Paul stood with about a dozen other starship captains in the briefing room of Commodore Uzoma Ekwueme, commander of the Fourth Fleet’s expeditionary group. A holographic representation of the Paulson Nebula, including several adjacent sectors, was projected above the expansive table at the center of the room. Most of the map was covered in a yellow haze.
“The ion storm, or rather this Century Storm, has hampered communications and travel between planets within the nebula and has made it near impossible for ships outside the nebula to get inside.” Ekwueme’s baritone voice filled the room.
“Except for us,” one of the captains remarked.
“The areas around these subspace rifts,” he pointed to a few of the rifts blinking on the map, “have become highly agitated. If the storm itself is a navigation hazard, consider the areas around the rifts to be superhazards.”
Paul looked around the briefing room. He knew most of the other ship captains, either personally or by reputation. It wasn’t difficult for Paul to see why these specific officers had been summoned. Each one commanded ships that were small, swift, and agile.
“You’ve each been assigned to rendezvous with three civilian vessels,” the commodore said. “There’s very little time, so if your assessment is that it’s better to rescue the passengers and crew on each ship and abandon it in place for recovery later, then you have the autonomy to exercise that authority.”
“What if any of the skippers protests, sir?” asked one of the captains. “They may not be keen to respond to Starfleet authority.”
Ekwueme did not hesitate in his response. “Tell them your authority comes directly from the Federation Navigator General.” Seeing so many eyebrows raise at that remark, the commodore added, “Yes, it’s that serious.”
Serious, indeed, Paul mused. The Navigator General was the Federation’s highest civilian authority over commercial, personnel and other non-Starfleet interstellar travel, and, not wanting to excessively hinder commerce, she rarely wielded a heavy hand over matters of astrometeorology.
The murmuring quickly subsided and the commodore continued.
“As we speak, your ships are being fitted for the storm: enhanced graviton output for the shields, enhanced ablative armor. Your chief engineers are being sent procedures for other shipfitting items that will have to be completed en route.”
Ekwueme paused and allowed his gaze to fall on every face in his office.
“Given the size of your ships, and the need for space to house evacuees, you’ll need to reduce your crew complements down to one third.”
Paul winced. One third. That was one full shift, officers included, and Avenger didn’t have that many officers when she was fully staffed.
Once again, Ekwueme let the murmurs die down before continuing.
“In the outer office, Chief Harris will have your assignments, including approximate locations and last known weather reports in those areas.” He looked around at the assembled captains. “Good hunting. You’re dismissed.”
As the starship captains formed a loose queue to get out of the commodore’s briefing room, Ekwueme beckoned toward Gordon.
“Commander Gordon, would you stick around? I need to talk about some refit issues that came up.”
Gordon nodded and backed away from the queue. When the last of the officers had filed out and the doors snapped shut, the commodore spoke again.
“There aren’t any refit issues, Paul.”
Gordon chuckled. “I didn’t think so, sir.”
“Avenger will only be evacuating one ship,” Ekwueme said.
Paul was astonished, even a little angry.
“Sir, my crew are more than capable—”
“It’s a special ship.” Ekwueme picked up a PADD from the table, above which the hologram of the Paulson Nebula still hung. He handed the device to Gordon.
Paul read the screen: COMMAND BRIEFING. FEDERATION DIPLOMATIC CORPS. CLASSIFIED.
“You have my attention, commodore.”
Ekwueme took a seat and beckoned toward a chair across the conference table. When Paul was seated, the commodore spoke again.
“Nivax IV is a Federation protectorate, but the planet’s government is applying for full admission.” As he spoke, the hologram shifted, zooming in on a binary star system that was smack in a stretch of open space adjacent to an outer cloud layer of the nebula. “The Nivaxians’ most sophisticated FTL ships travel at a maximum speed of warp three. One of those ships left Nivax two weeks ago carrying the planet’s ambassador and staff, and that journey was interrupted when the Century Storm flared up.” Ekweume tapped a control pad in front of him. “The ship is here.” Once again the map shifted to cube of open space. “There’s an intense front headed their way in thirty-six hours. At their maximum speed, they’ll never outrun or evade it, even if they reverse course.”
Paul narrowed his eyes as he did the math. “Twelve more hours of shipfitting here in the yard. If we leave after that, at maximum warp, Avenger could rendezvous with them in twenty-one.”
“Yes, but the storm isn’t the greatest concern. What they lack in warp speed, they make up for in protective technology. They’d be fine if they sheltered in place.”
“I’m guessing there’s a greater urgency.”
“Affirmative,” the commodore answered. “There’s a faction on Nivax opposed to Federation membership. They have ships. They aren’t as fast as the consular ship, but they are armed. Well armed. Intelligence reports indicate that the separatists’ weapons technology is not native to Nivax.”
Paul furrowed his brow. It wasn’t unheard of for outside forces to attempt to subvert a planet’s admission into the Federation, and it was usually easy to figure out. Given the current state of the galaxy, with a fractured Romulan society, it could be anyone.
“We have very few clues as to who might be supplying them,” Ekwueme said, seemingly anticipating Paul’s question. “That’s something we’re hoping you might discover…if you’re so unfortunate as to encounter them.”
“Do we know they’re even following the ambassador’s ship?”
“Uncertain,” the commodore said. “But the ambassador said the storm presents them a good opportunity for ambush. The Nivaxians are fearful of that.”
“Wait.” Paul held up his hand as if to slow the conversation. “We have direct communications contact with the consular ship?”
Ekwueme sighed and looked down at the tabletop and then back up at Paul. “Not exactly.”
“How are we getting this information?”
“It was relayed by the ambassador’s ship to a trading ship to a passenger liner, to a freighter that docked at Devron this morning for storm-related repairs.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Paul said, shaking his head. “It’s like the telephone game.”
“I’m sorry?” the commodore replied, confused.
“Nothing, sir.” Paul said. “Desperate times, I suppose.”
“Indeed.” The commodore rose from his chair, an indication that their meeting was over. “Avenger gets underway in twelve hours. Dismissed, commander.”
“Aye, sir.” Paul came to attention and turned on his heel, leaving the briefing room.
In the reception area, his first officer, Lieutenant Commander Ino, rose from a sofa upon seeing her captain.
“Loitering, Number One?” Gordon asked.
“It only looks that way, sir. Besides, all the other loitering execs had left with their captains.”
Paul cocked his head toward a corridor leading away and made his way into it. Ino fell into step beside him.
“The good news, exec, is that two thirds of the crew will get to remain on the starbase.”
“Shore leave?” she asked.
“Probably not. Tending to evacuees is more likely.”
Ino’s antennae rose with her eyebrows upon hearing Gordon’s statement.
“I’ll explain on the way back to Avenger. In the meantime, I need you to create a duty roster based on one third of the ship’s complement. I need the best officers and crew. Start with engineering. They’ll need to get up to speed with the yard engineers on the refits, and there are some procedures they’ll need to complete en route to our destination.” Paul took a deep breath. He paused in the middle of the corridor, and Ino stopped next to him. “We depart in twelve hours. Make sure everyone gets two hours of leave on the station.”
The two officers continued their walk through the corridors of Devron Fleet Yards station toward the small craft docking area.