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					                                                Prologue


  January 2385. The Prometheus-class starship USS Saturn NCC-2822-B under the command of
Commodore Parx Tong is concluding a diplomatic mission in the Travis system, having been sent
there to ease the tensions between the government of Travis IV, which requested to join the United
Federation of Planets, and a rebel group that opposes the move.
  It doesn't help their cause that the government unlawfully acquired a warp drive to equip one of
their space vessels, in order to pretend the ability to produce technology at a high enough level to
be eligible for joining the Federation. However, the rebels are no better, resorting to violence to
achieve their goals more often than not. The commodore decides that neither group is deserving of
the Federation's help and recalls his crew.



  [ USS Saturn, in orbit around Travis IV ]
  [ Bridge ]


  "And they're all aboard?" Lieutenant Commander Miya Solo asked, standing up and walking round
the bridge towards the Tactical console.
  "All accounted for." came the reply. "The shuttle bay reports Commodore Tong is on his way to
the bridge."
  As if on cue, the doors to the turbolift opened and the commodore stepped through, immediately
making his way to the command chair which his executive officer had deserted less than half a
minute earlier.
  "Scan the planet surface for Klingon power signatures." he stated curtly. "I'm expecting a lot
around the monarch's ocean vessel, but scan the whole surface if you can."
  This caused a few raised eyebrows. Still, the scans were carried out and the results were soon up
on the holo-display in the middle of the bridge. A series of red dots appeared, the largest showing
where the rebels were currently 'talking' with the prince.
  "Beam them off planet and into space, wide dispersal - I want no chance of them being able to
copy that technology." Tong said, a steely look in his eyes.
  "Beamin' up da weapons ain't no problem, Commodore. But..." Behnia Al-Bahman, the Chief of the
Boat, piped up with his trademark fake accent. Tong half turned around to face him, when the dark-
skinned El-Aurian continued, "...da warp drive on dat ship might be."
  "What do you suggest we do?" asked Miya, a frown on her face.
  "Blow it up." Ben shrugged. "Ya gonna damage da ship anyway by rippin' it out."
  The Commodore scowled, and Ben quickly amended, "Of course beam dem people aboard down
to da surface first."
  "We can't just blow up one of their ships, Chief."
  "Look at it dis way, sir. Another vessel suited to carry and run a warp drive ain't gonna be built so
quickly. Might put a dampener on deir efforts for a while. Yanno, keep 'em busy... out of trouble 'til
dey sort out their differences an' all."
  There was a pause, and Miya looked round at Tong who still had the same look of grim
determination on his face.
  "Do it." Tong said quietly.
  [ Space ]


  The two ships currently in high orbit around Travis IV started moving apart as the Federation
vessel reversed thrust and slowly turned about. For several minutes nothing seemed to happen,
until all of a sudden the aft torpedo launcher of the USS Saturn spat a volley of three photon
torpedoes at the smaller ship. One by one, the projectiles ripped through the hull of the Yansmere,
detonating inside, and a second later the ship exploded in a huge fireball of bright white and blue.
  Down on the planet, the activity around the ocean cruiser had come to a halt. Both sides now
found themselves disarmed and staring into the sky as a fireball erupted above them. The warp
issue was no more, and whatever happened next on Travis IV would not be a result of outside
influences. They were on their own.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  With a sober voice, the junior officer manning the Operations console regarded the Commodore.
"The Yansmere has been destroyed, sir." The fact was rather obvious, but he probably thought that
regulations required his report anyway.
  Tong merely nodded, staring at the viewscreen from his command chair.
  "Commander Solo, take us home." he finally stated, before standing and walking into his ready
room.
  Nodding, Miya walked across the bridge and sat in the command chair. "Helm, set course for
Starbase Far Reach Station - warp four."
  "Course laid in, ma'am."
  "Engage."
  Muttering something unintelligible, Ben walked around the Tactical station and followed the
Commodore into his room.
  [ Uthea Prime ]
  [ 3 months into covert Starfleet Intelligence operation "Sea Change" ]




  The midday sun shining through the large windows of the spacious downtown apartment had a
notably friendly warmth that day - and yet it utterly failed to lighten the mood of either the two
casually clad women in the living room, arguing at the top of their voices, or the bearded young
man standing quietly beside them.


  After a while the women had calmed down and a moment of silence arose. One of the two, a
small brunette, sat down, shaking her head.
  "I'm sorry, really." she muttered. "I just don't see how this would help us."
  "You don't get the big picture here, Emily." the other one, a tall blonde, stated with her hands on
her hips, frowning.
  "Oh yeah, sure. Here we go again." sighed Emily and waved her hand in a gesture of resignation.
"Give me the big picture speech..."
  "It's about numbers, Sweetie. They have them - we need them. Hundreds of thousands of
people-..."
  "Sheeple is more like it."
  "...-several thousand of which would gladly take to the streets if we can get to the functionaries. If
they're involved, the government would probably even give permission to such an event."
  "Yeah. Because their mouthpieces will water everything down until it's one giant block party. We
can't do it with the establishment, only against it."
  "Leaving what, a few hundred luddite treehuggers and a couple of radical anarchist groups?"
  "More than enough to do something that gets their attention."
  "Attention? Is that all you want, attention? I thought we came here to change things."
  "Look around, Pat. Talk to anyone outside. These people don't want change. And those who do,
would never openly say so. Our strategy can only be destabilisation."
  "Is that right... you want us to destabilise a society?"
  "What kind of society is this anyway... but yeah... bring them to their knees. Until they can't take
it anymore. It's the only way I can see any kind of change happening on this frakked up planet."
  "Yeah, change... change for the worse!" exclaimed Patricia. "More restrictions, more police
crackdowns, more people in prison."
  Emily shrugged. "Some people you have to hit over the head or they don't get it. Let enough of
them rot in prison and the rest will stand up. Eventually."
  Patricia let out a quiet gasp. "Say, when did you become so goddamned cynical?"
  "When did you become so goddamned naive? You want to change things? You're not going to do
that by sitting on your arse and relying on some greasy functionaries. They won't help us, nor
anyone else, for that matter. Labour party... I don't even know why they have that name. It's
beyond ridiculous. They should call themselves Doormat party, 'cause that's what they are.
Doormats for those sodding-..."
  "That's enough! " Patricia didn't let her finish. "Who is going to help us, Emily... Starfleet? They're
light years away. SFI didn't even send a full team, they sent one guy. Officially, they're not involved.
Not even unofficially, if their enthusiasm is of any indication."


  Emily exchanged a glance with Erik who had been idly standing by, not saying a single word the
entire time. Now he cleared his throat, looking back and forth between the two.
  "Well, there might be someone..." he began.
  "And who would that be?" asked Patricia. As he didn't answer right away, it dawned on her who he
was talking about. "No... oh no. That's completely out of the question." she stated, shaking her
head, and turned around to pace off in another direction, massaging the bridge of her nose.
  Emily arched an eyebrow. "They do have the resources-..."
  "You mean weapons and explosives."
  "...- and the man-power-..."
  "Yeah, hardened criminals. Lots of them. We're not that desperate."
  "But-..."
  "My answer is no, Emily." Patricia turned about and regarded them again. "They're terrorists. Plain
and simple. We don't work with terrorists."
  "Yeah, well, we're terrorists also, at least as far as the government is concerned..." Emily
shrugged and stood, resuming to pace around the room as well.
  "We are not going to work with these people." insisted Patricia.
  "We should have worked with them from day one, is what we should have done."
  "I guess we would have, if you were the one in charge. Well, you're not."
  "Neither are you." Emily stated, frowning.
  "Until Michael gets back, I actually am." Patricia replied calmly.
  "Great. Where is Michael, anyway?"
  "He didn't say. And it doesn't matter, Petty Officer."
  "Yeah, sure. Pull rank on me."
  "Well, apparently I have to. You don't seem to listen to me otherwise."
  As the two women were staring each other down, Erik piped up again. "I don't get it. They have
pretty much the same goals as we do, right?"
  "I suppose so." Patricia nodded, still looking at the pouting brunette. "There's just this little thing
that we, and anyone like us, should never, ever, even just think of approving of their methods. They
go against everything we stand for. You don't get that either, do you?" she finished, looking over to
Erik.
  "Well, they said they'd coordinate their actions with us, and I kinda understood that as them
offering to change their approach."


  The sentence hung in the room for a moment. The next moment saw Patricia walking towards
Erik, grabbing him by the arm and spinning him around, pushing him against the wall.
  "You talked to them?"
  "Well, I... there was this guy, last night in the bar... I just... I thought..." his voice trailed off as
Patricia just glared at him, not saying another word.
  Sheepishly Erik looked aside at Emily for help.
  "Don't look at me." mumbled Emily. "Told you she'd flip out."




  He sighed and hung his head. Following the movement, Patricia lowered her head as well, her
eyes still piercing him from merely a couple inches away.


  Suddenly the door opened admitting Lieutenant Commander Michael Shields and Lieutenant Rita
Orsini who were having an animated conversation relating to the public transport system that Uthea
Prime sported. This petered out however as they spotted the scene unfolding in the room.
  "Are we interrupting something?" Michael asked, a smirk forming on his face at Erik's current
predicament.
  Reluctantly, Patricia let Erik go - or rather slump down the wall to the ground where he stayed put
in what almost resembled a fetal position. Emily rolled her eyes and walked over to the kitchen,
shaking her head and slamming the door shut behind her.
  "No, nothing." grimaced Patricia, turning her back on the newcomers and crossing her arms over
her chest. "Nothing at all."
  "If you say so." Michael stated, dropping into one of the couches by the main windows. "Well, I
have some good news to cheer you all up." he finished.
  "Yeah, I thought I had good news, too." mumbled Erik into his beard.
  Ignoring him, Patricia turned around again and stared at Michael, an eyebrow raised, apparently
expecting him to continue.
  "Help is on the way. It seems ITIX have taken an interest in our work here, they estimate arrival
within the next two days or so."
  "Leah?" Patricia frowned. "Well, that really is good news. But... why now?"
  Michael shrugged, "No idea - I don't think I've ever understood her reasons for things. Either way,
it should make things a lot easier."
  About to retort something, Patricia looked over her shoulder as a noise of shattering glass came
from out of the kitchen. Donning a pained smile, she regarded Michael again who was frowning in
the direction of the kitchen door. "Some of them anyway."
  "I'll take a look." offered Rita, walking past Patricia. "Em? Is everything alright in there?"



  [ Two days later ]


  The Blackhawk-class runabout with Intelligence Team IX on board had arrived in the morning.
Having given Captain Leah Gibson a brief update on the situation, Michael accompanied her into the
kitchen. While the captain sat down at the small table in the middle of the room, he walked over to
the replicator, ordering an orange juice.
  "Want someting, too?"
  "A cold Lager would be nice, thanks."
  "That early in the day?"
  The captain shook her head. "Not early for me. It's 1700 ship time."
  "Oh, alright then." Placing the glasses onto the table he sat down as well, nodding to Patricia as
the Lieutenant strode into the room. "Good morning, Pat."
  "Good morning, Michael. Leah." Patricia replied, heading for the replicator to get herself a coffee.
  "Morning Sweetheart, long time no see. How have you been?"


  With a sigh the Lieutenant sat down opposite to the captain.
  "Oh. That good?" Leah asked and smiled at her younger cousin.
  "No, it's just... It's not that I thought this was going to be easy. I didn't. But... I don't know."
  "You thought you'd make faster progress."
  "Yeah, I guess..."
  "You did good. Really, you did. Time for you to move on, though."
  "Move on?" Patricia frowned. "Are you saying-..."
  "Yes. I'm going to take over here. It's time you and your friends get some deck plates under your
feet again." Leah paused briefly while studying the other woman's face. "You know, I've been
talking to Commodore Tong."
  "Tong?"
  "He's offering you the DH position of the Saturn's Security department. Ben's old job. It would
come with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander." Leah winked.
  "Saturn?" Patricia was surprised. Not necessarily in a pleasant way, though.
  "Yes. From what I've heard, Captain Mek'tor spoke highly of you. Tong seemed impressed."
  "Really? What exactly did you hear?"
  "Just what the commodore told me. Haven't had the chance to chat with the good captain himself.
Well... it's your choice, dear. But, as I said to Michael earlier, the Cambrian isn't anywhere near this
sector anymore. Far Reach Station, however, is merely a couple light years away, and so is the
Saturn. Think about it."


  "And what will you do?"
  "Well, looks like I've got my work cut out for me. You and your team did a fine job here. Dug up a
lot of interesting contacts. There is this one group in particular that looks like it could be of use.
Their leader, what was the name again... Jorgen? Think I'm going to talk to him first." mused the
captain and reached for her glass of Lager, about to take a sip.
  "You're not serious."
  "What..." Leah put the glass back down on the table again and regarded her. "Of course I'm
serious. Obviously we're not officially going to talk to them. That just wouldn't look good, right?
Good thing there isn't much official about our jobs anyway."
  "Well, I guess I didn't know. That we do such things."
  "What things? Talk to people?"
  "Forget it." Patricia mumbled, seemingly having developed an odd amount of interested in her
fingernails all of a sudden. Michael watched her. The turn of the conversation appeared to amuse
him.
  "Pat, Sweetheart. Why don't you just let me do what I'm good at and get back to what you're good
at?" Leah asked.
  "Like what, getting promoted away when all I want is to do the right thing, like on the Cambrian?"
muttered Patricia.
  "That's one example." Leah conceded. "Although, surely you should be getting used to that by
now." she added, alluding to the way the Lieutenant had left the USS Saturn a year ago.
  Patricia rolled her eyes and stood from the table, heading towards the door.


  "Aww, Sweetheart." Leah sighed. "I didn't mean-..."
  "Ma'am." Michael interrupted her, gently.
  "Right." she grimaced slightly. "Let her pout. Should have known better than to step on her
delicate feelings of righteousness. Cruel me."
  "It's a cruel world." he replied. "She's a big girl, she'll get over it."
  "Amen to that, Commander." the Captain raised her glass to him and finally took a sip of the cold
beer within. "Amen to that."




                                                       ***
                                              Chapter 1 – Home


  [ Starfleet transport, en route to Starbase Far Reach Station ]


  "Are you mad at me?"


  Patricia shook her head at the question, still staring out of the large window into the endless void.
Stars were streaking past the ship, telling of the high warp velocity at which they were moving.
  "Mad at her?" asked Emily.
  This time the pause was longer, but after a little while the blonde shook her head again.
  "You're not mad at yourself, are you?"
  Patricia drew a deep breath and regarded Emily for a moment, then she sighed and moved closer
to the small brunette, laying her head on her shoulder.
  Emily smiled, embracing her gently and starting to stroke her hair. "You shouldn't be."
  "I know. But still, it feels wrong to leave like that."
  "It does."
  "We could have done more." insisted Patricia.
  "Perhaps."
  "And don't tell me I was right, because you were arguing for the exact same thing before Leah
arrived."
  "I won't." Emily affirmed.
  "Good." Patricia stated with a pouty voice.
  Emily snickered quietly.
  "I'm sorry for yelling at you." mumbled Patricia.
  "Well. I guess I deserved it."
  "You sure did."
  "Hey now... you're not supposed to agree with me." Emily frowned, though not stopping to stroke
Patricia's hair.
  "Right. Sorry." said Patricia. Then, after another moment, "Em?"
  "Yeah?"
  Patricia looked up. "Are we okay?"
  With a lopsided smile on her face, Emily returned the glance and nodded.
  "Good." said Patricia and relaxed again.


  Another few minutes went by in silence.
  "You're tired, hm?" Emily asked after a while.
  "Mhmm."


  A short time later Patricia was fast asleep.



  When Emily woke up the next morning, Patricia was already on her feet. Rita was there, as was
Erik. Emily squinted her eyes looking for Dola, but the Andorian was nowhere to be seen. Moving
herself into a halfway upright position, she yawned and looked out of the window. In the distance,
Far Reach Station was moving into view, still very small but already visible and steadily getting
bigger.


  "We dropped out of warp a minute ago." Erik stepped up to her, handing her the duffel bag with
her belongings.
  "I guess that's what woke me up, then." she replied, stifling another yawn, then she rose and took
her bag.
  "We'll have to clear quarters in ten." announced Patricia, slinging her own duffel bag over her
shoulder before turning to leave. "Wash up and get your stuff to the airlock. Breakfast on the
station."
  "Yes, ma'am." replied Emily, watching her follow Rita out of the room. Then she turned to regard
Erik. "Where's Dola?"
  "Bathroom." he mumbled rubbing his eyes, then glancing wearily at her. "Tell me again why I had
to book a double bedroom when you spent all night here?"
  "Sorry." Emily sighed. "I didn't want to leave her brooding like that."
  "Yeah." Erik nodded, looking sideways towards the door. "She does that a lot lately."
  Emily grimaced. "Can you blame her?"
  His eyes narrowed as he regarded her again. "Actually, yes, I think I can. I didn't choose to go on
that harebrained mission. She did."
  "Erik... she's your superior."
  "No, Lieutenant Samsun was. Patricia is your superior."
  "Shut up, Erik." Emily muttered and moved past him towards the door of the small bathroom of
Patricia's quarters and disappeared behind it.
  Erik sighed, remaining standing there for another moment. Then he shook his head and left the
room.



  [ Starbase Far Reach Station, Bellatrix system ]
  [ Docking area ]


  "No place like home, eh? All those good memories..."
  Erik muttered something unintelligible in reply, scowling at the all too familiar surroundings.
  "What? You have no good memories of this place?" frowned Emily.
  "Far Reach Station? Not so many... what are yours?"
  "Remember the Gremlin episode? Good times."
  "Those are your good memories? I was almost killed three times that day."
  "Key word being almost. I saved you each time, didn't I?"
  "Yeah, but you were also pretty much responsible for two of them."
  "Aww, come on. No one forced you to chase after them with me."
  "No one except you, that is."
  "Okay. Sure. I guess I can be convincing. That's a good thing, right?" She looked at Erik. "What
are your good memories then?"
  "Well..." Erik looked thoughtful for a moment. "That first evening we spent on the promenade
together..."
  "Uh huh."
  "...and that week of shoreleave before the battle at Apeiron..."
  "Please. We were stuck in a shuttle for the better part of it, playing I spy."
  "I thought it was nice." he shrugged. "At least I got off the starbase for a while."
  Emily sighed. "Yeesh. What is it with you and excitement... you two really don't get along too well,
do you?"
  "Probably as much as you and sanity." Dola chi-Trei remarked wryly, emerging from the airlock
behind them.
  "Ey!" Emily turned around and poked her index finger into Dola's shoulder as the Andorian walked
past them in the direction of the turbolifts. "You don't hijack someone's conversation to get your jab
in. That's not nice! Erik, tell her that's not a nice thing to do."
  "Couldn't have said it better." Erik grinned, grabbing their duffel bags and following Dola.
  Emily quickly scurried after them. "Said what better? Were you agreeing with me or her? With me,
right? Right?"


  They found Rita and Patricia on the upper promenade, sitting in a small cafe hullwards. Joining the
two officers at their table, they ordered raktajinos and leant back in their seats, enjoying the
moment of leisure.
  "We just checked in with Station Ops." Patricia told them. "Saturn's due to arrive tomorrow."
  "Oh goodie." chirped Emily. "Can't wait."
  "What... don't feel like a day of unscheduled shoreleave?" Rita jested, moving the plate with
croissants in front of her.
  Snatching one of the breakfast pastries, Emily took a bite and rolled her eyes. "One more day of
shoreleave with you guys and I'm gonna beg the Chief for graveyard shifts on an empty ship."
  "Let me work." Patricia mocked her. "Please, give me something to do. Anything. I'm bored
senseless."
  "Damn straight. You gonna drink that?" Emily asked, pointing at Patricia's cup.
  "Nah, have at it."
  "You can have mine when it gets here." the small brunette reached for the Klingon coffee. "If it
ever gets here."
  "Don't bother. It's my third."
  "Yeah, well, not my fault it took us so long." Emily remarked between two sips. "We had to wait
for a certain Andorian to finish her hygiene regime." she added, winking at Dola who merely
raised a brow and antenna in reply.
  Patricia grinned. "So... what's the plan for today, guys? A game of paintball?"
  "Oh no." Erik blurted out, aghast. Patricia let out a devilish laugh.
  "There's an idea." Emily cheered.
  "Please, no more paintball."
  "On the holodeck? Just us, no marines?" Rita wanted to make sure.
  "You got it." nodded Patricia.
  "Okay, I'm in."
  Erik hung his head. Emily patted him on the back. "Don't be sad. You can be on my team this
time."
  [ The next day ]
  [ Space ]


  The huge bay doors of Starbase Far Reach Station slid open as the Prometheus-class ship
approached. It drifted slowly inside, before coming to a stop at one of the berths. The docking tubes
extended, linking the ship with the station systems.


  The Saturn was home.



  [ Docking area, three hours later ]


  A small procession of five was nearing the airlock, duffel bags over their shoulders and a strange
mix of anticipation and dread on their faces. Showing their transfer orders to the Security officer at
the hatchway, one after another boarded the ship.


  Inside, Erik stopped and scowled at the PADD in his hands. It contained the ship's current
manifest. "Hmm."
  "What?" asked Emily, turning around to regard him.
  "From the look of this, the Saturn's COO has been transferred. Status indicates he already left the
ship."
  "So? Report to the new one."
  "There isn't a new one yet." he muttered.
  "Just report to the XO, then." Emily replied, rolling her eyes at him.
  "Really? Would imagine she's busy right now, what with the ship just having docked and all."
  "She'll have time for that kind of thing." Patricia said, nodding reassuringly.
  "Hmm." made Erik. Then, looking at Patricia, he added hesitantly, "Maybe I should wait a day or
two?"
  "Wuss." Emily scoffed.
  "Harpy." Erik shot back, frowning.
  The small brunette just stuck her tongue out at him.
  "Alright." Patricia sighed. "Erik, with me - I'm going to have to see the XO anyway. Dola, Emily -
consider yourself having reported in. Now away with you. Shoo!"
  She glanced at Rita. The field scientist suppressed a grin, then turned and proceeded to walk
down the corridor. Shaking her head, Patricia followed, with Erik reluctantly in tow.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Conference Lounge ]


  Miya sat at the long table with a set of PADD's in front of her. A few more reports and she'd finally
be free to actually make use of the shoreleave time properly. Sadly they were taking far too much
time due to a complete lack of interest preventing her from filling them in. For the fifth time she
found herself staring out the large windows at the inside of the space station. Sighing, she went
over to the replicator for another coffee.


  Cocking her head, she stopped when she thought she heard voices coming from the doors. A
decisive "Just wait here! Yeesh!" was the most recognisable part. The next moment the doors
swished open and her eyes fell on a tall blonde woman in her mid-twenties and a bearded man of
roughly the same age, staring at each other with annoyed expressions. Taking a deep breath and
shaking her head, the blonde stepped inside, the doors closing again behind her.
  Miya stood still and stared at the person entering the far end of the room. She herself was largely
hidden in the darker area by the replicator, and could see the confusion cross the other woman's
face as she found the empty seat and the pile of PADD's.
  "Um... hello?" The blonde stepped closer, at first not noticing Miya at the opposite end of the
room. "Commander Solo?"
  Miya walked back towards her seat, entering the lit area of the room in the process. "Can I help
you?" she asked.
  "Oh." The woman stopped dead in her tracks, startled, then quickly regaining her composure and
standing to attention. "Lieutenant Commander Patricia Holmes. Reporting for duty, ma'am."
  Miya picked up one of the PADD's on the desk and scrolled quickly through it. "Ah yes, welcome
aboard, Commander."
  "Thank you, ma'am." Patricia replied courteously, stepping forward and handing Miya the PADD
with her transfer orders before returning to her stiff posture.
  "At ease, we're officially on shoreleave so I'm not going to force you to stand to attention." Miya
sat down, indicating the seat opposite. "I believe you've been here before?"
  With a sheepish smile, Patricia gave her a curt nod and took the offered seat. "That is correct. I
served aboard Saturn for twenty-two months before I was transferred to the USS Cambrian last
year."
  "Welcome back then." grinned Miya, "I have no idea if much will have changed, but there are a
couple of things you need to be aware of. We're splitting the role into Security and Tactical, so you'll
soon have a counterpart."
  Patricia nodded once more. "That was actually the case on the Cambrian as well. Only that I
served as Tactical officer. On Saturn it was solely Security, however. So I won't have any trouble
adjusting."
  Miya watched her. "As well as that, we're expecting an assistant for you to arrive shortly."
  "That's good to know." the blonde replied, glancing aside with a wry smile.
  The XO nodded and lifted her coffee and took another drink, before something else occurred to
her. "Did you have someone else with you?" she asked.
  The smile froze on Patricia's face. "Oh. Yes." She turned her head in the vague direction of the
door before facing Miya again. "Petty Officer McGee, Operations. I suggested he should report to
you, since you're still waiting on a replacement for your Ops Chief?"
  Miya nodded again. "Sure, bring him in."
  "Right." Patricia rose and remained standing for a moment. "Will that be all, then?"
  "Unless you have anything else you want to go over?"
  "No, actually I'd like to take a stroll through the ship and see who else is still here."
  "Not a problem. However, as I said we're on shoreleave - so they might be on the station." She
grinned. "Welcome back."
  "Thanks again." the woman replied and gave her a warm smile before turning to leave. Outside,
the Operations crewman was waiting - when the doors opened, he first looked up surprised, then
frowned and glared at Patricia defiantly. She looked back at him, arching an eye brow. Then she
nodded with her head in the direction of Miya and disappeared. Letting out a defeated sigh, the
man walked into the room, slowly.



  [ Corridor, outside the Nebula Lounge ]


  "I have to go, my shift is about to start. It's so not fair, the others are all getting shoreleave."
  "Right." Patricia nodded, her voice adopting business tone again. "Carry on then."
  "It's good to have you back, ma'am."
  "Good to be back." she replied.


  The Ensign flashed her a quick smile and went her way, leaving Patricia standing at the entrance.
Staring after the girl for a moment, she smiled as well before turning and looking inward again,
casually noticing that Saturn's Nebula Lounge hadn't changed the slightest bit. She let her eyes
wander about the large room when she spotted someone else she knew from her previous tenure
aboard the ship. Memories began to flow, and Patricia's heart started racing slightly. Of course she
would still be here, why wouldn't she?


  Calming down somewhat, Patricia slowly realised that there was no knot forming in her throat, no
rage stirring up her stomach. In fact, one year later, Yang Xiali seemed to be just another familiar
face, one of the faces giving her a distinct feeling of returning home - something like home anyway.
  She let out a deep breath, her face adapting a soft expression, and walked inside, over to the
Taiwanese officer.
  Suddenly, in that characteristic fashion, the blind woman half turned her head in Patricia's
direction, causing the tall blonde to slow down instantly, making her feel rather insecure all of a
sudden and wanting to turn and walk away again.
  However, it was too late, as Yang Xiali spoke, softly but without warmth, calling her by her former
rank. "Lieutenant Holmes."
  Patricia wasn't sure how she had recognised her - either by the rhythm of her step, by her
perfume or by something else entirely - but from the tone of Xiali's voice it seemed she hadn't
forgotten anything. Or forgiven, for that matter. Pursing her lips, Patricia put aside the thought of
pointing out that she had been given a third rank pip in the meantime.
  Instead she managed to don a weak smile.
  "Commander Yang. It's good to see you." It sounded more overly polite than she had intended.
Not that it mattered much. "How is Commander Grimm?" she added.
  Xiali looked like she could almost see her frozen smile, but what had Patricia expected? A
welcome back party? Then Xiali appeared to relax slightly. "Last I heard, Mayclock was doing well."
  "Oh." replied Patricia, doing a double-take to assess whether she was interpreting Xiali's
expression correctly. "I'm..." sorry to hear that, she almost said. But it wasn't really any of her
business. "I kinda just wanted to say hello."
  A small grin formed on Xiali's face. "No, it was not like that. Commander Grimm resigned from the
Fleet, he went back to the Isles. I shall bring him your well wishes, if you like."
  "Oh." Patricia said again. "Right. Yes, please do that." She turned silent for a moment, pondering.
Then she made a decision and plucked up her courage. "Commander, I..." she began, amending,
"Xiali..."
  "It is over, Patricia." Xiali waved her off, as if she couldn't bear the stilted conversation anymore.
"We have had our disagreements." The understatement of the year, Patricia thought fleetingly as
the Chief Diplomatic Officer continued. "But that is over and done with. Besides, I will not be
onboard when the next mission starts."
  The words sounded cold, void of emotion, and they were probably supposed to sound that way.
There it was, the lump forming in her throat, making Patricia swallow hard. Whatever friendship
there had been between the two women, it was over and done with indeed. Countless times she
had thought about it, but given the same situation, she would make the same decision again. And
yet, the price Xiali had had to pay was so high.


  "I'm very sorry." Patricia said quietly before turning to leave. "Please believe me."
  "It may surprise you," it came back, "but I do."
  She froze in mid-step and regarded Xiali again.
  "I am not leaving because of your return..." Xiali stopped, as though embarrassed by the turn the
conversation had taken. "I am joining Mayclock in Scotland."
  "Ah." made Patricia, still a bit insecure. "That's... good to hear." After standing there in silence for
another moment, she added, "I wish you well. Both of you."
  Xiali bowed formally from the waist. "Thank you, Patricia. It does mean a lot to me. And I wish you
well on the Saturn - I know how much you love the ship."
  Swallowing once more, Patricia nodded slowly. "Thanks. It means a lot to me, too." Then, taking
another deep breath, she turned away and quickly left for the bridge. She had had enough
reminiscencing for one day.



  [ Ensign Dalin Saine's quarters ]


  Beep Beep Beep. The sound echoed in the dark room. Beep Beep Beep. "Urgh..." was what
answered the beeping this time around. Beep Beep Beep.
  "What!" Dalin shouted out as he tried to pull himself out of bed, stumbling his way over to his
desk and hitting a button. The screen slowly came to life, displaying a women that was looking a
little perturbed. "What took you so long to answer?" she asked.
  Dalin raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"
  "I have been calling you for ages now! How can you still be sleeping?!" she asked again in a
demanding tone.
  "What... what time is it?" Dalin asked completely clueless, trying to catch up.
  "It is past three! You can't sleep all day, you know. You are meeting me in the concourse in an
hour. Hurry up and get dressed already." she smiled, ending the transmission.


  "...oh crap." he muttered and closed his eyes, letting his head fall onto the desk.
  [ Starbase Far Reach Station ]
  [ Concourse, one and a half hours later ]


  Claire stood there waiting for him, her hands firmly planted on each respective hip. Dalin walked
up to her and held out his hands, halting any attempt of her to say something.
  "I know, I know. I'm late. I'm sorry, it got late for me last night. I had the twins over at my place."
  "Yeah, right!" She started laughing, throwing her head back. Then she regarded him once more in
mock huff and playfully punched him in the stomach. Dalin grunted and started laughing himself.
Claire smirked at him and slowly started to walk.


  Dalin kept up. "I was shocked you called me."
  She raised an eyebrow. "You think I forgot about you?"
  "Nah." He winked at her, "I'm unforgettable."


  He spent most of the day with Claire. They did nothing important, but almost immediately Dalin
got the feeling that it was a date. He wasn't sure he wanted to enter into such a thing with someone
not on the ship. It wasn't like he was there all the time. Dalin didn't even have much free time while
on the ship. He wondered how Candice, the Saturn's CMO, did it. She was married and was never
able to see her husband. He wasn't sure if she had left the ship or if he would run into her
somewhere. Hopefully he would be able to talk to her before their shore leave ended.



  [ Starbase Far Reach Station ]
  [ Turboshafts ]


  The lieutenant stood there, duffle bag draped over his left shoulder, PADD in his right hand. As he
stared at the doors and walls of the turbolift car, it sped its way along the labyrinth of turboshafts
toward its destination.


  Paul Toddman had barely been on the station an hour when he had been told his next assignment
had already docked. That was actually a good thing, he disliked waiting around for too long - which
was probably why he was the first survivor from his last assignment to go back to active duty. The
starship Menzies had met a sudden end at the hands of a squadron of marauding Breen ships,
Toddman and half her crew barely escaped, limping through space for a week in lifeboats.


  After being picked up, evaluated both physically and mentally, and finally processed, he was in
this turbolift heading for a new assignment, a new home.


  The turbolift seemed to take an age to get there though. Paul drummed the PADD with his index
finger as he waiting for the doors to finally open. Within a few moments of doing that it finally
stopped and its doors swished open as he walked towards them.
  At the airlock he spotted an Operations crewman talking to a small brunette Security officer. She
didn't seem to be overly interested, though - because as soon as she spotted Paul, she tilted her
head and grew a wide smile as he closed in on them.
  "Emily. Are you even listening?" the petty officer next to her frowned.
  "I'm supposed to be on duty, Erik." she replied without looking at him.
  "Yeah, right. Because you've got so much work on your hands right now."
  Emily pointed at Paul. "See? Work. Coming right at us. If you'll excuse me." she added and
stepped forward towards the approaching officer.


  Paul smiled as he came to a halt in front of the brunette.
  "I take it you're my babysitter?" Paul said, offering his PADD for the usual security check.
  "I wish." she answered with a wry grin, arching an eye brow while taking the PADD and looking it
over. "I wish, sir." she quickly added when she had scrolled down to the position this officer was
going to fill. With an apologetic smile she returned the PADD and stepped aside, clearing the way
for him. "Welcome aboard the Saturn. Looking forward to working with you, sir."
  Paul smiled back. "I'm not on duty yet, it's Paul." He turned round and headed towards the
corridor behind the airlock.
  "Emily. I'm Emily." she called after him while staring at his behind as he boarded the ship, much
to the indignation of the Ops crewman watching.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Observation Lounge ]


  Miya was bored of the new crew game at this point, deciding she had done enough reading for
one day she dropped the PADD on the table and finally stood up. She had just finished stretching
when it chirped quietly as an update arrived, picking it up again she raised her eyebrows, it looked
like they had the full set of new Security officers.
  She tapped her commbadge. "Solo to Commander Holmes"
  "Holmes here, go ahead." came the reply.
  "According to the logs, your assistant just came aboard. I'll give the job of meeting and greeting
to yourself this time if that's okay?"
  "Not a problem, Commander. Holmes out."
  Miya grinned as she gathered the PADDs and walked towards the door. Delegation was definitely
a good thing.



  [ Hullside turbolift ]
  [ Deck 6 ]


  Hanar Timor was relatively young for his current rating, even though he could argue that point
rather nicely.
  Being joined to a symbiont had its obvious advantages for a host, such as wisdom beyond ones
years and having a greater appreciation for the little things in life. For Hanar, having Timor inside
him ensured a fast paced promotion to chief petty officer in the ten years he had been in the fleet.
And now it had him be appointed as head of an entire tactical department. Now, that's a sweet
enough promotion! He thought, adamant to celebrate with a vodka martini before meeting the
executive officer. Thank you, Timor!


  The doors swooshed open, and an attractive woman in a red uniform strode out of the lift. Hanar,
who had this really bad habit of not only being a rather destructive force of nature but also a bit of a
womaniser, paused. "Well then," he said. "Hello there!"
  While it was true that being a joined Trill indicated that one was wise beyond his years. It just
never really applied to one thirty-two year old Hanar Timor.


  There was a pause as the woman stopped, before turning round and looking at Hanar. "Can I help
you, Chief?" she asked, moving the PADDs she was carrying to her other arm.
  Hanar grinned. "Oh, I dunno. I can definitely help you..."
  "I'm sorry, I don't think we've met." the woman said, stepping forward and offering her hand.
"Lieutenant Commander Solo, Executive Officer."
  Hanar paused, and blinked. His last assignment had him in trouble when the captain realised
Hanar had been sleeping with the first officer. "Err...um. Hi."


  Commander Solo raised her eyebrows and looked down at her hand which was still held out in
front of her.
  He quickly shook it. "Hi!" Hanar said again, quickly trying salvage what was left of her first
impression of him. "Chief Hanar Timor, Tactical Chief. I'm to report to you in a bit."
  "Well, it can wait till tomorrow, Chief. I've just finished my reports and new person welcoming
duties for today."
  Hanar blinked, eyed her up and down, and smiled. "So, technically you're off-duty?"
  "Technically." came the reply, before Commander Solo turned and began walking to her quarters.
"Enjoy exploring the ship, Chief. See you tomorrow." she called as she vanished round a bend in the
corridor.


  Hanar just stood there, somewhat lost. "That went well..."



  [ Bridge ]


  "Lieutenant Toddman is in his quarters on deck three." the computer voice replied monotonously
to Patricia's inquiry.


  This is awkward. Do I call him and tell him to come see me? Or do I just go and see him? Patricia
frowned. How long had he been aboard now? Shouldn't he have reported in to her first before
looking at his quarters? I'm pretty sure he should have. Great - I haven't even met my assistant yet
and he's already putting me into an awkward situation.
  Deciding it was probably best she'd take that problem head on and go see him, she turned
around, about walk over to the turbolift, when the light on the bridge was dimmed slightly, signaling
the end of Beta and the beginning of Gamma shift.
  Standing, Patricia grimaced. Nah, screw this, I've got better things to do. Friends to meet, drinks
to drink, stuff to... unpack. Her hand went up and tapped her commbadge. "Holmes to Lieutenant
Toddman."
  It took a while before an answer came back - enough for Patricia to grow slightly impatient.
  "Toddman here?"
  "Greetings, Lieutenant." she replied in a mock jovial tone and proceeded to enter the turbolift car.
"I take it you're settling in okay?"
  "I am indeed, thanks."
  "Good, good." Patricia nodded to herself, directing the turbolift to take her to the Nebula Lounge.


  "I'm sorry, who am I talking to again?" it came back after a while when she didn't say anything
else - nor closed the channel, for that matter.
  "Lieutenant Commander Patricia Holmes." she said, adding, "Your DH."
  "Oh." came the dumbfounded reply.
  She bit her lip and smiled for a moment, then immediately felt bad for playing this kind of game.
It was shoreleave, after all.
  "Yeah, I was going to report to you in a bit, just-..."
  "Don't sweat it, Lieutenant." she cut him off in a more amicable tone. "It has time until tomorrow.
Just wanted to make sure you've found your berth."
  "That I have. Thank you, ma'am."
  "Good. Bridge, eight hundred hours, then."
  "Understood."
  "Right, then. Good night, Lieutenant."



  [ Nebula Lounge ]


  Across the whole room, people were engaged in conversations, drinking and banter. At the bar,
two engineers were besieging a female petty officer from Operations who, despite their rather vocal
advances, completely ignored them - instead she was flirting with the bar keeper, who seemed
rather amused at the attempt as it was simply impossible for him to keep up with their constantly
interrupted conversation on a busy evening like this.


  Eventually the engineers gave up and turned to their left where they spotted another target - an
Andorian petty officer from Security. But before they could open up with something out of their
seemingly infinite repertoire of pick-up lines, Dola chi-Trei grabbed her beverage and stood from
her bar stool, not even affording them so much as an annoyed side glance before aimlessly walking
towards the far end of the room.


  Half-way through the crowd of patrons, she noticed the doors to the lounge swish open and the
Saturn's new field scientist enter the room with a load of equipment. Dola frowned when she
realised that what Rita Orsini was carrying were half a dozen force field emitters. The woman
marched towards a corner table that a party of crewmen had vacated moments before, the last
straggler almost jumping out of her way, then she proceeded to set up the emitters with an
economy of movement that spoke of practice.


  Watching the scene unfold, the frown on the Dola's face was replaced by a wry grin as the
reasoning behind the unconventional set-up dawned on her. When the last emitter was in place Rita
made herself comfortable on one of the chairs, producing a PADD and starting to read. Dola smirked
and walked over.


  In the corridor outside, the ship's new Diplomatic Officer Nia Musu-Rei was strolling around, taking
her time. Her briefing sessions with Commander Yang had been fascinating but also very intense
and left her with the need to move and unwind among other people. She had noticed that the
Saturn seemed unusually populated for a ship during shoreleave, which spoke well for her new
assignment.
  Turning a corner, Nia heard laughter and snatches of conversation, cut short by the 'swoosh' of
doors closing, it sounded like she had found the lounge.
  "Perfect," she thought, cursorily smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her clothing before going in.


  Although not really crowded, the place was well-frequented. Evidently not a few of the Saturn
crew had seen enough of Far Reach's attractions or preferred the familiar surroundings of their ship.
  The buzz of conversation punctuated by the chink of glasses welcomed her in. A few moments
later the level of sounds abated a little, when curious on-lookers realised she was a new face. After
the time it took to notice the Fleet-issue communicator pinned to her civilian clothes, though, most
of them went back to their previous activities.
  Nia spotted an free table in a corner and seated herself browsing the beverage list while
unobtrusively glancing around the room.


  The doors of the lounge opened once again, and the XO stepped through. Glancing around, she
spotted some quieter tables in one of the corners, and began to walk over towards them. As she
walked over, a strange shimmering caught her eye, she chose to ignore it - and continued towards
a table with only one occupant. Arriving, she cleared her throat quietly.
  "Excuse me, do you mind if I join you?" she asked the table's sole occupant.
  "Not at all, ma'am." answered the young woman, taking in the rank pins of the newcomer,
"Please, feel free, Commander."
  "Please, call me Miya." Miya replied, sliding into the seat on the other side of the table. She
frowned as she looked at the face opposite. "You would be our new CDO?" she hazarded, while
catching a waiter's eye.
  "Yes. Nia Musu-Rei, formerly of the USS Sun-Raven." answered the Lieutenant, matching the easy
conversational tone of her new executive officer.
  Miya smiled. "Should I call you Nia?" She asked, turning as a waiter arrived at the table. "I'll have
a Hoegaarden." she turned to her companion, "And you?"
  "A jasmine tea, please." nodded Nia. "Yes, please do that." she added when the waiter had left, "it
would be my pleasure. Besides," she added with a smile that lit up her features, "it makes things
simpler."
  "Nia it is then." Miya looked round at the room again, once more spotting the shimmering in the
other corner. She frowned and turned to Nia. "Any idea what's going on over there?" she asked,
indicating the other table.
  Nia turned, following the XO's clue. A shimmering surface surrounded a table, within two figures
could be seen.
  "It looks like..." Nia stopped before stating the obvious. "What is a force field doing in here?" she
wondered aloud. She could see her curiosity reflected in the other woman's face, Miya's expression
reminded her of a cat confronted by a new object, the woman looked ready to pounce.
Miya stood. "I need to know what's going on." she stated with the hint of a grin. "You coming?"
  "Of course!" came the answer, tinged with perceivable enthusiasm.
  "Right then." Miya said, standing and walking over to the force field. Arriving at its perimeter she
squinted at the figures behind. "Okay... and what exactly is going on here?" she asked.


  Rita and Dola looked up from the PADD's they were reading, an expression of confusion on their
faces.
  "Um... we're-..." began the Andorian.
  "We're just-...."
  "...-reading." she finished.
  "...-doing field studies." offered the lieutenant.
  Nia glanced at the XO, unsure to have heard properly over the buzz of the force field. "Forgive me
for asking... what?"
  The XO just frowned and kept staring at them.
  "A little side project of mine." explained Rita. "Dola here is helping me with going through my
notes. Social mechanics: the mood of a place, people relaxing off-duty, somehow freer than usual
from the constraints of rank. You know... savoring the nuances in social interaction..."
  The Andorian gave Rita a puzzled side-glance. "I thought you said safe from the nuisances of
social interaction..."
  "Well, that too." the field scientist allowed - then, regarding the XO again, she quickly added,
"that's kind of what the force fields are for. Would you like to join us, Commander?"
  Miya glanced round at the rapidly filling room, then turned back to the two women. "Yes... yes I
would." she replied.
  "Of course you're welcome too, Lieutenant." Rita smiled at Nia, placed down her PADD and
temporarily deactivated one of the force fields, offering them seats.
  Miya lifted her drink. "To a quiet corner in a busy lounge." she grinned.
  "Hear, hear." added Nia, smiling. The Saturn promised to be a peculiar posting.



  [ Starbase Far Reach Station ]
  [ Bar 45 ]


  Gunnery Sergeant Don Jameson twisted the beer glass round and round, idly rubbing the
condensation off the side, as he sat alone at the table. Nearby, the marines of the Black Sword
squad were pretending to be dancing with varying degrees of success. Normally it would be
amusing, but right now he just had a sense of malaise that prevented him from enjoying the
evening.


  It had started almost as soon as they had got back and, for the umpteenth time, he pondered why
he was feeling this way. Maybe it was the bar. It was one of those places that served mass
produced beer with no taste at extortionate prices. The lighting, apart from on the dance floor, was
dim enough to demand image intensifiers if you wanted to see your date clearly across the table.
The music sucked, too. But the squad seemed to like it, so what the hell.


  He was pretty sure it wasn't the platoon. Even if the last mission had turned out pear shaped, it
wasn't down to any fault of theirs. They'd even come back unscathed. Maybe it was that they would
being going out without a commanding officer. Since Tsujimoto had left, he'd been the de facto CO
but this time there would be no officer in charge, however remote they might be. Quite apparently,
Starfleet had begun to lose interest in the marine complements aboard their vessels.


  He sucked up a mouthful of beer and realised that it tasted even less appetising than it had
before. Definitely time to call it a night. He glanced round the table to check that nobody had left
anything of value there while they danced. No. They liked to keep everything at hand at all times. It
was a marine thing, even off duty. Rising from the table, he caught Boggy's eye and gave her a field
hand signal that he was going to move out. She nodded and waved before going back to her
approximation of dancing.


  Out on the concourse, Don decided to walk back to the Saturn's berth rather than take the transit
system. The view of the starfield from the promenade was always an awesome sight.


  Twenty minutes later, he stepped into the corridor that ran around the edge of the space dock.
The big windows showed the multitude of ships, Starfleet and civilian, that filled the giant space.
And there was the Saturn. His back shivered violently and he hoped that it was the beer rather than
his sixth sense. The medics might not believe in it, but he did. If it was, then it wasn't a good sign.




                                                    ***
                             Chapter 2 – Commendations and a passenger.



  [ The next morning ]
  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Deck 6 ]


  PADD in hand Paul walked along the corridor taking notes. He had a tradition of walking the decks
on any ship he was assigned to. This helped him familiarise himself with the ship itself and also let
people see his face and approach him. As a Security officer, Paul felt his position demanded that he
be known to the crew, much like the neighbourhood Policemen on their rounds on Earth centuries
past.
  His trek around the corridors of the Saturn had begun on the lower most decks an hour ago. He
ascended the Jefferies tubes from deck to deck instead of using the turbolift in an effort to
memorise alternative routes.
  There were a lot of Starbase work crews onboard in their orange coveralls replacing all manner of
components from corridor panels to overhead lighting. Paul even saw two of them dragging a
Heisenberg compensator along a corridor toward a waiting gravity sled.
  Half an hour later and Paul found himself on the Bridge. It was devoid of any senior staff. Only a
couple of Starbase personnel and a few crewmen remained on the bridge.
  The Saturn was sleeping. Paul made his way over the to Tactical station and began waiting for his
department head.



  [ CPO Hanar Timor's quarters ]


  Hanar checked himself in the mirror, and adjusted the jacket.
  "Thank you for last night," said the young Bolian woman from his bed jokingly.
  Hanar grinned, while absently making sure that his rank pip was straight. "Think nothing of it,
Bal," he said, sounding rather pleased with himself.
  He had picked up Bal, a medical ensign, at the bar the night before at the crew lounge, and had
quickly wooed her enough that she happily followed into his bed.
  "So... what's next?" she asked.
  He paused and blinked as he tried to come up with a suitable answer. Getting into a relationship
with anyone had never been a priority in his life, especially since receiving the Timor symbiont all of
six years previously. Failing to find anything that may please the young ensign, he simply shrugged.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I've got to report in."


  With that, he left.



  [ Nebula lounge ]


  Being in dock as the ship was, Miya was far from busy. Sitting in the lounge once more, she found
herself staring at the other vessels inhabiting the large space instead of going over yet another
report detailing the supply levels onboard the ship. A workbee travelling past the window shook her
from her daydream. Sighing, she returned to the PADD in front of her.


  "Mind if I join you?" someone asked suddenly.
  Looking up, Miya frowned as she spotted the man who had approached her outside the turbolift
yesterday. The plate in his hand only added to her confusion. "Have a seat." she replied. "You'll
have to excuse me while I go over the last of these reports though."
  Hanar smiled. "No worries. Been a long night - I haven't had anything to eat yet, so I hope you
won't mind this." he gestured at the plate full of bacon and eggs.
  "Not at all." Miya replied, taking a drink of her coffee and eyeing her companion. "So who did you
pull?" she asked, staring at Hanar.
  Hanar blinked, sitting down. "Pull?" he said, adding. "I pulled nobody's finger."
  "Oh come on." Miya said, putting down her mug. "Long night, hearty breakfast, looking pleased
with yourself." She grinned. "Someone from the ship? Or station staff?"
  Hanar regarded Miya for a long enough heartbeat, wondering if she was only putting him into a
false sense of security before ripping him a new one. After a slight smile, he shrugged.
  "All I know is that her name is Bal." admitted the Trill. "We... um... never got beyond the first
name basis."
  Miya laughed and nodded. "I thought as much. I'll let you keep the rest of the details to yourself."
she said. Looking down at her PADD once more she took another drink of her coffee.
  Hanar started to munch on his food. "You look as if you've been wading through a bureaucratic
nightmare. Need me to release any tensions you may be feeling?"
  Miya smirked as she read the report. "Keep eating." she replied without looking up, starting on
another PADD.
  He was more then happy to oblige.


  Although having been born on the Trill homeworld, Hanar had been raised all over the Federation
as both parents were Starfleet non-commissioned officers - or had been, before both found work in
the private sector as security consultants for one of the big corporations. When Hanar was old
enough, he quickly enlisted and followed in his mother's footsteps by going into Tactical. They had
been fun years, much of them spent chasing the opposite sex regardless of species.
  However, in 2379 that changed when he was joined with the symbiont Timor.
  For almost two years, Hanar seemed to have grown up and mature, with a lot of his friends and
superiors believing that the joining had something to do with that.
  They were right.
  Timor's two previous hosts were Starfleet officers who had reached flag rank, and their presence
seemed to have curbed much of the younger Hanar's enthusiasm for getting in trouble. His current
assignment was the result of several of his former superiors believing he was up to such a task.


  He grinned, pushing the now empty plate away from him.
  "I'm not just a skirt chaser, Commander," he offered politely. "And I've learned my lessons. Not a
good idea sleeping with one's boss, especially if their boss in turn finds out and gets all huffed and
puffed about it."
  "No doubt." said Miya and put the PADD aside, regarding him for a beat. "So how did you end up
here?"
  "By being caught sleeping with Commander Raynold by our Captain," offered Hanar with a slight
chuckle.
  Miya nodded. "Well, it doesn't seem to have hit your records. From my point of view you seem to
be a handy person to have aboard." she stated. "Been on a Prometheus class before?"
  "Only on the holodecks I'm afraid, ma'am," replied Hanar. "But conducted enough war-game
simulations against them to have a fair idea. My last ship was an Ambassador."
  "Bit of a technology jump then." Miya stated, "I've no doubt you'll be able to figure it all out as you
go. Welcome aboard."
  Hanar nodded and frowned slightly. "Thanks." Then, leaning back in his seat. "Is there anything
you would like me to look out for while heading Tactical?" he wanted to know. "I know it's not
everyday that a noncom ends up heading a department, even if it's been done aboard Deep Space
Nine. But I hear that a few commissioned types can find that violating their sensitivities."
  "Well, the only thing you need to be aware of is our new Chief of Security and her assistant who
have also just come aboard. You'll need to work closely with them on most things, but I couldn't tell
you what the ACOS is like. I've yet to meet him. As for the COS, I think you'll get on just fine." Miya
finished, allowing herself a smirk.
  Hanar nodded. "I've practically grew up around Security personnel since I was knee high,
Commander. I doubt we'll have any issues." he said with a slight smile. "Anyone I should avoid
hitting on by chance?" he asked, his smile broadening.
  "That you can find out yourself." replied Miya, smiling back at him. "Consider it a voyage of
discovery."
  Hanar regarded her. "You're kidding, right?" he asked, surprised and baffled. Most senior officers
went ape-shit at him for sleeping around with every available female aboard.
  Miya thought about the female crewmembers she had met so far and grinned. "Knock yourself
out." she stated, or they'll do it for you she added in the privacy of her own thoughts.



  [ The same day, early evening ]
  [ Nebula Lounge ]


  The room was starting to fill. Commodore Tong stood alongside Lieutenant Commander Solo at
the side of the room. Both in their dress uniforms, they watched as the seats began to fill up.
  "Ten minutes to go, Sir." Miya stated, reading over the list once more.
  Tong nodded, a faint smile on his face. "I really rather enjoy these occasions." he turned to Miya,
"Especially the look of surprise on people's faces."
  Miya smiled back at him, "I can imagine." she replied.



  [ Lieutenant Morgan LaTaer's quarters ]


  Ten minutes! Morgan mumbled to himself while he was looking for his dress jacket. Ever since the
early days of the academy he had excelled at forgetting about all banquets and special occasions
and the dress uniform never looked good on him. Hastily, he dug through his closet and found one.
  He had spent the last three hours on the recent update reports and still wasn't done when it
dawned on him that he should be half-way preparing. And there were no excuses this time - the CO
wanted all senior staff present at it or, like one of the officers joked, it's the court-martial for them.
With the jacket in hand he rushed out into the corridor.


  Entering the lounge, he realised that the turtle neck piece was one size too small. Well, not the
first banquet he was going to hold his breath.


  Behind Lieutenant LaTaer another small group entered the large room - three petty officers from
Security and Operations, led by Lieutenant Commander Patricia Holmes.




  Morgan allowed himself a fast glance at the blonde, recalling her recent transfer back to the
Saturn he found in the crew updates. He found it curious considering how she had transferred out of
the ship before.


  Carrying himself off towards the bar, he ordered a glass of orange juice to ease his throat that
was already getting uncomfortable. He found some respite in listening to the surfacing thoughts of
the few people that gathered. The amount of nonsense gossip that floated around the lounge
always seemed relieving to him.



  [ Ensign Dalin Saine's quarters ]


  "Why do they make us go to these things? I mean, seriously!" Dalin said looking at himself in the
mirror.
  "You need to go and congratulate everyone who is getting a commendation!" his sister said from
the monitor on the desk.
  Dalin rolled his eyes. "That's not the problem, Kaylee."
  "Then what is?"
  He turned and walked in front of the screen so she could see him. There was a gasp and he
yelled, "Shut up!"
  Kaylee held her hand over her mouth in shock. "Dee... I have never seen you look so..."
  "Stupid, I know! I hate these dress uniforms!" he said with disgust.
  "No! Dee, you look great! I have never seen you in dress uniforms before! I have to take a
picture!" she said reaching for her monitor.
  "No," click, "don't..." He cursed under his breath.


  There was a beep at the door. Dalin looked over and held up a finger at Kaylee to tell her to hold
on a minute. "Enter," he said.
  Shock greeted him when the door opened up. Standing in his doorway was a young woman with
short black hair. She had on a dress uniform that hugged her nicely shaped body. She raised an
eyebrow as she looked at Dalin. "Well, Ensign, don't you look good all cleaned up."
  "Is that a woman... who is that?" Kaylee asked.
  Dalin looked over at the monitor. "Shut up, Kaylee." He reached for the screen to end the
transmission but Claire was pretty quick and grabbed his arm.
  "Is that your sister?" she said looked at the screen.
  Kaylee smiled a very sweet smile. "You know he has a sister? Does he talk about me all the time?"
  "More than he will ever admit," said Claire teasingly.
  "No, I don't!" Dalin reached up with his other hand and cut off the transmission.


  The walk to the lounge was very short. Dalin found out Claire had invited herself to the ceremony.
She said it was because of the open bar. Dalin knew better. Which made him smile. The two walked
into the lounge and realised they were not exactly among the first ones to arrive. They walked over
to Morgan.


  "Do you hate these clothes as much as I do?" he said casually to the Betazoid.


  Morgan stared at him in sort of a blank expression, slowly raised his glass of orange juice to pour
some of the cold liquid into his throat before answering.
  "Introductionary chapters of cadet's handbook mention Starfleet uniforms as being designed for
utility, fashion and comfort. Had I known that by fashion they meant lack of fashion, I'd never have
joined." he said, pulling the turtle neck slightly, "Out of good taste, I won't mention comfort."
  "Really? You read those?" Dalin rolled his eyes.
  "Only when I'm faced with the perspective of wearing dress uniform." replied Morgan grimly.
  "Oh, you're all the same." exclaimed Claire. "On each occasion, men always seem to complain
about those uniforms, like there wasn't anything better to do. And today some people are going to
be commended. Who do you think will be?"
  "I don't kno-... I mean - that information is classified." grimaced Morgan.
  Flexing his shoulders inside the dress uniform tunic, Don entered the Nebula Lounge feeling
distinctly uncomfortable. He hadn't planned on attending this gathering but the XO had made it
quite clear that, as acting platoon commander, he had to be there. He made his way round the edge
of the room towards the bar, looking around for Behnia Al-Bahman, the Chief of the Boat. Their
paths hadn't crossed for some time now and it would be good to find another NCO to suffer the
proceedings with.


  At the bar, he paused over the beer before acquiring himself a glass of apple juice. With so many
officers around, it wouldn't do to be intoxicated. Glass in his hand, he lurked in a corner and
continued to look for Ben. Surely he was here? And sure enough, there he was, on the far side of
the room, approaching the Commodore and the XO. He bent down to Tong, quietly talking to him.
The Commodore nodded and offered him a seat at their table. The Chief sat down and took in the
view, a contented smile on his broad face. Don sipped his drink. So much for that avenue. He drifted
on the fringes of the gathering, waiting for the proceedings to commence.


  Once everyone was seated, Commodore Tong stood and rapped on the table to get their
attention.


  "First of all, I would like to welcome you all here. I appreciate you taking time out of your
shoreleave to come here this evening - although I'm fairly sure the bar helped influence a few of
you in your decision." he smiled and used the time the chuckles gave him to pick up a PADD from
the table in front of him. "Now, as you all know, we are here to honour members of the crew who
have performed above and beyond the call of duty. It is my great pleasure as CO to give out the
following awards."


  Losing himself to his inborn curiosity, Morgan allowed himself a glimpse at the CO's thoughts and
grimaced. He mumbled something incomprehensible to himself, which brought looks of those near
him. He carefully set his glass on the bar, waiting.


  Tong nodded to Miya who picked up a small black box, before he pressed a button on the PADD
and began reading. "I would like to ask our Chief Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Morgan LaTaer, to
come forward please."


  The Betazoid didn't seem at all surprised. In fact, he started moving just when Tong said the first
few words. He was in place the moment the CO was done, standing in semi attention. For that
moment, he suddenly forgot how uncomfortable his dress uniform was.


  "It is my pleasure to award you the Act of Distinction." Tong said, smiling at the man in front of
him.
  The words the CO said sent a shiver down Morgan's spine. It didn't matter that he knew them a
few seconds before; perhaps it was how they were spoken - or perhaps the way it made people look
at LaTaer as he came to accept the medal.
  "Thank you, Sir." said Morgan with a smile. "It's an honour." he added as he received the
commendation. Hastily, he returned to his place, where Dalin Saine was looking at him with a
beaming smile. At his sight Morgan grinned wickedly.
  "Congratulations, Ensign." he said in a low tone before the Medical officer could reply something
and, just like nothing happened, turned around to look at the next commendation.


  "The next award is the McCoy Cluster, and I would like to ask Ensign Dalin Saine to come forward
to receive it."


  "Whooooo! Dalin, that's so great!" Claire blurted out almost to the point of screaming. Dalin was
shocked twice over. First that his first tour out he had been commended but more so for the freaky
scream that erupted beside him. He gave Claire a look of pure annoyance. But it quickly turned into
a smile. He turned around and looked at Morgan. The look that the CIO gave Dalin said "you
brought her" more than anything else.


  He got out of the isle and straightened his shirt, then he walked up to where Tong was. Dalin
saluted him then shook his hand. From a small black box, the Commodore produced a medal with a
red and yellow ribbon, attaching it to the Medical officer's dress uniform. "Congratulations, Ensign."
  "Thank you, Sir. Not sure I deserve it, however." Dalin said with all honesty.
  "Yes you do, Ensign." Tong said matter-of-factly.
  Dalin saluted again and quickly returned to his seat. When he sat down he looked over at Morgan.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
  Morgan smiled. "What fun would that have been?"
  The two laughed as Dalin turned his attention to Claire. She marveled at the medal on his chest
and looked back at him. "This is so great, Dalin!"
  "Yeah, isn't it?" Dalin couldn't help but smile to himself. It was only one step.
  "To what?" asked Morgan.
  Dalin looked up at him. "Huh?"
  "One step to what?" Morgan asked as if Dalin had been talking to him.
  It took Dalin a second to remember that the CIO could literally read minds. He sighed. "Don't
know… but it's a step."


  "Next, I would like to ask Gunnery Sergeant Don Jameson to come forward and accept the Legion
of Honour." Tong announced.


  Don's head snapped upright. He might have been there in body, but his spirit, or at least his mind,
had been several parsecs elsewhere. Startled, he thought for a moment that he had misheard the
CO, but the officers nearby were all looking in his direction and a quick glance around showed no-
one else rising to their feet.


  He rose, struggled into some clear floor space and then marched the million miles it took to get to
the CO. Coming to attention, he saluted smartly. "Sir!"
  "Thank you for your efforts, Gunnery Sergeant. This is in recognition of everything you did in
recent months."
  "I have a good team to work with, Sir. I couldn't do it without them."
  "I know, you've all been invaluable at one time or another."
  "Thank you, Sir. We aim to please."
  "Well, you certainly do that. Carry on."


  Don saluted again, turned crisply on his heel and marched the million miles back to his seat,
feeling all the eyes in the room looking at him. It was worse than facing down a bunch of frakking
Romulans. At least you could shoot them back. From the corner of his eye, he caught Ben grinning
at him. 'You knew, didn't you?' he thought.


  "Next up is..." Tong pressed a button on his PADD and adjusted his glasses. "Ah, yes. I've been
told by one of the directors of Starfleet Intelligence that I'm not at liberty to delve too much into
details here - however, the next batch of commendations go to some of our crew's most recent
additions. If the following individuals would please come forward and be recognised: Lieutenant
Commander Patricia Holmes. Lieutenant Rita Orsini. Petty Officer 1st class Dola chi-Trei. Petty
Officer 1st class Emily Evanson. Petty Officer 2nd class Erik McGee."


  As the Commodore read the names, the looks that were exchanged among the small group
around Lieutenant Commander Holmes ranged from surprise to appreciation, the latter most
prominently visible on Patricia's face. Giving Emily an expressive glance, the tall blonde rose and
strode towards the Commodore, the rest of the group following her.


  "Commander, Lieutenant. Petty Officers. For your work and achievements during your mission in
the service of Starfleet Intelligence, please accept the Order of Meritorious Service." Tong stated as
he went on to decorate the officers. Then Chief Al-Bahman stepped up to Dola and Emily - he had
insisted on decorating his 'prodigal daughters' himself. A hug accompanied each medal, making
Emily's face flush a more healthy colour than usual and Dola turn a deeper blue.


  As it was Erik's turn, Ben stopped and frowned for a moment. "Why don't I remember you?"
  Erik could explain that fact. "Yeah, well... it's actually my first tenure aboard, Chief."
  Emily snuggled up to him and grinned at the Chief. "He's my puppy. Follows me everywhere."
  "Right." Ben nodded and regarded Emily again. "Not one of ours, is he?"
  Smiling an apologetic smile, Emily shook her head.
  "Operations." stated Erik, somewhat uncertain whether they were talking about departmental
affiliations or something else entirely.
  "Right then." the Chief grunted and proceeded to decorate the petty officer.


  As they all took their seats again, Emily smirked at Patricia who had been rather doubtful about
their whole endeavour over the past week. "Seems SFI did value our efforts after all. Gave us shiny
medals."
  "Don't let it get to your head, Emily. They give them to anyone these days." Patricia winked at
her.
  Rita grinned inwardly and glanced at Dola who observed her friends with an ever so slightly raised
eye brow. Erik didn't seem to follow the conversation, he was still busy examining the metal fixed to
his chest. "This is nice." he stated, visibly impressed.
  "And now," Tong continued, "it is my pleasure to give another Order of Meritorious Service to a
dear friend, much valued crew member and sadly soon departing Chief Diplomatic Officer -
Lieutenant Commander Yang Xiali, if you would please come forward."


  Xiali rose, thankful for Commodore Tong's tactful move in warning her in advance. It was hard
enough to fight the sudden lump she found lodged in her throat - had she not known, she thought,
it was very likely she would have shamed herself breaking down in front of the whole ship's
complement.
  Not knowing how, she found herself in front of the Commodore, when he shook her hand, after
pinning the decoration to her uniform, he held it just a little longer than form required. Xiali nodded
wordlessly, the sentiment was understood, and shared.
  With a perfect about-face she walked back to her place, grateful that Mayclock's visor hid the
tears she felt burning in her eyes.


  Unbeknown to Xiali, Patricia was eyeing her from their table across the room. Dola, upon catching
the glance, reached for her hand and squeezed it gently. Startled at first, Patricia turned around to
the Andorian as though being offended by the intrusion of her privacy, then giving Dola a sad smile.


  "And last," concluded the Commodore, "but as they say, certainly not least..." With the last of the
small black boxes in his hand, the man turned around to the executive officer. "Lieutenant
Commander t'Miyaken Solo."


  Miya's face froze as she turned to the Commodore. Tong smiled as the panic flashed across her
eyes before he continued. "I'm aware you haven't been aboard the ship for very long, but in the
short time you have served as my XO you have been an asset to this ship and her crew. For that, it
is my pleasure to award you too with the Order of Meritorious Service."


  Miya stepped forward and was awarded the medal, looking up at Tong, and still in a state of
shock, she managed a "Thank you Sir" before stepping back to one side again - her face displaying
a rather bemused grin.


  Finally Tong placed the PADD back down on the table and addressed the room once more. "That's
it for the show, folks. Thank you all for coming, please enjoy the rest of your evening!"



  [ Starbase Far Reach Station ]
  [ Promenade, the next day ]


  The promenade was largely deserted, only the commodore and a few other crewmen present
making the space seem much larger than normal. Not that any of this concerned Tong, as always
he found himself mesmerised by the starfield out of the viewports, what went on around him was of
little consequence.
  "Oh my god. It's full of stars..." a familiar voice behind him remarked in mock awe.
  A small grin formed on the commodore's face. "Yeah, well..." Tong turned, "You were always
easily impressed."
  The old admiral chuckled. "You haven't changed one bit, Parx." he then stated wryly, extending a
hand. "How have you been? I heard you managed to snatch one of the Prometheus class vessels...
isn't she a bit scrawny for your taste? Always thought you preferred something of a more
voluptuous shape."
  Tong raised his eyebrows. "You heard correctly." he began, shaking the admiral's hand. "Small it
may be, but it has some amount of firepower hidden in there." He paused, "So what brings you to
Far Reach?" he finally asked, "I didn't see your private yacht as we arrived?"


  "Ah, just some rather woeful family matters. My niece - you remember my niece Brittany, right?
Married her captain last year. Well, turns out that wasn't such a good idea. They're getting divorced
as we speak." the admiral stated with a glance at his watch. "She called me a week ago, wants to
transfer, but doesn't know where to. I'm taking her under my wing for now."


  He rested his elbows on the balustrade, pointing at an older Ambassador class vessel a couple
berths below the Saturn, and sighed. "The Eisenhower can always use some more career wrecks -
seems no one else wants to serve on an old workhorse like her this day and age."
  Tong smiled sadly, and looked back up from the ship at his friend's face. "Not the best of
situations, but I'm glad to see you. Do you have time for lunch?"
  "Sure. The proceedings will take at least another couple hours. Would be nice to take my mind off
those things for a while." the admiral replied with a pained smile and straightened his back once
more.
  "Alright, then... Mexican?"
  "Sounds good to me."



  [ Half an hour later ]


  "... so I tell him, listen, if you want me to continue to support you in this, you may as well heed my
advice every once in a while."
  "I bet he was delighted." Tong grinned, reaching for his cup.
  "Heh. His face turned deep blue, and the entire room went dead silent. Everyone staring at us,
waiting for the ambassador to throw a tantrum. But then," the admiral turned one of the nachos
around which he was using to depict the scene and made it hop away in the direction of the edge of
the table, an arched eye brow acompanying his smirk, "he just turned and left. Just like that. Next
day, I get a visit from a special envoy of his. Accepting all preconditions and perfectly willing to talk
to the Nausicaans. The ambassador? Left Earth the same day." he concluded devouring the nacho,
chewing with a broad grin on his face.


  Tong raised his eyebrows, visibly impressed. "That could only have went one of two ways, you
were damn lucky!" he finished, pushing the empty plate away from him.
  "Yeah." the admiral admitted and shrugged. "Though, sometimes you gotta take a chance." he
grunted. "I wanted this over with, one way or another. And yeah, had it been the Nausicaan
ambassador instead, you bet I would have been more cautious." he added chuckling. "However,
that now leaves me in the position of the go-to person for the Nausicaans in all things Bolian affairs.
And vice versa. Edifying, really." he grunted.
  "Sounds fun."
  "You have no idea." the admiral shook his head, pausing and looking at the commodore. "Ever
been to Nausicaa?"


  "I can't say I have." Tong replied, before a frown formed on his face. "Why do I suddenly get the
impression I'm going to get the chance to change that..."
  "Hehe. You know me too well, Parx." the admiral grinned at him. "Well, as it happens, my current
schedule is tight to the point of bursting at the seams. If you haven't been tasked with anything else
yet, I was going to ask you if you could escort a Bolian representative to Nausicaa next week. Just a
small stint, nothing too serious. Mostly making sure he'll get back after the talks. In one piece,
preferably."
  Tong sighed. "Nothing on the schedule at present, so no valid excuse I'm afraid. What's the name
of our passenger?"
  "Arin Moxx. The envoy I mentioned. Reasonable guy. Not overly talkative, for Bolian standards.
You'll like him. He's due to arrive at Far Reach in two days. If you're up for it, I'll send him your way
when he gets here."
  Tong nodded. "That's fine. Just point him to the Saturn - I'll make the preparations for departure in
three days."


  "Excellent. Well, I'm going to get me another beer." the admiral nodded in the direction of Tong's
empty cup of tomato juice. "Want another cup of that awful stuff?"
  "Why, yes. Please."




                                                    ***




  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Captain's Ready Room, three days later ]


  "Ah, Secretary Moxx." The commodore rose and walked around his desk, extending a hand
towards the large Bolian entering the room. The man smiled back at him as he shook it. "Welcome
aboard the Saturn." Tong added.
  "Thank you, Commodore Parx."
  "Erm... it's Tong, actually. Like many other Bajorans in Starfleet, my father decided to switch the
order of his names for the convenience of everyone involved." the commodore quickly explained
with a smirk on his face.
  "Right. Commodore Tong - my apologies."
  "Don't worry about it. Please, have a seat." Tong gestured at one of the chairs in front of his desk
and, while Moxx nodded and sat down, walked over to the replicator on the far side of his office.
"Would you like something to drink?"
  "Yes, please. Still water, cold."
  The commodore nodded. "Mineral water, ten degrees. Tomato juice." Two compliant beeps later
the beverages materialised in the replicator's hatch and he returned to the desk with them, sitting
down opposite to his guest.


  Tong studied the Bolian in front of him for a moment. Despite the man's large and bulky stature,
he conveyed an air of sophistication and amiableness. He also seemed fairly young, even more so
for a man with his responsibilities.
  "So," the commodore began, "I understand your main field of work is Federation relations with
Nausicaa. Couldn't you have found something less exciting to do? Wrestling rabid Targs for
example?"



  [ Bridge ]


  As a department head there were certain other obligations Hanar Timor had to endure, or be used
to at least. One such obligation was bridge duty and fiddling about as the duty officer, or more
accurately as the Officer of the Deck. It had been done on the commodore's insistence, who
believed that everyone should have a go at it.


  Hanar took it for what it was - another avenue of picking up members of the opposite sex. "So
there I was-..." he was saying to the perky CONN officer, just as the doors to the bridge swooshed
open, causing him to look up. In strode the tall blonde he had tried chatting up the previous day,
only to find out that Lieutenant Commander Holmes had been anything but in the mood for that
kind of thing. This realisation had only made him all the more eager to try it yet again at the earliest
opportunity.
  Accompanying Patricia Holmes was a small brunette petty officer who was chattering away at her
about some recent shoreleave activity - until Patricia stopped, turned on her heels and stared her
down.
  "Quiet now."
  Emily frowned. "Right. Bridge. Sorry."


  With a satisfied nod, the blonde turned about again and looked around the bridge, spotting Hanar
and approaching him warily.
  Hanar grew a smile. "Well... hello there!"
  Coming to a halt in front of him, Patricia nodded. "Chief." Looking towards Emily, she motioned for
her to come over as well. "Chief Timor, meet Petty Officer Evanson. Emily, this is our Chief of
Tactical, Hanar Timor."
  Hanar's stare fell upon the small brunette who slowly came closer - a lopsided grin on her face
that seemed oddly familiar. With half a frown he realised what it was - it was of the same predatory
variety as the grin usually seen on his own face. He paused, and arched an eyebrow at the
Lieutenant Commander.
  "Anything I can do for you?" he asked.


  "It's as much a surprise to me as it is to you, Chief, but yes." Patricia shot back with a smirk.
"There is. You see, for a short time during our last tenure aboard the Saturn, the petty officer has
served in a tactical capacity as well, something she now would like to pick up again. If that is alright
with you..."
  Hanar nodded slowly and stroked his chin thoughtfully as he looked the petty officer up and down.
"And if it wasn't alright with me...?" he asked quizzically.
  Patricia glanced aside at Emily with a sigh. "...she'll haunt you every single day and pester you
about it until you change your mind."
  Emily's grin grew wider.
  "Uh huh," he said, nodding, and grinned back at the petty officer. "And do you think being a pest
would be a good idea?"
  "I can be rather convincing, I've been told." Emily stated with a slight nod.
  "You don't say, Petty Officer?"
  Taking another step closer to Hanar, Emily raised a hand to his chest and followed the shape of
his pectoral muscles with her index finger, looking up at him. "Yup. Now, you wanna be a spoil-sport
or get on with the fun?"
  "Emily." Patricia cleared her throat, muttering, "Bridge..."
  "Right." Emily stepped back again. "Sorry."


  Hanar blinked, frowned and pondered what to say next. "How about you and I discuss your
assignment over dinner? Or," his smile grew, "would you rather prefer starting with dessert?"
  "I thought we could start with me being your... relief officer." Emily grinned. "You could show me
what buttons to push."
  Patricia rolled her eyes and sighed.
  Realising that he could have some fun with this young woman, he smiled and stepped aside. "By
all means... push away."
  Faking a cough, the Lieutenant Commander snatched back Emily's attention temporarily. "Right.
I'll leave you to your own. Don't blow up anything, dear."
  "I'll try, ma'am."
  "I'd rather have you succeed, not try." she stated, regarding Hanar. "Chief." Giving the two a last
suspicious glance, she then left towards the turbolift again.


  As he watched her go, Hanar shook his head in amusement. "She worries too much." Then,
regarding Emily, he gestured at the Tactical station. "Show me what you've got, Short Stuff..."
  Under the worried stares of half the bridge crew, Emily snuggled up to him and pointed at a row
of buttons which controlled the torpedo launchers. "I don't remember," she lied, "what are these
for?"
  Hanar studied the console with renewed interest...
  [ Two hours later ]


  The ready room doors parted to allow Secretary Moxx and Commodore Tong access to the bridge.
Watching them walk in, Miya stood and let Tong take the centre seat.


  "All the crew are aboard and accounted for, sir." she stated, walking over to the Communications
console. "Docking hatches are sealed, the ship is running under its own power."
  "Very well." Tong replied and made himself comfortable in his seat. Regarding Moxx, he added, "If
you'd like to remain on the bridge while we're heading out, I could-..."
  "No, no." the secretary was quick to wave him off. "Thank you. I should go and see your
Diplomatic Officer, and brief her on the talks with the Nausicaans. First, however, I'd like to drop by
my quarters, if you don't mind."
  "Sure thing." The commodore nodded and waved one of the relief officers over to them. "Ensign,
would you please show the secretary the way to his quarters?"
  "Of course, sir." Gesturing in the direction of the turbolift, the ensign followed the secretary off
the bridge.


  Enjoying the silence, Tong just sat there for a moment, smiling. Then he looked to Miya. "Alright.
Please inform the starbase that we're heading out."
  The XO nodded, pressing a button on the Communications console. "Far Reach, this is Saturn.
We're about to depart."
  "Copy, Saturn." it came back immediately. "Beginning to open bay doors."


  On the forward viewscreen, the spacedock gates were seen starting to move apart, the gap
getting bigger and bigger until eventually it was wide enough for a Galaxy class to glide through.
The much smaller Saturn slipped through easily, clearing the massive doors and moving off at high
sublight. Onboard, the crew both new and old settled down to their duties as the ship once more
came alive. Once at a safe distance from the planets around the starbase, it accelerated to warp
speed and disappeared in a flash of light towards the Nausicaan system.




                                                    ***
                                 Chapter 3 – Running into a glass door



  [ Marine Country ]


  The rolled up pair of socks caught Suilin behind the right ear. He turned to find "Noggy" Kor
glaring at him.
  "Willya frakkin' shut that noise up, Turtle?" she demanded in her inimitable style.
  Suilin put down the compact electronic guitar that he had been toying with. It was an impulse buy
while he had been on shoreleave and though it had been a few years since he had last played
anything, he didn't think it was that bad.
  "Why?" he retorted.
  "'Cos ya sound like something dyin'."
  "You're just jealous!"
  "Wot you sayin'?" demanded the big Klingon.
  "I'm saying that you are challenged in the appreciation of musical virtuosity and the art of
composition."
  "Wot?" Noggy was feeling slightly on the back foot now that big words were being used.


  From the other side of the bunkroom, Enzo Hawker laughed. "He's saying you're an untalented
thug, Noggy."
  Noggy's face darkened. "Keep outta this, Iceman!" she ordered.
  Suilin grinned in what he hoped was a diarming manner. "No. I'm saying that Noggy is a talented
thug who doesn't enjoy music."
  The Klingon relaxed a bit. As long as they weren't calling her stupid then she could live with not
liking music. "Wot you doing it for anyway."
  "Just for fun. Maybe if there's someone else who can play we could start a band. Lighten the mood
around here."
  "We could do with lightening something around here." muttered the Iceman. "Gunny has been in
a foul mood ever since we got back."
  "He's jus' fritzed about bein' in charge." said Noggy, pleased with the change of direction.
  "Nah, I don't think so. He's been in charge before. Something's wrong."


  At that moment, their squad leader, Mike Dushon, went past the door. "Hey, sarge." shouted
Noggy.
  Dushon stopped and leaned in the door of the bunkroom. "What is it, Noggy?"
  "Wossup with the Gunny, sarge? He's in a frakkin' lousy temper. You're his mate, he must tell you
stuff!" demanded Noggy, displaying all the subtlety of a flying brick. Suilin and the Iceman looked at
each other in despair.
  "I haven't got a scooby, Noggy. Whatever it is, he's not sharing. But if you're worrying about it,
then you must have got too much time on your hands. Head off to the armoury and polish the
grenades."
  "Awww, sarge, I wuz ..."
  "Awww nothing. Move it, marine."
  [ Captain's Ready Room, later that day ]


  Commodore Tong put down the PADD he was looking at as he heard his stomach grow for what
seamed like the tenth time in the past hour. So he got up to answer the call and walked over to the
replicator.


  "Nacho bell Grande extra sour cream and mild hot sauce." he ordered. Then he cocked his head
and added "...and two chicken bell grandes, soft tacos."


  The replicator took what seemed forever to produce his order, but instead of what he had
ordered, what came up looked like a bunch of oatmeal burnt to a crisp slop.
  He sighed and tapped his communicator. "Engineering, this is the CO. My replicator is on the
fritz."
  It took a few seconds until a reply came back. "That makes the sixth one in the last hour. I'll have
someone on it as soon as possible."
  "Thanks. Commodore Tong out." He tapped the badge again and headed out of his ready room.


  Miya who was sitting in the centre seat noticed him step onto the bridge and rose from the chair.


  "Go ahead and keep it warm, XO." Tong waved her off, walking past her. "I'm headed down to the
lounge for some chow." he added and stepped into the turbolift.



  [ Corridors, Deck 7 ]


  The corridor was crowded. And no wonder – it usually was, shortly after a shoreleave. People,
suddenly back on duty, realised they had stuff to do, tasks to complete, documentation to hand out
and other countless responsibilities that had been delayed by a perspective of kicking back for a
few days. Morgan himself had late updates to complete for Tactical while he himself hadn't yet
received the report from Stellar Cartography he had requested.


  Not a problem, he'd just stop by in person and remind them once more. Usually that tended to
work wonders.



  [ Bridge ]


  "Have we got all we ordered, Chief?" Miya asked the Chief of Tactical, referring to their latest crew
additions delivered to the Saturn by a Federation transport vessel. Among them, finally, their new
chief engineer.
  "Everyone on board, ma'am." answered Emily for him, flashing Hanar a quick smile.
  "Um, yes... according to the manifest, that seems to be the case." he added.
  "Very good, Chief. Carry on." Miya smirked.


  Hanar Timor had realised that he could get away with getting subordinates take up his station,
something he had done with every member of the Tactical department - if only to attain who was
more familiar with the ship's unique tactical systems, as he wanted to get one of them to help him
out on the holodeck where he intended to run a couple training programs. Thus far, it looked like it
would be Petty Officer Emily Evanson. And not solely for the obvious reason that she was more
visually pleasing than the others.


  "Come on," he said to her nodding at a relief officer nearby, and started towards the turbolift. "To
the holodecks."
  "Wait up!" one of the off-duty bridge crew urged, getting Hanar to hold the doors open. "Thanks,
Chief."
  "Don't mention it," he replied, noting the single solid pin on the guy's collar.
  "Lounge." the ensign instructed the computer before the lift doors swished closed.



  [ Marine Country ]


  Sitting bolt upright in his bunk, Don Jameson awoke, his sixth sense shaking him to the core. The
dread that had beset him since shoreleave now seemed very close and real. It had never hit him as
badly as this before and the effect was genuinely scaring. Sitting in the dark, awake and alert as if
on a battlefield, he searched once again for a reason ... until, this time, it found him.



  [ Bridge ]


  Miya watched the transport craft disappear in a flash of light, before turning to the helm.


  "Resume course, warp six." she stated, feeling the subtle change in vibrations as the engines
pushed them to faster than light speeds. She then resumed staring at the PADD in front of her,
completely ignoring the two-man console at the front of bridge. With that taken into consideration,
it had no right to hit her as hard as it did.



  [ Engineering ]


  The double doors to Main Engineering had just parted to admit a solitary figure in black when All
Hell broke loose.


  Quite literally - a plaque mounted just above the door frame inscribed with "All Hell" went flying
over the man's head to dash itself into pieces against the far bulkhead. No one had any time at all
to react to the sudden lurching of the ship as she was abruptly braked.
  The compartment darkened, both under the glow of the emergency lights as well as the
scramming of the warp core and just about everything else short of life support. Which, oddly
enough, included the inertial damper system. What started with All Hell breaking loose went on with
Anything Not Bolted Down going flying.


  The plaque, too.



  [ Corridors, Deck 7 ]


  When the ship jerked, Morgan had his nose in one of the two PADDs he carried.


  The next moment, he and over a dozen of other people were mid-flight. The same amount of
minds boomed in his in a state of shock at such violent disruption ended the tranquility of daily
service. And then everything went dark.


  Time seemed to freeze for a heartbeat as mind-states of every officer in the corridor halted on the
verge of panic.



  [ Space ]


  The anomaly had been drifting through space for aeons. Gaseous in nature, it was huge in scale.
But although it was large, space is even larger and this particular patch did nothing to draw
attention to itself. It quietly swallowed energy from right across the electromagnetic spectrum and
drew it down within itself to who knows where. To an outside observer, the only clue to its existence
was the occasional eclipse of a part of the starfield as the anomaly drifted idly through space. And
space is too large, and life is too short, for anyone to pay that much attention to something like it.


  The emissions from the Saturn's sophisticated active sensor arrays simply disappeared deep into
the anomaly with no return that the ship could detect. So there was nothing to warn the bridge of
what lay ahead until kilotons of energy emitting machinery ploughed headlong into it.


  The anomaly had never experienced an input of energy on this scale and it greedily swallowed it
up. But whatever it was, and wherever it had come from, it still had to obey the basic laws of
physics. Putting energy into a system increases the volatility of that system. Writhing, raging
energy storms engulfed the area around the Saturn. The gas rapidly heated and fed back surplus
energy into the systems around the hull that then transmitted it deeper inside the vessel. After the
sudden drop to sublight and the collapse of the warp field, the remaining kinetic energy was not so
easily absorbed - but the deceleration was still enough to cause the ship to buck and twist violently
as the velocity bled away.


  For the first time in its existence, the anomaly advertised itself to the rest of the universe. The
gas cloud flared with light and the storms howled a banshee yell across every frequency of the
spectrum.



  [ Marine Country ]


  The jolt threw Don onto the floor, and he instinctively rolled and took the impact on his shoulders.
He tried to rise but was knocked down to the floor again. Anticipating more, he braced himself as
much as possible as he scrabbled in the small, dark compartment for his uniform. All his effects,
normally set out in a regular pattern beside the bed so he could put his hand on anything in an
instant, had gone flying. Eventually, his hand closed around the familiar fabric and he pulled it to
him, struggling into it.


  The movement of the ship eased somewhat, and Don tried to get to his feet and out of the door
into the staging area. The normally brightly lit room was now under red emergency lighting and he
guessed what was required next. The Prometheus class was a good ship but they must have had an
off day when they did the internal comms because they always failed at the faintest sign of trouble.
Never mind, the marines were familiar with what they needed to do - start running errands with
messages in cleft sticks.


  "Black Knights! Kit up! Operation Running Man!" He yelled as he pulled open his equipment locker
and pulled out the combat helmet. He slapped it on his head and booted it up as other marines
filtered into the room. As expected, the squad leaders were among the first.


  "March, take the mid section. Mike, ventral section."
  "Copy, Gunny."
  "Junebug, go for the dorsal section but you can ignore the main bridge. Hampool, take O'Shea and
Quin and head for the bridge. Remember to take a couple of spare helmets. I'll setup with a field
pack here."
  "Roger that, Gunny."
  "Anyone seen Kemper?"
  "Here, Gunny."
  "See if anyone here needs patching and then contact the CMO and see where they can use you
most."
  "Understood."


  The dimly lit staging area was now filled with marines struggling into the kit they pulled from their
lockers. Amazingly, no-one seemed to be injured although several were moving a little more stiffly
than before. The field kit lockers were nearby and he wrenched open one with the field command
pack inside. Bracing himself in a corner, Don slung it between his knees, activated it and waited for
it to come online. The hardened electronics seemed to be working and he could see the platoon
deploying out of the barracks on their assigned missions.


  Now that events were unfolding, the dread receded, to be replaced by a determination to see the
job through. It always felt better when you had a task to focus on.
  [ Space ]


  When the commotion finally settled, the Saturn was adrift and floating serenely, however slowly,
through an area with a lesser gas density. A tumble had been imparted by the event, rolling her
about all three axes. Normally, a person looking out of a view port would see the starfield rotating
before them. But in this case, there was nothing to be seen apart from some fading light from the
energy storms where the Saturn had come through. Everywhere else was matt, impassive
blackness.



  [ Bridge ]


  Sparks flew from damaged systems as red lights illuminated the remains of the once ordered
bridge. The low lighting indicated the backup systems were working as expected, although it still
raised the question of what had happened to the primaries. Actually, it simply would have been nice
to know what had happened, full stop.


  "Bridge to Engineering." Miya said, staggering to her feet and looking round the room as others
began to pick themselves up. Frowning, Miya tried again. "Bridge to Engineering, respond."


  No reply, whatever had happened had knocked out the communications, and presumably other
key systems. They could only hope that whatever had happened in other areas of the ship, there
were enough people still around to start getting things working again.



  [ Corridors ]


  Before Morgan's own imagination contemplated whether he was still alive or not, emergency
lights had kicked in, much to the relief of everyone present, dimly lighting the corridor. Everyone
was on the floor, the play of shadows suggesting that there were more people than there were in
fact. For a short moment, their minds were slowly taking it in, trying to analyse what happened. And
then, having not found satisfying solution, they went out loud.


  "What happened?" asked a young Bolian, fresh from academy, her voice rapid, poorly covering a
rising state of panic. "Are we being attacked?"
  "We should hail the bridge! They should know what's going on!"
  "The comm system is not responding!" someone shouted from outside of Morgan's field of view.
  "Where's Security! If we're attacked, we must defend ourselves!" shrieked someone in a feminine
tone of voice.
  "What about life support?! We might die!"
  "Worse! If the ship hit something, is the integrity field holding?!"
  "Turbolifts aren't working!"
  Morgan narrowed eyes at his luck. A corridor full of new people – or, well, their voices were
dominating and spreading potential panic on others. And, oh great, no visible security patrol to
handle it for him. He quickly rolled on his side and got up. No injuries – that was something.


  "Ev..." he started but then stopped because something was making it difficult. He felt blood in his
lips and spit it out violently. Great, he must've bit on his lower lip when the ship jerked. Hopefully
they were going to understand him.
  "Everyone! Calm yourselves!" he raised his hands, concentrating on all minds he could sense in
the corridor. He reached to them, touching their uneasy minds with his mental abilities, pouring
calming suggestions to their subconsciousness. "We got a situation here! But we'll handle it!"


  It worked. They stopped shouting, but they still needed encouragement. Those drills were trained
dozens of times in the Academy, but some of them still lacked practice. And even the more
experienced ones could sometimes be overwhelmed by the situation.


  "You, you and you!" he pointed two nearest people, "Check with the wounded. I can see at least
three people over there by the wall that aren't moving. Fetch emergency med-kits and see if you
can help them."
  He spit to the side, trying to get the accumulating blood out of his mouth so he could speak
clearly.
  "The five of you," he selected, ensuring that there was a Commissioned Officer among them, "find
all the people on this deck and see if they're alright. Once you're done, help with patching the
injured and once that's done, try to escort those that can walk to sickbay – it's only a few decks
down in case turbolifts won't start working soon."


  "The rest of you," he looked at the handful that were left, "go to adjacent decks and see what's
the situation. Now go, go! We got to get this under control!"



  [ Engineering ]


  Lieutenant Commander Auron sylthen'Vlar picked himself up from the deck, as did most everyone
else within Main Engineering. Given the nature of their field of experience there wasn't nearly the
level of panic here as there were in several other portions of the ship, and amazingly enough no
fatalities. The only casualties were a pair of environmental specialists in a nearby Jefferies Tube -
they had been bounced around the interior of the tube, along with all of their tools. One suffered a
broken femur, the other now had a particulate flow adjuster embedded in his left thigh.


  Auron quickly made his way to the Chief Engineer's office - his office. Much to everyone's surprise
it opened for him: after all, he wasn't even in uniform, so no one really knew who the mysterious
individual invading the heart of the starship was until now.
  "Computer."
  Bee-dee-BOOP! it came back at him. The responsive chirp was gratifying. This meant that the
hard wired connections between Engineering and at least one computer core were still functional.
  "Okay, computer: run a level four diagnostic. Attempt to do the same with the other two cores if
links are still functional."
  The computer chirped its acknowledgment as the El-Aurian exited his office for the Engineering
main floor.


  "Alright everyone, initiate 'Reduced Power Mode' status ship-wide until I give word otherwise; if
anyone doesn't like it they can come see me, the Captain included. Damage control, start working
your way through the decks. Warp specialists, get on the core and figure out if we can fire it back
up again and how soon. I also need a detachment to see to the dorsal micro-warp core, just in case.
Impulse, well this is the wrong room for you, no?"
  There were a few chuckles around the room.
  "Go see about the condition of all three sections sublight drives. Until the warp core is online
we're stuck on the fusion cores and emergency generators for power. Environmental, make sure the
inertial dampers actually like us, and if they don't, change their electronic minds. Have a look at the
internal comms as well, while you're at it. Level three and four diagnostics across the board, bare
minimum. I need five bodies to head to the nearest bridge module for inter-ship coordination
duties."


  Volunteers were quickly identified, and they headed out.
  "Anyone else, take care of the wounded and round up as many spare hands as possible. We all
have our jobs, let's get to work."



  [ Nebula Lounge ]


  Tong slowly opened his eyes. All he could see was darkness so he slapped the side of his head
which seemed to clear things up a bit, but some things were still fuzzy. He looked around at his
surroundings and noticed that the table that he had been sitting at eating his meal had fallen on his
legs, and that was when all the pains started to hit him - which in a way was reassuring because it
let him know that he could still feel them.


  "Over here! It's the Commodore." He heard someone yell, and then he saw a bunch of people
come toward him.
  "Are you hurt, sir?" An NCO asked as she kneed down.
  "My legs, but I think that's just because they are pinned under the table."
  "Does your head hurt?" the petty officer asked as she reached behind her and grabbed a medical
kit.
  "Now that you mention it." he said as he watched some men remove the table from his legs.
  "Don't try to get up, sir. First let me tend to your wounds."
  "What's your name?" he asked her as she pulled out some medic supplies and start to bandage
his head wound.
  "Roslain Carter, sir. I just came on board. My sister is in Tactical."
  "Well isn't this the strangest way of meeting your ship's CO..."
  "Yes it is, sir. Do you think you can move your legs?" Roslain said as she got up from the floor.
  "I believe so." The commodore got up slowly, although his legs felt like rubber and had a hard
time supporting his full weight.
  Carter noticed the strain the CO had in trying to get up and motioned for someone to bring him a
chair.
  "Thanks." Tong said quietly as he sat down, just as slowly as he had tried getting up. "Anyone
know what happened?" he then asked.
  "Not really, sir. We have no communications, and we seem to be on emergency power." said a
lieutenant who made his way through the crowd. "Also the doors don't want to open."
  "Did anyone try manual release?"
  "No go, sir."
  "Alright then, you two get on opening those doors." Tong said pointing at two ensigns in the
yellow-collared uniforms of Operations. "And you two work on getting us comms." he said pointing
at two more. "As for the rest of you, find out how many people we have and who's all hurt."
  "Yes sir!" everyone said as they moved off.


  The Lieutenant pulled Carter aside after they got away from the commodore.
  "How is he?"
  Roslain couldn't look him in the face as she spoke. "Bad. I'm not sure but I think he has internal
bleedings and his legs are damaged."
  The lieutenant unconsciously licked his lips as he watched the CO leaning back in the chair with a
pained expression, then he looked around and back at the petty officer. "Make him as comfortable
as possible."
  "Of course, sir."
  "We might be stuck in here for a while." he added portentously in a low voice.
  She nodded. "I'll do what I can."



  [ Turbolifts ]


  The sudden stop was not something Hanar recalled as they found themselves piled on top of one
another.
  He blinked, and frowned as he looked down. He was staring back at the young Ensign, who looked
as if his face had become frozen. Without thinking, he applied two fingers on the Ensign's neck to
check the pulse.
  "Frak." he shook his head, and looked around. "Emily, you still breathing?"
  Groggily sitting up against the lift wall, the small brunette inarticulately groaned something in
reply and rubbed her hurting head. Her hand came back red with blood. Rolling her eyes, she
sighed and mumbled, "Bloody awesome..."
  Moving off the Ensign, Hanar edged closer to her. "You hurt?"
  Looking up, Emily glared at him. "Nah, I'm alright. That's just the turbolift ceiling bleeding on my
head." Then her eyes fell on the young Science officer next to them.
  "Dead." said Hanar in reply to her stare, looking back. "I think he saved my life though."
  "Oh." Emily said and swallowed. Then she glanced back at him again for a long and quiet moment
as if looking for something in his eyes and not finding it.


  Standing up, Hanar looked around. Apart from the occasional electrical zap, the turbolift was
relatively dark and forbidding to say the least. Looking up, he noticed that the emergency hatch
was partially ajar.
  He knelt in front of the young woman. "Come on, let's see if we can get out of here." he said,
offering her his hand. Drawing a deep breath, she took it and picked herself up the floor.



  [ Bridge ]


  The energy surges had taken out the majority of the bridge consoles as it vented through the
ships systems. Since the initial impact and resulting fires, they had finally managed to take stock
and found themselves stuck in a compartment that was sealed from the rest of the ship. This left
them alone to deal with their casualties.


  They were doing the best that they could with the medical kits available, but they had started at a
heavy disadvantage. Over a third of the personnel on the bridge had been killed outright, and those
left alive were not in the best shape. Miya had survived largely due to the open space in front of the
command chair, but she was definitely not unscathed. A large cut on her cheek marked the impact
with the edge of the console, and her left arm was slung up against her - a break just above the
elbow not something the small field kits were ever designed to handle.


  Currently she, along with Ensign Shivaz from Tactical, were endeavouring to open a Jefferies tube
hatch at the rear of the bridge to gain access to the rest of the ship. Between them they had three
working legs and two arms, so it was not proving easy. The other survivors were not so lucky. Most
were unconscious, sedation being the best course of action, and those remaining conscious were
trying their best to bring up any kind of communication with the rest of the ship - so far achieving
little success.


  Whatever had happened, it seemed to be over now - this largely ruled out attack by an enemy
vessel. The whole thing had felt much more like an impact - the question was, with what?



  [ Nebula Lounge]


  Lieutenant McBride walked up behind the two Operations personnel who where working on
getting the door at the north end of the lounge open. "How's it going guys?"
  "Bad. The gears are busted so we really can't get them to move." grimaced a petty officer.
  "So you're saying it's a lost cause?" asked McBride.
  "Not really, sir. It might take a while but we'll get it open."


  "Alright then keep at it." The lieutenant said as he walked away, heading toward the door on the
south end of the lounge. But as he got midway to the door the two noncoms who had been working
on that door came towards him.
  "Why aren't you working on the door?" he frowned at them.
  "Because the door is getting red hot, sir."
  "Oh that's just great, that is. Now on top of everything else we also got a fire." the lieutenant
muttered and looked around the lounge, noticing how many of the roughly two dozen people who
where trapped in the lounge where close to the south side.
  "Alright, let's get everyone moved over to the north side. Not much more we can do at the
moment."



  [ Main Security ]


  A noise woke her, a groan of the kind that a large metal structure under stress would make. It
seemed to be emerging from somewhere beneath her. Lying on the floor, Patricia could more feel
than actually hear it.


  She tried opening her eyes, but her eye lids seemed to be stuck together. Rolling over to one
side, she brought her hand to her face, rubbing her forehead and eye brows. A film of thick, sticky
fluid was covering her face, and there was a sharp, burning pain when she touched her forehead
underneath the hairline. Finally opening her eyes, she still couldn't see anything, and for a moment
panic grabbed hold of her before she realised it was dark all around her. No emergency lights, the
consoles were dead, and the air smelt like something was smouldering nearby.


  Tapping her communicator, she waited for the chirp signaling an open channel. But nothing came.
She tapped it again. Still nothing.
  "Main Security to bridge." she uttered weakly and waited. It was of no use. The device remained
silent.


  Groping her way forward, Patricia swept her hands across the floor. Eventually she reached a wall
and slowly drew herself up. The room was spinning around her, and an excruciating nausea made it
harder and harder for her to breathe. Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to move along the wall
until she found the door. It was closed and didn't open - the sensor didn't seem to work. It took her
a while until she found the door control, and she pushed the buttons on it frantically, but the door
still wouldn't open.


  With a muted outcry Patricia slammed her hand on the control and slumped down to the floor in
front of it. There she sat for a minute, trying to catch her breath, but the spinning only got worse.
Colours flashed past her eyes and she felt like she was going to pass out any moment. That was
when she heard the voices, muted, like from far away.


  The next moment she felt the door slide open behind her back, only a small bit until it was stuck
again. Fresh air poured into the room, and dim light from the corridor outside shone through the
gap. Enough to show her the bodies of two crew members a couple meters ahead of her. That
moment the nausea overwhelmed her and she threw up, right next to where she sat.
  "Hello? Someone alive in there?" a female voice asked.
  "Barely." Patricia managed after wiping her mouth, adding, "Who is that?"
  "Junebug. Um, Sergeant Ranson, ma'am. Are you alright?"
  "Marines..."
  "Correct." replied Junebug laconically, adding, "Can you get up?"
  Patricia tried, and slowly got to her feet again. Her knees felt like jello. "Seems possible." she
replied. "For now..."
  "Great. Look, we can't seem to find a way to the section behind Main Security. Can you try and
see if you can get through there?"


  Not answering right away, Patricia slowly staggered forward, towards the bodies lying motionless
on the floor. Kneeling down beside them, she felt for a pulse. Both were dead. Taking another deep
breath she looked up at the door on the far side of the room, and took a couple of steps towards it.
It didn't open automatically, but after pressing a button on the control panel next to it the door
dutifully swished open. A thick cloud of smoke emerged from the room behind it causing Patricia to
blink as it stung her eyes.


  "I don't know." she finally answered. "There's a fire somewhere. I can try."
  "Good. But be careful." Junebug replied. "We'll head for deck six."
  "What... what happened?" Patricia eventually asked and turned around, walking back over to the
other door again.
  "Not sure." the Marine stated, adding, "Think the ship ran aground or something."
  "What's the status of the bridge?"
  "Don't know yet. We have someone heading up there now, though."
  "So the comms are out ship-wide?"
  "Seems like, ma'am. But we've got these." Junebug shoved a spare helmet through the gap.
Patricia reached for it and activated the field transceiver unit.
  "Thanks."
  "The gunny is coordinating our teams. Call in whenever you find someone or need help."
  "Will do."
  "Good luck, ma'am."
  "Yeah... you too, Sergeant."



  [ Science Labs, Deck 8 ]


  Rita came to to a world of greyness. Confused, she remained still, trying to make sense of her
surroundings and the general situation. She ached all over, but it felt just like the superficial burn
and ache of scrapes and bruises.


  Was the power out? And where was everybody? Slowly she uncurled herself, only then realising
that she had fallen with her nose barely an inch away from a bulkhead. She stood, supporting
herself against it and, blinking like a sleepy cat to re-adjust her focus she surveyed the place - of
course, Science Lab 3.


  Slowly it all came back to her. She had come down to Deck 8 to check the data feed of a couple of
probes, a routine survey. She had just come in when the Saturn had started bucking and bolting like
a Litharian pitch-whale - and then the world had gone black.
  She tapped her comm-badge. "Orsini to Science." No reply came back. "Orsini to bridge." Nothing,
not even static.
  Gingerly, careful not to step over the debris littering the floor, she went to the nearest console.


  "Computer."
  "Ready." answered the familiar flat tones. Rita sat down, relieved. She could remember no
warning beforehand - so, whatever the problem was, it wasn't likely to be an engineering matter.
No red alert whatsoever, so it wasn't an attack either. That left one possibility, as she saw it - an
external phenomenon of some sort, and if that was the case, data was needed.


  For a moment Rita looked around once more. What had happened to her colleagues? Then she
shook her head and crushed down her worry - she was no doctor and no engineer, the best she
could do to help the Saturn was to do her own job.


  "Computer, check probe status."
  "Probe gamma 7 destroyed, probe theta 2 is transmitting."
  "Show data, starting point five hours ago."


  She did not quite like what she was seeing. There were way too many questions with no answers
yet, but at least some elements had been found. Now her problem was different - how to
communicate with the commodore? Or whoever is left in charge, supplied a cold little voice in her
head. Rita crushed the thought and tried her communicator again.


  But nothing - either the thing was broken or communications were out. Recommending herself
and her shipmates to all the saints, Rita went out from the lab, determined to reach the bridge.



  [ Sickbay ]


  Dalin slowly came to as he looked around Sickbay. His vision was blurry like he had water in his
eyes. Slowly he brought his hand up and rubbed his eyes, realising that Sickbay was very busy and
full. Startled he stood up quickly. When he did so, the room spun around and he got very nauseous.
Dalin tried his best to hold it in but of course it came up anyway.


  "Dee! You're up!" said a nurse and ran over to him.
  The ensign breathed heavily. He didn't mind the watery eyes and the ache in his stomach. But the
taste you get in your mouth after throwing up was the worst. He spit trying to get the acid out of his
mouth.
  He looked up at the nurse. "I've got a concussion." he stated matter-of-factly.
  "And a full sick bay." said the nurse rubbing his back. "We can not find Candice. Communications
are down and we got badly injured people coming in all the time."
  Dalin looked around him and sighed. His vision was still blurry. "Help me sit down."
  Once seated on the ground again, he looked at the nurse, "Candice isn't here is she?"
  "No sir, I already said that - you're the ranking officer." The nurse sounded a little worried.
  "Okay, okay. You need to give me some time. You're in charge for the moment." Dalin said
weakly.



  [ Marine Country ]


  As the platoon spread through the ship, the extent of the damage was becoming clearer to Don.
Areas deep inside the ship had mostly escaped damage even if their crew hadn't. But in areas close
to the hull and where energy feedback had reached inside, the damage was more extensive with
fires in more sections that was comfortable. But now that March's squad had got someone into main
engineering, at least there was a method of getting the news to damage control.


  A new, hesitant, voice broke into the marines ordered conversation. "Marine control? This is Main
Security. Do you copy?"
  "Copy, security. This is Tower Two. Please identify yourself."
  "Um... right. This is Patricia Holmes, COS. One of your sergeants gave me a helmet. Got two dead
here and there's a fire in the next compartment."
  "Affirmative, ma'am. I'll relay that to damage control. For now, your callsign is Black Seven.
Copy?"
  "Copy, Tower Two."
  "Are you in immediate danger or injured, Black Seven?"
  "I'll be okay for now as long as that fire doesn't break through."
  "Roger, Black Seven. I'll pass the message."


  Don tapped the keys to pass the information on to engineering while wishing again for Hampool
to get to the bridge in a hurry. He routed the casualty report to Kemper's helmet so that she could
give it to the CMO when she eventually arrived at sickbay. The toll of dead and injured was
mounting steadily.



  [ Sickbay ]


  A short bit later, Dalin was still a little groggy but that wasn't anything some coffee wouldn't clean
up. Gone was confusion and the dizziness. He still had one hell of a headache and he still couldn't
remember anything he did while on shore leave. He lifted a small cup of hot black liquid to his lips.
He took a sip and instantly felt more energised. But he would have to take many breaks as he was
far from one hundred percent.


  He looked out into sickbay. It was packed full. Luckily for him there were more people in there just
looking to help. Dalin was taking the more serious injuries and his volunteers were handling the
bumps, breaks and bruises. He wished Candice was here with him but he knew she was finding her
way down to him and sickbay. She probably got stuck on some deck and is busy helping the injured
there. He didn't want to think about the alternative.


  Dalin held his forehead in his hand and breathed deep. Then he removed his hand and looked up
to see Kemper walk in. Dalin smiled to see the marine. Kemper talked shortly with a nurse and was
pointed to Dalin. She walked up to him and shook his hand.
  "I'm glad to see you. I can use the help!" Dalin said.
  "It looks like it - you okay?" asked Kemper.
  "I have a concussion. I'm over the worst, but not all there still."
  "Okay, well. You'll man the radio, and I will work on the wounded. Get some rest, lay down - why
am I telling you what to do?" Kemper smiled at Dalin and handed him the headset. "Your code name
is White Knight."


  As Kemper went off into sick bay to see what she could do, Dalin sat down in Candice's chair and
activated the comm, grimacing. "This is White Knight - I've fallen off my horse but I'm still fighting."



  [ Half an hour later ]
  [ Corridors, Deck 7, Section F ]


  "...short story was, the digestive system was not operating correctly and so the worms became
part of breaking down what's going on in the intestinal track. In which case they're there to help the
process, not hinder it. Now the interesting thing is, when you have a really broken down digestive
system, you get so infested with worms, it starts to damage the intestines. So, what we needed to
do was upgrade the whole intestinal track and then say, worms aren't necessarily the cause of all
the problems, but maybe they are part of the symptoms from a bigger picture, and-..."


  "Rita?" Patricia stopped, propping herself against the wall for support.
  "Yes?" the field scientist stopped as well, turning around to the blonde who was visibly having
trouble breathing. "Oh my God, you're all sweaty."
  "Please." Patricia panted as she looked back at her. "Can we cut down on the worm talk?"
  "I'm sorry. I do get carried away sometimes. Come on, sit down for a while." Rita added and
helped her gently slide down to the floor. For a moment she watched Patricia, not entirely sure what
to do next. "I really think I should go on alone, and find a medic for you. You don't look like you-..."
  "No. No, it's okay." Patricia replied weakly. "Just a small break. Five minutes."
  "Okay..." Rita didn't sound entirely convinced.


  After a while Patricia's breathing evened out and she looked back up at Rita. "You know, back at
the academy... when we were making fun of you nerds?"
  Rita nodded embarrassedly. "I know you didn't mean it."
  "Yes we did." Patricia uttered, trying to get up again. "And it was exactly because of those kind of
stories."
  "Oh."
  "Gonna help me up?"
  The field scientist shook her head slightly. "You still don't look so good. I should get you to
Sickbay."
  "Rita, I'm the goddamned Security Chief! I won't be immobilised by a frakking bruise! We need to
get to the bridge."
  "That's not a bruise, that's an ugly laceration. And very likely a concussion."
  "Oh great, you're a medic now?"
  Rita's head-shaking turned into a nod. "Remember when we nerds used to call you diva?"
  Patricia sighed and grimaced. "Alright." she gave in. "Go."
  "I won't be long. Just try not to pass out."



  [ Bridge ]


  The hatch had eventually opened, allowing Miya to survey the relatively unscathed innards of the
Jefferies tube leading down from the bridge. As the only survivor with both legs functional, Miya had
taken it upon herself to get help - and was now struggling with another problem. Getting down the
ladder had taken some time, and with only one arm she had frightened herself on more than one
occasion. Still, she was down now - and had encountered the hatch letting her exit onto deck two,
unfortunately it was as sealed as the bridge one had been.


  Sighing, she stood back and regarded the controls - trying to figure out if there was any way
either around it, or a method of opening it she hadn't previously noticed. Yeah, just open it with the
power of your mind she thought, scowling as she realised she was just as stuck as she had been on
the bridge.



  [Corridor - Deck 2]


  Hampool, Watson and O'Shea halted to check their position. The climb up to this deck through the
damage and chaos had been hard work but now they were close to their goal.


  "It should be about here." muttered Hampool looking at the ship schematic on her visor.
  "Everyone remember where we left the Jefferies tube." laughed Watson.
  "Yeah. Funny, Quin." Hampool made up her mind and walked over to the wall of the corridor. In
the semi darkness of the emergency lighting, she felt around and tugged at a recess. "Yep, here we
are. If we can get this open then its a straight up to the back of the bridge."
  She tugged at the panel but it refused to budge. From somewhere above, they could hear a
thumping sound.
  "At least someone is making a noise up there." Hampool sounded relieved. "Go on, Quin. This
one's for you."


  Watson grinned and smacked the palm of his hand with the crowbar he carried. As the Gunny was
fond of saying, 'Sometimes low tech just works better', and right now Quin was up for some brute
force and ignorance. He advanced on the panel and examined the edge with his fingers. Having
chosen his spot, he inserted the tip of the bar in the recess and rammed the end with his hand to
force it in. As he braced himself, Hampool and O'Shea stepped back, wary of where the panel would
go. Quin heaved on the end of the bar and the panel flexed slightly.


  "C'mon, Quin. A beer says you can't do it." jeered O'Shea.
  Quin snarled back and rammed the crowbar deeper. Taking up the strain, he forced his weight
against the bar. The panel flexed and creaked before finally admitting defeat. It sprang from its
seating and clattered to the deck. The three gathered round the opening just in time to meet the XO
coming the other way.
  "It's about time ..." she muttered, jumping back in surprise.
  "Sorry, ma'am. Traffic was bad."
  "Yeah. Is this the way to the pub? He's buying." leered Quin, jerking his thumb at O'Shea.



  [ Bridge ]


  What was left of the bridge crew looked up in surprise as the XO returned much sooner than they
had expected. Behind her, three marines emerged from the hatch.
  "...we're pretty darn lucky the inertial dampeners held as long as they did. A bit sooner and we all
would be space dust particles by now."
  "I suppose you're right, Sergeant. When you put it like that the broken down comms system
doesn't seem so bad anymore. Anyway, those should prove useful." Miya finished, referring to the
spare helmets they had brought with them.


  Taking one, she put it on - immediately hearing chatter as the marines began to cover the whole
ship between them.



  [ Marine Country ]


  "This is White Knight, can you hear me?" said a male voice that Don couldn't place. The display on
the field pack helpfully, but rather disconcertingly, showing Kemper's helmet as the source.


  "Copy White Knight, this is Tower Two. Is Sergeant Kemper okay?"
  "Uh, yes, Tower Two. She's working in main sickbay. This is Ensign Saine, I'm using her helmet."
  "Understood, White Knight. I've collated a casualty list. You ready for it?"
  "Ready, Tower Two. How do I view it?"
  "If you haven't got the visor down, pull it down now. I'll feed it to the left side display and then
you use the chin switch to scroll through the list. Kemper can show you."


  Don eased his shoulders and took a moments break before keying the comms again. "All stations,
this is Tower Two. Heads up, this is rumour control and these are the facts. The CO is injured and
has been taken to sickbay. He's out of action for the moment. The XO is also injured, but is on the
bridge and is in command. Her callsign is Black Two. The chief engineer is in Main Engineering
running damage control. He's Black Four. Contact White Knight with casualty updates. There have
been multiple fires reported but the suppression system seems to be keeping them in check. The
CSO, ACSO and COB are still unaccounted for. Tower Two is now relocating to the bridge. Out."


  Rising to his feet, he slung the pack on his shoulder and headed for Deck 1.



  [Nebula Lounge]


  On the corridor, Corporal Kelly and Private Otner took their crowbars and jammed them into the
doors on the port side of the lounge. They both then forced the doors to slide a few inches.
  "Anyone in there?"
  On the other side of the doors a petty officer watched as the doors they had been working on
start to slide apart.
  "We're closed!" he yelled back.
  "Everyone's a comedian. Come on, Private. Put your back into it." said Kelly and the two marines
used their full body weight to push open the doors further, before several hands grabbed the doors
from the inside and joined them in their effort. The added strength made the doors slide all the way
open.


  "What a sight you two grunts are." Lieutenant McBride greeted them, visibly relieved.
  "That's what all the girls say. What's your sitrep, sir?" Corporal Kelly asked as he and Otner
stepped into the lounge.
  "We've got twenty-five people in here with about six of them injured and two dead. Plus we got a
fire on the other side of the starboard door." the lieutenant said and took the corporal aside,
lowering his voice. "And I didn't want to say this out loud, but the CO is badly injured and needs to
get to the CMO on the double."
  "Copy that, sir. The Gunny is coordinating our teams. I'll pass it to him and he'll get the message
to sickbay and damage control."
  "Have you got contact with the bridge yet?" asked McBride.
  "We got to Engineering but I don't know about the bridge. Hang on, sir, and I'll find out." Kelly
turned away and McBride could hear him muttering into his helmet comms. Eventually he turned
back. "Yes, sir. One of our teams has got through to the bridge and is in contact with the XO.
Engineering have been told about the fire and our medic should reach sickbay soon to establish a
link there. She's carrying a casualty list, the Gunny will add the CO to it."
  "Okay, corporal. I guess that will have to do."
  "We'll hang on here until we get that link to sickbay, sir. But then we'll have to move on to the
next section."



  [ Deck 7 ]
  A field pack emerged from an open Jefferies tube into the dimly lit corridor. It was closely followed
by a grunting, cursing marine. Don hated the tubes with a vengeance, especially the smaller ones.
He slung the pack again and turned to see a figure running towards him. As it got closer, he
recognised one of the science crew. The name escaped him until she spoke, Orsini.


  "Please help, I need to get Patricia Holmes to Sickbay, she's lying in the corridor back there and
I've got to get to the bridge."


  "Holmes? The COS?"
  Rita nodded.
  "I thought she was stuck in Main Security."
  "Yes. I found her there, just outside, on my way up."
  "Okay, well, you found the right person, ma'am. Stand by and I'll get one of my teams to get the
COS, then if you follow me, I'll get you to the bridge."



  [ Nebula Lounge ]


  Putting his right hand onto his helmet, Corporal Kelly activated the built-in microphone. "Say
again, Gunny."
  "Time to move on Corporal."
  "Roger that." Corporal Kelly said as he signaled Private Otner to join him. Then he walked over to
where Lieutenant McBride was standing. "Lieutenant. Time for us to hit the road."


  "Sir, I believe we have a problem." said Private Otner as he joined Corporal Kelly and the
Lieutenant.
  "I got a lot of them, Private. So one more isn't going to be the death of me." the lieutenant said,
immediately wondering if he would come to regret this particular choice of words.
  "You got a hissing sound coming from the window in the middle of the Lounge, sir."
  McBride grimaced. "Show me."


  The Private led him and the Corporal over to the window where he had heard the hissing sound
coming from. As they got nearer, all them of them could hear the sound - and then a hairline crack
appeared in the window.


  "That ain't good." McBride blurted out before raising his voice. "Alright, people. We got to move!
Fast! Those who can walk, help the injured!" Then he turned and headed over to where the
commodore was still sitting.
  "Sir, can you walk?"
  "No way." Tong said with a very weak voice.
  "Alright then." McBride nodded and looked around, spotting two crewmen nearby. "You two, bring
that table! Marines, give me a hand."
  "Right away."
  With the help of Kelly and Otner, the lieutenant lifted the commodore out of the chair and carried
him over to the table the two crewmen were holding steady. Once Tong was laid down they
grabbed a couple of table clothes to secure him.
  "Alright, lets move it, ladies. We ain't got no time to lose." said Kelly as they picked up the table
and carried it out of the lounge. As soon as they had cleared the doors, the two marines shut them
closed, while McBride manually activated a force field - emergency power that was amazingly
working in this corridor. Just when the force field came to life they heard glass shatter in the lounge
and the air rush out.


  "Not a minute too soon." Tong mumbled.
  Lieutenant McBride just nodded and let out a sigh of relief before he looked at the commodore.
And that was when he realised that his CO looked as white as a ghost.




                                                    ***
                            Chapter 4 – There must be some way out of here



  [ Sickbay ]


  Dalin pulled off his gloves and laid them on a small tray. The tray was full of small instruments
covered in blood. He lowered his head and swallowed hard, watching as a white sheet was pulled up
over the man's head. Dalin gripped the tray so hard his knuckles turned white. He cursed loudly and
tossed the tray across the room. It hit the wall and the instruments went flying. Everyone turned
and looked at Dalin. He shook his head and walked out of the sickbay into his office.


  He turned around and slid down the wall. Once sitting he held his head with his hand. His head
was still hurting but that was no excuse for losing the patient. He had never once lost someone he
was working on. He couldn't help but feel helpless. His head was foggy, he suddenly got dizzy. He
went to get up but when he moved his whole body seemed to go limp. He managed to contort his
body so his puke didn't land on him.


  The CMO, who had arrived in the meantime, just walked out of sick bay in time to see Dalin throw
up. She walked over to him and he put up a hand to stop her.
  "I'm... I'm okay." he said as Candice took a knee in front of him.
  "I don't think you are." she said putting her hand up against his head, You are quite warm."


  Dalin sighed and leaned back against the wall. He felt like he was going to get sick again. The
coolness from the bulkhead behind him made a chill run up his spine. He hadn't realised he had
been sweating so much.
  "I... I'm," was all he was able to get out before he threw up again.
  Candice moved quickly and got out of the way. Dalin sat looking at the ground. He cursed and
backhanded the wall.
  "I think you need to take a break, Dee."


  That moment a small group of people made their way up the corridor, Commander Tong in tow.
  "Commodore!" Candice yelled, jumping to her feet and making her way back into Sickbay, leaving
Dalin on the ground. He raised his hand and shook it in the air.
  "No no... I'm okay." he said with an air of sarcasm. "Go ahead."



  [ Deck 2 ]


  The Saturn was a nightmare of damage and debris. Rita had lost count of the forced detours, the
maintenance stairs she had climbed, the partial obstructions she had crawled under. She went on,
alert to the sounds that would have meant a weakened bulkhead giving in to the space, to the hiss
and crackle of a starting fire, to the fizzing sound of live wire.


  A voice called her, her eyes registered the teal of medicine - she paused just enough to assure
them of her health before pressing on, towards the bridge, closely following the Gunny and his field
command pack. Finally, they halted at the foot of a sloping ladder.


  "Okay, ma'am. Last one. Straight up and you're at the bridge. After you." Don wiped the sweat
from his brow. The claustrophobia of the Jefferies tubes was getting to him.


  The first thing Rita realised when she crawled out of the Jefferies tube at the back of the bridge
was that the whole bridge crew was in no better shape than she was. Most of them were worse. The
Chief of the Boat was the first to notice her, and quickly helped her out of the hatch. "Why hello
there," a smirk accompanied his sonorous voice while he supported her arm as she got onto her
feet. "Are ya Science or Medical, pet?"


  "Sc.." she stopped as a fit of coughing interrupted her. "Science. Lieutenant Orsini."
  "Ah." Behnia Al-Bahman nodded knowingly. "Yer dat Rita gal lil' Pat brought wid her."
  "Err... yes." she absent-mindedly replied looking around, searching Tong's familiar figure. "Is the
Commodore safe?" she asked Ben.
  "Science?" the XO picked up on their short conversation, turning around to them. "Bring her over
here, Chief." Miya demanded and eyed the figure scrambling out of the tube behind Rita. "I see you
brought the Gunny too."
  "Yes, ma'am."
  "The Commodore is in Sickbay." Miya went on when the two walked over towards the centre of
the bridge. "But alive from what we've heard. Sadly I can't say the same thing about the beta shift
Science officer."
  The words of relief at the commodore's survival froze in Rita's mouth, and she turned towards the
Science console. The twisted pieces of metal here and there gleamed with a dull cobalt, its wetness
mixing with dripping coolant.


  The next moment she found herself sitting at an empty console not knowing how she got there,
talking to forget the taste of bile in her mouth.
  "Ma'am, we had probes out there when it happened." she said, turning around once more to see
the other officers look back at her expectantly. "One was destroyed immediately, the other was
badly damaged but kept working long enough to gather some data."
  The XO nodded. "Go on..."
  Rita pulled up a file from a PADD she had brought with her and pointed at the screen.


  "This is a reconstruction based on the data I was able to collate - mind you, parts of it are little
more than educated guesses we may have to re-evaluate when we get new evidence." She waited
for their acknowledgement before going on. "We appear to have entered an anomaly, sort of a
'bubble' of a gaseous substance I have yet been unable to identify. The collision we experienced
happened when we went into it, through the outer layer."


  "But... why didn't we see it? The nav charts should have been compensating for it when we
plotted the course, no?"
  "Indeed, if we had been able to know it was there. This... thing... doesn't appear to reflect energy,
it absorbs it - so our sensors didn't realise it was there." Rita winced at the casual
anthropomorphisation but didn't correct herself. "The Saturn went through, and now we are in a
region of thinner gas, although there's something else inside as well - something inert and denser
that I have also been unable to identify." the field scientist forced the admission out, hating it and
her own incapacity to find out more.


  There was a moment of gloomy silence. Miya took a deep breath and turned around, scowling at
the viewscreen. It had come online again half an hour earlier, but all it showed was black.


  "So what do we do next?" the XO wondered out loud, not really expecting a response. It was not
so long ago she had watched as those who hadn't survived the impact were moved through to the
ready room until more suitable arrangements could be made. From the reports, the Bridge was not
the only part of the ship that had suffered casualties - anywhere near the exterior of the vessel had
taken heavy damage - this had left them with massive system failures, and a large amount of
casualties. More importantly, it left them with no idea where they were.


  "I'll keep scanning." offered Lieutenant Orsini. Miya nodded and the field scientist went back to
work on the Science station.
  "Anything Ah can do t' help, ma'am?" asked the Chief of the Boat.
  Miya pinched the bridge of her nose. "Thanks, Chief. Anything you can do to tidy this place up a
bit would be great. I'm still struggling to lift anything at the moment."
  "Yes, massa." grumbled Ben. "Err, ma'am." he quickly amended and got to work on one of the
forward stations that had been yanked out of its place during the crash, mumbling, "Sure, make da
black guy clean up da mess. Why, of course..."
  One of the petty officers that had made their way to the bridge together with the COB went to
help him, and another one proceeded to the Engineering station to take a look at the state of the
turboshaft system repairs.


  Miya was standing behind the Science console again, watching the limited sensor information as it
scrolled up the screen.
  "What are we looking at?" she inquired, frowning at the sparseness of the data.
  "Not sure yet." came the reply. "I'm trying to boost what we have, if I can just ..."
  Suddenly things became clearer, they were still picking up lots of absolutely nothing, but
suddenly a blip. Something was registering - barely, but it was there. Miya looked closer, her frown
returning.
  "Sensor ghost?" she asked.
  With a frown of herself, Rita curtly shook her head, as though to signal the XO not to disturb her
right now while she was concentrating on the rows of commands she typed in at a lightning speed
in the attempt to focus more of their scarce sensor capacity on whatever was out there.
  "Whatever it is, it's huge."
  "Like a ship?"
  "No. Bigger." stated Rita, moving a slide bar with meticulous precision. "Much bigger."
  Miya squinted. "An asteroid?" she asked, the confusion clearly showing on her face.
  "More like a planet. A small rogue planetoid, probably."
  "'Scuse me, ma'am." interrupted the Gunny walking over from where he had been hunched up
over the command pack at the back of the bridge. "Engineering says all the fires in critical areas
have been extinguished and apart from the Nebula Lounge there are no signs of decompression."
  "Good." replied Miya.
  He squinted at the screen. "So are we still in realspace? No wormhole or anything?"
  "I am fairly certain that is the case." stated Rita. "Neutrinos are getting through the gas and they
appear to be coming from the direction of known sources. There are not enough observations to use
them for navigation but they would indicate that we can reasonably expect not to have left our
normal universe."
  "That's reassuring. Gunny, what are the-..."
  "Sorry. Hold on, ma'am." Jameson politely interrupted her and listened to the voice coming over
his transceiver. Miya walked over to the centre seat to put her own helmet back on, when the
Gunnery Sergeant grimaced at her. "It's Engineering, ma'am. They've just had a look at the main
warp drive assembly, after a level three diagnostic on that system failed."
  "That can't be good..."
  "Yeah. The dilithium matrix is pretty much fried."


  Miya sighed and let herself slump down in the command chair, massaging the bridge of her nose
again. "Tactical, still no luck raising Starfleet?"
  "No, ma'am." the young ensign replied from the Tactical station. "No response. The subspace
transceiver seems to be working, though."
  "The signal is probably absorbed by the anomaly." explained Rita, sheepishly adding, "Not as if
that would make it any better..."


  "Alright." The XO rose from her seat again. "Tactical, help Lieutenant Orsini with the scans. I want
to know if there is a weak spot somewhere in this cloud that would let us send a signal through.
Chief?"
  "Here, ma'am."
  "Get in touch with Sickbay. I want a full casualties report. How many did we lose and who's left
standing, I need to know where we're at."
  "On it."
  "Gunny, tell Engineering I want to know how much of the ship needs fixing, and if and how quickly
they can do it. Impulse power, shields and comms have priority. In that order."
  "Understood."
  "Good. Get moving, people."
  "Yes ma'am."



  [ Corridor ]
  [ Deck 5 ]


  The hissing of escaping gasses, the rumble of the deck plates, air that made him choke, flashing
red lights illuminating a perpetual darkness.
  Paul had woken, but was he better off where he had been since the ceiling fixtures had given way
and clobbered him to the floor? That would remain to be seen.


  Struggling free of the debris that had knocked him unconscious for however long it had been, Paul
fumbled around in the dim intermittent red light for an equipment locker in the walls of the corridor.
He found an access panel and opened it to reveal weapons and flashlights, grabbing on of each,
Paul clipped the phaser to his waist and activated the flashlight as he secured it to his left forearm.
Flipping open his tricorder in his right hand, Paul scanned to make sense of the situation he found
himself in.


  Minimal life support and sporadic life signs. That's about as much as the tricorder could tell him.
That and an eradicated air flow. That got Paul worried. Radiation was leaking into the air from
somewhere. According to the tricorder it was everywhere, so not just the deck he was on. Nothing
lethal, yet, but the levels were rising.


  Paul decided that the best place to go from his present location was Main Engineering. Surely
someone up there would know what's going on. He entered a nearby Jefferies tube shaft and began
climbing.



  [ Jefferies Tube ]
  [ Deck 6 ]


  Cameron dragged himself along the tube, his right leg dragging limply along behind him. Routine
maintenance was not the joy it used to be, he struggled to remember a single time he had been
swapping out a component and then been slammed around and left in the dark. And he was fairly
sure he hadn't broken his leg any of the other times he'd been assigned to check the power grid.


  Grimacing, he opened the hatch and made his way into the junction, hanging onto a run on the
ladder and yelling as his leg swung out behind him. This was rapidly becoming a rather pish day.


  Paul activated the Jefferies tube junction bulkhead hatch beneath him, relieved to hear its sweet
mechanical sound as it opened. Evidently the most basic emergency power was working. He
climbed down into the junction and was greeted by an exhausted looking ensign clutching at a leg
that was bending in more ways that a human leg ought to.


  "Sir." Cameron nodded, trying to fight back the nausea the pain was causing.
  "That looks like it ought to be smarting a little." Paul quipped in an attempt to add some humour
to the situation. He flipped open is tricorder and scanned the ensign.
  "I don't suppose you know what happened?" Cameron asked.
  Paul considered his answer for a moment. Did he know himself? The answer was definitely no.
"I'm afraid I don't. One moment I'm strolling along a corridor on deck 5, the next I find myself buried
beneath conduits and debris chocking on none too healthy smelling or tasting air in a pitch black
corridor."


  He completed his scan. Both bones in the ensign's right leg were snapped clean in half. He
searched the junction for any access panels that might hide a medkit. After a short while he found
one. Grabbing the hypospray from the kit, Paul loaded it with a pain reliever and injected some into
Cameron's neck. He then grabbed the bone regenerator from the kit went about temporarily fixing
the leg to give the ensign more mobility.


  "Right, it's not 100% but it'll keep you going. Thank heavens for the advanced field first aid
course." Paul beamed, trying to show confidence to his junior.
  Cameron gingerly tested the leg, wincing and taking the weight back off it as soon as he took a
step. It was far from fixed, but at least it was hanging the right way again. He turned and looked at
the man who had found him.
  "Cameron Davies." he said, extending his hand. "And thank you."
  "Paul Toddman." the Scotsman said, taking the ensigns hand. "And don't mention it. Shall we get
the heck out of here?"
  The Ensign nodded.


  "I'll go first, so that if you get the silly idea to loose your footing, I can catch you." Paul said as he
opened the hatch in the floor of the junction.
  "My Tricorder picked up radiation leaking into the ship's air - you're an engineering bod, do you
have any idea what it could be?" Paul asked, as he led the way down the Jefferies tube shaft.
  Cameron grunted as he shifted his weight onto his bad leg. "No idea." he replied, "Based on the
state of what we've passed - it could be anything at all."
  "Fair enough, bit of a daft question really." Paul acknowledged as he made his way down the tube
and into another junction. He looked around and saw that the entry hatch leading from a corridor
was busted open and left a clear view onto the corridor, dimly lit with an intermittent red glow.


  Checking the hatch below him, Paul could feel it was hot. He flipped open his tricorder to check
his suspicions. A plasma fire was in full swing. They would have to find another way to Engineering.


  "There's a plasma fire in the tube below us, we'd best get out of this tube before the hatch gives
way to the heat." Paul gestured toward the busted hatch. "We'll head along that corridor until
another route presents itself, at least it'll be easier on your leg."
  Cameron nodded his relief, following Toddman out into the corridor beyond. They paused while
Toddman checked his tricorder, then continued along towards the next junction. Suddenly,
Toddman accelerated his pace, leaving Cameron behind.


  "Hey!" Cameron called. "Where are you going?"
  "Someone's about to get cooked." Paul yelled back. "You stay there, get a fire suppressor out of
one of the storage bins and be ready."



  [ Lieutenant Colleen Parker's Quarters ]
  Colleen arched her back against the wall behind her. She looked up at the ceiling and then back
down at the growing fire. God, I hope help is on the way, the counselor thought.


  Minutes passed, and felt like hours. She pivoted her feet to face the wall to avoid becoming blind
and being burned alive. Being burned alive, she quivered. Then Colleen heard someone call at her
quarter's door.
  She looked over her shoulder with a hopeful grin. "Hello? Help! Help!"


  Outside, Paul could hear the cries, but the doors wouldn't open. Grabbing an override handle from
a hatch below the door controls, he fixed it to the doors and tapped in the security code to activate
it. The doors made an audible click and hiss as the locks were released and pressed air escaped
from the mechanism. He grabbed the door override and yanked at the door with all his strength. To
his relief the doors slid open. Smoke instantly assaulted his lungs as the heat of the fire flooded into
the corridor.


  Peering inside, Paul could make out a figure in the far corner, trapped by the fire. Cameron had
managed to secure a hand-held fire suppressor and handed it to him.


  A directed gas stream spewed from the suppressor, extinguishing any flame it came in contact
wit. Paul quickly cleared a path through the center of the room through which the woman could
escape.


  "Run lassie!" he shouted above the roar of the fire, indicating for the trapped woman to use the
path he had created.


  Colleen ran down the cleared pathway into the corridor and put her hand down on the bulkhead
to anchor herself from falling over. Then she looked over her shoulder to the man who saved her
life.
  "Thank you, thank you a ton."
  "Don't mention it, lass, we're all in the same boat here." replied Paul with his broad Scottish
accent. "Let's go before we all cook, this fire is going to spread and this tiny suppressor is not going
to do squat to stop it." he asserted as he threw the suppressor into the fire and forced the doors of
Colleen's quarters closed.


  The fire shortly thereafter quickly engulfed the area where she was rescued from. The trio
regrouped. She smiled to the two men and offered her hand to greet the senior officer first, "I'm
Lieutenant Colleen Parker. Counselor."
  "Pleased to meet you, lass." Toddman replied, shaking her hand. "But I think the introductions
better wait. I suggest we get off this deck as soon as possible."
  Cameron nodded. "Agreed." he stated, walking past them and heading down the corridor. "Next
hatch, main junction. Should let us head straight down to Engineering."
  "Good." Toddman replied as Cameron opened the hatch, "Let's see if we can find someone who
knows what's going on."
  [ Bridge ]


  On the edge of perception, the ship moved slightly. Normally, it wouldn't have registered, but
when you are hyped up, even the slightest thing gets noticed.


  "Engineering again, ma'am." Don announced. "The good news is the diagnostics on the impulse
power show it is functional. But the bad news is when they try and run it up, it fails on the last
stages of ignition. The reaction thrusters are still functional though. That's what we felt."


  "How quickly could we clear the cloud on thrusters?" asked the XO.
  "It would us take years, ma'am." the CONN officer replied with a worried glance.
  "Granted. That's a bit much." Miya admitted. "How long until they can fix impulse?"
  "I'll find out, ma'am." replied Don.



  [ Sickbay ]


  "Em!"
  The small brunette looked around the room and soon spotted Patricia sitting half upright in a
biobed, waving her over, with Erik sitting on a chair beside her, keeping Patricia company.
  "Hey, pet. The docs still keeping you here?" Emily asked, stroking Erik's head as she pulled
another chair closer to the bed and sat down herself.
  "Yeah, they've hooked me up to this..." Patricia looked up at an infusion bag dangling from a
tripod next to her bed, "...thingy here."
  "How old-school." remarked Emily.
  "Guess they're running out of equipment. Lots of people needing lots of help."
  "Yeah. So, know when they're going to let you out?"
  "No idea. Was gonna ask the medic who patched me up when I next-... oh, there he is." the
blonde looked past Emily in the direction of the door.
  "Oh great." Emily rolled her eyes as she saw the medic. "It's the professional jew."
  "What?" Patricia asked and frowned as though she hadn't heard right.


  Emily looked over her shoulder at the man, who seemed busy with another patient on the other
side of the room for the time being. "Professional jew. Someone who makes a point of telling
everyone they're jewish. Kinda like the professional gay. You know the type. He did tell you, right?"
  "Err... yeah, he mentioned it. He's also one of the few medics we have, Emily. It's not like I care
much about their religious beliefs." Patricia's frown deepened. "Or their sexual orientations."
  "And I don't care much for people who think their imaginary friend is more powerful than any
other crazy person's imaginary friend. I'll just go and see if I can find you another medic."
  "No... come on. Leave him be, he's a good guy."
  "Yeah? Did he tell you how good he is? God talks to him sometimes."
  "What?"
  "Yeah, it's true. God talks to all his special people. You didn't know that?"
  Patricia couldn't help but grin. "No, I didn't."
  "Well, now you do. Kinda makes you wonder, huh?"
  "Nah. Really, why is this such a big deal? So he's a bit religious... just let the man do his job."
  "He's not just a bit religious. He's delusional. And delusional people are dangerous, Pat. Be it a
medic, responsible for your health, or politicians, responsible for the well-being of a whole society.
Anyone that has some measure of influence on other people. Some crazy-ass beliefs get handed
down from generation to generation and lead to all sorts of shit. Gender inequality, oppression,
bloodshed... did you skip all the history classes?"
  "They weren't my favourite." admitted Patricia. "But-..."
  "Yeah, you know, he's been overheard saying some rather strange things, that God guy. Like, a
while back, just a couple thousand years ago, there was this one guy called Abraham. God talked to
him, too. Appears to him and is all like, look, I'll make you a deal: you shall be father of a horde of
nations, I'll increase your numbers like, whoa, and kings shall be your descendants and stuff. I'll be
your God, and the God to the generations after you, and I'll give you lots and lots of land. Land that
actually belongs to someone else, but hey, you shouldn't worry about that kind of stuff, right? And
lo, all you have to do is cut the foreskin off your penis and make sure everyone else does, too.
'Cause that little part of male anatomy totally disgusts me. Makes sense?"


  "Hey now..."
  "That's pretty much exactly what he said. Or rather, what they say he said."
  "Put in a fairly condescending way, Emily."
  "Well, it's what their belief that they're special is based on: penis... knife... snip." she repeated,
describing said action with her fingers.
  "Emily!"
  "What?!"
  "I can't believe I'm hearing this. Stop it, now!"
  "But you haven't even heard my take on Christianity yet..."
  "And I don't want to. Alright? I have other things to worry about right now. What is wrong with
you?"
  "With me? What's wrong with you? Hearing my opinion about someone who models his life on the
belief in the intellectual equivalent of the tooth fairy bothers you, but letting someone like that
medically treat you doesn't? How does that work, exactly? And why does it bother you anyway?
You're not religious, are you?"


  "Maybe I am. Why would it matter?"
  "Right. If you're religious, dear, you've been pretty good at keeping that quiet."
  "Maybe I just don't talk about it. Anyway, doesn't matter... it's called respect, Emily. You should
try it sometimes."
  "What... you think I don't respect them as people just because I ridicule their religion? I ridicule
every religion. Besides, Erik is jewish. So, it's not about that."
  "Um..." Erik piped up, "no, my parents just had that done for health reasons."
  Patricia ignored him. "Well, you don't respect him that much either, do you?"
  "What's that supposed to mean?"
  "I'm not, actually-..." Erik tried again.
  "Come on. All that flirting with the CTO and who knows what else? Didn't happen?"
  Emily gasped in disbelief.
  "...-jewish." Erik stopped, frowning. "Wait, the what now? What flirting?"
  "Oh, you didn't tell him? Go figure. Probably because you have so much respect for him."
  "You bitch." Emily blurted out. "Something rubs you the wrong way and you just have go all out
for some payback."
  "Oh, I'm the bitch? Okay." Patricia nodded. "I call your bitch, and raise you one little slut!"


  "Um..." Erik looked back and forth between the two, as someone in a white lab-coat appeared
beside them.
  "Commander, Petty Officers," the medic said quietly. "I have patients here that require rest. Could
you tone it down? Please?"
  "It's alright, God-boy." Emily shot back and stood from her chair, giving Patricia a toxic glance.
"I'm out of here." she added and left.
  Apparently deciding to ignore the remark, the medic went on to check the liquid level of the
infusion bag hooked up to Patricia's arm and was gone again.


  "The Chief of Tactical?" Erik asked. "That Timor guy?"
  Patricia sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to drop this on you like-..."
  "No, no. It's quite alright. Guess everyone knew but me." Erik cut her off in a huffy tone. "That's a
girl thing, right? Don't tell Erik. Unless you can use it to your advantage."
  "What?" Patricia frowned.
  Erik just shook his head and left as well.
  "Oh for God's sake!" the blonde shouted and leant back in her pillow, letting out another
frustrated sigh before grabbing the pillow and putting it over her face, stifling a scream.


  When she put it back again, the medic was standing by the side of her biobed again, looking back
at her rather indignantly.
  "I'm sorry." she mumbled.
  "Don't be." he stated and removed the needle from her arm. "If you're fit enough to argue, you're
fit enough for duty. And frankly, I need the bed."



  [ Observation Lounge ]


  It took a while, but the cleanup of the bridge was largely complete. The observation lounge had
taken rather longer, as the impromptu furniture rearrangement had caused quite a bit of damage to
the room. It was still usable however, and so Miya had requested the senior staff walk, climb, and
even crawl their way up for a crisis conference.


  Outwardly fairly composed, Patricia entered the room and made her way to the far side of the
conference table, nodding her quiet thanks as someone pulled out a chair for her. Standing in front
of the large wall screen,Rita was observing the officers gathering together, as Miya signaled her
that she could begin with her briefing.


  When the field scientist had finished filling them all in, Miya nodded and regarded the present
senior staff. "Very well. Now has anyone got any ideas? Bright or otherwise. I'm open to
suggestions."
  Patricia looked puzzled. "If only warp power is out, why can't we just fire up the impulse drives
and get out of here?" she asked with a frown.
  Auron shook his head. "When we run up the ignition sequence, the plasma is accelerated as
normal. But as soon as it hits the driver coil assembly and we open the vectored exhaust director,
that stuff, whatever it is that's out there, reacts and creates a feedback cascade. The safety
interlocks automatically shut the plasma flow to the driver coils. Net result is power without thrust."
  "And you don't want to override the interlocks."
  "There's no telling what the damage would be." the engineer scoffed. "We could very well end up
losing the impulse drives altogether and then we'd have nothing. It's a one shot solution so I
haven't tried it yet." He deliberately neglected to mention that the Prometheus Class starship was
effectively a triply redundant design - the damage from losing one set of impulse engines would be
enough to cripple her, however.


  Nia Musu-Rei, the Saturn's new diplomat, looked around. "I guess when Starfleet realise we are
overdue at our destination, they'll send someone looking for us. How long will that be?"
  "Well, it could be a couple of days before that happens. But if anyone follows our course, they
would probably just end up in here with us." stated Patricia grimly.
  "We can't get any signal, subspace or otherwise out of the cloud?"
  "Sadly not." Rita shook her head. "We can't pick up general Starfleet subspace traffic either, so it
seems our initial assessment was correct - the cloud simply swallows the signal."
  "Well, at least they'll have some idea that something has happened to us when the ships data
signals suddenly disappear from the network. Right?"


  "By the time someone comes along, I'll be teaching your grandkids how to calibrate a warp core."
Auron didn't try to hide his age or species. "I can't count the number of times in my career I've run
across Starfleet starships reported missing. Sensors are great when there's an emission for them to
focus on, or a strong enough active return to catch their attention. A starship without warp power
and running barely anything beyond life support has to be practically run over in order to be
discovered. In spacial distances, of course. Anyways, we can't get a signal out, and all someone's
sensors will pick up is empty space, or perhaps simply a localised lack of background radiation.
Nothing to get excited about, until they run into this thing and get stuck themselves, as
Commander Holmes pointed out."


  "What about neutrinos?" asked Patricia. "If they can get through, could we set up a source to
carry a signal?"
  "Yes." Rita nodded. "But since they only travel at light speed, it would take a long time for them to
get anywhere. Also, it relies on somebody happening to notice an unusual neutrino source and then
realise that it is a message. We could be waiting a long time."
  "Could we shoot a probe out of the cloud to get help?" suggested Nia.
  Patricia shook her head. "It would get trashed on the way out, just like we were on the way in."
  "Not necessarily," Auron interjected. "Launch it powered down, it wouldn't be an energy emitter."
  "What, and have it power up when it gets outside?"
  The engineer nodded. "I can work up an atomic decay timer. Nifty contraption. She'll press her
own power button."
  "It would get help on the way here at least." the XO agreed.


  "How 'bout a shuttle?" asked the Chief of the Boat.
  "Are you offering to pilot it?" Auron replied and laughed, sitting back and spreading his arms out
to indicate the entirety of the USS Saturn. "Look at the shape we're in. Do you really think a shuttle
would make it out?"
  "But-..."
  "Settle down." Miya said with a calm but determined voice. "I like the idea of the probe. But let's
not rely on one. Rig two or three and let me know when they are ready to launch. But we can't rely
on them so we still need to think of a way out of here ourselves."


  "'Scuse me." the Gunnery Sergeant piped up. "A lot of this science stuff is over my head. But if I
understood the lieutenant correctly, and all that is keeping the cloud together is the planetoid's
gravity, then... if we destroy the planet, wouldn't that cause the cloud to disperse?"
  "Eventually, yes." Rita confirmed. "But not in any timeframe that would work for us."
  "Okay. Just wondered. We marines like big bangs."
  "There's an idea, though..." mused Rita.
  "What's that then?"
  "If we could blast a large chunk free and send it out of the cloud, that might create a pocket of
clear space that we could start the impulse engines in."
  "It would clear a path through the cloud, too." realised Miya.
  Rita nodded. "We'd have to ride the slipstream."
  "It would mean sending it very near the ship." Patricia didn't seem overly fond of the idea. "We
wouldn't be able to catch it up on the reaction thrusters alone if it is too far away. This is kind of
dangerous."
  "Yeah. We'd have to blow the thing apart in just the right place."
  "That's all fine and dandy." grimaced Hanar. "But how are we going to do that if our weapons
systems are all on the fritz?"
  Don nodded. "We'll have to go down there ourselves, and hope there are some suitable fault lines
that we can exploit. If it is a solid ball of rock then it'll be harder because we'll have to drill down.
Do'able, but it would take time."
  Miya looked to the field scientist. "Can we get a good enough geological analysis to make this
plan work?"
  "Not up here with the sensors we have left." replied Rita. "We'd have to go down to the surface
for that, too."
  "Are our transporters back online?"
  Auron shook his head. "No, and even if they were, with that gas outside there's no guarantee the
signal can get through. Or only part of it would, which would be worse. Besides, sixty percent of the
emitter pads available while in docked configuration are shot. Three guesses on which direction the
operable hull emitters are facing. And we can't separate the ship in its current state."


  "So it needs shuttles. Will they survive the trip?"
  "The nearer we get to the planetoid, the less of the energy absorbing gas there is. They may take
some damage but it will probably be survivable." stated Rita.
  "What about ship-to-surface comms?" Patricia inquired. "Will they be out too?"
  "They may be intermittent but if we get the ship close enough and the landing party use the
shuttles as base stations to boost the signals then it would probably be nominal."


  "Alright, does anyone have any relevant experience in this area?" Miya looked around, her gaze
eventually stopping at the Gunnery Sergeant.
  "Corporal Kalmel grew up in a mining community before he joined up so he might have picked up
something useful. But if the geologists can find the right places then I reckon we can make the
required bang."
  "It will need a lot of explosives to split off a decent sized chunk, though, won't it?"
  "We should be able to replicate a load of explosives. If we supplement it with some photon
torpedoes and anything else we can find that goes bang then we should be able to make a big
enough explosion."


  "It's a hell of a long shot." Patricia said sceptically.
  "Long odds, yes." replied Don. "But it's the only game in town."
  "Let's get to work, then." Miya said and rose, the rest of the senior staff following suit.



  [ Late night ]


  The sections around Sickbay had quickly been turned into one large makeshift hospital, and hours
after the crash, the wounded still kept coming in. Most of them were rather light cases, crew
members who simply hadn't taken the time to let someone tend to their injuries yet. However,
there were still several sections on the lower and uppermost decks that were inaccessible, and
internal sensors indicated the life signs of at least two dozen crew members trapped in there.
Demolition experts of the Marine department were attempting to break through to them, all the
while being careful not to inflict even more damage to the ship's already battered superstructure,
but until they succeeded, there was no telling of the well-being of those people, as ship-internal
communications still weren't functional.


  The sections of the ship that which taken the least damage were already getting back to business
as usual, at least as much as possible. In the main hangar bay, three shuttles were being prepped
to take the away team to the surface of the small planetoid. Space suits were being handed out,
equipment was carried aboard and the away team members were gathering around the small space
crafts, awaiting the order to come down from the bridge that they were to depart. Engineers and as
many scientists as they could find were waiting among Security officers and marines. Coordinating
the efforts was the Chief of Security, who was still recovering from her concussion but adamantly
refused her assistant's offer to handle these things for her.
  Miya had eventually agreed to have proper medical attention, and was now finally able to make
her way around the ship through the Jefferies tubes. Admittedly it was complete agony to use the
arm so recently repaired, but it beat being stuck in one place - especially feeling as useless as she
currently did. Arriving at the hanger, she walked in to find that special kind of highly organised
chaos Starfleet excelled at - with a tall gold collared woman standing in the middle of it.


  "How are we doing?" Miya asked, subconsciously rubbing her upper arm as they both stood
looking across the large floorspace.
  "We're going to have to send half our shuttle fleet to the scrapyard, but managed to make at least
three, maybe four of the craft usable for short range transportation down to the planet." Patricia
replied and nodded. "That's progress, I suppose. Right?"
  "Definitely." Miya agreed, "I'm just happy we're able to do something. I'm feeling incredibly
useless at the moment." She paused as an antigrav sled went past carrying the remains of a
nacelle, grimacing slightly at the twisted mass of metal. "I have to be honest, I wish I was going with
you."
  "Really? And what is it about a barren lifeless chunk of rock that appeals to you so much that you
can't wait to slip into an uncomfortable space suit to carry a hundredweight worthy of air and
equipment on your back for several hours?" the blonde quipped, arching an eye brow at the XO.
  "I still rate that higher than being stuck here doing nothing." Miya replied. "Fancy running the ship
from a broken bridge through a comms helmet?" she asked with a grin, "I'll happily take your place
here."
  Her head inclined towards Miya as she listened to her, Patricia's mouth slowly formed a lopsided
grin as well. "Nah. Considering my past two experiences with having the bridge of a broken
starship, it would mean a fifty percent chance of getting me court-martialed. Sorry, ma'am. This
gig's mine."
  "I thought you'd say that." Miya sighed, "So what's left to do before departure?"
  "For you, not that much, I guess. For our engineers, getting the ship's internal and external
comms online again. For our geologists, if we have any left, getting their arses here is pretty much
all. For me," Patricia paused and grimaced, "herding this bunch of cats and getting them into the
shuttles once we're set."
  "Don't knock cat herding, it's an old and well respected trade." Miya was grinning again, "Of
course it usually goes by its other name, Command." Her grin suddenly vanished as a voice
communication arrived through the helmet. "Acknowledged, I'll be there shortly." She turned back
to Patricia. "I need to go, keep me posted - and good luck."
  "Will do." the blonde replied and nodded her thanks, smiling for a moment before frowning and
slowly walking over to one of the shuttles where a small tumult was forming.



  [ Sickbay ]


  Miya entered sickbay in search of the Commodore, but he wasn't immediately obvious amid the
crew being tended to by the sickbay personnel. Walking between the makeshift beds, she spotted
an ensign who had been on the bridge when the ship had entered the anomaly.
  "How are you doing, Ensign?" she asked, looking at the burn marks on the side of his face.
  "Much better, ma'am, the pain is gone and the scarring should be fixable once we get back to a
Starbase."
  Miya smiled but felt a twinge as she thought about their current situation, still - no point in
worrying anyone else with it all.


  The CMO spotted Miya conversing with the injured Ensign, so took a few minutes extra with the
person she was tending too before she walked over to talk to her.
  "I'll be able to return to duty soon," the Ensign said, "Hopefully I'll be fixed up in time for the ships
departure."
  "I'll look forward to seeing you back on the bridge." Miya smiled, turning to find the CMO watching
her with a faint smile on her face.
  "Ma'am. Have you come looking for the CO?" Candice asked.
  "Err .. yes actually, is he still here?" Miya asked.
  "He certainly is, if you follow me I'll take you to him." With that the CMO turned and led Miya to a
bed at the very back of sickbay where she could see the CO sitting up, reading a hardcovered book,
and drinking some hot tomato soup.
  "How is he?" Miya asked as she put a hand on the CMO's shoulder to make her stop walking
toward the CO.
  There was a pause. "Well, he made it through surgery okay, but his condition isn't what it should
be." She turned to look at the XO. "I won't hide his condition from you. We were able to stop the
internal bleeding, but if we don't get him to a starbase soon he shall lose all movement in his legs."
  Miya winced at the news. "I'm trying, but I really don't know when we'll be back into normal
space." she said and paused. "What are the options here?"
  "Artificial limbs are a possibility, but there is a time limit on how long that type of tech can be
introduced after amputation. If we try to introduce them to the body after two days, there is a much
greater chance the body will reject them. If that happens, there's a real danger he may never walk
again." Candice replied as she tried to hold back the tears .
  "Does he know this?" Miya asked .
  "Yes, I do." The Commodore answered as he put the book down and looked at his XO. "You sure
do look a heck of lot better then I feel."
  "That's not hard, sir." Miya quipped, walking towards him. "Although this time I think it's definitely
more obvious than usual."
  Tong smiled. "Yes, although I'm not sure the helmet is really you. So tell me, what's the condition
of the ship?"
  Miya looked round to check no-one was in earshot, and then proceeded to give the Commodore a
full report - ending with the current away mission.


  Tong nodded. "It's nice to know things are in good hands." He looked back up at Miya. "You're in
command until further notice." He held up his hand as Miya started to reply, "I'm in no position to
be doing anything. All I ask is that you keep me informed."
  Miya nodded. "Yes sir, I'll make sure you know if there are any changes to our situation."
  Tong reached over to his book once more, lifting it so Miya could read the cover. "'The Patriot',"
he said, "have you ever read it?"
  Miya shook her head. "Can't say I have. I assume it's keeping you suitably entertained?" she
asked.
  "It drives away the boredom." Tong said as he pushed his glasses back up on his nose.
  "Well I'll leave you to it." Miya grinned, "Hopefully I'll be back soon with some good news."
  "I hope so too." Tong nodded, before smiling. "And don't get to comfortable in my chair, " he
called after her, "I'll be wanting it back!" He watched her walk through the bio beds and leave, and
then went back to reading his book.



  [ Main Science Lab, Deck 7 ]


  Rita hurried through her mental list: Science tricorder, check. Sterile sample containers, check.
First-aid field kit... check.


  The phaser was already clipped to her utility belt. Carrying all the equipment while inside a EVA
suit wasn't something she was really looking forward to - awkward at best, a nightmare at the
worst, at least the lower gravity would help with the weight.


  "Mister Minassian, are you set?"
  "Yes, ma'am." came the answer, promptly followed by the geologist himself.
  The ensign looked terrible, a collection of bruises turning half his face into a mask, but he was
alert and competent... and in better shape that most of the Science department.
  "Let's go, then." Rita was itching to be out, researching, looking for something that could make a
difference for the wounded Saturn. A glance at her companion told her the sentiment was shared.
Losing no further time, the two scientists then hurried out to join the landing party.



  [ Sick Bay ]


  Dalin finally got some medicine and an hour's rest before he was allowed to come back to active
duty. Once he was back in Sickbay he made a promise to himself not to let anything happen like
what happened last time, whispering to himself "I won't lose another, I won't lose another."


  Candice walked over to him. "Are you sure you've had enough rest?" she asked. "I really think you
should lie down for at least another few hours."
  Dalin shook his head. "No thanks. My head is clear and I'm wide awake."
  She half smiled at him, then signed and leaned up against the wall. She was tired and she didn't
want anyone to know it. Dalin quickly saw through it, though. "Maybe I'm not the one that should be
taking a break." he said with a sly grin.
  "If you would have listened to me and not pushed yourself earlier, I wouldn't be so tired!" Candice
snapped back at him.
  Dalin's grin fell and he looked away. Candice sighed and rubbed her eyes. "I'm sorry... I'm really
stressed out."
  "We all are I think." he said trying not to think about the day.
  "Look, they are sending shuttles down to a planetoid. They have requested one of us go to help
with whatever may come up. I want you to go down. I can watch all these people." she said nodding
out to her medical team in sick bay.


  Dalin turned around and looked at the group. There were young, old, and everything in between
in Sickbay. They were in all roles from trying to heal wounds to getting a glass of water. Anything
they could do to help. Dalin was one of the few doctors who could perform surgeries. Leaving would
really put Candice in it... again.


  "Am I not the one who pushed himself and left things for worse?" he asked very candidly.
  "Yes. Yes, you did. I know why you did it though. That is why I trust you to go. I know you will push
yourself when things get bad." Candice said and smiled, patting him on the arm, then she walked
off to go help someone who they just carried in.



  [ Hangar bay ]


  "Ah, Rita." Patricia sounded relieved when the field scientist ran into her on the hangar deck.
"Found a geologist?"


  "Yes, here he is, Ensign Minassian." Rita gestured towards her companion.
  "Alright. Just a second." the blonde nodded and turned towards a group of marines that had all
but set up camp next to one of the shuttle crafts, their banter being the only thing loud enough to
pierce through the layer of constant noise of the engineers still working on either dismantling or
repairing what was left of their shuttle fleet. "Corporal?"


  A crewcut head turned in their direction, and Patricia waved the man over to them.
  "That's the corporal the Gunny mentioned." she introduced the approaching marine. "Corporal
Kalmel, this is our field scientist, Lieutenant Rita Orsini, and this is..." Patricia frowned for a moment
trying to remember the ensign's name, but then simply went on, "...what's left of the geology
section."
  "Ensign Ari Minassian." Rita's young companion added.
  "Right. That too."
  "A pleasure, ma'am. Ensign." the marine stated curtly.
  "Rita, the two of you and the corporal will go in the second shuttle. Discuss the specifics of your
plan on our way down, we should be departing as soon as you're suited up and ready."
  "Aye." Rita nodded and started following the marine towards the knot of people being handed out
their EVA suits, Ensign Minassian easily keeping up with his long legged gait.


  Don checked over the platoon deployment as he entered the hangar. Apart from himself, all of the
HQ section were scattered around the Sat on damage control duties. Junebug had taken half of
Black Sword, including "Padre" Kalmel down with the lead shuttle. The second shuttle had March
D'Ciq and all of his Black Shield squad. That left Mike Dushon supervising half of Black Lance who
were still in the bay, where they were manhandling the last of the explosives and quantum
torpedoes into one of the large Okinawa shuttles. Everyone else was busy running messages or
cutting their way through to survivors still trapped around the Saturn.


  "Hi Mike, how are we doing?"
  "Pretty good." He nodded towards his assistant squad leader, Mabli Kor. "She reckons she can
blow up anything so she's a bit miffed that the Padre is going to run the show." He shrugged. "What
the frak, she'll get over it." While the Padre might know about mining, Mabli was the real
demolitions specialist in the platoon. It would be her job to turn his fireplan into reality.


  "Okay. Slight change of plan. I'm going to ride the shuttle down to the surface. I want you to
oversee our guys who are staying here on the Sat."
  Dushon gave him an odd look. "Okay, but why?"
  "Got a hunch I'll be needed."
  "Shivers down your backbone?"


  Don paused. He didn't like to admit to others about his sixth sense. But he'd shared a cabin with
Dushon before being promoted to platoon sergeant and it was hard to hide things from your room
mate.
  "Maybe."
  Dushon's eyes narrowed. "You sure you want to do this?"
  "Want might be pushing it. But need, definitely."
  "Okay. You got it. Take care down there."



  [ Aft Torpedo Bay ]


  Talking about decay activation triggers was one thing. Actually putting them into practice was
wholly different. Already the three quantum torpedo warheads had been removed and delivered to
the shuttlebay, so the casings now had an empty block between the propulsion package and the
guidance suite. It was within this new space that a high power Subspace transmitter array was
being inserted - there was no need to have a receiver when no one would hear the return message
anyways.


  Normally the torpedo was activated as a part of the arming procedure, but that had been disabled
for these three. The timer would activate the torpedo at a predetermined time after launch, giving
the three casings the opportunity to sail clear of this thing and into clear space. Their engines would
then engage, propelling them farther away on pre-selected courses, at which time their transmitters
would start burning space. The message would serve both as a distress call to Starfleet, as well as a
warning to civilian traffic to avoid the area.


  The only difficult part of the entire process had been the delay activation mechanism. Every last
idea that the engineering and science departments had come up with were either unreliable, too
big, or couldn't be produced with their current power operational levels. That was when one of the
marines attached to engineering piped up.
  "Why not use an alarm clock?"
  Dumbfounded silence filled the torpedo bay. Seeing that he had an audience, the marine
proceeded to elaborate, in mind-numbingly simple descriptions, how exactly the first 'time bomb'
was made, and it was an entirely mechanical process. Everyone but Auron was stupified by its
simple brilliance.
  "Let's do it. " he finally said.



  [ Shuttle two ]


  Sooner than it might have been expected, they found themselves on board, somewhat squeezed
on the starboard row of seats. Rita craned her neck, looking for familiar faces or a distinctive shape,
mannerism or voice to reassure herself of other friends' safety.
  Next to her, the corporal watched her for a minute before shaking his head and donning a half-
grin. "First timer?" he asked, then quickly adding a "ma'am" to his question.


  "No, it isn't my first landing party, Corporal. Trying to see who else is with us, though." answered
Rita, hating her blush and wondering if the ability to make officers self-conscious was an acquired
skill or a prerequisite for noncoms.
  "Heh. You," the marine grunted at the two crew members sitting opposite to them on the port
side, "engineers or Ops?"
  Stopping to fidget with their EVA suits, the two petty officers looked back at him with an
expression that was half fright and half indignation. "Security." one of them answered.
  "Security, eh? God help us all." Kalmel muttered. "You guys have names?"
  "Um.. I'm Petty O-..." the other began, but was cut off by the voice of another person entering the
back of the shuttle.
  "Everyone ready to go?" Petty Officer Emily Evanson snapped at them, looking about in a visibly
bad mood.
  "Yes, ma'am. We're ready." the corporal stated, "He might be just petty-oh, though." he added,
pointing at the Security corpsman.
  Turning around and frowning at the young man, Emily shook her head. "What's wrong with you,
Baker? That the first time you put on that suit?"
  "Err, no... but-..."
  Not waiting for him to explain himself she put her helmet down and opened the upper row of seals
of his EVA suit, straightening and fastening it back closed again. "There you go. Next time have
your Mum look you over before you board a shuttle, you hear me?"
  "Yes, ma'am." he mumbled meekly as Emily picked up her helmet, closed the hatch and took her
seat next to them, catching Rita's eyes for a moment.


  The field scientist cocked her head quizzically, hoping the other woman would read her question
for what it was: are the others all right? However, either Emily wasn't very receptive at the moment
or she didn't feel like answering, as she grimaced and looked away, towards the front of the shuttle
craft where the pilots were sitting, waiting for their orders.
  "Mister Solano."
  "Yes?" one of them turned around to her.
  "Let Commander Holmes know we're all set." Emily ordered tersely, and something about the way
she spoke was telling Rita that there was more to her bad mood than she was letting on.
  The pilot nodded and leant forward, pressing a button on his console. "Mission leader, this is
shuttle two - we're ready to go."
  "Copy, shuttle two." Patricia's voice was heard over the comm system. "Prepare for launch and
stand by."
  Rita felt the vibration of the engine increase and the atmosphere change inside the shuttle - now
there was no more time for worry or self-doubt, just a job to do.


  Emily looked over her shoulder at Kalmel. The marine's eyes were closed but his lips were moving
silently.
  "You okay, corporal?"
  His eyes opened. "Ma'am?"
  "You were talking to yourself."
  "Ah. Just a word to the Pathfinder, ma'am."
  "Pathfinder?"
  "The Pathfinder leads us, me, through the tests of life, ma'am. I was just asking him to guide my
way."
  "Oh, you have religion." Emily grimaced. "I'm sorry, I didn't realise..."
  He grinned in a disarming manner. "That's okay, ma'am. I used to be a lay preacher before I
joined up. That's why the call me the Padre. But I'm not evangelical about it. He's flexible so I'll just
talk to him later."
  That got him a smirk from the petty officer. "Good man. Alright, Solano. Let's do this."



  [ Shuttle three ]


  Everyone was in their EVA suits and crammed into the small shuttle. The suits made the space
available nonexistent. One of the suits kept rocking back and forth. For a while it worried everyone
as they thought the person inside it was having a seizure or something - but when they realised it
was Dalin listening to headset he snuck in, they ignored him.


  As the bass hammered through his head Dalin closed his eyes and smiled. He thought of when he
was back on the starbase with Claire. He opened his eyes and realized he wanted to be back at the
Starbase.
  He stopped rocking. "Hell, I'll fix everyone if I have to. We are getting back to that starbase no
matter what."


  A man sitting next to him looked over at him, "What is wrong with you?!"
  "What?" Dalin asked.
  "Seriously, you been rocking back an forth since you sat down. Now you're talking to yourself?"
He looked over at the commanding officer on the shuttle. "I need another seat!"
  "Shut it down back there." came the reply. "We're heading out."
Slowly the shuttle began hovering towards the large force field in front of them.




                                                ***
                                          Chapter 5 – Pitch black



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Landing area ]
  [ Shuttle three ]


  The shuttle landed hard on the surface and jerked violently. It wasn't the pilot's fault in the least,
the rocky terrain and complete lack of light made it almost impossible.


  "Alright everyone! End of the line!" shouted a voice.


  Dalin opened his eyes and looked around to find the Gunny looking at him with a wry expression.
Behind the Gunny, he could see a few grins on the marines' faces as they prepared to go outside.
He had been up for so long he must have dozed on the short flight from the ship. He unhooked
himself from the seat and rose.


  The Gunny looked around the compartment to check that everyone was suited up. "Heads up,
everyone. Take everything nice and easy now. I know we're on a timeframe here but you're no good
to the Sat if you've decompressed. So proceed with safety in mind. Got that?"


  The rear hatch opened onto impenetrable blackness. The only patch of ground that was visible
was where the light from the open hatch illuminated it. Immediately chatter arose among the
marines.
  "Frak, can't see a damn thing."
  "Who cares? It's a frozen lump of rock drifting in space..."
  "Just like all the other frozen lumps of rock."
  "Okay, I get the message, it's a dump."
  "Yep. Lucky we aren't here for the sightseeing innit?"
  "Cut it, kids. Start getting the stuff unloaded." Don clicked the general marine channel. "This is
Tower Two, on the surface. Let's have some of you over to this shuttle to carry the kit. Smartly now,
Commander Holmes doesn't want to be kept waiting."



  [ Shuttle one ]


  Clicking his wrist torch on, Ensign James Sims stepped forward clumsily in the EVA suit, trying to
see into the distance beyond the shuttle's hatch. Leaving the pool of light created by the open
hatch, he realised just how dark it actually was.
  Staring at his Tricorder, he stopped at the indicated point and placed the light stand he was
carrying on the ground before activating it. Once it had fully unfolded, the main lighting unit came
online, bathing the surrounding area in a bright white light. Satisfied, he turned and walked back to
the shuttle.
  Entering the shuttle craft again, he was greeted by a semicircle of marines and Security crew with
horror-widened eyes, all of which were staring back at him - or rather at his suit, to be exact, at the
level of his chest.
  "Huh?" Startled, Ensign Sims stopped and tried looking down at himself. Which proved to be
rather difficult as his helmet was in the way.
  "Oh my god... his suit."
  "What is with my suit?"
  "Good Lord!" one of the marines blurted out.
  "Commander!" shouted another one.
  "What is it..." Patricia emerged from the cockpit area and stopped dead in her tracks when her
stare fell on Ensign Sims. "Oh god. What's that on his suit?"
  "No idea."
  "It looks awful."
  "Yeah..."
  "What is on my suit?!" Sims was beginning to sweat, and the status indicator on the lower rim of
his helmet was indicating a rapidly increasing heart rate.
  "Relax, Ensign." Patricia smiled, gently putting a hand on his shoulder. "Know why we always send
out a junior officer first?"
  "I don't know." the ensign panted forth, terrified. "Why?"
  "Because no matter how obvious the joke, it's always the first time it's played on them." she
stated deadpan as the others couldn't stifle their chuckles anymore.
  "What do you... what?!"
  "No worries, Ensign." Patricia grinned, picked up a flashlight and walked past him out of the
hatch. "Carry on."
  "There's nothing on my suit?" he stammered, turning around in an awkwardly clumsy motion.
  "Nothing but space dust, cowboy." a female marine smirked and made her way past him as well
along with the others who were giggling and shaking their heads.


  There was no movement for a moment, before the ensign finally stumbled his way out of the
shuttle behind them. "That's not even funny ..." he began, before looking round to see lights
vanishing over a slight ridge ahead. "Hey, no fair - wait up!"



  [ Half an hour later ]


  "Alright, so... you guys ready for this?" Lieutenant Commander Patricia Holmes looked around at
the small group of scientists and marines that had gathered around her.
  "As ready as we'll ever be, ma'am." Corporal Kalmel responded, which earned him a peculiar
sideglance from the female Klingon at his side.
  "We're ready." Mabli Kor then added with a curt nod.
  "Good." Patricia smiled uneasily. "So what's the game plan?"
  "Well, basically Mister Minassian here will help us scout a location." Kalmel began. "Depending on
what we'll find there, I will devise a fireplan. And Corporal Kor then will tell you all where to place
the explosives and how to set them up." he finished, a grunt from the large Klingon accompanying
his last comment.


  "Sounds good. Okay... Emily? You and..." Patricia looked around once more, registering with a
smirk that Ensign Sims was trying to hide out of her sight behind another Security officer. "...and
Sims. Take a couple of marines, you will stay behind at the shuttle crafts."
  "What? No! Like hell I'm staying behind." Through her helmet visor, the small brunette stared
back at her in defiance. "You know what always happens in the holo-movies..."
  "Emily..." Patricia sighed and mustered her for a moment. "We're not in a holo-movie. There's
nothing on this rock but us. Alright?"
  Emily grimaced, then slowly turned about, shaking her head. "Fine. I'll stay behind. Guarding the
godsdamned shuttles." she muttered.


  "Okay." said Patricia, pursing her lips. "Everyone else, you know what to do. Let's move."



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Main Engineering ]


  After the staff meeting, Paul had made his way to engineering in an attempt to do what he could.
Upon arrival, he found the department in tatters. The journey through the anomaly had hit
Engineering the worst, and understandably so - since it was where all the main junctions for the
primary systems met. Their overload had meant a great deal of fires, debris and gasses which
resulted in the death of almost half the engineers on shift.


  Paul was putting some of his previous engineering stints to good use, and working on getting
primary power back on line together with a rather tired looking engineer. All seemed to be going
pretty well until a loud klaxon began to sound.


  "That doesn't sound good." Paul commented.
  "You're right..." replied the Engineer, a young ensign who was beginning to go rather white.
  "Why do you look like you've just seen a ghost?" asked the Scotsman as he frantically tapped
away at the console responsible for the Structural Integrity Systems.
  "...oh, I see. That's definitely not good!"


  The console was showing the ships overall structural condition. The upper pylon on the port side
had been severely stressed and weakened by the Saturn's 'arrival'. The structural integrity field was
the only thing keeping it from failing. With the field almost gone, the Pylon was already beginning to
buckle under the stress of the anomaly's spacial turbulence. Paul spied a marine helmet sitting on
an stool at a nearby console, running over to it, he checked it was powered up and then shouted
into it, so as to be heard for sure.


  "This is Lieutenant Toddman to all personnel on this channel, our structural integrity field is
collapsing, without main power there is absolutely nothing we can do here in Engineering, the upper
port nacelle pylon is going to buckle and give way any moment, hold on tight!"
  The earpiece crackled before the voice of the XO came through. "Please tell me this is a might
happen, can you pull power from anywhere else?!"
  "The only thing we can draw power from is what is keeping us alive, the emergency life support,
but according to this readout, thats no where near enough power to get the field back online."


  An eerie sound began to reverberate throughout the ship. It was the sound of metal tearing and
bending.


  "Too late!" the tired engineer barked. Paul looked at him to be met with the sight of the upper
port nacelle swinging inward toward the ships hull on a monitor the crewman was pointing toward.
  "Holy shit! Everyone get the hell away from any power relays or conduits!" Paul shouted into the
comms as he and the engineer dived for the floor.



  [ Space ]


  The nacelle pylon silently folded in half, the decompression caused by the initial movement
accelerating the process as the remaining hull plate acted like a hinge until the stresses removed it
as well. The final trajectory left no doubt that there would be a collision, and the mass silently made
contact with the lower hull sections, only around fifty meters from the base of the lower port
starboard nacelle, which shook alarmingly as the mass bounced off the ship.


  The damaged decks began to haemorrhage air and furniture as the gasses escaped, crystallising
in the vacuum around the vessel as it left. Eventually what emergency power they had left erected
forcefields shutting off the gasses escape, but the creaking audible throughout the lower hull
section was not inspiring confidence in anyone onboard.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Main Engineering ]


  The deck shook violently. Paul had seen his fair share of battles and was accustomed to the deck
shaking, but this was different. As the deck shook the deafening and frightening sound of
screeching and cracking of metal filled the air. What little power was flowing through the conduits
all around engineering began to overload and surge, consoles erupted sending razor sharp and
white hot shards flying through the already smoke laden air. One poor crewman had not responded
to Paul's shouts to take cover in time and was killed instantly as his console exploded, sending him
flying several feet before landing as a burnt and crumpled mass against the pool table.


  The rumbling, screeching, tearing and sparking subsided as suddenly as it began, leaving alarm
beeps sounding from almost every console that was still intact. Fires took hold in several locations,
leaving the remaining engineering crew rushed to fight them with portable suppressors.


  Paul stood up and dusted himself down a little before turning his attention to the console that was
beeping the loudest. The status it was flashing in bold red large letters was not a welcome sight.


                   POWER RESERVES: 10% :: ANTIMATTER CONTAINMENT FIELD: 20%


  The computer suddenly chimed in. "Warning. Antimatter containment field strength at twenty
percent. Warning. Antimatter containment field strength at twenty percent."


  "What is the failure threshold on the containment field?" Paul enquired as he began searching for
spare power in any of the ships remaining systems.
  "Fifteen percent Sir. If it drops below that, the fields will start to collapse." came weary voice from
behind as the Engineer picked himself up from the ground.



  [ Aft Torpedo Bay ]
  [ USS Saturn ]


  As the ship shook and groaned about them, Auron thanked the gods that the marine that had
accompanied them had thought to keep tabs on the com net. He'd been able to get out the warning
to hold on, and little else before the world went topsy turvy. The groaning of overstressed metal
and load bearing structures shearing in half echoed through the entire vessel - only those on the
shuttles wouldn't know something terribly bad had happened.


  Once things had settled down, the ship was still groaning on occasion, but it was a paltry echo
compared to what had just happened. Auron and the others picked themselves up and started a
triage of their few casualties; an engineer, a sciences petty officer, and the marine had gone the
way of all life. The engineer reverently removed the helmet from the dead man, closing his eyes
and removing the second ID tag from the chain around his neck before standing, helmet in hand.
"OK, I need three of you to stay here. The messages need to be re-recorded: Priority One Disaster.
Be sure to keep the information about the cloud, for safety's sake, but we need help now, not when
Starfleet has time to spare." Three hands went up, and Auron led the rest out as he slid the helmet
on.


  "OK, whoever is in Engineering, status report. Give me Critical alerts first, everything else can
wait."
  "This is Lieutenant Toddman, that shake and explosion you felt was our upper port nacelle and its
pylon giving way and tearing off. We're now about to loose the antimatter containment fields,
they're at 19% and falling."
  Auron swore, regardless of whether it was professional or not. "Engage the emergency ejection
protocol. If that doesn't work, I need to know now." He gave his engineers a series of quick hand
signals and the group dispersed, grabbing up any and every stray hand they came across.
  "I wish I could, all systems are down, and I mean everything." came the desperate reply from Paul
over the helmet com. "All control over any automation is shot."
  "Crap. Alright, I've already got teams en route to the storage facilities to engage manual jettison
protocols." That in and of itself was a daunting task. There were three independent anti-matter
storage facilities onboard the Prometheus class design. "What I need from you is to keep an eye on
the containment levels. Divert power from anything you have to, even life support. If containment
fails, well, life support won't matter."


  "Aye Sir." Paul acknowledged. There was a brief pause before the comm channel crackled back to
life. "Ok, we've shut down life support on the lower 5 decks, it's given us enough power to hold the
containment fields temporarly at 18.5%, but the readings are already beginning to fluctuate. You
best get your boys on the case right away, as in 5 minutes ago."


  Auron pulled the helmet off and grabbed one of the random crewmen his own section had
nabbed. "You, get down to Impulse Control, look for Chief Meyers. Tell him I need Fusion 1 and 2
online, yesterday. No external venting, all output to the EPS and MHD. Go!"


  As the crewman dashed off into the flickering light, Auron pulled the helmet back on. "Toddman,
I've got a runner heading down to Impulse Control. You should start to see a rise in available power.
Everything goes to the anti-matter containment."


  "Aye aye." came the short and hurried response from the Scot.



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Landing area ]
  [ Shuttle one ]


  Grumbling, Sims stood outside the shuttle with a phaser in hand as the lights of the party
disappeared into the distance. He stared in that general direction for a few minutes after they were
gone, before eventually shaking himself and looking around the immediate vicinity of the shuttles
once more.


  Petty Officer Evanson was inside the shuttle, and he knew marines were guarding the other
shuttles, although he couldn't remember who they were - probably someone who enjoyed being
bored senseless. This rock seemed as dead as it was dark.


  After another few minutes of standing there bored, he walked around the shuttle with the weapon
at his side - shining the wrist torch into the gloom that surrounded them. As expected, he saw
absolutely nothing - this elicited another sigh as he moved back round to the side of the shuttle
once more.


  Sitting on the nacelle, he began to take a deep interest in the readouts on his suit as a way to
pass the time. He realised that he hadn't ever actually paid full attention to what was displayed -
focussing on integrity and oxygen most of the time.
  He had just started flicking the display to humidity adjustment when he suddenly had the feeling
he was being watched. Looking up, he quickly shone the torch around the area in front of him - but
much like before it revealed absolutely nothing. Standing, he cautiously took a few steps away from
the shuttle. When he found nothing he took a few more. Still nothing.
  Turning, he shook his head and began walking back to the shuttle.


  Then the lights went out.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  The feeling on the bridge was one of despondency. The damage level of the ship was increasing,
and if it wasn't for the anomaly Miya would have seriously considered giving the order to abandon
ship already.
  "Ma'am." Chief Timor Hanar chipped in. "From a purely tactical point of view, we're royally
screwed."
  Miya sighed, "I'm not sure the point of view matters at the moment." She looked around the
bridge at the remaining consoles, most of which simply showed system-offline messages. "Grab
whoever you can Chief, let's see if we can make ourselves useful."
  "Got anything in mind?" asked Hanar.
  "At present, I think getting those probes launched would be the most useful thing we could do.
They're ready to go, we just need to get them underway." Miya slightly turned her head and briefly
spoke into the helmet comms before turning back toward the Tactical Chief. "Okay, the CEO is
heading to engineering - let's get to the torpedo bay and get these things out there."
  Hanar nodded and they both headed for the Jeffries tube.



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Landing area ]
  [ Shuttle three ]


  With the passengers and their equipment offloaded, the pilot of the Okinawa shuttle, Cpl. Chavez
settled in to await developments. All he could see as he gazed out of the window was the pools of
light cast by the other two shuttles. Behind him, the loadmaster, PFC Adon Nye, walked in from the
cargo compartment and rummaged in a locker for a deck of ol fashioned playing cards. "Seeing as
we're stuck here, want to see if you can win some of that money back off me?"
  Chavez sighed. "Yeah, why not. There's nothing else to do."
  "This is a crazy place, man. No stars. No nothing."
  "Think yourself lucky you're not carting a pack out there with the Gunny."
  "Affirmative. I'll drink to that."
  "I hope you don't!"
  "You know what I mean. OK, so what are we playing?"


  They were engrossed in their card game, with Chavez making up for lost ground when Nye
suddenly looked up. "Did you hear that?"
  "What?"
  "I thought I heard something on the hull. A scraping sound."
  They paused to listen to the silence.
  "Nah! You're imagining things."
  "What if it's one of the others?"
  "Then they'd bang on the hull. Or call us on the comms. It's nothing. C'mon, your play."
  "I'm sure I heard something."
  "You're just trying to get out of it when I'm winning." Chavez saw the look on Nye's face. "Frak it!
Suit up and go and look around then."
  "OK, I will." Nye got up and returned to the cargo compartment.


  After a few minutes, Chavez heard the aft door open and close again. Quickly, he scooped up the
cards and proceeded to stack the deck. Then he sat back down. The minutes passed. He got bored
and keyed the comms. "Adon, where the hell are you?"


  When the channel remained silent, Chavez swore and headed aft to get suited up himself.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Sickbay ]


  The Commodore tried to focus on his book, but he knew things were not going well. You couldn't
spend the length of time he had on starships without being able to instantly tell when things were
simply far too damaged to be truly salvageable. With a grim look on his face, he placed the book
down next to him and summoned the nurse working at the bed next to him.
  "I'd like to speak to the CMO please." he whispered quietly.
  "Of course sir" the nurse replied, disappearing amid the beds before returning with the CMO in
tow.
  "How can I help you Commodore?" asked the CMO, clearly looking like she had a sleep deficit of
at least a few days.
  "Doctor," the Commodore whispered, "I assume by now you are beginning to suspect this
situation is not going to be quickly resolved."
  Lowering her voice to match, a frown formed on her face as she replied. "I was hoping we would
be clear of this ... whatever it is by now. Why?"
  There was a pause as the Commodore carefully chose his next words.
  "I don't think the Saturn will be returning from this particular adventure." he whispered, watching
the woman's face. "As soon as we are clear of this anomaly", and I hope we actually do get clear, he
thought, "I'm fairly confident the order will be given to abandon ship. Are you prepared for such an
eventuality?"
  The face looking at the Commodore went blank, and then nodded slowly. "I had feared as much."
she whispered hoarsely, "Assuming we have enough people to help move the wounded, we should
be fine."
  The Commodore nodded. "Keep this to yourself for now. I have every confidence in my XO - she
may surprise us yet."
  "I hope so sir, I really do."
  [ Planetoid surface ]


  The trek hadn't been as bad as Don had feared it might be. Since leaving the shuttles, they had
made their way over some broken ground and then through a maze of boulders and craters to get
to a saddle in a low ridge that the scientists thought looked a promising site. Fortunately, the
marines had their manouvering packs to provide lift and so, with their assistance, it had been
relatively easy to lug all the equipment along. The limiting factor had been the speed at which the
non-marines had been able to progress along the surface. As predicted, the gas that had caused
such damage to the Saturn was thin enough down here on the surface that all the equipment
operated correctly. However, radio interference made talking to the shuttles near impossible.


  The snake of helmet lights juddered to a halt in the darkness as the scientists at the head of the
column gathered together to consult their instruments ... again. From his position near the back,
Don was pleased to see pools of light sweep from side to side as his marines, strung out along the
column, followed their instincts to check their surroundings. Even if they couldn't see anything out
there.


  A voice came over the comms. "Attention everyone. There's a deep fissure at the foot of the
ridge. We just need to find a way to the bottom and we can then setup the drills and get to work."


  Ahead, the cluster of lights reformed into a column and started angling off to the left, presumably
parallel to the edge of the fissure. Don keyed the marines own channel. "This is Tower Two. Watch
your step. I don't want anyone falling in. Out."


  A few minutes later, the head of the column stopped again. The rest closed up to find the group of
scientists gathered in a reasonably clear area. Helmet lights revealed the face of the ridge
descending to form the far wall of the deep fissure, about 20 metres wide. The edge of the fissure
on the near side was jagged rock and when Don peeped over the side, he wasn't sure if he could
actually see the bottom it was so deep.


  "Tower Two to Shield One, get your squad to form a perimeter up here. Copy?"
  "Shield One, copy. You expecting trouble then?" Replied March as eight of the suited figures
moved to form a semicircle around the rest of the party, their lights sweeping the rocks and debris
around them.
  "Negative. But it never hurts to be sure, you know that." retorted Don, suppressing the shiver that
went down his spine. He felt like he was being watched.
  "Can whoever has the glowlights put a couple down here?" came a voice over the comms.


  A marine rummaged in a pack and produced a couple of bulky rods. Twisting the end of one
produced a soft, yellowish light that filled the immediate area. Carefully approaching the fissure, the
figure tossed the light into the depths. In the gentle gravity, it descended slowly until it came to rest
about 50 metres down, filling the jagged walls and floor of the fissure with light for the first time
ever. A second glowlight followed and they could see the area below.


  "Bonus!" exclaimed a voice. "Looks like there are some caves down there. If they go deep enough
then that'll save us some drilling time."
  "Okay. Gunny, get a couple of your marines to get down there and have a look, if you please."
came Holmes's voice.
  "Yes, ma'am. I'll go. Break. Lance Three with me."
  "Lance Three, copy." came Noggy's voice in his ear.


  He activated the tractor beams on the MMP and floated over to the edge of the fissure on them.
Checking that Noggy was with him, he swung over the edge and started to drop towards the glow of
the lights. Carefully, he blipped the rockets on/off to steady the descent rate. Studying the floor of
the fissure, he selected a landing spot and cut the rockets as he came within range of the tractor
beams. Reducing the power, he finally dropped his feet onto the rock. Seconds later, Noggy arrived
beside him. From this angle, they could see that the ground was clear and firm but with a definite
slope downwards away from the base of the ridge. On the other side, underneath where the landing
party were standing, there were a number of cave entrances. They approached one, and, shining
their helmet lights inside, they could see jagged rocks protruding from walls and floor.


  Don stepped back and looked up as much as his suit would let him. Absolute blackness with just a
couple of small lights in the distance. "This is Tower Two. Clear to descend. There are caves down
here but it would be a bit risky. They'd rip the suits to shreds. Over."


  Static howled in reply. He waved up at the darkness, hoping that someone would work out what
he meant. He was just contemplating returning to the surface when it appeared that someone up
there must have got the message. Another glowlight illuminated the edge of the fissure and, in the
light, several figures could be seen to start descending. Part way down, one halted next to the rock
face and attached what must have been a comms relay because suddenly the channels came to
life.


  "Can you hear me, Gunny?" demanded Holmes.
  "Roger that, ma'am. Loud and clear."
  "What's the situation down there?"
  "Seems safe enough, ma'am. Caves are here although I think they'll be too hazardous to climb
through."
  "Understood. We're coming down."


  For the next fifteen minutes, the marines were busy ferrying equipment and personnel who didn't
have MMP's from the top of the fissure to the bottom. Mindful of his sixth sense and the old maxim
that you should secure your line of retreat, Don ensured that Birdie, Sparrow and Wilson stayed at
the top of the fissure. It took another half an hour to setup the drilling equipment while the
scientists poured over their sensor readings. Somehow, they reckoned that there was a cave
system going deep under the plain the party had crossed since leaving the shuttles. If true, there
was a good chance they could spall a nice big plate of rock off the surface and send it flying out of
the cloud.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Corridor, Deck 9 ]


  Sergeant Mike Dushon saw the damage control party ahead of him, crouched either side of the
next junction. As he neared them, "Torchy" Sul and "Tiny" Kodash appeared from the cross corridor
and looked back. There was a soft "crump", the sound of some metal falling and a hot breeze
washed across the junction.


  "How's it going?" inquired Dushon.
  Torchy grinned, "That should have made a hole in the bulkhead to the last section ..."
  "... So it's going pretty good." finished Tiny. "Stay here while we check it out." He instructed the
damage control party.


  The three marines headed down the corridor to have a look at their handiwork. Instead of cutting
through the jammed bulkhead door, Tiny had decided to go through the wall beside it. By stringing
a directional explosive strip in a loop, they now had a ragged, but man sized hole in the wall with
the debris in a neat chunk on the other side. Torchy peered into the gloom of the emergency
lighting beyond. "Yeah." She called back down the corridor, "You're good to go, guys."


  As the DC party threaded their way through the hole in search of the owners of the last three life
signs that had been trapped in the section, Dushon drew the others aside.
  "Well done here. But I've just heard from the XO. Valkris is dead. He was helping get some probes
ready to launch when the nacelle collapsed. I wanted to tell you in person since he was in your
squad."



  [ Aft Torpedo Bay ]


  Miya stared at the tools lying around the room. The last explosion had not been kind to the ship,
and the bodies lying near the damaged consoles only made her feelings of helplessness even
greater. Trying to ignore them, she turned to the three modified torpedoes that she hoped would
bring some sort of aid in their direction.
  "Chief, check these over." she said, tossing a tricorder to Hanar. "We'll need to make sure no
damage happened during the last explosion."
  Hanar knelt and studied the tricorder. "These look unscathed, but I'd be happier if we tested them
in a holodeck setting."
  Miya nodded. "If we had time, or Holodecks, I'd be happy to do that. As it is - we have neither."
She walked over to one of the consoles and checked the launcher systems. Somehow, and she
wasn't quite sure how, they were still fully operational. "We're just going to have to launch them
and hope like hell they work first time out."
  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Drilling site ]


  Corporal Kalmel sighted the energy drill on the cave entrance and triggered the targeting beam. A
small red circle appeared inside the cave and he adjusted the controls until it was a mansized ring,
lying across the jagged rocks of the cave entrance. He double checked the controls and then
started to feed power to the cutting beam. The sensors had given them an estimate of how much
energy would be needed to cut through the rock, but the Padre had learned never to trust the
sensors. Sure enough, as the beam got to 89% of the predicted level, the rock started to disappear.
He checked the rate of cut and did some rough calculations. That was good, the cells they had with
them would last an extra 9% at this rate.



  [ Rocky ridge above ]


  A good two dozen metres from the hole in the planetoid surface she had just arduously climbed
out of, Patricia leant against one of the rocks after carefully looking it over in order not to damage
her EVA suit. Breathing heavily, she activated her helmet communicator.


  "Shuttle one, this is Holmes. We're about to start placing the charges, requesting commlink to
Saturn."
  Static howled through the channel in reply.
  "Shuttle one, this is Holmes." she tried once more. "Emily, come in please."
  Still nothing. Grimacing, Patricia looked in the vague direction where the shuttles were parked,
despite seeing nothing but pitch black darkness.
  With a sigh she registered a creeping feeling of regret over having placed Emily in charge over
there and tried raising the other two shuttle crafts. To no avail. The feeling of regret was instantly
replaced with nagging worry. Pushing herself off the rock she was leaning against and almost
tripping over, she made her way towards the edge of the fissure to a group of marines.


  "Gunny." Patricia spoke, raising him on a private channel.
  One of the figures turned about and came closer. "Commander? Is everything alright?"
  "I don't know." she replied, coming to a halt in front of Don Jameson. "I've been trying to contact
the crew at the shuttles but can't seem to reach them. I'm going to check on them."
  Scowling at her through his helmet visor, Don nodded. "Wait a sec, I'll be right with you." he said
and switched channels. "Junebug?" he spoke, waiting a moment for a reply from underneath. "I'll
accompany the Commander to the shuttle crafts. You'll be in charge here until we're back." A
moment later he turned back to Patricia and nodded again.
  "Alright, ma'am. Ready when you are."
  "Let's go, then."



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Aft Torpedo Bay ]


  "On the count of three." Miya said, watching the readout on the console in front of her count
down. "Three ... two ... one ... go!" She pushed the manual launch button just as Hanar shunted the
relevant power across to the launcher. All the modified torpedoes were expelled from the ship, their
inert start hopefully allowing them to clear the anomaly without incident.


  She was just about to suggest they move on when she stopped. Something she'd really rather not
hear came over the comm system. Hanar watched her face fall; eventually she spoke.
  "Who was assigned to Gamma 2?" she asked. Another pause, then her lips narrowed. Looking
over at Hanar, she nodded towards the Jefferies tube that had brought them there.
  "Let's go Chief, we need to be ready to go as soon as they blow that rock."



  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Landing area ]
  [ Shuttle two ]


  "Over here." Patricia heard Don's grim voice over the helmet comms. "I've found the other one."


  Still appalled by the sight her flashlight presented her with, she slowly turned around to the
Gunnery Sergeant. He was standing near the rear hatch of shuttle craft one, which looked like it had
been thrown into a meat grinder. Patricia let the beam of light wander across the hull as she
approached Don. Deep cuts were visible all over the duranium surface, large parts of it had literally
been ripped to shreds. In front of the hatch, next to a destroyed light pylon, the body of a marine
lay in a puddle of blood, the limbs stretching out in utterly wrong angles, indicating they had been
broken several times over.


  "Emily..." she whispered. Her breathing getting uncontrollable over her racing pulse, she had to
fight back the urge to throw up. Sweat was running down her face. Taking a couple steps back, she
slowly shook her head and turned around, dashing off in the direction of shuttle craft one.


  "Commander?" Don looked up. "Commander! Wait up!" But soon the shine from her flashlight had
vanished from his sight. "Dammit." he muttered and got up, running after her as quickly as he
could.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Engineering ]


  Paul's eyes scanned the readouts in front of him with incredulity. 'How is this ship holding itself
together?' he thought to himself. He'd seen ships in better condition being torn apart in salvage
yards. Artificial gravity was beginning to fluctuate, crew members were reporting walking down a
corridor, then finding themselves floating down the next section, and crawling along and barely able
to move in the next.
  The severe conditions outside of the ship continued to strain it. The remaining warp nacelles were
showing signs of buckling. The starboard lower nacelle was so badly deformed the sensor feed had
been cut, the optronic links most likely severed by the deformation.
  Only 8 decks were now habitable, the rest were either open to space, completely without power
or life support or on fire.


  Paul had ripped the communication module from the EVA helmet and strapped it to his arm for
ease of use. He had felt a little uneasy yelling into an empty helmet for a status report. As he
continued scanning the sensor readouts, he listened to comm chatter from all over the ship. It was
chaos, verging on anarchy.
  Under normal circumstances, the ship would have been long abandoned in favour of the relative
comforts of escape pods and shuttlecraft. Such was the situation that it dictated the crew remained
on board, regardless of the fact that the ship was trying to kill them in all manner of nasty ways.


  The ship shook again as another explosion resounded from a damaged section of the ship. Paul
then heard the com system go silent for a moment, teams began checking in, all but one. Damage
Control team Gamma 2 failed to check in. Paul sat helplessly listening to the panic that ensued as
the nearest team to Gamma 2's last known position raced to find out what had happened. With all
the damage, it took several minutes before report from the search team came in.


  "They're gone." came the forlorn voice over the comm.
  "What do you mean, they're gone?" a voice asked, clearly concerned.
  "The outer hull at the end of the corridor they were working in has disappeared, two sections of it.
Thank god the emergency bulkheads are mechanical and not electrical."
  "Dear god!"
  "Who was assigned to Gamma 2?" came a rather more calm and collected voice.
  "Parsons, Tebrul and McKenzie."


  The comm net went silent. Nothing needed to be said.



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Landing area ]


  Shuttle one was in no better shape than shuttle two. The same cuts and rifts in the hull, and a
couple scorch marks here and there indicating a handheld phaser had been fired at full setting.
Their flashlights quickly revealed some of the remains of one of their crewmen, scattered all over
the area in front of the small craft.
  "Oh God..." Patricia stammered, running the last few steps. "No. Please, no..."
  Don decided to leave the Lieutenant Commander alone for a moment and didn't follow her,
instead walking into the shuttle craft and taking a look at the consoles. Grimacing he realised they
were completely wrecked, including the comms station. Who or what ever had attacked the shuttles
hadn't stopped at the crew members guarding them.
  Eventually Don emerged from the shuttle again and approached Patricia, frowning and slowing his
pace. Examining the mortal remains, she seemed almost happy. "It's not her." she mumbled to
herself, despite the comm channel still being open.
  "Excuse me?" Don asked, starting to slightly worry about the Lieutenant Commander's state of
mind.
  "It's not Emily." Patricia stated eventually, not a single bit louder, then standing and looking back
at him. "We've got to find her, Gunny."
  Replying the stare for a long moment, he shook his head. "I think we should contact the rest of
the team first, ma'am. The transceiver in Shuttle Two was still op-..."
  "We've got to find her!" she insisted, wandering off again.
  "Commander, we have to-..."
  "NO!" Patricia shouted and turned to face him once more, her expression a strange mix of
anguish and determination.
  Taking in a deep breath, he stared back at her silently. In that condition, the officer was of no use
to anyone.
  Calming down somewhat, she turned away, walking a few steps in no particular direction. It
seemed to Don that it wasn't only the EVA suit and the low gravity that was making her movements
look strangely stiff.


  "Commander?" he finally tried once more.
  "You're right." she said quietly. "Go back to shuttle two. Contact the away team first, warn them.
Then the Saturn, tell them to send help ASAP."
  Don nodded and tried unsuccessfully to scratch his head through the helmet of his EVA suit.
"Yeah... we really should go together."
  Without turning around, she stood still for a moment. "Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant. I can watch
out for myself."
  "Ma'am, with all due respect, you're-..."
  "Go." she cut him off. "That's an order, Gunny."
  "Yes ma'am..." Stifling a sigh, the marine shook his head and turned to leave.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  Hanar could only watch as the rest of the crew prepared the bridge and ship for the planned
maneuver, something that the chief tactical officer was looking forward to. The only thing he was
wondering about was whether the ship would make it through in one piece, and pondered if he
should suggest using chewing gum to hold the ship together.
  "If only we had some chewing gum." he muttered, shaking his head and punching a few
seemingly random commands on an otherwise useless Tactical station. The thought of chewing
gum bought a smile on his face, remembering the first time one of his sexual conquests introduced
him to the stuff.
  Meanwhile, the XO was still trying to reach the away team on the surface. So far without any luck.
  "Perhaps we ought to use two cups and a string." he announced to no one in particular.
  Miya turned her head and shot him a stern glance. Even the usually calm and collected XO's
nerves were beginning to twang ever so slightly. "It's oddly reassuring you haven't lost your
trademark creativity yet, Chief. How about suggesting something actually helpful?"
  "Sorry, ma'am."
  "Never mind." Miya sighed. Turning to the Comms console again, she shook her head. "This is
stupid." she mumbled and pressed a button. Then she walked back over to the centre seat,
addressing the helmsman. "Get us into a lower orbit. Let's see if-..."
  The comm channel interrupted her by springing to life. "Saturn, this is Gunnery Sergeant
Jameson. Come in, Saturn."
  Turning on the spot Miya rushed back to the Comms station. "Helm, belay that."
  "Yes ma'am."
  "Saturn, this is Jameson. Do you copy, Saturn?"
  "Gunny, we read you loud and clear. What is going on down there?"
  "Big trouble, I'm afraid. The crew members we left at the shuttles are all dead or missing. They've
been attacked by... something. I don't know."
  "Attacked? I thought the planet was uninhabited!"
  "Apparently not, ma'am. There is definitely something down here. There was weapons fire, but
only ours. And the shuttle crafts are wrecked. We found five dead - four marines, one ensign. One
petty officer is still unaccounted for - probably dead, too."


  Miya hung her head for a beat, then looked up again. "What about the rest of the team?"
  "They were getting ready to set up the charges when we left the drill site to check on the shuttle
crews. I have tried warning them just now, but didn't get a reply. Sent the message three times,
though. Maybe it got through, I don't know. I hope so."
  "Who is in charge at the drilling site? Lieutenant Commander Holmes?"
  "No, Sergeant Ranson is. The commander was with me."
  Miya frowned. "What do you mean, 'was'?"
  "Um... she's still over at shuttle one, ma'am." Don stopped for a moment and cleared his throat.
"Looking for the petty officer we couldn't find." he finished.
  "Evanson." the XO surmised.
  "I think so." the Gunnery Sergeant replied. "Yes."


  Miya nodded and thought for a moment. "Make her stop." she then said. "Get back to the drilling
site, both of you. We'll send more shuttles as soon as we can."
  "Roger that, ma'am. Better keep them off surface until we are ready to board, it'll keep them out
of harms way."
  "Copy, Gunny. Good luck."
  "Thank you, ma'am. Jameson out."


  When the channel was closed, Miya turned around to the Tactical station. She didn't need to
actually say something - Hanar understood her glance and tried to find out if there was still
someone alive in the shuttle bay.
  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Landing area ]


  "Em! Emily!" At this point, Patricia wasn't even bothering using the helmet comms anymore
despite her EVA suit swallowing most of the sound, in her desperation she was just shouting out into
the silence as she searched every inch of the shuttle craft's vicinity.
  "Goddammit, Emily! Where are you?!"


  About a hundred meters away from the shuttle in the opposite direction of the drilling site, she
finally found her - a small figure in a blood-smeared Starfleet EVA suit, literally cowering under a
rock, letting out a panicked scream and blinding Patricia with her flashlight as if it were a weapon.
Upon realising it was her, Emily let the flashlight sink down and started crying uncontrollably.
  "Emily, oh thank God!" Patricia knelt down and hugged her closely. "Are you okay? Oh my God,
Em. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."


  Emily's frantical sobbing was slowly calming down to a muted whimpering in her friend's
embrace. After another moment Patricia started to carefully examine Emily's suit. The blood didn't
seem to be hers, but the transparent aluminium of the helmet visor had a large crack in it. It
seemed to be holding, though. Spare straps were pinching together a long cut in the suit fabric
covering her right forearm - it was slowly leaking atmosphere. Patricia pulled off one of her suit
straps and fixed it up as good as possible. Then she checked the helmet. A red light was blinking on
the status display, indicating that the comms had been damaged, likely when Emily had received
the hit to the head.


  It took only a short row of inputs to make the suit optronics switch to backup circuitry, and for a
minute they just sat there when Don appeared behind them.


  Patricia looked up at the Gunnery Sergeant, smiling at him. He slowed his pace, letting out a sigh
of relief - although his relief was more about not having to tell the Lieutenant Commander to break
off the search for her friend than about the fact that she had found her. He had already found four
of his men dead today and was wondering how many more it was going to be until they would get
off this goddamned rock.
  "Did you reach them?" she asked quietly.
  "Saturn, yes. Not sure if the away team got my message, though. We have to get back there
quickly." he replied, mustering Emily. "Is she alright?"
  "Seems like."
  "Did she tell you what happened?"
  Patricia shook her head slightly, getting up and helping Emily onto her feet.


  "They killed Ensign Sims." Emily suddenly said.
  "We know. Who did that?" asked Patricia.
  "The lights went out. And then..."
  "Emily, who?"
  "I don't know who... what... they were. They looked like... shadows, at first. They were fast. With
claws. And fangs. Phasers were useless." the small brunette went on, looking back at Patricia with a
slightly embarrassed glance. "So I ran. Killed one when it came close, though." she added.
  "Really?" Patricia let her flashlight wander around. "Where is it?"
  "You're standing in it."
  Patricia looked down, the beam of her flashlight coming to rest between her feet. The ground
where she was standing was covered with a thick layer of ashes. She frowned. "Now, that's not
useful."
  "It looks much nicer that way." Emily muttered quietly.


  "How'd you do that?" Patricia was puzzled. "I thought..."
  "I don't know." Emily smiled weakly through her helmet visor. "It just went up in flames."
  "What?"
  "All I had was this flashlight... thought if I blinded it, it wouldn't see me. You know... something
that lives in the dark all the time... and then... fwoosh. Just like that."
  "We need to go." stated Don, starting to feel uneasy.
  "Oh no." Emily froze, staring past the two.
  "What...?" wondered Patricia, turning her flashlight behind them.
  Registering a movement out of the corner of his eye, Don spun around, his phaser at the ready.
  "Turn off the lights. Turn them off!" Emily started wailing. "They hate the lights."
  The scarce light of their flashlights didn't reveal much, but the whole area between them and
Shuttle One seemed to be moving.
  "Oh God..." Involuntarily, Patricia receded a couple steps backwards.
  "Fall back." mumbled Don, taking aim at... something.




                                                      ***
                                     Chapter 6 – A wing and a prayer



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Corridors ]


  "Do you have an idea what's going on down there?" asked Crewman Dee-Anne Carter, one of the
assistant gunner's mates Hanar had grabbed before heading out from the bridge.
  Hanar threw a cautionary glance at the young woman and frowned. "If I had any clue I would be in
charge of Intelligence."
  "That's right." Morgan LaTaer chimed in, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and joining them in
their walk down the corridor. "And since that is still myself, you can be sure the chief doesn't know
anything about it."
  "Thanks, Lieutenant."
  "My pleasure." the Betazoid said before giving Hanar a suspiciously long look. "Shuttle bay?"
  The Chief of Tactical just nodded.


  "But... that means you do know, right?" Dee-Anne didn't think of dropping the issue.
  "I'll be damned." muttered Morgan. "I knew there was a knot in my logic somewhere."
  "That's why I'm so happy in Tactical, Lieutenant." chuckled Hanar. "Doesn't require much
intelligence to push buttons and make things go boom."
  "Touche, Mister centuries-old symbiont carrying Hanar Timor. The wisdom of age, isn't it?"
  Hanar grunted. "Why don't you get into my head and find out?"
  "Been there, found it scary, left quickly." retorted Morgan.
  "So I guess us lowly ranks aren't supposed to know, is that it?" muttered Dee-Anne next to them.
  "Yup." replied Morgan and Hanar in unison, turning a corner.


  The trio of crew members finally made it to the shuttle bay entrance, which was shut closed.
  "I'm no engineer, but I think the motion sensor's not working." announced Hanar after waving his
hands in front of the doors.
  "I'm no engineer either, but I think you're right."
  Hanar looked at the Intelligence officer and frowned.
  "What..." asked Morgan.
  "Do I look like I can see through metal?" Hanar demanded. "You're the telepath, why don't you
get out of Carter's head and see if anyone's still breathing on the other side of the door, eh?"
  "I already did. There is no one inside. I believe this area has been evacuated."
  "Does that mean no life support?" asked Dee-Anne with a worried look.
  "It means that no one is there, Carter." corrected Hanar and looked around with an accompanying
frown. "I thought I saw a Jefferies tube access point somewhere near here. That ought to get us to
the shuttle bay..." and paused, only to cock an eyebrow at Morgan. "Unless you have a better idea,
Lieutenant, having an intelligence and all?"
  "Shouldn't we find out if the shuttle bay has atmosphere first?" asked Dee-Anne before Morgan
could retort.
  The CIO stared past Hanar for a moment. "We'll find out when we get there. There is no point in
wasting time. If the emergency bulkheads in the Jefferies tubes are shut closed as well, I'd think
that will be a good enough indicator."
  Dee-Anne looked unconvinced.
  Hanar grandly gestured at an access panel further down the corridor and smiled despite the grim
situation. "Ladies first."


  A fair bit of crouching and climbing later, Morgan and the two noncoms found themselves mere
meters away from an access panel that led to the shuttle bay. The fact that the bulkheads were
shut was a sure indicator that Dee-Anne's worries were founded.
  "Better call this in." muttered Hanar and slapped his badge. "Timor to bridge."
  No response, except for spattering of static. Morgan couldn't help but grin at the reflex. Without
all their fancy technology, people tended to be helpless.
  "Frak me." groaned Hanar. "Should have asked for that paper cup and string after all. Now what?"
  "Why didn't you take a marine helmet with you?"
  "What, I should have left the XO without hers?"
  "Good point. Well... I guess we're on our own here. I think we could get in, despite the bulkheads.
However, if we don't have life support, we'll need to suit up."
  Dee-Anne frowned. "Suit up?"
  Hanar nodded. "Yes, put on a spacesuit." he said and shook his head. "I swear, Tactical seems to
get dumber and dumber on every tour."
  "That's why every ship comes with an Intelligence department now, to offset that." offered
Morgan. "Anyway, there is a storage compartment on the deck below the shuttle bay. If we can get
there, we should find some EVA suits."
  "Makes sense." agreed Hanar. "Let's go, then."


  After another detour through the Jefferies tubes, they found themselves in said storage
department. Quickly grabbing the spacesuits from one of the lockers, they geared up and made
their way back to the shuttle bay entrance.


  "Not to sound like a broken record." grunted Hanar, as he stared at the shut doors. "But, now
what?"
  "We cut through it?" suggested Dee-Anne, patting the phaser she took from one of the lockers.
  Hanar eyed the phaser and extended his hand with palm out. "Gimme that, Carter."
  "What, Tactical doesn't bring their own weapons anymore?" Morgan quipped while producing his
phaser from his belt.
  "Shove a sock in it, Lieutenant." shot Hanar back and checked the phaser. "She hasn't yet been
certified to be issued one of these puppies."
  "Alright then." Morgan nodded. "However, we do have a slight problem."
  "And what is that?"
  "Suppose we open this door. The force field that is normally closing off the shuttle bay likely isn't
in place at the moment - no power. Which is probably why the shuttle bay was evacuated in the first
place. We'd get sucked out into space. Wait... can these boots be magnetised?" the CIO pointed at
their feet.
  "I think so..." Dee-Anne said and checked. "Yes."
  "Okay. That takes care of that."


  Activating the magnets under their boots and donning their helmets, the trio positioned
themselves at a safe distance from the door, set their phasers to the maximum setting and began
cutting. It didn't take long until a man-sized chunk broke free and was immediately pushed into the
shuttle bay by the air escaping the corridor. To their left and right, emergency bulkheads snapped
into place with resounding bangs.


  Turning around and looking at the massive bulkhead at his side for a moment, Morgan arched an
eyebrow. "That's it, then. The point of literally no return. Let's hope we find some functional shuttle
crafts in there."
  Gripping the phaser firmly in his hand, Hanar nodded and gingerly stepped through the hole.
Apart from the missing atmosphere, the shuttle bay looked otherwise pristine with only a couple of
boxes looking out of shape. As the other two joined him, Hanar holstered the phaser and pointed at
the sole shuttle in the bay.
  "Only one..." mumbled Dee-Anne through the helmet comms.
  "Yup. And I'm driving." Hanar announced, as he started to head towards it.



  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Drilling site ]


  At the top to the fissure, Mabli Kor watched while Frenchy d'Quois tapping the side of his helmet
in a futile attempt to improve communications with the Gunny.


  "Still nothing?"
  "Nah, just static. It sounded like he said something about an attack ... but that doesn't make
sense. What do you think?"
  "I think we relay it to Junebug." Kor switched channels. "Sword One, this is Lance Two. Can you
hear me?"
  "This is Shield One, Lance Two. Junebug is down the hole with the demo team. What's up?" came
back gruff tones of March d'Ciq from the bottom of the fissure.
  "We just got a broken message from Tower Two. Difficult to make out but it sounded like he was
saying something about an attack. We haven't been able to re-establish comms yet."
  "Copy. Stay alert and I'll send some extra help while I relay to Sword One. Out."


  A few seconds later, the figures of Noggy Ondagh and Kell Otner floated up out of the fissure to
join them. Setting their sensors to active scan, the four marines took cover in the rocks and waited.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Antimatter Storage 3 ]


  The process of manually ejecting antimatter storage pods was a difficult procedure. Already the
first two bays had been emptied of their containment vessels - all that remained now was the
facility that fed the ventral hull during both combined flight mode and MVAM.


  With the last of the lines disconnected, the engineering crew blew the ejection hatch's bolts. A
large section of hull plating slowly drifted away as winches were engaged, lowering the entire
containment pod storage rack out into space. With the minimal field levels as they were, everyone
was sweating bullets inside their EVA suits - the ship would suffer catastrophic damage if the fields
failed before reaching safe distance.


  Now came the most dangerous part. Explosive bolts were built into the storage rack
superstructure. Normally they would be blown from within the hull, the unique shape of the storage
bay and the rails on the rack guiding everything straight down and out. With the rails completely
extended, the pods could go anywhere if the bolts didn't fire in the proper sequence. Without power
to the nearby tractor beam emitter, there was no safety net in case things went wrong. Still, there
was nothing left to do but push the Big Red Button.


  With a coordinated series of explosions, the assembled crew watched and breathed a collective
sigh of relief as the rack of anti-matter pods moved away with speed from the hull. Finally,
something had gone right - all three antimatter storage facilities had been ejected without incident.
Now, all they needed to do was keep the rest of the ship from completely tearing itself apart before
they could be rescued.



  [ Planetoid ]
  [ Drilling site, underground ]


  "Out of breath already, Ensign?" Corporal Kelly jested walking past Dalin, who had just slumped
down onto one of the lesser jagged rocks.


  Replying with half a grin and weakly waving his hand, the medical officer didn't do much to
convince the marine otherwise. Luckily he was left alone for the next ten minutes. Despite the lower
gravity, hauling crate after crate of charges around was visibly taking its toll on marines and other
crew members alike. The latter of course complaining louder than the former.


  Rita straightened with a muffled grunt before she made her way into the cave. The lower gravity
helped, but if weight was reduced, mass was not, and the constricted space, bulky equipment and
unusual conditions, on top of tension, made it easy to misjudge or overcompensate adding strain to
muscle and sinew - which were already sorely tried by the Saturn's disastrous entry into the gas
bubble.


  A few metres into the cave, a crackling noise coming over the comm channel made her stop for a
moment. But the next moment it was gone. Shaking her head, she picked up her pace again,
walking the last few metres towards the cave wall where she dropped that damned crate that had
been her burden for the last minutes. Turning around, she regarded Dalin for a moment who
seemed to have made himself comfortable nearby.
  "Are you alright, Ensign?"
  She received no reply from the medical officer who was motionlessly leaning against the wall.
Tensing, the science officer walked up to Ensign Saine, squinting a bit to make out the readings on
the small vital sign monitor on his suit. Thankfully all was in the green, but then, why didn't he
answer? She tried the one-to-one comm mode again, to no avail. Stretching her hand out, she
touched him at the shoulder, at which point he winced and looked back at her, startled.


  "Were you sleeping?" asked Rita in a slightly reproachful tone.
  "Me? No! Um, I mean... I may have nodded off for a bit, I guess."
  She nodded not-committally. "We better finish setting up the charges. The Saturn may be falling
apart, but it's home. This place is-..."
  Suddenly, her helmet comms sprang to life once more. Again a crackling sound buzzed into her
ears. Dalin rose, just when the crackling gave way to a bloodcurdling scream. Then it broke off, just
as suddenly.
  Wide-eyed, he stared at Rita. "Did you just hear that?"
  "Yes, from where..." she broke off, listening, on a channel that was all of a sudden silent again.
Looking around, she noticed that they were alone in the barely lit cave.


  Rita cursed savagely in her mother tongue, she had allowed herself to get distracted and now
they were isolated, with no idea of the location of the team or of what had happened to the others.
Where were they supposed to set up the charges after schlepping them down here? Rita tried to
focus on the last briefing, to recall the stages of the drill plan. Then she grimaced and unclipped her
tricorder, fiddling clumsily with the settings.
  "Where is everybody?"
  "I'm trying to determine exactly that, Ensign." she snapped, not even raising her head from the
equipment, and moved slowly around, always keeping Saine in her peripheral vision, just in case.


  Impatiently, Dalin took a couple steps towards the entrance of the cave. Despite the fact that the
way they had come down here had been lit by a row of illumination pylons before, the tunnel
outside was completely dark.
  "Hey. Where'd the lights go?" he called over to Rita, turning around to her.
  She turned and went over to him. "I don't know, but we are going to find out." she said and strode
towards the opening - passing the tricorder to her left hand, she took her phaser out. "You are
armed, Mister Saine, aren't you?"
  "Yes, of course." Dalin frowned at the field scientist. "Why do you ask, think there's someone here
besides us?"
  "Until I learn that the scream we heard was somebody stubbing his toe against a rock, I'm going
to act like there is."
  "Good point." the medical officer agreed, drawing his own phaser. "Let's hope for a stubbed toe,
though."
  "From your mouth to God's ear." answered Rita, fervently.


  Shining his flashlight into the tunnel ahead, Dalin looked for the illumination pylons he had helped
set up. Finally the light beam came to rest on one of them - it was lying on the floor. Its emitting
end was missing and the rest looked like a piece of scrap metal. He was just about to make sure
Rita was seeing the same thing, when it seemed to him like a shadow rushed past the vicinity of his
flashlight beam.
  "Are you sure God is listening at the moment?" he asked, now with much less confidence in his
voice.
  "I definitely hope so." answered the science officer. "In any case there are human life signs
ahead." And I just hope whoever did this isn't between us and them, she thought.
  "How many? Is everybody there?"
  "Can't say, the readings are faint and rather confused - the bulk reads human, though."
  "Good, good." nodded Dalin. "The earlier we get to that stubbed toe, the better."


  Carefully, the two officers edged their way forward through the darkness.
  "You know, a stubbed toe is rarely a serious injury, but the shock of a sharp blow to such sensitive
a part of the body can really bring the tears to your-..." Dalin's voice trailed off as he suddenly stood
still a couple metres ahead of Rita. "...eyes." he finished meekly.
  "What is it?" she enquired, catching up with him. Then her stare fell on what he was shining his
flashlight at, and she froze.


  "That's Corporal Kelly, isn't it?" she asked quietly as Dalin moved his flashlight around, looking for
the rest of the body parts.
  "Yes. And that over there too, I suppose."



  [ Space ]
  [ Shuttle craft four ]


  After Hanar Timor had contacted the bridge via the shuttle's comms and receiving the go, the
small craft slowly crawled out of the shuttle bay, directing itself towards the planet. With impulse
engines set down to the very minimum, it begun its descent, carefully, kilometer by kilometer.


  As they cleared the bay, Morgan looked at Hanar who seemed to be in a state more akin to a
meditation of sorts than that of the concentration of a pilot.
  "Can we resume breathing now?" the Betazoid asked.
  "Quiet." mumbled Hanar, grumpily eying the surface of the planetoid. "We'll go too fast and it'll be
the end of our trip."
  "I think you're overreacting. The other shuttles didn't have to take such precautions."
  "Look where it got them – I prefer to lay low as long as possible." mumbled Hanar. "How can you
be certain that whatever attacked our men on the surface, doesn't have means to attack incoming
shuttles?"
  "I can't." admitted Morgan, tapping a few buttons on the console to get some sensor readings
from the surface. Nothing. The particle density in the space between them and the planetoid was
too high to get through.
  "But I doubt it. They would've done it long time ago with the rest of our shuttle crafts."
  "Maybe they were first trying to see who we are?" suggested Carter, fiddling around her own
console.
  "Had it been some other place, I could agree. This planetoid is as unwelcoming as a Tholian.
Either they're toying with us or they have limited options. I prefer to think the latter as otherwise we
don't stand much chances."
  "Reaching high orbit now." announced Hanar. "Continuing descend. Can you see anything on the
sensors?"
  "Not so much. At this point I don't really see the point of boosting them either. Come a little closer
down?"
  "What do you think I'm doing? It's not a picnic trip!"
  "Almost felt like in one." mumbled Dee-Anne from her seat. "I mean, it's not like we're great on
rescue factor. Lone shuttle against the whole universe."
  Morgan and Hanar turned around to give her a long look. She fell quiet and returned to her
console, double-checking the status readings and monitoring power levels.


  "Here's your low orbit. I'm not going down any further until we get a clearer picture. Anything on
the sensors?" demanded Hanar.
  Morgan didn't reply, seemingly staring at the readings which clearly showed around a dozen life
signs at the drilling place and three other at the shuttle landing zone.
  "Lieutenant?!" Hanar raised his voice, "Life signs?!"


  "A few... hundred..." replied Morgan weakly, his mental powers registering the increasing
presence of... whoever they were. A closing ring around the three people at the landing area.



  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Drilling site ]


  At the bottom of the fissure, d'Ciq ran along the narrow shaft as quickly as the low gravity allowed
him, cursing the communications on this blasted rock to eternity. Periodically there were recesses
that led off to other parts of the cave complex they were drilling through. Each was marked by a red
glowlight to prevent anyone from injuring themselves or going the wrong way - there were tunnels
leading deeper underground where temperatures got unbearably hot. The wall of the shaft was
punctuated with more work lights. Finally, he could see ahead a strong yellow glow from the cavern
where the rest of the landing party were working.


  He entered the cavern and looked around. "Junebug, Frenchy got a call from the Gunny.
Incomplete but it sounded like he was in trouble. Being attacked. How are we doing here?"
  Junebug and the distinctive bulk of the Padre turned towards him from where they had been
hunched over some kit. "Us too. Ned's been shredded by something. And we're not even nearly
done here, half the charges are still up on the surface. Hugh, Vikki and S'hrreth are in that shaft
locating the charges Ned and the squids left."
  "Okay, do you want to start getting people out while I move them on?"
  "Yeah, do it." Junebug turned away and looked around the cavern as March headed down a side
shaft. "Padre, stay here for March to get back. Johnny, Birdie, Kath – get the squids out of here. Wait
at the bottom of the fissure for us."
  "What about all this kit?"
  "Dump it. We're in the endgame here."
  "Copy." As Junebug watched the three marines gather up the medic and the two science officers
and head up the exit shaft towards the surface, she realised that it felt very lonely in the cavern.


  What seemed like an eternity later, four figures came out of the side shaft at a dead run. One of
them pointed towards the exit and three of them headed that way. The fourth, who turned out to be
March d'Ciq, approached them, reeling out a cable as he came.
  "Okay, here we are. It's good to go." he announced, handing the reel to the Padre.
  The Padre triggered the cut and strip trigger on the reel and was rewarded with a couple of bare
wires which he laid next to the others on the ground by the control box. Pushing the diagnostic test
button showed a green light on the wire that ran back to the surface and up the fissure wall to a
radio receiver. "Okay, surface is good. Let's link them up."


  Just as he finished connecting the wires going to the charges, there was a scream from behind
and Kalmel turned, his helmet lights revealing a pair of chitin limbs slicing into d'Ciq's suit. Kalmel
grabbed the first thing that came to hand, a cutting tool with a monofilament blade. The guard
snapped clear and he swung at the alien. The blade sliced through the limbs just as a pair of jaws
snapped d'Ciq's head in two. The alien and the Klingons headless corpse collapsed in a heap. "Run!"
Screamed Kalmel at Junebug.


  A few metres from the exit, Junebug slipped and almost fell. Casting a look down, she saw the
floor was slick and shiny with blood from several more disembowelled bodies. A strong arm stuck
her back on her feet and, for an instant, she thought it was an alien before the realisation that she
was being pushed forward.


  They burst out into the light from the fading glowrods to find themselves alone. Dazed, they stood
there for a moment until a voice crackled in their ears. "We're up here!"


  Craning your neck is not easy in an EVA suit but Junebug and Kalmel did it. High above them,
perched on a ledge that stuck out of the fissure wall was a group of lights. The ledge was on the
opposite side of the fissure from where they had first dropped down, with a sheer cliff above and
below. Phaser fire occasionally speared the blackness.


  "Frak." muttered Kalmel and the two marines triggered their MMP's to carry themselves up
towards the ledge.



  [ Shuttle craft four ]
  [ Inbound to Planetoid ]
  Hanar blinked, uncertain for a moment if he heard correctly.
  "Come again?" he asked, looking at Morgan.
  "Come again where?" countered Morgan, his eyes still closed.
  "How many life signs can you sense on that hunk of rock?" demanded Hanar.


  Morgan opened his eyes, doing his best to contain the distraction.
  "Few hundred... curious, isn't it? Virtually impossible, but... that's what I sense. Thoughts... well...
thoughts is probably too strong of a word. Emotions, urges of that many beings. They're drawn to
our presence, apparently."
  He looked back at Hanar, looking as if he wasn't certain if he was making any sense.
  Hanar frowned. "I have no idea what you just said, but you're the one with an Intelligence
background so I trust you."
  "Alright," Morgan rubbed his temple, shooting a glance at the console where sensor readings were
displayed, "We're dealing with overwhelming numbers of most likely hostile beings. We don't see
them on sensors, at least not from here. I can't really get anything from this swarm from here
either. Three of our men are down there, in the middle of it. More than dozen are at the drilling site.
Where does that put us... from a purely tactical point of view?"
  "Up a shit creek without a paddle?" offered Carter.
  Hanar glared at her, and then frowned. "Actually, that sums it up nicely."


  "Take us as low as possible", Morgan decided. "Tell the Saturn where we're at and request
permission to land. I doubt they're going to give it, but we need to know where we stand before we
start anything." He paused and looked at Carter closely. "What about the transporters? Think we
can get a lock if we're close enough?"
  Carter shook her head. "No go. The particles that screw up our sensors and the comms on the
surface will make it just as hard to establish a safe lock. We might get a few aboard if we're lucky,
but lose the rest."
  "Right. That's a risk we don't want to take."
  "Gonna be eyes and ears only." muttered Hanar.
  Morgan looked at him strangely.
  "Alright," amended the chief, nodding. "Eyes and telepathic-y goodness, then."



  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Somewhere near the downed shuttles ]


  Patricia pulled the struggling Emily across the rough ground, her helmet lights sweeping the way
ahead. She had thought this was the way back to the drill site but now she wasn't so sure. Don
followed behind them, pausing every few steps to spray a fan of phaser fire at their pursuers. The
good news was that they didn't seem to be catching up, but the bad news was that the phaser
didn't appear to be having any appreciable effect. A glowrod that Don had thrown in desparation
had done nothing more than slow them down for a few seconds before it had disappeared under a
mass of creatures.
  Suddenly, Don's voice yelled in their ears, "Hostile at 3!" And a burst of phaser fire lunged out to
their right as Patricia instinctively swung to look in that direction. Groggily, Emily raised the
flashlight she had been clutching and triggered it. Photosensitive filters on their helmets flashed
dark and then cleared as a couple of strange shapes flared brightly and burst into flames.


  "What the frak is that thing you've got?" demanded Don, unconsciously jealous that Emily had
had more effect than his phaser.


  Emily paused and looked vaguely at the thing in her hand as though she had never seen it before.
Patricia pulled it from her and peered. "Normal flashlight, I think. Hang on! It's been switched for
extreme UV. Maybe that's what does it!"


  Don looked over his shoulder. "Okay, let's try this." He plucked the flashlight from Patricia and
triggered it before fanning it in an arc across their backpath. Fifty metres away in the pitch
blackness, a line of shapes flared into flames. "Smart. Now we can fight back. Let's keep moving.
Hopefully, the Sat has sent us some backup by now."



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  Impatiently, Miya paced up and down the bridge. With no contact to the planetoid surface, there
was no telling how the mission down there was going, and it was driving her mad. With the remains
of the comms station hooked up to the helmet comms, she had at least her hands free, about which
she was rather glad. Her left arm was still causing more pain than she thought possible to endure
over this long an amount of time. The fact that her headache had returned didn't help either.


  "Saturn, this is shuttle four." the comms console sprang to life. Miya all but jumped towards it.
"We managed to establish a short contact with Corporal Ondagh at the drilling site. They're in a
serious firefight against an unknown enemy. Requesting permission to land and lend a hand."
  Miya stopped and hung her head before pressing the button to respond. "This is the XO.
Permission denied, Chief."
  "They're being slaughtered down there, ma'am."
  "Shuttle four, you are their only chance to return to the ship - if you lose that shuttle, no one is
getting back. You can give close fire support - but do not land, I repeat, do not land until the
charges are placed and you can take off again immediately."
  "Even if that means letting them die?" it came back after a long silence.
  "If that happens, you go down there and place the charges yourself, Chief." said the XO. "If those
charges don't go, we all die. You have your orders. Solo out." she added, closing the channel and
walking across to the bank of functional consoles at the rear of the bridge. "Can we pick up
anything at this range?" she asked the officer sitting there.
  "No ma'am." came the response. "There is far too much interference."
  Miya sighed, and closed her eyes. Her head was starting to ache again.
  "Boss, I may have a solution to our problem." The voice came from the emergency access hatch,
and the black haired figure emerging onto the bridge. Auron's Environmental suit was quite dirty;
with helmet in hand he'd headed straight to the bridge as quickly as he could.
  Miya spun round. "I could certainly use a solution at this point." she stated, "Let's hear it."
  "Antimatter," the chief engineer replied matter-of-factly. "Oddly enough, all three storage units
have yet to self-annihilate. We have six workbees, four of which are in operable conditions. Their
thrusters are basic newtonian propulsion, so shouldn't be affected by this cloud. It may take longer
to accomplish what we're looking to do, but a unit under attack must either defend itself or die. As
we have no clue what we're up against, my recommendation is to use the antimatter, all three
storage facilities. While we won't have as big a single chunk, there will be enough of a shotgun blast
for us to follow out on impulse power."


  There was a long pause while Miya digested the information. Eventually she slowly walked across
to the command chair and rested her hands on the back of it. "How safe is this? I'm aware
everything is shot, but antimatter is not something we want to play with if we can avoid it." She
looked up at Auron, "aren't we dealing with pods that are on the edge of destruction anyway?"
  "Technically, yes," the engineer admitted. "Still, I think it's a far cry better than the 'do or die'
scenario down on the surface. Besides, they should have gone up long ago, so whatever is keeping
everything stable could work to our advantage again."
  "Alright, do it. Anything that gives our people down there a break."


  As Auron was leaving the bridge, Miya rushed to comms console and opened a channel to the
shuttle craft again. "Chief, go pick up our people, now - we have a plan B."
  "With pleasure, ma'am."



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ A rock ledge ]


  Junebug and Kalmel swung over the ledge and cut the power to the MMPs. Huddled there were
four marines, obvious by the bulk of their MMPs, and two crewmen. On the opposite side of the
fissure, the fading glowrod showed a seething mass of alien shapes. Fortunately, they showed no
sign of trying to climb down the fissure to get up to the humans on the other side.


  "Okay, this is Sword One. Sound off, marines. Who's here?" demanded Junebug.
  "Sword Three." The Padre.
  "Sword Five." Johnny Lopez. "Minassian got greased on the way out. Miss Orsini and Mister Saine
are here though."
  "Shield Five." Birdie Sparrow, sounding breathless.
  "Shield Six." Kath Wilson.
  "Lance Three." Noggy, of course. The born survivor.


  "I saw Hugh and Vikki's suits in the tunnel as we came out." muttered Kalmel. "I guess S'hrreth
was with them there too."
  "Well, he's not here and we didn't pass him alive. Must be MIA. What happened to Frenchy and
the others out here, Noggy?"
  "They're under that lot down there." The Klingon miserably gestured to the swarm across the gap.
"They just came out of nowhere and ran right over us. I nearly got knocked off the cliff and then
used my pack to get back here. The phasers don't even tickle them."
  "Frak. Anyone heard from the Gunny?"
  "Nope, but there's a shuttle overhead somewhere. They aren't allowed to land though."


  As if on cue, Junebug heard the voice of the Saturn's Tactical chief over the comms. "Landing
party, this is shuttle four - anybody home?"
  "Shuttle four, this is Sword One. Go ahead."
  "How many of you are there, and is it a hot landing zone, Sword One?"
  "There's eight for pickup and that's negative, the LZ is cool. The locals don't appear to have
ranged weapons otherwise they'd have used them by now. And they can't seem to climb the cliffs
to get to us."
  "Got you plotted, Sword One. On our way. Standby."


  In the distance, she could see lights in the sky. "Thanks, shuttle four. Have you had any contact
with the Gunny or Commander Holmes?"
  "No comms contact yet, Sword One. But my telepathically inclined friend here is willing to bet his
Betazoid behind that they're about a klick to the west of you."
  "Get them first, shuttle four. We can hang on here for a little longer."
  "Roger, Sword One. We'll be back."
  "We're counting on it, shuttle four. Good luck." She watched the lights alter course. "Okay, any of
you guys got grenades on you?"



  [ Planetoid Surface ]
  [ Somewhere – seen one rock and you've seen them all ]


  The three figures picked their way through the rocks. Their pursuers seemed to have learnt that
they were armed and dangerous, because they were holding back, waiting to see what happened
next. Maybe their prey would tire and they could rush in.


  The ground rose in a small knoll and they rested on the crest. From here, far off to the east, they
could see lights flashing.


  "That's phaser fire. We're off course by a long way." observed Don, glancing in that direction. He'd
found that the aliens did not register at all on active sensors and concluded that, like the cloud they
lived inside, they absorbed and held onto every bit of energy they could find. The shuttles and
humans must have been a feast of unimaginable proportions. He could only see them on thermal
imaging and even then he'd had to change the colour mapping in order to distinguish them because
they were only a couple of degrees warmer than the background.
  "Yeah. Let's see if we can get through now. Landing party, this is Holmes. Do you copy?"
  "Holmes, this is shuttle four." it came back instead. "Can you give me a visual reference?"
  Patricia pulled out a glowrod, twisted the end and waved it in the air above her. The three figures
were surrounded by a warm yellow glow.
  "Can you see us now, shuttle four?"
  "Like a pickle in a jar of eggs. We're almost on you. Is the landing zone clear?"
  They could see the lights in the sky approaching their position. "Gunny? Are we clear?" inquired
Patricia.
  Don scanned the area and spotted a group of figures that seemed to be bolder than the rest. He
flashed the torch at them and watched them flare up. "As good as it's gonna get, ma'am."
  "Okay, shuttle four, we're clear. Bring it in."
  "Copy that."


  The lights swung lower and a side hatch opened to reveal a figure silhouetted in the doorway. The
aliens seemed to sense that their prey was about to escape, or maybe the shuttle was triggering a
feeding frenzy. The line surged forward as the shuttle hovered just above the surface. Patricia all
but pushed Emily towards the doorway into a waiting pair of hands. Don activated his MMP and
bounced up a few metres above the surface, firing the torch at the approaching line which lit up.
Those behind pushed over their dead and kept coming.


  "Play time's over, Gunny, they're in! Time to go!" called Hanar over the comms.


  The shuttle lifted a few metres above the ground, hatch still open. Don twisted and flew into it,
cutting the MMP power at the last moment. His boots thumped down on the deck and the hatch
slammed shut behind him. The shuttle swung away, back the way it had come. Patricia was already
in the cockpit, talking to the Chief of Tactical.


  "The rest of the party are trapped on a ledge above the drill site." she said as she turned back to
Don. "They've got at least some of the charges in place, but no way of setting up or even just
reaching the rest of them."
  "How many are there?" he asked, thinking of his marines.
  "Eight in all. Don't know who, though."
  "Frak, that's less than half the people we left there, ma'am."
  "Yeah. Tell me."


  Seconds later the shuttle slowed and Carter opened the side door again. Through it, they could
see the small group. The pilot gently eased the shuttle up to the ledge and was close enough that
they could step aboard - Rita, Dalin and six marines. The hatch slammed shut again. As Dalin
hurried to bend over Emily, the rest braced themselves as Hanar stood the shuttle on its tail and
fled back to the Saturn.



  [ Shuttle craft four ]
  [ Outbound from planetoid ]
  "Time to beat feet out of Dodge City," grunted Hanar.
  Morgan blinked, and stared at the chief. "You can say that again."
  Hanar grinned. "Hold on to your lunch!" he announced.


  Any signs of caution that were there when they were inbound seemed a tad lacking, as Chief
Hanar Timor poured as much energy into the shuttle's engines as they could handle. The shuttle's
frame and deck plates protested with loud groans whenever the chief tactical officer threw the
shuttle into violent twists and turns.


  "Holy Mother of Gods!" yelped Morgan, barely holding on, "Where'd you learn to fly?!"
  "Would you believe me if I told you that I was a fighter pilot in a former life?" asked Hanar.
  "Not particularly!"


  "God, Chief!" yelled Dalin from behind. "Is that even necessary? I have a patient here!"
  "I'm what now?" Emily looked up at him. "A patient? I thought you were groping me."
  "What? I'm... no!"
  "Well, I'm not a patient!" Emily tried getting up, only to realise that the attempt was futile due to
Hanar's special kind of maneuvering.
  "You are. Now stay down." insisted Dalin.
  "But I'm fine!"
  "Oh really?"
  "Yeah, really. I'm not just fine, I'm awesome. Totally awesome. Now get your paws off me!"


  "Cut it, both of you! For God's sake!" Patricia shouted. "And Chief, take your foot off the pedal! We
don't want this shuttle to end up like the Saturn."
  Hanar eased the small craft ever so slightly and pointed its nose at the ship, cutting the impulse
power.


  "So, what the heck happened down there?" asked Carter. And immediately wished she hadn't
asked that question. Instantly the shuttle fell silent; some of the marines gave her dark looks, the
Gunny in particular locked eyes with her and shook his head slightly - don't ask... - others just
stared at the floor. Patricia pursed her lips and looked back at her, saying nothing.


  "A lot of good people died today, so that the rest of us may live another day," replied Hanar,
somberly. "Let their sacrifice not be in vain."
  "Amen." Patricia mumbled quietly, looking out of the rear hatch window towards the planetoid
that seemed to be slowly getting smaller as the shuttle sped away. Then she looked back to Hanar
again. "So, the XO said something about a plan B?"
  Don muttered something, darkly.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Docking hatch ]
  When the shuttle craft had docked at one of the emergency hatches near the upper decks, Hanar
opened the hatch in the shuttle ceiling and turned around. "Last stop - home. Move it, people."


  Dalin took his helmet and got up. He let out a sigh and looked at Rita next to him. "You okay?"
  She gave him a weak smile. "It's been quite a day."
  "Yeah." He remembered back to the lives lost on the ship and surface, and shook his head. "Wish I
could have done more."
  "More than nothing you mean?" Emily asked giving him a teasing wink as she started climbing the
small ladder leading up to the hatch. Suddenly she seemed to fall forward through it, and they
heard a dull thud from the other side, followed by a quick succession of nasty expletives.
  "Oh yeah, I forgot." Hanar stated. "Mind the gravity vector change, folks. We're upside down
compared to the rest of the ship."
  Dalin grinned at Rita before climbing up and then down towards Emily. "Still awesome, Evanson?"


  As the rest started to follow them back into the ship, Don pulled Sergeant Ranson aside and spoke
softly in her ear.


  "Junebug, I'm gonna have to go to the bridge. Find Mike Dushon and round up the platoon if
they've finished their other duties. I want everyone together so we all know where everyone is. If
we still have access to the barracks, let them grab some effects in case we have to take to the
boats. I'll call when I know the score on the bridge. 'Kay?"
  Ranson looked at him enquiringly before nodding and moving off to gather the survivors of the
landing party together.



  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  Courteous to the last, Don allowed the others to ascend the Jefferies tube ladder up to the bridge.
As he emerged, he looked around the shattered nerve centre. Fully half of the consoles were dark
and silent. At one side of the bridge, Hampool was sitting on the floor peering intently at the display
on the field command pack that he had hauled up here. She looked up and grimaced when she saw
him enter. Silently he walked over to her, making his way around the bridge crew that was intently
listening to the comm traffic on the speakers.


  "Two to four, this is W-1. Remaining in position and keeping my eyes on you guys."
  "Copy, W-1."


  On the forward view screen, a tactical overview was being displayed - four little dots were
approaching a group of three larger dots, one of them slightly nearer to the ship than the others,
their numbers indicating the primary, secondary and tertiary antimatter pod Engineering had
ejected earlier in a hurry. One of the four little dots had stopped, and the signal of another one was
merging with the first of the three pods.
  "W-1, this is W-3. Making my way over to the top section of the secondary pod now."
  "Copy, W-3. I've got you in sight."
  "This is W-2, approaching primary pod. Slowing down."
  "Looking good, W-2."
  "This is W-3. Attaching straps to top side."
  "Copy."
  "W-4 here, I've reached the tertiary pod. It's tumbling slightly. Going bottom side first."
  "Copy, W-4. Be careful."
  "Same here, W-1. Going to start with the bottom section of primary."
  "Got you, W-2."


  A minute went by in silence, then the next transmission sounded through the bridge speakers.


  "This is W-3. Top side straps secured. Going to bottom side of secondary pod."
  "Roger. W-4... be careful, secondary is coming awfully close."
  "Copy. Firing lateral thrusters, one second burst."
  "Acknowledged."


  One of the three larger dots moved slightly to the right.


  "Looking better?"
  "Better, W-4. Carry on."
  "W-1, this is W-2. Bottom side straps secured. Going top side."
  "Copy, W-2."


  With as much a relaxed smile as she could muster, Miya looked to Patricia and waved her over.
Together they walked over to Don and took him aside.
  "How many did we lose down there?" Miya asked quietly.
  Patricia looked to Don, then back at Miya. "Eleven marines, the geologist and one ensign from
Security."
  Miya covered her mouth with her hand and looked aside for a moment, shaking her head slightly.
Then she regarded Don. "I'm sorry, Gunny. There was no indication of any life forms on the
planetoid at the time we dispatched the team."
  Don nodded. "I know that, ma'am. It wasn't a complete loss, though. We managed to set up
charges at the length of two of the designated fault lines."
  "Two of how many?" asked Miya.
  "Four." replied Patricia.
  "Meaning?"
  "Meaning there is a slim chance it might still work, if this doesn't..." Don said, gesturing at the
view screen.
  Miya nodded, looking at the screen as well. The three dots had started moving towards the
planetoid, one small dot trailing them closely. "Let's hope it does."
  "W-2, you're getting too close to tertiary. Fire dorsal thrusters."
  "Copy, W-1. Firing one second burst."
  "Do one more."
  "Firing again."
  "Alright. Good."


  Don turned to the XO. "Excuse me, ma'am. If you don't need me here, I ought to go and get the
platoon sorted out."
  She nodded. "Carry on, Gunny."


  As he crawled through the access hatch at the back of the bridge, still in the EVA suit from the
surface, Don opened a commlink to his squad leaders. "This is Tower Two. Report location."
  "Sword One here. Lance One and I have got everyone at the barracks bar Hampool on the bridge
and Kemper in the sickbay."
  "Copy. Is everyone else accounted for?"
  "Affirmative. Valkris, Ra and Nexal are all KIA though. Due to damage on the ship."
  Don sighed deeply. "Understood. On my way."


  Miya and Patricia resumed watching the operation the four engineers in the workbees were
carrying out.
  "Has the crew been prepared for abandoning ship, should that become necessary?" asked
Patricia.
  Miya nodded. "I've given word to move the wounded nearer to the escape pods an hour ago, just
in case."
  Patricia nodded as well and started walking back to where Emily was standing, her arms crossed
over her chest, observing the bridge crew from the elevated position that was the Tactical station.
Or rather, what was left of it.


  "Uh oh. That can't be good." it came over the speakers.
  "Come again? Who said that?"
  "This is W-4. I'm getting contradicting readings here. Pod interface has the containment field
strength decreasing, workbee instruments say it's stable."
  "Repeat that, W-4. Are you saying tertiary is losing containment?" the engineer in the trailing
workbee was heard, his voice taking on a slightly agitated tone.
  "I'm not sure. My instruments say it doesn't."
  Suddenly the chatter increased, cross-talk and interference made it harder to listen to. "What
does the pod interface say?" - "Where's tertiary field strength at? I don't-..." - "...-my instruments
don't read that either-..."


  The looks on the faces of the bridge crew got increasingly horrified, hearing the situation unfold.
Miya tensed. "Get out of there. Abort mission." she spoke through the comms. "I repeat, abort
mission. Do you copy? Abort!"


  The chaotic chatter went on. "Look at the workbee instruments, Anderson. Pod display-..." - "...-is
at point two percent, that can't be right-..." - "...-been damaged during ejection?" - "W-1, I don't
know, I'm getting nothing-..."


  And then it was just static. The dots on the screen all disappeared.


  The bridge went silent. Miya slumped down in the command chair and took off the helmet. The
CONN officer kept staring at the screen as if that would somehow make the dots reappear. Emily
shook her head and leant against one of the broken displays on the wall, staring at the floor.


  Patricia walked over to Miya, slowing down and stood next the centre seat. "Do we have a plan
C?" she asked quietly.
  "Yes. We have a plan C, it's the same as plan A." Miya replied, massaging her forehead. "Can we
trigger the charges from up here, or do we need to send the shuttle?"


  The blonde walked back over to the Tactical console. "We should be able to trigger them from
here, each charge has a subspace receiver built-in that should be sensible enough to receive a
signal sent from within the cloud. I'm just not sure if we set up enough of them."
  "Do it, then."


  Patricia nodded and pressed a button, then another one. A second later, the view screen showed
a spot on the planetoid surface lighting up. Miya rose. "Did it work? Sensors..."
  "...are showing a small object heading our way." the officer at the Science station said and looked
up, grinning madly. "It worked."
  Miya smiled and picked up the helmet, speaking into the microphone. "Engineering. Get ready to
start the impulse engines on my mark."
  "Understood." Auron's voice came back.


  On the view screen the object came into sight, getting larger as it neared the ship. The Saturn
swerved slightly as the CONN officer fired the port thrusters. The rock approached, filling out the
entire view screen - and flew past them. Turning the ship and easing it back into the slipstream, the
CONN officer looked back to Miya.
  "Chief! Impulse power, now!"
  The Saturn's superstructure groaned and shook under their feet, as the impulse engines came to
life. A myriad of smaller rocks and debris smashed against the hull. The sound of an explosion came
from somewhere underneath them. Someone was screaming.


  But the ship didn't move an inch. As the rattling died down, they looked at each other in
bewilderment.


  "Why aren't we moving?"
  "Chief!" Miya shouted into the helmet comms. "We need impulse power, for God's sake!"
  Through the commlink, screams and explosions were heard. After a long moment, the chief
engineer responded. "I'm sorry, ma'am. It didn't work."
  "What do you mean?! We had-..."
  "The rock was too small, ma'am. The reactors shut down the moment we started them, same as
before. It was too small."
  "But..." Miya couldn't believe it. The helmet fell to the floor next to her.


  On the view screen, the rock was seen moving away, disappearing towards the outer cloud layer,
leaving the Saturn behind. The eerie silence on the bridge was only punctuated by the noises of
detonations all over the ship.


  "This can't be happening." muttered Miya in disbelief, just as an explosion was heard nearby on
one of the upper decks. Then another one, much stronger, jolting the deck under their feet. A
console exploded in a rain of sparks.


  Behind her at the Tactical station, Emily hung her head. Patricia knelt down, mumbling quietly to
herself.




  "So that's it then, eh?" stated Emily. "Our last mission. Come to think of it, I really would have
preferred Nausicaa. Honestly." she added, looking over to her friend. "Pat?"


  Patricia didn't reply. She was kneeling on the floor amongst the debris, with her hands folded in
front of her and mumbling words scarcely audible, the malfunctioning wall display behind her
immersing her blonde hair in an odd blue-ish glow. "...have mercy on me, my God, for I am faint.
Heal me, for my bones are troubled..."
  "What are you..." Emily frowned. "Are you praying?! Seriously, we are all going to die! And you
are praying?!"
  "Evanson." the XO said quietly.
  "What?!"
  Miya shook her head, forming a single word with her lips. "Don't."


  "...deliver my soul, and save me for your loving kindness' sake. For in death, there is no memory
of you."



  [ Planetoid surface ]
  [ Drilling site ]


  The rain of dust and debris was still settling down in and around the crater. In the impenetrable
darkness, aliens were mindlessly running around every which way, still confused and disoriented by
the detonation that had shaken their home.
  Leaning half upright against one of the rocks next to the crater, a dead body had come to rest -
underneath its charred and shredded spacesuit was a Starfleet uniform, an ensign rank pip
adorning the once teal-coloured collar. Next to it lay one of the many unused charges, more of them
were lying scattered around nearby. If there had been any light in this cursed place, the scene
would have made a distinct symbol of the Saturn crew's failure.
  But neither was there light, nor was anyone around to see it. Which was unfortunate, because the
chain of events that happened next would have looked remarkable to anyone observing it.


  The cold, dead body faltered only slightly when an alien ran past it, unwittingly giving it a nudge.
The faltering turned into a sliding to one side as the body lost its balance, and the deceased ensign
fell over to the ground - his elbow hitting a button on the upper side of the detonation charge next
to him. A display sprung to life, beeping monotonously as it counted down from five. Five seconds
later, the charge detonated, the resulting explosion being big enough to reach the other charges
nearby, causing a chain reaction. Having already been strained by the Saturn crew's previous
attempt, the ground next to the crater gave in and collapsed into the large caves underneath,
destroying tunnel systems that had formed over the ages and killing any alien that was unlucky
enough to have been underground at that time. When it reached the caves and tunnels deeper
underground, huge amounts of lava began squirting out everywhere, in turn igniting every last
charge that was still around, only increasing the mayhem. Piece by piece, the surface around the
site began collapsing as well.


  Eventually the whole planetoid started breaking apart, the surface rippling and folding in on itself.
Then, when its core of pressurised liquid rock could no longer be contained, it exploded - propelling
chunks the size of entire continents in multiple directions.
  [ USS Saturn ]
  [ Bridge ]


  A klaxon started blaring, causing Miya to take her head out of her hands and stare angrily at the
red lights illuminating the remains of the bridge. "Seriously, what else can go wrong." she muttered.
  "Ahh, ma'am?" the Science officer hunched over their makeshift sensor readouts looked up. "The
planetoid... it just exploded."
  Miya strode over and stared at the screen, watching as the dots spread outwards. One was
heading directly for ... she paled and turned to the CONN officer. "Evasive now!" she shouted,
grabbing the edge of the console as the tortured ship lurched to avoid the massive chunk of rock
that was headed straight for it.
  Pulling down the microphone down on the helmet, Miya spoke quickly. "Engineering, we need
impulse again. Fast."



  [ Engineering ]


  Auron stopped for a moment, restraining himself from uttering a rather inappropriate comment at
what he had just heard over the commlink.
  Instead he said, "Ma'am, I just lost another two of my engineers trying to contain the damage our
last attempt caused. And the safety interlocks-..."
  "I don't care." the XO cut him off. "Override them."
  "This would be the very last time we'll ever be able to start these engines, ma'am. It will break
the Saturn's back."
  "If you don't, we won't be needing them any longer anyway. Override those interlocks. Now or
never, Chief!"
  He grimaced. "Yes ma'am."


  Quickly making his way over to one of the last functional consoles, Auron feverishly began to
input commands. Looking up at a wall display showing the overall status of the ship - large areas
were coloured crimson red, an armada of warning lights was blinking frantically - he took a deep
breath and finally pressed the last button to commit his commands into the main core.



  [ Bridge ]


  "Punch it." Miya stated, grabbing the sides of the command chair as the ship responded to the
CONN officer's commands. "This better be our ride out of here..."
  The sounds the Saturn made now were some of the most frightening noises anyone on the bridge
had heard. It was a miracle in itself that the superstructure was still in one piece to begin with,
although for how much longer this situation would remain true - no one was sure.



  [ Space ]


  The darkness of the cloud was not immediately obvious against the inky blackness of the space
through which it drifted. Suddenly, a part of it began to glow, highlighting the anomaly against its
surroundings. It began dimly at first, but then grew brighter and brighter until suddenly a huge
chuck of rock appeared - scything it's way out of the cloud. Behind it was a tunnel of clear space
which suddenly lit up once more as a starship emerged, racing after it, suffering heavy damage
from the contact with wisps of cloud vapour still swirling in the rock's wake.
  Immediately after crossing the threshold, dozens of escape pods began shooting out all over the
ship - one after the other turned and darted away from the cloud, clearing the area as quickly as
possible.


  The last ones emerged from the upper decks around the bridge, and not a second too early - the
vessel began buckling, many smaller explosions ruptured the hull everywhere at once, culminating
in one large fireball that shot pieces of the Prometheus class starship in every direction.


  The surviving crew had made it out, barely. The USS Saturn NCC-2822-B was no more.




                                                   ***
                           Chapter 7 – For in death, there is no memory of you


  The round drop of viscous blue fluid inexorably hovered closer to Nia's forehead, mixing with the
sweat on her face when it touched her. Her breath was fast and shallow, her eyes wide open,
staring at something in the dark crammed space in front of her. There was another breath, rattling
and irregular. More viscous blue drops were floating through the hot sticky air.


  Nia didn't move. She just watched the Bolian as he hung motionlessly in the straps holding him in
place opposite of her only half a meter away, his eyes closed, his face swollen and bleeding. Then
his heavy breathing cut out, and didn't start again. Nia screamed, unheard outside of the solitude of
her escape pod.


  Outside, in the cold darkness of space, white specks were tumbling about like dandelion seeds in
the breeze.



  [ Another escape pod, somewhere nearby ]


  "Come on... you don't really think God did it, do you?"
  Patricia remained silent and just smiled.
  "It was nothing but dumb luck." insisted Emily.
  The blonde kept smiling. "I don't know, Em. All I know is we're still alive. And I'm grateful for that.
Why argue about it?"
  "I'm not arguing. And I'm grateful, too. I am. I just don't think some imaginary higher power had
its hand in it, is all."
  "Does it bother you if I do?"
  Emily looked at her from her side of the pod for a moment. It wasn't like the not exactly spacious
accommodation allowed for much else. There really wasn't much to look at anyway. "Does it bother
you that it bothers me a little?" the small brunette retorted.
  "No."
  "Then we're good... I guess."
  "Good." Patricia nodded, still smiling.
  "Fine!" Emily shot back, a bit too determined.
  Patricia grinned.
  "What..."
  "Nothing." Patricia shook her head slightly. "Just being happy."


  A beeping noise interrupted what could have become a peaceful moment.
  "What's that?" Emily asked, slightly alarmed.
  "Hold on to your straps." said Patricia just before the pod swerved around its axis and started to
accelerate. "Gaggle mode's been activated."
  "Gaggle what now?"
  [ Yet another escape pod ]


  "Spare me the technobabble, petty officer. Just tell me if it works or not." it came over the
commlink, sounding slightly annoyed.
  Erik scowled at the speaker, then at the science officer opposite to him. "I just did that, didn't I?"
  Rita sighed and answered the XO. "Ma'am, this is Lieutenant Orsini. Gaggle mode has been
activated and is working just fine. Pods are closing in on each other as far as we can see."
  "All of them? Or did we lose someone?"
  "Can't say yet."
  "Alright." Miya was heard letting out a sigh. "Keep me posted."
  "Will do, ma'am. Orsini out."


  "So far so good." she breathed, watching the white spots coalesce in a sort of amoeba-like cloud.
"...as good as it could be under the present circumstances." she amended quickly. As many pods as
there were, they still didn't know for sure how many of the Saturn's complement had been able to
abandon ship. How many of the pods had been launched empty? How many of them had already
taken serious enough damage that they had killed the passengers they were supposed to save?
Rita shuddered.


  "Are you cold?" asked her companion. "I can adjust the temperature."
  "No, it's just... somebody just stepped on my grave, that's the idiom, isn't it?"
  Erik frowned, looking at her strangely. "That sounds a wee bit creepy."
  Rita glanced at him, and started laughing at his nonplussed expression. She went on for a while,
unable to control herself, unable to stop the belly aching laugh, her breath coming in gasps. "I... I'm
sorry... Erik. I can't..."
  "Alright. Now you're getting really creepy." he said, stretching out his hand and slapping her on
the cheek. Twice, as she didn't stop immediately.


  "Thank you." Rita gasped when she was able to talk again.
  "My pleasure." He smirked. Then he blushed. "Not like I do that a lot. I don't."
  "Was about to ask." she nodded with an half-hearted smile.
  Erik grimaced. "We'll be stuck here for a while, won't we?" he grumbled. "Why doesn't this thing
at least have a replicator? Getting a bit peckish here."
  "Above you." Rita pointed at a compartment in what passed for a ceiling in the small pod. Erik
blinked as he looked up and opened it. Small silver-grey packages emerged, starting to hover
through the space between them.
  "Field rations. Great. I wonder how old these are."



  [ Five hours later ]


  A large cluster of escape pods had formed at a safe distance from the anomaly. Getting medical
personnel from one pod to another proved difficult, even more so since several of the pods had
been damaged before or during the hasty ejection procedure. However, after some time Miya had
the total number of survivors on a little screen in front of her. Only slightly more than two thirds of
the Saturn crew had lived through the past few days.


  "I'm glad he's fine." she finished. "Keep me informed." She closed off the console and turned in
her seat. Nodding to Patricia, she relayed the information. "The Commodore is apparently doing
well - Sickbay was evacuated without losing any patients."
  Patricia let out a deep breath. "That's good to hear." Glancing around the admittedly much more
commodious inside of the XO's escape pod, she grimaced slightly. "Guess I'll better get back to my
own comfy little lifeboat. By now, Emily's probably bored enough to have started redecorating it,
and I shudder to think about what it will look like if I don't get back there soon. Unless there's
anything else you want me to do?" she added hopefully.
  Miya grinned. "Getting a bit claustrophobic over there?"
  "You know, before I first came to the Saturn two years ago, I always wondered what it's like to
have a nerve-racking, argumentative little sister. Now I have Emily. Not that I don't adore her. But
being locked into that barrel with her for hours on end?" Patricia shook her head and sighed.
  "You're welcome to stay here if you want." Miya gestured at the three empty seats in the pod.
"It's not like I'm stuck for space here, in theory I should be sharing this with a few people who are...
no longer requiring a lifeboat." Her face twitched slightly as she fought back the memories of the
events that had led to their current situation.


  For a long moment, Patricia didn't quite know how to respond. Probably for the first time since
coming aboard, she didn't see the level-headed executive officer in Miya, but the human being,
suffering the same loss, fighting back tears just like she did, uncertain about their future and their
chances of survival. Patricia still had Emily, Dola and Erik. Miya, however, seemed so very alone in
that moment.


  "Thanks." she then said, turning towards a console. "I guess I could try and make myself a bit
more useful. Have you had time yet to look whether the probes we dispatched earlier are
transmitting?"
  "Not yet," Miya replied, "still trying to check if we're all in one piece. If you want to have a look
into that it'd be appreciated."
  Patricia nodded. "On it."



  [ USS Deveroux ]
  [ Bridge ]


  "Hazard signal! Close to starboard!" yelled the duty Comms officer, half rising from his station.
  "All engines stop! What's out there?" Captain Wagner demanded, walking into the centre of the
Sovereign class starship's bridge.
  "Not sure yet. Signal is weak but repeating. But it has a clear hazard prefix on it."
  The Science officer was on the case now. "Sensors show a probe hanging in space."
  "On screen."
  On the forward view screen, a small metallic object was seen tumbling around all three axes, its
design looking distinctly Federation in origin.


  "That's one of ours." the CO stated the obvious. "Any sign what ship it came from?"
  The Science officer looked up. "It's from the Saturn, sir."
  "Finally!" Captain Wagner blurted out. "Send a message to Starfleet." he ordered, sitting down in
the command chair. "Tell them we found the Commodore's first life sign."
  "It's not precisely a life sign, sir..."


  The CO shot the Comms officer a stern glance. "They're still alive. And we will find them."
  "Yes sir."



  [ Lifeboat cluster ]


  Don climbed back into the pod that he had left the Saturn in. He had just been through the cluster
checking on what was left of the platoon. Having ensured that they were all settled as well as could
be expected, he had returned to work on his after action report. Thirteen marines from the platoon
had died and Ricochet and Quin had been badly injured in the ejection. Their pod had been battered
by some loose debris and they had been thrown around inside. Kemper reckoned that whether they
returned to active duty would depend on how quickly they got to a good sickbay. That meant that
fully half the platoon were out of action. Without an officer, it would be down to him to face the
inevitable questions when they got back.


  He sighed and pulled out his personal PADD and started to write. Occasionally, his concentration
would be disturbed as one of the survivors transited the pod, in one side and out the other. As the
XO had said, there had been no reason to go to the surface fully armed. It had been a lift and shift
mission and with no evidence that it was anything other than a lifeless rock, even carrying phasers
had seemed a bit over the top. But the brass wouldn't see it that way.


  A couple of hours later, he raised his head and leaned back. Somewhere in the gaggle he could
hear music. It must be Turtle. When the platoon had gathered in the barracks, he'd grabbed his
guitar from his cabin. At the time it had seemed laughable, but now it made things seem a little less
bleak. Don, like many of the others, had lost everything they owned when they ejected.


  Suddenly, all the comms units throughout the gaggle activated simultaneously. "USS Saturn, this
is the USS Deveroux. We have you on sensors. Please advise your status."


  "Well, that was fast," grumbled the Tactical chief, who occupied the neighbouring lifepod to Don.
  "Were you getting comfortable then, Chief?" He called back as he stowed his PADD.
  "The most rest I had since coming aboard, Gunny!" replied Hanar, perplexed, "And not a vadoo in
sight!"
  [ USS Deveroux ]


  The crew of the Saturn gathered in the Deveroux's hangar bay, the only space large enough to
hold them as the transporters worked overtime to extract them all from the lifeboat gaggle. The
wounded crowded the sickbay and several crew cabins were serving as overflow wards for the less
critical. In one corner of the bay, Commodore Tong sat in a wheelchair, watching his crew assemble
for the last time. It would be a couple of days until they returned to Far Reach Station, but at least
they weren't stuck in the tiny lifeboats any more.


  "That's every able bodied crew-member here, Sir." Miya said, walking to the side of the wheel
chair. Her face began to turn red as she realised what she had just said. "Of course I didn't mean ..."
she began, panicking slightly.
  "It's fine," Tong interrupted her, smiling. "I know what you were trying to say."
  Miya nodded, her face returning to it's normal colour as the Commodore addressed the crew.


  "I want to thank you all for your bravery and determination throughout the course of the last
week. You have been an example not only to those around you, but also to myself. I count myself
incredibly lucky to have served with you all." The Commodore paused and looked around the
assembled faces. "I cannot say at this point what will happen to us, the surviving members of the
Saturn's crew, but I will say this. I am officially recommending the whole crew, including those who
are not with us today, for commendations when we return to dock. Let these stand as a reminder of
what has transpired, and a reminder of those who are no longer with us. Thank you all."


  There was a pause, and then the large space erupted with cheers and applause. They were safe,
it was finally over, and they were going home.




                                                     ***
                                                  Epilog


  [ Starbase Far Reach Station ]
  [ Extract from Channel ReachOut news bulletin ]
  [ Presenter: Vikki Challinor ]


  (Video: Arrival and docking of the USS Devereux)


  (Presenter) The viewing galleries of Far Reach were crowded earlier this watch as people
gathered to watch the USS Devereux return with the crew of the USS Saturn. The Saturn, which is
based at Far Reach, went missing seven days ago when routine communications with the vessel
were abruptly terminated. When all attempts to re-establish contact with it failed, the Devereux was
dispatched to search the Saturn's flight path. It had completed one trip to the Saturn's destination
and was returning to Far Reach when it detected the survivors in lifepods. Our reporter, Dave
Jansen, was there to meet them .


  (Video: Saturn crew disembarking through the docking port, some walking, some not)


  (Reporter) Approximately one third of the Saturn's complement were lost with the vessel and
many of the survivors are injured, including the commanding officer, Commodore Parx Tong, who
disembarked in a wheelchair.


  (Video: Crew embracing family members)


  (Reporter) The Saturn's crew were allowed a brief greeting for their waiting families, who had
gathered on the dockside, before they were led away for medical checks and debriefing. Beyond
acknowledging the loss of the vessel and a significant proportion of its crew, Starfleet have not
released any further details of the incident until today, when a spokesman issued this statement.


  (Video: Officer from the public relations division on dockside with Tong & Solo either side of him)


  (PR Officer) Starfleet regrets to announce the loss of the USS Saturn. The ship was on a diplomatic
mission when it entered a previously undetected anomaly which caused massive systems and
structural damage. The nature of the anomaly prevented the engines from restarting, thus trapping
the ship. It also prevented communications with Starfleet. Thanks to the courage, determination
and professionalism of the crew, they were able to take action that allowed them to escape.
However, the damage to the vessel resulted in a catastrophic failure, forcing the crew to abandon
ship. Unfortunately, there was significant loss of life during the incident. Starfleet extends its
deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been lost.


  (Reporter) What was the nature of the anomaly and why was it undetected in what is a well
travelled route?


  (PR Officer) The science data from the anomaly is still being analysed. Initial observations indicate
that it was a body of highly energy absorbent gases drifting through space. This prevented it from
being detected, and it was pure chance that the Saturn encountered it.


  (Reporter) How many casualties are there?


  (PR Officer) A formal casualty list will be released in due course. However, all next of kin have
been informed.


  (Reporter) How did the Saturn manage to escape?


  (PR Officer) Further information regarding the incident is classified until the crew have been
debriefed. Thank you.


  (Reporter) Will there be a board of inquiry?


  (PR Officer) It is Starfleet policy to convene a board of inquiry whenever a vessel is lost. There is
no reason that the Saturn will be any different. Thank you, that is enough for now.


  (Tong) One moment. As commanding officer of the USS Saturn, I want to publicly thank my crew
for their efforts. It is to their credit that so many of us are able to return to Far Reach today. Our
thoughts and prayers are with our shipmates who have been lost to us, and with their families.


  (Video: The trio turn away and are replaced by the reporter)


  (Reporter) The crews from both ships are being held incommunicado until the debriefing is
complete but we talked to the family of one of the Saturn's crew.


  (Video: Head and shoulders shot of civilian on the dockside)


  (Reporter) You are obviously happy to have your partner home safely. What did he say to you as
he arrived?


  (Relative) He said he wasn't allowed to talk for the moment but he was very happy and relieved to
be back. I could see that he was very disturbed though. His eyes showed it.


  (Video: Head and shoulders of reporter)


  (Reporter) This is Dave Jansen on the dockside. Now back to Vikki in the studio.


  (Video: Presenter in studio with guest expert)


  (Presenter) Here in the studio I am joined by Commander Ike DeWitt, who used to be with
Starfleet's Science division. Tell me, what could have happened to the Saturn?
  (Video: Head and shoulders of expert)


  (Expert) Well, it's very hard to say from that short statement but clearly the Saturn encountered
something very unusual. A gas with the ability to absorb energy but not radiate should, in theory,
eventually reach a temperature that causes it to expand and disperse. If there is something to keep
the cloud together then the cloud might eventually heat up to a plasma. But that would require a
huge gravity field to keep that contained.


  (Presenter) Is that why it had gone undetected until now?


  (Expert) Oh, absolutely. If it absorbs energy then active sensors will not get any return from it. If it
isn't radiating energy then there isn't anything for passive sensors to pick up. It would be quite
invisible. About the only chance would be if you noticed stars disappearing behind it. But in deep
space that is very unlikely.


  (Presenter) Why do you think Starfleet have ordered the crew not to talk? Isn't that unusual?


  (Expert) Unusual but not unheard of. A discovery like this has many technological implications. A
gas that is so effective at holding energy is clearly something completely new so there could be
many applications. Not least military ones. I think Starfleet want to assess it before they say any
more publicly.


  (Presenter) Could the Saturn have stumbled on a secret weapons trial then?


  (Expert) Well, anything is possible. But that is too much of a conspiracy theory for me. If you had
something that advanced then you would steer clear of any accidents like starships running into
you.


  (Presenter) What do you think will happen to Commodore Tong and his crew?


  (Expert) As your report noted, there will have to be a board of inquiry. It all depends whether they
decide if Tong and his crew were negligent or not. Losing a ship doesn't look good on a career
unless there are some extenuating circumstances.


  (Presenter) And are there?


  (Expert) Given what we know, it would have taken extreme luck to avoid getting into that
situation. So I guess the board will focus on what they did after that. Their options were probably
pretty limited.


  (Video: Head and shoulders of presenter)


  (Presenter) Thank you, Commander DeWitt. In other news, starbase Security are looking for a
man who steals the endings off news reports. He is described as being short, dark, with a...
  [ Starbase Far Reach Station, Promenade ]


  Miya sat gloomily staring at the food in front of her. Her appetite was practically non-existent, and
had been since they had arrived back on the station. She was once more in a place where
everything about the future was uncertain, something she had hoped to never experience again.
  She knew this moment was coming, and had known since the order to abandon ship left her
mouth. The Saturn was gone, and that meant her posting and the friendships which she had just
began to build. Whatever happened next, she doubted it would be an easy transition.
  The only blessing was the shoreleave they now had. After what they had been through, Starfleet
had insisted they have some time to themselves. At this point in time, the last thing Miya wanted
was to be left alone with the echoing voices and images that ran around her head.


  Standing, she nodded to the bartender and walked out into the busy walkway beyond the
doorway, and stopped dead. The sight of all the people there continuing their lives normally made
her want to scream inside. To them the events she had lived through were nothing but images and
words on a viewscreen, no more real that a holonovel. She knew exactly what they felt, after all - it
was normally her watching the news.
  Forcing herself to stay calm, she made her way to the nearest turbolift and ordered it to her
assigned quarters. She had changed her mind - for the next day at least, she wanted to be alone.
Hopefully after that, she would be able to face people once more.



  [ Starbase Far Reach Station, corridors ]


  Other crew members were coping with the past events in a slightly different way.


  "So, are you ready to enjoy some shoreleave-y activity?" the tall blonde asked as she led her
friends down one of Starbase Far Reach Station's wide corridors.
  "Shoreleave-y? Surely." the small brunette at her left rejoiced.
  "Good, good." nodded Patricia as they turned another corner.
  "The holodeck?" the Andorian at her right asked when she realised where they were going. "What
did you have in mind? Feel like playing paintball again?"
  "Nah. I've arranged a small game of rugby for us. Sounds good?"
  "It does." chirped Emily happily. "In fact, rugby sounds awfully good."
  "What's rugby?" wondered Dola.
  "It's fun." replied Emily. "Lots of jostling, and running, and jostling, and ball throwing, and
jostlingness..."
  "Right. It also has some jostling then, I presume?"
  "Yeah. That too." Patricia smirked.
  Dola nodded. "Sounds like my kinda game."


  When they entered the holodeck, the program was already active. A trio of starbase engineers
was waiting for them on their side of the playing field, tossing the ball back and forth.
  "Remember that game last year? Wasn't that Saturn crew, too?" one of them said when they
spotted the women enter the field.
  "Right... it was. We totally owned those guys." another one reminisced, a bit louder than
necessary.
  "Yeah. Easy pickings." the third one added grinning.
  "Well, look at that." the first one chuckled. "An all-girl team. You sure you wanna play against us,
chicas? We kinda like to play hardball." he stated and tossed the ball over to them. Dola caught it
with one hand and proceeded to examine it, unimpressed.
  "I thought we were going to play rugby?" scowled Emily.
  "Oh my, aren't you the cutest little alpha puppies..." Patricia scoffed at them, putting her hands
on her knees and flexing her thigh muscles.
  "And who are you, the Powerpuff Girls?" one of the engineers shot back.
  "Alright. Sure, whatever." Emily shrugged, then nodded. "May I introduce... that's Bubbles, and
Buttercup." she said, gesturing at Patricia and Dola, "And I'm Blossom. C'mon, girls. Let's show 'em
what we're made of."
  "Sugar, spice and everything nice?" Patricia chirped in a sickeningly sweet voice, then stopped
and frowned at Emily. "This isn't working for me." she said in her normal voice. "I'm definitely not
Bubbles, the hair notwithstanding. I'm Blossom."
  "Alright, fine. I'll be Bubbles. Just don't forget the extra ingredient."
  "A can of whoop-ass." grumbled Dola as the kick-off whistle sounded, swatting the plum shaped
ball right in the chest of the first engineer, who slumped to the ground, gasping for air.
  "That's right, Buttercup, go get 'em!" shouted Patricia and leapt forth, grabbing the ball and
tossing it back to Dola, starting to run.



  [ The next day ]
  [ Docking Level, Starbase Far Reach Station ]


  Leaning on the handrail, Miya stared out at the ships docked around the inside of the giant
station. There was a strange mix, the location of Far Reach made it an ideal stopping point for most
merchants as well as many Starfleet vessels traveling through this sector.


  Her eye was drawn to a small freighter docked quite close by, it was ever so slowly edging it's
way towards a docking hatch - the pilot obviously nervous. Whether they had never done this
before, or whether it was simply they were overly cautious, she did not know. Whatever the reason
was, the constant stops, starts, and small adjustments amused her for well over fifteen minutes.
Finally, as the ship docked, she decided enough was enough and stood up straight, ready to head
back to her quarters.


  She had to pack, as she had been invited by the Saturn's COS ... ex-COS she mentally corrected ...
to visit some family with her. She had been reluctant at first, but Patricia had convinced her to go.
Apparently her uncle was very keen to meet her, although she had no idea why.
  Walking across the large area between the docking ports and the lifts, she thought back over the
last few days. The rollercoaster of emotions were still fresh in her mind, not least the trepidation
she felt standing before the board of enquiry. She knew she had done nothing wrong, and they had
assured her they were not looking to aportion any blame, but that was not how it had felt at the
time. She was more than glad that part was over.


  Arriving at the turbo lifts, she waited a few seconds till one arrived, then stepped in to find herself
face to face with yet another member of the Saturn's crew.
  "Dalin." she nodded with a smile. "Accommodation decks." she stated, turning to face the door as
it shut.


  He said 'hi' but didn't say much at the very start. He simply was leaning back against the lift wall.
Dalin was on a 'death mission' and he knew it. Either Claire was going to accept what happened and
then he would be stuck with her. But of course, there was the other possibility, that it was his fault
the Saturn got stuck and that's why he couldn't see her. Either way he was gonna be happy and
unhappy all at once. He sighed deeply and Miya turned around. "Long day?" she asked, leaning
back against the lift's handrail.
  "You have no idea… and it's about to get longer." he said with a half smile.
  It had been a long day for Dalin. He wanted to put the mission behind him so badly. He wanted to
just be on leave. But he was having trouble sleeping and he had spent most of his time going over
medical files of all those on the Saturn. Why? Who knew, he wasn't gonna be on that ship ever
again.
  "So," said Dalin casually, "where do you think you will end up after leave?"


  The slight wince on Miya's face must have been fairly obvious. She knew it was going to happen,
leave couldn't last forever, but she didn't want to face the reality of it just yet. She wouldn't be back
on the Saturn. She turned and looked at Dalin, trying to keep her face neutral. "I haven't really
thought about it, to be honest." she replied. "Still trying to come to terms with what's happened,
don't think I'm ready to look to the future just yet..." She tried a smile, directing the question back
at him, "you?"
  "Who knows?" Dalin said in a sigh. "They tell me to go there I go there. Not like we have any
control over it."
  Miya shook her head in agreement.
  "I did like the Saturn... Shame." he said.
  Shame? Shame didn't seem to sum up the whole experience quite well enough. Both of them
knew it and they didn't say anything. The lift came to a stop and Dalin walked out of the lift. He
turned around and looked at Miya. "Well, before they send us to God knows where, I just wanted to
say that it's been an honour to serve with you, ma'am."
  She smiled as the door closed. Dalin turned around and knew his life could end... eight doors
down and a right. He sighed and walked on.
                                                    ***




  [ Six days later ]
  [ Spacedock, orbit of Betelgeuse II ]
  [ Admiral Gibson's quarters ]


  "I can't believe you're still doing that."
  "What, cleaning the dishes myself?" the admiral's voice came back out of the kitchen. "It's
soothing."
  "I thought sitting around the dinner table and hearing our story was soothing."
  "No, that was exciting, my dear. Or, in the case of your parents, positively worrying."
  "Oh my." sighed Patricia. "My parents. I'm really looking forward to seeing them, and I'm dreading
it at the same time. Does that make any sense?" she asked, turning to Miya.
  "I think so." Miya replied, "Your parents are like the ultimate test. If you can tell them what
happened and answer their questions, you can do anything." She grinned, "It's got to be easier than
speaking to the board of enquiry."
  Patricia looked back her sceptically. "You obviously don't know my parents. My mother could well
be her very own board of enquiry. Add my father to that, and-..."
  "Now, don't be unfair." Admiral Gibson interrupted his niece as he returned to the living room.
"They were worried sick, you know."
  "I know." Patricia hung her head.


  That moment, the door bell chimed. "Ah, there they are." he stated, turning around to the door.
"Enter please."
  A white-haired, hearty looking woman stepped through the door, with an only slightly younger
looking man following her in.
  "Beth, impeccable timing as always." the admiral grinned at his sister and nodded at the man at
her side. "William."
  "Paul. How's Leah?"
  "Apparently quite well, at least the last time I heard from her. This is Commander Solo, the
Saturn's XO." he introduced Miya who nodded politely. "Commander, my sister Elisabeth and her
husband William."
  The greeting was short and unceremonial, as the elderly couple took in the impression of the
room and its three occupants. Giving Miya a long and good look, their stares finally rested on their
daughter. Approaching her and slightly shaking her head, the old woman grew a smile that was
both happy and sad at the same time. "Trish..."
  "Mum..." At the slightest sign of her mother opening her arms, Patricia rushed to embrace her,
trying to hold back tears. "You know I hate it when you make me feel like a little girl, don't you?"
  "We're your parents, dear, what do you expect?" said Beth as Patricia turned towards her father,
embracing him as well.
  "I bet you can't wait to tell us everything." the man grinned.
  Patricia stopped, looked at him for a beat, then exchanged a glance with Miya. "Remember the
thing about looking forward to seeing someone and dreading it at the-..."
  "Yeah." Miya just stated curtly, nodding, stifling a grin herself.
  "Oh come on." Beth reproached her daughter mockingly. "I'd say we deserve to hear the story
straight from the horse's mouth instead of the news reporter, don't we?"
  Patricia sighed and looked back at the admiral, who just smiled and nodded encouragingly.
  "I think we better leave you three alone for a while." he said, turning to Miya. "Come, walk with
me. I want to show you something."


  A short detour later, Admiral Gibson led Miya to the upper promenade, coming to a halt in front of
one of the large windows with a good view over the drydock next to the station. Amidst the
workbees hovering around the area, a Galaxy class vessel hung in the middle of it. Almost invisible
to the naked eye from the distance, umbilical cords were stretching out from her hull, connecting
her to various service ports of the huge structure.




  His hands folded on his back, the admiral stood at the window and took in the view for a long
moment, as if commemorating something or someone.


  Miya looked at the vessel as well. The Galaxy class had been the workhorse for Starfleet during
the conflict with the Cardassians and their Gamma quadrant allies, the Founders. On hundreds of
them, Federation servicemen and women had performed admirably in the face of what had looked
liked certain defeat for a long period until tides had changed in favour of the alpha quadrant
powers. A great many of those ships had not survived the war, and a lot of those that did had had
to be scrapped.


  Finally he spoke. "This was my brother's ship in the Dominion war. The USS Northampton. Served
as flagship in the attack on Torros III for fifteen minutes before a Keldon class took out her bridge
with a torpedo."
  Miya winced and looked over at the Admiral. "I'm really sorry to hear that, sir." She went quiet,
what else could she say. They both stood staring at the ship for a few more seconds.
  "She's been undergoing a complete overhaul for the past nine years," he eventually went on, "the
last bits of the refit work being completed by the end of the month.
  "I always liked the line of the Galaxy. Glad she'll be back to active duty again, sir."
  He nodded and smirked, still staring out the window. "You're probably asking yourself, why is this
sentimental geezer showing me that old bucket?"
  "I was being much more polite in my thoughts, sir." Miya replied with a lopsided smile. "But yes,
the question crossed my mind."
  "Well." he said and paused. "A captain needs a ship."
  Miya frowned. "Sir?"
  Admiral Gibson turned to look at her. "She's yours if you want her... Captain Solo."


  There was another long pause as the shock began to register on Miya's face. "Captain?" she
asked quietly, still staring through the windows.
  Smiling indulgently, he produced a small black box, opening it and offering it to her. In it were two
golden rank pips - one supposed to replace the black pip that indicated the lieutenant portion of her
current rank, and one to indicate her new rank - captain.
  "Starfleet authorised me to give you this."
  Miya silently accepted the small box and stood staring at the pips while the admiral grinned and
gestured back to the ship. "And this. Her registry number is seven one eight zero one. She's going
to keep that number - bureaucracy must be served. However, I've arranged for her to be renamed
USS Saturn, in honour of the Commodore's fine ship and crew. What do you say?"


  "I'm honoured sir, but I must also admit to being slightly confused. I'm only a Lieutenant
Commander - becoming a Captain..." she trailed off as she once more looked at the small black box
in her hand.
  He regarded her for a moment, and nodded. "I know. It feels like too big a step - for now. It's not
unheard of, though, people have received field promotions to higher ranks than that. Fact is,
Starfleet needs the Saturn back. And they feel that you are the person to captain it. You did good
out there. You already acted like a captain. Now it's time to step up to actually being one."
  Miya looked up again and managed to arrange her thoughts into some sort of order. "I don't know
what to say, sir, I'd be honoured..."
  He smiled once more. "Good. Obviously you have a bit of digging through personnel files before
you - you'll have one thousand and eleven crew positions to fill."
  Miya nodded. "I think I'd like to keep as many of the Saturn's crew as possible, assuming of
course they want to stay."
  "I thought as much." The admiral nodded. "There are already several ship captains offering
positions - but I've been holding the blokes from Personnel back so far, figuring you might want to
keep your trusted crew members for yourself." he said, giving her a smile before returning his gaze
back to the ship that was going to be called Northampton for only a couple more weeks.

				
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