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Episode 2: A Parting of Ways

Lakota's mission in the former demilitarised zone is put at risk when a familiar face returns with interesting offers for several of the ship's crew. With an opportunity for many to finally step up and forge a new path for themselves, will they opt for captain or career?

1 – The Prodigal Daughter Returns

Observation Lounge
Stardate 24016.6

“So far, we’ve lost fourteen people to Giarvar and the Hypatia. Linn is the most senior to go.”

A wordsmith would be forgiven for looking at Keziah Nazir in that particular moment and coming up with no other word than dejected. As she stood at the window of the observation lounge and looked out at the massive science vessel to port, there was no other way she could feel. And whilst it wasn’t entirely Giarvar’s fault, she couldn’t help but harbour some resentment towards her former XO for the choices he had made in the last twelve hours. Almost fifty names had been presented to her to fill vacancies on his new ship, with over half of those originally identified on her ship. When she’d accepted his request to talk with people, she’d been confident that the majority would have chosen to stay with her and demonstrate that same loyalty she had shown them. She’d been mistaken. And there were still some who hadn’t made their decisions. There was one choice that had hurt her the most.

“Peri,” she somberly corrected her XO. “Peri’s going. It was a choice between her and Or’uil, and I just…”

“No brainer Captain,” Noli confidently retorted, an expert lie designed to make her Captain feel better about the decision. It was, in fact, as far from being a ‘no brainer’ as it could be. An impossible choice; to choose between a colleague you had served with for some time, or the second officer who had become integral to your command in recent weeks was an unenviable task, and she was glad she hadn’t had to make the choice. Or’uil was like a brother to Noli, they had developed a strong bond in the last year, but she was XO now and had to make decisions for the good of the ship and crew. Peri was the more experienced officer, and well-decorated. She’d proven herself invaluable in recent weeks. On paper, she was perhaps the most logical choice to keep, but Nazir had made the call to keep Or’uil. The Trill was guilty of nothing more than surrendering to her feelings, but that was a luxury commanding officers could ill afford.

Sitting at the table, back to the door, Noli was quietly seething. Giarvar was an asshole for putting the Captain in this position in the first place, and that was coming from someone who liked him a great deal. He had his own command, and the Osiris to choose from, yet he opted to recruit so many from Lakota instead. Perhaps he would be the fantastic commanding officer Nazir hoped, he was certainly showing the ruthless determination one required in such a role, but did he have to do it at Nazir’s expense?

“It goes to show that we have built such a talented crew that we are the envy of other commanding officers,” she told brashly, “they only come for people they want because the people they want are the best. We assembled those people and should be proud of that fact,” Noli told the Captain, watching the elder woman very closely.

“Perhaps you are right,” Nazir frowned, her voice remaining low as if she didn’t believe her own words. “It still hurts,” that stung the Bajoran, and it was right from the Captain’s heart.

Pushing herself out of the seat using the table for leverage, the Bajoran joined her CO at the window. “Captain, look on the bright side. We’ve only lost two of our most experienced officers,” she smiled, trying to be reassuring for the Captain’s sake.

“I’d like to think I make up for at least one of those, if not both…”

Spinning on their heels upon hearing the voice from behind, the whole mood in the room shifted in an instant, as if all of their troubles had been forgotten thanks to the arrival of a more than familiar face. And in that moment, where all seemed to be forgotten, Noli let out a childlike squeal of glee, rounding the observation lounge table as quickly as she could to throw her arms around the owner of the voice. There was an audible ‘Ooof’ as the pair embraced, grins from both lighting up the room.

“Prida!” Keziah smiled joyously as she rounded the table herself and offered a hand to her friend.

As soon as Noli let the Bajassian go, Prida took Nazir’s hand and then pulled her in for a far more professional greeting than Noli had offered her. Once the physicalities were complete, Noli reached out and used three of her fingers to gently spin the hollow rank pip on her best friend’s collar.

“You kept that quiet!” she chastised her friend with a playful slap on the arm, before perching on the table behind her.

“Turns out, saving a ship and crew can bring great reward,” Prida smiled sheepishly, her own fingers toying with the recent addition to her collar. She then looked at Keziah, who was leaning on one of the chairs for support. “Captain Romaes sends his regards ma’am, and hopes that my new rank won’t be a problem in my return,” the black-haired beauty smiled hopefully.

“I’d have been more disappointed if you hadn’t got such a reward,” Nazir shook her head, pulling out the chair she was leaning on and gesturing for Prida to join her, and Noli, at the table. “I’m glad to have you back, Commander.” Her words were meaningful, and full of pride in her returning Chief Engineer.

The hairs on the back of Prida’s neck bristled as she heard her new rank title again, still far from being used to it. “So,” she reached forward, eager to move the conversation on from her, “where shall we begin?”

In the hours that passed, officers came and went whilst Nazir remained in her place at the head of the observation lounge table, engrossed in data PADDs, reports and situational dilemmas. One dilemma she was about to resolve, thankfully. She’d been waiting a little while now, but caught a glimpse of the approaching Or’uil out of the corner of her eye.

“Come in Lieutenant,” she waved the Ungeat into the chair beside her that was usually reserved for Number One, and relaxed into her own.

“Thank you Captain,” the Ungeat nodded, dutifully obeying her instruction and taking his seat beside her. “I understand today must have been tough, Captain. Whilst it is disappointing to see so many of our colleagues depart, it is pleasing to have Prida return, with a deserved rank increase if I may say so.”

Nazir watched the youngster cock his head, and bob and weave as he spoke, his unique body movements always piquing her curiosity. There was still so much to learn about him and his people, despite having known him for what felt like an age now. The honesty he exhibited and, supposedly shared by others of his kind, was always refreshing. He was, as always, right.

“It’s actually one of those departures I wanted to talk to you about,” Nazir smiled wearily, “if you have time?”

“Of course Captain,” his voice increased a few decibels in pitch, as it often did when he was happy or keen to engage in something. He was always happy to be at the Captain’s beck and call, eager to assist her in any way he could.

“I have a confession Or’uil,” the Captain began, with the Ungeat silently watching her every move, listening to her every word. “I fear I have been selfish, and prevented you from an exciting opportunity to advance your career,” she told him, to an almost childlike stare. “Captain Kauhn presented his shortlist of candidates for the tactical position aboard the Hypatia.”

“A very short list indeed, given the only names on it were that of Commander Peri and myself,” the Ungeat responded, a little perplexed as to the reason for the Captain’s subsequent laugh. “I can assure you, Captain, that I am quite content here on Lakota and have no desire to go anywhere else at present,” his words were designed to put the Captain at ease, and they seemed to have the desired effect.

“I’m grateful to hear you say that, Or’uil. I am,” the Captain smiled, then sat forward and looked at him with a more serious expression. “I’m known to value loyalty, Lieutenant. And as such, I want to promote you, permanently, to the role of Chief Tactical Operations Officer. No more shifting around, no more crawling through Jefferies tubes late at night. You are respected here, Or’uil, and more importantly, you care about your shipmates. I want someone like that in charge of our security. What do you say?” Her cautiousness wasn’t needed, as the reply was instant from the adolescent.

“I serve at your pleasure, Captain. Wherever you need me, I will go,” he responded with a nod, pleased to accept her offer.

Rising to her feet, the relief she felt was evident all over her tired face. Or’uil rose to meet her and both exchanged a brief handshake. But instead of releasing his grip at the end, the Ungeat’s grip grew tighter, causing the Captain to grimace in pain until the much stronger man let go. The relief from the pain was felt for only a mere moment as the realisation that something more sinister was afoot sunk in.

Or’uil collapsed to the floor, convulsing violently, entirely unresponsive to audible stimuli as the Captain fell to her knees beside him and tried to rouse him. Distraught at the sight of her young colleague in such pain, she turned her head towards the open door to the bridge and yelled at the top of her lungs.

“Someone help!”

2 – A Matter of Time

Stardate 24016.6

Marching into sickbay, Noli was a woman on a mission. She’d been alerted to the medical emergency by the bridge crew and had immediately made for sickbay. She’d been filled in on the particulars by Teyahna, who’d been left in command of the bridge during their absence. Entering the medical facility, the Bajoran immediately ascertained the situation; two biobeds in use, with varying degrees of importance given the amount of staff around them. Nazir, sat upright, conscious and being tended to by Lieutenant Keesa, seemed to be the easier of the patients, but the same couldn’t be said for the occupant of the other biobed. Surrounded by two nurses and the bald Deltan who ran sickbay, Or’uil was unconscious, and clearly of concern to the medical team.

Nodding to the Captain, the XO made the bold move to almost ignore the woman and focus on their friend. Striding to the Ungeat’s bedside, the Commander looked up hopefully at the Chief Medical Officer but was greeted with a shake of the head and a look of despair.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Zinn frowned, his voice low and sombre. “It’s almost as if every internal organ is changing, mutating,” he explained, drawing up an internal readout of the Ungeat’s prone body.

Noli looked over the schematic on the display above the biobed but was helplessly outmatched by the biology it spouted. What she could understand didn’t make for pleasant reading. “You must have some idea…”

“I have one…” Nikti Keesa called out as she approached the biobed with her patient, who was holding her hand but flexing her digits, meaning she would be fine and wanted to know more herself.

“Go on,” Noli nodded at the young Orion.

“Evolution,” the specialist xenobiologist responded, causing everyone around the bed to look in her direction. “Every system in his body is undergoing rapid, sustained change. It’s possible we are looking at the next stage of evolution for his people.”

Not that they didn’t believe her, especially as Noli had learned first hand to trust the expertise of the Orion during their time on the Hazard Team, but they still wanted to hear from Zinn. The Deltan, who had nearly thirty years of experience in medicine, glared up at the readouts again, with crossed arms and pursed lips. When he eventually looked at the Captain and her first officer again, he gave a nod.

“It’s possible,” he agreed with his subordinate’s suggestion, “we just don’t know enough about his species. We have very few records on file, and he’s been in here maybe three times since joining the crew.”

“We could do with more information Captain,” Nikti looked at Nazir hopefully, but it was Noli who responded.

“I’ll get you whatever you need…”

Normally, Teyahna was one of the most calm and considered officers on the senior staff, completely betraying every piece of information Starfleet had on her Orion species, but not today. Knowing one of her friends was suffering didn’t sit well with her, and whilst those on the bridge worked on their task, she couldn’t help but pace backwards and forwards in front of the command chair, one hand grasping her chin, supported by the other arm draped across her chest.


A voice stopped her in her tracks, her arms falling to her side as she made eye contact with Lieutenant Voran, who had turned from the Operations station and was staring in her direction. “Yes? What is it?” she asked of the man.

“Communications have been agreed with Un’gar. Protectorate Sh’int awaits your transmission,” the Vulcan explained, then turned back to his station.

“Right, let’s do this.” Teyahna took a moment to compose herself whilst the connection was established, pulling on her uniform jacket and smoothing out any of the teal creases the material had picked up during her nervous pacing. When the screen changed to reveal the face of a rather peculiar creature, the Orion gave her best smile. Best foot forward, as Nazir would always remind her.

“Protectorate Sh’int,” the Orion bowed respectfully to the leader of the Ungeat species, “my name is Commander Teyahna, Chief Science Officer of the USS Lakota. Thank you for responding to our message.”

We rarely communicate with Starfleet people off-world, Commander, but your message sounded urgent,” the Protectorate tilted his head as he spoke, “To what do we owe your message?” he asked her curiously.

“As I’m sure you know, we have a member of your species as a crewmember here on Lakota,” she began, shifting nervously on her feet.

I do recall that. I trust you are treating Or’uil with kindness and warmth,” Sh’int narrowed his eyes, worried about his kin.

“Or’uil is a highly valued, well-respected member of our crew,” Teyahna nodded, “but he is not well, sir. Earlier today he was taken ill, and his condition has only deteriorated in the time that has passed. Our understanding of your species is limited, and we were hoping that you might be able to assist us with getting Or’uil the treatment he needs.” She’d taken a step forward, clasping her hands together as if pleading for the help of the man on the screen.

We have no desire to see one of our people suffer,” the Protectorate declared, “but he must be returned here for our help. We will send you what information we can in the meantime. Please let us know of any developments in his condition.”

The Protectorate didn’t even wait for the conversation to reach a natural conclusion, simply terminating the communication from his end and leaving the Orion somewhat flustered.

“We are already receiving information files,” Voran called out from Ops, “I am downloading the files into the ship’s database.”

Slouching into the command chair, the Orion picked up a data PADD from the XO’s chair and began accessing the data files. “Captain to the bridge,” she called into the ship’s internal communications array, and then commenced her reading, in the hope that she could find something, anything, that might help Or’uil in the meantime.

It wasn’t long before the turbo lift doors at the back of the bridge parted and ejected its occupants at speed. Nazir crossed directly to the command chair, whilst Noli made her way to the forward Operations station and began a conversation with the Vulcan there.

“Report,” Keziah requested, watching as Teyahna rose and relinquished command to her.

“We’ve received all manner of files from the Protectorate,” Teyahna revealed, handing over the data PADD she had been reading. “We’re still receiving some, but Protectorate Sh’int has requested we return Or’uil to his people,” the Orion told her, drawing a sigh from the Captain.

Standing in front of her command chair, the Trill put her hands on her hips, and looked at the XO, who had turned from Ops at the mention of returning their friend to his homeworld. “I don’t see that we have much choice,” Noli frowned.

“Very well,” Nazir nodded. “Teyahna, get to sickbay and assist Zinn as best you can. Voran, let the Hypatia know that we’re leaving within the hour on a medical mission. Since the squadron is disbanded, I can’t order him to stay, but ask Captain Kauhn to assume patrol duties until our return, or Starfleet sends relief.” Her orders were clear for all, with Teyahna not even hanging around to hear the conclusion of them before disappearing into the turbo lift.

Zinn needed the information she held in the palm of her hand, and she was going to see that he got it. Or’uil’s life may well depend on it.

3 – Coming of Age

Enroute to the Ungeat Homeworld
Stardate 24016.8

Lakota‘s sleek frame slipped effortlessly out of her warp drive vortex on the edge of the Un’gar system, marking the first time many of her crew had had the privilege of visiting their colleague’s beautiful home system. For others, it was an unwelcome return; memories of their friends and loved ones losing their lives during the battle to retake the system from the Dominion forces, albeit without the weapons fire and destruction that had engulfed the system for days. It was a system no one thought they would revisit anytime soon, even if they were aboard Lakota instead of the Hathaway on this occasion, but the fate of one of their own now hinged on their return. Inching her way through the system’s dreaded ‘Field of Woe’, a massive asteroid field encircling almost the entire system, the Excelsior-class starship crawled towards the homeworld of Un’giri. It was almost as if the mighty starship didn’t want to be there any more than some of her crew did.

When she emerged from the asteroid belt unscathed, the Federation starship continued unhindered, entering orbit of the homeworld with ease, and most importantly, the permission of the Protectorate. Coming to rest above the planet’s third-largest continent, her mission could begin at last.

Commander Noli had remained at her colleague’s side for almost twenty-four hours now, against the better judgement of the Chief Medical Officer, but she needed to do something to try and contribute, to try and bring their friend back to them. While she couldn’t do anything from a medical perspective, she could at least offer some words of spiritual wisdom. She’d brought her candles and incense sticks from her quarters and turned Or’uil’s bedside into a scene from a temple. The medical facility was dark, lit by consoles and candles alone, its occupants working away quietly, happy to accommodate her efforts (for the most part, anyway).

On her knees on his right-hand side, she was chanting a Bajora incantation when the doors to the room opened, almost blinding her with light from the corridor beyond. A shadowy figure stood in the doorway.

“It’s time,” the figure told quietly, before stepping inside and watching the scene closely. “The Captain has arranged for you, Zinn and Nikti to escort Or’uil to the planet’s surface. We’ll remain in orbit to render any assistance that’s needed,” Prida told, her quiet voice ensuring she didn’t disturb the ambience Noli had worked so hard to create. She came to a halt at Or’uil’s bedside and placed a gentle hand on his arm.

Noli rose to her feet and waved towards Zinn and his assistant, who emerged from one of the side rooms. Whilst Noli filled them in on what Prida had told her, the Bajassian leaned down and placed her head next to her friends, an inaudible whisper all that could be heard, but she knew what she had said, and what it meant.

And if Or’uil could hear, he’d know too.

Thousands of kilometers below, in a building beautifully sculpted but surrounded by repair work, four of Starfleet’s finest materialised in a haze of blue, to be greeted by several creatures of varying size and eye colour. Instantly, the Ungeat medical personnel took the hovering medical cart from Zinn.

“Where are you taking him?” Noli called out to the medical personnel, only for a voice to the left to address her in return.

“They will take him and make him comfortable for the transition process,” the voice of Protectorate Sh’int floated through the air effortlessly, almost putting the Starfleet officers at ease. Down here, in their natural habitat and buildings, there was no need for the voice synthesisers Or’uil had worn aboard their ship.

“What do you mean by transition process?” Zinn queried, turning to face the leader of the Ungeat people, who had entered the entrance hall.

“We suspect that Or’uil is going through a troubling period of She’mek’talan,” the Protectorate explained, waving a gangly hand and gesturing for them to follow him as he slowly made his way towards a nearby office-type room. “During this process, an Ungeat undergoes severe physical changes. Usually, they are far less painful, but there have been reports of the process being complicated,” he explained to the three officers who gladly followed him into the room.

Once standing in front of the Protectorate, Nikti looked at Zinn, who gave a singular nod of approval. “What Or’uil is going through is incredibly painful,” the biologist revealed, much to the displeasure of, apparently, everyone except the Protectorate.

“Protectorate Sh’int, please. What is happening to our friend?” Noli asked, taking a step forward, her voice cracking under the strain of what she had seen her friend go through in the last few days.

“His body is undergoing a series of changes that all Ungeat go through, although he is going through it almost two rotations early, which possibly explains the difficulty he is in,” the Protectorate cocked his head, his glowing orange orbs almost burning into the Bajoran’s soul. “You already know too much. We do not openly share the secrets of our people. You must leave,” his voice changed, the tone significantly deeper than it had been before.

“Please, sir…” Noli pleaded. “We mean no harm or disrespect, but Or’uil is more than a friend to us, he’s family. We have to know that he is alright.”

Sh’int’s voice box rattled in what could only be described as a sort of Ungeat sigh. Noli was sure that if he’d had eyelids, he would have probably rolled his eyes at her too.

“Very well,” the Protectorate nodded. “Or’uil’s body is changing to accommodate all of the situations and life processes he will encounter later in his life. I believe people on Earth call it…

“…puberty?” Nikti let out a gasp as the realisation dawned on her. Even after her years of studying medical conditions and the biology of other species, it hadn’t dawned on her that he could just be going through their ‘coming of age’ ritual. “He’s going through the maturation process… from adolescence to adulthood,” the Orion explained, looking at the floored Bajoran. Zinn wasn’t much better himself, trying to make sense of what Nikti had been able to deduce.

“But why is such a natural process causing him so much pain?” the Deltan chief of medicine asked, folding his arms across his ample chest. Now that they had made the connection, it seemed logical, but the fact that their friend was in significant pain had clouded their judgment.

“Off-world influences may have exacerbated his condition,” the Protectorate explained. “Or’uil is the first of our people to go through this change off-world, and his distance from his treatment has no doubt complicated the situation,” the ruler of Un’gar told the Starfleet crew. “Now, you are free to remain until we have an update, Ts’nal will be at your service should you require anything. But please, do not leave the area. Many do not appreciate Starfleet’s presence after recent… events,” the tall figure told the three, looking each in the eye to ensure his request was heard.

“With your permission, Protectorate, I’d like to contact our ship and inform our Captain of this development,” Noli smiled, nodding respectfully to the taller man, carefully choosing the words for her request.

“Of course,” the languid man nodded, returning the bow in a measure of respect to her request.

Watching in silence until the ruler of Or’uil’d people had left them alone, Nikti was the first to speak, “We should have known it could be something like this,” she chastised both herself and Zinn. “Pon Farr is violent for Vulcans if not handled correctly; we should have known they weren’t the only species to undergo such changes in a difficult manner…”

“We can’t be blamed. His symptoms… the pain he was suffering… all pointed to something far worse than we believed,” the Deltan shook his head, slumping into a seat near the far wall.

“Or maybe we were just blinded by our concern for Or’uil?” Noli shrugged. “He’s in the right place now. Let’s hope they can help him…”

Emerging from the ready room on the starboard side of the bridge, Keziah strolled towards the command chair and the green-skinned woman occupying her chair temporarily. “Report Commander?” she asked.

Standing and moving to the side, Teyahna watched as the Captain approached. “It’s Noli ma’am,” the Orion told her Captain.

Nazir stopped short of sitting in her chair, staring towards the forward view screen despite the lack of an image. “Noli? This is the Captain,” she called into the communications array.

Captain…” Noli’s voice cut through the static, “Or’uil is in the hands of his people.”

“Do they have any idea what’s wrong with him?” the Trill asked, hands on hips while glaring at the Orion scientist.

Zinn here, Captain,” the Chief Medical Officer cut in. “Puberty. It looks like it could be a simple, yet massively painful case of Or’uil simply coming of age,” the Deltan explained

“You’ve got to be shitting me?” the scientist whispered, collapsing into what would normally be the Counsellor’s seat, shaking her head in disbelief as the dots started to merge together and make complete sense.

“We’ll deal with this oversight later,” the Captain frowned, inwardly fuming at the apparent incompetence of every crew member, herself included. “Can they help him?” she asked again.

We hope so,” Noli answered again, her voice shaky, “We just have to wait and see…

4 – Shattered Hopes

Protectorate's Office, Un'gar
Stardate 24016.9

Known throughout the quadrant to many different species, the Orion people were often called many things, but patience was never one of the traits associated with the green-skinned humanoids. Even for those in Starfleet, who had acclimated themselves to their surroundings and the need to develop certain traits and skills, it was still a struggle for them to bury lifelong faults.

“We’ve been here for hours…”

Nikti Keesa was struggling to keep a lid on her frustrations, having long since given up on being calm and quiet. Really struggling. According to Zinn, she had done well to keep it in check this long, with the Deltan having noted that her brethren in charge of the science department would have folded much sooner. She wasn’t interested, of course. All she wanted was to leave the small room and see their colleague.

It was all any of them wanted, but Zinn was keeping a check on his frustrations far easier than his companions. While she looked calm on the surface, Noli was a nervous wreck. She had a responsibility as XO to present an air of calm and control in distressing situations, but today it was all a facade. It had been almost a year to the day since she and Prida had adopted Or’uil into their crew, the young, misguided Ungeat struggling to find a place among the stars until the day the three had formed an unlikely bond. Since then, they had been through untold horrors together. From the Dominion invasion of the Deneb sector, where they had hunted the Breen commander, to the liberation of the very planet they stood one once again. Through the climactic final battle of the Deneb sector, to the chaos of Frontier Day and the young Ungeat’s assimilation by the Borg. All through the trauma of the subsequent Borg incursions, to the medical emergency on Quasaris. All led them to this point, and all had proven they were far more than just friends; they were a family.

She’d taken her brother for granted in recent weeks, assuming he’d always be there for her to bend his abnormally large ears with a problem. She’d expect him to always be there to give his customary, unsolicited advice that would drive her crazy but would always, always, be right. She’d come to rely on him perhaps as much as Captain Nazir relied on her, maybe even more. And what about Prida? She’d only just returned from her secondment to the Hathaway, and they all had so much to catch up on.

The XO was about to urge the young Orion to sit down and catch her breath when the door to the room opened and a familiar, languid figure strolled inside. Noli, like her counterpart from medical, rose to her feet and stood beside Nikti. “Protectorate,” she gave the best smile she could muster, “is there any word?”

“He is stable for now,” Sh’int nodded slowly, drawing gasps of relief from the Starfleet officers. “Our physicians will keep him that way until he is ready to come out of his sleep paralysis. You are free to remain here, should you wish. I have had some sleeping arrangements made for you. Alternatively, you can return to your ship. There is nothing more to be done for now,” the leader of the Ungeat people told the three.

“Thank you. We’ll stay here,” Noli replied in an instant, without so much as a second of consultation with her colleagues. “We’ll be on hand should you need us, but I would like to update my Captain?” the Bajoran asked, the fog of gloom that had permeated every fibre of her being lifted at last.

“Of course,” the Protectorate moved aside and held out a long, gangly arm towards the door. “Please, this way…” he bowed respectfully to his visitors.

Nodding in thanks, Noli led the triumvirate from the office space and followed the Protectorate. To a new room; to a new future; to a chance to get some much-needed sleep.

A grunt left the prone Bajoran’s lips as her frame shuddered under Zinn’s heavy, Deltan hand. Blinking herself awake, the XO took a few moments to compose herself as her vision adjusted to the dark surroundings, but it didn’t take long for her to notice the solemn expression on the Deltan’s face. Or to interpret the noise in the corner as the sobs of their young counterpart.

“No…” her tone was low and shaken, her head moving softly from side to side as she shrugged off the Deltan’s touch. A sharp intake of breath followed, tears welling in the corner of her tired eyes. When they began to fall, she lifted her sleeve and dabbed at her cheeks. This couldn’t be happening, could it? Forcing herself to her feet, she wiped her face more vigorously and tried her best to find a measure of composure.

“I’m sorry Noli,” the Chief Medical Officer tried to console his superior again.

“No,” she snapped, this time more forcefully, almost command-like. “He was stable, Zinn. We were going to see him tomorrow. We were going to get him out of here!” she fumed, the disbelief quickly turning to anger and outrage and causing an inability for her to hold back the tears.

“There were complications,” the Deltan tried to tell her, but the XO pushed past him and made for the door, only to be stopped by the languid frame of the Protectorate.

“What did your people do to him?!” Gone were the pleasantries of earlier as she glowered up at the taller Ungeat, clenching her fists at her side in an effort to stop herself from lashing out and punching something… or someone.

“Please remain calm Commander,” Protectorate Sh’int urged the woman, his hands out in front of him in a form of protection, but also to placate and calm the Bajoran. “There were complications caused by his earlier assimilation. Our medical team were unable to save him,” the region’s leader advised her.

“Why didn’t you get Zinn? Or Nikti?!” Noli asked incredulously, “They know more about what happened with the Borg than you ever could have. They could have helped!”

“I tried…”

With a drop of her shoulders and the closure of her eyes, the XO let out a massive breath, before turning on her heels to look at the downcast Deltan.

He stood there, motionless, staring at his hands which were palm up and shaking. “I tried to save him,” he explained, “they called me, and I tried, but none of us could figure out what was happening…” he slowly turned his head and looked the Bajoran in the face, his tear-stained cheeks flushed red. “I tried to save him. I tried…” he repeated, over and over, his voice trembling more than before, and his shoulders shaking as he sobbed.

Nikti, who had been watching this entire exchange from her bed, almost sprinted to his side and put an arm around the medical officer.

Watching with wide eyes, Noli couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. Through everything that they had all gone through, Zinn had always been the one to stay calm and carry on. Today, he had finally broken, and it forced Noli to reflect on what an ass she had been in the last few minutes.

“You have my apologies, and my condolences,” the Protectorate told, a small sigh accompanying his words. “As is custom with our society, we have begun preparations for Or’uil’s Unbinding. There will be a ceremony tomorrow. You, your Captain, and as many of your friends as you desire, will be welcome to attend.”

“Thank you,” Noli nodded, and bowed in respect, and apology, to their gracious host. “May we see him?” she asked hopefully. Her request was greeted with a solemn shake of the Protectorate’s head.

“I am sorry,” he cocked his head in the same, peculiar way Or’uil often did when delivering bad news, “but that is against our customs. You will be able to see him tomorrow, at the Unbinding. My advisors will be on hand to assist you in any way you need,” he told, before walking away again slowly, leaving the Starfleet officers to grieve in the only way they knew how – huddled in the center of the room, holding each other tightly and allowing the sorrow they felt to freely wash over them at last.

Emerging from the ready room, Captain Nazir held her arms aloft as she let out an almighty yawn without any attempt to stifle it, drawing amused glances from those still present in the command center. It had been almost ten minutes since they had received the cryptic and impersonal message from the Office of the Protectorate which informed them of the Away Team’s impending return. Henry had been in charge of the night shift, with strict orders to wake the rest of their team if they received any updates. As such, he’d sent messengers to wake Teyahna, Prida and Zh’ito, the latter the last to arrive on the bridge just a few seconds before the Captain had left her ready room.

“Are they aboard yet?” the Captain asked, taking a few steps towards the command chair, watching the pilot move from her seat.

“Yes ma’am,” Henry smiled, “they beamed aboard a few minutes ago. Commander Noli is on her way up here now,” he revealed, then bid his farewells and returned to the CONN.

It seemed to take the lift an abnormally long time to reach the command center, and even longer for the doors to open. As they did, the gang rose to their feet and looked across to the lift with bated breath.

Slowly but surely, Noli emerged from the turbo lift just far enough for the doors to close behind her. She could feel the weight of expectation in the room bearing down on her shoulders with all eyes on her. Keziah stood before the command chair, but didn’t need several lifetimes of expertise to know the news wasn’t what they wanted. Her head dropped, her hands clasped to her hips as Noli locked eyes with her best friend, eyes watering as she lifted a trembling hand to her lips, shaking her head in disbelief. Teyahna let out a gasp and collapsed back against the science station, steadying herself with her hands at the last minute and preventing herself from falling to the floor. Henry wandered over to the Counsellor and put a warm, loving arm around her shoulders, the Andorian nuzzling into his chest, sobbing uncontrollably and staining his uniform jacket.

Staring at her ‘sister’ in disbelief, Prida struggled to grasp the news, refusing to believe until Noli slowly crossed the bridge and embraced her. At that point, in an overwhelming show of emotion, the floodgates finally opened and the realisation hit her.

Their colleague, their friend, her brother, had gone.

5 – When the Light Fades

Stardate 24016.9

Time had passed slowly since the Away Team’s return to the Lakota in the early hours of the morning. She’d tried to get some sleep and had managed an hour, maybe two at a push, but she’d finally accepted defeat. Sleep would evade her for now. Instead, she’d showered, and pottered around her quarters for a while, trying to keep busy… whilst also putting off the inevitable. Someone had to contact Giarvar and let him know, and it should come from her. Giarvar and Or’uil were two of the most important people in her life, it had to be her.

At first, she’d thought about simply arranging a face-to-face with him over subspace, but she’d quickly decided against it. She’d cried enough tears in the last twelve or so hours, she didn’t need to cry anymore. She’d determined that a text transmission would be the only way she could get the message out, but even that was proving difficult. Slouched in the chair at her desk, using the palm of her right hand to support her chin, she’d been staring at the screen for almost an hour. Words had come. Words had gone. She’d toyed with several different openings, trying her best to come up with the best way to tell him about their loss, but words failed her. She’d lost all track of time, so it was quite a surprise when the door chime rang out and Prida waltzed in a few seconds later, dressed in her pristine dress uniform and her brunette hair slicked back into a tight bun.

“You’re not ready?!” the Bajassian asked, throwing her arms in the air in frustration. Seeing the XO sat there in her undershirt, with no jacket on and her hair unfinished did not fill the Chief Engineer with confidence about her friend’s state of mind.

“I’ve been trying to write to Giarvar,” Noli frowned, looking across the chaos that was her quarters.

“That can wait,” Prida scolded her, picking up the dress jacket Noli had thrown on the back of her sofa and walking up to the workstation. She presented the jacket at arm’s length and glared at her fellow Bajoran until she finally took ownership of it.

Noli let out a sigh as she rose to her feet and rounded the desk towards her bedroom. When she emerged a few minutes later, she looked every bit the proud Starfleet officer, and just as pristine as her friend. Prida smiled, holding out her hands. Grasping them tightly for reassurance, Noli lowered her head a little, trying her best to keep her composure.

“Hey,” Prida squeezed, “let’s do this for Or’uil.”

Noli looked up and gave a half-hearted, yet somehow sincere smile.

“For Or’uil,” she repeated.

Halfway down the corridor on deck four, the two had met up with the Captain, who was herself in her dress uniform and looking her absolute best for the occasion. Locked in hushed conversation as they entered the transporter room, they stopped in their tracks to take in the view. It was a veritable who’s who of Lakota personnel, the room crammed with people from across the ship who had all been permitted to transport to the surface and take part in the funeral service for their colleague. Naturally, the senior staff were in attendance, dressed in their very best attire, except for the Vulcan who stood at the transporter console, observing the gathering from a safe distance.

“Lieutenant Voran,” Nazir nodded towards the ever-stoic Vulcan, “Lakota is yours until we return.”

Hands clasped together behind his perfectly straight back, the Vulcan gave a curt nod. “Of course Captain.” Whilst Vulcan’s weren’t known for their emotional outbursts, to his credit, the Vulcan tried his best to be as supportive as he could be. “I wish a peaceful and reflective ceremony for your friend,” he told, drawing a smile of appreciation from the Captain.

Over the next few minutes, the room began to empty, several people at a time beaming down to the surface, led by the Captain and her entourage.

Night was on the approach. Darkness crept over the third planet’s northernmost continent as the time of the Unbinding approached. A supremely solemn occasion, the Ungeat people believed the Unbinding to be the final step in their physical journey, separating the physical form from the spiritual, and when they would bigan a life eternal with their spirits. A journey that would begin with the burning of their physical form atop what could only be described as a funeral pyre. It was a belief that Noli could entirely understand, having learnt so much about the Ungeat from her brother. She had never anticipated witnessing the ceremony for herself. But here she was, surrounded by her Lakota brethren, standing on the unspoiled, secluded beach behind the Office of the Protectorate. A beach lit with several fire pits, flames licking at the darkening sky. Having power had its privileges, such as enjoying the beautiful scenery. And such a place was the least their comrade deserved for his long goodbye.

Next to the command crew from the Starfleet vessel, Protectorate Sh’int stood, in hushed conversation with the Captain, seemingly discussing something that made the Trill smile – something Noli hadn’t seen her do for hours. Perhaps they were sharing memories of the fallen? That was what she hoped anyway.

Her thoughts were disturbed by a tight squeeze on her left hand. She instantly turned to look at Prida, only to see several enormous Ungeat, almost double the size of the Protectorate, assembling a dozen or so feet away.

“They are the Aelorian,” a voice whispered in her ear, causing her to turn and briefly acknowledge the Captain’s words. “I was reading up on the ceremony this morning. The Ungeat believe that melodic or musical forms of blessing will enhance the spiritual and emotional journey the departed will take. The Aelorian will perform that benediction,” the Trill revealed, loud enough for the senior most officers on her staff to understand what would happen next.

“Excuse me,” the familiar voice of the Protectorate interrupted, drawing the eyes of everyone in the small party. “Commander Noli; it is customary for a departed’s loved ones to light the path for his spiritual journey by setting the pyre alight,” their host revealed solemnly, “In the absence of any of Or’uil’s biological family, I extend the offer to yourself.”

Her acceptance of his offer was almost instantaneous. To be able to say her goodbyes and start him on the final journey to his afterlife would be an honour. “I accept your invitation,” the Commander smiled in thanks to Sh’int.

A beautiful melody soon floated across the ocean waves, the sounds emanating from beautifully carved instruments played by four of the leading Aelorian who were dressed in resplendent crimson robes as they began the procession to the pyre. Behind them, dressed in a darker violet attire, four more of their kind marched, but their role was far more significant. They were the Favoured, Sh’int had explained, the people chosen to carry Or’uil’s body one final time. Or’uil had been wrapped in the same purple colour as those that carried him to his resting place upon their shoulders.

As the procession passed the Starfleet crew, Captain Nazir led them in a tribute of their own, the entire contingent snapping to the tightest of attention stances, eyes staring directly ahead and out to the ocean before them. This was the hardest part for his closest friends, struggling to fight back the tears as their loved one passed them by. As if coordinated, the Favoured began a low, solemn song, words no one in the Starfleet company could translate. Not that they even tried. Instead, they listened to the beautiful harmonies that melted into the melody of the instruments.

“Beautiful…” Prida whispered next to Noli, lifting her sleeve once her stance softened and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Indeed, it was a truly magnificent spectacle worthy of their friend.

When the procession reached the pyre, the music began to fade, the words stopped and a calming silence replaced them. Slowly, purposefully, the Favoured lifted the wrapped body and placed it atop the pile of wood. Taking three strides back from the structure, the Aelorian bowed their head in silent blessing. All but one, however, who walked to the nearest fire pit and stoked it with a nearby piece of wood, one which has one end wrapped in a highly flammable material. When he removed it from the fire, he turned slowly and stared directly at Noli.

Taking a deep breath, the Commander looked to her left, at Prida, and then to her right, at the Captain. Both gave her a gentle pat on the back, a sign of their support and assurance that she could do this. Tentatively, and with her hands by her side, the Commander made her way towards the Aelorian holding the fire stick. Reaching out with a trembling hand, the much taller figure placed the stick in her hand, and clasped his tightly around hers. It was almost as if he had somehow transferred her some of his calming energy, a wave of… of… something… flooding over her and enabling her to take a step closer to the wooden construction.

Once she was stood in position, everyone, everything, melted away. She was alone. And in that moment, she whispered her own blessing, one of the Bajora, and prayed for her brother to find peace and happiness on the next stage of his journey. Then, with her hand no longer trembling, she lifted the fire stick and touched the pyre. It was ablaze within seconds, flames roaring around the structure and claiming Or’uil’s body.

Standing back from the structure, the heat threatening to burn her face, the Bajoran smiled through tear-soaked cheeks. In her head, she could hear Or’uil’s voice, reminding her that they would never be apart, that very same promise he had made when they accepted him into their family. And for a fleeting moment, all the pain and suffering ebbed away.

“Your legacy will never be forgotten, Or’uil,” she gave her solemn vow, watching the flames begin to fade.

“Goodbye, my dear friend. Until we meet again.” 

6 – A Parting of Ways

Departing Un'giri
Stardate 24016.9

Across the ship, there were very few signs of life on this particular evening. Engineering had only a skeleton crew keeping things ticking over; sickbay was deserted; even the social capital of the ship, the messhall, was all but abandoned. It wasn’t that something sinister was taking place; her crew certainly hadn’t been abducted by the proverbial aliens. No, on this evening, people were taking the opportunity to stay in their quarters, reaching out to their loved ones to share their love for friends and family alike.

Much like the rest of the ship, the bridge was quiet this evening, too. Lieutenant Voran and a few relief officers manned the duty stations as required, but everyone else was either on the surface or going about their private business. Even in command of the ship, he couldn’t stop himself from performing his usual duties and was keeping a close eye on the communications transceiver, which was handling an abnormally high volume of traffic. In the chaos of the stream of transmissions, he’d missed one important one in particular; the one informing him that the personnel on the surface would start beaming up anytime now. In fact, when he did see it, the message was already five minutes old, so it was no surprise when the turbo lift arrived at the command center and the Captain entered the bridge, followed by the Chief Flight Operations Officer.

“I hope the ceremony was worthy of your comrade, Captain?” Voran questioned the Trill, standing behind his console’s chair, hands clasped together behind his back.

“It was quite beautiful Voran,” the Trill smiled as she took ownership of her command chair and unzipped her high collar a little. “Thank you for staying up here,” she added once comfortable.

“Of course,” the Vulcan answered with a nod, “since I did not know the Lieutenant as well as the rest of you, it was only logical I remain. Are we expecting the rest of the senior staff, or shall I summon relief officers?”

Adjusting her position, the Captain shook her head. “Nah, it can wait. I’ve let the rest of the staff have some time. We’ll return to normal staffing at the start of the alpha shift tomorrow unless anything occurs in the meantime,” she directed. “Anything to report?” she asked him, slipping her dress uniform jacket off and laying it on her lap.

“All is quiet,” Voran reported, “however the communications array is under extreme pressure this evening. A great many crewmembers had urgent transmissions to make.” He returned to the Operations station and took a seat. “We received a transmission from Starbase 38, confirming the bridge module replacement you had enquired about is set to proceed at our convenience.”

“That was quick,” Nazir nodded slowly as if to some sort of tune in her head. She’d only put the request in a few days ago and expected it to be some time before they could undergo the final refit that would bring the ship up to the same twenty-fifth-century standard as the rest of the Excelsior fleet.

“Henry,” she called to the Flight Operations officer, who dutifully turned in her direction. “I think it’s about time we left this place, what do you think?”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Flyboy nodded, happily spinning his chair back towards the front of the bridge. “Setting a course for the asteroid belt,” he told anyone who was listening.

Standing from her chair, the Captain tucked her jacket under her right arm and walked towards the ready room. As she passed behind Henry, she slowed and gave him a tap on the shoulder. “I’ll be in there for a while. You have the CONN,” she told, sharing a smile with the man before vanishing into her private office.

Once inside, she tossed the jacket onto the sofa and headed for the replicator on the far wall. “Hot chocolate, milky, dark chocolate variety,” she gave her beverage instruction to the wall-mounted device and waited for the steaming beverage to be produced. When the materialisation process was completed, she took the drink by the saucer it sat on and walked the few paces to the window.

There she stood for a considerable amount of time, in deep contemplation whilst sipping on her hot beverage. As undeniably beautiful as the Un’gar system was, Keziah would happily see the back of it if it meant the tragedies would stop. First the losses during the systems liberation, and now, the loss of their good friend. With Un’giri disappearing from view, she was sad to leave her fallen comrade behind, but it was time to put this place behind them. Hopefully for good.

[Some considerable time later…]

Yawning as he crossed the threshold into sickbay, Doctor Zinn noted that he was, for once, the first to arrive for his shift. Nikti was nowhere to be seen, Counsellor Zh’ito wasn’t in her office, and the nursing team were running as fashionably late as always. Not that he minded, not today anyway. He had a tonne of paperwork to catch up on following recent events, and he was happy to have the place in silence.

Having replicated himself a raktajino, and whistling away happily to himself, he had a quick scout around the bay and then entered his private office. Everything seemed normal for a while until he got comfortable and was about to log on to his terminal. He arched an eyebrow at the computer screen. It was already logged on, and active. A message flashed on the screen which immediately caused him concern. It was encrypted and for him alone.

Inching forward in his seat and looking over the top of the terminal, he noted that he was still alone, so opted to find out just what the hell was going on. “Computer,” he called out. He was answered by a beep from the system. “Decrypt and play this message. Authorisation Zinn, alpha six-three-seven.”

Working…” the computer retorted quickly. When it beeped a few seconds later, the message on the screen changed. It was still a text message, but it was the contents that concerned him even more. The words were ominous, perhaps even sinister.

All is not what it seems,” he whispered, reading the words out loud, all the while checking he was still alone. “Revisit Case File Omega-6-9. I remember your concerns about the circumstances of your colleague’s death. You were lied to.

He collapsed back into his chair, staring at the screen in shock. Whoever had sent him the transmission knew his case files, and knew about Or’uil’s death. But Zinn had been there when it happened. He saw Or’uil pass. He couldn’t have missed something, could he? And who could have lied to him? And about what?

But it was the final words on the screen, flashing in bold, crimson letters, that concerned him the most.

Trust no one until you’ve found what you are looking for.

“How the hell do I know what to look for?” he whispered, leaning towards the screen.

“Sorry, doctor?”

Startled, the Deltan slammed a hand onto the control pad in front of him and deactivated the screen before peering over and making eye contact with Lieutenant Keesa, who had finally arrived. “What?” he asked, confused.

“I thought you said something,” the Orion answered, a raised eyebrow showing her own confusion.

“No, no,” the Doctor grinned the best fake smile he could whilst jumping to his feet. “Let’s get started, shall we?” he advised, stepping around the desk and into the bay once again. But even as he set about his normal routine with his deputy, three words repeated over and over in his brain.

Trust no one.