Location: Somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant
Timeframe: Present day, USS Republic universe
The blinding blue-white light of the class O9II bright giant star was not unlike the triple-star system of Mintaka back in the Alpha Quadrant, with the main exception being that this was a single-star system void of any planetary bodies. It's Oort cloud was so expansive that a starship was required to take class-one asteroid field navigation procedures to dodge the debris no matter what direction it was approaching the star from. The cloud extended deep into the bow shock region, cloaking the raw stellar energy emanating from the powerful star to such a degree that early astronomers mistook it for a blue main sequence star. Braving this primordial forge of galactic luminosity was a fleet of Federation starships, orbiting the star at low altitude, the hot stellar gases whipping around them, and causing their shields to flicker and glow softly like majestic bowl-shaped luminaries floating on a roiling sea of blue fire.
There were eight starships in all: two New Orleans class frigates, two Akira class heavy cruisers, and three Defiant class escorts, all led by a single Sovereign class deterrence exploration cruiser. Despite their close proximity to the star, the fleet was in a stable orbit, and circled in slow, tight formation around a central point. The scene was almost peaceful when a minuscule point of intense orange light formed on the star's surface below, immediately exploding into a single column of amber incandescence that protruded straight out into space, bisecting the center point that the vessels were orbiting around. The ray's sudden, brilliant appearance was fleeting, as no sooner did it flash into existence than did it dissipate, leaving behind only the weakest of shockwaves that barely fluttered along the shield parameters of the spacecraft above.
Onboard the Sovereign class bridge, the brief spear of radiance triggered alarms around the various consoles. Each Starfleet officer that manned the stations busily jumped on their instruments as the gruff, gray-haired skipper scowled at the bald man sitting at the main sensor console behind him.
“That was one hell of a solar flare!” commented the captain. “Report, ensign!”
“There was so much magnetic distortion, I couldn't get a positive lock,” admitted the junior officer in operations gold seated at the sensor console. “It looks like something shot out of the gateway but was incinerated immediately.”
“Are you saying something EMERGED from the gate?”
“Aye sir,” explained the officer. “The Iconian activation algorithms were remotely activated, but not by one of our ships in the Alpha Quadrant. Something overrode the dial-up sequence and tried to use this side of the gate as the receiving end.”
“Identify!” the captain ordered. “What was it?”
“Unknown,” the ensign admitted. “For a moment, I thought it had mass. The spectrometers showed a metallic signature. However, I'm not picking up any residual debris. My guess it was a focused chroniton radiation burst.”
“Judging from the chroniton levels,” a lieutenant with blue piping on his uniform interjected from the science station. “I'd say something from another dimension tried to beam an object through the gate, but couldn't materialize on this side due to the star's magnetic interference.”
“Damn it, lieutenant!” scolded the skipper once more. “This gate is supposed to be for one-way traffic ONLY! Stellar energy is supposed to be OUTGOING! NOTHING was supposed to be able to dial in! How was our programming overridden?”
“This is an alien artifact,” the lieutenant confessed while shrugging his shoulders. “There are thousands of sub-routines we had to overwrite to make sure we could could keep the activation program autonomous for ships in the Alpha Quadrant. There's always the possibility we missed a sub-routine somewhere.”
“Project Apollo is too important to Starfleet to just 'miss' a sub-routine!” the captain continued to bellowed. “Review the activation sequence again! I want to make damned sure we have no more anomalies like this!”
Returning to the forward viewer, the starship commander displayed an expression of consternation and vexation. He fidgeted in his seat as he grumbled softly to his first officer seated next to him.
“I don't like scientists,” he admitted. “They never provide the answers that the president wants.”
For his part, the red-haired commander one seat over was dressed not in the standard Starfleet branch color of command red, but instead, had the black piping and charcoal-colored undershirt of the Intelligence branch.
“We only need their knowledge to the point of usefulness,” explained the officer shrewdly to his captain with a hushed tone. “They just have to follow orders. If they don't comply with our needs after that, then we can simply 'reassign' them. They hold no sway over the fleet admiral or the president.”
“That doesn't stop them from being damned annoying…”
Location: Infirmary, Personal flier 'Aerosprite'
Rousing from his dark, ebbing stupor, Saal Yezbeck heard the droning of a medical tricorder wand hovering around his cranium. His head was throbbing with pain, so much so that he didn't respond right away to the rousing voice that echoed inside his cerebellum.
“Shadow?” beckoned Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter. “Shadow, wake up.”
The dried blood on Saal's face encrusted his five-o'clock shadow, and the lacerated contusions on his scalp stained his pepper-black hair with splotches of dark crimson. A pained groan passed his bruised lips as he woke from his unconscious state. He was only able to pry open one of his eyes, as the other was too swollen to be of any use at the moment. With a thin thread of saliva still hanging from his lower lip, Saal turned his head up to see Theo poised over him with an auto-suture.
“You're no nurse,” Saal grumbled disapprovingly.
“And you're in no position to argue right now,” Theo shot back. “You've got six bruised ribs and a concussion.”
“Y'lair,” Saal painfully exhaled while attempting to sit up. “He beat the stuffing out of me.”
Theo helped him sit up, allowing him to lean against the wall.
“Can you get up onto the biobed?”
After a few seconds of agony interspersed with profanity and tortured hissing, the injured doctor made his way onto the diagnostic table, laying himself down for a proper medical evaluation. As Theo dialed a few sequences into the instrument suite, he activated a pain mitigation field and went to work on Doctor Yezbeck's injuries.
“Are we back where we're supposed to be?” winced Saal as his compatriot went to work on his forehead lacerations.
“We didn't exit the gate at the Iconian homeworld,” explained Theo. “We exited another gate somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant.”
“I knew it was too easy,” Yezbeck grumbled as Theo continued.
“The gate was hovering just above the surface of a blue giant star. We're lucky the gate's outgoing portal was facing away from the star when we exited, otherwise, we would have been incinerated by flying straight into the star's core.”
“What was the gate doing so close to a star?” asked Saal as Theo went to work on his black eye with a cellular deflammation wand.
“I'm not sure,” he admitted. “It's being guarded by a fleet of Federation starships. The lead ship is the USS Chancellor. If that's still Captain Halberg's ship, then he's here under Kostya's orders. That's for sure.”
“How do you know he's working for Kostya?” winced the doctor as the bruising around his eye subsided in the blue energy beam of the handheld probe.
“Trust me,” Theo explained. “He was one of Admiral Kaito's hand-picked personal staff at headquarters before he was given command of the Chancellor.”
“Did he detect us?”
“I don't think so,” came the response, causing some relief to pass across Saal's face. “We shot out of the gate into space, decelerating to impulse speed in less than a second. Our cloaking device was still activated, and they didn't appear to be tracking us. They just maintained their orbit over the gateway.”
“So we're back in OUR universe?” Saal continued the line of questioning as Theo went to work on the bulging contusion along the right side of his scalp.
“It looks like it,” he replied. “All those starships had the you-ess-ess prefix on their hull stenciling, and the Federation navigational buoys are all transmitting the correct stardate. If there's anything out of place, I haven't found it yet.”
“Great,” Saal winced in pain as the probe ablated away the swollen nodules on his head. “Why don't we take a five-minute coffee break?”
“I'd like too, but we have work to do,” explained Theo. “Y'lair sabotaged the transporter system. He wiped clean all the patterns in the memory core. All that's left is the re-materialization program he used to bring him and John back to full size when they beamed out. He erased everything else.”
“He didn't want us following him,” Saal concluded.
“Yeah, well, that really limits what we can do now,” remarked Theo as he went to work on Saal's bruised ribs. “That, and the fact that we're nowhere near any subspace compression anomalies to bring the ship back to full size. We'll have to find safe harbor and abandon ship by beaming away using the remaining re-materialization program. They'll be no coming back here after that.”
“Great,” Saal sighed in defeat. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” Theo explained as he administered a hypospray full of stimulant into the doctor's neck. “The time travel drained our dilithium chamber. All of the remaining dilithium is starting to de-crystalize. Soon, the singularity drive won't have a warp matrix to flow energy through.”
Saal rolled his eyes at the news and stared at the ceiling with consternation.
“Wonderful,” he said sourly, realizing the end game. “How long do we have?”
“About twelve hours,” said Theo, making a final pass with the medical tricorder over Saal's body. “After that, no more warp drive.”
“Will shutting down the cloaking device give us any more time?”
“Maybe a few more hours, but I refuse to do that,” he insisted, snapping shut the tricorder. “It's the only thing keeping those Federation ships from detecting us.”
“Right now, it sounds like those Federation ships are our only hope,” concluded Saal as he sat up on the biobed. Theo had done his work well, and he felt much better as he let his legs dangle over the side.
“Actually, there's IS an alternative.”
“Gamma Serpentis Base.”
“No,” Saal shook his head emphatically with dread. “No, there's GOT to be somewhere else! Another planet somewhere close by! ANYWHERE but there!”
“Saal,” Theo commiserated. “There's NOTHING out this far away from the wormhole except navigational buoys and communications arrays. We're far from ANY charted area that the Federation has ever explored. It's either that fleet or Gamma Serpentis. We can't reach anywhere else before our warp drive becomes inoperable.”
“Take your chances with the fleet!” he blurted out, standing up from the biobed. He held his hands out in desperation. “Gamma Serpentis is the lion's den! We're not ready to tackle another infiltration mission yet!”
“I know Gamma Serpentis,” explained Theo. “I've been there once, if you remember. There's at least a dozen starships docked there at any one time, and we can fit ourselves aboard any one of those ships easier than any of those guarding the gate out there.”
The doctor looked over the body language and demeanor of his Intel colleague. Years of honed instinct told him that Theo had already made up his mind and was trying to let the doctor down easy. A few seconds went by before he asked the question that would confirm his worst fears.
“You already set course for it, didn't you?” Saal accused him.
“ETA in eight hours,” Theo replied defiantly to a now visibly distraught Doctor Yezbeck. “Get yourself cleaned up and meet me on the flight deck.”
“You drag me into the WORST situations, you know that?” he muttered angrily as they both left the infirmary.
Location: Flight deck, Personal flier 'Aerosprite'
Timeframe: Nine hours later
“It's GOT to be here somewhere!” exclaimed a frustrated Theo “Doug Forrest” Carter, pouring through the sensor data in despair.
“Didn't you say it had a cloaking field?” Saal asked at the pilot controls.
“Yes,” Theo admitted. “But it's in a stable orbit around the red giant star out there!” As he explained, he pointed to the soft orange light burning brightly outside the cockpit canopy. “Based on past calculations, the base should be RIGHT HERE!”
“Maybe they moved their orbit?” suggested the doctor. “Like you said, it's been three years. Anything could have happened.”
“I suppose,” relented the former Intel agent in frustration. “The only way to find out is if I activate our Romulan tachyon scanner.”
“That'll give away our position,” warned Saal. “We'll lose any surprise.”
“We've got three hours until we're dead in space, Shadow,” returned Theo soberly, using his friend's old intelligence callsign. “We've got to find someplace to disembark soon, and there's no habitable planets in this system.”
Not waiting for a reply, Theo punched several buttons on his console to activate the scanner. Immediately, the active sensor pulses pinged away, registering a chirp every few seconds on the telemetry monitor. Several minutes went by while the two men intently watched their sensor scopes.
“Found it!” announced Theo, who immediately switched the scanner off to prevent any further triangulation on their position. “Coordinates three-seven-six by two-one-eight mark four.” A furrow formed on his face as he read the orbital parameters. “That's a very strange orbit to be in,” he remarked. “Highly elliptical and erratic. It's almost like a comet.”
“Maybe that's their new strategy to stay hidden?” suggested Saal. “To look like a natural anomaly?”
“Why would anyone bother to cloak a comet?” dismissed Theo. “Set course for rendezvous,” he ordered. “I'll put on my best poker face to get us permission to dock.”
Timeframe: One hour later
As it turned out, a poker face was not needed. As the ship approached the coordinates, they pierced the cloaking field without challenge over the communication channels. All subspace frequencies were eerily silent. At a distance of over five kilometers, the base was already filling a sizable portion of their viewport. The gargantuan 2000-deck station was painted from top to bottom in matte black, and shaped somewhat like a giant seahorse. It's ebony-colored surface was difficult to discern against the black backdrop of space, and at first glance, the only way they knew it was even there was due to the muted reflection of the nearby star in combination with the starless expanse of nothingness in front of them.
As they approached, the two men noted that the base was slowly tumbling with respect to its orbital plane to the nearby red giant, not bothering to maintain any sort of attitude or directional control. Although the surface contained tens of thousands of windows and portholes, none were lit from within, indicating that station operations were far from normal.
“What's that thing?” Saal asked, pointing at a metallic gold dish-shaped structure on the seahorse's “chest”. It must have spanned at least a hundred decks vertically, and appeared as a circular concavity built deep into the hull. “Is it some sort of subspace transmitter or deflector dish?”
“No,” explained Theo. “The base uses an internally-projected omnidirectional deflector grid. What you're seeing there is the verteron array. They use that to stop any warp-capable ships out to a spherical range of one light year.”
“That's amazing!” whispered Saal in awe. “That means they can stop any vessel dead in it's tracks before they even arrive in the system!”
“Could,” corrected Theo, shifting to the past tense. “They COULD have. Right now, something's definitely gone wrong over there. Aside from the cloaking field and a few other sporadic subsystems, I'm not reading ANY other energy signatures. Are you picking up any lifesigns?” he asked Saal.
Reaching over to press a few buttons near his piloting controls, the doctor checked and rechecked his scopes several times before shaking his head in bewilderment.
“Nothing,” he stated confusedly. “Not even a single desiccated colony of bacteria. Normally, I'd pick up at least some kind of intact DNA reading from an active bioscan,” he explained. “But I'm getting nothing. Absolutely NOTHING. It's more sterile over there than a class one surgical field…”
As the diminutive 2-meter wide ship flew nearer, Theo chose with trepidation to drop the cloaking device to save on energy. As they loitered closer and closer to the base's surface, they could see that it had undergone minor structural damage in certain areas. In forward sections of the base, windows had imploded, and structural beams had been strained to their limits. While many other areas appeared completely intact, no movement or activity could be seen through the darkened viewports. Finally, they came upon a quiescent personnel airlock towards the top of the monolithic station.
“Bet you wished we had packed some EVA suits,” Saal remarked ominously, invoking a sour look from Theo.
“It's not like we had a choice of ships,” returned Theo. “Do we have enough power left for the disruptors?”
“Some,” Saal replied. “But I'd like to keep at least a little bit of power in reserve for the transporter,” he warned nervously.
“Let's see if we can cut our way into the place.”
After a few short bursts of tiny, emerald green weapons fire, the shrunken vessel made it's way into the internal passageways of the enormous station, passing room after room of floating debris and scattered flotsam. More than once, they spied a bipedal Starfleet uniform hovering aimlessly in the zero gravity, void of any owner, but with the grey-ribbed overcoat still wrapped around a black collared undershirt with rank insignia; as if the person inside had disappeared completely leaving their clothes intact. For the next hour, they plied through the powerless hulk, noting only the occasional flicker of minor subsystem control consoles that left them clueless as to what had happened to the station. They shot open one door after another, frantically searching for some room that was still habitable, but finding none.
“Power approaching critical,” Saal reported solemnly. “We can only rip open a few more doors before we won't have enough energy to power the transporter.”
“Let's try the docking levels,” a stymied Theo ordered. “Maybe there's a ship moored in one of the docking bays we can use.”
“Not unless you can hold your breath,” the doctor remarked curmudgeonly. “In about an hour, we won't have enough power for our OWN life support…”
Despite his discouraging words, to the docking levels they went, searching the topmost docking bay first before working their way downward to the bottom. Each were expansive berthing complexes of nearly twenty five million cubic meters in volume, replete with numerous but unpowered magnetic mooring projectors and gangway ramps. However, of the first eleven bays explored, only six contained any vessels, and each were in such disrepair that they were effectively useless. One bay contained a pair of Intrepid-class starships, but they were unpowered, and their antimatter bottles floated haphazardly around the docking complex, automatically ejected some time ago. The ships themselves had long ago collided into one another, ripping apart their primary hulls, while simultaneously embedding their warp nacelles into the walls. Another docking bay contained an impressively-sized cargo ship. However, nearly all the cargo containers had broken loose, and had impacted into the walls of the bay, as well as crushing the habitable portions of the remaining tug. One by one, their prospects dimmed, finding the magnetic moorings in each bay deactivated, leaving the gravimetric instabilities of the station's erratic orbit around the star to stir up the contents within and allowing the dislodged vessels to pulverize themselves over time. It was clear that whatever had occurred to place the base into such a state of dilapidation had happened years ago, leaving ample time for the unmoored craft to indiscriminately grind themselves into nothing more than floating heaps of garbage.
As they reached the bottom-most docking bay, their spirits were weighed down by the prospects of dying in such a desolate place; buried alive by their own failure to find any habitable refuge for them to escape to. Saal's power indicators had reached critical as they blasted the door to the dockmaster's control room on the twelfth and final docking level. As the warning lights went into the red, he shook his head in defeat.
“That's it,” he exclaimed with despair. “We have no more energy for the disruptors.”
Theo lowered his head in failure as powered monitors around him began shutting themselves off to save energy and life support. One by one, they flickered out, including the overhead lights in the cockpit. Soon, only the controls in front of them showed any illumination, leaving them as the only things standing between them and the cold, deathly realities of oblivion as they began breathing their last few minutes of air.
“I'm sorry, Saal,” whispered Theo. “I should have listened to you and headed towards the fleet.”
“At least I lived long enough to hear you apologize for once,” the grouchy, enervated doctor remarked.
As the miniature, diminished vessel floated up to the broad, expansive windows that overlooked the docking bay, a soft orange flicker of illumination danced in the dim light around them. As Theo's and Saal's eyes adjusted to the dark environment surrounding them, they revealed a spectacle outside in the berthing complex. The flickering light came from the tug-of-war interface between the docking bay walls and the low-level energy signatures of a navigational deflector field. As the vision of the two men acclimated to the shadowy ambiance, they scrutinized the perimeter of the glimmering field and saw that it enveloped a huge vessel still holding station outside in the docking bay. The outline of the ship was clear and unambiguous: It was a Galaxy-class starship, and unlike the vessels in the other docking bays, was perfectly intact.
Stenciled along it's hull: NCC-76241… USS Republic.
(to be continued)
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