For the first time since the Challenger left Earth almost a week earlier, the ship’s senior officers were together in one place. Several different conversations were happening at once around the observation lounge, but Commander Kailir wasn’t taking part in any of them; her eyes were focused on the latest SFI reports on the Dominion. These reports were thin on details, too thin for her liking. The Dominion had withdrawn behind their borders and sealed them.
Kailir looked up from her PADD when the door opened with its customary soft hiss and Captain Forrester strode in. “Good morning.” He began as he moved to the head of the table and took his seat. “I want to start by thanking Lieutenant Commander Jackson and his staff for their hard work in completing the Challenger’s refit on the fly. Job well done, Commander.”
Glancing down the table, she watched as Jackson smiled and gave a nod. Attention quickly returned to the captain. “With that work out of the way, we can focus on the matter at hand. We’ll be arriving at Darox III around lunchtime tomorrow, so I’ve asked Doctor Bentley to provide a mission briefing.”
The icy look Forrester gave Bentley came as no surprise to her, not anymore. Tejara knew they’d been seeing each other while the Challenger had been in dock, but something happened around the time they’d received their new orders. Both men had become distant, the anger and sadness that Bentley felt was etched on his face for all to see while Forrester did a better job at masking it, but it was still there for anyone who knew what to look for.
At the far end of the table, sitting separate from the Starfleet personnel, Bentley tapped a command on the small control panel built into the desktop. The lights in the room dimmed and a 3D holographic star chart showing the Eden Cluster appeared over the centre of the table. “Four years ago, the Dominion began withdrawing from worlds and sectors they’d occupied for centuries. One such world was Darox III.”
He input another command and the holographic display zoomed in until it displayed Darox III. “After the Dominion withdrew, the Daroxi who’d worked within their planetary administration formed an interim government and requested Federation assistance. That decision was not a universally popular one.”
“They felt their new government was replacing one occupying force with another.” Tejara offered. Following the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor in 2369, there were many in Bajoran society who opposed the provisional government’s decision to request the Federation take command of Terok Nor. It made sense to her that some Daroxi would feel similarly.
Bentley nodded. “Exactly. I was part of the team who helped them establish a system of government and a constitution. Once our work was complete, we left the Daroxi to their own affairs. We’ll be assessing their request for protectorate status.”
“If only it was going to be that easy.” Forrester added and all eyes in the room returned to him. “The Daroxi have also been approached by the Romulan Star Empire.” Tejara looked around at the look of confusion on everyone’s faces. She was certain it was mirrored on her own.
Tejara asked the obvious question. “The Romulan Star Empire is barely holding on as it is. Why are they trying to expand into the Gamma Quadrant?”
“It’s not clear that they are.” The captain said as he tapped a command and the holographic planet morphed into the face of a Romulan with some basic facts beside him. “Tarnek Oreth. In the years leading up to the supernova, he was in command of an old D-7 that had been pulled out of mothballs and upgraded to assist with the evacuation efforts. A year after Romulus was destroyed, he absconded with his ship and a small cadre of loyal officers.”
zh’Charia chimed in with the next question. “And he’s only reappeared now?
“No.” Forrester replied with a shake of his head. “He popped up occasionally in the Triangle. Somehow managed to acquire a B’rel-class bird of prey during that time. Both ships decloaked at the mouth of the Bajoran Wormhole about three months ago. Once on the other side, they promptly cloaked again and haven’t been heard from until they approached the Daroxi, offering them the protection of the Romulan Star Empire. The Romulans have disavowed all knowledge of Oreth’s actions.”
“Are we sure the Romulans are being honest with us?” Tejara asked, not convinced that the Romulan Star Empire wasn’t pulling the strings in the background.
She could see in the captain’s eyes that he wasn’t entirely convinced either. “Starfleet Intelligence has confirmed the Empire’s reports on Oreth’s movements over the past decade. I still have my doubts but for now we’ll work under the assumption that Commander Oreth is operating on his own.”
“Doctor Miller and Commanders Jackson and Zarbrun, I want you to be prepared to offer whatever assistance the Daroxi require. We may be able to build some goodwill by helping with medical, engineering, and logistical matters. Lieutenant zh’Charia, I want any teams that beam down to include security personnel. Commander Bennett, start scanning for cloaked ships.” The captain instructed. “Any questions?”
Tejara glanced around the gathered faces, but no-one spoke. She watched the captain nod. “Okay, then. Dismissed”
The senior officers stood and made their way out of the room. As Tejara passed through the door, following Commander Bennett out, she heard Doctor Bentley speak. “A moment of your time, Captain.” The XO was glad not to be hanging around for that conversation. She couldn’t imagine it was going to be pretty
Tom watched Kailir disappear through the door, and it closed behind her within seconds. He turned to face Matt, bracing himself for what was to come. He’d done his best to avoid Matt since the Challenger had left Earth. The irrational jealousy he’d felt during their meeting with the Commodore had mutated into anger and no matter how much he rolled it around in his mind, he couldn’t figure out what he was angry about.
The smart move would have been to talk to Matt, clear the air and maybe they could move on but instead he doubled down and dodged Matt every time he tried to have a conversation. He was about to open his mouth to make another excuse, but Matt beat him to it.
“What the hell have I done to deserve the cold shoulder?” He asked, sadness mixed with anger evident in his tone. “Are you so unhappy that Starfleet assigned me to your ship?”
Tom shook his head but didn’t reply to the question. “We can’t do this right now. Given everything that’s going on right now, we should park this conversation until this mission’s over.” He took a step forward but stopped once more at the next words that came out of Matt’s mouth.
“You’re such a coward.” The sadness in Matt’s tone was gone now, leaving just the anger.
Slowly, Tom turned back to face him. “What the hell did you just say?”
“I said you’re a coward.” Matt repeated. “What’s wrong, Tom? Don’t have the balls to break up with me? You just gonna keep pushing me away until I do it?”
Tom couldn’t suppress the hollow laugh that escaped his lips. “Break up? We aren’t in a relationship, Matt. We aren’t dating. We were just f-“
The sound of the bosun’s whistle drowned out Tom’s voice. “Captain to the bridge.” The voice of the XO echoed through the room.
Regret flared in Tom’s chest as he watched the hurt Matt felt played across his features. “I’m sorry.” Tom quickly said, desperate to take back what he’d said. “That was-“
“The truth.” Matt cut across him. “That was the truth.” He straightened and gave Tom a cold look that chilled the captain to the core. “At least I know where we stand. If you’ll excuse me, Captain.” Matt brushed past him and was gone.
Closing his eyes, Tom let his head tilt back as he let out a groan. “Shit.” There wasn’t time to dwell on what had just happened. He took a deep breath and pushed his frustration and the hatred he felt for himself in that moment down. Setting on foot in front of the other, Tom started towards the bridge
Within seconds he was approaching the science stations, where the XO was studying someone over Bennett’s shoulder. She glanced over at him, a concerned look on her face. “Everything okay?” She asked quietly.
“Fine.” Tom replied with a nod. “Report.”
He moved behind Bennett’s shoulder and glanced at the sensor display in front of her. “When I started scanning for cloaked ships, I discovered an odd echo on the sensors.” The three senior officers studied the sensor data in silence for a few moments.
“Is this a problem with the sensors or is there something out there?” The captain asked.
The answer came from behind them. “It’s not the sensors.” Tom, Kailir and Bennett turned to face the chief engineer. “I’ve already investigated that possibility. They’re operating normally.”
“That means there’s something out there.” Kailir supplied. “But if it’s a cloaked ship, how are we able to detect it?
It was a good question and one that Tom didn’t have an answer for. Commander Bennett, however, had a hunch. “Helm, what’s our current speed?”
“Warp Nine.” Mitchell replied promptly.
Tom glanced at his chief science officer. “What’re you thinking?”
“The maximum speed of a bird of prey is warp eight.” She replied. “In order to keep up with us, they would have to sacrifice power to other systems. That could cause them to show up as this kind of sensor echo.”
A grin slowly grew on Tom’s lips. “He’s keeping an eye on us.” He turned to zh’Charia. “Lieutenant, take us to yellow alert. I doubt they’d be stupid enough to fire on us, but you never know.” He took a seat in the command chair. “Commander Bennett, keep an eye on them. If they so much as twitch, I want to know.”