“It’s somewhere out there, huh?” asked Commander Elbon Jakkelb.
From his perch in the captain’s chair, he squinted at the stars that were visible through the transparent viewscreen. All he could see was a scattering of stationary stars. It looked the same as any other star system he had passed through. Elbon understood the USS Sarek was positioned a safe distance away from it, but he expected to be able to see a spatial phenomenon of such incredible gravitational pull.
From the raised platform of science consoles, Flavia clucked her tongue at Elbon. Amid the three other teal-shouldered science officers seated around her, Flavia looked out of place in her Romulan Free State jumpsuit.
“That is rather the defining quality of a cosmic string, captain,” Flavia said. Despite her chiding tone, Elbon noticed she respected the Starfleet tradition of referring to Elbon based on his current responsibility, if not his rank. “It’s why they pose such navigational hazards, even when they’re not blooming blood dilithium as this one has done.”
Elbon raised an index finger to communicate, ‘wait, slow down.’
“We presume,” Elbon corrected her.
“Actually, captain,” Szerda said, looking up from the operations console on Elbon’s right, “We’ve managed to decode the subspace chatter between the Devore starships in orbit of Withheld. Blood dilithium is confirmed. They’ve invaded Withheld to mine the blood dilithium. The Kadi are offering no resistance to the Devore apart from quote ‘thoughts and prayers’.”
Sneering at the viewport, Elbon remarked, “I don’t think so. If they can’t resist, then we’ll resist for them.” The sentiment felt even more natural to him than Starfleet rhetoric. Having grown up during the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, none of the Devore’s horrific actions were terribly surprising to Elbon. While he had sought out the Vedek Assembly as his own first act of resistance, that hadn’t been his last one by far.
“Flavia, has the class-five probe been prepared?” Elbon asked.
Relishing in the phrase, Flavia replied, “Armed and ready, captain!”
Elbon tilted his head to the left. “Launch it,” he ordered.
An LCARS panel behind Elbon chimed as Security Officer Kellin Rayco executed the order.
“Probe is away,” Kellin said.
Through the viewscreen, Elbon’s eyes followed the flicker of light that had been launched from the Sarek‘s mission pod and hurled through the space between them and the cosmic string. In seconds, the probe had travelled too far for Elbon to see it, and the cosmic string remained virtually invisible too.
As she executed the task via her own LCARS panel, Flavia reported, “I’m engaging the probe’s antiproton burst emitters.”
Presumably for Elbon’s benefit, Flavia overlaid a holographic LCARS panel over the viewscreen to provide visual representations of the sensor readings. She did so just in time: through the lens of the sensor array, the cosmic string emitted an energy discharge that looked like lightning. The crackles of light sprung into a dozen different directions. For a second, it looked like the entire star system was shattering.
“We’ve shifted the flow of tachyon particles from the quantum string,” Flavia reported. “The flow has reversed and it’s accelerating, captain! The effect is expanding into the Withheld system even more quickly than the simulations predicted.”
Kellin interjected, “We’re being hailed by our runabout Kalev.”
“On screen,” Elbon ordered.
In the upper left corner of the viewscreen, another LCARS pane overlaid the sensor composite. Within the purple borders of the LCARS rectangle, a video channel in the cockpit of the Kalev appeared, featuring Ensign Cellar Door in the foreground and stacks of raw dilithium crystals visible in the aft compartment.
“Whatever you’re doing, captain,” Cellar said, “has got the blood dilithium fizzling. A couple of rocks have dematerialised completely!“
From the science hub, Flavia confirmed, “Quantum spectrometer readings are detecting a fifteen percent reduction in the blood dilithium on board the runabouts. Thirty percent… Seventy percent…”
“The probe actually works,” Kellin chimed in, sounding awed, if also pleasantly surprised. He continued softly, saying, “The Discovery‘s sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.”
“One hundred percent,” Flavia said. Elbon thought he heard an edge of amazement in her own voice too. “All of the blood dilithium aboard our ships has dematerialised into subspace.”
“Szerda, tractor our runabouts home,” was the first order Elbon gave. The comms channel to Kalev winked out on the viewscreen.
Elbon rubbed the back of his neck as he reconciled their orders and their options. He and Taes were determined to prove Starfleet’s friendship to the Kadi, but Sutherland-class starships weren’t fully-fledged explorers. The Sarek was a research cruiser with her tactical capabilities heavily weighted in her shield capacity, rather than her torpedo count. A captain of a Sutherland-class starship was meant to defend the crew while running back to the nearest starbase. As he started to make up his mind, Elbon asked the one question that remained among his decision-making criteria.
“Flavia, we don’t fully understand the mechanism for how the blood dilithium bloomed from subspace phenomenon, do we?” Elbon asked.
Flavia shook her head. “Not entirely. We have observed the effects of its arrival and departures, but I could not deliver a lecture on the subspace mechanics. Not yet anyway.”
“All right then,” Elbon said. “CONN, set course for the outer rim of the Withheld system. Warp seven. I don’t want to invite a confrontation with the Devore, but we need to observe for ourselves if the blood dilithium on Withheld has been diverted into subspace. That’s the Kadi’s only chance of driving off the Devore.”
All too soon, Kellin was saying, “One of the Devore mining ships has broken orbit from Withheld.”
With Kellin standing behind Elbon at the tactical console, Elbon could practically feel Kellin’s breath on the back of his neck. This first indication that the USS Sarek had been noticed, while creeping along the outskirts of the Withheld system, gave Elbon that dreadful feeling like his stomach had plummeted into his feet.
“The ship is on an intercept course,” Kellin added.
“Shields up!” Elbon ordered. “Red alert!”
As Kellin energized the shields, the red alert klaxon sang out from overhead. Red borders began to flash around the viewscreen and every other LCARS panel around the bridge. Captain Taes had long ago customised the default settings to let the klaxon scream three times and then the volume lowered considerably.
Impatiently, Elbon shouted to be heard over the klaxon: “Flavia?”
“Aye, captain,” Flavia responded. She had expanded her LCARS console with two additional holographic panels and she compared sensor readings on all of them before she committed to anything more.
“Quantum spectrometer readings confirm,” Flavia said, “there are no longer any deposits of dilithium in the crust of Withheld, blood or otherwise. The blood dilithium has dematerialised back into subspace through the cosmic string.”
“Thank you, Flavia,” Elbon said, his left leg twitching against the deck. Moving on, he asked, “Kellin, I would assume even the Devore’s mining ships have more torpedo launchers than we do?”
“They do, captain,” Kellin replied mirthlessly.
Tapping at the LCARS monitors on his armrest, Elbon took another look at the sensor readings of the Devore starships.
“Even if we’re not tactically equipped, this might still be a fair fight,” Elbon said encouragingly. “We’re weighed down by large-scale scientific instruments, but those mobile refineries might be even less maneuverable than we are.”
Elbon cleared his throat. “CONN, set course for the Kadi home colony. Warp seven. Let’s go!”
A burst of light flashed through the viewscreen, signalling the Sarek‘s jump to warp speed. Instinctively, Elbon gripped his armrests for support, as if he were still flying the Antares-class freighters of his youth. It was unnecessary, of course, given how effectively the inertial dampeners kept the ship feeling as if it was still at rest. A heartbeat later, his force of habit passed.
“Ensign Aloyye,” Elbon called out to the Brikar flight controller seated at the curved LCARS console in the sunken flight control well. “Have you practiced an Immelman turn before?”
“Uh,” Aloyye nervously answered, “No, sir.”
Kellin, meanwhile, maintained his formal timbre in saying, “Captain, two Devore mining ships are pursuing us at warp seven.”
In another heartbeat, Elbon was out of his seat and clattering down the stairs. He rounded the engineering hub of consoles to stand behind Annikafiore Szerda. Although Szerda was filling in for the Sarek‘s telepathic operations chief, her usual posting was as chief flight controller. Elbon gripped the back of her chair.
“Szerda,” Elbon prompted hopefully, “How about you?”
“Afraid not, sir,” Szerda answered. “You’re the one who taught me.”
A hint of panic crept into Kellin’s voice, when he reported, “Mining ships are increasing to warp 8, captain. They’re targeting us with phasers.”
Almost on auto-pilot, Elbon responded, “Ensign Aloyye, increase to warp 8.” He stepped back from Szerda’s chair to stride down the ramp into the flight control well. “And then I’m taking the CONN. I can get them off our tail.”
“Sir?” Aloyye asked. His voice cracked with uncertainty as if he had misheard Elbon.
He wasn’t the only one. From the mission specialist chair, Taes asked, “Captain?” in a tone that questioned if Elbon’s decision was absolutely necessary.
Elbon glanced back over his shoulder to Taes and he fixed her with a mischievous smirk.
“We grew up in the DMZ, captain,” Elbon replied congenially. As soon as Aloyye stepped away, Elbon dropped himself into the vacant chair and oriented himself to the current positional and course projections from the flight controls. He said to Taes, “I learned to fly in the Badlands, didn’t you?”
Taes’ reply sounded brittle when she replied, “Flight school wasn’t a priority at the time.”
Elbon swiped his fingers over the smooth LCARS panel, making adjustments to the relative bearing and utilising the computer’s computational skills in preparation for his intended maneuver. Half of the displays around the bridge rang out in alarm because the Sarek‘s aft shields were struck by Devore phaser strikes. Shield power remained close to maximum, Elbon could see from the monitors, even when the Devore fired another volley the Sarek‘s way.
“That was in a previous life, I’ll admit,” Elbon said somewhat metaphorically. “In Starfleet, I spent a couple of years as a crisis counselor, around Eighty-Five. Our Romulan rescue armada was spread so thin, it was just me and a runabout most days.”
Elbon looked back again when he added, “But more importantly, Commander Rayco can anticipate how I fly. Isn’t that right, Kel? Do you have the mining ships’ engines targeted?”
“You know me too well,” Kellin said.
Elbon gave the command, “Fire at will,” as his fingers stabbed and swiped over the flight controls. The tunnel of stars through the viewscreen spiralled into a blinding blur, as Elbon climbed the Sarek to loop back towards Withheld. He rolled the Sarek at the same time and it happened too fast for the mining ships to become visible on the viewscreen. As soon as Elbon positioned the greater coverage of the saucer section’s phaser arrays in the path of the Devore mining ships, he saw the indistinct flurry of phaser beams through the viewscreen.
“Szerda?” Elbon asked.
“Plasma injectors remodulated,” Szerda reported.
“Flavia?” Elbon asked.
“Flooding their sensor palettes with a randomized EM field,” Flavia reported. “They won’t catch our warp trails this time.”
Elbon rolled the Sarek onto another course, which was evidenced by another flash of light through the viewscreen. With the Devore ships behind the Sarek, Elbon ordered Kellin to lay quantum torpedos in their path and Elbon pushed the warp engines to emergency speed.
“Direct hits on both ships,” Kellin reported excitedly. He tapped at the tactical console a couple more times. Elbon swivelled his chair to show Kellin he was eagerly awaiting another report, without distracting Kellin with more words. He saw Taes and Flavia watching Kellin just as intently.
“The mining ships have dropped out of warp,” Kellin announced with a satisfied laugh. “They’re not pursuing our new course!”
Elbon didn’t even have time for a deep breath before an LCARS telltale signalled an incoming subspace message.
“We have new orders from Task Force Seventeen command,” Szerda advised. “Because our probe was successful, we’ve been sent the coordinates for an asteroid field with large deposits of blood dilithium. We’re to destroy all blood dilithium. Send it back to subspace.”
“That’s too much excitement,” Elbon laughed. Sighing, his posture slumped low in the chair. He took that deep breath he needed.
Elbon went on: “I was hoping we could spend a couple of weeks exploring before the next opening of the Barzan wormhole.”
Flavia enthused, “This ship was built for multitasking. We can do two things at once. Why else was it assigned two teams of scientists?”
As Elbon waved Ensign Aloyye over to take back the flight controls, he watched Kellin and Taes share a silent look.
When they didn’t say anything, Elbon replied to Flavia, “Keep fabricating more class five probes in the meantime.”
Leander Nune was losing track of what was real and what was fantasy again, but it didn’t scare him as much this time.
He could hear Lieutenant Yuulik talking, but the exact meaning was indistinct. She was using those consoling tones she had perfected in the brig with him, weeks back. He could remember telling himself to focus on Yuulik’s voice, to hold onto it like a tether, but she was starting to sound more like the dream than the reality. Her voice extended into slow motion as if she was experiencing time distortion from the wormhole effect of an antimatter imbalance.
Yuulik said something about the “subspace trumpet amplifying the voice of the blood dilithium.”
What felt more like reality was the way Nune had laid his head in the lap of someone he trusted. It was someone warm, who was intentionally sharing a feeling of comfort with Nune. There was a person, but he also had the feeling of stepping into a warm bath. But the warm bath had hands. Nune felt rough hands caressing his hair and massaging his scalp.
Nune knew bath-hands was reality because when he turned his attention to Yuulik in his quarters, he experienced it from an out-of-body perspective. He could see Yuulik pointing the subspace trumpet at a small shard of blood dilithium, and he could see Jurij guarding Yuulik, but he could also see himself sitting on the sofa. Through the viewports out of his quarters, he could see an asteroid field, with large chunks of blood dilithium protruding from half the asteroids.
Nune opened his eyes. In the other reality, Nune was laying in the man’s lap. He looked up at the most beautiful open features he’d ever seen on a living being. The man was bald-headed and he had distinctive Brenari ridges between his eyebrows. He looked down at Nune with hazel eyes, the rich shade of those irises were flecked with gold.
“Was it you?” he asked.
“Was what me?” Nune said.
“Time is short,” he said sadly.
From the dream, Nune could almost hear Yuulik shouting excitedly about the probe.
“Why did you talk to me?” Nune asked. “I was barely exposed to the blood dilithium. Not like the others.”
Looking down at Nune, a smile crossed his face. Nune could have only described that smile as beatific.
“You wanted to hear me,” he said.
“Not that,” Nune urged. “I didn’t want all of that.”
“I’m falling,” he said, even though his legs felt sturdy beneath Nune’s head. “Falling underneath space.”
“We’re freeing you from the dilithium,” Nune remarked. “There’s no real life to be had in there. It’s only another prison.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt? If that means anything?”
“Before you go,” Nune said, “I need– I need to know. Why did you make me feel that way? Your voice made me stuffer and distrust all my friends! Why would you wish your suffering upon me? You could have told me — you could have explained who you were.”
“I told you my story,” he said, but his features were becoming indistinct. His voice was fading and Nune could hear Yuulik speaking more clearly now.
Before fading with all the blood dilithium across the asteroid belt, the last thing he said was, “Why didn’t you listen?”