The bridge of Arcturus was fully-crewed and humming with activity as the ship began its initial sensor sweeps of the motley collection of Romulan vessels gathered on the border. The supplementary stations on the periphery of the bridge had each been tasked to analyze and track a single one of the seven ships; there was no sense leaving anything to chance through inattention. Mere moments after Arcturus resolved back into sublight speeds on their sensors, the communication board lit up with more hails than there were ships.
“Helm answering all stop,” Armstrong reported from the helm.
“Sir, we’re being inundated with requests for assistance. Fortunately, I speak the language,” Lieutenant Galan reported, earning a laugh from the first officer. “We’re also being hailed by the captain of the André Aciman.”
“I imagine that Captain Crast will have a thing or two to say, yes,” Lancaster said. “Put him on screen.”
Moments later, the Tellarite captain of the André Aciman appeared on the main viewer. Unlike on capital ships, Crast and the rest of the crew of that Reliant-class frigate wore uniforms that were more colorful and simpler than the darker and more formal ones worn across the Fourth Fleet. The bridge, too, was unadorned and classic in its design.
“This is Captain Lancaster of the—” Lancaster started.
“It took you long enough to get here, Arcturus! I’ve been sitting with my tusks hanging out here, trying to make sure that 25,000 refugees don’t break the door down trying to get into Federation space!” the other captain interrupted.
“Of the Arcturus,” Lancaster concluded with a frown. “It’s nice to see you, too. What sort of dialogue have you established with the Romulans? Have you completed a needs assessment?”
Crast growled, shaking his head. “Those were not my instructions. We have taken aboard several critically wounded patients and have managed to stabilize them, but otherwise, we have just been sitting here. Observing them until you arrived to take command of the situation.”
“Next time, I’ll ask my engineer to break the transwarp barrier rather than just exceeding every conventional design limitation of our engines,” Lancaster retorted. “Who is their leader?”
“The captain of what is left of that class-two warbird seems to be representing them. He was a centurion in charge of stripping the ship before they used it in their escape. Valar,” Crast explained. “All he has asked for is immediate clearance to proceed, and I have told him ‘please stand-by’ each time.”
“I’m surprised that you said ‘please,’ Captain,” Lancaster noted, running his hand along the new gold trim on the armrest of his command chair. “Come alongside Arcturus and stand by for further instructions. Lancaster out,” he said, cutting off the transmission before Crast could splutter a protest.
“Charming guy,” Alesser said.
“I’ll chalk that one up to being face-to-face with a Romulan fleet for the last day,” the captain replied. “Galan, hail the lead ship.”
“I have ‘Captain’ Valar for you, sir,” Galan replied.
The screen switched to display the interior of the Ditaria. Lancaster hadn’t seen many Romulan bridges, but from what he could make out, it was in a rough state. There was a haze all around Valar, who looked to be in his eighties if he were Human anyway. Since Romulans had a much longer lifespan, he might have been at least a century old.
“This is Captain Lancaster of the starship Arcturus. I have been sent to ensure your safe passage through Federation space,” Lancaster explained. “My orders are to ensure that your vessels are safe for continued warp travel and to evacuate as many of you as is necessary to my ship for the voyage.”
Valar nodded. “We are grateful for any assistance you can provide, Captain. Your colleague has been… less than forthcoming… when it comes to the Federation’s plans for us,” he added. “Does this mean you have found us a destination at last?”
“We have begun establishing a settlement for you on Gamma Sagittarii III. Once all of the necessary immigration procedures have been followed, you will be free to remain there or travel as you wish within the Federation,” Lancaster explained.
“That is… unexpectedly generous, Captain Lancaster. I was sure you would try to keep us in Romulan space,”Valar said.
“The Aciman has relayed a vast number of asylum claims from your group. It’s not the Federation’s policy to turn away refugees,” the captain replied. “We are analyzing your ships to see what we can do in terms of repairs and evacuations. Please transmit a list of your needs, such as food or medical supplies. For the time being, hold position here.”
“Understood, Captain. Thank you.”
The transmission ended.
“Tactical, give me a tour of their fleet,” Lancaster said, turning back to glance at Commander Isethos, the newest member of the senior staff.
“Aye,” the Andorian replied, antennae twitching slightly as he tapped the controls on his panel.
The viewscreen switched to a schematic display of the D’Deridex-class warbird.
“The lead ship is the ex IRW Ditaria. Decommissioned in 2395, our records indicate she was in the process of being scrapped, which is why she is missing so much of her superstructure,” Isethos explained. “We are designating her Cardinal 1, and she has 10,594 lifesigns aboard, which is just under the design limit for a ship of that class.”
“Cardinal 2 and Cardinal 3 are both passenger liners, with an approximate normal capacity of 2,000 people. Cardinal 2 has 2,975 lifesigns aboard, while Cardinal 3 has 1,224,” the tactical officer said, putting up two identical diagrams of the following two ships. Roughly 250 meters in length, each vessel was clearly meant for light to medium interstellar passenger duties. “There are no obvious structural or mechanical problems with these two vessels. From what we can tell, they were pulled off their standard duties.”
“Or stolen,” Alesser suggested.
“Cardinal 4 is an agricultural transport, meant to transport vast numbers of livestock. Its bays have been repurposed, and it’s carrying 2,108 people. Perhaps ironically, our initial analysis suggests that it’s food that they might run into trouble with there, rather than life support,” the tactical officer continued.
“Cardinal 5 is a troop transport, a Dominion War-era relic. Her warp drive system is completely offline, but she has 5,981 people aboard, well over her design capacity of 4,000,” Isethos explained. “Similarly, Cardinal 6 is a light freighter with a capacity of 50, but 276 lifesigns are aboard.”
“The last vessel is Cardinal 7. It’s an ore freighter, and we’re detecting 1,497 people aboard. We’re having trouble localizing exactly where they are in the freighter because it was apparently used to transport dilithium: the resulting resin impedes our sensor scans,” the Andorian said.
The display switched to show a massive vessel, with a central spine, bow module, and stern module of obviously-Romulan make. Each side of that spine was joined to numerous ore-carrying pods, which were meant to be detached and unloaded separately to increase efficiency. Lancaster felt a sinking sensation imagining what hell the people aboard that ship must have been fleeing to choose to be locked in a vessel never meant to transport people.
“An ore hauler, seriously? They must be desperate,” Commander Armstrong said from the science station. “I’ll see if I can clean up our readings.”
“In desperate situations, people will do what they need to, Commander,” Counselor Sharma interjected; she had donned a standard uniform for the occasion, and it was the first time Lancaster had seen her on the bridge at all.
“What’s the life support capacity of Cardinal 7?” Doctor Anjar asked, chiming in from sickbay.
“We don’t have any data on that vessel’s specifications. My guess would be that it’s significantly less than what she’s carrying. Ore holds wouldn’t have life support at all,” Commander Navarro at ops chimed in. “What are the short-term effects of exposure to dilithium?” she asked.
“In its natural state, dilithium is quite benign, but when fragmentary, it’s like breathing in diamond dust. Compounded with other things, its residue can be… problematic,” Anjar explained. “That ship has to be our priority, Captain.”
“I agree. If we can’t track their lifesigns precisely, we will need to send teams over with pattern enhancers, though,” Lancaster replied. “Hail them.”
“Attempting to do so, Captain,” Galan confirmed, tapping away at his station. “I’ve managed to raise them.”
“Attention ore vessel, this is the starship Arcturus. We are reading an extremely large number of people aboard. What is your status?” Lancaster asked.
The screen crackled, and Lancaster could barely make out a Reman woman behind a control console. If the bridge of the Ditaria was a mess, the bridge of this ore hauler would be a total disaster.
“This was the only ship we could get. The Romulans didn’t want us on their ships. We managed to increase power to the life support systems and rig additional filters for the ore bays, but we’re running out of food, water, and oxygen,” she replied.
Lancaster stood up. “There are people in the ore bays?” he exclaimed with uncharacteristic emotion.
“It was the only way,” she replied, seeming neither angry nor desperate, just resigned.
That, even among a flotilla of refugees, the Remans were still being treated as second-class citizens (if that), had Lancaster seeing red. It was difficult for him to conceive of the type of racial animus that existed in the Romulan-Reman relationship in the first place, but to have it persist even in a time of emergency was mind-boggling to him.
“I will send teams over to begin evacuating you to Arcturus. Help is on the way,” Lancaster said, cutting the channel with a motion across his throat as he turned to look at Alesser. “Thoughts?”
“Recommend we activate all four hazard teams and put all small craft on standby. With guest quarters, we can accommodate 2,500 passengers. Another 5,000 in the cargo holds. The Aciman should be able to take another 500. After that, we start compromising our hanger capabilities,” Alesser replied.
Lancaster nodded. “Have a pair of the runabouts prepped and take two of the hazard teams with you to Cardinal 7. I want the others to evaluate the engines on Cardinal 1 and Cardinal 5. Without them, we’re not going to be able to get everyone to Gamma Sagittarii in one trip,” he said.
“The Corps of Engineers team is already standing by, Captain,” Okusanya reported from her post in engineering over the comm. “I’ll see what Starfleet Intelligence has in the database on these designs, but most of our spare parts will be incompatible with Romulan technology. I’ll get the industrial replication bay primed for high-detail work.”
“Very well,” Lancaster replied, glancing over at Galan. “Feel free to call on Lieutenant Galan or Lieutenant Commander Najan’s first-hand experience with Romulan languages if you need it.”
“Sir, if I may?” Evandrion asked from the security station.
“I recommend that we go to Security Alert Four. While there is no specific danger here, it would be best to control access to sensitive areas on the ship,” the security officer suggested.
That level of alert would put armed guards at important places around the ship, and restrict the bridge, engineering, defensive systems, and most science labs to higher classification levels across the board. While Lancaster had no reason to suspect any ill will from the refugees—it would go against his training and his oath to do so—he kept what the counselor had said earlier in mind. There was no telling what desperate people might do.
“Do it. We can be welcoming without giving them access to critical systems,” Lancaster agreed.
The captain walked forward of the helm and operations stations, looking out at the ships now under his care. The amount of plasma drifting from vessels that they had little experience with was troubling, but he knew the engineering teams would figure out what they needed to get them space-worthy. What he was less confident of was his own ability to keep the peace between the different groups on those ships; he doubted that the Remans were the only ones with reason to hold a grudge, after all.
“Let’s get to work,” Lancaster said, prompting Alesser to leave the bridge with Marshall and Galan while the rest of the bridge crew began preparing the ship for what was to come.