for? And now you’re going to give it all up?” 

“It was my dream before I met Miranda.” Nate chuckled as he thought logically about it. “Love doesn’t really make much sense, does it? I just want more out of life now. I’m beginning to realize, Scott, that there’s more to life than duty, honor, and exploration. It was fine for a while, but now I feel like I want something more. Like children. Some day, you’ll know what I'm talking about.” 

They sat in silence for a few moments, each of them with their own thoughts. Bishop sipped his tea, waiting for the shock of his friend’s news to pass. 

“You never should have told her that, Nate. I know you. You’ll miss it too much.” 

“No,” he answered. “I've made my decision. I want a family.” 

“It’ll certainly make your parents happy,” Bishop pointed out. 

Nathaniel Collins’ parents had wanted him to stay and manage their centuries old family estate on Earth, rather than go “waltzing around the galaxy looking for trouble,” as they put it. He was their only child and they hadn’t wanted to see anything happen to him. When Bishop had first come to know Collins, the man had been so determined to prove to his parents that he would be a starship captain that making them happy was the last thing on his mind. 

“Well… I guess I'll just have to take some more shore leave then,” he added, resolving himself to his captain’s decision. He knew that when his friend had made up his mind, it was useless to argue with him. A smile returned to his face. “I can tell you about all of the adventures that I’m having out here.” 

“I hope you do, Scott. I’ll look forward to it.. In the meantime, I think all of this talk is making me tired... or maybe it’s the nebula.” He paused to let out a yawn. “Either way, I think I’ll retire for the night. See you when we reach Khymeria.” 

He got up from the table and headed out of the Mess Hall, leaving Bishop alone with his thoughts. 

* * * *

Ensign Caltashi Zagora, or Cal, as he was commonly called by his crewmates, sat back in the captain’s chair, staring out at the greenish blue glow of the nebula. The night was going the same as any other time that he had worked this shift. Everything was quiet and calm. Even the nebula reminded him of a calm sea. 

Ensign T’Liya and Saehmar, a tall Caldonian, were seated at workstations along the back of the bridge while Ensign Jonas Paynter manned the helm. Saehmar was one of five civilian scientists who had been given the privilege of conducting their research aboard Aurora. Besides the four of them, there was no one else on the Bridge 

“Something about this nebula makes me sleepy,” Zagora stated. He yawned, stretching out his arms above his head. 

“Perhaps you should return to your quarters and leave me in command, sir,” T’Liya said, moving to one of the starboard workstations. 

“I don’t think so.” Zagora was a little irritated by her remark, which he found to be typical of her Vulcan superiority towards him. Underneath her emotionless exterior, she seemed annoyed that Collins had made him assistant chief science officer over her. Zagora took his tired eyes off of the viewscreen and asked, “How much longer with this sensor pass take?” 

“We’ve only been inside the nebula for thirty-seven minutes, sir,” Saehmar answered, lifting his head up from his station. He barely bothered to turn his head as he spoke because he was deeply consumed with monitoring the sensor readouts, even though they were all being recorded into the ship’s computer core and being monitored by the Stellar Cartography department. 

“Fascinating,” the Caldonian remarked, his eyes still glued to his station. “This nebula is filled with dense pockets of volatile metreon gas. There’s enough of it in here to create a massive explosion and the intense radiation emanating from the nebula’s center seems to increase geometrically as one travels towards it. Yet, on the outer edges, the radiation is so weak that even our shields can withstand it.” 

“I don’t know about you, Saehmar, but the nebula doesn’t sound like a place that I’d like to live in,” commented Zagora. “How much longer do we have, T’Liya?” 

“We still have another…” she began to say. The Vulcan paused and frowned, looking at her console. 

“What is it?” 

“Our scans have just picked up what appears to be four vessels emerging from the center of the nebula.” 

“But… but… that’s impossible!” Saehmar exclaimed. “I don’t understand.” 

“I thought you said that there was too much radiation for our shields to be effective past the outer layers of the nebula?” Zagora asked. “No ship should be able to survive that far inside.” 

“I did, sir. Apparently, I was incorrect. I do not see how this is possible!” 

“What type of ships are they?” Zagora asked, rushing over to T’Liya’s station. 

“I am having difficulty discerning that, sir, but they are moving towards us at high impulse.” 

“I’d like to know who these people are. Let’s try hailing them.” 

T’Liya touched a few buttons on her console. “The radiation is degrading the transmission too much. I cannot get anything through to them, but I am now able to scan the ships. The ships do not conform to any known designs in our database. However, they are the same mass and size as us.”

“Well, maybe this won’t be a boring night after all. How soon until they reach us?”

“Twenty seconds, sir,” she stated. 

“Could this be our first contact with a race that lives deep inside the nebula?” Zagora speculated, becoming rather excited. “The Khymerians never had the technology or the desire to explore the Motaabi. They’ve been too busy establishing trade routes with other cultures.” 

“The Khymerians do insist that they are the only native species in this region of space, which is why it has been named after them. If there was to be another race, it would certainly challenge their sovereignty over the nebula and its resources,” Saehmar stated. 

“The vessels are nearing our position, sir,” T’Liya informed him. “They appear to be heavily armed -- sensors detecting incoming torpedoes on the port quarter!” 

“What? They’re attacking us?!” 

“The evidence would seem to suggest that, sir,” the Vulcan replied, in an almost sarcastic voice. 

“Full power to the shields!” cried Zagora as he raced over to the helm. “Red alert! All hands to battle stations, Captain Collins to the bridge! Paynter, get us out of here!” 

* * * *

Commander Bishop had just exited the mess hall and he was on his way back to his quarters, even though he wasn’t that tired yet. He planned on reading one of his novels for an hour before going to bed. Somehow, they always seemed to put him to sleep. He was deep in thought when the red alert klaxons sounded, startling him. 

Red Alert! All hands to battle stations, Captain Collins to the bridge!” echoed the voice of Ensign Zagora over the ship-wide communications system. 

Just then the ship shook violently, knocking Bishop down off his feet and into the corridor wall. The ship was struck again, twice, before he managed to pull himself up off the deck. He raced down the now dim corridor and, seeing the door to a turbolift, he headed towards it, tapping his combadge. “Bishop to Bridge! What’s going on?” 

I don’t know,” came the distracted reply of Zagora. “They… they just came out of the nebula.” 

“Stand by, I’m on my way,” Bishop assured him, entering the turbolift car. “Bridge!” he commanded as the door slipped shut. 

* * * *

A few minutes later, the door opened on the bridge and Captain Collins rushed out after coming up from his quarters. All officers were at their posts, including Commander Bishop, who was seated in the chair next to the captain’s. 

“Report!” the captain called out as he sat down in his command chair. 

“We’ve got four unidentified ships on our tail and they’re gaining quickly!” Zagora reported to him. 

“We’re trying to outrun them, but they’ll intercept us in one minute and eleven seconds,” Bishop reported. “At full impulse, we won’t clear the nebula for another two and a half minutes.” 

Just then, the ship shook violently as three more alien torpedoes struck. 

“We’ve just been hit by plasma torpedoes,” reported Lieutenant Commander Michael Adams, the Aurora’s operations manager, reported. “Shields are at seventy-four percent and those ships are closing fast!” 

“Then let’s hope they’re in the mood to talk. Try hailing them.” 

Adams touched buttons on his station, but there was no response. “They don’t want to talk, sir,” he said. “They’re definitely close enough to receive our hails, even though all of this interference.” 

“Repeat the message. All channels, all languages.” 

“Sir,” ch’Dalvis reported, “the ships are firing two more plasma torpedoes!” 

“How soon until we clear the nebula?” 

“One minute, twenty-five seconds,” said Lieutenant Kowalski as she attempted evasive maneuvers to avoid being hit by the incoming torpedoes. The radiation of the nebula made the torpedoes extremely inaccurate and both shots passed by Aurora, heading out into space. 

“Arm photon torpedoes. Lock onto the nearest ship and return fire!” commanded the captain. The ship shook as the previous torpedoes detonated, causing a shock wave throughout the nebula. 

“Aye, sir,” said ch’Dalvis. “Firing!” 

The Aurora launched a full spread of photon torpedoes from its aft launcher. The torpedoes flew through space and crashed into the lead alien ship’s shields. 

“Direct hit. They’ve suffered damage to their forward shields. The lead ship is dropping back and one of the others is taking place in the formation. At this rate, we’ll be in pieces before we’re able to destroy one of their ships.” 

The lead hostile ship fired a phaser blast at the Aurora just then. 

“Shields down to forty-two percent!” Adams reported as the ship rocked from the impact. “We’ve blown out four power relays on Decks Two and Six.” 

ch'Dalvis launched another spread of torpedoes at the alien ships but they had little effect. The captain sat back down in his chair, a worried glance on his face as he realized that his poorly-armed science vessel wouldn’t last much longer. Searching for other options, he quickly tapped at the small console that sat between the captain’s and the first officer’s chairs and brought up the most recent sensor map. 

“We’re approaching a thick pocket of metreon gas,” Collins stated as he examined the display. “Kowalski, see if you can maneuver us directly between it and the alien ships. As soon as we’re in position, target a photon torpedo at the metreon pocket and fire!” 

“But, sir,” Zagora protested, “Metreon gas is highly unstable! If we aren’t careful, we could cause a massive explosion that could destroy us along with those ships!” 

Several torpedoes crashed into the ship, causing several stations to overload and showering sparks across the bridge. Computer panels flickered in and out as the crew struggled to hold onto their stations. 

“Shields are down to twenty-one percent! A metreon explosion could destroy us now, Captain!” warned Commander Bishop. 

“We’ll be destroyed anyway if this keeps up,” he shouted back over the noise of a console exploding behind him. 

“We’re moving into position, sir,” Kowalski reported. “The ships are pursuing a direct course towards us. The metreon pocket will be between us and them in a few seconds.” 

Aurora came around the unstable pocket of metreon gas and continued toward normal space, which could now be seen from their position. The alien ships continued on a straight path, gaining quickly on them from their maneuver. 

“We’re in position,” ch’Dalvis reported. 

“Fire!” Collins ordered, gripping the arms of his chair for support. 

“Aye, sir.” 

Aurora fired a torpedo at the gas pocket directly behind them. As the torpedo neared the gas, it left a trail of fire and heat. A fiery haze engulfed the torpedo as it collided with the metreon gas; within seconds, the gas in the nebula between the ships exploded. The huge blast knocked the lead ship off course and right into the other two ships beside it, causing them to explode as well. The last ship was blown back towards the center of the nebula. The explosion caught the aft shields of the Federation starship and knocked it out of the nebula. 

The impact of the explosion threw everyone forward. Computer consoles exploded and showers of sparks fell from the ceiling. Captain Collins gripped the arms of his chair as the other bridge officers were tossed around like rag dolls. He was struck in the head by falling debris and knocked to the deck beside his chair where he was suddenly buried underneath a collapsed bulkhead. Commander Bishop was thrown out of his seat beside the captain and forward towards the helm. Lieutenant Kowalski was flipped straight over the helm and right into the base of the viewscreen. 

Seconds later, Lieutenant Commander Adams pulled himself up out of the rubble near his station. Spotting Lieutenant Kowalski hurt near the main viewer, he moved over to help her. Lieutenant Mills helped Ensign Zagora up while Commander Bishop sat up, rubbing the jagged cuts on the side of his face. 

“Nathaniel!” he cried out, seeing the piece of bulkhead beside the captain’s chair. He moved towards it and began pulling debris off of him. “Help me! We’ve got to save him!” 

Lieutenant ch’Dalvis and Ensign Zagora, who had just gotten up rushed over to help their First Officer. Grabbing the large piece of titanium, they gradually lifted it off of the captain to find his bruised and bleeding body underneath it. Bishop pulled Collins out of the wreckage and laid him on the deck. There was little hope that he would survive, but he wasn’t willing to give up on him yet.

“Bridge to Sickbay,” said ch’Dalvis, tapping his combadge. “We have multiple medical emergencies up here.” 

There was no reply from Sickbay and checking his panel, he realized that the communications system was down. 

“Kowalski's hurt pretty bad too,” a cry came out from Lieutenant Commander Adams behind the helm. He gently carried her unconscious body out from underneath the viewscreen. 

“What’s our status?” Bishop demanded as the officers got up and returned to their posts. He wished he could just leave the bridge and rush Captain Collins down to Sickbay. 

Adams returned to his damaged but still functional ops console. “We have hull breaches on Decks Four, Five, Six, and Eight. Life-support is down on Deck Seven. Shields, weapons, environmental controls and navigation are all offline, and we have reports coming in from all decks of major casualties.” 

“It looks like we’re free from the nebula, Scott,” ch’Dalvis remarked, gazing out at the normal space appearing on the main viewer.

“What about the other ships?” The commander climbed over the fallen beam to his chair. “Were they all destroyed in that explosion?” 

“No,” Adams said, “I’m picking up two of the vessels. They’re severely crippled.” 

“So are we,” Zagora stated, standing in front of the master system display monitor at the rear of the bridge. His eyes moved, reading the information being displayed on the screen. “Engineering reports that the engines are down.” 

“Bridge to Engineering!” Bishop called out, attempting communications. 

“It’s no use. The comms are down.” 

“We’d better get the engines back up and running before they, whoever they are, realize that we’re a helpless target and send more ships.” Bishop headed towards a turbolift. 

He didn’t like having to leave his friend lying there on the bridge, unconscious. As the first officer, he knew that he had the responsibility to take over for the Captain and his first duty was to secure the safety of his ship and crew. 

“Adams,” he told the operations officer, “I want you to get to Sickbay and see if you can get a medic up here!” 


“And get a stretcher up here for Captain Collins, would you? Nala, Lieutenant Mills, you’re with me! Mister Zagora, you have the Bridge.” 

* * * *

Luckily for the Aurora, it was only about twenty minutes before Lieutenant Jedani Vata, the resourceful Trill chief engineer, had restored warp power and Commander Bishop returned to the bridge. Adams had returned with a medical team, carrying stretchers and medkits for the wounded. Bishop, Adams, and Zagora helped the medical team to carefully place the injured bodies of Captain Collins, Lieutenant Kowalski, and Ensign T’Liya on the stretchers. Then with only four people remaining, they returned to their posts. 

“Adams, are the long-range sensors working?” Bishop asked, bent over the ops officer’s flickering console. 

“I have partial long-range sensors, sir,” he replied, frowning at his display, “But I'm not getting very accurate readings.” 

“Are there any more of those ships nearby?” 

“I’m picking up something, bearing three-two-five, mark four-zero -- no, wait -- three-one-five, mark five-zero: one ship. It’s not coming from the nebula. Though it looks like they’re coming from a neighboring system. This vessel has a singular design as the previous ones, but it’s much larger.” Adams looked over his shoulder at Bishop. “I’m willing to bet that this one’s a cruiser of some kind.” 

“How long do we have?” Bishop asked quickly. 

“The vessel will intercept us in thirty-five minutes,” ch’Dalvis replied. He was itching for a chance to retrieve his ushaan-tor from his quarters. 

“Ensign Zagora,” Bishop said, addressing him as he sat down in the first officer’s chair, “Take the helm. What’s our course and speed?”

“As soon as we have warp power, I can put us on a direct course for Khymeria Prime at warp six, sir. Hopefully, the Khymerian Argosy Fleet will be there to help us!” 

“Can we contact them by subspace radio?” 

“Negative. This nebula seems to block all subspace communications. We’d need a straight path for the signal to travel, and that means we’ll have to wait until we’re around the nebula.” 

Just then, two replacement officers arrived on the bridge to take the place of the injured officers. As they took their places, ch’Dalvis announced, “Sir, sensors are picking up another ship emerging from the nebula, twenty minutes ahead of us! It’s a Khymerian Korru-class cargo transport!” 

“I didn’t think that the Khymerians had the shielding technology to enter the nebula,” Bishop stated, shocked by this news. “Perhaps things have progressed while we were gone. Hail the transport.” 

Adams attempted to, but shook his head. “They’re not responding either, sir.” 

“The vessel is moving to block our path to Khymeria,” ch’Dalvis noticed on his display. “We’re going to have to fight our way past them to get to the Khymeria system. With no shields and minimal weapons, that’s going to be one fight that I don’t want to be in!” 

“Damn!” added a frustrated Bishop. 

“It looks like the Khymerians are working with these hostile aliens. We don’t even know what they want!” Zagora exclaimed. 

“Whatever it was, you can bet they just want revenge now,” ch’Dalvis added to the conversation. “We crippled and destroyed their ships. We’d better come up with something quick, because pretty soon that cruiser behind us and that transport ahead of us are going to intercept and we’ll be caught in the middle.” 

“Adams, scan for a planet or something that we could hide in, other than the nebula. We can’t go back in there without shields. We’ll have to evade them out here.” 

“I think I’ve found one. Sensors are picking up a Class-K planet in one of the nearby star systems but it’s twenty minutes away at maximum warp,” reported Lieutenant Commander Adams. “And that Khymerian transport will be here in eighteen!” 

“It’ll have to do,” Bishop said. “Ensign, set course for that Class-K planet, maximum warp.” 

* * * *

The Aurora increased to its maximum speed, warp eight, and the Khymerian transport and the alien cruiser followed in close pursuit. Soon however, the gap began to close between the Federation starship and the transport until it was right on its tail. 

“The Khymerian transport is entering firing range,” Lieutenant Commander Adams called out from Ops. “And we’re still four minutes from the planet with the cruiser fourteen minutes behind the transport.” 

“That’s no ordinary Korru-class transport, Commander,” ch’Dalvis pointed out, his antennae moving around nervously. “It’s definitely been refitted with extra torpedo tubes and phaser cannons. Plus, Khymerian transports only have a maximum speed of warp seven.” 

“Reroute all available power to the shields!” ordered the commander. 

“Shields strength is at seventeen percent,” ch’Dalvis reported as the ship shook from weapons impacts. “The transport is firing plasma torpedoes. A few more hits and our shields are gone again!” 

“Nala,” Commander Bishop said, standing up, his hand forming a fist, “return the favor.” 

The Aurora launched five photon torpedoes at the transport. 

“Direct hit to the ship,” the Andorian tactical officer reported. “Minimal damage to their shields.” 

The ship shook again, forcing the commander back into his seat. There was another crashing sound when several stations exploded. Sparks showered over the bridge and a burned Lieutenant Commander Adams was knocked to the floor. Ensign Bowen rushed over from her post and knelt down to feel his pulse. 

“He’s dead!” she cried out. 

The bridge officers turned their heads away from their duties for a second towards the dead officer whom they had gotten to know so well over the past three years. Then there was another sound and the ship shook again. It knocked them out of their brief daze and reminded them of their terrible situation. 

“Bowen, take his station,” Bishop ordered. 

Bowen stepped over to the damaged console and realizing that it was no longer operational, she turned to the display behind her. There was another violent impact, throwing the commander out of his chair and into the debris of the captain’s chair as another station exploded. This time, that station was vacant. 

Bishop pulled himself up off of the deck, overpowering the inertial stress. “Damage report!” he called out. 

“They’re targeting our engines, trying to bring us out of warp,” Bowen reported. “We took a direct hit to the starboard nacelle and we’re venting plasma. Shields are down and we have a new hull breach on Deck Seven.” She checked a new indication on her console and shouted, “Sir, we’re losing the warp field!” 

There was another hit and one of the overhead light fixtures sprayed a shower of sparks over the bridge. 

“Commander, we’re dropping out of warp!” Ensign Zagora reported. 

Commander Bishop turned his eyes towards the viewscreen as the streaking stars slowed down to white dots. “Continue on course, maximum impulse.” 

“Sir,” Bowen reported, turning her head to face him, “the transport has dropped out of warp and is still pursuing us. We’re now ten minutes to the planet at impulse speed.” 

“Ensign, you’ve got to evade them for as long as possible.” 

“I’m doing my best, sir,” Zagora said, “but I'm not exactly an accomplished pilot. I only have basic academy training.” 

Bishop ignored his lack of self-confidence. “Meanwhile, Nala, I want you to target their --” He was cut off by another hit which jolted everyone around. “-- target their impulse engines. We may not be able to outgun them, but we may still be able to outrun them. I need you to either cripple that ship or disable it!” 

“Aye, sir,” ch’Dalvis replied, locking the targeting scanners on the alien ship’s impulse engines. 

“Fire at will!” Bishop commanded. “We’ve still got half a payload of torpedoes. Let’s use them!” 

The ship shook again. 

“Commander,” Bowen reported from Ops, “we have another hull breach. This time on Deck Four. We’ve lost the shuttle bay!” 

Commander Bishop looked around him. The bridge was totaled. Computers were flashing on and off. The walls were black and some kind of green gas was coming out of a ceiling vent that had been blown open. Sparks were falling everywhere and there was a small fire burning on one of the port side consoles. In his three years aboard Aurora, he had never seen the bridge in such a condition. There had been a time when they had to make an emergency landing on a Demon-class planet or when they had gotten into a conflict with a Gnorem battleships, but still, noting as bad as this situation was.

“Commander, we’ve lost gravity plating on Deck Two,” ch’Dalvis informed him. 

There was another strike and the ship rocked violently, throwing one of the bridge officers hard into the larger master systems display behind the command center. 

“Scott, the transport’s shields and engines are down. They’re adrift,” Nala reported from Tactical. “Wait… I'm reading a massive power surge in their engines! She’s going to blow --” 

The transport vessel exploded, causing a shockwave that rocked the Aurora violently. 

“The transport has been destroyed, but the other cruiser is still in pursuit.” 

“Good work, Nala!” Bishop exclaimed, hoping that there was still a chance that they would survive. “How far are we from the planet?” 

“We’re still eight minutes away at maximum impulse,” Bowen reported “That cruiser will be here in twelve minutes.” 

“We’d better get that plasma leak fixed or they’ll have no problem finding us,” ch’Dalvis suggested to Bishop. He nodded his assent. 

“Bridge to Engineering,” the Aurora’s first officer urged over the now-repaired communications system. “We need that plasma leak repaired now.” 

I’m on it, sir, but it’ll take a while. If we can’t manage to fix it from the inside, then we’ll have to go out there in EVA suits and fix it ourselves,” stated the chief engineer. “And there could take hours.” 

“We don’t have hours, Jedani. We have minutes at the most!” 

“We’re nearing the K-Class planet, Commander,” Ensign Bowen reported minutes later. “It’s atmosphere contains primarily carbon dioxide with nitrogen, argon, and small amounts of other gasses that I can’t identify yet. I don’t see how we can hide here from them.” 

“Scan for any large craters or volcanoes,” Bishop said, tapping the console beside his chair. “The surface contains ionized rock which should throw off their sensors if we can hide ourselves deep enough in it.” 

“Aye, sir,” Bowen said, checking her sensors. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a small crack to hide in. the whole planet appears to be geologically unstable. I’m reading seismic activity throughout the southern continent.” 

“This planet also had five satellites orbiting it. Maybe we could hide on one of them?” ch’Dalvis suggested to the rest of the bridge survivors. 

“Alright,” the commander decided, “we’ll take the ship down to one of those crevasses as soon as that plasma leak is fixed and stay there until we can get the warp drive back online. I don’t see that we have any other choice.” 

* * * *

Bishop sat back down in his chair and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair. The air on the Bridge was hot and sticky. It was probably because there had been some damage to the environmental systems. Zagora, ch’Dalvis, and two other junior officers had left the bridge to help Lieutenant Vata shut of the plasma flow in Engineering. The bridge was almost deserted except for Lieutenant Mills, Ensign Bowen, and himself. Heavy on his mind was his friend and colleague, Captain Collins. He hadn’t heard from the doctor what the captain’s condition was and his heart felt sick at the potential of losing the one man who had been his best friend since his early days in Starfleet. 

Vata to Bridge,” the chief engineer said, interrupting his thoughts. 

“Go ahead, Vata.” 

Sir, we’ve managed to shut down the starboard warp nacelle. That’s stopped the leak for now, but we still have to repair it from the outside if we want to get the warp drive back online.” 

“I see,” was his response as he thought over the situation for a moment. “Alright, Jedani. Good work. Bishop out.” 

Just then, one of the instruments on a nearby console beeped and flashed. Bowen re-routed it to the Ops console before making her report. “Sir, the cruiser is entering scanner range.” 

Realizing that time was crucial, Bishop rose from his chair and walked over to sit down at the helm. “Go to Blue Alert and hang on!” he shouted. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride! We’d better get this ship hidden before it’s too late!” 

His hands guided over the display panel and switched off the automatic piloting system before he began maneuvering the ship towards the planet. The Aurora descended towards the planet at one-quarter impulse speed and as they entered the outer atmosphere, the ship began to vibrate as if they were being bombarded by weapons fire. 

“Hull temperature is rising. Inertial dampeners are offline. We should engage atmospheric thrusters, sir!” 

“No! That’ll slow us down. Compensate for the dampeners. I’ll increase speed,” Bishop told Bowen. Behind them, the turbolift doors opened with Lieutenant ch’Dalvis, Ensign Zagora, and the other two junior officers rushing onto the bridge. At the same time, the viewscreen showed the surface of the planet growing closer and closer. The surface was a brownish-yellow, filled with craters and canyons. Aurora maneuvered lower until it reached one of the large canyons before pulling up at the last moment and traveling into the canyon. 

“How soon until we reach our hiding place?” Commander Bishop asked, sweat rolling down his brow. 

“Fifteen seconds, sir,” answered Bowen. 

“It’d better be soon because we’re sitting fowl down here if they start scanning!” ch’Dalvis reported from Tactical. 

Soon they saw a large chasm in the canyon wall and slowing the ship down, they entered it. Immediately, darkness surrounded the ship and they couldn’t see anything on the viewscreen. 

“We’ll have to rely solely on sensors for now,” Bowen told them. “If you continue forward by about twenty kilometers, there should be a deep well. The rock around the well is plated with titanium alloys and it should be a safe place to land the ship.” 

“All right. I see it.” 

When they entered the deep well and scanned the ground thoroughly, they activated the landing struts and the ship slowly descended until the hull was only a few meters from the ground. 

“Whew!” Bishop said, relaxing as he leaned back in his seat at the helm. “That was lucky. Now we just have to hope that they didn’t see where we went.” 

“How long can we stay here?,” ch’Dalvis asked “They’ll eventually find us.” 

“We may not be able to stay here for very long at all,” Zagora stated, ever much the consummate science officer. “The whole area around the cavern appears to be geologically unstable. I’m measuring heavy tectonic stress in and around our position. If a tremor starts, this whole cavern could collapse.” 

Bishop sighed at this news. “If we leave now, there’s a good chance that they’ll find us. We’ll just have to stay put and get out of here as quickly as possible if a tremor starts. Hopefully we can get the warp engines back online soon. If we’re real lucky, maybe they’ll just go away.” 

“Where is the alien cruiser?” Zagora asked. 

“I don’t know,” Bowen told him. “Our sensors can’t penetrate the rock of this cavern. Hopefully, theirs can’t either.” 

“Well, let’s not waste time,” said the commander. “I say we get to work on those engines.” 

“Aye, sir!” answered the crew in unison. 

Each member of the surviving crew was pleased with how Commander Bishop was handling the situation so far. Captain Collins was well-liked by every member of the crew and they were all incredibly disheartened by the loss of his authoritative and knowledgeable presence. The man was closer to his crew than most captains would dream of and he had a gift for inciting not only loyalty, but also faith and dedication from his people. Everyone knew that he would be incredibly difficult to replace. So far, Bishop had kept them alive and stopped the aliens from doing whatever it was that they wanted to. That was reason enough for the crew to give him the trust they gave to Collins. 

* * * *

“Moore! Hand me that tricorder!” Vata called out, pointing to the one sitting on the tool kit. 

Lieutenant Moore picked himself up and in his EVA suit, he walked over to the tool kit. They were outside the ship, standing on the starboard warp nacelle. The damage had been worse than expected and though they were trying their best to fix the plasma injection system, neither one of them believed that warp drive would be possible. 

Vata,” he heard the voice of Commander Bishop over the intercom in her suit. “What’s your status?” 

“Commander, sealing the plasma leak isn’t going to be hard, but I’m afraid the damage to the warp field coils is bad. It’s going to take me weeks, at the most, before we can replicate and replace these coils to have warp drive back online,” answered the chief engineer. “Then again, we may never get it working. If I had a larger team or the help of a starbase, then the work would go faster. Still, without the replicators working, it’s going to be a long while.” 

There was a sigh at the end as the commander gave the situation his due consideration of thought. 

Do what you can, Vata. I’ll send out some more teams to assist you. It seems that our only hope now is that the alien ship doesn’t find us. Bishop out.” 

* * * *

The doors to his quarters slid open with a whoosh and Commander Bishop walked slowly into the darkness. The room was in shambles. The furniture had been flung towards the viewports and piled in a large heap. His belongings -- books, models, PADDs, and decorations -- were scattered across the room. He walked over to the coffee table near his couch and he was disappointed to find his model replica of the HMS Victory smashed into tiny pieces, though the condition of his model ship was the least of his worries at this delicate time. Brushing aside some shards of debris off of his couch, he sat down and began to gather together his thoughts. 

He needed time to think and be alone. 

Turning around to face the viewport, he saw that there were no stars to gaze at, only blackness. He turned back around, not comforted by his view of the dark rocky wall around him. Spying his small desktop computer laying facedown on the deck, he went and picked it up. Turning it on, it began to display the ship’s systems information. As he read over some of the damage, he was interrupted by the communications system. 

Thorne to Commander Bishop.” 

He tapped his combadge. “Bishop here.” 

Sir, I think you’d better get down here, now.” 

“What is it?” he asked, his heart pounding in his chest. 

The captain is dying.” 

* * * *

Bishop jumped over the fallen beam in his path and continued down the corridor towards Sickbay. Directly behind him were ch’Dalvis, Zagora, and Bowen. They had never seen the commander run so fast through the corridors. Before long they had climbed through the rubble barricades to Sickbay. The doors were sitting open when they reached them and they could hear the sounds of many people in agony. Some of them were screaming. Others were shouting at the nurses and some of them were having discussions with others while they waited for treatment. 

Entering the room, they could tell that the alien ships had hit Sickbay pretty hard. All of the power was out and the emergency lights were flickering. Most of the bio-monitors were burned out and damaged. People were sprawled out on the floor while the survivors among the medical staff treated their injuries. Just then, three engineers arrived to repair the Sickbay computer and reactivate the damaged Emergency Medical Hologram program to hopefully make up for the shortage of medical staff. 

Noticing a frantic-looking Doctor Ivan Thorne in the corner of the surgical bay, Bishop and his people moved toward him; on the main biobed was the burned and bleeding body of Captain Collins. He was conscious and he noticed that Bishop and some of the senior officers had arrived. 

“I’ve tried everything I know. His injuries are...” Thorne reported with a sad expression on his weathered face, “...just too bad. Maybe if I could replicate the right tools or get the sickbay computer back online, but right now? There’s nothing more that I can do. I can’t stop the damned internal bleeding.” 

Captain Collins looked up at Bishop and smiled, motioning for him to come close. He walked over to the biobed and stood over his body. 

“I -- don’t have much…” he said between gasps of breath. Sweat poured down his forehead and it was evident that the captain was in a lot of pain. 

“Can’t you give him something for the pain?” 

Thorne left the surgical bay to retrieve a hypospray from his office. 

“No, Doctor!,” the Captain cried out, loudly. “That medicine -- would be -- better off -- on someone who-who -- needs it to survive.” 

“But, Captain--” Thorne protested. 

“No!,” he said, adamantly. His eyes turned to Commander Bishop, he added, “Scott -- I want you to know -- that you’ve been a fine First Officer -- and my best friend these past -- years. I’m going to miss-miss -- you. That goes for you -- too, Zagora.” His eyes moved towards the young officer. “That-that goes -- for the whole crew. I couldn’t -- have asked to -- serve with better people.” 

“It's been an honor serving with you too, Nate,” came Bishop’s earnest reply. He was still in shock and disbelief at the thought of losing his best friend. There was nothing else that he could think of, nor anything else to say. 

“Scott -- you’ve got -- a fine crew -- promise me -- you’ll get ’em home? And -- tell Miranda -- tell her I’m -- I’m sorry.” 

“I promise,” Bishop said. “I promise.” 

Smiling, Captain Nathaniel Collins closed his eyes and laid still. The heart monitor on the computer beside the biobed went dead and all of his vital life-signs began to drop. Doctor Thorne raced over to the console but it was too late. 

“He’s… He’s dead,” Thorne said, pronouncing the captain’s death for the record. “I’m sorry.” 

* * * *

Commander Bishop stepped out of Sickbay; ch’Dalvis, Zagora and Bowen followed him. All three of them had with their heads down, devastated by their loss. It was difficult to believe that the man that they had looked up to, respected, and loved for years was really gone forever. There was little time to mourn, however, because they soon felt a slight tremor begin. Within seconds, the vibrations increased and the ship, within minutes, was shaking violently as if torpedoes were bombarding it. Then they heard a crashing sound coming from outside the ship. It was far above them and instantly, they were aware that the cavern was collapsing. 

Bridge to Commander Bishop,” the distressed voice of Lieutenant Mills called out. “Tectonic stress is reaching high levels and the structural integrity of the cavern is weakening!” 

“We’ve got to leave,” Zagora added. 

The commander rushed towards a turbolift with the other three officers following him in close pursuit. The ship continued to vibrate as the cave began to collapse; soon they had entered the turbolift and they were on their way to the bridge. When they arrived, Lieutenant ch’Dalvis, Ensign Zagora, Lieutenant Mills, and Ensign Bowen took to their stations. There was another crashing sound like thunder above them. The ship shook when rock from the cave crashed onto the ship’s hull. 

“We’ve gotta get out of here!” Bishop said, sitting down in his chair.

“Commander, the engineering team is still out there,” Bowen warned him. 

“Bridge to Transporter Room One: can you lock onto the engineering team and beam them aboard?” 

Just a minute, sir,” answered the transporter chief. “Yes, I’ve got them.” 

“Zagora, get us out of here!” 

“Aye, sir,” the ensign replied, a little nervously. “But I’ve never piloted a starship in a planet’s atmosphere before not to mention a narrow cavern like this one.” 

“You’ll do fine, Mister Zagora,” he encouraged the young man, smiling at him. “Just keep her steady.” 

The ship shuttered and they felt an upward motion as the Aurora lifted up from the ground and traveled up the deep well. There was a crash as another piece of the cave architecture smashed into the ship. 

“What’s our shield status?” 

“Shields are back online and functioning at twelve percent, Scott,” ch’Dalvis reported from Tactical. 

Aurora was now clear of the deep hole and it was on its way towards the exit of the cave. The crashing sounds grew in number. Rocks and debris fell all over the place. 

“I hope that alien ship has left orbit by now!” Zagora exclaimed, his hands guiding the ship through her trials. 

“How soon until we clear the cave?” Bishop asked. 

“Fifty-five seconds,” Bowen reported.

“Let’s hope that it’s just enough.” 

The ship shook again and the computer display behind the commander exploded. On the main viewscreen, a small cave entrance showed but more rocks were falling around them. Soon they would cover the hole, sealing them inside. 

“Forty-five seconds!” 

“Commander, the passageway is getting too small. It’s no longer sufficient in size for us to exit,” ch’Dalvis said. 

“Are there any other exits?” 

There was a brief moment of silence before Ensign Bowen answered him. “No, sir. That’s the only one.” 

“Then we’ll just have to blast our way out,” Bishop told them. 

“I would advise against that, sir,” Zagora spoke up. “We could wind up bringing the entire cave down on top of us.” 

“Noted, Mister Zagora, but I don’t think the cavern needs any help from us. It’s going to collapse anyway,” replied the commander. “Mister ch’Dalvis, arm the forward torpedo bays.” 

“Torpedoes armed and ready, sir,” replied the Andorian security officer,” but we’ve only got seven photon torpedoes left.” 

“Twenty-five seconds.” 

“Fire!” Bishop called out. 

The Aurora launched two photon torpedoes at the sealed cave entrance ahead. The crew watched eagerly as the cave shook violently and more rocks began to tumble down. 

“It didn’t work, sir. The entrance is still sealed,” Nala reported. 

“Impact in fifteen seconds.” 

“Again, Nala!” 

Aurora launched two more torpedoes at the rock entrance. The crew watched as huge dust clouds engulfed the cave and for a moment, all visibility was gone. When the rocks stopped falling, light streaked in and they could see the brownish surface of the planet outside. 

“Commander, the hole’s just wide enough if we rotate twenty-two-point-three degrees!” Zagora reported. “We’ll be out in five seconds.” 

They watched as the mouth of the cave drew closer. They passed through the exit and they were back outside again. 

“Yes!” the crew exclaimed in unison. 

“Any sign of that alien cruiser?” Bishop asked. 

“I’m not picking them up in orbit, but they could be nearby,” Bowen reported. 

“We have no choice. We’ll have to take our chances out there. Take us up, Ensign.” 

Zagora maneuvered the ship out of the canyon. They were now on a fast ascent towards the planet’s orbit. Commander Bishop sat back in his chair and for a moment, he considered their situation. It was off that the planet had seemed like a refuge, at first. Now, it was a death trap. If they couldn’t get the ship back into orbit, they would eventually crash on the surface and be either killed or captured. They weren’t sure what to expect at all from the aliens. They weren’t even sure why they were attacking them in the first place. 

“I’ve found the alien ship. It’s in a high orbit above the planet,” Bowen reported from her sensor scans. “They’ve noticed us and they’re moving to intercept.” 

“Helm, new heading bearing two-seven-zero, mark one-two,” Bishop ordered from his place in the First Officer’s chair. 

Aurora altered course, trying to avoid flying right towards the hostile cruiser and began travelling parallel to the planet’s surface and the approaching ship’s course. 

“The alien ship is still approaching us. Structural integrity is down to fifty percent and shields are still at fourteen percent.” 

“Evacuate and seal off all non-essential decks. Reroute power from life-support to shields,” Bishop ordered. 

“That’ll only buy us a couple minutes, Commander,” warned ch’Dalvis. 

The alien cruiser launched a torpedo at the Aurora. Commander Bishop clutched the arms of his chair as the ship rocked back and forth. Explosions could be heard all over the ship. Ensign Zagora was knocked clear from his station when one section of the helm console exploded. 

“Zagora!” Mills cried out, rushing over from his station. “Are you okay?!” Checking his pulse, he realized that the young ensign didn’t suffer the same fate as the late Lieutenant Commander Michael Adams. 

“Take his station, Lieutenant.” 

Lieutenant Timothy Mills sat down at the helm console and attempted to recover their original course. Assuming control of the ship, he realized that Aurora was heading downward again into the atmosphere. Activating the forward thrusters, he forced the ship back upward. The ship shook violently again when it was struck. This time, Mills’ former console exploded. 

“Commander, that last hit took out our shields!” Bowen reported. “And we’ve lost fifteen percent of the hull. Structural integrity is failing and we’re losing life-support!” 

Aurora was now in the lower mesosphere but it couldn’t outrun the cruiser as it came closer with every second. Just then, the ship shook as if it had been hit again. 

“They’ve locked on a tractor beam, Commander. We’re being pulled out of the atmosphere and towards them!”

“Nala?” Bishop asked, frantically, “do we have any weapons left?” 

“No. both forward and aft phasers have been fried and all of our torpedoes have been used up as well,” the Andorian reported. “We’re defenseless.” 

“What about the tractor beam? See if you can send a feedback pulse through the beam and overload the emitters.” 

“It’s no use, sir! Our power reserves are too low,” replied Bowen. 

“What about the navigational deflector?” Zagora asked. “We could modify it to channel energy directly from the warp core.” 

“Again, we don’t have the power for that,” Bowen said, dismissing the idea, ”and the deflector circuits are burned out anyways.” 

Bishop realized that it was over. All of his tactics and evasions had been for nothing. They had finally exhausted every option that they had left. He knew that he would have to surrender to these people or risk getting his crew killed. He remembered the promise that he had made to Collins to get the crew home and he knew that he wasn’t going to let them die. 

Not on his watch. 

“Sir, we’re being pulled towards the vessel’s ventral docking port. They’re aligning their ventral port with our dorsal port. It looks as though they're attempting to board the ship,” ch’Dalvis reported to him, grabbing a phaser out of its holster underneath his console. 

The commander wondered if the aliens would even allow them the option of surrender. He wasn’t sure if it was the ship and its Federation that they were after or his crew. He just knew that if they wanted to destroy them, they would have done it by now. He decided that rather than allowing a Starfleet ship and Federation technology to fall into the wrong hands, he would lead his crew in a valiant stand against the intruders. In the end, he would destroy Aurora if he had to. It would be a shame to lose three years of scientific data but he wouldn’t allow them the satisfaction of killing his best friend and taking his ship and crew. 

“Arm yourself and prepare for intruders. We won’t let them take the ship without a fight!” 

Aurora shook again as the alien tractor beam disengaged. 

“Sir, the alien vessel has released its tractor beam and it’s breaking away!” Bowen exclaimed, happily. “Sensors are detecting another ship approaching at high warp.” 

“Is it a Khymerian ship?” 

“No, sir -- it’s Federation! USS Nelson, Intrepid-class.” 

At that moment, desperation turned to joy in the commander’s heart when he realized that Starfleet had come to their rescue. The Nelson zoomed past the Aurora and fired a barrage of quantum torpedoes at the retreating alien cruiser. The ship returned fire but its phasers were no match for the Nelson’s shields. It fired phasers at the alien ship and with another barrage of torpedoes, the cruiser jumped to warp. 

“Sir, the Nelson is hailing us,” ch’Dalvis reported to Bishop. 

“On screen.” 

An image of the Nelson’s bridge appeared on the viewer. In the captain’s chair sat a young woman in her thirties with black hair and brown eyes. She smiled when she saw Bishop.

“Hola, Aurora! Need a hand?,” the captain grinned. 

Commander Bishop was shocked to see his cousin Valeria Figueroa in the command chair. “Good to see you, Captain Figueroa. It’s been a long time,” he replied. “We have wounded that require medical attention and our life-support over here is failing.” 

“Stand by for transport.” 

The viewscreen went black and the next thing they knew, they were standing in the Nelson’s transporter room with several of the Aurora’s crew. 

* * * *

Sickbay, USS Nelson

“Hold still, Scott!,” Doctor Ivan Thorne exclaimed for the fifth time, passing a dermal regenerator over the burn marks on Commander Bishop’s face. 

He had removed his ripped and burned uniform jacket and was now wearing only the maroon shirt while he sat on one of the many biobeds in Nelson’s sickbay. He recognized many of his officers receiving treatment from the Nelson’s medical staff. Doctor Thorne had been one of the few Aurora crew members who hadn’t been injured during their conflict -- he had insisted on helping out the medical officers. 

“There,” said the doctor. “As good as new.” 

The doors to Sickbay opened and Captain Valeria Figueroa walked in. 

“How are you, Scott?,” she asked, coming over to him. 

“Physically, I’m fine. I can’t stop wondering about how many people we lost.” 

“We’ve still got teams going through rubble for any survivors but I don’t think we’re going to find anything. Why don’t you take a walk with me? You can tell me about what happened.” 

“Sure,” Bishop agreed with her, looking at the doctor. “Thanks, Ivan.” He hopped off of the biobed and followed Figueroa out into the corridor before the medical officer could insist that he take it easy for a while. 

“We’ve set a course for Khymeria Prime and we should be there by tonight. I bet Admiral Thrikkan will be anxious to hear your report,” Figueroa informed him. “I’ve also had my crew prepare guest quarters on Deck Five.” 

“Thanks, Val. Thanks for everything.” 

“I’m your cousin. If I don’t save your ass, who will?” 

Scott laughed for the first time in hours. “Nice ship, Val.” He looked around at the clean corridor and remembered when only a few hours ago, Aurora’s corridors looked the same. 

“Yeah, she’s a real beauty, isn’t she?” she smiled. “Brand new too. She’s only been in space for three weeks now.” There was a brief silence and Figueroa added, “I’m sorry about Nathan.” 

Bishop’s face faded and he simply nodded at her. “Me too.” Then after another awkward pause, he changed the subject. “I’m interested to know who attacked us and why.”

“We don’t really know who they are either. The colonists have been calling them the Blas Maraug, but we’ve never been able to communicate with them. They’ve been raiding the ships and colonies in this sector now for the last two years. So far, you’re the first Federation starship to be attacked by them. We thought that they were avoiding Starfleet vessels but it seems that they’re growing bolder as the days pass.” 

“So these alien ships were Blas Maruag raiders? They seemed a little advanced to be mere pirates. Their ships had shields that can operate deep inside the nebula.” 

“Yes, unfortunately, the Blas Maraug have many advantages over us. We believe they may have set up bases and outposts throughout the frontier and probably deep inside the nebula as well. We don’t know whether they developed or stole the shield enhancements that allow them to travel through a radioactive nebula. One thing’s clear. We can’t enhance our shields in the same way.” 

“So they’ve been using the Motaabi Nebula the same way that the Maquis used the Badlands?” 

“Yes, they’ve been raiding and plundering across the frontier ever since the beginning of the Dominion War. When the Jem’Hadar attacked Khymeria, Starfleet had already pulled the Zheng He and the Soryu to the front lines. The Khymerians lost more than half of their trading fleet in the defense of their home world but they were victorious. In fact, it was one of the first victories in the whole war but it left the frontier virtually defenseless.” 

“The Dominion?” Bishop exclaimed. “We’ve already fought a war with the Dominion?” 

“They attempted to invade the Alpha Quadrant and almost succeeded too! You’ll have to ready up on your history a little.” 

“I’ve missed a lot,” Bishop said. “You’re already a captain. I thought I was ahead when Nathan offered me the executive officer position aboard Aurora. You were only a lieutenant commander then.” 

They entered the turbolift and Captain Figueroa instructed it to take them to Deck Five. 

“With Starfleet involved with the Dominion War over the past two years, it’s only now that we’re able to spare any ships. Without the Trade Guild fleet to maintain order, the Blas Maraug have managed to destroy communications relays, steal technology from Khymerian trade convoys, set up bases, outposts, and commandeer Khymerian transports for their own use, refitting them as battle cruisers. The raids on Khymerian and Federation colonies have been increasing in frequency and we believe that more Blas Maraug ships are moving into the sector.” 

“From where?” 

“Somewhere in the Aries Expanse perhaps. We have yet to explore past the nebula. It’s too dangerous these days. Anyways, that’s why we’re here. We’ve been sent to police the frontier and show the flag a bit. Hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve this conflict soon.” 

Figureoa paused for a moment before asking, “I don’t suppose you ran into them before you reached the nebula? You were out in that expanse for years. You know more about the races out there than any of us.” 

“Sorry, Val, but it’s a big expanse. It’ll take decades to map the entire thing. The part that we explored in detail wasn’t really near the Khymerian frontier at all. We just decided to take this route home and I think that’s a decision that we all regret now.” 

The turbolift stopped on Deck Five and they both got out to walk down the corridor to the guest quarters that had been prepared for Commander Bishop. 

“Have you had much luck in preventing these kinds of attacks?” Bishop asked. 

“We arrived two weeks ago, and so far all we’ve done is escort convoys and medical aid to the colonies that have been attacked. We managed to prevent a few attacks but nothing major until today.” 

“We were minding our own business, conducting scans of the nebula on our way back when we picked up Blas Maraug ships inside. Most of us were in bed when they attacked.” 

“We suspected that the Maraug have a base near the area where your ship was attacked. Now it seems very likely. However, there’s very little we can do about it except warn other ships to stay away from that area. Unless we can capture a Blas Maraug vessel and examine its shield configuration, we may have no way to attack the base, but every time we disable one of their ships, it self-destructs.” 

“Well, at least that sheds some light on who our attackers were,” Bishop said before yawning and stepping into his quarters. “My mind is too tired to think straight right now.” 

“I’ll let you know as soon as we reach Erebus Dawn,” Figueroa said, heading down the corridor again. “Goodnight.” 

Bishop went inside his quarters and headed towards the bedroom, exhausted from all that he had been through. 

* * * *

Khymerian Space Station Erebus Dawn, in orbit of Khymeria Prime
Two days later.

Commander Bishop fidgeted uncomfortably in his new dress uniform as he struggled to place the last of his three rank pips on his collar. He stepped up to the rectangular mirror and admired himself for a moment before the door chimes rang. 

“Come in,” he said, heading out of the bedroom. 

The doors opened and Ensign Cal Zagora and Lieutenant Nalarithren ch’Dalvis stepped inside. They were dressed in similar uniforms. 

“The memorial service is about to begin, sir,” Zagora said in a sad, far off voice. 

“I’m--” Bishop started to say, looking around for his combadge. Spotting it on a nearby table, he quickly grabbed it and pinned it to his chest. “Ready,” he finished saying as they headed out of his quarters and into the corridor. 

“I still can’t believe that we lost sixteen people,” ch’Dalvis said as they walked along the corridor towards the station’s promenade. “That’s almost one fifth of our crew.” 

The rest of the brief walk was done in silence as each one of them remembered the bravery of those colleagues whose lives had been lost. When they reached the promenade, they found it to be heavily crowded, it was filled with Starfleet officers and Khymerian transport crews moving about in a chaotic fashion. Bishop, ch’Dalvis, and Zagora were forced to walk, single-file, through the usually slow-moving traffic. 

Such levels of congestion were to be expected, considering that the crews of three Starfleet vessels and several Trade Guild ships were trying to move about the station. The USS Tortuga -- a Norway-class starship -- had docked earlier, carrying medical supplies for one of the recent Maraug attacks on a nearby colony world, and Bishop had the chance to speak with Captain Jason Atwater, an old friend from the Academy. 

Eventually, they made it across the promenade and into one of the station’s wardrooms. The nearest one had been set aside for the service and when they walked inside, they found all of the Nelson’s and the Tortuga’s senior officers assembled along with the surviving officers from Aurora and ten of the station’s Khymerian officers. Bishop, Zagora, and ch’Dalvis went across the room and stood beside their colleagues. Lieutenant Kowalski and Ensign T’Liya had recovered from their injuries and stood proudly beside Doctor Thorne, Lieutenant Vata, Ensign Bowen, and the civilian scientists. 

Though it was a large enough room, the wardroom still seemed small and cramped with all of the officers inside. Commander Bishop noticed Admiral Thrikkan, a Saurian -- and the station’s commanding officer -- standing near the front of the room, talking to Captain Atwater. The other officers were socializing as well, probably talking about those they had lost or recollecting the good times that they had in deep space. 

Noticing that Bishop, Zagora, and ch’Dalvis had entered the wardroom and anxious to get things started, he motioned for Figueroa and the others to take their places. The sound of a bosun’s whistle was blown and everyone present took their place in the lines of officers wearing their full dress uniforms. 

“We are gathered here today to honor those officers who bravely risked and gave their lives aboard the USS Aurora,” Admiral Thrikkan began to say. “This is a time of loss and emptiness but it is also a time of hope and joy. We know that our friends and fellow colleagues have left us and, in the great endless mystery of the Universe, have gone on to find peace and happiness. While we will miss them dearly and think about them often, they will always hold a special place for them in our hearts. So we gather in fellowship to pay our respects.” 

He paused for a moment before continuing.

“To lose one’s life in the line of duty, defending their fellow citizens is often considered -- not only by the Federation, but by most cultures -- to be the most honorable way to die. We recognize that these officers and crew died honorably, and now we submit their bodies to the vastness of space.” 

At that point, all of the gathered officers turned their eyes towards the large viewports as the whistle was blown again before everyone stood up at attention. 

“Fire,” Admiral Thrikkan commanded after tapping his combadge. 

The officers watched as sixteen pods that carried the bodies of Aurora crew members, including Captain Collins’, were fired out into space, one at a time. The pods moved slowly towards the Motaabi Nebula in a long time. Several minutes after the ceremony ended, many of the officers left the wardroom, mostly from the Nelson, Tortuga, and the station’s crew. The other remained and talked for awhile as refreshments were brought out. 

In a corner of the room near one of the larger viewports, Lieutenant ch’Dalvis was talking with a few of the Aurora’s officers. 

“Have you heard anything about what they plan to do with Aurora?” the Andorian asked between sips of his Andorian ale. “She’s a good ship and I'd hate to see her stripped down for parts.” 

“I imagine that Starfleet would want to decommission her,” Vata stated over her fruit juice. “After all, she’s in a terrible condition and with the recent war and all, I doubt that they’ll have much use for a science ship these days.” 

“One thing’s for certain,” Nala said, adamantly, “is that whatever happens and wherever we go, this crew has to stick together. We’ve been through too much together to be split up now.” 

Ensign Bowen sighed sadly. “I won’t be joining you on the next ship. I spoke with Captain Atwater today -- he’s offered me the position of science officer on the Tortuga.” 

ch’Dalvis swallowed his next sip hard, trying now to show his disappointment in front of everyone. Over the last three years, the two of them had become close -- or at least, he thought they had. He had hoped that they would be spending more time together when they returned to the Federation.

“You don’t have to accept it,” he told her. 

“No, I don't,” she replied, “but I want to. It means a promotion to lieutenant and the Tortuga is heading out towards the former Demilitarized Zone to track down some Ferengi pirates. They’re leaving Erebus Dawn early tomorrow morning.” 

Vata put her arm around Bowen. “We’ll miss you,” the Trill told her. 

“The Tortuga is a good ship. State of the art,” Doctor Thorne remarked. “You’re one lucky ensign.” 

“That’s Lieutenant now,” she added, proudly. 

“I hear that they have some great medical facilities aboard, Doc,” Zagora added, teasing him. He knew how excited Thorne had been at the prospect of having the Aurora’s sickbay upgraded when she reached Spacedock. “Maybe you should ask Captain Atwater if you can come along.” 

“Actually, I did,” the doctor answered him, “but only as a passenger. I’ve been offered a position at Starfleet Medical.” 

Everyone was shocked to hear the news but they congratulated him nonetheless. 

“I’m seventy-five years old. I’ve been practicing medicine on starships for the last forty-nine years. I guess after all that time, Starfleet thinks that I’ve got something to teach,” he said, jokingly. “I’m getting too old for all of this excitement. I think a desk job on Earth is more of the sort of exhilaration that I prefer these days.” 

“I can’t believe you’re leaving us, Ivan,” ch’Dalvis said. “Things won’t be the same without you. Or you, Renee.” 

“Ah,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, “I’m going to miss you guys too, but there’s a lot of young doctors who need their chance to make a difference. I’m leaving with Renee on the Tortuga too. She’ll take me to Starbase 395.” 

“I guess this is it then. One last night together as a crew,” Vata stated. “We ought to celebrate!” 

“How about a toast? To the finest crew that I've ever had the pleasure of serving with!” Doctor Thorne said, raising his glass of Saurian brandy. “And to all of the good times that he had in the Aries Expanse!” 

After their toast, the Aurora officers split up and went around the room to socialize with other crew members. Unlike many starships during the Dominion War where stricter military procedures had been favored, the Aurora’s officers and crew had mixed and mingled quite freely together. Over the past three years, they had grown accustomed to addressing each other, even superior officers, by their first names. Being all alone and away from other Starfleet ships had made protocol seem out of place and Collins had championed close relationships among the crew as a means of strengthening loyalty and making up for their loss of family for such an extended period. 

ch’Dalvis followed Bowen off towards a remote section of the room where he hoped that he could finally get the chance to talk to her in private. 

“What’s going on?” the Andorian asked her as soon as they were out of earshot.

“What?” she asked, frowning at him. 

“‘What’? I thought we were closer than that, Renee,” Nala said, feeling angry that she hadn’t bothered to tell him about the transfer. “You know what I mean. You didn’t even tell me about the Tortuga.” 

She shook her head. “That’s because I assumed you’d be upset. For weeks on our way home, you kept talking about how great the past three years had been and that we should all stick together. The past three years may have been great for you, but they weren’t that great for me.” 

“They weren’t?” 

“No, and thanks for noticing, Nala,” she said, sarcastically. “I don’t know. All of you seemed to fit in together so well. You, Scott, Nathan, and Michael, but I never felt that way.” There was a hint of regret in her voice but it quickly changed to happiness as she continued on. “But that’s all right. One of my old friends from the Academy, Doug Franklin, is on the Tortuga. I haven’t seen him in years but we were close back then.” 

“I thought you and I were close,” he said, putting one of his big muscular arms around her. 

“Oh, we are, Nala,” she said, smiling at him and wiggling out of his hug. “We’ll always be good friends.” 

“‘Friends’?” he repeated, her words repeating over in his mind. Was that all of that she thought of him? He couldn’t believe that after all of their late night talks in the mess hall and even in her quarters, she thought of him only as a friend and nothing more. “Just friends?” he prompted but his opportunity had passed when Captain Atwater approached them. He casually engaged Bowen in a conversation about the quantum singularities that they had encountered on their mission. 

In another part of the room, Commander Bishop and Captain Figueroa were discussing Captain Collins when Admiral Thrikkan walked over and joined them, carrying a glass of root beer 

“Ah, finally, the two men that I've been wanting to speak with, all evening. Captain Figueroa I thought you’d like to know that Starfleet has decided to increase their presence on the frontier by sending two more ships. An Akira-class starship, the Essex, and the Galaxy-class Kongo will be arriving in a week’s time.” 

Captain Figueroa’s face burst into a huge grin when she heard the news. Looking happily over at Bishop, the Saurian noticed the surprise that the commander had at the captain’s reaction. 

“The Essex is Braden’s ship,” Figueroa explained happily, remembering that Bishop had been gone for the last three years. 

Bishop’s face lit up too at hearing that name. He hadn’t been aware that during the Dominion War, Braden Hadleigh, an old friend of his and Collins’ from the Ontario, had been promoted to captain. Scott and Braden were good friends who hadn’t seen each other in the last five years. 

“Now there’s someone who I haven’t seen in ages,” Bishop added. “How’s he doing anyways?” 

“Quite well, I hear,” Thrikkan answered him. “He’s been distinguishing himself as an excellent captain. Just about a month ago, the Essex was involved in hunting down a small group of Jem’Hadar soldiers who had refused to accept the Founders’ orders to surrender.” 

“I’m glad to hear it. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything else from Starfleet about what’s going to be done about the Aurora?” 

“Yes, I’ve talked to Admiral Tattok at Starfleet Operations and I’ve convinced him not to decommission her. They’ve decided instead that she’ll be repaired and refitted as a short-range tactical vessel.” The Saurian paused for a moment before adding, “that is, if I can find a captain for her.” 

The admiral turned around and motioned to a young ensign who was waiting patiently nearby for his cue. He walked up to Bishop, carrying a small blue velvet case to present to him. The commander took the case and when he opened it up, he found a rank pip inside. The pip was gold and shined up at him brightly. 

“Commander Scott Bishop,” the admiral announced loudly, causing everyone in the room to stop and listen to him, “by order of Starfleet Command, I hereby promote you to the rank of captain, with all of the duties and privileges.” 

The Saurian took the pip and fitted it on his collar beside the other three and the silence in the room filled with applause. 

“Thank you, sir,” Captain Bishop said, turning around to face the cheering officers. “It’s good to be home.” 

The End.

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