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Part of Bravo Fleet Command: Echoes of the Tkon

Revelations

Balax System, Coreward Federation Border
September 2399

Several hundred hours of zero-g maintenance under her belt didn’t stop Kimathi’s stomach from lurching when her boots secured a thudding lock on the hull. In one heartbeat, the momentum from her EV suit’s thrusters became the momentum of the gently spinning survey platform, and she gave herself a second heartbeat to steady herself and her guts.

She still didn’t think of work yet. Breath rattling in her helmet, her gaze swept across the platform’s hull, then to the shuttle ten metres above, then up to the sprawling stars beyond. Bright twinkles and inky blackness were broken up by the dull roll of the planetoid evocatively named Balax-Gamma-2, the distant shine of the star of Balax itself, and the larger, brighter gleam of the Odysseus, waiting overhead like a watchful predator.

Several hundred hours of zero-g maintenance under her belt didn’t stop Kimathi from marvelling at the cosmos every time she was at its mercy. Only then did she think of work.

Confident bounds of a seasoned engineer took her across the platform’s hull towards the base of the sensor array, and the main control panel that had defied their efforts at remote connection. ‘Odysseus, Kimathi.’ Her voice echoed around her as she spoke through the open com-link. ‘I’m on the platform, heading over to take a look.’

A beat, then Commander Templeton’s light voice filled her helmet. ‘We got you, Kimathi. All looks good from here. Making the most of a chance to stretch your legs?

Kimathi gave a low, rueful chuckle. Months of patrolling the coreward border, chasing off Kzinti raiders more than fighting them, and resupplying only at ancient, last-generation outposts had left plenty of the crew struggling with cabin fever. But she didn’t think it fair to remind the XO that she, as Chief Engineer, relished the chance to spend so much time in her engine room she might fuse with the ship itself.

‘Nothing like a walkabout on a jury-rigged security array to fix its predictably broken systems for putting a spring in your step,’ she said instead, because while she didn’t mind working in silence, she knew Templeton’s jokes would just get worse if she didn’t even try to banter.

You’re so cynical, Kimathi. Who could have predicted a half-assed job turning an array designed to collect sensor data on the black cluster into an early warning system for Kzinti raids might go wrong?

‘It shouldn’t have gone so wrong we can’t even link up.’ Kimathi drifted to a halt before the towering sensor array of the platform. Fewer lights glinted on the control panel than should have been there to welcome her. ‘Looks like scans were right, there’s been damage here. Reckon I’ll have to reroute an ODN relay.’

Understood. Let us know if you need anything beaming over.’

She’d brought her toolkit and was already cracking open a panel behind the console. ‘I can bypass a busted component. That’ll do until we can run a full diagnostic. It’s pretty much what I expected; components couldn’t take the change from processing very simple data streams to a much more complex set of sensor readings.’ Kimathi talked as she worked, slowed down only by the thick gloves of her EV suit, necessitating more use of slightly clumsy tools than if she’d been doing maintenance back in her engine room on the Odysseus.

This still doesn’t explain why we can’t even link up, though?

‘One mystery at a time, Odysseus.’ A careful manipulation of the ODN recoupler was all it took to finish the job and restore the data stream. More work than this was needed to stop another relay burning out, but it would get the platform’s systems talking to her again.

Kimathi pushed herself back upright. A lesser engineer might have held their breath as they tapped the control panel, but Kimathi felt no relief or surprise that the bright lights of the display sprang to life, merely the cool satisfaction of a simple task completed. ‘And we’re in business.’

But the restored display did not show what she expected. No data feed, no diagnostic display, not even a request for command codes if the system had interpreted her manual work as potential tampering. She had not, in fact, ever seen this display on a screen before.

Odysseus? I’m not sure what I’m looking at.’

A beat before Templeton replied, audibly trying to not be sarcastic. ‘You’re going to have to help us out here, Lieutenant.

She tapped a command to no avail. Tried to input her authorisation codes with no response. Reached, at last, for the controls on her EV suit. ‘Transmitting my visual feed. This mean anything to you?’ It took the press of a button to share with the bridge crew of the Odysseus, hoping for insight and answers.

Because Lieutenant Kimathi had never before seen a Starfleet lockout screen of a giant, blue omega symbol.

 


 

‘Our latest reports suggest no fewer than twenty-nine separate detections of Omega molecules across all four quadrants,’ Admiral Beckett said sombrely. ‘That includes shared intelligence from what we can glean from allies, but there are obviously multiple sectors where we lack friendly eyes, especially in the Gamma Quadrant.’

In truth, Beckett wasn’t sure why he was the only one to be summoned to Admiral Ramar’s office. This was not their first meeting on the matter; one lone detection had become more, and threatened to create a crisis in under a week. 4th Fleet Command were all rated to be briefed on the developing Omega situation, and separate meetings felt like a waste of time.

But he wasn’t going to tell Admiral Ramar that.

‘I’m aware the crisis is now galaxy-spanning. Omega molecules springing up seemingly at random, everywhere,’ Ramar said, and Beckett’s mouth snapped shut at once. He knew that tone. He was not here to brief the fleet admiral; today, information was coming from the top-down. ‘I talked to Admiral Clancy two hours ago. The Omega Directive is in effect across Starfleet, and all resources are being directed to confront this. Starfleet has to destroy Omega wherever it’s found, and figure out why this is happening.’

If Ramar had spoken to Clancy two hours ago, then this meeting with Beckett was not the first one since, he realised. Matters had moved without him noticing. Beckett hated that. ‘I assume that because we have the widest-spread infrastructure, the 4th Fleet will be spearheading the response.’ Any existing unit would take weeks to get ships everywhere. Any ad hoc task force would be scrambling to set up cohesive lines of communication. And even if it was pointing out the obvious, Beckett had to say something so he felt he was only one step behind, not ten.

Of course, Ramar gave a quick shrug at the self-evident observation. ‘That’s right,’ he said indifferently. ‘I’ve met with Admirals Wolf and Seagraves. Starfleet has specialists to respond to Omega, but obviously they can’t deal with dozens of simultaneous incidents. Some 4th Fleet ships have had first-hand encounters with Omega themselves; others are being sent to nearby reported incidents.’

‘We have the best rapid-response organisation in Starfleet.’

‘Ships which can safely destroy the particles with a resonance chamber or, in smaller outbreaks, modified torpedoes will do that. Others will secure the area until a team with the necessary capabilities can arrive,’ Ramar pressed on, ignoring Beckett’s unnecessary observation. ‘That will include evacuating inhabited areas, so nobody ends up stranded in a light-years-spanning region of destroyed subspace if the molecules destabilise. Some already have.’

At last, the frustration oozing through Beckett’s chest coalesced. These orders and arrangements would, by now, already be reaching captains across the fleet. ‘I understand the measures needed to respond. I drafted several proposals in the last three days. So why is this just a meeting with the two of us, sir?’ He didn’t ask why he hadn’t been in the meeting with Wolf and Seagraves. If there was something Beckett hated more than being on the back foot, it was letting on how much that annoyed him.

The twitch at Ramar’s lips suggested he hadn’t hidden it very well. ‘The Omega Directive hasn’t changed. Only ship commanders and above can be briefed on Omega. But these are normally isolated incidents where a ship only has to control a situation until a specialist team arrives. Today, we’re ordering ship commanders to set their crews impossibly delicate and important tasks without understanding why. Or to forcibly evacuate civilians without any explanation. I need you, Alexander, to make sure classified information stays classified.’

Beckett clicked his tongue as understanding sank in. ‘You don’t want me to send each captain a lovely briefing package offering them our support and sympathy as they keep their crew in the dark and ask the impossible of them, do you.’ For once he had Ramar hesitating, and he pressed on before the fleet admiral could formulate a response, delighting in having the upper hand for even a moment. ‘You want me to hang the Sword of Damocles overhead, and remind them that while it might be tempting to trust their crew, what makes their jobs easier today could risk one of Starfleet’s most critical secrets tomorrow.’

You want me to be the bad guy.

Ramar’s unsympathetic half-smile came back. ‘I thought it’d be best coming from the Director of Intelligence.’

‘It’s what they expect of me.’ After all, Alexander Beckett had made a career of unpopular yet – in his eyes – necessary decisions. Reminding the captains of the 4th Fleet that he expected them to do their unpopular, necessary, difficult duty, even if they resented him for it, was nothing worse than he’d done before.

Hell, he might even enjoy it.

‘But more than that,’ Ramar pressed on, as if speed might wash his hands of the orders given, ‘captains will be giving you direct reports of all their findings on the Omega particles. You’ll be liaising with Starfleet Science as they try to figure out why this is happening.’

It was just like Ramar, Beckett thought bitterly, to bury the lede. Wolf and Seagraves could fuss about what ship to assign to clearing three star systems of traffic. As always, he was the thumping heart of the information network that would uncover and dispense solutions.

‘You’re not concerned,’ Beckett drawled, ‘that by reminding captains of the consequences of oversharing with their crew, they might be inclined to cut corners in their reports to me?’

‘I expect you can remind them of the consequences of that, too.’

Ramar trusted his captains, Beckett knew. But they had both been starship commanders in the past, and they knew the Omega Directive demanded a captain go against their most fundamental principles of command for what was, on the surface, another scientific phenomenon, however terrifying. If a crewmember made a single mistake, it could devastate a whole region of space – dooming, in the wrong place, potentially millions of people reliant on warp travel to thrive and survive. With the stakes that high, it was every captain’s instinct to buoy up their crew, trust them, and inspire trust in return.

Beckett would deny them that trust. Omega denied them that trust.

 


 

Kimathi slouched into the turbolift, bleary-eyed after another long night, and didn’t manage much more beyond a tired grunt in greeting to the equally weary figure of Commander Templeton inside.

‘Yeah,’ Templeton said, rubbing his eyes. ‘That.’

‘You went off-shift at 2300 last night,’ she pointed out with uncontained bitterness. ‘I was still in Engineering another two hours working on those gravimetric torpedo modifications.’ She suppressed a yawn. ‘We dropped off the latest warning beacon at about 0030.’

That had been the last week of Odysseus’s operations: racing across a seemingly-arbitrary stretch of Federation border, ordering any and all ships to depart the area, and liberally littering the region with buoys to broadcast those instructions. A Diligent-class’s speed topped out at warp 9.2, but Commander Aquila had asked Kimathi to coax out every micron of further haste. It was an ask Kimathi knew well, where captains casually requested favours from their engineers as if a decimal point was just a question of running the engine a little hotter, and not a full-time occupation for her department to make sure they didn’t rupture an EPS conduit and crash out of warp.

Or all die.

Templeton scrubbed his face with a nod. ‘Then it’s over to Obtar and Treferon. That’ll be a lot of angry traders.’

‘We’re asking them to add another three weeks to almost every journey, and we’re not telling them why.’ Kimathi let her own ignorance hang between them, by now exhausted and resentful. But she was too tired to keep it implied. ‘Just like my team’s on double shifts so we can sprint across the sector, and I need to make arbitrary modifications to torpedoes for no apparent reason?’

He stiffened at that. Normally Templeton was the velvet glove around Aquila’s iron fist, but everything had been fraying at the edges lately. ‘The reason is because the captain said so.’

Kimathi rolled her eyes. ‘Computer, halt turbolift.’ She’d rounded on him before he could rally, Templeton too exhausted to cut her off, Kimathi too exhausted to keep her cool. ‘That’s circular logic. It might be orders, but this is Starfleet, Rob, where we treat adults like adults who can make the right decisions with the right information and don’t need strong-arming like schoolchildren. Captain’s never asked us to do hard things for no reason before.’

Templeton gave a frustrated sigh. ‘So why’re you assuming there’s no reason now?’

‘I’m pushing my guys to breaking point, and I can’t motivate them by reminding them what’s at stake, what it’s all for, what it’s worth, because I don’t know! Nobody knows!’ She jabbed an irritated finger at him. ‘I get it, Rob. Classified. Need-to-know. But Engineering is taking this job and this secrecy in the neck.’ He tried to look away, but she shifted her weight to lock eyes. ‘It’s just you and me in here, Rob. We’ve known each other for years. I’m not about to go yapping to the ship, but grown-ass adult to grown-ass adult: what’s going on?’

She’d never known Templeton to fall back on protocol, and even now he slouched, angry in his exhaustion, head rolling back in irritation. ‘I get it, you’re an engineer. You’re used to being given an open-ended job and a lot of freedom to get it done. That’s not how it can go this time. We do the job.’

‘I’m used to being trusted with the information so I can bring all my expertise to a task with eyes open. The Odysseus isn’t designed to run this hot, the Odysseus isn’t designed to reconfigure this much of its munitions in a time frame this narrow. I’m used to being trusted to set a goal so I can figure out the most efficient way forward – and the captain isn’t an engineer, so, yeah, maybe I do know a little better than her about this. I would literally do my job better if I had even a shred of big picture information.’ Her hand hammered into her palm with every point, and she saw each drive home, each make Templeton grimace.

But he shook his head. ‘Sometimes things are above your grade, Lieutenant.’

That he’d dropped back to formality when she’d appealed to him personally made her halt in her tracks. It was only by stopping, letting the frustration flow past and out of her, that her exhausted brain could fire up anew to make essential connections, and she stared at him, slack-jawed. ‘You don’t know, either?’

He didn’t reply to that, just straightened and turned to the door. ‘Computer, resume turbolift.’

The whir as they rocketed across decks to the bridge felt louder as it filled the silence, and though Kimathi settled, adjusting her own uniform and simmering down, she felt she needed to say something to all of this.

In the end, all she could manage was a tired, bitter mutter of, ‘Hell,’ before the turbolift slowed and the doors opened.

It was 0600 on the bridge of the Odysseus, and Commander Aquila was already arguing with someone over the viewscreen.

‘I understand your concerns, Captain.’ Sat in the elevated command chair, even though she couldn’t have had much sleep, Aquila was cool, poised, and collected as she spoke to the red-faced spacer on the other end. ‘But my orders come from Starfleet Command. Colonial Affairs will be able to support your operations and compensate you for the inconvenience. You’ll have to take it up with them.’

‘No, you don’t understand, Odysseus.’ A frustrated Tellarite had his face so close to his comm system that Kimathi couldn’t see much of his ship beyond his head. ‘I’ve got critical parts for the construction of the Ephemas mining platform here. You force me to go around, that delays our arrival by twenty days. That’s a twenty day delay on the next phase of construction, which means work teams have to wait around, and they have other projects to get to. It’s not just a delivery.’

They’d come to the bridge for a quick morning briefing, but now Kimathi followed Templeton as he took his post at Operations. Stood on the far side of the console, she read the sensor display upside-down: an Antares-class freighter on approach to the region Commander Aquila had days ago designated the No-Go area.

Evidently it would take more than some beacons to ensure Starfleet instructions were obeyed. After her indignant rant at Templeton about the burdens of being an engineer, Kimathi felt a quick flash of relief that she was not a command officer.

‘This matter is not for negotiation, Captain,’ Aquila was saying calmly. ‘You and your ship are to follow the new flight route. As I said, take it up with Colonial Affairs.’ The Tellarite harrumphed and closed the com-link, and with a gentle sigh, Aquila turned in her seat towards the newcomers. ‘Good morning, Commander, Lieutenant. That went well, I thought?’ she said wryly.

‘Good morning, Captain. Nice to see we’re continuing Starfleet’s mission of improving the lives of everyone we reach out to,’ Templeton drawled, like he’d not just had a blazing row in the turbolift.

Aquila’s smile remained a little fixed. Normally, she might have bantered more with her first officer, but Kimathi could see the iron-tight grip on her poise. The two women locked eyes. ‘Lieutenant, I see you’ve upgraded another pair of torpedoes.’

Kimathi swallowed protests. ‘That’s correct. If you can brief me further on the needed range of effect, I might be able to increase the yield.’ She might have challenged Templeton, but he was a friend and that had been in private. She did not dare have so much as a sardonic tone for Aquila on her own bridge.

‘Let me get back to you on that,’ Aquila said after a moment’s thought. ‘All being well, we’ll be relieved within forty-eight hours and won’t need them.’

Won’t need them for what? Kimathi wanted to yell, but before she had to smother fresh indignation, an alert went off at the tactical console.

‘Captain! The freighter’s powered up engines and they’re heading for the restricted zone,’ Lieutenant Tegan called out.

Aquila gave a low noise of frustration, head tilting towards Templeton. ‘Hail them, Rob.’

‘No response, Boss.’

‘Powering up the tractor beam,’ said Tegan, anticipating their captain’s next move.

Kimathi watched as Aquila turned to the front of the bridge, lips pursed, shoulders tense. ‘I’m not worried they’ll escape us,’ she said after a heartbeat. ‘I’m worried they’ll ignore us. Send a phaser blast across their bow.’

A stunned silence met the order, Kimathi and Templeton openly staring at each other. At length, Tegan gathered their wits. ‘Captain?’

Aquila looked back at her tactical officer. Normally, hesitation like that would have earned a sharp rebuke, a brusque reminder to act when instructed. Instead, her voice was low and steady – reassuring, even. ‘Fire a warning shot, Lieutenant.’

That was what Kimathi would remember most: Aquila plainly knew this was madness, and was asking them to do it anyway. What she didn’t know was whether this was any kind of comfort.

It was enough to jerk Tegan into action, though, the tactical officer’s hands racing over their controls. ‘Warning shot fired. They’re slowing down.’

Now they want to talk,’ Templeton drawled.

Aquila gave a gentle huff. ‘On-screen,’ she said, but when the Tellarite freighter captain’s face appeared, even more indignant, she did not give him the chance to speak first. Now her voice was ice-cold. ‘There won’t be another warning, Captain. Follow your flight route.’

The Tellarite’s jaw flapped for a moment. ‘You just opened fire on a civilian ship!’

Aquila didn’t move. ‘Not yet.’

Kimathi swallowed the knot of tension in her throat, though what felt like long moments could have only been a frantic, thudding heartbeat before the Tellarite glanced off-screen, then back to Aquila. ‘Talk to Colonial Affairs, you said,’ he grunted.

‘I’d recommend it. Odysseus out.’

The viewscreen went dead, and Aquila still didn’t move for several long seconds. Tegan’s eventual report that the freighter had come about to follow the alternate flight route was rather more timid than Kimathi had come to expect of the Odysseus’s tactical officer, who had faced down pirates with impunity.

At last, Aquila scratched her forehead, then got to her feet. ‘Lieutenant Tegan, you have the bridge. Commander Templeton, Lieutenant Kimathi, let’s have that morning briefing.’

As she swept past them towards her ready room, Templeton got to his feet and leaned down towards Kimathi. ‘So,’ he said in a hushed voice. ‘Are you going to yell at her about how you’re being kept in the dark?’

Lieutenant Kimathi did not dignify the first officer’s comment with so much as a look as she obeyed her captain’s instructions, and followed her into the ready room.

 


 

Legate Arkhan had been denied a meeting in person, which meant he was denied his usual habit of wielding his superior height and build in a negotiation. The huffing and squaring of shoulders of a holographic projection above Admiral Seagraves’s desk rather diminished the effect, but it had the advantage of making him less tiresome.

‘I represent the interests of the millions of Cardassian citizens residing in Federation border territory, Admiral,’ Arkhan said in the low, gravelly voice he clearly thought made him sound more imposing. ‘Residents whose freedom of movement has been constrained for no reason.’

Seagraves didn’t disguise her impatient tap on the desk. ‘If residents stick to the flight routes, they can still return to Union territory. Nobody’s being trapped in the Federation.’

‘These unnecessary restrictions are still -’

‘For safety purposes.’ In case, of course, any pockets of Omega manifesting in the former Demilitarized Zone destabilised and trapped travellers in a pocket of space incapable of sustaining a warp field. ‘All in accordance with Federation law, and I don’t need to explain them to you, Legate. What if we skip to the argument you really want to have: the additional Starfleet ships deployed on the border?’

Arkhan’s image hesitated for a moment, then he gave a bark of laughter. ‘How unexpectedly efficient for Starfleet. But, yes. Central Command would appreciate the courtesy of an explanation.’

He didn’t approve of her brusqueness, not really. Pretending he did gave him a chance to get off the back foot. ‘Training exercises,’ Seagraves said, indifferent at how bald-faced a lie this was.

‘On the Cardassian border? This large?’

‘Annual mass deployment drills, based on Dominion War deployments. As you are fully aware, our starships do not normally operate in large groups, so these exercises are necessary,’ Most of this was true; historical events came with mishaps built-in to drill captains and crews on unit cohesion. But there was, of course, no reason that reenacting Dominion War deployments necessitated Dominion War battle sites.

Arkhan scowled. ‘In the middle of a “subspace storm” that has you redirecting civilian traffic?’

Seagraves shrugged. ‘The drill has been scheduled for months. The phenomenon adds a fresh challenge.’

‘I don’t -’

‘You can assure Command that the drill will not cross into Union territory or interfere with any Union affairs. So long as your ships and citizens abide by the travel restrictions, of course.’ And as long as Omega molecules were not found within Federation sensor range in Cardassian space, but that would be an entirely different problem.

There was a pause as Arkhan hesitated, then he leaned forward and his tone became more conciliatory. ‘Our sensors have found little indication of this apparent storm. But perhaps we can lend assistance.’

That was interesting. Starfleet Intelligence was unsure how much the Cardassian Union knew about Omega, or how they restricted information on it. That Arkhan questioned the existence of the Federation’s cover story even as he offered help suggested he, at least, didn’t know what was going on.

‘Without your sensors detecting it, there’s little you can do,’ she said instead. ‘But if your science teams have a breakthrough and find any signs of it stretching into Cardassian territory, the Federation will of course help liaise for any needed safety restrictions.’

As expected, Arkhan looked like he thought this was the Federation trying to interfere across the border, his lip curling. ‘The Union will deal with the Union’s affairs within our own borders. You may deal with your own.’

‘So glad to hear the Union recognises the right of Starfleet to conduct a drill in its own territory, Legate.’

‘I don’t -’

‘I think that concludes our business for today. Seagraves out.’

It was rather satisfying to watch Arkhan blink out of existence before her, his face swapping for the tactical map of the starships at or on course for the Federation-Cardassian border. More pockets of Omega had been detected in the sector than she cared for, necessitating her personal supervision. A team of Omega specialists had joined her aboard the USS Susan B. Anthony, but civilians had to be kept clear of danger and she and her ship could still not be everywhere at once.

It was not unreasonable for the Cardassians to bristle at one of the largest Starfleet deployments on their front door since the end of the post-war rebuilding. But until or unless they opened lines of communication on Omega, their suspicion was an obstacle the galaxy very possibly didn’t have time for. She just hoped she didn’t end up having a reason to send her ships over the border to fulfill the Directive, as neither the Federation nor the Cardassians needed another war.

 


 

‘Three-forty-eight… three-forty-nine…’

‘Looking good…’

Observation Post Tango-157 was barely big enough for three junior science officers and the egos they’d stuffed in their luggage. Orbiting Abnia VI at a height of five hundred and eight kilometres, she was a decades-old hunk of metal and sensors whose greatest advancement in personal comfort was the second bathroom off the Ops centre they’d installed six years ago.

Abnia VI was a beautiful world, her shimmering golden plains and sapphire seas their morning skies through the Ops canopy windows above. But she had lost some of her appeal after thirty-four days of the latest project, and today the attentions of Ensigns Stevens and Brigoon remained within the mundane metal bulkheads of OPT-157.

‘Three-fifty!’

‘What are you two losers doing?’

Stevens and Brigoon hadn’t noticed Lieutenant Mitarell in the open Ops hatchway, her hands on her hips as she stared at them. Once, Mitarell had seemed like a grizzled explorer, a veteran of isolated, long-term scientific observation projects like OPT-157. By now, boredom had rendered the ranking officer mundane.

‘Stevens is on-course to break his keepie-uppie record,’ Brigoon explained, not looking away from Stevens as he kneed the small ball up to next take it on his head.

‘Yup,’ said Stevens, a little breathless. ‘Four-oh-seven is the goal. Three-fifty-six…’

Mitarell took her steaming mug of rather acrid-tasting coffee to the main sensor control bank in the middle of Ops. She did not bother to give Stevens or his ball much space, earning a more resentful glare from Brigoon than the offence, she felt, particularly warranted. ‘Good to see you both paying close attention to the field’s energy readings.’

‘It was eleven point zero zero five two yesterday,’ pointed out Brigoon. ‘It’ll be eleven point zero zero five two today, and eleven point zero zero five two tomorrow.’

‘And we’re still waiting,’ said Stevens, still kicking, ‘on the full set of readings after the upgrades to the spectrometric sensors.’

He, at least, sounded a bit more excited by this. But then, that was the whole reason three officers were on OPT-157 for these few months, instead of a lower-rated and smaller team. ‘Better try to break the record before you get busy, then,’ Mitarell said, despite herself. ‘But that’s no excuse for you to ignore your station, Brigoon.’

With the sigh of a petulant young officer who’d once expected to explore the stars at high warp instead of sit hundreds of kilometres above a backwater, Brigoon slumped towards his post. ‘Eleven point zero zero five -’

‘Starfleet has been here fifty years, Ensign,’ Mitarell interrupted. ‘And yes, Abnia has been slow to surrender her secrets. But every advance in sensor technology we’ve made has given us new insights into how the Tkon moved the whole star system and how the energy field keeps the planet safe. Just because progress is incremental doesn’t mean it’s beneath you.’

Brigoon took his seat with a surly air. ‘Sorry for not being excited by every day being the same as the one before,’ he said, sounding about as unapologetic as she’d expected. He tapped his console. ‘Look. Eleven point zero zero five two…’ But his voice trailed off, brow furrowing.

Mitarell looked up from her coffee. ‘Ensign?’

He cleared his throat. ‘Eleven point zero zero five two… zero zero one.’

There was a thud as Stevens’s ball bounced off the deck, and despite herself, Mitarell felt her heart pinch at his distraction. ‘Okay,’ she said, and winced. ‘It did that last year. Dropped down a micron for about a week. Then back up. No idea why.’

Brigoon pursed his lips. ‘You’re telling me this thing’s fluctuated for the first time since I got here and it’s not a big deal?

‘I’m saying you should log it and keep monitoring it. And double-check when it changed while you and Stevens were playing ball.’ She sucked her teeth. ‘But don’t get excited. Like I said. Progress is incremental.’

Brigoon sighed as he subsided, tapping his controls to bring up the full reading and his observation records. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I hear you, Lieutenant. Guess it was too much to hope that something would change on the obs site for a colony world of an empire about three hundred thousand years dead.’

Guilty for admonishing Brigoon in one breath and discouraging him in the next, Mitarell looked up at the canopy and the gentle spin of Abnia VI’s golds and blues above. She’d been here too long to jump at shadows, to get excited by minute changes. Developments would be monitored, recorded with excruciating detail, and someone very smart somewhere far, far away would make the next great leap in the Federation’s understanding of the Tkon Empire based only a fraction on the findings from Observation Post Tango-157. Still, as she raised her mug for a sip, she frowned despite herself.

Damn, the coffee here was terrible.