Chapter 25

U.S.S. Aldrin

Sector 033

09:55 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57104.954652

 

Clark looked up from the Changeling’s body on the morgue tray before him. The Changeling still held the form of a female Human, though its right side had in patches reverted to a wavy reflective gold, and its right arm was missing. A collection of similarly-textured broken cylinders and shards sat along the side of the Changeling, comprising the remnants of her arm. Clark asked, “Why didn’t it revert to the liquid form? I’ve heard of Changelings existing in the vacuum of space, and that’s pretty darn cold.”

Cochrane grabbed onto the side of the tray and sighed, “My working theory is that the sudden temperature change imparted by the liquid nitrogen exposure froze and corrupted its morphogenic matrix.”

Jensen, standing to Clark’s side, said, “Starfleet Medical will love this.”

“Assuming they don’t shoot us out of the sky before we get to Earth,” Clark said. He stepped back from the tray and Cochrane pushed the body into the stasis chamber in the bulkhead, “How are the blood screenings progressing?”

“We’ve got about a quarter of the crew done,” Cochrane said as he closed the hatched and keyed in a lock code. “It’ll take a few hours to finish, assuming you still want us to.”

“There’s no way to know if she was the only one,” Clark said. “Who was she anyway?”

“Ensign Chalmers,” Jensen answered. “I’ll amend the personnel log. Two hundred twenty six dead or missing.”

Cochrane followed them towards the door into sickbay, “Let’s hope that’s the last time we have to adjust that number.”

Sitting on the end of a biobed, Murphy sat up slightly upon Clark’s exit from the short corridor to the morgue into the main sickbay ward, “Captain.” The female Denobulan medic tending to him grabbed Murphy’s head with both hands and turned it to face back towards her, and then held a dermal regenerator back over the gash on his forehead. Wright was on his back on a neighboring bed, another medic pressing a hypospray to his arm.

Clark smiled, “Good work, John.”

Murphy laughed, “Honestly, it was mostly Wright. She took me down without a fight.” The Denobulan put a hand on top of Wright’s bald head and again forcibly straightened it.

The door to the corridor opened and Vorik stepped through, visibly pained and limping. Cochrane walked up to him, “You left here three hours ago and still haven’t changed into a proper uniform?”

“Engineering has been busy,” Vorik said. He looked to Jensen, “The alterations you requested have been completed.”

Clark looked back to her, “What alterations?”

“I’ll explain later,” Jensen said.

Vorik turned to Clark, “We also successfully removed an explosive device the Changeling installed in the dilithium chamber. I have teams checking other critical junctures for potential sabotage.”

“What was she doing in an environmental control room anyway?”

One of Vorik’s eyebrows rose slightly, “She was attempting to vent the atmosphere in Engineering-B into space, and she was nearly successful.”

Jensen exhaled loudly and said, “Depressurize Engineering and nobody will be there to notice the bomb on the warp core.”

“Precisely,” Vorik confirmed. “Standard procedure would have been to reestablish environmental controls, repressurize the cabin, and check for structural damage from the rapid decompression. We only found the bomb because of Doctor Cochrane’s suspicions.”

Murphy added, “She wasn’t sweating.”

Noticing Clark’s puzzled look, Jensen said, “The warp core’s running hot right now.”

Vorik turned his attention back to Cochrane, “Doctor, I believe I may require an additional dose of hydrocortilene. The pain is making it difficult to focus on my work.”

Cochrane nodded, “I’m also ordering you off duty for the next twelve hours.” He stepped back to the medicine cart parked outside the window into the sickbay office, “You need to keep off that leg if the hexadrin is going to do its job.” He grabbed a hypospray and a vial filled with clear liquid from the cart.

“Understood.”

Cochrane walked back and pressed the hypospray against Vorik’s bicep. The hypospray hissed and within a second Vorik visibly relaxed. “Now off to your quarters,” Cochrane said. “Sleep, meditate, watch a squares match, I don’t care – just take it easy.” He patted Vorik on the shoulder and gently pushed him towards the door. As Vorik exited, Cochrane turned to Clark and Jensen, “Is there anything I can do for the two of you?”

Clark and Jensen looked at each other and shrugged. He shook his head, “Nope, we’re good.”

Cochrane threw his arms up in the air, “Then get out of my sickbay!” When the commander and captain laughed, he waved his arms at them, “Go on, shoo!”

 

Starfleet Sensor Relay 471

Trill System

17:20 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57105.798516

 

The raw data from a dozen remote unmanned sensor posts arrayed across Sectors 014 and 015 streamed down the massive display in front of Lieutenant Ragun. The male Trill Starfleet officer stood behind a wide free-standing console, observing the data stream on the left side of the six-meter-wide screen and a map of the nearby sectors detailing the same data in a more easily-understood manner. Among the items noted on the map were the accelerating gravitational collapse of a dust cloud in the Plexion Nebula, the twelve starships of the Fifth Fleet’s Galaxy Wing engaging in exercises, and a massive solar flare just unleashed by the red giant Sira Adun. The map was centered on the Trill star system, the home of Sensor Relay 471.

“Ragun!” a voice shouted from behind him.

The lieutenant turned around, finding a female Coridanite lieutenant commander walking up behind him. Ragun smiled, “Kalev, how was Trill?”

She smiled, “Delightful, as always. The Festival of Lights is amazing. Absolutely amazing.”

Ragun shrugged, “I’m already putting in for leave next year.”

Kalev put her hands out at her sides, “It’s Friday!”

Grinning, Ragun turned around and pulled a Type-2 hand phaser out from under the console. He aimed at the map side of the screen, closed his eyes, and growled, “I love Fridays.” He squeezed the trigger and a small foam dart shot out of the end of the weapon, impacting with the glossy display with a quiet thunk and sticking in place. He opened his eyes as Kalev walked up to the screen, “What’d I get?”

“This week’s long range resolution diagnostic test candidate is…” Kalev pulled the foam dart off of the screen, revealing a small Starfleet emblem representing a lone starship not far from the mass of ships from the Fifth Fleet. She read the text below it, “The U.S.S. Columbia NCC-2003.”

“Focusing Sensor Post Mizar,” Ragun said, working the console. “2003? She’s an old one.”

Kalev walked back to him, picking up the phaser and reinserting the dart in its tip, “Location?”

“Sector 015, coordinates 5812-1781. Heading: 057 mark 012. Speed: Warp 9.997,” Ragun reported.

“She’s in a hurry,” Kalev said. “That heading should puts them on a course for Sol, right?”

Ragun tapped the console, plotting a heading vector on the display from the Columbia marker to the Sol System in the upper right corner, “That is correct.”

Kalev nodded, “Alright. Let’s get our diagnostic done with. Initiate subspace field scan.”

The screen refocused closer in to the Columbia and illuminated a series of undulating blue wake lines trailing the ship. Ragun looked down at his console, “Warp signature reads as an Excelsior-class starship. Judging by the output I’d say one of the mid-century refits.”

The Coridanite placed the dart-firing mock phaser back under the console and pulled out a PADD. She tapped it a few times and confirmed, “The Columbia was refitted in 2361.” Kalev looked back to the screen, “What’s with the wake eddies two light-years back?” She pointed at a pair of elliptical disruptions trailing in the subspace wake.

“Probably just subspace shadows,” Ragun said. “This has been a high-traffic corridor for the past decade, there’s always some subspace decay.” He tapped the console a few times, “Gamma scan registers nothing unexpected. Tachyon readings are slightly elevated, but within expected bounds.”

Kalev held up the PADD so Ragun could see it, showing a schematic of the long and elegant Excelsior-class starship, “Visual sensor check.”

“She’s close to the edge of Mizar’s visual range,” Ragun said. “Focusing the lateral sensor array.” The subspace wake map was replaced by a blurry image of an Akira-class starship from above, its dual-catamaran design clearly visible in spite of the lack of resolution. The starfield behind streaked past at high warp. “Uhh…”

Kalev looked at the PADD, and then back at the screen, “That’s an Akira.”

“Yep.” Ragun focused on the console, his fingers dancing across the glowing controls.

“Check that we’re focused on the right vessel.”

Ragun shook his head, “Transponder is broadcasting Columbia NCC-2003. Warp signature appears Excelsior. Verified clear line of sight between Mizar post and vessel.”

Kalev stared at the blurry Akira-class starship on the screen, “Can you focus it? Boost the resolution?”

“Diverting all power to the lateral sensor array,” Ragun said. A few seconds later the image pixelated and then sharpened, resolving with detail enough to read the ship’s hull markings.

Kalev took a few steps towards the huge screen, reading off the registry name and number painted on the top of the saucer, “U.S.S. Aldrin. Registry number NCC-89465. Definitely not the Columbia.”

Ragun tapped the info into his console, which promptly switched to a red color scheme and chirped loudly. He read slowly, “Priority one target.”

“Get me Admiral Russell immediately,” Kalev ordered.

 

U.S.S. Ticonderoga

Sector 015

17:21 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57106.060962

 

Caitian Captain M’Reng leaned forward in her chair on the Ticonderoga’s large bridge, propping up her tan-furred head on a balled fist. The Galaxy-class starship’s bridge was painted and carpeted in earthy tans and browns, though at the moment they were awash in the crimson light of red alert. M’Reng’s long tail, draped over the armrest of her chair at the center of the bridge, twitched back and forth. She hissed, “Mr. Cameron, where is the Enterprise?”

The Ticonderoga’s silver-haired Human helmsman slapped an open hand on the edge of his console, “I’ve lost them!”

M’Reng looked down at her side, where a medical team was tending to her injured first officer on the deck. She shook her head, “How do you lose a Sovereign-class starship?”

The wide curved viewscreen that dominated the front of the bridge flashed blue as the Ticonderoga’s shields took an impact. The male Vulcan tactical officer standing at the apex of the wooden arc behind the command chairs announced, “Shields are offline.”

The sleek elliptical saucer, elongated engineering hull, and slender and tapered warp nacelles of the Enterprise-E streaked vertically across the viewscreen, pummeling the Ticonderoga with phaser fire as it passed. As alarms blared across the bridge, M’Reng ordered, “Pursuit course!” Cameron immediately fired the Ticonderoga’s thrusters, pivoting the massive starship to chase after the Enterprise.

The dark-skinned female Vulcan sitting at the operations station to Cameron’s left calmly reported, “Hull breaches Deck 36 Section A, Deck 22 Section C, and Deck 6 section E. Damage control teams responding.” The aft end of the Enterprise slid onto the viewscreen.

“Target the aft shield junction, all phasers,” M’Reng ordered, sitting back in her chair. “It’s a weak spot in the Sovereign’s shield design, should be enough to knock them out once and for all.”

The Vulcan tactical officer replied, “Target locked.”

“Fire.”

The phaser arrays on the top and bottom of the Ticonderoga’s massive saucer lit up and blasted yellow energy beams across space into the Enterprise’s aft. The phasers held steady for several seconds, sending brilliant ripples through the Enterprise’s shield envelope.

M’Reng sat up, pushing back into her chair, “Their shields?”

“Still holding,” the operations officer reported.

“Are you kidding me?” M’Reng snapped. The Vulcan female turned and looked at her briefly with a typically placid expression that disarmed her disbelief, and then returned her attention forward.

The tactical officer spoke up, “They appear to have modified their shield geometry.”

“Damn, La Forge is good,” M’Reng said. The Enterprise began to execute a sharp turn on the viewscreen. “Ready quantum torpedoes.” Phaser fired rained forth from the Enterprise, setting off more alarms on the Ticonderoga bridge.

“Multiple hull breaches,” the operations officer reported. “Decks 4, 5, 9, 14, 24, 25, 27, 28, 30, and 41. Emergency forcefields are offline.”

Tactical added, “Targeting sensors and forward torpedo launchers are offline.”

“I’ve lost helm control!” Cameron yelped simultaneously.

“Bridge to Engineering,” M’Reng called, “Weapons and helm control back online right now!” The Enterprise thrusted forward and began firing its phasers again.

A voice from Main Engineering shouted back over the comm, “We’re losing antimatter containment, Captain!”

M’Reng’s clawed finger instinctively landed on the ship-wide intercom, “All hands, abandon–”

The red alert lights and consoles around the bridge turned blue and all of the alarms fell silent. The words ‘Vessel Destroyed’ appeared on the center of the viewscreen as the Enterprise sailed overhead.

Her urgent tone was immediately replaced with disappointed resignation, “–ship. Good work, ladies and gentlemen. Begin reset for the next exercise.” M’Reng released the intercom button. “They are good.”

“The Enterprise has destroyed the Brady,” the Vulcan ops officer reported. “And disabled the Bolton.” The first officer, a male Xindi-Arboreal, sat up and grunted loudly. The medics around him packed up their kits and walked back to the turbolift.

Cameron whistled and said, “That didn’t take long.”

“Incoming priority one message from Starfleet Command,” the ops officer announced.

M’Reng laughed, “The Admiral must have been watching. He can’t be happy the Enterprise managed to take out all of his Galaxy Wing in a matter of minutes. What’s it say?”

“New orders,” the Vulcan read. “ ‘Fifth Fleet Galaxy Wing and U.S.S. Enterprise are to immediately suspend simulation exercises. Compromised starship U.S.S. Aldrin spotted in Sector 015, pursuit and engagement ordered. Target is priority number one, hostile response anticipated. Use of deadly force is authorized. Coordinates and heading attached.’ ” The bridge fell silent.

“Compromised how?” M’Reng asked.

“It does not say.”

M’Reng straightened up, “Acknowledge receipt. Cancel training simulation. Lay in intercept course to the Aldrin.” The blue lighting disappeared in favor of white illumination.

Cameron reported, “Intercept course laid in.” He stretched his arms out in front of him, interlocking his fingers with his palms out and stretching.

“Maximum warp. Engage.”

The Ticonderoga shot into warp, followed by eleven other Galaxy-class starships and the Enterprise.

 

U.S.S. Aldrin

Sector 015

17:35 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57105.827071

 

Toq’bae leaned in to his console and tapped the screen in front of him. He squinted briefly and then his eyes grew wide. He uttered under his breath, “Uh oh.”

R’Mor looked over her shoulder at him, “Uh oh what?” Seeing a surprised look from the science officer, she pointed a finger at her sensitive Romulan ears.

“Captain,” Toq’bae said more loudly, “We’ve got a problem coming in at high warp.”

Clark turned his chair and looked over the operations arc to him, “What kind of problem?”

“A dozen Galaxy-class starships on an intercept course.” Toq’bae glanced back at the screen, “Led by the Enterprise.”

“That didn’t work out so well,” Clark said while eyeing Jensen.

Jensen grabbed the swing arm console from her side and pulled it towards her seat, “Time to intercept?”

Toq’bae sighed, “Ten minutes.”

Clark asked, “Ms. Kelley, can we adjust course to buy us time?”

“Not more than a few seconds,” Kelley answered without looking away from the helm. “Unless we reverse course, that is.”

“Let’s not do that,” Clark said. He loudly exhaled, “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this in the Alpha Quadrant. Red alert, deploy ablative armor.”

“Aye captain,” Murphy replied, reaching out and pressing a control on his console. The muffled drumming of the armor plates being rapidly assembled audibly spread across the hull. Accompanied by the familiar alarm, the bridge lighting dimmed and turned red.

Clark turned to Jensen, “A dozen Galaxies and the Enterprise?”

She glumly replied, “The Aldrin can take them.”

“Sure, we’ve got the firepower to wipe them out easily, but that’s twelve thousand Starfleet officers,” Clark said. “I will not have that blood on our hands, no matter how important our mission.”

“I may have a solution,” Toq’bae said, grabbing a PADD and walking around to the pair. “In 2370 the U.S.S. Odyssey observed a minor fluctuation in their warp field while passing through the Bajoran Wormhole.”

“I’m an engineer,” Clark said, “The wormhole wreaks all sorts of havoc on warp systems. And how would you know about a minor fluctuation?”

Toq’bae handed him the PADD, “I was studying the wormhole with the Vulcan Science Academy at the time. I collected data from dozens of ships that passed through the wormhole. I believe we might be able to exploit that fluctuation and force them to drop out of warp.”

Jensen leaned over and looked at the PADD, “We’re a little far from the wormhole.”

“We can cause and amplify the same fluctuation with a subspace smear,” Toq’bae said.

“A smear?” R’Mor questioned.

Kelley kicked her chair around and moaned, “Oh no, please, no.”

“We eject an active matter/antimatter chamber while at warp speed,” Toq’bae said. “The sheer forces the core encounters while transitioning out of the subspace bubble will detonate the core, but spread the subspace rippling out over a much greater area than a stationary detonation – a smear. My theory is that the subspace compression waves observed in the wormhole were responsible for the Odyssey’s fluctuations, and a properly-timed smear could be enough to exacerbate the condition.” Noting the skeptical looks he was getting from around the bridge, Toq’bae sighed, “Come on, I have a doctorate. I taught this stuff at VSA for twelve years!”

“Alright Professor,” Clark said, handing back the PADD, “What kind of damage will this cause?”

“Nothing major,” Toq’bae said. “Not even really minor. We’d just be gumming up their works for a brief while. It will likely take them some time to get their engines back online, and there shouldn’t be any lasting affects on the fabric of space-time.”

Jensen smiled, “It’s like an oil slick.”

“More like a tar pit.” Toq’bae returned the smile, “But close enough, Commander.”

“Make your calculations,” Clark ordered. As Toq’bae jogged back up to his station, Clark added, “Quickly!”

Jensen pressed the comm panel at the end of her armrest, “Bridge to Engineering.”

Vorik’s voice answered, “Engineering here.”

“Vorik?” Jensen questioned.

“Yes, Commander.”

“I thought Doc said to stay off your feet for twelve hours,” Jensen said.

Clark added, “It’s been seven.”

Vorik calmly answered over the speakers, “Starfleet Regulation 18-2 states that during a red alert all medically-capable personnel are to report to battle stations unless otherwise directed by their commanding officer.”

Clark smirked at Jensen, “He’s got us there.”

“Vorik, I know Engineering-A took some damage. Can we still activate the starboard warp core?” Jensen asked.

“Repair crews haven’t yet repaired the breach in that section,” Vorik said, “Scans indicated that the core had been damaged and would likely fail within several minutes of initialization.”

Clark stood from his chair, “Is the damage bad enough to prevent a quick activation and ejection?”

Vorik was silent for a few seconds before responding, “The damage was concentrated on the dilithium matrix, though I fail to understand wh–”

Clark cut him off as he started towards the turbolift, “I’m on my way to Engineering-A. Bridge, out.” The comm beeped in acknowledgement.

Toq’bae announced, “The fleet has entered visual range.”

“Aft sensors on screen,” Jensen ordered, “Maximum magnification.”

As the turbolift door opened and Clark stepped through, the streaking stars ahead of the Aldrin on the viewscreen were replaced by an image of a dozen rapidly-approaching Galaxy-class starships and the Enterprise. Clark whistled as the turbolift shut, “Good luck Commander.”