Entropy
by Scribe

16th story in the Star Trek: Maverick series.


Prologue: A Thousand Knives

"WARNING. HULL BREACH ON DECKS 3 TO 5, 30 to 36 AND 42! CRITICAL DAMAGE TO ALL SURROUNDING DECKS ALONG TURBO SHAFT 14."

Captain Chris Larabee didn't need the Maverick's main computer to tell him his ship was being impaled by a thousand knives. He felt each stab every time the Maverick shuddered with yet another collision against the hull. Ahead of him, the viewscreen displayed the extent of the damage with clinical efficiency as clouds of debris swirled briefly into view before the Maverick's maneuvering jets swept them away. Still, the flotsam lingered long enough for Chris to glimpse amongst pieces of shredded hull plating, torn girders, and glass fragments, the bodies expelled from the Maverick by explosive decompression.

The bodies of his crew.

"Erect emergency force fields!"

Buck Wilmington's booming order managed to rise above the scream of condition red klaxons warning the crew of the Maverick's perilous state. The entire bridge was bathed in crimson, a stark reminder the ship was hemorrhaging from its many wounds.

"We are Entropy."

The words still echoed in his ears as Chris surveyed the bridge to take stock of what needed to be done. Vin clung steadfastly to the Conn, wrestling with the helm as he tried to evade the enemy ships surrounding them like an angry swarm of hornets. The Vulcan's face was a mask of concentration. At that moment, Chris could very well believe he was as disciplined as anyone born and raised on that planet. He doubted there was a pilot anywhere in the fleet capable of giving the Maverick the fighting chance she so desperately needed.

"Main power is offline. I am unable to erect the emergency force fields."

Ezra Standish, Chief of Security, made this declaration as casually as one who was announcing his intention to take a stroll through the tulips. His poker face held in place with supreme control showed no fear, but his closest friends could see through the facade. He was scared, and he had every right to be. This may very well be their last day.

"Captain, I still can't raise anyone," JD Dunne stated unhappily from his seat at navigation, trying hard to be heard over the klaxons. "Ship-to-ship communication is still down..."

His words were silenced by another tremendous shudder, the most violent yet, throwing them all off their feet. Alex and Ezra gripped their stations to avoid being thrown over. Buck slammed against the floor on his hands and knees, his face a grimace of pain. Meanwhile, JD's grip against his console was so tight, Chris wouldn't be surprised if the kid left permanent imprints on the glass. Christ only knew how Vin managed to stay put, but the Officer of the Conn remained in his seat, determined not to be distracted for any reason.

"What the hell was that?" Chris barked and decided instantly. It was a stupid question. What else could it be but the bastards tearing his ship apart?

"Oh my God," Alex Styles, the Maverick's Science Officer, raised her eyes to her captain. The glow of her flashing console made her grim expression appear positively spectral. "Our shields are gone. Captain, one of those damn ships sheared our deflector array right off the hull!"

"Christ," Buck swore, knowing the implications of that as well as Chris. If it was simply damaged, Engineering could repair it when they finally managed to raise Julia and her team. However, if the hardware was gone entirely, those were repairs that could only be carried out at a starbase.

Right now, the chances of the Maverick reaching one were slim.

"Can we polarize the hull?" Buck asked, trying to think of any solution to their problem. With the shields down, the ship would be torn apart in a matter of minutes.

"We can try," Alex glanced at Ezra, a silent agreement they would have to work together on this. Without the Chief Engineer, whose fate remained unknown since communications throughout the ship were disabled, it would take time. However, the worry on her face allowed Chris to read her unspoken thoughts. Time was a commodity they didn't have.

Another powerful impact against the hull seemed to confirm this, and Buck looked at Chris directly. "Chris, we need to think about separating the ship."

"I'm afraid we do not have that option," Ezra, who was helping Alex with the task of polarizing the hull, spoke up, not wishing for them to expend time debating something impossible. "The docking clamps have been damaged. We have to engage them manually, and right now, that part of the ship has suffered catastrophic breaches."

Chris closed his eyes, forcing away the sensation of being sucked down into an abyss of hopelessness. He inhaled deeply, trying to retreat to the place of zen-level calm that often aided him when things were at their worst. No easy feat when everything was going to hell around him. His ship was being pulverized by an enemy who made it clear he did not intend to take prisoners, even if Chris accepted defeat and surrendered. He thought of Mary Travis, his protocol officer and lover was presently making her way to Deck 14 because her son was in his classroom when the attack started.

Where was Adam?

There was no way Adam would remain in their quarters. If there was one thing Chris learned about the boy, he knew how to handle adverse situations. In that alternate reality where Adam was born, life was a constant struggle. His transition from child to man came far too soon, and it marked him, even now that he settled into life on board the Maverick. Ironically, this survey mission to the Necron Nebula was his last trip on the starship. After they returned to Lysia, the Titan, Will Riker's ship would take Adam to Earth. The kid was starting his first semester at Starfleet Academy.

As proud as Chris was of the idea his son would be following him into the service, he still wanted to wrap the boy up in a suit of armor and keep him safe from all the dangers in the universe. He'd failed to protect one child and was determined not to make the same mistake again. In the millisecond, the thought took to cross his mind; something exploded behind his eyes like a sun going nova.

Armour.

However, his elation was short-lived because when Chris Larabee looked up, he saw a dark shape, like a splinter of black obsidian, hurtling towards the glass dome above the bridge a second before it shattered.

Chapter One:
Breaks and Shotgun Weddings

FIVE HOURS EARLIER

"I still find it hard to sleep."

Chief Engineer of the Maverick, Julia Pemberton, found this embarrassing to say. It was not the first time she made the admission, and she suspected unhappily, it wouldn't be the last. Still, the shame continued to sweep over her like toxic spill. Julia wondered if she wasn't defective in some way because months of therapy had not allowed her to put her ordeal behind her.

From across the coffee table, Counsellor Josiah Sanchez noticed the bloom of red on Julia's cheeks and frowned. Outside these walls, Julia performed her duties as the Maverick's engineer superbly. Engineering functioned smoothly no matter what dangerous situation the ship entered. As always, Julia elevated the mood of the Senior Staff with her cheery, rosy outlook on life and generally made people around her smile. It was almost certainly this air of whimsy that cracked Ezra Standish's cynical heart so completely.

In the privacy of his Counsellor's office, Julia's insecurities surfaced. It bothered Josiah greatly that she felt guilt for admitting vulnerabilities she had every right to express.

Post-assimilation trauma was nothing to take lightly.

It was a relatively new condition Federation physicians were still learning to treat. Years after his assimilation, Jean-Luc Picard continued to hear the Collective's call whenever the Borg entered Federation space. Seven of Nine, the young woman raised by Borg, who recently returned from the Delta Quadrant with USS Voyager, shared similar experiences despite being purged of their nanoprobes.

Buck Wilmington, who was now more or less recovered from his experience, continued to attend his weekly sessions with Josiah because, like Julia, the effects of assimilation still lingered. However, Buck's trial by fire on the planet Tenarus allowed him to hurdle much of his anxieties. Julia had yet to have such a watershed moment.

For now, Josiah could only nurse her through her fears while she clung to a facade of normalcy as a coping mechanism.

"Have you tried talking to Ezra about it?" Josiah stared at her from across the coffee table.

"A little," Julia shrugged. "I don't want to worry him. You know the hell he went through when I was...." she couldn't say the word assimilated, but it hung in the air nonetheless. "We're both in a good place now, and he's been wonderful about everything I put him through."

"First of all," Josiah straightened up in his chair and leaned forward, "you didn't put him through anything, Julia. Assimilation happened to you. It was a terrible violation of your mind and body, and Ezra understands that. He wouldn't have fought so hard to get you back otherwise. I think you can be honest with him."

Josiah knew this for a fact because he and Ezra spoke about Julia's progress in therapy. While the Chief of Security was wise enough not to invade the confidentiality of their sessions, Ezra did voice his concerns about Julia's attempts to bury her trauma beneath her work. As a student of human behavior and Ezra's superior ability to read people, the Chief could see the cracks beginning to appear and feared the consequences when she finally crumbled.

Julia bit her lip feeling the weight pressing down against her chest more acutely than ever.

"I'm scared Josiah. I'm scared if we go into a fight, I won't be able to keep my head. I don't want to worry about capture if the Borg or some other enemy attacks the ship. Fear like that makes me second guess myself, and I can't do that if there's a crisis when the Captain needs me to do my job."

"Julia, after what you've been through, it's reasonable to have doubts like that, but I don't believe the engineer who kept the USS Rutherford together in her last battle, who got us through the fight with the Dominion and the Vrihan, is going to fold so easily. Besides, there's nothing wrong with being a little afraid. A healthy dose of fear keeps us sharp, reminds us of what's at stake. I rather you feel fear than invincible. I think the people you serve might prefer that as well."

The knot in her gut relaxed slightly but not enough. Feeling this way when everything was going so well in her life was foolishness. Ezra's proposal meant there were wedding plans on the horizon and she no longer felt like a stranger in her skin, but the constant worry she could fall apart remained.

The possibility it might be there forever was a reality Julia couldn't face.


 "Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

Chris Larabee entered Vin Tanner's quarters shortly before the helmsman began his shift on the bridge, fuming. He did so not as the master of the Maverick but rather as Vin's best friend.

"No more than usual, why?" Vin stared at Chris, puzzled as he stepped away from the mirror where he had been adjusting the collar of his uniform.

"You told Adam he could have free run of your ranch while he's on Earth?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, unable to connect the gesture with the harried look on his friend's face. "What's the problem?"

"What's the problem?" Chris's eyes widened, wondering if Vin remembered what it was like to be a teenager until he realized Vin's solitary upbringing in that savage world on the rim meant he probably had no idea what Chris meant. Vin spent his youth fighting for survival, with no chance of indulging in the foolishness of teenage behavior. His life depended on it. "The problem is, you've given a hormonal kid who'll be on a planet with millions of teenage girls unsupervised access to your home! There'll be angry fathers lined up all the way to the Delta Quadrant!"

Vin blinked, having not thought that far ahead. When he made the offer to Adam, something he now admitted to doing without discussion with Alex, he did so with purest intentions. When Vin first arrived on Earth, the Tanner Ranch left to him by his adopted parents became a refuge from a world the Vulcan barely understood. He assumed it would be the same for Adam.

"You think..."

"I don't think! I know!" Chris threw up his hands in exasperation. "I love that kid, but he's lived a pretty rough life trying to stay alive in that alternate universe. He's never had a chance to be a teenager but since arriving on the Maverick, he's become a quick study."

Chris was proud to provide Adam with an environment that allowed his son to regain some of his lost childhood, but it was also a double-edged sword.

"Chris, I'm sure it won't be that bad." Vin countered but wasn't so sure anymore. Still, watching his Captain deconstructing was to coin a Vulcan term - fascinating.

"The hell it won't!"

Since Adam had come to stay, Chris had been reliving memories of what it had been like being Buck Wilmington's roommate at the Academy. Like Buck, Adam possessed the ability to charm every girl he met, and his success had little to do with being the Captain's son. If it wasn't Michelle, Lara, or Lila this week, it was Nuria and Chris the next, or Erin and Susan. The names spun into a speeding merry-go-round in his head.

"Maybe he gets it from you."

Chris shot Vin a patented Larabee glare guaranteed to reduce hapless ensigns and crew members to ash. Unfortunately, the helmsman was the only one on board the Maverick immune to it. His eyes narrowed when he saw Vin fighting to suppress a smirk beneath his unflappable mask and resisted the urge to punch it loose just on principle.

"Are you trying to be a smart ass, Tanner?"

Despite the very annoyed expression on his Captain's face, Vin struggled not to laugh. Okay, he felt a little bad because this was his fault, but seeing Chris Larabee as a neurotic father was a new experience. For once, he wished for the discipline of his people because the laugh about to escape him was going to land him scrubbing EPS conduits with a toothbrush for the next month.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Vin broke down, unable to help it, "but you gotta admit it's funny."

Chris glared at Vin and gestured to the door. "Get to your goddamn shift, Lieutenant."

"Adam's a good kid," Vin continued to chuckle as both men headed out of the room. "I'm sure he's gonna be okay."

Chris's grunt indicated he was nowhere that optimistic. "If I end up presiding over a shotgun wedding, I'll be taking it out of your hide Tanner."

"Sure thing....grandpa."

Chris swore at him all the way to the bridge.


When Nathan Jackson dropped in at Four Corners to get breakfast and noticed JD Dunne alone at a table, it didn't take a medical degree for him to guess something was wrong. For starters, JD was staring through the large observation windows of the ship's mess, lost in the expanse of stars racing past them at warp. More importantly, his breakfast (usually large, with eggs, bacon, beans, and all the trimmings) was getting cold. Anyone who knew JD or shared a meal with him was aware of his tendency to eat like a teenager.

The kid seemed wholly absorbed in the stars outside, but Nathan suspected he saw none of it. Wherever JD was in his head, Nathan thought as he paused long enough to put in his order at the bar, it wasn't here. Once done with the servers, Nathan continued to JD's table and noted that JD's breakfast was indeed being ignored. Fat and sauces congealed on the plate, making Nathan mourn the loss of a good meal and wonder if it was too late to put a hold on his own order.

"Hey, JD," Nathan greeted.

Startled by the intrusion into his thoughts, JD looked up at him blinking. "Oh hi, Nathan."

"Mind if I join you?"

"Sure," JD sat up straighter in his seat, having no mind to protest the invasion.

Nathan sat down and got comfortable, noticing JD's gaze drifting back to the window. "You gonna start your shift soon?"

"Yeah," JD nodded, not looking at him. "In about twenty minutes. What about you?"

"Same."

JD continued to stare at the window, saying nothing for almost a minute. Deciding the kid wasn't going to tell him what was wrong, and something clearly was, Nathan broke the silence after the server presented him with his oatmeal and left them alone.

"Okay, JD, what's the matter?"

Usually, it would be Buck Wilmington's role as the boy's mentor to determine what was wrong, but Buck wasn't here. Nathan vaguely remembered the First Officer mentioning a senior staff briefing he had to run this morning. Not that it mattered, JD was his friend, and if the kid needed to talk, Nathan was there for him.

Unable to ignore Nathan's direct question, JD turned back to him, shrugging. "Nothing."

"Right, and in my off-duty hours, I'm an Orion belly dancer, so out with it. What's the matter?"

JD faced front and started picking at his food, a mildly positive sign. "It's Casey."

"Casey? What's wrong with Casey?"

The last Nathan heard of the young woman, Casey departed the Maverick to spend some time on Bajor. In the wake of the Dominion War, Bajor was relatively peaceful, and its fortunes as a commercial and strategic center were booming. Casey Wells had been adopted by then Captain Annette Wells, who rescued her from a refugee camp after her parents died from an outbreak of Hutchies Fever. Thus Casey knew little of her people or their culture. It made sense she would accept a transfer to Deep Space Nine to explore her roots.

"She broke up with me."

Nathan's brow furrowed. "I thought you two were already broken up."

 "No, we were on a break!" JD burst out, his distress surfacing like a drowning man from the water. "That doesn't mean we broke up!"

Nathan grimaced inwardly, cursing himself for choosing his words so poorly. Although truth be told, JD himself had mentioned he and Casey were going their separate ways but Nathan decided this was not the time to split hairs.

"She say why?"

JD scowled unhappily and stabbed at a piece of bacon as if it had wronged him in some way.

"She met someone. Some guy named Karel Brice. He works with Bajoran Security on DS9 and is from a very old family who has a place in Keltor province, and she's been to visit a dozen times. They love her." The complaint left JD with a tone of juvenile derision, not unlike a kid pouting at not getting his way. "You're not supposed to start up with someone else when you're on a break. It's just a break, meaning some time apart!

"Of course," Nathan maintained a straight face at this logic.

"I mean, I haven't dated anyone since she'd gone."

"What about Holly Jones?"

"We're just friends!" JD protested hotly, his face turning red from guilt. "She kissed me once because she thought I was going to die, but that's it. Holly's nice and all, but she's not Casey!"

Nathan couldn't deny that, but Holly, the civilian who came on board during that whole mess in Tenarus, was a pretty little blond, who was whip-smart and the only one brave enough to accept duty as Chris Larabee's yeoman. She had the face of an angel and the tenacity of a wolverine. Nathan liked her and thought she and JD were dating.

"I see. Did you tell Casey how you feel about her seeing someone else?" Nathan tried a different tact. "Maybe if she knew, you two can work something out."

"I can't do that," JD frowned, disliking the idea of Casey learning just how miserable he felt at her being gone. "She's really happy in Bajor. If I say anything, I'll spoil it for her. I don't want to do that."

"I understand," Nathan patted him on the shoulder, "but if you don't tell her the truth, you could lose her to Brice what's his face."

The lieutenant's shoulder sagged, and JD looked like he might sink through the fabric of his chair and disappear altogether. "I know," JD agreed begrudgingly before a burst of temper overtook him again. "This wouldn't have happened if she understood what a break means!"

Nathan rolled his eyes and wondered maybe he should have let Buck deal with this.


Within the Maverick's conference room, Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Mary Travis, and Alex Styles, sat around the large elliptical table preparing the report the Captain would expect at their next Senior Staff briefing. As it was their practice, the group collated the data from the efforts of their various departments to produce the multi-faceted perspective needed for their current assignment. Datapads lay scattered across the glass tabletop, along with jugs of water and half-empty cups of coffee and tea.

"So this is all of it?" Buck regarded Alex, who could put a report together better than anyone he ever met. Her success as a science officer was due to her ability to pull discordant threads to present a picture they could all understand.

"It is," Alex nodded. "There was a lot of data to disseminate once the Fibonan and the Teenaxi allowed us access to their records."

"That's mighty generous of them," Buck replied, aware some races could be extremely possessive about their data. Previous attempts by the Federation to initiate First Contact with either species failed due to their extreme hostility to offworlders. The last ship to contact the Fibonan had been fired upon and was damaged enough to go off course before being destroyed in the Gagarin Radiation Belt.

At the time, the sting to Starfleet's pride was considerable, but two hundred years did much to soothe their ruffled feathers.

"I don't think generosity has anything to do with it," Mary remarked, taking a sip of her Argellian tea as she studied the pad in her other hand. "The truth is, they've been at war with each other for so long that if they didn't accept our offer to mediate, I doubt either side would have lasted another century."

Mary shuddered, recalling the scans produced by Alex's science department. The effect of powerful energy weapons scarred each planet so severely it required all their resources to repair their damaged ecosystem, not prop up their unsustainable military budget. Cities were constantly being bombarded and rebuilt with rings of debris orbiting the planet from the numerous conflicts in space. She doubted either side possessed a generation that did not know war.

"Mutually assured destruction has a charming way to make people see sense," Ezra drawled. "While I admire their ability to wage war, I cannot say I like the idea of their conflict continuing into Infinitum."

"Neither do I," Buck agreed. "This pissing contest has got to stop while there's still time. I'll bet they don't even remember why they got started in the first place. All they remember is the hate."

"I'm afraid you're right," Mary could not fault Buck's accurate rendering of the situation, even if she would prefer to put it more diplomatically. "Unfortunately, if Starfleet wants to build starbases out here, then we have to make them remember the reason for the original quarrel, and maybe we might be able to help them reach some resolution."

"You have to admit, though," Alex spoke up, lowering her pad. "I'm surprised they've started talking to each other. All reports indicate they are completely entrenched in their feud. What I would like to know is what's changed?"

"So would I," Mary agreed. "From what I've read of the mission briefing, the request for mediation came out of nowhere, and they originally wanted the Enterprise to conduct the mediation."

"Captain Picard's ship?" Buck raised a brow. He didn't much like the Maverick being anyone's second choice, but Jean-Luc Picard's reputation took the bite out of his resentment. "I suppose that makes sense."

"Indeed," Ezra nodded. "If their conflict is as bitter as it appears, perhaps they believed a mediator of Captain Picard's caliber might be their only hope. However, I concur with Commander Style's desire to know what precipitated this sudden desire for peace. One does not give up two centuries of warfare....."

"It's longer than that," Mary pointed out. "Remember they were already fighting when Starfleet made contact. They gave us access to five centuries of records because those are the ones capable of being transmitted across subspace. They might have archives that go even farther than that."

"Whatever their reasons," Buck straightened up in his seat, "we need to make sure we know everything about their weapons systems before we run into them. The last thing I want is for us to wind up like the USS Franklin."

Chapter Two:
The Entropy

"Captain's Log - Stardate 2379.1309.

We are on approach to arrive at coordinates 65.12 in Sector 3721, where the Maverick will be joined by the Quandiara and Angry Roar carrying the delegations from Fibonan and Teenaxi to begin mediation proceedings. These coordinates have been recognized traditionally by both species as neutral ground. Conducting truce talks at this location will avoid any unnecessary arguments about either part having an advantage. Given the length of their conflict, the slightest offense perceived would give the factions the excuse to withdraw from the talks. With Federation interests in the area expanding, mediation must continue if we are to stabilize the region."


"What do we know about this area of space?"

Chris glanced over his shoulder, confident his Science Officer would have researched the sector thoroughly the instant she learned this would be the location of their negotiations.

"The USS Franklin, under the command of Captain Balthazar Edison, conducted the original star mapping of the area before their encounter with the Fibonans. Granted, their sensors were primitive compared to what we now use, but they did manage to give us a fix on the Gagarin Radiation Belt running through the fringes of the sector before they were inadvertently drawn into it."

"Judging from what reports, the USS Franklin was one of our first Freedom-class starships. She had teeth but not enough to stand up to an ambush by multiple Krayat-class warships. Captain Edison did well just getting them away from the Fibonans in one piece."

"Let us hope history does not repeat itself," Ezra pointed out, constantly wary of any potential danger to the Maverick. "Until the reason for the Fibonan's and Teenaxi's decision to enter peace talks ceases to be a mystery, I find myself unable to trust their reasons for luring us out here."

"Damn Ezra," Vin looked away from the Conn long enough to regard the Chief behind his console, "and I thought the Captain had the market cornered on paranoia."

"EPS conduits Tanner," Chris eyes narrowed in a decided reptilian glare, "lots of EPS conduits."

The bridge broke into a tiny ripple of laughter.

"The old saying to that remark has its merits," the security chief countered smoothly once the levity died down, "just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you."

"In any case," Chris spoke up with a more casual air. "This time, we're better prepared."

"Agreed, Captain," Buck supported his efforts to diffuse any suspicion the others, especially Ezra, had about the mission. It didn't serve any purpose to dwell on past transgressions with their current mission ahead. Skepticism would not help their objectivity as mediators if they entered the negotiations harboring ill will towards the Fibonans for their actions against the USS Franklin. "This time, we've got a level playing field and two warring factions willing to talk. I'd be more worried about them blowing each other up than any danger to them. Anything else in the area other than the Belt, Alex?"

"Not really," Alex looked up from her console. "The Belt is putting out some intense gravimetric readings but not enough to penetrate our shields at this distance."

"What's causing it?" Chris asked, wary of anything that might endanger his ship.

"I can't say for certain until we get closer. The output from the Belt is disrupting the sensor's ability to provide accurate data. However, I believe the Belt was originally formed by the collapse of an unstable neutron star, and all fragments of the resulting stellar debris field carry residual radiation."

"That would account for the gravimetric distortions," Buck agreed, being a science officer once himself.

"What is the effect on our shields?" Chris aimed his question at Ezra.

"Negligible," the Chief looked up from his console after confirming his readings.

"Vin, keep us at a minimum safe distance anyway. We've got a mission to conduct right now, and if time permits, we'll take a closer look."

"Thank you, Captain," Alex said gratefully. Any opportunity to study the phenomena was welcome since their information on the Belt was limited. Its presence posed a shipping hazard to any craft without galaxy-class shields. "In the meantime, can I suggest we launch a Class-1 probe? There's no reason we can't conduct some analysis while the negotiations are taking place."

It was a good idea, but Chris wanted nothing to derail the talks with Fibonans and the Teenaxi. "I agree, but let's wait until we make contact with the Quandiarra and the Angry Roar. The last thing we need is for them to get their noses out of joint because we decided to launch a probe in what they consider neutral ground."

"Aye, Captain," Alex nodded in understanding and, on further thought, agreement.

JD Dunne had yet to weigh in on the conversation shared by his older comrades. Instead, he'd become lost in the various fluctuations in subspace picked up by the Maverick's communication array and had ignored the usual banter on the bridge. Until JD detected something else in the numerous, discordant frequencies that possessed the pattern of constructed purpose. Something that pulsed in a cycle of binary codes and spoke in a language he understood immediately.

"Captain, I'm detecting a message through subspace."


Space was alive.

Most people thought it was a cold, lifeless void of emptiness running into infinity unless you ran into a planet or some other spatial body or phenomena. In truth, space wasn't just alive. It was loud. Even in pitch-black darkness, where light from distant stars could barely be seen, it sang like whales using the ocean to carry their song across the seven seas. Combined, the melodies created an opera of spinning quasars, rushing comets, and radiating pulsars, accompanied by the chords of millions of stars and planets.

It was the silent orchestra of the universe.

While the countless billions of civilized beings moved through their lives oblivious to this, the music did play to a very select audience who appreciated its nuances and beauty.

Any starship engineer who knew their ship could hear these melodies. They felt it in the slight treble of bulkheads, in the low resonant hum of conduits, the pulse of energy through warp fields. It was to them a secret language all good engineers learned to interpret until its variations became second nature, to be detected as easily as one could tell a raindrop from a breath of wind.

When Julia was at the Academy, Chief Engineer Captain Montgomery Scott of the legendary USS Enterprise had given a lecture to her class on Propulsion Theory. The engineer, just as revered as the Captain he served, had been kept alive for 80 years due to a freak incident involving a pattern buffer. After concluding his sixty-minute lecture, where Captain Scott kept most of his audience enthralled, she'd stayed around to talk to him personally. The man had been tired and ready for a break, but he was still kind enough to give Julia a piece of advice she would never forget.

Your ship is a receiver for the music of the universe. Listen to her, lass. She'll help you hear it.

He was right.

Julia could tell just by listening how the Maverick was performing in any situation. The galaxy-class starship had been her first command as Chief Engineer, her reward for helping Chris Larabee keep the USS Rutherford in the fight against the Borg. She loved this ship as if it were flesh and blood and its maintenance was more than just duty. It was worship. Just by listening, she could tell when coils were ill-aligned, drive plates needed securing, or by the pulsing rhythm of the warp engines that it required a diagnostic.

Just like she could hear something now as she walked down the deserted corridor running through the starboard nacelle on Deck 25.

"Can you hear that?"

She paused and stared down the narrow corridor just before the small control room that guided the manual operations of the nacelle tubes. Within its length, sapphire blue conduits containing raw plasma pulsed oblivious to the concerns of the Chief Engineer.

Lt. Chanu, the Maverick's Assistant Chief Engineer, stopped next to her, surprised by the question. He hadn't heard anything, but then again, he didn't have Julia's feel for the ship. After nearly two years working with the woman, he learned to trust her intuition because she was seldom wrong. Still, he heard nothing but the usual sounds of the ship, now joined by the steady beat of the nacelle tube.

"I can't hear anything," he admitted.

Julia resumed walking, unhappy at his answer because she could hear something out of the ordinary but couldn't determine its cause. "You sure?"

They approached the control room and the narrow catwalk that ran through the port nacelle tube. Heavily shielded with layers of steel and duranium plating, the tube walls pulsed with rows of plasma conduits running horizontally up its length. At least five lines ran parallel to each other, starting from the floor to the middle of the wall. The flow of energy running through them told both Engineers that all systems were functioning well.

Well, not exactly well, Chanu thought since he still couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary. Other than the hum of plasma flow, the droning of engines, and the hiss of the ventilation system.

"I'm sorry," he apologized.

Julia exhaled with disappointment and then stepped into the tube, leaving Chanu at the mouth of it. She took a few steps in and then placed her palm flat against the bulkhead and concentrated. Whatever prompted her concern was closer now. Julia closed her eyes to listen. At least she didn't have to explain to Chanu what she was doing. He knew much of what she did came from a place where quantifiable data didn't exist. It was intuition.

It came to her almost immediately, like the pop of a balloon.

"It's the hull. I can feel it resonating."

"Doesn't it do that anyway?" Chanu stared at her.

"Not like this," Julia's eyes narrowed. "Something is out there."


At the same time, Julia was making her discovery on Deck 25, when Lt. Mary Travis stepped on the bridge of the Maverick. She was summoned by the Captain after the ship received a message from an unknown source. The Protocol Officer was somewhat surprised by this. Their meeting with the Fibonans and the Teenaxi delegations was hours away, not this minute. Then again, with the way these two races had conducted themselves with each other, it didn't surprise Mary if they wanted to get a head start on settling their differences.

As always, Mary stepped on the bridge dressed in civilian clothing, mainly because it lent credence to her impartiality during negotiations. As a mediator, she wanted no illusions her presence was to further Starfleet's agenda instead of achieving a reasonable outcome for all parties. Her arrival went unnoticed because the bridge's focus appeared fixed on the viewscreen.

Even from a distance, the ship on the screen was massive.

It was at least twice the size of the Maverick and could almost be considered a dreadnought if her understanding of the different classes was accurate. It radiated a greenish light, making Mary shudder because it reminded her of the glow from a Borg cube. It was wedge-like in shape, all sharp points and angles, with a curious latticework pattern running across the length of its hull.

"Who are they?" She asked quietly as she passed by Ezra at his security station.

"Unknown. "Starfleet and Federation databases have no record of a ship of that configuration."

Now she understood the tension running through the bridge. The ship was neither Fibonan nor Teenaxi. At the site of possible peace talks, its presence here was too coincidental to be taken lightly. As she reached her customary seat on the left hand of the command chair, Chris's eyes touched hers long enough to show he was glad to see her before he faced front again, all business.

"Have they responded to our hail?"

"No, Captain," JD shook his head, continuing to tap his fingers against the smooth glass display of his console. "I've tried on all known frequencies. They're not answering."

"I don't like this," Buck said tautly. "How long until they intercept us?"

"90 seconds, but they're entering the reach of our short-range sensors, so I should be able to scan them," Alex answered from the science station.

"Do it as soon as you can," Chris spoke up. "Vin, bring us to all stop and hold position here. We're not getting any closer until we know what we're dealing with."

"Aye, Captain," Vin's response corresponded with the light beeps as his fingers punched the commands into the Conn. The growth of the mysterious ship in their viewer halted as the stars surrounding it became fixed points of light instead of rushing streaks.

From his profile, Mary could tell how much Chris found the whole situation suspect. In these instances, he took on a very different persona, one that reminded her of a shark circling prey, assessing its ability to fight back. If his ice-colored eyes could turn button black like those fearsome predators, Mary imagined they would.

"Have they communicated at all?" Mary directed her question at Buck since Chris's attention was fixed on the viewer and she didn't want to distract him.

"Just one message - standby."

"Standby?" Mary stared at the First Officer in puzzlement. "What does that mean?"

"No idea. We've tried hailing them, but they're on silent running."

"What do the Fibonan or Teenaxi have to say about this? This rendezvous point was meant to be a secret." Mary found it extremely disconcerting that this mysterious ship should appear at this point in time. While its presence could be excused as an accident, its timing was not.

"They have chosen not to respond to Mr. Dunne's numerous hails since our initial contact," Ezra's voice though melodic as always, bore the hard edge of hostility, and Mary suspected Chris wasn't the only predator lurking in the depths. Ezra could be just as dangerous.

Mary's shock at the Fibonan and Teenaxi's silence was brushed aside with Chris's next order.

"Ezra, raise shields."

"Gladly," the Chief's relief was evident even through his usual gambler's facade. "Raising shields Captain."

"Are they in sensor range yet?" Buck asked. "We should be close enough to get some kind of a read from them."

"They're in range," Alex looked up unhappily from the science station, "but I can't penetrate their shields. They're generating a high-energy dampening field that is scattering our sensor beam. I'm going to try again using a..."

"Captain! They're hailing us."

JD's announcement brought the bridge to a standstill. All eyes turned to the command chair, awaiting for Chris Larabee to take the lead. The ship was still closing in, and its previous silence had heightened their sense of foreboding at nothing about this feeling right.

"Put it through."

The Captain's voice was calm, and those who served with him knew he was on guard, poised to retaliate if the unknown vessel did not provide a reasonable explanation for their behavior.

The master of the vessel appeared on the main viewer, with only his face illuminated while the rest of his ship remained shrouded in darkness. Chris knew the tactic. It was meant to intimidate as well as keep the layout of the bridge a secret. A chill ran down his spine, warning him of danger. As those dark eyes glared at him through the screen, Chris knew this was no friend or ally.

"I am Krall." His voice sounded like shifting gravel.

His features were alien, with prominent ridges running from the back of his skull to his nose, reminding Chris of a Japanese kabuki mask. Instead of being covered with vibrant colors and ornate design, this one was powdery blue, with striations that looked almost reptilian. Dark eyes stared at Chris through hallowed sockets, and past his thin blue lips were rows of uneven teeth.

"I'm Captain Chris Larabee of the USS Maverick," Chris replied, keeping things cordial until they weren't. "What can we do for you?"

Krall blinked slowly before answering. "You can surrender your ship."

Chris's jaw tightened, and although the desire to retaliate with anger was great, his ability to size up an enemy at an instant warned Chris to take care. He wasn't about to underestimate Krall because no one made a challenge like that to one of Starfleet's most formidable warships without having the power to back it up. Without looking at the rest of his bridge, he could tell how his bridge was reacting to Krall's demand.

JD glanced at him, wanting to see his reaction while Buck opened his mouth to speak, only to have Chris shoot him a look to stand down. Mary was staring at Krall, no doubt wracking her mind to remember if this species was known to them. As always, Vin remained calm, displaying more Vulcaness than the helmsman thought himself capable. Right now, Vin was not thinking about Krall's provocative words but how to plot the fastest way out of danger if this alien picked a fight.

Chris knew Ezra was already arming phasers and photon torpedoes to cut off any hostile act the instant Chris gave the word. Next to the Chief, Alex was just as oblivious to the enemy at her science station. No doubt she was doubling her efforts to scan the enemy ship by breaching the dampening field intended to keep them out.

"And why am I going to do that?" Chris returned the question with a stare just as intense as the one he was receiving.

"You will surrender your ship Captain Larabee, or I will take it apart, one piece at a time."

Chris leaned forward in his chair. "I like to see you try."

Krall's expression did not change.

"We do not try Chris, we will destroy you and your ship if you do not surrender. Your Federation plague will not be allowed to further contaminate the galaxy. Your time is over. We, the Entropy, are ending it. "

Chapter Three:
Trap

"RED ALERT. ALL HANDS BATTLESTATIONS."

Yellow alert klaxons provided Julia and Chanu with musical accompaniment during their race from the starboard nacelle to Engineering. On the way, the duo sighted the unnerving yet familiar sight of the crew running to their stations while security ushered civilians back to their quarters. She imagined Inez chasing people out of Four Corners while holodeck programs disengaged, bringing an abrupt end to any unfolding fantasy.

In Engineering, the scene was no different, with her engineering staff crewing their stations. Technicians prepared their portable tool kits to deal with the inevitable damage that came with going into battle. Elsewhere, warp field specialists surrounded the altar of the warp core, ready to attend to its every system as the engagement unfolded. Entirely shielded in the belly of the starboard section of the Maverick, there was no way to see the enemy outside, but the First Officer's call that took the ship from condition yellow to red gave them a clear enough picture.

Julia went to her engineering station and through its display saw the same view of the enemy ship as the bridge.

At first sight, the mass of the craft surprised her. It was twice the size of the Maverick, bringing the word 'dreadnought' to mind, but as she studied it, her brow wrinkled in uneasiness. The pattern of its hull reminded Julia of reptilian scales, but there was something in the edges that prompted her interest. Magnifying the view, the idea of scales vanished with the reality before her.

In starship design, it was understood unnecessary joins in hull plating created a more significant potential for structural weakness. Hull plating was easier to tear off because seals failed, rivets and bolts popped under pressure. The structural integrity of a starship needed to survive high warp, gravimetric forces, and solar flares was better with minimal joins in the plating.

The ship she was looking at had so many joins it didn't make sense. Yet as she magnified the image to study it better, ignoring the sounds of screaming alert, Julia noticed something else.

"Chanu!" She called the assistant chief engineer. "Get over here."

Chanu, who was running a list of names for the repair crew, halted what he was doing and hurried to her side. "What's up?"

"Take a look at this. What do those look like?"

Chanu leaned forward and spotted the problem immediately. There was something familiar in the numerous joins running across the hull of the alien ship. While Julia saw it as scales, Chanu thought it looked like mesh, each with its own diamond shape pattern. "Weird configuration for hull plating. All it takes for one to break off, and the vacuum will tear out the rest."

"Exactly," Julia agreed, glad her observation had merit. "No one designs a ship this way without reason, but there's something about those joins that reminds me of..."

Her eyes flew open as the realization hit her like a sledgehammer.

Her bone-white pallor alarmed Chanu, but before the engineer could speak, Julia was already tapping at her station, wearing a dozen kinds of urgency on her face.

His eyes shifted to the console, noticing the detailed scan she was running. It wasn't the kind the bridge would run, and Chanu recognized it as a routine diagnostic of the filtration system. Far from being an empty vacuum, space had its own kind of current, accelerated by forward momentum. As a result the Maverick often picked up dust, plasma residue in all its forms, which the filtration system prevented from reaching the rest of the ship.

When in the proximity of other ships, the readings were high due to the foreign matter introduced to the filters. Most of these were harmless, but the plasma fumes from other exhaust systems carried a unique signature. What Chanu saw on the screen made him understand Julia's anxiety.

"Jesus," Chanu whispered. "Is that what I think it is?"

Once again, Julia didn't answer. Instead, she reached for her combadge and prayed her warning didn't come too late.


"....Your time is over. We, the Entropy, are ending it."

Silence fell over the bridge as Buck watched Chris process the statement. On either side of the view screen, the two commanders faced each other without saying a word. Something ran up Buck's spine, a chill of foreboding reminiscent of seeing a Borg cube for the first time, or even more sinister than that, the first glimpse of the ancient ship Sulaco. Except now, that ominous feeling didn't come from a vessel, but the man challenging Chris with such cold hatred.

For his part, the Captain of the Maverick met the man's glare with similar intensity, and Buck found himself thinking about the Magnificent Seven holo program where Chris assumed the role of the Man in Black. At this moment, Buck could picture his friend and captain staring down the enemy from the end of a dusty street, waiting to see who would draw first.

"Go for it."

"Chief Engineer Pemberton to the Bridge, this is an emergency!"

Chris immediately gestured at JD to mute their communications, having no wish for Krall to be privy to what was happening on the Maverick's bridge with Julia's startling interruption. He was convinced Krall had a hand to play. What that might be, remained elusive for now. The Entropy's leader's confidence was too assured for Chris to dismiss his threats as simple posturing.

"What is it, Julia?"

Chris' voice was calm, a stark contrast to the chaos taking place around him. Alerts continued to flash red all across the bridge panels while the computer continued to issue orders to the crew to get to battlestations. Behind him, Ezra and Alex were working in concert at their stations, one trying to crack the enemy's ships sensors while the other preparing their defensive response when the attack came. Similarly, Vin and JD kept their eyes locked on the viewer, ready for action if the enemy ship made a wrong move.

"Captain, the Maverick's filters are detecting multiple plasma signatures coming from that ship, each with slightly different variations..."

"Oh my God," Alex reacted first, understanding immediately what that meant.

So did Chris.

The Captain sat up ramrod straight in his chair. "Vin, back us away now!"

At the helm, Vin obeyed without question, recognizing the urgency in his Captain's voice even if he didn't quite understand the danger dawning not just on Chris but his wife following Julia's announcement. Krall's ship began to shrink as the Maverick reversed thrusters but not slightly but not fast enough.

"Ezra, forget torpedoes, arm all phaser banks," Buck ordered at the same time, the complete threat of the ship unfolding with Julia's information.

"By your command," Ezra replied with just enough uncharacteristic emotion in his voice for everyone on the bridge to know he was grateful for the gloves coming off.

"What's going on?" Mary questioned, trying to comprehend the stalemate between the two ships ending with the Maverick on the defensive.

"It's the plasma," Buck explained, "whether warp, drive or magnetic, plasma produced inside the dilithium controlled reaction assembly of any ship produces a distinct signature. It's why we can follow a ship's warp trail."

As if to compound the danger, Alex looked up from her science station, her expression grave now that Julia's information told her what to look for. "I've recalibrated our sensors and now detecting multiple signatures based on the readings from the ship's filtration systems."

"Multiple?" Mary's eyes widened.

There was no time to give her an explanation because the repeated trilling of a hail rose above the sounds of proximity and conditioned red alerts. JD glanced over his shoulder at Chris, his youth incapable of hiding the apprehension in his eyes at their worsening situation.

"Captain, Krall is hailing us again."

"Let's hear it. Audio only." Now that he knew what ace Krall was hiding beneath his sleeve, there was no need for a face-to-face discussion.

"....I'll give you a choice Chris. Surrender your ship, or I shall take it."

"Over my dead body," Chris growled back, fighting the urge to react to that arrogant confidence. This was the time to let his temper get away with him, not when the crew needed him focussed.

"That is a given, but I promise I will give your crew the treatment they deserve."

"Son of a bitch..." Buck swore, outraged by the man's audacity.

"JD, we're done talking." Chris shot JD a look. "Cut comms. He's got nothing to say I want to hear."

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "I'm detecting a massive build-up of energy across the hull."

Even as she said those words, the giant ship in front of them began to break apart as if space itself was creating fissures across its hull. The dreadnought deconstructed before their eyes, evolving into a fleet of numerous smaller ships. For a second, it looked as if it disintegrated into a cloud of dust because there were so many, it was difficult to count, but then Chris thought silently, that was rather the point.

"Magnify JD."

A second after Buck's order, the main viewer zoomed in on one section of the cloud. The ship, one of many, was similar in size to the old Constitution-class shuttles. It was half the size of a runabout, with a dark metal hull shaped like the broken tip of sharp canine fangs. As it raced towards the Maverick's hull, Chris suddenly had the image of an elephant being plagued by a nest of hornets.

"How many are there?"

Like Ezra, Alex usually kept a tight rein on her emotions, but even Chris had to look over his shoulder at her sharp intake of breath. "How many?"

"At least a thousand."

"A thousand?" Mary was the only one to verbalize her shock, but it was a sentiment they all shared.

More than enough, Chris thought silently, aware of the danger that swarm posed to the Maverick. Most space-faring races adopted energy weapons to defend themselves, whether phasers, disruptors, or polaron beams. When more destructive power was needed, quantum and photon torpedoes were deployed. As such, shields were developed to combat energy-based weapons, and while they could protect a starship from collision, there was a limit to how much it could absorb.

 "Vin, get us out of here at full impulse."

Vin's lightning-fast reflexes set the Maverick in motion a split second later. The main viewer showed the great ship's sudden change of trajectory as the Maverick moved forward to veer away from the oncoming armada of vessels. To counter the Maverick's attempt to depart, engines flared to life across the fleet. The dark cloud glittered like twinkling stars, and the view would almost be breathtaking if one didn't know it was a storm capable of ripping the Maverick apart. Pouring more power into the impulse drive, the starship's engines hummed even louder as the Maverick raced to clear the system.

"Krall's ships are in pursuit," Ezra reported, his expression appearing stonier than usual. "They are entering attack formation."

"Alex, are they warp-capable?"

Buck hated the idea of running, but a thousand ships, no matter how small, would still overload the Maverick's shields in a united assault. Furthermore, they knew nothing about this Krall. What if he had more ships waiting in reserve?

"Affirmative," she answered him promptly. Now that the ships had deconstructed into their individual components, she could scan them properly, although Alex was uncertain how that information would benefit them right now. "The bulk of their power is devoted to propulsion. Their weapons would barely penetrate our shields."

"That's not how they're going to come at us," Chris warned, already guessing Krall's strategy. It was the only reason why the Maverick was being overwhelmed with such numbers. "Ezra, fire all phaser banks in as wide a pattern as possible."

"Already configuring our firing sequence, Captain," Ezra stated, having thought that far ahead once he saw the swarm of ships coming for them.

"Good. Fire at will."

Running didn't sit well with Chris, but the truth was, if those ships reached them before they could escape to maximum warp, the Maverick would take a beating.

"Firing phasers!"

Amber's streams of phaser power crisscrossed the space behind the Maverick, illuminating the dark vacuum of space. The deadly beams of energy struck several small ships immediately, obliterating them completely with its initial assault. Debris hurtled in all directions, with pieces of the tiny fighters spreading out across space. However, instead of retreating, the armada sped up with engines firing once again.

"Captain, they're increasing their speed!" Alex exclaimed.

"Ezra, fire a torpedo in the thickest part of the armada and detonate it on my mark!"

"Torpedo away," Ezra answered almost immediately, and the viewer showed the device speeding away from the Maverick like an amber comet, heading towards the swarm.

"Now!"

Chris' order was followed by the detonation of the torpedoes payload. The surrounding space came alive like a star going nova, illuminating the darkness for a second before the blast exploded outward, claiming a dozen more ships from the enemy's armada. The formation was in disarray for a few seconds, with the small crafts retreating from the explosive radius like the ripples created by a pebble hitting a pond.

The Maverick's victory was brief.

"Captain, Krall's hailing us again."

"Do you think he might be withdrawing?" Mary asked Chris following JD's announcement. The Maverick was heading away from the fight once more, leaving behind the enemy who seemed for the moment disorientated.

"No," Chris shook his head, having a sense about Krall. "But let's hear what he has to say. Vin, maintain our speed. We need time to figure out how to boost our defenses before we take this bastard on."

"You ain't gotta tell me twice."

"Putting him through."

Chris braced himself for Krall's communication, reasonably sure of what the man would have to say. A sidelong glance at Mary told Chris she was afraid, and she had good reason to be. This enemy was unknown to them, using a form of attack most starships never had to face.

"You had enough?"

"Your Federation arrogance will not save you or your ship," Krall's aloof face appeared once again. "I'm giving you one last chance to surrender. So far, we've been holding back because I'd like to keep the Maverick in one piece. It has some value as a trophy, but I will shred her like paper if you do not give her up."

"Bastard," Ezra hissed beneath his breath in an uncharacteristic display of emotion.

"Ezra, fire all weapons."

Before Chris's orders could be fulfilled, Krall's forces abandoned the idea of regrouping, and now the cloud was dividing into two narrow formations, no more than four wide. The storm of ships looked like two dark tentacles, extending their reach towards the Maverick. As the Maverick's weapons fired, the fighters were executing vertical and delta rolls with perfection, avoiding the phaser blasts with ease and shortening the distance between the two combatants.

"Fire another torpedo!" Buck exclaimed.

"Captain, if we do that, we may overload our shields," Ezra warned. "At present, the only way we can withstand that assault is with full shield strength."

"Can we cloak?"

Chris had already considered that, but it was Buck who answered Mary.

Negative," Buck shook his head. "We have to lower our shields to do that, and with that many ships in the air, we'd risk a collision that would do serious damage."

Yet as Chris watched the oncoming swarm of ships, he knew they were running out of options. Once those ships reached them, their shields would be tested anyway. Their present coordinates were largely uncharted, filled with too many large spatial bodies like uninhabited moons and flotsam from the nearby Gagarin Radiation Belt. Going to warp in such an area was dangerous, and he wondered how much of their predicament was by design.

The Fibonan and Teenaxi had led them into a trap.

"Incoming!"

Alex's warning made Chris forget about the Fibonans and Teenaxi's treachery for now. Impossibly, the enemy ships were accelerating, with only a tiny fraction of their ships destroyed by the Maverick's defenses. Vin was doing a valiant job of keeping ahead of them, but until they could get to warp, the Maverick would have to defend itself.

Win or lose, the Maverick would have to fight.

"All hands," Chris said as the swarm of ships enveloped the Maverick, filling up the view screen. "Brace for impact."

Chapter Four:
Shields

"Chanu, we have to start diverting auxiliary power to the shields! I want every spare amp we have to reinforce its integrity!"

"Aye, Sir!" Chanu nodded, hurrying to his station to carry out that order as fast as they could. The instant the first enemy ship ran into their shields, the strength would immediately begin to fluctuate. It was their job to ensure it did not falter enough to let any of those dart-like ships reach the hull, or worse yet, allow cracks big enough for the enemy to transport.

He no sooner reached his console when the ship shuddered violently.

The jolt was severe enough for everyone to feel it. Chanu saw Julia grip the edges of her station to avoid losing her balance and did the same, barely holding on. In the midst of all this, he raised his eyes to the warp core, pulsing obliviously in the center of engineering to search behind it. It was hard to see clearly when everything was shaking, but a flash of the sapphire glow on one of the specialist's faces allowed him to see Claire. His wife was unhurt and didn't notice his observation. She was too busy monitoring the readings on the warp core at present.

"WARNING. Shield integrity is now at 92 percent efficiency."

The reading snapped Chanu out of his distraction, and he exchanged an anxious glance with Julia, who understood the severity of that reading as well as he did. An eight percent loss in the first volley meant the Maverick just expended a considerable amount of energy repelling the attack. If the enemy could maintain that bombardment, their shield power would plunge like a stone.

"Diverting auxiliary power now!" Chanu shouted over the computer's warnings.

As his fingers flew over the dark display, drawing power from the systems able to afford it, another jolt rocked the ship, just as jarring. This time the effect was more acute as relays started to short circuit from the overload. One of the console screens flickered in disorientation as the computer offered an update on their shield strength.

"Shield strength down 86 percent."

"Bridge to Engineering, we need more power to the shields!"

"We're diverting auxiliary power, Commander," Julia answered Buck's order, but the last of her words were drowned out by another earth-shattering shudder.

Another relay shorted, sending sparks across the floor beneath it. Smoke began hissing from the fried circuitry as an engineer rushed to repair the damage.

"Shield strength is at now 79 percent."

"Engineering...!

Julia ignored Buck's repeated order, already carrying out the procedure to reinforce the deflector with additional power. While its diagnostics still appeared in the green, the number was tumbling quickly. When it hit seventy, it would switch to amber, and Julia had no intention of allowing it to get that far. As the power flow shifted, Julia watched the levels begin to rise.

79....80....81...

It was working!

"We've diverted power to the shields commander, but if we keep taking the pounding we are, we won't hold it for long."

All of a sudden, the floor gave way under Julia. One minute she was upright, and the next, her knees hit the deck hard, forcing her to cry out in pain. More relays shorted across a dozen panels across engineering while conduits ruptured along bulkheads. As Julia recovered from the ship's sudden lurch, she heard something overlapping the hiss of venting gasses and anxious chatter. Raising her eyes to the warp core, she saw the pulse of blue along the column become erratic, indicating there was some damage to the plasma systems containing the mix.

"What the hell just happened?" Julia demanded, getting to her feet.

Chanu's hand was on her forearm, helping her up, and gestured towards the still functioning view screen on the chief engineer's station.

"Oh God," Julia's hand flew to her mouth.

The Maverick was surrounded. No, not just surrounded, enveloped. The only thing keeping the tiny darts away from the hull was the shield, and with each collision, she could see the force field shimmer in reaction. An absurd thought struck her despite their fragile situation. The Maverick was trapped in a bubble while a swarm of hornets tried to make it pop. As Julia watched the enemy ships closing in on the Maverick like a piranha, a horrific revelation surfaced in her mind.

"Bridge!" Julia tapped her com badge. "They're not trying to penetrate the shields! They're trying to overload it!"


The statement from Engineering scattered in the wake of another violent jolt across the bridge.

Space and the stars disappeared behind the darts converging on the Maverick like a storm of moths. The enemy hurled themselves at the shields, like ancient invaders assaulting the walls of an impregnable castle, determined to bring down the barriers by sheer force of will. Each collision shuddered through the Maverick's hull and through all bulkheads.

The instant Chris Larabee witnessed the deconstruction of the dreadnought into its smaller components, he knew this was the ultimate result. Size didn't matter, not when you had numbers like these. Vin was doing a valiant job to shake the swarm off, even though the enemy used the Maverick's forward inertia to maintain pursuit. How he managed to do this while the ship shook around him amazed Chris. Unfortunately, the Captain did not have time to offer the compliment to the Officer of the Conn.

"Chris, we have to risk going to warp, or we're not going to shake them off before our shields give out."

Before Chris could tell Buck how hazardous this could be, Vin shouted from the helm.

"EVERYBODY HANG ON!"

That was all the warning they got before Vin banked hard to starboard. The Maverick veered so sharply right, it seemed to swat away at least a dozen darts as the great ship turned. They scrambled to get clear of each other as they tumbled away out of control. Some managed to do so. Others did not, and their ships exploded across darkened space.

Meanwhile, Chris barely held on himself, gripping his armrest with one hand while the other held on to Mary's forearm to keep her from falling out of her chair. JD was not so lucky, but the young navigator recovered quickly, scrambling back to his station with cat-like speed. Behind them, Ezra and Alex stayed at their terminals. Ezra was somehow continuing to fire all phasers, but his efforts to reduce enemy numbers were akin to sweeping the sand from a beach.

"Our shields are holding, but we're dropping strength again. Shields are presently at 75 percent."

"We have to go to warp," Buck insisted again after hearing Alex's grim report.

"Inadvisable commander," Ezra chimed in before Chris could. "There are too many ships in our way, we are continuing to maintain our deflector strength, but if we collide with any of those ships when jumping to warp, I cannot guarantee how much of a power drain would result."

"How long can we hold out?"

Until now, Mary remained silent because there was little she could contribute to the discussion as protocol officer. Chris almost ordered her off the bridge but knew she wouldn't leave without an argument, which he didn't have time for right now. She was a bridge officer and felt it her duty to remain with her comrades, even under these dire circumstances.

"Not indefinitely," Buck answered as another wall of ships rushed at them.

"INCOMING MESSAGE FROM KRALL."

Chris swore, not wanting to hear what posturing the man had to make now, but it was unwise to ignore him either. "Put it through."

A burst of static followed, and Krall's face appeared on the viewer again.

"Perhaps I was wrong about how weak you are Chris, your ship is putting up a valiant defense."

"We'll defend it all the way to hell," Chris bit back, not at all fooled by the show of respect from the enemy commander. He had seen the man's eyes and knew Krall was trying to lull him into lowering his guard, the use of his name as if they were old friends notwithstanding.

"I give you one more chance to surrender your ship," Krall repeated. "I promise your crew will be safe."

Liar. Every fiber of Chris's being knew this to be the truth. He'd been able to save his ship from a dozen kinds of danger because he could always read his opponent and everything Chris knew about this man, told the Captain of the Maverick, this was a ruse. There would be no surrender and no mercy.

"I don't think so."

"Alright then," Krall's voice became low with menace. "This is on your head."

With that, the viewer returned to the space battle taking place.

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing good," Chris continued to stare at the dizzying view of the Maverick trying to shake off its attackers, bracing himself for the ace Krall so obviously had up his sleeve.

"Captain!" Alex burst out, her voice frantic. "I'm detecting a power surge in at least twenty of those ships."

"Power surge?" Chris stood up abruptly. "Vin! Evasive pattern Niagara!"

Vin never had the chance to perform the extreme maneuver because the twenty ships converging on the Maverick struck the vessel like a hammer blow before Chris's worst fears were confirmed. They exploded on impact, lighting up space in flares of purple before the massive energy wave from the booby traps they undoubtedly had on board assaulted the Maverick's shields. As multiple blasts rippled across the saucer section and the nacelles, the bright glare forced everyone to look away.

Not that they had much time to suffer it because everything went to hell after.

In comparison to this latest assault against the shields, the previous attacks seemed like love taps. The Maverick jerked from side to side with each blast. The deck lurched and heaved while her superstructure quaked all around them. Systems screamed as dampeners attempted to contain the overload and failed. The power flickered on and off across the bridge, plunging everyone into darkness for a few seconds as conduits ruptured. One workstation exploded with Ezra pulling Alex away to safety before she was bathed in shrapnel and glass.

"What the hell was that!"

Alex gave Ezra a nod of thanks before answering the Captain's demand. "They hit us with some kind of polaron-based weapon. Captain," she looked up at Chris and Buck in horror. "It's drained our shields by almost 65 percent."

"Jesus," Vin whispered, wiping a smear of green blood from his cheek after being struck by someone's flying mug during the Maverick's violent tumbling.

"Get us moving!" Chris ordered, not about to debate the matter when Krall's ship was converging on the Maverick to take advantage of the starship's wounded state. He doubted Krall would expend all his polaron traps in the first volley and would launch another attempt if the Maverick remained where it was. Polaron weapons were employed by the Dominion during the war and were capable of disabling starship shields. By the end of the conflict, Starfleet's engineers devised a defense, but not before they lost a good many ships in the process.

"Damage report!" Buck tapped his com badge while Chris barked orders at the helm.

"Bridge, our deflector array has been overloaded. Half the circuits are fried or outright destroyed. We're barely managing to keep the shield functioning. I've sent repair crews out to restore them, but that will take time. "

"We don't have time, Julia!" Buck tried not to snap, but they now had minimal shields, and nothing was going to stop that swarm from collapsing the rest of it. "They're going to be outside knocking on the door if we don't get our shield strength up!"

It was worse than that, and everyone on the bridge knew it. Even if the enemy didn't start breaching the hull, there were enough fluctuations in their shield strength to allow Krall's Entropy to beam straight through. In a matter of minutes, the Maverick could be boarded.

"We're working as fast as we can," Julia's clipped tone made Buck feel immediately guilty because he knew the woman would be pushing her team just as hard as he was doing to her right now.

"They're making another attack run!" JD cried out, having monitored the enemy's trajectory.

"Keep firing phasers!"

The space between them and the enemy soon lit up with multiple blasts from their phaser cannon. The powerful beams lit the expanse with amber bolts of energy obliterating any ship in their path. Still, once again, Chris realized even after he gave Ezra the order, it would not be enough to stop the Entropy's advance. There were just too many of them. While the darts lost some of their numbers, it was nowhere enough to dull the blow about to strike the Maverick. Instead, they regrouped, forming their original attack pattern and continuing their intercept course.

They moved in a spiral-like formation, making it harder for Ezra to target them. The Maverick was not accustomed to this kind of engagement, and it showed.

"Damn! They're moving too fast for me to get an accurate lock."

Things had to be bad if Ezra was using contractions, Chris thought absurdly.

"Can we detonate a torpedo?" Mary's voice was filled with anxiety at the sight of the advancing ships.

"Not without overloading what's left of our shields," Alex explained quickly because the Captain and the First Officer were too busy before adding, "and there isn't much left."

"Engineering!" Buck called out again. "We need more strength to our shields!"

No answer came because Chris suspected Julia was already hard at work trying to reinforce their shields which were dangerously close to collapsing.

"Vin, evasive maneuvers!"

Vin was already reaching for the maneuvering thrusters. With less than ten seconds before the swarm enveloped them again, he dropped the nose of the great ship, tilting it at a dangerously steep 45-degree angle before firing the main engines. The phalanx of enemy craft rushed above them with only seconds to spare, saving their deteriorating shields for just a little longer.

This time both Mary and Chris tumbled forward from their seats at the sudden drop. Buck made a wild attempt to grab them and lost his own balance. Meanwhile, Ezra's sheer force of will kept him at his station because the barrage of phaser fire had to continue to keep the Entropy's forces away. Beside him, Alex was monitoring their shields which were now down to ten percent. From the readings, she could tell Julia was diverting power from other systems to rebuild the deteriorating wall behind them.

"Captain, they're changing formation!"

JD's announcement was followed by the visual on the main viewer. As Chris scrambled back to his command chair, helping Mary at the same time, the screen revealed the spiral formation returning to its original cloud shape. Then matching them at almost dizzying speed, the swarm descended. A hundred small ships broke off from the main body, closely followed by the others. They weaved past the bolts of energy Ezra was firing desperately to defend the Maverick. Closing in on the Maverick's hull, the invisible barrier protecting them offered little resistance.

"They've penetrated our shields!"

"Christ," Buck whispered as he watched in horror as the darts approached the hull of the Maverick.

"All hands, brace for impact!"

The warning felt almost impotent to Chris because he could do nothing to stop the onslaught about to take on his ship. Stomach clenched for the inevitable, the Maverick shook violently as the first of the darts struck the hull. The earlier aftershock was muted by space despite its violence. This time everyone on the Maverick felt the impact to their bones. The ship heaved in violent protestation of its injury, jerking crew all back and forth wherever they were.

"HULL BREACH ON STARBOARD SECTION."

The computer revealed calmly over the sounds of screaming alerts and through the red glow across the bridge.

"One of those ships penetrated the hull from Deck 30 through to Deck...." Alex's voice trailed up before she shifted her gaze towards Ezra, "36."

"Engineering!" Buck reacted immediately, seeing the color drain from Ezra's face. "Come in, Engineering!"

There was no answer.

Ezra didn't react because he couldn't. While his first impulse was to run down and see for himself if Julia was okay, the enemy was still converging on them. The starship was simply not equipped for this kind of engagement, which was why the Captain ordered them to retreat. Ezra continued to fire phasers in all directions, but the darts were too small, too maneuverable for him to do any lasting damage to their numbers.

"They're targeting the nacelles!"

"Like hell they are!" Vin shouted hearing Alex's latest report. "Everyone, hold on!"

Chris wasn't going to argue with whatever Vin had in mind. "DO IT!"

The Maverick performed a 180-degree roll. Above all else, Vin had to protect the nacelles before the darts tore them apart, and any hope the starship had to escape to pieces. Everything not bolted down in the bridge went flying as the Maverick performed its extreme maneuver, making them all achieve some kind of weightlessness before the grav plating had time to recalibrate. When it did, the Maverick's bridge crew thudded back into their seats before two more violent jolts rocked the ship.

"Captain," Alex said with a calm tone in stark contrast to the chaos around them. "We've lost our shields."

Chris drew in his breath, not responding because as bad as things had been up to this point, they were about to get a whole lot worse.

Chapter Five:
Breach

No one expected the Maverick to go into battle.

Their mission to this sector was one of peace, to mediate a truce between two warring factions on the brink of annihilation. In the briefing before they left Deep Space Five, Doctor Nathan Jackson remembered sitting around the conference table with the rest of the senior staff discussing their objectives. Hostilities were not expected since it was the Teenaxi and the Fibonans who asked for Federation assistance. If there was any violence, they would likely direct their aggression to their enemy, not the neutral party in-between.

Thus the call to battle stations took everyone by complete surprise.

Nathan, who was on his way to Sick Bay for the beginning of his shift, watched as the relaxed pace of everyone in the corridor vanished abruptly as the klaxons and condition alerts began screaming. As if time had suddenly sped up, people were no longer walking. They were running. The crew raced to their stations while civilians with children ushered them to the nearest turbo lifts. There was nothing but frantic activity for a few seconds until the enemy ships appeared in the observation windows.

Time stopped for them again, this time not from surprise but from horror.

Like his crewmates, Nathan gaped as the oncoming storm, swirling across space like some terrible beast seeking to punch a hole through the world, or in this case, the Maverick. Fear gripped all of them, and for a few seconds, they were all slaves to its power until Nathan remembered he was the senior ranking officer, and he had to act. If the onslaught of those ships was as bad as he suspected it was going to be, they couldn't stay here.

"EVERYONE, GET MOVING! GET WHERE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE OR GET TO YOUR QUARTERS!"

As if he'd flipped a switch in their heads, everyone snapped back to the moment. Overhead, the First Officer issued more orders over the comms, prompting the crew to jog to their stations instead of walking briskly. Anxious voices joined the orchestra of stomping feet and computer alerts as Maverick personnel scattered throughout the deck and towards the nearest Jeffries tube. He did the same, needing to reach Sick Bay to prepare for the influx of injured once the shooting started.

Stepping inside the turbo lift, the faces sharing the space with him were familiar. As the ship's doctor, Nathan would eventually meet everyone on board. On this occasion, he recognized Lt. Charlotte Richmond, Ensign Drav, a Tellarite who worked in Engineering, Judith Seils, one of the ship's botanists, and two children who belonged to the Maverick's entomologist, Lt. Tagaloa. Aged nine and six, they looked understandably frightened.

"Hey, you'll be okay," Charlotte brushed the hair of the youngest Tagaloa child, Aroha. Despite assurance by her older brother Keola, the little girl was frightened by the emergency. "Take my hand, and I'll get you to your quarters? Your dad shouldn't be too far behind."

"That's right," Nathan added his voice to Charlotte's promise. "No need for a bug doctor to be anywhere else but with you at a time like this."

Both children giggled at the description, and Charlotte who was Alex's right hand in the Science Department and technically Lt. Tagaloa's superior, gave the doctor a look. "A bug doctor, really? Like you're a 'people' doctor?"

The attempt at levity was sorely needed to forget even for a moment that the ship was presently under attack by enemies unknown. Nathan flashed Charlotte a grin, having gotten to know the woman better since she'd been promoted. As the two senior officers, they needed to keep everyone calm. No easy thing to do when they could hear the Maverick's battering.

Suddenly, the steady pulse of the lift's machinery was interrupted by a violent jolt. It drove everyone to their knees and filled the small space with sudden cries of fear.

"What the hell was that?" Nathan picked himself off the floor and noticed Judith looking somewhat dazed as she rubbed her head. "Judy, you okay?"

"Yes, yes," the petite blond woman nodded, still not quite focussed and wincing when she dabbed a tender spot on the back of her skull. "I just knocked my head against the wall."

"Let me see," he ordered and hovered over her while she tilted forward to let him examine her. A few seconds of gentle probing brought a frown to Nathan's face. "You got a pretty impressive bump back there. We better get you to Sickbay, so I can take a better look."

"What's happening?" She looked up at him. "I thought we were on a peaceful mission."

"We were," Charlotte confirmed, having assisted Alex in preparing the report of this sector. "We're only supposed to be mediating their dispute, not getting in the middle of it."

"We've stopped," Ensign Drav pointed out. "Something must have hit our shields hard enough to activate the emergency protocols."

Nathan did not like the sound of that at all, his mind surfacing a memory of climbing up a Jeffries tube when the Accrans had taken over the ship a year earlier. He and Rain had become trapped in a turbo lift and escaped by climbing through the escape hatch above. Unfortunately, as they scaled the shaft to reach the nearest doors, the module began rising, and they barely escaped being crushed to death. He did not want to have to go through that again.

Before he could voice any further concerns, the lift started moving, although the steady hum accompanying them during the journey seemed sharper somehow. Something wasn't right, Nathan thought silently, not about to panic anyone with that observation, but he didn't have to.

"We need to get off this thing," Charlotte spoke to him in a softer voice, although in their confined space, there were no secrets. "I think the mechanism is malfunctioning. The system is programmed to get us to the nearest deck, which I think is Deck 30."

"Lt. Richmond is correct," Drav agreed. "One of the clamps might be damaged."

"Sounds like a plan. Okay, everyone, we're getting off on Deck 30. Non-Starfleet personnel and non-essential crew can ride this thing out in crew quarters. Everyone else, we're going to have to get there the old-fashioned way."

He no sooner uttered those words when the lift was rocked by another violent jolt. This time, the floor gave way and they all dropped to their feet again. Beneath them, the module felt as if it were in free fall, plunging through the innards of the Maverick. With g-forces weighing them down and making it hard to stand, panicked cries filled the rumbling drone of the turbo lift speeding through the shaft.

Through the confusion, Nathan saw Charlotte struggling to her feet, fighting the intense pull of gravity. With the strain etched across her face, she inched up the wall before bracing her back and leg against it to remain upright. Her destination was the lift panel, but instead of reaching for the controls, she was prising open the board beneath it.

"What are you doing?" Nathan asked, struggling to do the same to help her because she obviously had a plan. Sometimes, he wished he understood the mechanics of starship operation as well as he knew the physiology of living things.

"Trying to reach the emergency override!" Charlotte shouted over the noises around her. Finding the release latch, the panel slid apart to reveal a lever surrounded by a circular casing. The handle was painted in emergency colors of black and yellow, giving no doubt about its purpose. It was long enough for her to grab it with both hands and pull hard.

It gave after a second of resistance, propelling her backward when it snapped into place. The floor rushed up to greet Charlotte. The doctor grabbed her under the arms to keep her from tumbling into the other occupants of the lift. Everything came to a dead halt, and for a few seconds, they were sardines in a can shaken hard, with limbs tangling. A light tube above exploded, spraying them with sparks, and then broke free to dangle dangerously overhead.

"Everyone alright?" Nathan asked once he collected himself.

Charlotte was scrambling back to little Aroha, who was clinging to her brother. The pair seemed unhurt, but their tear-streaked faces showed they were traumatized by what had just happened.

"Doctor Jackson!" Judith called out to him. Beside her, Drav was sprawled across the floor, his ankle crooked at an unusual angle. Judging by the grimace on his porcine face, Nathan guessed quickly he'd broken it.

"Damn," Nathan cursed, dropping to his knees to examine the young man, wishing badly that he had his medkit right now. How the ankle was positioned told Nathan this was no slight injury, and Drav needed to be taken to Sick Bay immediately. With a start, Nathan realized he'd forgotten his combadge. With things moving at a rapid-fire pace, no one thought to get help, and Nathan cursed himself for not remembering sooner.

"Sick Bay, this is Doctor Jackson. We got injured in Turbo Lift 14. I think it's stopped at Deck 30, so have a med team waiting for me there."

A burst of static followed before Nathan heard a familiar voice.

"Doctor Jackson!" Maria Ruiz, his head nurse, responded with relief. "We've got casualties flooding Sick Bay, and no one can get in touch with engineering!"

"I need to get to my post!" Drav grunted, displaying his species' most notable trait, the inability to accept any advice without argument, especially after hearing the urgent state of the ship.

The ship shuddered again, and Nathan could believe the Maverick was under siege. Further heightening the urgency of their predicament, the steel module groaned and scraped with unnerving sounds. Nathan exchanged a quick look with Charlotte, both of them acknowledging wordlessly, they needed to evacuate everyone before those strained emergency clamps gave way entirely.

"Someone help me with the door!" Charlotte ordered sharply.

"Forget engineering," Nathan told Maria as he tended to Drav's foot. "Looks like they've got their hands busy. Just get someone to Deck 30."

Meanwhile, Charlotte with Judith's help prised open the turbo lift exit. With their fingers digging into the seam between both doors, they pulled with all the strength they could muster. After a few seconds of straining, the doors finally parted to reveal the lift had come to a halt in between decks. A gap of no wider than two feet separated them from Deck 30, which appeared deserted.

No surprise there, Charlotte thought as she stuck her head through it and saw the corridor devoid of people. With the ship under attack, the crew was at their stations or in their quarters waiting out the attack. In any case, help wasn't coming any time soon. From what she'd heard of Nathan's conversation with Sick Bay, Julia and Engineering were too busy keeping the ship together. Even as she hung over the edge of Deck 30, she could feel the tremors running through the vessel.

"Alright," she lowered herself onto the floor again. "We're going to have to climb out. Judy, can you go first to help Aroha and Keola out? Are you okay to do that?"

"I think so," Judith glanced at Nathan for the doctor's permission.

"Just take it easy," Nathan frowned, not liking the woman to exert himself, but at present, they didn't have much choice. The children had to be gotten to safety first.

With Charlotte giving her a boost, Judith was soon climbing through the opening. Her slender form moved effortlessly through the narrow space. As soon as she was out entirely, she spun on her knees and craned down to reach for whoever was coming next. "I'm ready."

"Come on, you two," Charlotte turned to the children, still clinging to each other. "Let's get you out of here."

Aroha came to Charlotte first because she was the most frightened.

"We'll have you home with your daddy in no time," Charlotte smiled at her reassuringly before hoisting her up. Aroha climbed through quickly, with Judith clutching her arms to help her through. In seconds, the child was kneeling on the floor of Deck 30, waiting anxiously for her brother to join her.

Now only Charlotte, Nathan, and the injured ensign remained in the lift. Around them, the Maverick continued to shake and shudder, escalating their fears the car would plunge at any second. Thanks to the Tellarites' naturally stocky build, it took both Charlotte and Nathan to lift Drav high enough for Judith to reach him. Worse yet, the slight woman lacked the strength to drag him the rest of the way.

"Doctor Jackson, you need to get up there. Judith can't do this on her own."

"I can make it!" Drav protested, hating it that he was so helpless. Tellarites were a proud people and took even the smallest of slights personally. Charlotte supposed there could be nothing more bruising to the ego than to accept the help of others to simply move.

"No, you can't," Nathan bit back, perfectly aware of just how much pain Drav was suffering by dangling above the lift floor. Gravity and his circulatory system would undoubtedly be rushing blood to his injured foot, intensifying an already painful wound into agony. "Are you sure?"

Nathan didn't much like the idea of going ahead of Charlotte, but she was right, and he knew it. The faster they got Drav out of the turbo lift, the sooner the science officer could follow.

"Doctor, I don't have time to argue with you. Get up there and pull him out so I can get out too!" Charlotte urged him forward with a wave of her hand. Then as if they needed to remind them how dire their situation was, the ship rocked violently again, followed by blaring klaxons that made them all wince. The shockwave reached the lift, and it rattled unsteadily beneath their feet.

Nathan swore at being out of options and did as he was told, jumping to the edge and pulling himself through the opening, his body sliding past Drav, who was groaning, despite his stubborn attempts to remain stoic in the face of his excruciating agony. The doctor swung around as soon as he reached the floor of Deck 30, glancing at Judith to help him as he gripped Drav by the arms and began pulling him through the gap.

"Come on! You can make it!" Nathan grunted as both he and Judith heaved with all their might and pulled the Tellarite back in one back-breaking moment.

Drav's foot caught on the edge as they pulled him through, his boot pressing against the floor of the deck. He cried out in pain, but Charlotte acted fast, reaching for his foot and lifting it high enough so he could be moved to safety without further obstruction. Pulling him clear of the lift, Nathan scrambled back to the gap, intending to help Charlotte when the Maverick lurched so violently, the floor lifted up, and they were rolling across the corridor. As the world turned into a whirling dervish, he heard the computer speaking over the maelstrom.

"HULL BREACH ON STARBOARD SECTION."

Jesus Christ.

He thought the words might have come from his lips, but in truth, they came from the vacuum inside his brain. As he struck the wall, he saw part of the external hull break away, tumbling into space as a whirlwind swept through the corridor. It swept them forward like leaves caught in a tornado. Before he could catch Drav, the Tellarite was flying through the air, his arms waving frantically trying to grasp something but it happened too fast. Nathan could only watch helplessly as Drav flew out the gaping wound in the Maverick's hull, disappearing into the debris field forming around the ship.

If he hadn't grabbed the steel handle of an exposed maintenance hatch, Nathan would have been swept away too. He clung to it with one hand, feeling his fingers slip from the forces trying to toss him outside. Nathan struggled to see through the pieces of ship's paneling and other materials borne away by explosive decompression. Judith had somehow managed to hold on to a section of bulkhead with little Aroha clinging to her. The young girl held onto her brother's hand, and Nathan felt a surge of anguish at being unable to do anything to help as the boy fought to maintain his grip.

Then another sound gripped him, something that seemed even louder than the rush of air escaping the ship. He turned to the turbo lift doors and was just in time to see Charlotte Richmond trying desperately to climb out of it before it was too late.

Her eyes met his for an instant, and Nathan saw the terror in them, the understanding she would not get out in time. He wanted to reach for her, to help her avoid what was coming, but if he let go, he would be tumbling into space and be no help to either of them. It was a debate he had only a millisecond to make because the clamps gave way with an ear-splitting squeal of tearing metal and the turbo lift plunged to its fate, taking Charlotte with it.

"CHARLOTTE!"

His cry was eclipsed by her scream. It echoed up the shaft, rising above the roar of escaping air, burning itself into his memory as it vanished into the darkness. Then it was silenced by the sound of metal crashing and the explosion that followed. A rush of heat escaped the opening as if the beast had devoured its meal and was letting out a satisfied burp.

For a few seconds, nothing mattered. Not the erection of emergency force fields that sealed off the breach too late to save Drav, not the fact he slammed against the deck so hard pain lanced through his ribs. Nathan didn't even register Judith sobbing in relief as she hugged Aroha and her brother.

All he could think of was that final scream and how he utterly failed to save Charlotte Richmond.

Chapter Six:
Destruction

A/N: This includes an expanded version of the prologue.

"WARNING. HULL BREACH ON DECKS 3 TO 5, 30 to 36 AND 42!"

Engineering was silent and for an excellent reason.

All around her, Julia saw consoles coming alive with condition red alerts as klaxons blared in her ears vying for attention over the dozen or so messages that were being issued by the computer at the same time. In the end, they became an overlapping cacophony that amounted to gibberish because no one was paying attention. Like everyone in engineering, the hull breach penetrating Decks 30 to 36 on the starboard section threw Julia to the floor of her engineering office at the impact. Amid the chaos, she heard conduits rupture, support beams giving way, along with displays exploding.

More troubling than all of that, was the Maverick's heart suddenly skipping a beat.

The hum of the warp core did not pulse with its usual steady rhythm but seemed discordant, and the music she knew so well was now a cry of help snapping her head off the floor in reaction. Her palms ached where she'd fallen over and braced herself, but she hardly registered the pain because only one thing held her attention. Moving forward, another stab of pain ran up her leg, and Julia looked down to see a piece of shrapnel lodged in her calf. The warmth she felt running down her ankle was blood.

"Chief, stay put!" Chanu, who had been thrown against a wall, pushed himself upright when he heard Julia uttering a small cry of pain after her leg protested her efforts to move. "You're hurt!"

"The warp core!" Julia ignored his concern and sputtered through gritted teeth, clutching the edge of a workstation for support. "There's something wrong with the warp core!"

He turned sharply to the column of sapphire blue in the center of engineering. The dance of energy particles in the plasma mix was more frantic than usual and seemed to coalesce around a particular point along the tall shaft. His eyes widened when he recognized what it was. "It's cracked. The dilithium housing is cracked!" '

There was no need for any other exchange between them because Chanu knew as well as Julia, if the housing ruptured and released the coolant inside the core, every living thing in Engineering would die.

"Get everyone off the deck!" Julia ordered sharply as alarms sounded their latest crisis. "Chanu, clear engineering!"

Chanu nodded, not about to argue with that order, and ran out of Julia's alcove in engineering, waving at everyone to get their attention.

"EVERYONE EVACUATE THE DECK!"

His warning did more to get people moving than the impersonal voice of the computer doing the same. Claire was already ushering members of her team of warp specialists towards the corridor while other technicians hurried down ladders from the walkway surrounding the matter/antimatter reaction assembly. As they descended, their eyes remained fixed on the warp core as it continued to sputter like an old man with a smoker's cough.

The deck resembled an obstacle course of dangling wires spitting out embers of energy with lengths of fallen support beams crisscrossing their path, not to mention the broken glass and loose panels lying across the ground. Less than an hour ago, this deck was functioning at optimum efficiency. Now it looked like the aftermath of a war zone.

"Chanu, come on!" Claire beckoned him as she paused at the entrance to engineering.

"I'm on my way!" He waved at her to keep going. She hesitated a moment before one of her colleagues tugged at her arm and led her towards the turbo lift. After she was gone, Chanu turned back to the business of getting everyone else out of the area. The deck was emptying quickly, and Chanu was about to join his wife when it occurred to him he hadn't seen Julia. He'd lost track of her after she ordered him to evacuate engineering.

Turning around abruptly and cursing himself for forgetting her because the woman could be downright stubborn when it came to putting the ship before her own well-being, he found Julia at the master systems display console. Blood was pooling beneath her left boot, and he followed its trail back to the Chief Engineers alcove. The injury did little to affect her performance because Julia's face was a mask of concentration as she stood rooted to the spot.

"Chief, what are you doing?"

"Don't call me that," she replied without looking at him. "You know how snippy Ezra gets about titles."

If nothing else, her sense of humor never ceased to amaze him, even if she could be exasperating.

"Don't change the subject. Why are you still here? We need to go!" He reached for her arm, but Julia shrank back before he could touch her.

In retrospect, Chanu should have known Julia would never leave Engineering unless he carried her out, and he was wholly prepared to do that if he had to. Still, she wouldn't stay behind without cause.

"I'm going to shut down the warp corp. It's our only chance of saving the drive."

"A full shut down!" Chanu stared at her in astonishment. "Julia, even if you could do it, we'd need hours to restore warp function after a cold start! We'll have nothing but impulse."

"We won't have warp drive if I don't get this done! The only way for us to save the drive is for me to shut it down, purge the coolant and repair the damage! Otherwise, we'll have a core breach and lose the entire ship. I don't know about you, but I don't really want to be stuck in life pods with those jerks out there using us for target practice!"

She did have a point.

"Alright," he took up position across the display. "What do we need to do?"


"Captain," Alex said with a calm tone in stark contrast to the chaos around them. "We've lost our shields."

"WARNING. HULL BREACH ON DECKS 3 TO 5, 30 to 36 AND 42!"

Chris didn't need the Maverick's main computer to tell him his ship was being impaled by a thousand knives. He felt each stab every time the Maverick shuddered with yet another collision against the hull. Ahead of him, the viewscreen displayed the extent of the damage with clinical efficiency. Clouds of debris swirled briefly into view before the Maverick's maneuvering jets swept them away. The flotsam lingered long enough for Chris to discover amongst pieces of shredded hull plating, torn girders, and glass fragments, the bodies expelled from the Maverick by explosive decompression.

The bodies of his crew.

"Erect emergency force fields!"

Buck Wilmington's booming order managed to rise above the scream of condition red klaxons warning the crew of the Maverick's perilous state. The entire bridge was bathed in crimson, a stark reminder the ship was hemorrhaging from its many wounds.

"Emergency force fields have activated," Alex answered, her voice grim, "but due to the damage in engineering, there was a fifteen-second delay."

"Fifteen seconds?" Buck almost shouted before he remembered it wasn't right for him to be killing the messenger. He knew how long fifteen seconds could be when it came to explosive decompression.

 God only knew how many crew members they lost before the force fields were erected.

Yet there was no time to linger on that thought. With the shields down, the enemy was driving those dart-like ships through the hull despite Vin's best efforts to evade them and Ezra's continual use of the phasers. With the shields disabled, they were unable to use the torpedoes without risking the Maverick as well.

Another violent explosion rocked the bridge, with everyone knocked off balance wherever they sat or stood. It originated from beneath their feet and made the walls shudder around them. Right away, Chris knew something was wrong, but Vin was the first to voice it.

"That wasn't from an impact!"

"Captain," Alex spoke up again. "The turbo lifts in Turbo Shaft 14 gave way. It crashed."

"Oh Lord," Mary's hand flew to her mouth.

"Was anyone in it?" Chris shared her horror.

"Unknown at this time," Alex shook her head. "The explosion overloaded all the sensors in the area, but I can tell you the damage would have been to all the decks along that shaft."

Mary dropped her gaze to the floor, and Chris guessed immediately her mind had drifted to someone she could no longer ignore, despite her loyalties to her comrades. When her blue-grey eyes touched his own, there was no need for her to articulate what was on her mind. He knew, and Chris understood. If he wasn't the Captain of this ship, he might be doing the same thing himself.

"Go."

"Thank you, Captain," she swallowed the lump in her throat as she sprang out of her seat.

"Where's she going?" Buck asked and then chided himself for not guessing the obvious. Mary was going to her son. Good, he thought inwardly. There was little she could do on the bridge, and at a time like this, a boy needed his momma.

As Mary left, Chris surveyed the bridge to take stock of what needed to be done. Vin clung steadfastly to the Conn, wrestling with the helm as he tried to evade the enemy ships surrounding them like an angry swarm of hornets. The Vulcan's face was a mask of concentration. At that moment, Chris could very well believe he was as disciplined as anyone born and raised on that planet. He doubted there was a pilot anywhere in the fleet capable of giving the Maverick the fighting chance she so desperately needed.

Another tremendous explosion rattled the ship violently again, with the deck beneath them dropping and rising abruptly, rocking them all in their places as they struggled to maintain their balance. Above them, power to the bridge fluctuated for a second as the viewer turned blank, and they were shrouded in darkness. Fortunately, the disruption was brief because consoles illuminated just as quickly as they blinked off.

"They hit our starboard nacelle!"

"Those bastards are trying to disable us," Buck cursed at Alex's latest report.

"They're doing better than trying," Vin bit back, still continuing to evade the enemy despite their dire situation. Still, the bombardment against the hull, the possibility of damage to one nacelle, and the enemy's dogged determination to keep them from warp impeded his ability to maneuver the starship. "Helm's starting to get sluggish."

"We are losing power," Alex replied. "Main power may be affected."

"Main power is compromised. The force fields across the ship are failing. We are venting atmosphere."

Ezra made this declaration as casually as one who was announcing his intention to take a stroll through the tulips. His poker face remained in place with supreme control and showed no fear, but his closest friends could see through the facade. He was furious at the assault on his ship and the people he was charged to protect.

"Captain, I still can't raise anyone," JD stated unhappily from his seat at navigation, trying hard to be heard over the alarms. "Ship-to-ship communication is still down..."

His words were silenced by another tremendous shudder, the most violent yet, throwing them all off their feet. Alex and Ezra gripped their stations to avoid being thrown over. Buck slammed against the floor on his hands and knees, his face a grimace of pain. Meanwhile, JD's grip against his console was so tight, Chris wouldn't be surprised if the kid left permanent imprints on the glass. Christ only knew how Vin managed to stay put, but the Officer of the Conn remained in his seat, determined not to be distracted for any reason.

"Now what?" Chris barked and decided it was a stupid question. What else could it be but the bastards tearing his ship apart?

"Oh my God," Alex raised her eyes to her captain. The glow of her flashing console made her grim expression appear positively spectral. "Our shields are gone!"

"We know that already," Buck shot her a look. "Can you give me a damage assessment?"

"You don't understand," Alex ignored his order for the moment. "They didn't just take out our shields. One of those damn ships sheared our deflector array right off the hull!"

"Christ," Buck swore, knowing the implications of that as well as Chris. Engineering could repair it if it was simply damaged when they finally managed to raise Julia and her team. However, if the hardware was gone entirely, those were repairs that could only be carried out at a starbase.

Right now, the chances of the Maverick reaching one were slim.

"Can we polarize the hull?" Buck asked, trying to think of any solution to their problem. With the shields down, the ship would be torn apart.

"We can try," Alex glanced at Ezra, a silent agreement they would have to work together on this. Without the Chief Engineer, whose fate remained unknown since communications throughout the ship were disabled, it would take time. However, the worry on her face allowed Chris to read her unspoken thought. Time was a commodity they didn't have.

Another powerful impact against the hull seemed to confirm this, and Buck looked at Chris directly.

"Chris, we need to think about separating the ship."

"I'm afraid we no longer have that option," Ezra, who was helping Alex with the task of polarizing the hull, spoke up, not wishing for them to expend time debating something impossible. "The docking clamps have been damaged. We have to engage them manually, and right now, that part of the ship has suffered catastrophic breaches."

Chris closed his eyes, forcing away the sensation of being sucked down into an abyss of hopelessness. He inhaled deeply, trying to retreat to the place of zen-level calm that often aided him when things were at their worst. No easy feat when everything was going to hell around him. His ship was being pulverized by an enemy who made it clear he did not intend to take prisoners, even if Chris accepted defeat and surrendered. He thought of Mary Travis, his protocol officer, and lover who was presently making her way to Deck 11 because her son was in his classroom when the attack started.

Where was Adam?

There was no way Adam would remain in their quarters. If there was one thing Chris learned about the boy, Adam could handle adverse situations. In that alternate reality where Adam was born, life was a constant struggle. His transition from child to man came far too soon, and it marked him, even now that he settled into life on board the Maverick. Ironically, this survey mission to the Necron Nebula was his last trip on the starship. After they returned to Lysia, the Titan, Will Riker's ship would take Adam to Earth. The kid was starting his first semester at Starfleet Academy.

As proud as Chris was by the idea his son would be following him into the service, he still wanted to wrap the boy up in a suit of armor and keep him safe from all the dangers in the universe. He'd failed to protect one child and was determined not to make the same mistake again. In the millisecond, the thought took to cross his mind; something exploded behind his eyes like a sun going nova.

Armor.

However, his elation was short-lived because when Chris Larabee looked up, he saw a dark shape, like a splinter of black obsidian, hurtling towards the glass dome above the bridge.

"EVERYONE, GET CLEAR!"

It seemed like an impotent order since there was really nowhere to go.

Above them, glass shattered spectacularly, but there was no danger of the debris collapsing on them since it was immediately sucked into space, like the venom of a snake bite. The nose of the enemy craft drove itself through the center of the bridge, forcing both Vin and JD to jump clear before they were crushed beneath its weight. The Captain's command chair and the flanking seats customarily reserved for the First Officer and the Protocol Officer were not so lucky. While none was occupied, the seats and the floor they were bolted on to were destroyed by the crash.

The dart had wedged itself so tightly through the opening, it succeeded in partially sealing the bridge from further decompression and kept them from tumbling into space. However, there were enough gaps and tears in the steel above to ensure the ship was still bleeding oxygen. Everything was in utter ruin from the collision. The viewscreen was shattered, with only jagged pieces of glass still attached to its frame. The rest of it lay scattered across the floor.

Amid the sparks, twisted metal, small fires, and debris scattered across the command center of the Maverick, the senior staff stood up like the survivors of a battlefield. Air rushing to escape into space turned the bridge into a wind tunnel, with loud whooshing sounds blowing past them with gale-force intensity. Chris stood up shakily, feeling a hand on his arm he soon realized was Buck's. The first officer was wearing a smear of blood across his forehead but seemed otherwise alright.

Chris took a second to survey his bridge.

The craft that violated it was a battered ruin after the impact. The cockpit, what remained of it, was all but crushed. If there had been a pilot directing this ship to its fate, they surely died in the twisted wreckage. Ezra was already at the weapon's locker, sliding open the compartment door to grab the phasers there. Even if it seemed apparent the pilot of the enemy craft did not survive the crash, Chris knew Ezra would take no chances by being unarmed if an intruder did emerge.

Alex was at her science station, brushing away glass and a long piece of metal resting over the display. It had survived the collision, but the images flickering on the screen showed it was malfunctioning. Vin was doing the same to the helm controls, but as expected, the damage done this close to the crash was irreparable. JD seemed alright, but the kid was shaken. Chris wished he could give JD the time to collect himself, but with another collision reverberating through the ship's superstructure, the Captain couldn't be that generous.

"What are your orders, Captain?"

Buck needed guidance on what to do next, and for the first time since it became clear the Maverick might be outmatched by this enemy, Chris had an answer to give him.

"We can't do anything more from here. The bridge is lost, but the ship isn't. We're moving to the battle bridge, and then we're scraping the barnacles off our hull."

Chapter Seven:
C'thia

Fighting her conflicted feelings as she left the bridge, Mary Travis stepped into Turbo Lift One, riddled with guilt for abandoning her friends and her Captain in the middle of a crisis. It was not the first time the Maverick went into battle, but she rarely left the bridge to go to Billy. The last time she did so was during the Dominion attack on the Maverick when hordes of Jem'Hadar beamed onto the ship. Chris understood then, just as he understood now, her first priority would always be her son.

Before she turned away from him, he'd given her wordless absolution with a look because he cared for Billy too. Both man and boy bonded over similar wounds, Billy from the loss of his father Syan and the Captain from the death of young Adam Larabee. Yet, her regret at abandoning her post gained momentum after hearing the relentless bombardment against the hull, the bellow of alarms, and the furious warning lights blinking on every panel.

Not that she had much time to let that sickly feeling in her stomach overcome her. Less than thirty seconds after the lift doors closed and spirited her from the bridge, the entire ship shook so violently around her, the shockwave eclipsed any of the earlier assaults. In the small space, Mary bounced against the walls of the turbo lift from the impact, almost knocking her out if she hadn't the foresight to brace herself before her head connected to the control panel.

For one terrible second, she was gripped with the memory of Alex's report about one of the turbo lifts plunging to its destruction when the safety clamps failed. However, the second passed, and no such horror appeared to be forthcoming. Instead, the capsule-shaped transport continued on its way, ignoring the incident like a hiccup to be forgotten with no ill effects.

It didn't matter. Mary wanted to know what had happened just the same.

"Bridge," Mary tapped her com badge, "this is Lieutenant Travis. What's going on?"

There was no answer.

Panic filled her again. "Bridge!"

Sweat formed beneath her hair, and the feeling of regret vanished for something even worse, anguish. What if something terrible had taken place, something that prevented anyone on the bridge from answering her?

Oh God, I should never have left him.

Before the emotion had the time to coalesce into thoughts that would paralyze her reasonable mind, Mary wrestled them under control. She lived for more than a decade as a Vulcan wife. In times of crisis, it served her to remember the teachings of her husband's people. Being on the Maverick, falling in love with Chris did much to erode her disciplines, but now she needed them again. She needed the power of Vulcan reality-truth or rather c'thia to focus.

"Deck Four."

The computer's announcement silenced her thoughts as the lift came to a gradual stop. Mary was almost tempted to disembark, her reasonable mind questioning if she should be using the turbo lifts under these circumstances when a familiar face appeared at the doorway.

"Josiah!"

The Counsellor's eyes widened in surprise and relief at the sight of her, and Mary supposed it must be just as distressing for Josiah to be cut off from his friends in his office.

"I take it you're on your way to school?"

Josiah offered no greeting, guessing correctly what she was about. He had been on his way there himself once shipwide communications became disrupted.

"Yes, I need to be with Billy. I can't leave him alone at a time like this. You?"

"I'm headed to the school as well. A number of the children have been left in my care while their parents are at battle stations. Do you know what's happening up on the bridge? I'm guessing we're under attack, but no one seems to be answering."

Once again, a surge of guilt surfaced, but this time, Mary was prepared for it.

You cannot change what is done. Wasting time on regret does not serve you.

"We're under attack by an enemy calling themselves the Entropy," Mary explained after the lift doors closed and resumed its journey to Deck 11.

"The Entropy? Is that someone we've met before?"

"No," Mary shook her head, feeling a little more self-assured once she embraced c'thia again. "But they were waiting for us, and judging by the indifference of the Teenaxi and Fibonans, I believe they might have lured us here."

"You mean the whole peace process was a sham?" Josiah's jaw dropped slightly by the scale of the ruse.

"I'm certain that's what Chris thinks, and I can't disagree with him. It always felt a little strange that they suddenly asked for Federation assistance in negotiating a truce after centuries of warfare, and this location is remote, far away from any starbases."

"For what end?" Josiah tried to wrap his head around the situation. "If they get lucky and destroy us, they have to know that Starfleet will send everything they've got to the sector in response."

"Judging by how easily they've gotten through our defenses," Mary pictured the swarm of ships enveloping the Maverick, "I don't think they are really concerned about it. Granted, I'm not versed in all forms of ship operations, but the Entropy is using a method of attack we aren't prepared for."

This was never more evident as the turbo lift doors opened to reveal the state of Deck 11.

Live wires dangled from exposed ceiling panels, and the lighting was dim, either due to the physical damage to the tubes or the disruption of power. Only the red alert panels continued to flash their lurid crimson colors. Debris covered the floor from shattered displays, and one or two doors slid open and close intermittently. Despite the hiss of ruptured conduits and the fumes misting the area, one thing was clear. The deck was eerily empty.

Mary expected to see engineering repair crews flocking to the area and hear the chatter of frightened people wandering the hallways seeking help. Still, there was nothing, just a disquieting silence that made her anxious. She exchanged a glance with Josiah, who shared the same troubled expression as he stepped out first. Deck 11 was one of the widest in the Maverick's starboard drive, and while this section might be devoid of people due to the damage, there should have been some evidence of them.

"Come on," he led the way, hiding his apprehension as he continued along the hallway towards the classrooms located further along the deck. Crimson light filled the corridor from the alert panels, making them both feel like they were swimming upstream a vein of blood. "Let's get to the children and get them off this deck."

Mary agreed wholeheartedly and hastened her pace to keep in step with him as he strode down the corridor, avoiding broken pieces of bulkhead and paneling covering the floor like litter. As they rounded the corner, they sighted the mouth of Turbo Shaft 14 and could only gape for a few seconds at the destruction wrought by the plunging lift. The blast had dented and then ripped apart the outer doors, creating an eruption of superheated gas and plasma that scorched the walls. The paint was burnt away, leaving behind exposed steel, and none of the panels or the light survived the explosion.

"My God," Josiah whispered.

"Turbo Lift 14 failed," Mary repeated Alex's report. "The pounding we took damaged the security clamps, and it plunged. I just hope no one was in there when it went."

Josiah shuddered at the thought, thinking of nothing worse than dying a fiery death in a metal tomb.

Voices started to reach them when they left the scene. Taking another corner, another familiar face was there to greet them.

"Adam!"

Adam Larabee ushered the children out of their classroom, keeping Billy close to him as he directed them towards the nearest emergency staircase. Considering the fate of Turbo Lift 14 and the continued attack on the ship, it was the safest way to get the Maverick's youngest members off the damaged deck. He looked up at the sight of Mary's voice, relieved to see them both.

"Mother!" Billy cried out, looking nothing like a somber child as he broke away from Adam and raced towards Mary. Mary broke into a run to greet him.

"Oh, Billy!" Mary swept him off his feet and embraced him hard as if he were a small child again. She suspected he always would be, whether he was eight or eighteen.

Adam smiled at the reunion before he turned his attention to the children under his care. "Just keep heading up towards the saucer section," he told a couple of teens. "Make sure everyone sticks together."

"What are you doing here?" Josiah asked, pleased by Adam's efforts to take care of the class.

Adam patted one of the girls, Lt. Costain's daughter Elia, on the shoulder and gestured to her to keep going before turning to Josiah. "When the red alerts started sounding off, I thought I'd better check on Billy. It's a good thing you're both here. I need help with Mrs. King."

"Audrey?" Josiah's eyes widened in concern for the school teacher with whom he shared a nice friendship. While the relationship held the promise of something more in the future, it remained at a level a recently widowed husband of twenty years could cope with. "What's wrong with her?"

He hurried into the classroom, brushing past Adam to see Audrey on the floor. She was sitting up against the wall at the front of the room, covered in cuts varying in severity. Not far away, the viewer that served as the 24th century equivalent of a blackboard was a mess of jagged glass and torn metal. Exposed circuits hissed and spat sparks across the floor near her. Audrey must have been right in front of it when it exploded.

"Josiah," she raised her head and stared at him with glassy eyes. One side of her face was smeared with blood from the flow of a gash across her forehead. She pushed out words through labored breath and sent a shudder of fear through the Counsellor at her condition. "You have to get the children out."

Josiah dropped to his knees and started to reach for her. "It's all in hand. Come on, let's get you out of here."

"Josiah, I can't move," she managed a strained whisper before her gaze shifted to her left side.

His breath caught at the length of broken metal almost half a foot long, protruding through her flesh, just beneath the ribs. Its end tapered into a sharp point, and Josiah cringed inwardly, seeing it covered in blood.

It took all his skill as a counselor to maintain his composure at the sight of that wound. Even though it had been years since he was in medical school, Josiah retained enough knowledge to know Audrey was right. She couldn't be moved. So far, the flow was minimal, but he suspected if they removed the offending shrapnel, she would bleed out in minutes. Audrey would die long before they got her to Sick Bay. Right now, the shard was the only thing keeping her alive.

"Sick Bay," Josiah tapped his combadge. "Come in, Sick Bay."

"I tried that, but there's something wrong with communications."

Josiah had no doubt it had something to do with the battering the Maverick was enduring, but sheer stubbornness made him try again. "Sick Bay, we have a medical emergency at the school on Deck 11..."

A loud burst of static rewarded his persistence, and though the interference remained, someone replied. "This is Sick Bay. Who is this?"

"Maria?" Josiah felt a surge of relief rush through him, hearing the voice of Nathan Jackson's head nurse. "This is Counsellor Sanchez. We have a medical emergency at the school on Deck 11. Audrey King has been injured badly. She can't be moved and is going into shock."

Even as he said it, he cast another worried glance at the woman and noted her trembling as she tried to lay still. He didn't think fear was the only cause. After her vacation to Pacifica, Audrey's lightly tanned skin was rapidly shifting from grey to white. She needed help, and soon.

Another cackle erupted in his ear before Maria's reply reached him. "We're sending someone down there right away. Keep her still. Loosen her clothing if you can. Cover her with something to keep her warm. We're on our way."

"We'll be waiting." He ended the conversation just as Mary returned to the room.

She left Billy in Adam's care because the young man had done well by taking charge of the children. Mary was aware Adam considered Billy family, her relationship with Chris notwithstanding.

In that other universe where Adam grew up, a version of Mary Travis existed and raised him as her child. That bond did not change when he arrived in this dimension and met his father's lover. Mary's similarities to the mother Adam loved and lost were too much for Adam to remain unaffected by her. In time, the complicated threads intertwining their lives made them a family as much as blood.

"Oh, Audrey," Mary froze at the sight of the teacher, unable to hide her dismay at Audrey's terrible condition. Tears welled up in her eyes because Audrey was a friend, not just her son's teacher. With families on board, the Maverick was a tight-knit community like any small town. Once again, the emotions filled her, and Mary fought to repress them because Audrey needed help, not sentiment.

"Blame it on my attempt to distract the children from the battle by learning about Hortas," Audrey managed a faint smile, but it was clear she was struggling to remain conscious. She was slipping away fast.

"We have to keep her still," Josiah explained, his own emotions in turmoil, although he had a significant number of years to learn how to hide them from a sick patient. Still, Audrey wasn't just someone he treated. He cared for her. "Sick Bay is on its way. Where are the children?"

"Adam's leading them to the upper decks," she answered not only Josiah but also Audrey to the woman's thoughts about her charges. "He's taking them through the emergency stairwell to the saucer section. I told him to head for Sick Bay."

"He's definitely his father's son," Josiah commented, proud of the boy's performance. Since Adam's arrival on the Maverick, Josiah spent much time with the young man, helping Adam adjust to life in a universe where he didn't have to struggle for survival every day.

"No doubt," Mary agreed until the sound of a transporter hummed to life behind them.

At first, Mary assumed it was Sick Bay personnel coming to help Audrey. However, when she looked over her shoulder, she realized it wasn't the golden shimmer of Starfleet transporters. It wasn't even a beam, more like the clashing of crisscrossing strobes of light fixed at one point in the room. The shapes that materialized before them just as quickly as the sudden appearance of the transport beam did not wear Starfleet uniforms.

It took a second for Mary to remember that due to the battle continuing to rage beyond the ship, the Maverick's shields were weakened, enough for the enemy amassing around them to transport straight through the hull. Her eyes widened at the realization, and she reached for her combadge without thinking.

"Security, we have an intruder...."

Before she could finish the sentence, the trio of aliens who appeared in the middle of the classroom fired the weapons they had drawn before stepping onto what passed for their transporter pad. Mary dropped to her knees as a beam of greenish energy flew over her shoulder, impacting against the ruined blackboard. It shattered the remaining glass pieces, still clinging to the damaged frame.

"AUDREY!" Josiah shouted, barely pulling her clear of the deadly barrage, but the sudden movement did not save her life. Instead, it drove the sharp piece of metal deeper through her body as she fell flat against the floor. Her scream tore through the air as surely as the jagged fragment tore through the flesh of her back.

"You bastards!"

Josiah exploded in a rare moment of fury, getting to his feet and launching himself at the nearest alien before he could consider what he was doing.

"Josiah, no!" Mary shouted, trying to stop him, but it was too late. The aliens who were of Krall's species, whatever they were, looked as formidable as the Jem'Hadar with their thick bone structure and solid physiques. It did not surprise Mary in the least when the alien Josiah attempted to attack didn't even bother with his weapon. Instead, he caught the Counsellor's fist and yanked the human forward before delivering a crippling head butt to Josiah's face.

Josiah reeled from the blow, but the alien wasn't about to release him now that Josiah was disorientated from the decisive strike. To put down any further resistance, he gripped Josiah's neck and slammed the older man's face against his raised knee. Mary's stomach hollowed at the sound of crunching bone and the sight of her friend crumpling to the floor, no longer moving.

She had to get away and warn the rest of the ship. With communications down, the Entropy could transport onto the Maverick without anyone knowing until it was too late. Despite her abhorrence at leaving Josiah and Audrey behind, Mary had no choice. The Maverick was more than just these two people, even if they were dear friends.

Unfortunately, the enemy was more than ready for her attempt to escape, and before she could even turn around, she heard the familiar hum of a weapon a split second before it struck. Mary stiffened in midstep, unable to think of anything as the pain overloaded her senses in a blinding instant. She uttered a cry that seemed distant to her ears, aware of nothing else but the pain wracking her body.

By the time she hit the floor, there was nothing else but agony.


Adam knew he should have stayed with Billy and the other children, but this was his first time on the Maverick during a battle, and it was easy to forget he was a civilian. He was a Resistance soldier in his home universe, serving on the warship commanded by his mother. He had been fighting at her side since he was fourteen years old, and the number of engagements they faced together ensured Adam would never really feel like a cadet, even after he joined Starfleet Academy.

Instructing Elia, the oldest of the children, to continue up the stairwell, Adam emerged onto Deck 11, expecting to be greeted by Mary and Josiah carrying Mrs. King. Considering the woman's injuries, they would need help. He stepped through the half-opened doorway when he heard a scream and froze in his steps.

It was Mary!

Adam's first impulse was to race to her aid, but some semblance of her mirror universe counterpart told him to assess the situation before running blindly into it. Perhaps, it was the Larabee in him. Instead, he slipped out silently and skirted the wall leading back to the classroom when he heard the hum of something that sounded a great deal like a transporter beam.

Casting aside his restraint, especially in light of that realization, Adam hurried into the room, accepting whatever calamity resulted from his impulsiveness. Yet nothing happened because he was already too late. He entered the ruin of Audrey King's classroom to see the enemy vanishing into the shimmer of a transporter beam, taking Mary Travis and Josiah Sanchez with them.

Chapter Eight:
The Janeway Protocol

Unaware of the intruders on board his ship, Chris Larabee and the rest of the senior staff hit the deck of the battle bridge running.

Taking up the Captain's command chair in the middle of the room, Chris was again reminded of the similarities between this second bridge and those found on the old constitution class starships of James Kirk's era. While the main bridge was designed for aesthetics and comfort, this one was constructed with no such luxuries. This was a room built for combat.

After all, what other reason could there be for them being driven here?

"What's our status?"

Across the battle bridge, the senior staff had dispersed throughout the room, familiarizing themselves with their stations in anticipation of that question. Vin was at the helm, wasting no time in getting the Maverick up and running again. The ship lay dead in space with the last attack, with the enemy bombarding them like vultures feeding off a dying animal. Next to Vin, JD was just as focused on the navigation console. He scanned the database, trying to find them a safe port to wait out reinforcements while licking their wounds.

Alex didn't immediately respond to the Captain's question, primarily because she was working hard at her terminal, trying to overcome the damage done to their sensors. She needed a software solution to a hardware problem, and without Julia's help, it would take all her skills to find one. Alex's display flashed layouts for circuitry as she scanned through them, manipulating the ones she could and ignoring the others. Her fingers flew so quickly over the console; she resembled a concert pianist performing a challenging piece to a captive audience.

"Alex..." Buck readied himself to repeat Chris's order when the science officer stopped what she was doing and looked up.

"I'm sorry, Captain," she raised her eyes to both Chris and Buck in apology. "I've had to reconfigure the sensors in stellar cartography to give us the ability to conduct internal scans until Julia can get the main system online. It won't be as functional as what we're used to, but at least we won't be blind any longer."

"Good job," Chris nodded in approval even as another powerful impact rocked the ship.

"That may be a mixed blessing," Ezra stated. His own console came to life with all sorts of readings the instant Alex made it possible to receive data from the repurposed sensors. "Captain, our main engines are offline. We're operating on impulse only. If these readings are correct, we almost had a coolant leak down in Engineering."

"The attack must have damaged the dilithium housing," Buck said grimly. "Jesus, we could have had a core breach. I'm guessing we're still here because Julia must have shut down the core."

It was a radical move and one that had grave consequences for them, but there was no other way. Without needing to hear her explanation, Chris guessed Julia must have decided saving the Maverick was worth the sacrifice of shutting down the warp core. He agreed.

"Alright," he said after processing this latest information. "JD, plot us a course to the Gagarin Belt."

JD turned around at the suggestion, considering what they knew of that region of space but reminded himself they were being assailed by an enemy that was tearing them apart bit by bit. The Belt was dangerous, but it would level the playing field and possibly give them a place to hide until they could return the ship to some fighting capacity.

"Captain, without shields, we may not be able to survive the gravimetric forces." Alex piped up.

Chris ignored her and continued issuing orders. "Vin, can you get us there?"

"I can get us there," the helmsman confirmed despite his wife's dire prediction. "We've still got full impulse. I'll try to keep ahead of that swarm, but I can't guarantee some of them won't catch up."

".... you read me! Bridge, come in!" Julia's voice interrupted Vin with a burst of static. "Bridge! Do you read!"

Instinctively, they all glanced at Ezra to see the Chief of Security showing just a second of emotion before his stoic mask descended again. When Engineering fell silent, they feared the worst, and Ezra, more than anyone, had to bear the horror of that might meanwhile continuing to fend off the invaders.

"It's good to hear your voice," Chris grinned. "You want to tell me what you've done to my ship?"

"Your ship Sir? We'll talk about that later. Captain, I've had to shut down the warp engines because we were on the verge of a warp core breach. I can give you full impulse, but our shields are gone. The hardware damage is too extensive. We can repair them if we have a day or two, but I can't give you anything sooner than that."

"Understood, Julia, are we able to initiate the Janeway Protocol?"

Everyone stared at the Captain.

"Yes!" Julia burst out, having forgotten about that particular ace up their sleeve. "All the emitters are still functional, and it has an independent power source separate from the main engines. Give me thirty seconds to run a diagnostic, but it should be ready when you need it."

"Good, standing by for your notification."

"Chris, we've still got those damn ships on our hull," Buck pointed out, perfectly aware of what using the Janeway Protocol would mean. "They'll be cut in half."

"My heart bleeds," Ezra sniped as he started preparing for the Captain's order when Julia gave them the word.

"I told you, Buck," Chris eyed him sharply. "We're scraping the barnacles off our back."

"That's one way to put it," Buck shrugged, unable to fault Chris's solution. In the few minutes it had taken for them to reach the bridge, the ship had suffered even more damage, and it couldn't stand up to this assault much longer. Instead, he focussed his attention on the crew, who were probably anticipating a Larabee hat trick. Buck supposed this would do. "All hands, evacuate the outer hull, repeat, evacuate the outer hull. Proceed to the designated safety areas and avoid the outer hull."

"Ezra," Alex turned to Chief Security Officer, her face suddenly draining of color. "I'm detecting multiple energy signatures across the starboard section and the saucer.?"

Ezra's eyes widened at the readings Alex brought to his attention, understanding her dismay. Praying Julia had established communications across the Maverick if she could access the bridge, he had no time to waste with explanations, not if what he suspected was true.

"All security personnel, we have intruders transporting across the ship. Repeat, we are being boarded!"

The announcement spun Chris in his chair, and he barely had time to articulate a response when the reddish glow of the battle bridge was eclipsed by a cluster of transporter beams spread across the room.

Time seemed to slow as Chris saw the Entropy beaming onto his bridge. In retrospect, he should have expected this sooner. With the shields down, Krall had the opportunity to take the ship without firing another shot or raining down darts against the Maverick's hull. Chris registered both Alex and Ezra ignoring the imminent arrival of the enemy, choosing instead to reach the weapons locker while they still could.

The beings in the matter stream had yet to fully materialize, but Chris identified at least seven shapes in the emerald showers. Buck was already on the move. He broke into a run, intending to barrelling into the enemy before any of them had a chance to fire. The First officer raced past the helm and navigation station, and Chris saw Vin almost leap out of his chair to help when the Vulcan realized just how necessary it was for him to remain at his station. If he left the helm, the Maverick would come to a dead stop endangering everyone on board, not just Buck Wilmington.

No such restraint held JD in place. His loyalty and love for Buck ensured JD was right behind him when Buck slammed into the group using all the force Buck's formidable frame could muster. He toppled them over like a bowling ball. One of the combatants managed to squeeze off a shot before he was tackled to the ground. The stray bolt struck the ceiling panel overhead, the energy blast spitting sparks across the deck floor.

The alien invaders reacted swiftly to the attack, perhaps even expecting it. While his counterpart wrestled with Buck across the floor, the other managed to stand. He towered over JD and was built like a Jem'Hadar. Chris jumped to his feet, intending to help the kid, when a blast of energy from the second group of Entropy soldiers halted him in his steps.

Fast reflexes allowed Vin Tanner to avoid the kill shot fired at him. The Vulcan leaned forward just as the bolt of energy sailed over his shoulder and struck the nearby wall. Chris knew none of these bastards could match Vin at hand-to-hand combat, but Vin was determined to keep the Maverick ahead of its pursuers by remaining at the helm. Their survival depended on Vin's ability to maintain the Maverick's speed.

And the enemy knew it too.

"VIN!"

Chris shouted when he saw the enemy take another shot. He sprinted forward and yanked the helmsman out of his seat before the bolt of energy fired at him struck Vin in the back. Both men landed hard against the floor. This time, it was a trio of assailants coming after not just Vin but him too. Chris supposed there was some advantage to capturing the master of the vessel. Malevolence radiated from their eyes as Chris flinched at the sight of JD being flung against the navigation console, cracking the display as he landed. Vin scrambled upright, and Chris knew Vin would die protecting him.

Fortunately, it was a sacrifice Vin didn't have to make because a series of phaser blasts struck each one in quick succession. None of them had the chance to see their killer before collapsing on the floor. Behind them, Alex dropped to one knee to avoid enemy fire before she tossed a phaser at her Captain. "Catch, Sir!"

Chris caught it with one hand, silently thanking Ben Sisko for the man's insane obsession with baseball, before turning it on the alien about to bring down both fists against JD's skull. The shot struck the man square in the chest, jerking him with pain before he stumbled back several steps to collapse at the base of the wall.

"Vin, get back to the Conn!"

"You ain't gotta tell me twice." Vin sprinted to his seat but not before he flashed Alex a wink of thanks for saving their lives.

Alex gave Vin a slight smile before she ran to the space between the Captain's chair and the short wall behind it.

Ezra was wedged between the science and security stations, firing at the remaining intruders. Streaks of emerald and amber crisscrossed the space between the two camps. Each shot met its mark with an explosion after another critical system was struck and ruptured by the overload. However, even with three to one odds against him, Ezra's speed with a phaser, not unlike his skills with a deck of cards, remained impressive. Instead of firing blindly, Ezra deliberated and took careful aim, allowing himself to remain nonplussed by the bolts of energy striking the rail and consoles near him.

When Ezra fired, he never missed.

Another Entropy intruder slumped to the floor when Alex added her fire to his, covering Ezra's back. The Chief glanced down and flashed her that trademark smirk, the one Alex secretly called Ezra's 'shark's grin,' often displayed seconds before he took you for every penny you had. The aliens were pinned against the rail and one of the empty stations, a difficult place to be when the security chief and the science officer were both excellent shots.

Meanwhile, the opponent Buck had been fighting recovered enough to roll over on top of the first officer, but it was not a position Buck allowed him to remain for long. Skill and training allowed Buck to throw the man off his body, and with feline agility, Buck jumped to his feet, ready to attack again. However, a blast from a phaser dropped his assailant before the intruder could take another step. Buck saw Chris returning to his command chair, having killed the last intruder with that final shot.

Not that they had time to savor their victory.

"Captain! Captain!" Julia's voice was finally heard once the shooting was done. "What's going on up there? I've sent security to the bridge!"

"We're okay," Chris assured her as he watched Buck head to JD, who was standing up shakily. Not even the bruises on JD's face would keep the kid from returning to the navigator's seat. The viewer revealed the space moving past at a dizzying speed, revealing Vin's efforts to evade the enemy despite the pounding they were taking. Ezra and Alex examined their unwanted guests, retrieving their weapons and ensuring their intruders were all dead and no longer a threat.

"Are we ready to initiate the Janeway Protocol?"

"Yes, Sir. I can initiate from here since you all sound a little busy."

"Do it."

Overhead, another klaxon sounded, and a blue glow flashed across each working display on every battle bridge workstation. The computer spoke in its usual comforting tone despite the fact all hell was breaking loose around them.

"JANEWAY PROTOCOL INITIATED. ENGAGING ABLATIVE ARMOUR."

The familiar drone of the Maverick's engines grew deeper as if the ship were caught in an ice storm and shivering from cold. The unfamiliar sound rumbled throughout the vessel, and for many, its source was a mystery. Although ablative armor was installed some months ago, Starfleet only authorized its use when they engaged the Borg, so most of the crew were unfamiliar with how it sounded when it was deployed.

The armor plates coated the Maverick in a matter of seconds, moving across the saucer section, slicing the enemy ships embedded in the hull with ruthless efficiency. A cloud of debris began to follow the Maverick as the ablative plates continued their advance across the starship, reaching the starboard section just as rapidly. Soon, the underside of the Maverick was similarly enclosed as the small enemy crafts protruding from its underbelly were severed. Their ruined halves tumbled away into the vacuum before being caught in the wake of the impulse engines.

"The ablative armor is holding!" Alex announced from Ezra's station because the security chief was busy dealing with their 'guests' with Buck's help.

"Julia, how long will this last?" Chris was aware that the ablative armor, though formidable, required enormous amounts of energy to operate. Its emitters drew power from its own generator, separate from the warp drive system. Due to the Borg's tactic of draining the shields and, by extension, the warp core, an independent power source ensured the armor was still functional even if their warp drive was compromised.

"No more than a day, Sir.".

"That's enough to get us to the Belt Captain," JD spoke, anticipating the Captain's next question.

"They'll be dogging us every step of the way," Vin glanced over his shoulder at Chris. He would get them to the Belt if he had to fly through hell itself to get there, but Vin wanted it known it wouldn't be a smooth ride. The swarm might have suffered losses, but there might still be enough of those small darts to give chase.

"That's okay," Chris drummed his fingers against the armrest of his command chair, perfectly aware they were far from safe, despite his Hail Mary pass of using the ablative armor. Swinging around in his chair, he faced his science officer again.

"Since we don't have warp drive, I think we should conduct some routine maintenance. Alex, vent all our plasma."

Alex's eyes widened, realizing what the Captain intended to do, and in her opinion, it was pure Chris Larabee.

Without missing a beat, Chris turned his attention to Ezra. "Chief, you know what to do."

"I absolutely do," the Chief of security grinned, leaving the intruders to Buck as he hurried to his security station.

Exchanging a smile with the science officer, Ezra waited patiently for Alex to carry out the Captain's latest order. While the viewscreen revealed nothing yet, the computer was duty-bound to provide them with a running commentary.

"VENTING PLASMA."

With a tone colder than ice, Chris responded. "Fire."

"Firing one torpedo," Ezra's smirk had evaporated into a satisfied expression as the ship shuddered with the release of a single torpedo.

On the viewscreen, the effect of the detonating torpedo in a cloud of escaping plasma was nothing less than devastating. The explosion that followed filled every inch of the screen like a star going nova, vaporizing anything in its path. The armada of ships disappeared in an expanding ball of energy. Chris had no idea how many Entropy ships could survive the maelstrom, but it was enough to allow the Maverick to reach the Gagarin Radiation Belt well ahead of them.

"Take that, you sons of bitches!"

Though unseemly for the First Officer of the Maverick, Buck's outburst was a sentiment they all shared. The Maverick still faced numerous problems, the least of which was the intruders who managed to beam on board the ship during the battle.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Chris spoke, unable to rest easy until he knew the full scope of his ship's troubles.

"Right," Buck nodded and shook off his brief elation as he turned towards Alex. "Can we get a read on how many of those bastards beamed aboard the ship?" Buck glanced briefly at the dead bodies he and Ezra piled in the corner when their firefight was done.

"I'm scanning," Alex explained, dropping her eyes to the display, grateful it hadn't sustained any damage from the shooting earlier.

"Captain," Ezra added. "I have instructed security teams to conduct a deck-by-deck sweep of the ship, using tricorders. If the intruders are still on board, we shall find them."

"It will have to do," Chris let out a sigh, supposing it was the best they could manage under the circumstances. With the sensor offline and the deflector shield destroyed, improvisation would be the key to their survival.

"Captain," Alex spoke up, her voice almost a whisper. Her tone drew everyone's attention. Even Vin turned away from the Conn, staring at her with concern. Their marriage bond made him attuned to her emotions, and right now, what he sensed from her was nothing less than dread.

"What is it?" Chris was suddenly struck with the horrible notion that they had won nothing at all despite their escape.

"I can't be certain of the numbers," she swallowed thickly as if the words spoken were so unpalatable, she wanted to force the taste of them from her mouth. "But we're registering at least fifty people missing."

"Casualties?" Chris's stomach hollowed at hearing that number before his anguish was replaced by fury.

"No," Alex shook her head. "Not dead, just missing. Captain, they're gone, and I have no idea how."

Chapter Nine:
Briefing

By the time the ignited plasma dispersed across the vacuum, the Maverick was heading towards the Gagarin Radiation Belt at full impulse.

The swarm fell so far behind, Chris wondered if the enemy had ceased its pursuit or was simply marshaling its forces to give chase again. Conscious of this looming threat, Chris knew that the swarm's ability to find them would be severely compromised once inside the Belt. The Maverick could use that precious time to repair its damaged systems and return the ship to some fighting capacity.

Still, no one celebrated their escape.

It was almost three hours since they last sighted the Entropy, and the Gagarin Belt loomed large in the observation windows of the conference room. The Belt glowed with iridescent shades of blue, gold, and deep indigo, making it appear as if it were fading in and out of space. From a distance, it was a spectacular sight. However once inside, the Maverick would be assaulted by a maelstrom of turbulent gravimetric forces and bombarded by the highly charged particles within the phenomenon.

Yet these dangers were the furthest thing from the minds of the Senior Staff as they gathered in the Conference Room to present the Captain with their reports on the Maverick's current condition.

"The numbers are in," Buck took the lead, noticing Chris' silence as he began the meeting. The Captain was taking great pains to avoid staring at the two empty chairs at the table, the ones occupied by Josiah Sanchez and Mary Travis. "We have 25 confirmed dead."

Nathan visibly flinched in his chair. The doctor's anguish was plain to see, and Buck would have sent him to his quarters or to... Buck discontinued the thought because following it would lead him to Josiah and all the emotions involved. Right now, none of them could afford to become mired in despair. Furthermore, the sheer number of injuries required all medical staff to be on duty.

If Nathan was in his right mind, he would be the first to insist upon it.

Buck noticed Alex reaching under the table to grasp Nathan's hand. Although she wore her usual mask of professionalism, the puffiness around her bloodshot eyes remained. She had taken it hard when told Charlotte Richmond was in the turbo lift crash that crippled large parts of the starboard section. Despite a rocky start, they had worked closely together for months, having mended their fences well enough for Alex to trust Charlotte to be her second in the Science Department.

JD Dunne was eyeing the doctor across the table with sympathy while managing his own grief. During that whole business at Hadir Prime, where JD found himself taking command of the Maverick, it was Charlotte who stood by him and ensured he never had reasons to doubt himself. Since then, JD and Charlotte became friends, and Buck could see JD was just as affected learning the woman died with such violence.

Nathan acknowledged the unspoken support offered by his friends and rewarded them with a subtle nod of acknowledgment in gratitude. The death of anyone in his care was a difficult thing for Nathan to accept. This much Buck knew about the doctor after nearly two years serving with him on the Maverick. The First Officer had no doubt it would be months before Nathan fully absolved himself of the guilt of Charlotte's death.

"How many are missing?"

The question returned Buck's attention to the Captain.

Chris's voice was almost a whisper and set off alarm bells through him. The Captain was displaying the same disconnection that nearly destroyed him when his family died. Buck prayed they were not on the cusp of another repeat of that terrible descent into the dark. It would be disastrous for the ship, and Buck wasn't sure if Chris would ever recover this time around. As always, Buck buried his own emotions because the Maverick needed to function, and if the Captain couldn't hold everyone together, then the duty fell to him.

"Ezra?" Buck gestured at the Chief of Security to take the question.

Ezra Standish might have been wearing a stoic mask, the same one displayed whenever he was engaged in a particularly intense game of cards. It was like staring at the Rock of Gibraltar, immovable and completely unweathered by history and time. However, his sea-green eyes told a different story to those who knew him. Beneath that glacial exterior was volcanic fury.

"Sixty-seven."

"Sixty-seven?" Vin blurted out, his Vulcan temper holding nothing back. "How the hell did they manage to get so many?"

The gold flecks in Ezra's eyes seemed to burn even brighter for a split second as if the man shared Vin's outrage on every level, even if he didn't wish to display it. "According to young Mr. Larabee, they simply transported on board when our shields were disabled and began abducting people via transport. They took Counsellor Sanchez and Lt. Travis this way but ignored our schoolmistress Audrey King. She was injured quite severely during the attack."

"Oh no," Julia whispered, her hand flying to her mouth in dismay. The Chief Engineer wore her heart on her sleeve, and it didn't matter whether she was a senior officer or not. Audrey was a friend, and Julia was unafraid of showing her distress at any harm coming to someone she cared for. "Will she make it?"

This time it was Nathan who spoke up. "It's too early to tell. She was impaled by a large piece of shrapnel and lost a lot of blood. Doctor Li Pong is in surgery with her right now. We should know in a few hours if she'll survive the trauma."

"This doesn't make any sense," Vin's face showed his puzzlement. "They've been ready to destroy us from the get-go, and suddenly they want to take hostages? For what? To bargain? I mean, they're still within communication range even if we are ahead of them. Why aren't they hailing us to make demands?"

"Not to mention it's risky," Alex added, sharing Vin's confusion on the reason for this attack. "Even if they've pounded the Maverick pretty hard, we're still a complement of a thousand people. They invaded the bridge and got cut down pretty quickly."

"We were armed."

Chris Larabee ended the speculation because the answer was clear to him.

For a short time, the shock of Mary's abduction distracted him from his duty, but that moment had passed. He was all too aware of how easily he could lose himself in anguish, but he wasn't the same man who lost Sarah and Adam. He was the Captain of a starship, responsible for a crew that needed him to lead. Buck was doing his best to ease his burden, and at a later time, Chris would tell his old friend just how much it meant, but for right now, he needed to bury his emotions and do his job.

"The Captain's right," Buck nodded, glad to see Chris taking up the reins of his command.

"Except for security, the rest of the ship was unarmed." Chris continued speaking. "With the ship on red alert, the crew was at battle stations while the civilians were confined to quarters. It made it convenient to pick and choose their targets once our sensors and shields were offline. The risk was minimal. Ezra, how many of those taken were civilians?"

Ezra's answer was automatic because the Chief's own investigator's mind had reached the same conclusion. "Almost all of them, Captain. I believe it is why they targeted the school and all the habitation decks. It was Lt. Travis and Counsellor Sanchez's presence at the school that caused their abduction. I suspect if not for the efforts of young Mr. Larabee to evacuate the classroom, they would have taken the children."

"Thank God for Adam," Vin whispered under his breath. "The kid came through."

While Chris made no comment, Adam's name reminded Chris that he was not only the master of this vessel but a father who had two boys to protect, Adam and Billy. Whatever Mary's fate, Chris owed it to her to ensure her son lived. Still, a sliver of pride crept through his grim thoughts at Adam's actions, and Chris wondered if Starfleet Academy knew what was coming at them at warp speed when Adam became a cadet.

"In any case," Ezra resumed his report. "The Entropy has sixty-five members of the Maverick in captivity. I assume we will be hearing from them soon enough when they attempt to barter for our crew's freedom."

"There will be no negotiation."

Chris's statement silenced the room with the force of a dropped gavel.

"Captain..."

Buck started to speak, but Chris cut him off abruptly and repeated himself. "There will be no negotiation."

Since this all began, Chris had tried to anticipate his enemy, namely Krall. When they faced each other, Chris sensed more than just hostility from the mysterious alien, but something far more dangerous. Enemies faced each other across the battlefield for numerous reasons, the preservation of one's way of life, fear of destruction, loss of freedom, or the protection of loved ones. What Chris saw in Krall's eyes during their brief parley was nothing less than bald hatred.

Sensing this emotion from Chris convinced the Captain of the Maverick that any bid for negotiation would only be a stall for time. Krall and his Entropy meant to destroy them, and that was really all there was to it. While he didn't possess all the pieces of Krall's strategy, he knew this much.

"What they'll want is the ship, and if they can't get her, they'll destroy her. We have nine hundred other crew onboard to keep safe. I will not let one more person die unnecessarily."

"We can't just abandon Mary, Josiah, and the others!" Nathan burst out.

"That's not what the Captain's doing," Buck returned just as sharply, not about to tolerate that accusation being leveled at Chris or any captain he served with for that matter. "We'll think of a way to get our people back, but it won't be at the cost of everyone else. Right, Captain?"

"Right," Chris nodded, giving Buck a look of thanks for once again having his back.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Nathan whispered. "That was uncalled for. I'm just not thinking straight."

"It's okay, Nathan," Vin patted the doctor on the shoulder, convinced he was mirroring Chris's thoughts. "This has made us all a little crazy."

"Nathan," Chris regarded the doctor with a gentle tone. "We are not abandoning anyone. We will get our people back, but I don't think Krall would honor any trade we make with him. This isn't about getting the ship. He wants to make an example out of us."

"An example?" JD's face showed his shock at the idea of Charlotte's death and that of so many others being the result of someone's need to make a statement.

Chris eased back into his chair and remembered a line from one of Jean-Luc Picard's log entries.

"A Romulan commander once told Jean-Luc Picard he wanted to display a piece of the Enterprise's broken hull in the center of the Romulan capital, as a symbol of victory to inspire the generations to come. Krall wants the Maverick to make a similar statement to the Federation and Starfleet."

"To show they can beat us," Vin concluded, seeing where Chris was going with this and understanding why negotiation was not an option.

"Exactly," Ezra agreed with the Captain's theory. "If they can defeat one of Starfleet's heaviest armed warships, that will be quite the message to anyone who comes up against them."

"Captain," Alex spoke up because the suggestion opened up other possibilities regarding their situation. "This may explain why the Fibonans and Teenaxi were so willing to take part in all this. If they're more afraid of the Entropy than us, it's no wonder they allowed themselves to be used as a lure to bring us out here."

'It's true," Vin agreed with his wife's point. "They're here. We're not. This is as far out from the core systems as you can get. If the Fibonans or the Teenaxi need help, Deep Space Five is the closest place to get it. They might have no choice but to work with the Entropy. Besides, after what Krall just did to us, can you blame them?"

"They took us by surprise," Julia disliked thinking her beloved ship could be bested by anyone, although the fact that the vessel was bleeding seemed to prove Vin's statement.

"Julia, it was more than just surprise," Ezra hated to contradict her, but there were some realities they needed to face if the Maverick was going to survive another battle with the Entropy and its swarm. "If not for the Captain's use of the ablative armor, the Entropy would have taken the ship apart or worse yet, destroyed her outright. This attack has shown us we have vulnerabilities in our defenses."

Chris wished he could deny Ezra's grim comment, but he couldn't. Nor could he claim that the Entropy's success was an aberration. For years after the Khitomer Accords, the Federation had enjoyed a relatively stable period of peace. With the Klingon allies and the Romulans withdrawing from the galactic stage due to internal strife, Starfleet assumed it could handle anything.

Then Q flung them right into the crosshairs of the Borg.

For the first time in seventy-five years, Starfleet was rushing to catch up to an enemy that could wipe them out with just one ship. Wolf 359 and the Battle of Sector 001 had nearly decimated the fleet and increased the demand for newer, faster vessels. The Maverick was built to combat the Borg threat, but the Collective were not the only threats facing the Federation. In the case of the Dominion, the enemy was amongst them all along, and they never suspected a thing.

The Dominion's leaders, the shape-shifting Changelings, had used the Bajoran wormhole to plant spies throughout the Alpha Quadrant, taking up key positions in the Federation, Cardassia, and even the Klingon Empire. For years, the Founders conducted a masterful chess game the Federation had no idea it was even playing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed in secret. Their identities were usurped by the metamorphs who murdered them.

Like Ella Gaines and his own family.

"Ezra's right," Chris agreed. "They've exposed our throats and shown us how vulnerable we are, but we're not done, far from it. Maybe the ship wasn't made for fighting an enemy like this, but it doesn't matter because we are not running from them again. So," he swept his gaze across the face of his senior officers, "let's think of how we're going to keep that from happening. Julia, what's the status of the warp engines?"

The warp engines are still offline," Julia began her report, glad to move on to a subject she had some control over. "I have a repair crew working on repairing the dilithium housing. Once that's done, we can power up the main engines and restore primary power. I estimate the repairs should be completed in about four hours."

"Okay, that's good news," Buck injected some much-needed optimism into the discussion. "What about our shields?"

Julia's shoulders slumped. "That's a little more complicated."

Before the meeting, she conducted a survey of the damaged deflector array and concluded the repairs needed would not take hours but potentially days.

"No kidding," JD frowned. "They sliced the entire array off the hull."

"That's right," Julia sighed. "The truth is, Captain, once we have main power back online, we can replicate all parts we need to rebuild our deflector array, but it's the installation that will be the problem. We can't do it from inside the ship. The work has to be conducted on the outer hull."

"Without shields and inside the Belt?" Vin glanced at it growing more prominent in the observation windows. "You'd be swept away by the gravimetric currents long before the radiation killed you."

"That's a problem," Buck whistled.

"What about if we conducted the work inside enviro-suits?"

"No," Nathan was already shaking his head in answer. "Not with that level of radiation. As it is, we're going to have to monitor levels when we enter the Belt to make sure we're safe inside the Maverick."

Chris noted Alex had not spoken, but her face displayed an expression he knew all too well after countless meetings before this. She had an idea, and she was considering the specifics before she presented it to the Captain.

"Alex?"

All eyes turned to her, and Alex seemed to snap out of her reverie when she was addressed directly. "I have an idea."

"We guessed," Ezra said dryly. "Do not keep us in suspense."

Vin gave his wife a quick wink, always impressed by how she could pull a rabbit out of the hat when needed. She was almost like Chris in that regard.

"Okay. We have no shields, but we need to get access to the hull. What if we disable the ablative armor in the location of the deflector array? Then use runabout shields to protect the area from radiation and the gravimetric currents."

"Damn straight!" Buck grinned, seeing where she was going with this. It was brilliant. "Chris, we can extend the runabout shields to create a bubble around the deflector array and then transport the repair crews into the area and let them do the work."

"How much time can the repair crews stay out there?" Chris asked Nathan, pleased that once again his officers had come through for them.

Nathan, who seemed a little more recovered from his earlier outburst, took a moment to consider the question. "A few hours at a time. I'll get the exact number when I see how intense the radiation is inside the Belt."

"I can schedule rotating shifts," Julia offered.

"That's still a lot of work," Buck reminded, "for work that should be done at a starbase."

"We don't have that luxury right now," Chris dismissed the complaint even if he understood it. "Alex and Vin, I need you two working on the runabouts to configure the shields to create this bubble."

Both officers bobbed their heads in understanding.

"Buck, this is an all-hands on deck situation. Engineering is already putting out fires across the ship. Get them help."

"Aye Captain, I'll go through our personnel files and reassign anyone with engineering training. Julia put them to work on minor repairs or wherever you see fit."

"Uh, Captain," JD spoke up, "I would like to help out in Engineering."

"Thank you, JD," Julia smiled at him, glad for the assistance. She'd worked with JD on several engineering projects and knew the young lieutenant was up to the task. Besides, with the damage sustained by the Maverick during the battle, she welcomed any help to ease its wounds.

"In the meantime," Chris shifted his gaze to Ezra, and the Captain's voice became cold and menacing, "I want those ships still stuck on our hull gone. Keep one for examination but jettison the rest. Krall's not the only one who knows how to make a statement."

"It would be my pleasure Captain," Ezra returned just as icily.

"Nathan, I want you to run a scan on the wounded prisoners from the bridge attack. The Entropy didn't just come out of nowhere. I want to know if anyone has ever encountered this species before."

"We're still treating them," Nathan confirmed, "but I'll run their DNA through the medical database. Even if we don't find an exact match, it might narrow down the possibilities."

Without missing a beat, Chris turned to Ezra. "Once the prisoners have been treated, I want them in the brig."

"I have already posted security to Sick Bay for the duration of their treatment," Ezra assured the Captain. These intruders would have no more run of the ship after their unsuccessful attempt to take the bridge. "I shall see to it they are provided with our finest security accommodations as soon as they are able."

"Good, because once they're settled," the menace oozed off the Captain's tongue. "I'm going to have some questions for them.


Chapter Ten:
Hostages

When Mary opened her eyes, she could have been forgiven for thinking she was dreaming.

Everything around her was shrouded in darkness. She could see vague shapes, hear soft anxious voices muttering to each other, and a sudden rush of aching pain that pounded the inside of her skull. She had nightmares that began like this, usually revolving around a closet she once found herself trapped in as a child. Her first instinct was to start beating her fists against the door, the way her five-year-old self had done in a raw panic until woken up by her parents.

Instead, a hand clamped across her shoulder to keep her from standing up. Mary immediately recognized the familiar voice calming her fear.

"Mary, it's okay."

No, it wasn't okay in her opinion, far from it, but Josiah's reassuring voice did much to extinguish her anxiety. Hearing him made her calm down enough to expunge her mind of its irrational thoughts. C'thia demanded she take stock of her situation and respond logically instead of emotionally. She took a deep, meditative breath and released it, feeling the cascade of cool Vulcan discipline descend upon her.

"Josiah? Where are we?"

Like her, Josiah's faint silhouette was seated against a cold hard floor. There were no lights in the room, and as Mary's eyes adjusted to the blackness, she discovered they weren't alone. Now that her mind was clearer, the voices weren't spectral whispers but a jumble of overlapping sounds. She and Josiah were only two among a large number of captives.

"I'm not sure," Josiah replied through the darkness. "I woke up a few minutes ago just like you and found myself here with the others."

"Others? How many others?"

"I couldn't get an accurate headcount, but I'm guessing dozens. A few are officers, but the rest are the civilian crew. A few are children."

"Children...you mean..."

"No, he's not here," Josiah assured Mary before she could utter Billy's name. "I think Adam evacuated them just in time. If he hadn't, I'm sure they would have been taken."

Mary calmed herself down again. When she applied some thought to the information Josiah provided, she understood the situation better, and it did not comfort her in the least. "Civilians make for better hostages."

"Absolutely," he agreed.

Mary felt silent, remembering how it felt when she and Chris were abducted from the bridge of the Maverick during their first voyage. Now she was in another cage on another ship, with more than just the Captain to worry about. Josiah and all the other people taken were also here. Their captors kept them in the dark to frighten and disorientate them. To find their way out of this trap, they had to figure out where they were.

Closing her eyes, she said nothing as she listened carefully to her surroundings, filtering out the noises of the other hostages until she could hear the hum through the walls of their prison. It was slight, but the reverb was unmistakable. They were on a ship. Not the darts that assailed the Maverick and nearly crippled the vessel but something with a hole large enough to hold everyone here.

"Have this Entropy shown themselves?"

"Not yet," the Counsellor replied.

"Josiah, we're on a ship."

"Are you sure?"

Josiah didn't doubt the woman's ability to make this statement. Aside from being an able diplomat, Mary was also a xeno anthropologist and a fair engineer. During their encounter with the C'Kaia, the Captain revealed how Mary rescued him from the creators of the Borg and then helped him commandeer their alien hatchery. Doing so allowed the Captain to force the C'Kaia to withdraw from Federation space. Chris hadn't held back on how instrumental Mary was to that victory.

Josiah hoped Chris wasn't exaggerating because they would need her expertise if they were to escape their current predicament.

"Yes," Mary nodded and then added, "this ship wasn't with the swarm that attacked us. I think it was trailing behind our sensor range waiting until we lost our shields."

"Who are they?"

 Josiah wasn't on the bridge during the battle, and by the time the red alert alarms rang throughout the ship, there was no time to find out who their enemy was. All he could see was their terrible onslaught against the Maverick.

"They call themselves the Entropy," Mary spoke softly. "Their leader, Krall, is from a species we've never encountered before. There's a good chance the Fibonans and the Teenaxi led the Maverick into a trap."

"What do they want?"

"They wanted Chris to surrender the ship," Mary answered and then examined the memory in detail, recalling how Krall had behaved towards Chris, how naked his hatred had been. Every word Krall uttered was meant to be provocative, and against any other Captain, it might have gotten him the results he wanted. However, Chris Larabee could face down a Dominion armada and still make it sound like he had the upper hand. "But I don't think they really wanted it. I think the plan was always to destroy us."

"He could have been trying to goad the Captain into a fight, giving them the justification to destroy the Maverick."

"Then why do they want us?"

Someone, not Josiah, asked the question, and Mary realized their conversation was being overheard by the other abductees. The question had come from Thalia Rostov, Dr. Zheng Li Pong's wife, an art historian who had been a sabbatical on the Maverick during the doctor's tour on the ship. Mary had seen her only once or twice in passing and remembered her as a stocky, dark-haired woman with dark eyes and severe features.

"I don't know that," Mary answered since she was the closest thing to a bridge officer at present, and the civilians would look to her for guidance.

"You must know something!" Thalia insisted, fear riding each word that escaped her. "You were on the bridge."

Mary tensed because Thalia's outburst was upsetting the others.

"Thalia, calm down," Josiah rumbled, taking note of the same thing. The situation was frightening enough without Thalia making things worse. There was always one in a crowd, he thought silently, one with a voice loud enough to pivot the actions of others. Thalia seemed like the firebrand that would turn this situation into a worse crisis than it already was.

"I was on the bridge," Mary spoke, not just to her but to the others in the dark cell. "But there was no indication why they wanted the ship or the crew. They attacked with almost no provocation."

"Did they destroy the Maverick?" Another question surfaced from the dark.

Mary and Josiah exchanged glances, worried things could escalate, and without knowing the circumstances of their imprisonment, it could be perilous indeed. Keeping everyone calm should be their first priority.

"I don't think so," Mary answered honestly. If Chris were dead, Mary would know. Thanks to her marriage with Syan, her telepathic abilities were awakened enough to form their mental bond. When Syan died during the Battle of Sector 001, Mary, who was on Vulcan, heard his death cry all the way from Earth. When she met and fell in love with Chris Larabee, a new bond had formed, nowhere as deep as before because Chris possessed no telepathic ability, but Mary could feel him nonetheless.

It was why she knew with certainty, he was alive, and while he was alive, nothing short of the Maverick's destruction would remove him from his bridge.

"But..." Thalia started to speak when harsh, bright light flooded the room.

The sudden illumination was so quick and intense, it silenced the chatter as everyone needed a few seconds to adjust. When the spots of color vanished from Mary's eyes, she saw everything clearly. As she suspected earlier, they were inside a ship. The grey walls and surrounding bulkhead could mean nothing else. The room was bare, with only one panel next to large double doors. The lights on the display flashed red periodically, telling Mary they were most likely locked in with access permitted only from the other side. It was a cargo hold, she thought silently.

However, identifying their prison did nothing to dispel her escalating concerns about their present situation. If anything, it made it worse. Mary had only to throw a sidelong glance to see Josiah's jaw tensing because he probably observed the same things. Earlier on, both she and Josiah assumed there were dozens of them inside the ship, but the light dispelled that estimation.

There were at least fifty of them trapped inside this room.

Worse yet, not only was Josiah right about the majority of the captives being civilians, but in the darkness, he had been unable to see the other common denominators.

They were all younger and human.

She and Josiah were the oldest people in the room. There wasn't anyone under the age of thirty. Even Thalia, the provocateur. It took Mary a second to deduce why they were both here. They had been at the school when the Entropy arrived.

"Josiah," Mary gestured to him to follow her to a less crowded section of the room so they could talk privately. "Do you see it?"

"Yes," the Counsellor nodded. "Our captives have a type."

"What possible reason could they have for taking young humans?"

The possibilities sent a chill through Mary's C'thia discipline.

"Lt. Travis!"

Mary heard her name and looked over her shoulder to see the captain's yeoman Holly Jones pushing her way through the crowd of civilians with a group of junior officers from various departments.

She recognized Lt. Sani Agrinya, one of Julia's new warp field technicians. Nigerian by birth, he was tall and gracile, with flawless cocoa skin that made Mary think he might have been carved from polished wood. Ensign Alice Jagera from stellar cartography was a stark contrast. An indigenous Australian, she was short and compact, with deep-set eyes and wild dark hair. Meanwhile, Mary confessed whenever she saw Lt. Sebastian Ramos from Tactical, she only noticed his dark curly hair and laughing smile. She had no doubt this was a man who saw plenty of mischief as a child.

"Holly," Mary greeted the young woman. "Are you alright?"

It appeared none of the Maverick's crew were harmed since their abduction, but Mary couldn't dismiss the possibility that one or two might have been injured when the Entropy came for them. Josiah hadn't gone without a fight, and she could tell by the way he stepped lightly, his body still ached from whatever rendered them unconscious.

"I'm fine," Holly assured her and shifted her gaze to Josiah. "Boy, are we glad to see you? What's going on?"

They were looking to her for direction because she was a bridge officer and worked closely with the Captain. Mary glanced at Josiah for help, but the Counsellor responded with a nod of encouragement for her to continue. She suspected he intended to see to the welfare of the civilians, keeping them from panic. Thalia's explosive reaction proved how necessary it was to keep them calm.

"We were attacked by a group called the Entropy," Mary answered, providing them with the same explanation she'd given Josiah. All four listened with apparent alarm, and Mary didn't need deep telepathy or Josiah's superior counseling skills to see they felt out of their depth. "I believe they intend to use us as hostages to force the Captain into surrendering the Maverick."

"Captain Larabee would never do that!" Holly exclaimed loudly before remembering herself and quickly lowered her voice so she didn't cause a panic. "I mean, he wouldn't."

"No, he wouldn't," Mary nodded in agreement.

"But what will happen to us?" Alice asked, her brow furrowing with worry.

"It doesn't matter," Sani stated firmly, his deep voice making him sound older than he was. "The Captain cannot surrender the ship for just a handful of people."

"I'm sure," Mary interrupted, "the Captain is working hard to get us back. As I said, we need to keep everyone calm. They took us for a reason, and I doubt they're going to kill us if they intend to use us as bargaining points for them...."

The loud hiss of hydraulic pistons shifting into place silenced the chatter as the doors to the cargo hold started to slide open. Those gathered near the entrance immediately retreated, like the tide rushing back into the sea. The quiet lasted for a few seconds as the massive steel doors parted, replaced instead by the uneasy rumble of fearful voices. Josiah attempted to soothe Thalia when their captors chose to make their appearance.

Stepping forward, she and Josiah went to face whoever was coming through the door.

Three men stepped into the room, each clad in heavy dark armor with ornate designs Mary didn't recognize. They carried weapons they brandished as warnings to their prisoners if anyone chose to attack. All were of the same species, and the tallest who matched Buck Wilmington for height was Krall.

He appeared just as imposing as he did when he faced Chris across the bridge.

Once again, he radiated cold hatred as he surveyed the room and its occupants. Deep-set eyes moved across every face until he finally rested on Mary and Josiah.

"Why are they here?"

Something in his voice made Josiah Sanchez pay attention. The universal translator made it possible to understand most languages, but there was something in Krall's tone that seemed familiar in a manner Josiah couldn't quite place. Furthermore, seeing how he eyed the prisoners under his control made it easier for Josiah to believe Mary's speculation. Krall never intended to take the Maverick but always planned on destroying the ship.

"A mistake Krall," the minion, slightly shorter with less prominent grooves in his bony features, replied quickly. "I'm told they were in the classroom when our forces arrived there."

Krall took this in and eyed them directly. "I'm Krall. Who are you?"

Josiah exchanged a glance with Mary, telling her silently they should cooperate for the sake of the civilians under their charge, at least for now. "I'm Counsellor Josiah Sanchez. This is Lt. Mary Travis."

"Counsellor?" Krall snorted in surprise. "Starships have Counsellors now?"

Once again, something struck Josiah, but he had no time to examine it closer. "We're a large crew, and a sound mind is as important as a sound body."

"And that is why your children are forced to travel with you? Your need for expansion supplants their need to grow up on their homeworlds?"

Mary felt her cheeks burn at the statement, unable to deny the accusation cut more deeply than she liked. How often had she asked herself the same thing since coming on board the Maverick? Was it fair to him to suffer this life simply because Mary wanted to serve on the Maverick?

"We're not conquerors. We're explorers," she spoke suddenly, feeling the need to justify her decision. "There's nothing wrong with keeping our families together."

"So you let them die in meaningless battles, thousands of light-years from home?"

Josiah saw the guilt flooding Mary's eyes because this alien had scored some very personal points in his argument. Instead, Josiah decided to get back on topic. Krall had abducted them for a reason. They needed to know why.

"I don't think this is productive," Josiah interrupted diplomatically. "We are your prisoners. What do you want of us? If you intend to use us as hostages to coerce our captain into surrender, you're wasting your time. He won't be intimidated."

"Hostages?" Krall laughed. "Is that what you think you are?"

Krall's regard of the notion as absurd gave Josiah an awful feeling, and even though Josiah suspected he would regret the answer, he had to ask. "If not hostages, then what?"

Krall's small mouth curled into the barest hint of a smile, but it was sinister more than disarming. He pushed past Mary and Josiah without uttering another word, leaving them behind as he headed deeper into the room. The two senior officers started to follow when Krall's men aimed weapons in their direction, making it clear the consequences if Krall was hindered in any way.

Helpless, Mary and Josiah could only watch as Krall set his sights on Holly and the three young officers with her. The captives around them grew more agitated as the tension in the room heightened at the possibility something terrible was about to happen. Holly and Alice had taken a step away from the tall, imposing commander of the Entropy, but Sani and Ramos held their ground, raising their chins in defiance.

Chris would have been proud, Josiah thought.

He knew both young men. As Counsellor, part of his job was helping new arrivals acclimate to life on board the Maverick. Josiah could tell even from here, they were frightened but hiding it for the benefit of the civilians in the room. It took every ounce of restraint Josiah possessed not to rush to their aid, even if Mary's fingers weren't digging into his arm to restrain him.

As Krall pointed out, he and Mary were here because of a mistake. The Entropy would have no qualms about killing them both if they caused any inconvenience.

Upon reaching Sani and Ramos, Krall's arm lashed out so fast it was almost a blur. Ramos uttered a choked cry as a fist tightened around his throat with such force, he could barely get out a sound. Around them, the other captives uttered fearful cries as Krall lifted Ramos off the floor with one hand.

"Let him go!" Josiah shouted before a weapon's barrel jabbed him in the back.

Sani reached for Krall's hand, attempting to pry his fingers from Ramos's neck. The tactical officer was dangling off the ground, his feet thrashing wildly while he struggled to escape being strangled to death. With his free hand, Krall swatted Sani aside with a powerful blow. The warp technician slid across the floor. But Sani wasn't about to give up on helping Ramos. He tried to get to his feet when a beam of energy struck him in the dead center and ended what fight there was in him.

The room broke into an uproar, but Mary and Josiah were transfixed in horror by what was happening to Ramos in Krall's grip. The young man was no longer making any sound, and Krall's other hand was planted firmly against his chest. Instead, Ramos was convulsing hard as if gripped in the throes of a violent fit.

"Oh my God..." Mary whispered at what was happening to him.

At first, Mary thought it was a trick of light produced by the violence inflicted on Ramos. His face had contorted into a rictus of pain, with his eyes rolling back into his head until all they could see were the whites. His pallor turned grey as the flesh around his cheeks sunk. His skin started shriveling against his bones, like a hothouse bloom exposed to the elements. Muscle and fat disintegrated until all that remained was a body becoming emaciated in seconds when it should have taken weeks. As his life bled out of him, Ramos was no longer capable of struggling.

When Krall released him, what dropped on the ground was barely a corpse.

Screams echoed tore through the room as Krall stepped back from the murdered crewmen. Ignoring the panicked cries around him, he turned back to Josiah and Mary, still wearing that smile of contempt.

"You're not hostages," he said finally. "You're food."

Chapter Eleven:
Guilt

In the privacy of his Ready Room, Chris Larabee sat behind his desk, allowing the pent-up emotions inside of him to see the light of day for a precious few minutes. It was all he could afford because there was too much to do when his ship was nowhere out of danger. Beyond the walls of his private sanctum, he could hear the chaos of the Gagarin Belt hurtling itself against the ship. Stellar material bombarded the ship's ablative armor, swept along by currents of cosmic radiation and frozen gases in a maelstrom that might have ruined a lesser craft.

For the Maverick, it was an oasis.

Closing his eyes, Chris exhaled, trying to slip into one of those meditative states people found soothing but instead felt cleansing to him. Locked within his mind, Chris willed his consciousness to reach out to Mary Travis.

Mary, can you hear me? Can you hear me?

This was a long shot, and he knew it. During their imprisonment on the C'Kaia ship, Mary reached across the space separating them by touching his mind and telling him she was coming to save him. Since becoming the master of the Maverick, he could always feel her, like an angel on his shoulder, brushing his mind with her unwavering support when he needed it most. After Sarah, Chris never thought he would have that again.

In his life, he'd loved two women. Sarah was the love of his youth when life was still an undiscovered country full of possibilities. Chris had been all things then, husband, father, and Starfleet Officer. The loss of her tore him apart, and Chris knew no matter how much time passed, he would never be entirely whole. Coming to grips with the void she left behind took years to overcome, but accepted he would always go through life with a hole in his heart because she was irreplaceable.

When Chris received his Captaincy, he thought it was the just reward for the suffering and sacrifice it took to get there. It never occurred to Chris there could be more.

Mary came out of nowhere to remind him life wasn't above giving him a swift kick in the ass for making assumptions. Over the next two years, he learned the void in his life was a cup waiting to be filled. She came to him with her own wounds because the same battle that made him Captain took the life of Mary's husband, Syan. She arrived on the Maverick against her will, removed from the home she'd known, with a son who needed her more than ever.

Whatever it was between them started the moment Chris laid eyes on Mary.

Later she would tell him the connection was strong enough for her to feel his mind across the gulf of their separation.

Chris had no telepathy to speak off, but he closed his eyes and tried again to find those gossamer threads she so often rode into his thoughts to tell Chris he could do anything.

There was nothing, only dark silence that threatened to drag him into the pits of depression.

Even now, he could hear the voices in the dark. Cruel, vicious things that whispered his failure with glee, taunting him with the possibility she wasn't answering because she was dead. It was so easy to surrender to it, the way he did when Sarah and Adam died, willing to throw his career away until Buck saved him. If Mary was dead, would he crumble again?

The door chirped in answer.

Chris blinked and replied without thinking. "Come in."

The doors parted for Adam to step inside with Billy.

Seeing them in front of him was akin to taking a bath in cold water. Despair was forgotten because it held no sway in his heart when these two boys needed him. He was still Adam's father, and the closest young Billy had to a parent right now. If the worst happened and Mary was lost to him, he had to hold himself together for her son. It was his secret promise to her.

"I'm sorry," Chris rose to his feet behind his desk. "I should have been to see you both sooner."

"It's okay, Dad," Adam continued into the room, Billy's hand in his. "I figured you had your hands full."

Sometimes Adam mirrored Sarah so much it made Chris's heartache in his chest. Even though he was born to a different Sarah and Chris Larabee, Adam inadvertently inherited Sarah's breezy attitude to things. Chris tried to tell himself that Adam's upbringing was a struggle for survival in that other universe, preparing him for the risky life on board a starship, but Chris knew better. When faced with danger, Sarah was fearless. No matter the peril, she met it with confidence they'd handle it and waste no time than necessary worrying about it.

Adam was just like her.

Chris reached his son and pulled the young man gently towards him until their foreheads touched. It was a simple gesture but one that spoke volumes.

"I'm glad you're safe, and I'm grateful you took care of the children." Chris dropped his gaze to Billy.

"When things started going crazy, I thought I'd better check on him," Adam explained. "I just wished I had been able to stop them from...." his words faltered, and Chris rested a hand on his shoulder to spare him from saying anything further.

"You did fine. There are a dozen families on board this ship who are very grateful for what you did."

"What about mo..." Adam started to say and then stopped himself. To Adam, Mary was too much like the mother he lost and loved for him to convince himself this version of her wasn't the same woman. "What about Mary?"

Chris sighed, having no answer before he turned his attention to Billy.

As always, Billy looked somber. Two years onboard the Maverick had broken through some of his Vulcan conditioning, but Chris supposed he would always be a child of two worlds. He saw Mary's blue-grey eyes staring back at him and reiterated his silent promise to protect this child no matter what. "Billy, we will get your mother back, I promise."

Billy stared up at Chris. "I can feel her."

Hope flared in Chris' chest like a flaming star. "You can?"

"Yes," he nodded slowly. "I can feel mother in my head, like always."

Billy didn't tell the Captain that sometimes he and his mother had whole conversations without saying a word. Since coming on board the Maverick, Billy was taught the mental disciplines required of all Vulcan children. If he had been on the homeworld, he would have gone to a Vulcan school, and these lessons would be part of the curriculum. However, as the only Vulcan child on the Maverick, it was up to his mother to teach him. Billy remembered quiet evenings in their quarters where they would simply sit while their minds told each other everything. It strengthened their familial connection into something Billy never wanted to lose.

He saw the Captain's relief at hearing his mother was alive and shared the man's feelings because Billy wanted her back too. However, he also understood that if his mother was to be brought home safely, he had to give the Captain all the information he had.

"She's scared."

Chris's jaw tightened hearing that. He tried to hide his anger from the boy because he recognized the expectation in Billy and Adam's eyes. They were relying on him to get her back.

"Can you tell me anything else?" Chris tried to keep the hope from his voice.

"No," he shook his head slowly. "I just can sense feelings. She's scared, and I think she's very far away."

Chris inhaled deeply, taking that little morsel for what it was worth. If Mary was still alive then the others were too.

"What are you going to do, dad?" Adam asked, resting a hand across Billy's shoulder protectively.

He watched his father plant a soft kiss against Billy's forehead, an affirmation of Chris Larabee's feelings towards the boy before he straightened up. When his eyes touched Adam's, the younger man saw no traces of the soft paternal figure of a moment ago. What he saw instead was the cold hard eyes of a warrior about to wage bloody war against his enemies.

"I think," Chris said coldly. "It's time I had a talk to our guests."


Ezra entered Sick Bay to check on the prisoners trapped behind the security force field as the Maverick's healers administered treatment. Those who did not die in the firefight or were seriously injured now languished in the brig. Around him, the buzz of too many voices felt out of place in the ordinarily quiet Sick Bay, but he supposed today was anything but routine.

Sick Bay staff and volunteers moved in and out of the numerous medical wings, repurposed to deal with the flood of injured people discovered throughout the ship. As much as Ezra hated seeing every bed in the place filled, he consoled himself with the fact that its occupants were still alive. The numerous breaches in the hull after the Maverick lost its shield came at the cost of many lives whose bodies the Maverick couldn't even recover at this time. Those poor souls had become flotsam drifting endlessly in space.

Kate Stokes and Drew Katovit kept a vigil inside the force field as Dr. Li Pong worked on the injured intruders. While she worked deftly on her patients, Ezra knew beneath her surgical masks, she hid her private pain because her wife was one of those taken, along with Josiah and Mary. He wondered if she sustained her professionalism in the hopes that saving the lives of her patients might lead to recovering the Maverick's missing crew.

His security officers appeared equally exhausted. Both officers were wearing uniforms soiled with blood and ash. Kate's blond hair, always elegantly kept in an upswept coiffure, was disheveled with strands of dark gold hanging against her shoulders and neck. Drew was in a similar state, and Ezra knew that both of them had spent the last few hours pulling bodies out of the wreckage while at the same time defending the ship against the enemy.

"Mr. Katovit, Mr. Stokes," Ezra tapped his com badge so he could speak to them without having to disengage the force field. "Have someone relieve you. I think you two might need some rest."

"We're fine Sir," Drew spoke first. "We don't look pretty, but we're okay."

Ezra frowned, believing otherwise. "I need you both in fit shape for our next round with the enemy."

"Chief," Kate exchanged a glance with Drew. "With all due respect, everyone else is in the same strung-out shape. We'll rest when the ship is safe."

The Chief felt a surge of pride for both officers but would not be deterred on this point. They looked tired. Such exhaustion opened the door to the dangers of misjudgments and poor reaction time, both sins that could cost them their lives. "I commend your diligence and your loyalty, but I need you both by my side in what's to come. You will take two hours for yourself and get some rest."

"Aye Sir," Drew nodded, familiar enough with the Chief's tone to recognize he would be immovable on the subject. Next to him, Kate nodded with similar reluctance.

Satisfied that he made his point, Ezra turned towards the CMO's office to see Nathan hunched over the DNA code analyzer at the corner of the room. Like the rest of the Senior Staff, Ezra was aware Nathan was present when Charlotte Richmond died. However, until he spoke to his security team, he had not realized just how traumatic the experience had been for the doctor. If Josiah were here, the Counsellor would be at the doctor's side, offering him the right words to soothe his guilt. However, Josiah was not here, and Ezra worried about the studious doctor who cared too much at times for his own good.

He stepped into the CMO's private sanctum, prompting Nathan to look up from the instrument. "Can I do something for you, Chief?"

"I came to see how you are progressing with your analysis," Ezra lied.

"I've just begun running the samples now," Nathan straightened up and stepped away from the bench. "It won't take long to narrow down the possibilities."

"Good," Ezra nodded and then exhaled loudly, a gesture to indicate he was dispensing with all ruses. Not an easy thing to do for one accustomed to concealing everything under a consummate gambler's mask. "Nathan, how are you faring?"

"I'm fine," Nathan's jaw tightened as he retreated to his desk. "I'm just fine. I've got too much work to do anything else." He gestured to the clear window of his office, indicating the chaos of his Sick Bay at present.

"I understand," Ezra nodded, leaning against the wall as he watched Nathan dropping heavily into his chair. "This entire situation reminds me of Wolf 359."

"You were there?" Nathan's eyes widened in surprise.

"Yes," Ezra nodded somberly. Images of that terrible first encounter with the Borg, when Starfleet's ranks had been decimated, filled his mind. "I was a junior lieutenant on board the USS Indio. She was one of the early model Defiant-class ships before they underwent their redesign for the Dominion War. It was not a large ship, but her security chief was one of the best men I have had the pleasure of knowing. He possessed the disposition of a junkyard dog, but he was one of the ablest investigators I ever encountered. Much of what I know he taught me."

 "We called him Chief Pod, Pod being the charming abbreviation for Prince of Darkness. Still, we would have died for him if he asked us." Ezra's eyes misted over remembering that gruff older man who swilled gin like it was water and hid an astonishing intellect beneath his coarse manners.

"As one would expect, the cube tore the Indio apart. We were not a heavy cruiser and no match for a Borg cube. Less than 10 minutes after we engaged them, the Captain ordered the Indo's immediate evacuation. Pod and I headed towards the life pods, but before we could make it, the corridor we were in suffered catastrophic structural damage. It closed in around us like paper. Pod pushed me out of the way when a support beam came down but could not escape himself. While he was crushed beneath it, I had a clear path to the life pods."

Even now, visiting the memory produced fresh anguish. Pod was done, and he knew it, but he wasn't about to allow Ezra to sacrifice his life.

"What the fuck are you doing Grifter! Get your arse to the life pods."

Pod had been well aware of his background, and while other senior officers had looked at Ezra as if he would steal the silverware if they turned their back on him, Pod had treated him with respect and taken the time to teach him. He always saw Ezra's past as an advantage, not a stain.

The galaxy isn't all one happy Federation. The best way to keep it safe is to understand that first and foremost.

"I would have stayed there right to the last second, trying to save his life, but it was he who told me to go. It was too late for him, and he did not wish to die knowing he took me with him."

As Nathan listened and the parallels between Ezra's experience with a beloved mentor and Charlotte Richmond became apparent, the pain he had been trying to restrain burst free. The doctor stood up abruptly as if the swell of emotion had lifted him right off his chair.

"It's not the same!"

"Yes, it is. It is exactly the same. From what I am told, you did everything you could to save Lieutenant Richmond. It was not your fault she died Nathan. That responsibility lies with the enemy who attacked the ship."

"You don't understand! I'm a doctor. I should have tried. Even if it meant I got blown into space, I should have done it! How can I live with myself knowing I let her die because I was afraid to let go and reach for her!"

"Because it would have made not one whit of difference!"

Ezra closed in on Nathan, gripping both his shoulders so the doctor was forced to look at him.

"Nathan, I cannot perform any sleight of hand to make your pain any less, but I can tell you that if you had reached for her, it would have changed nothing. She would still be dead at the bottom of a turboshaft, and you would be one of the corpses floating in that debris field we left behind. You know as well as I, sometimes all the effort in the world cannot save someone whose time has come."

Nathan sucked in his breath, but when he exhaled, it escaped him as a sob. Before he knew it, he doubled over into Ezra's shoulder, weeping.

Ezra said nothing, more than willing to let his friend expunge his demons. If Josiah were here, Ezra had no doubt it would be the Counsellor in his place, but in the man's absence, Ezra was more than willing to help Nathan through his anguish. It was grief Ezra was all too familiar with because security officers had the highest mortality rate in Starfleet. Pod wasn't the first person Ezra would lose, and there would be too many more in the years that followed.

Ezra had learned to live with it and so hopefully, so would Nathan.


A short time later, Nathan was back in his chair, staring across the desk at Ezra. A bottle of Saurian brandy sat between them. It had been a birthday gift from Josiah, and Nathan had to confess he'd forgotten all about it. Following his emotional outburst in front of Ezra, Nathan thought it was as good a time as any to break open the bottle.

"Thank you, Ezra," Nathan said, taking another sip from his glass.

"Sometimes, even a physician needs help," Ezra looked at him kindly. "I have suffered enough losses in my time to share some common ground with you in this."

"How do you stand it?" Nathan had to ask. "As a doctor, I'm used to losing patients, but I always felt I gave them a fighting chance before the end, or that I was able to do everything I could to save them, but when Charlotte died...." his voice cracked, and Nathan took a second to compose himself. "It was too quick. I couldn't do anything. I was just helpless."

"It is never easy my friend," Ezra admitted. "But I accept it because I must if I am to do my job."

Nathan understood and suddenly felt a whole new appreciation, not just for Ezra's role as Chief of Security but also for Chris Larabee. What must it be like to be responsible for so many lives? How did the Captain stand it when any of them were lost?

The soft chirp interrupted the moment between the friends, drawing their attention to its source.

"Oh, that's the DNA analyzer," Nathan explained as he set down the glass and stepped away from his desk. "Looks like it might have come up with something."

"So soon?" Ezra straightened up with interest. The persona of the good friend was quickly replaced by the Chief of Security.

Nathan leaned over the device, studying the dark display for a second before turning back to Ezra. His expression was one of shock. "You're not going to believe this."

"Try me," Ezra replied, calm as ever.

"The DNA of those aliens, the Entropy, it's human."

Chapter Twelves:
Human

Thirty minutes after Nathan's extraordinary discovery, the senior staff, except for Julia who was needed to direct the critical repairs on the Maverick, gathered in the conference room again.

After hearing Nathan's findings, Chris delayed his interrogation with the prisoners for the moment. As Ezra often reminded them, a good interrogator knew the answers before asking for them. The more information he had about the Entropy, the more likely Chris could trick them into revealing the location of Mary, Josiah, and the rest of the Maverick's crew. Thanks to Billy, Chris knew she was alive, and while she lived, there was still hope.

"How in the hell can they be human?"

The blunt question came from Buck Wilmington, who shared much of the senior staff's astonishment at the result of the DNA analyzer.

"They're not now," Nathan explained, appearing more himself than at their last meeting. "But I can tell you, they started out human. According to my DNA analysis, not only are they human, but humans from the planet Earth."

"Is there a difference?" The question came from Vin. "I mean, you all look the same to me."

"Very funny," Chris gave him a look before facing Nathan again. "Explain."

"The more humans went into space and colonized other worlds, the more we became exposed to new environments. Even though Minshara Class worlds can support human life, they're not the same as Earth. Differences in oxygen levels, the composition of breathable air, not to mention the changes in gravity, affect us. Eventually, the adaptations necessary to survive in these environments crept into the DNA of the generations born on those planets. While the genetic variance is slight, it does exist, and only an in-depth analysis like the one I've conducted would detect it."

"And these 'Entropy' came from Earth?"

Chris found it hard to believe that the alien intruders in their brig were of human stock, but then again, even a schoolchild knew DNA did not lie.

"I still can't believe it," Buck shook his head, mirroring the sentiments around the table. "They look nothing like us."

Nathan couldn't blame him for his shock. "There's a good reason for that."

"Continue," Chris prompted him to explain while at the same time gesturing at everyone to hold their questions until the doctor was done.

"As I said, the intruders are definitely human. Their DNA molecules form base pairs, undoubtedly homo sapien, born of Earth. However, that's not the only unusual aspect of their genetic structure. Attached to every human cell in their bodies is a membrane I've never seen before. From what I can tell, it functions similarly to the cellulose cell wall in plants. However, this membrane is a separate organism, existing symbiotically with the human cell, providing it with protection and preservation...."

"Preservation?" Alex shot him a look. Her comprehension of Nathan's point led her to a very unpleasant conclusion. "You mean..."

"They don't age."

"Don't age? You mean those guys in the brig are immortals?" JD gasped with shock.

"I wouldn't go that far," the doctor quickly clarified before the idea gained traction. "I don't doubt they can die since we've got the bodies in the morgue to prove it, but I suspect they don't pass from natural causes or get sick."

"How is that possible?"

"I don't know," Nathan admitted to the Captain with some annoyance at being unable to give Chris Larabee an answer. "Whatever this membrane is, its mitosis occurs at a rapid rate, at least a thousand times faster than what is recorded in most organisms, except maybe Species 8472. It also requires a hell of a lot of energy to sustain. However, at this time, I can't tell you how. Either they're constantly hungry, or they've come up with a way to nourish these membranes that is so far unknown to us."

"They haven't asked for a morsel since they've been our guests," Ezra stated. "If their metabolism runs like a warp engine, surely they must be famished by now."

"As I said, I can't tell you how any of this is possible. All I can say is this is what I've discovered."

"So what about this alien membrane?" Alex inquired. "If it exists as an entirely independent organism, does it have any familiar DNA markers?"

"No," Nathan had already considered that. "I isolated a sample of the membrane and conducted another search through the DNA analyzer and found no matches. Whatever it is, it's a mystery to us."

"That at least explains why they don't look like us," Buck sighed. Hell, Vin was Vulcan, and he looked more like them than these Entropy aliens.

"I suspect so, but as I said, I'm still trying to figure out how this alien membrane functions, let alone how it keeps them alive."

"If you are correct in your analysis, Doctor," Ezra said after ruminating on what they'd been told. "It begs an obvious question."

"Where did they come from?" Chris stated.

"Exactly." Ezra met the Captain's eyes, glad to see their train of thought brought them to the same place.

"Humans didn't come this far," Buck reminded. "At least not until the last decade."

"The cellular changes the Entropy would have undergone to lose all human characteristics the way they are now isn't something that could happen overnight. This kind of symbiotic relationship would have taken decades to form. Unfortunately, due to the preservation of their original cells, we have no way of telling how long they've had to evolve into the lifeform we're seeing now."

"So they could be hundreds of years old?" Vin asked.

"It's possible."

"Nathan, are you able to isolate the human DNA strands and compare them to the samples in the Federation database?" Alex suggested. "If nothing else, it might be able to tell us who they were."

"It would take me a few hours but yes. I think I can do that."

"There is a simpler solution," Ezra looked at the Captain.

"Yeah," Chris knew precisely what Ezra meant. "We could just ask them."


Ironically, despite the abuse inflicted on the Maverick by the Entropy's unprovoked attack, the brig seemed to be the only area of the ship that managed to remain unscathed. Chris supposed by its nature, it would be one of the most fortified positions on the ship since no one wanted the inconvenience of escaping prisoners during an attack. After seeing the condition of the Maverick as he walked to the brig from the conference room, it was a comfort to see at least one place on the ship that wasn't torn to hell.

Still, by the time Chris arrived at the brig, he felt as if he'd run the gauntlet, having witnessed the engineering crews working the hallways tirelessly repairing everything from collapsed bulkheads to shattered displays. At the same time, civilian volunteers pitched in to help where they could. As he stood in the corridor near Turbo Shaft 14, his jaw clenched seeing the blackened doors where Charlotte Richmond met her end.

He hadn't known the woman that well, but she was a good officer and knew both Nathan and Alex were taking her death hard for different reasons.

Chris's anger was stoked into a righteous fury by the time he reached the brig. He fought the urge to space the intruders who did this to his ship, out the nearest airlock. So far, three of them had survived the firefights throughout the vessel, including the bridge. One of the invaders was still being treated by Nathan in Sick Bay. The remaining two though injured were recovered enough to continue their stay in confinement.

Flanked by Buck and Ezra, Chris stepped into the brig and spotted the two Entropy soldiers immediately. Both were kept in separate cells and were seated cross-legged in the middle of the floor, seemingly meditating. At the presence of him, their eyelids flew open, and when they stared fixedly at him, Chris sensed the hate. It radiated off them like a tangible force, slicking the walls of their cell, like grease.

Not for the first time, Chris wondered why.

He stepped up to the force field, separating him from the nearest soldier. He noted both Ezra and the security officer on duty, a young man named Ramos, tensing at his proximity to the prisoner. Chris ignored their reaction, aware that Ezra was never comfortable with him near any danger, no matter how contained it might be. Chris needed to see his enemy face to face to proceed with this interrogation.

There was a human buried beneath years of genetic transformation but Chris saw nothing to indicate it. The earlier exchanges with Krall and the fleeting glimpses of the Entropy during the firefight gave Chris no real opportunity to study them. Now that he did, he thought the jagged protrusions of bone through skin looked Jem'Hadar, but there was no doubt these were two entirely different species.

"I'm Captain Chris Larabee. Do you have a name?"

The Entropy facing him did not answer.

Chris appeared nonplussed by the silence and continued speaking, his tone not changing.

"This is your situation. You can tell me what I wish to know, at which point I will return both of you to the nearest starbase and leave you in the hands of Federation authorities where you can spend the rest of your natural lives in a penal colony for the unprovoked attack on this ship..."

"Weaklings," the prisoner snorted before Chris could finish.

Next to Chris, Ezra noticed Buck dropping his gaze to the deck to hide a snigger. Ezra maintained his usual poker face, wondering if this fool had any idea who he was dealing with. If this prisoner thought Chris Larabee was weak, he was in for one rude awakening.

"Or I jettison you both into space to join the bodies of my dead crew."

Chris's delivery was so cold it required a conscious effort on Ezra's part not to flinch at the sudden drop in temperature. After two years at his side, Ezra knew Chris could display the ruthlessness of a Romulan when he was angry enough. After what the Maverick had been subjected to today and the abduction of Mary Travis, Josiah Sanchez, and his own yeoman Holly Jones, Ezra had no doubt Chris's fury was volcanic.

Neither prisoner reacted to the threat, mainly because they believed they dealt with an ordinary starship captain. Chris Larabee was many things. Ordinary was not one of them.

His success since becoming the master of the Maverick was due mainly to going where angels feared to tread and doing precisely what the enemy did not expect. Starfleet tended to ignore his skirmishes with regulations due to his victories, and Chris was wise enough never to push the envelope beyond what they were willing to tolerate. After what he and Chris discussed a short time before this meeting, Ezra wondered if that was about to change.

"Your threats are empty, Captain. We know all about your Federation ethics."

"We're a long way from the Federation," Chris returned without missing a beat. "You've abducted my crew, left this ship in pieces, and killed just as many. You attempted to steal our children out of their classrooms. In all that debris outside," he glanced at the ceiling as if he could see space through the bulkhead, "do you think anyone is going to notice you two? And more importantly, do you think any of us," he now regarded his companions in the brig with him, "is going to care?"

"I know I shall lose no sleep over it," Ezra remarked coolly.

"Damn straight," Buck added, remembering why it was never wise to play poker with Chris.

"We have nothing to say to you, human." The prisoner bit back, his jagged chin raised in defiance, daring the human before him to act.

"Then I have no use for you," Chris stepped back. "Commander Standish, proceed."

"With pleasure," Ezra withdrew from the Captain's flank and went to Ramos. "I can take this from here, Lieutenant."

The lieutenant gaped at Ezra, somewhat shocked at the Captain's order but did not dare to object when it was clear the Chief fully supported the action. Ezra stepped in front of him at the console and tapped the display lightly. As the low hum of the transporter filled the room, both Entropy soldiers traded furious glances at each other, trapped between disbelief and stubbornness.

"Ready on your mark Captain," Buck replied after looking over his shoulder to see Ezra's hands poised over the controls.

"This is a trick." The prisoner stared down at Chris with smug confidence. "You bluff poorly, Captain."

"I guess you're about to find out for sure," Chris said without any sign of emotion. "Engage."

The low whine of the transporter filled the air before the sound flattened into the hum they were all familiar with. As it did, a shower of gold descended around the prisoner, taking with it the mask of self-assurance on his face. His comrade watching this execution from his cell reacted far more intensely. The second alien's eyes darted anxiously from the man about to be transported into space and the Captain who was sending him there, trying to convince himself this was not what it looked like.

Chris intentionally ignored the second prisoner during the interrogation because Chris suspected that he was younger, possibly a junior by the less pronounced ridges and slighter stature. As his comrade prepared to meet death in the vacuum of space, Chris saw the prisoner's anxiety mount with each pulse of the transporter beam as it reached crescendo. By now, the enemy in the beam was consumed by the dancing flecks and beginning to dematerialize.

The process ended abruptly with the prisoner vanishing as if he had never been there.

"LENOR!"

The remaining prisoner cried out in shock, his eyes wide with fear as he stared at the place where Lenor had stood. Shoulders slumping forward in stunned acceptance, he averted his eyes to the Captain of the Maverick as if seeing the human for the first time. Chris suspected he was quickly re-evaluating the information he had given on Starfleet officers.

"Now," Chris said to him. "Let's try this again."

"You murderer! I will tell you nothing! Krall was right! None of you can be trusted! You care nothing for other species, just like you care nothing for your own people!"

The remark immediately caught Chris' attention, and he exchanged glances with both Buck and Ezra, now back at his side, displaying the same reaction. Suddenly, Nathan's revelation that these Entropy had once been human didn't seem so far-fetched if this prisoner believed what he just said.

Then like a veil descending from his eyes, Chris understood the emotions exuded by not just these prisoners but by Krall when they regarded each other across the view screen. From the onset, Chris had been puzzled by the hatred displayed by the Entropy. While it was accepted that commanders facing each other across the battlefield would always view each other with hostility, there was nothing personal about it. Each was a piece on a chessboard, defending their position because of circumstance. It served neither to allow emotion into the equation.

But Krall hated them, and now Chris understood why.

Krall loathed them for being human because he had once been the same, and with this prisoner's inadvertent outburst, Chris had one more piece in the puzzle.

"You don't know my people or me," Chris played it cool, not wishing to reveal too much until it was necessary. "We've never met. You have committed an act of war by using the Teenaxi and the Fibonans to lure us into an attack. You boarded our ship to take prisoners. I don't think you and your comrade deserve any kind of leniency for your crimes unless you tell me what I wish to know."

"Or what? You'll murder me like Lenor?"

"Do you want us to fire up the transporter?" Buck glanced at Ezra.

"You forget how many of you we have captured," Ezra replied. "Your small ships might have taken us by surprise, but your landing parties are rather substandard. My security team was able to contain them easily enough. We have them tucked away safely in cells just like this one."

The prisoner flinched, unable to hide the fear at the possibility of others sharing Lenor's fate. "I know nothing that can help you, human."

"Oh, you can tell me where my people are," Chris took another step closer to the forcefield separating them.

"Never!"

"Then you can watch as I send your 'friends' into space, one after the other. After which, I'll transport their dead bodies into your cell so you will have their company for the duration of the trip back to Federation space. Do you understand me?"

Both Ezra and Buck hid their shock at that statement, but inwardly, they flinched at the desecration Chris was willing to commit to getting their people back.

"I cannot help you!" The prisoner snapped, horrified by the thought. "You'll never be able to get through. Not on this ship!"

"Explain..." Chris started to say when suddenly his comm badge chirped loudly, interrupting the momentum of the interrogation. Tapping his com badge with irritation, Chris stepped away from the forcefield, preparing to tear whoever it was on the other end of the line, a new one for interrupting him.

"What is it?"

"Captain, I'm sorry to bother you," Nathan Jackson's voice filled the air. "But I've managed to isolate those DNA strands as discussed."

The urgency in his voice diffused Chris's anger, and the Captain withdrew to a private corner of the room, out of the prisoner's earshot to hear what Nathan had to say.

"And?"

"Captain, I've identified the prisoner you're talking to right now. His DNA matches that belonging to an Ensign Mae Crosby of Starfleet."

"Starfleet?" Chris hissed, barely keeping himself from exploding loudly at that statement.

"Yes, Captain." Nathan's voice revealed his own astonishment. "Crosby was an ensign in the science division of the USS Franklin."

Chapter Thirteen:
Tradition

It was difficult to convince anyone they would not die after Krall's display.

The best counsel Josiah could offer those trapped in the cargo hold was the promise Chris Larabee would never abandon them to their fate.  It was a belief Josiah espoused for their benefit and his own peace of mind.  Just as shaken as the others, Josiah had to give Krall credit for applying just the correct dose of fear to ensure everyone was too panicked to think clearly.  A state of mind further heightened by Krall's cruel act of leaving Ramos's body behind for everyone to see.

A noticeable ring of space surrounded the young man, with no one daring to approach the corpse, even though none could ignore it.  Calming people down became his focus, and Josiah moved through the crowd, assuring them the Captain was coming and instructing everyone to avoid looking at the body because fear was Krall's weapon.  Not giving the enemy the satisfaction appeared to be the anathema everyone needed to follow his guidance.

"Enough of this," Mary stated loudly enough for Josiah to look up from where he was trying to keep Thalia Rostov calm.  The protocol officer pushed her way to Ramos's body.

Behind her were Sani, Alice, and Holly, who tried to mirror Mary's calm as she closed in on the withering husk that was once Sebastian Ramos.  Despite her mercurial expression, Josiah could tell that Mary was just as affected as the rest of them by the young officer's death.  Of everyone present, it was Mary who would have most interacted with Ramos during their shifts on the bridge.  Her stony expression told Josiah Mary was reverting to her Vulcan disciplines to maintain her calm poise.  As the most senior bridge officer among them, she needed to project some control to ensure everyone else kept their heads.

"Sani," Mary dropped to her knees, trying not to look at Ramos's face.  "Help me move him. They've left him here to frighten us, but we don't have to play their games."

"Yes, Sir," Sani nodded in understanding, quickly leaning over to grip Ramos's spindly arm.  "Let me."

Guilt at surviving the encounter with Krall was all over Sani's face.  He'd tried to stop the Entropy's leader during Ramos's last moments and failed.  Sani needed Josiah's expert counseling to come to terms with what happened.  There was no reason for Sani to blame himself for Ramos's death when he did everything possible to prevent it.  it was not his fault they did not understand the extent of their enemy's cruelty.

Sani leaned over Ramos, preparing to pick up the body when his jaw clenched, and a look of revulsion descended over the engineering officer.  A soft, crinkling sound like old-fashioned paper being crushed rose from the corpse, drawing Mary's attention to it.  Upon gripping Ramos's arm, Sani's fingers sank deep into the fabric of the dead man's uniform.  However, the flesh beneath crumbled like the remains of an ancient, mummified corpse.

Then, as if there was some unspoken need to deepen their horror, the bone Sani was holding broke, shocking the young officer to let go abruptly.  The body landed on the floor, collapsing upon itself like the fragile husk it had become.  Screams broke out, and Mary fought to maintain her composure, using all the discipline of c'thia to not display her fear and send people into a further state of panic.  Behind her, she heard Holly gasping while those who had not screamed were exploding with utterances of shock and horror.

"My God," Josiah gasped, coming up alongside Mary, fighting his way through the crowd that was threatening to descend into panic once again with this latest development.

"Josiah," Mary hissed. "Keep everyone calm.  This is exactly what these Entropy want, to make us so terrified we can't think straight."

Josiah agreed, and judging by the rising tempo of anxious rumbling in the room, it was working.  It would only take the match of one person's outburst to ignite the powder keg of panicked emotions.  "Yes, of course."

As Josiah dealt with the other captives, Mary turned to Sani, whose face was hard like carved ebony.  Anger was building up in his brown eyes, and if any of Krall and his people walked into the room this minute, Mary knew Sani would react violently.  All that would accomplish was his death, and Mary had no intention of allowing him to walk that path.

"Sani, take off your blazer. If we can't move Sebastian, the least we can do is cover him up."

He blinked and returned from whatever place he was in his mind to register her words.  "Yes, Ma'am," he nodded and quickly loosened the fastenings of his Starfleet blazer, stripping down to the turtleneck beneath.  Shaking off the dark garment with its gold shoulders, Sani dropped to his knees and spread it out over what remained of Ramos's body.  It was a relief to conceal the near skeleton face, so no one had to look at the dead man's eyes.

"Are they going to do that to all of us?" Alice whispered to Mary, keeping her voice low because the young woman was just as aware that everyone's emotions were in a volatile state.

"No," Mary answered before she could even question where her certainty originated.  The ship was in motion. While her engineering skills were nowhere in Julia Pemberton's league, Mary had been brushing up on her interest since coming on board the Maverick.  It served her well during the Captain's abduction by the C'Kaia.  "We will not let them. We're getting out of here."

"How?" Holly asked, glad that Mary was directing things."We don't even know where we're going."

"We must be going somewhere. The Entropy wouldn't have risked coming on board the Maverick unless they needed us for a specific purpose even," Mary paused and swallowed away the horror of Krall's revelation, "if it was for food.  We can't do anything until we know where we are.  Any attempt to escape right now is pointless while we're in transit.  Only a handful of us can fight if we run into trouble.  It's why they took the civilians instead of Starfleet personnel."

"It makes sense," Alice agreed.  "If I can get a look at the sky, I may be able to pinpoint where we are, not exactly, but a general idea at least of our position."

"So we sit tight," Sani joined them, having covered Ramos' body.  "We wait until we land, and then we escape.  If we're on a planet, we could hide long enough for the Captain to find us."

"There's something else," Mary spoke up, hating to bring this up when it sounded so self-serving, but her safety was the furthest thing from her mind.  If she had to die for everyone here to survive, she could live with those consequences.  Her son would be safe. She knew Chris would protect Billy to his last breath.  However, she would not allow herself to be used as a pawn for Krall to further harm the people she loved.  After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Mary led the small group to a quiet corner, away from the hearing of the civilians in the room.  Not that she distrusted them, but as a career diplomat, Mary understood fear was the pivot on which a debate could descend into a mob scene.  Thalia Rostov's reaction and others like her could drive them to commit unthinkable acts.  Hoping she'd achieve some privacy in the furthest corner of the room, she saw Josiah continue his efforts to calm the other hostages.  There was no need to beckon the Counselor to join them because Josiah was astute enough to know what she was about to impart to Holly, Alice, and Sandi.

"What is it, Mary?" Holly asked, looking around to see if anyone was lingering unnecessarily close to them.

Mary did the same before she responded to the trio of expectant faces.

"We cannot allow Krall to know of my relationship with the Captain."

Understanding swept over them, and all three took the information with the gravity it demanded.  Sani stiffened as if the suggestion of betrayal was simply unthinkable, while Alice let it sink in and strengthened her resolve.

"Oh," Holly covered her lips with her hand to prevent any inadvertent comments from escaping her and giving Mary away.

"Forgive me, Lieutenant," Sani spoke up after a moment.  "Is this not common knowledge?"

"It is," Mary admitted with a frown, wishing it were otherwise.  Although she loved Chris more than her life, the complications of their relationship were not lost on her, especially now.  "I'm hoping no one is indiscreet enough to give me away but I will do whatever it takes to ensure Krall does not use me as a bargaining chip against Chris and the Maverick."

"You may not have a choice," Alice pointed out.

"I will find a way if I have to," Mary stated firmly, suspecting Krall would assume humans were too weak to make such a choice, allowing her a way out if she were desperate enough.

"She's right," Sani agreed, though somewhat reluctantly.  "People react poorly when they are frightened.  If someone is afraid enough, they will have little difficulty overcoming their morality to make a devil's bargain."


Nathan's revelation so stunned Chris that he was driven into the corridor outside the brig to avoid reacting in front of the prisoner.  Buck and Ezra followed, knowing their Captain well enough to recognize Chris had just learned something disturbing and wanted to know what it was.  It took a great deal to shake Chris's composure, especially after the bluff he perpetrated on the Entropy prisoner,  tricking him into believing they beamed his companion into space at the Captain's order.  Instead, the man had simply found himself in Cargo Bay 2, surrounded by a dozen security officers.

"What is it?" Chris's stunned expression unsettled Buck.

Chris sucked in his breath, steadying himself and dispelling the storm of moths in his head after Nathan's startling news.

"That man," Chris glanced at the doors to the brig as if he could see through the walls to the prisoner inside his cell, "is a Lt. Mae Crosby of the USS Franklin."

For a second, neither man spoke, taking the news just about as well as Chris.  When the storm behind their eyes finally broke, it was only natural Buck reacted first.

"How in God's name is that possible?  The Franklin was destroyed two hundred years ago!"

"Was it?" Ezra countered. His sharp investigator's mind was pulling together all the pieces of this puzzle and formulating a plausible answer to how this could be possible.  "We only know she disappeared in the Gagarin Radiation Belt.  No trace of the ship was ever located.  Starfleet assumed she was destroyed, an understandable conclusion since the technology to determine otherwise did not exist at the time."

"That's right," Chris had made the same determination.  "What if she survived? What if she and her crew ended up in some alien world or place that allowed them to become the creatures in our brig? You heard Nathan.  They preserved their cells within an alien membrane that kept them from getting sick or aging.  If Mae Crosby was 22 years old when the Franklin disappeared, why couldn't that be him if our brig?"

"So under all that, he's human?" Buck could not believe it, but Chris and Ezra's theory caused him to speculate further.  "Then it could mean not only are all these Entropy humans, but they're all former Starfleet officers?"

"I believe so," Ezra nodded grimly, wondering what price the Franklin crew had paid for their immortality?  Judging by the prisoners in their brig, they settled that account with their humanity.

Chris's mind whirled, imagining the crew of the Franklin, trapped wherever their journey through the Gagarin Belt had taken them.  Two hundred years ago, all this was still uncharted space.  Not even the Romulans ventured this far out.  He couldn't imagine what that crew endured, knowing they'd never see their loved ones again.  How had the Captain of the Franklin handled it?

Chris's eyes widened as a thought struck him with the impact of a sledgehammer.

"Jesus Christ. Krall is Captain Balthazar Edison."

Buck opened his mouth to utter rebuttal but soon fell silent because Chris was right.  In the wake of what they'd learned about the Entropy.  It made perfect sense.

"Damn, Chris, I think you are right."

"I concur, Captain," Ezra agreed, "If these Entropy are the crew of the USS Franklin, it stands to reason one of them would be Captain Edison."

Chris remembered how Krall, or rather Edison, had addressed him.  The man had called him by his first name, not at all how two enemies should address each other.  In retrospect, Chris realized it was, however, exactly the way two starship captains might greet each other for the first time.

"Then why the hell are they doing this?" Buck burst out.  "You think they'd want to reach out to us so we can get them home?  They've been stuck out here for two centuries, exiled and transformed.  We could have helped them."

"Buck," Ezra spoke up, his voice was gentle and sympathetic.  "The Franklin's crew has been trapped in the wilderness for a great deal of time.  They have been forced to adapt in a manner that has expunged their humanity.  Being driven to such extremes can have a profound effect on the psyche.  We do not know what forced them to accept the alien DNA that transformed them.  Was it by choice? Was it forced upon them?  We have no idea what indignities they might have faced."

Finally, Chris understood Krall's intense hatred.

"I think I get why they want to destroy us."

Both Buck and Ezra looked at the Captain.

"Look at us. We're everything the Franklin once was.  We're out here with our families, taking the same journey they did, our humanity intact while God only knows what they did to survive this long."

Chris and the Maverick represented everything that the Entropy lost.  Their lives as Starfleet officers, the families they outlived who never knew their true fate, their homes, whether it be on Earth or some other Federation member planet, and their identities.  Humanity had been stripped from them, layer by layer, on the journey to their present incarnation.  How could they view the Maverick with anything but disdain in the face of that overwhelming loss?

"Captain," Ezra cleared his throat, "I loathed to bring this up considering the injury the Entropy inflicted on our crew, but we need to decide how we proceed next."

"What do you mean?" Buck stared at him, puzzled.

"You mean our responsibility to the Entropy?" Chris guessed because he faced the same dilemma seconds after guessing Krall's true identity.

"Responsibility?" Buck exploded.  "You're kidding, right? These sons of bitches have nearly destroyed the Maverick and killed God only knows how many civilians and crew."

"Buck," Chris understood his outrage, especially about their losses.  "I know what they've done, and we will not pull any punches if we need to, but those are Starfleet officers who have gone through God only knows what in the last two hundred years.  They were stranded out here, away from their families.  I know it doesn't justify what they've done to us, but we are responsible for resolving this.  They were forced into this position through no fault of their own.  I think we at least have to offer them a chance to go home."

Buck was skeptical if they could cross such a gulf after so long, but Chris had a point as much as he hated to admit it.  "It's your play, Chris," he said after a moment.  "If you think this is the best way to get anywhere with them, I'm behind you 100 percent."

"As I Captain," Ezra nodded in agreement, grateful for some clear directives.  While Ezra's first responsibility was to protect everyone on board the Maverick, he felt some sympathy for the crew of the Franklin, driven to extreme adaptation to survive.

"That being said," Chris reached for his com badge, "I want to know where the hell they've taken our people."

A soft chirp followed Chris' tapping of the communications device.  "Alex, this is the Captain. I want you to access the historical records.  I need some information about the USS Franklin."


When Chris returned to the brig to address their prisoner once more, Alex, who collated the data requested by the Captain, joined him.  Once he outlined what he needed to know, Alex searched the records and downloaded every iota of information relevant to the pad in her hand.  The prisoner had returned to his bunk but quickly got to his feet at their return.  Their abrupt departure earlier had allowed the Entropy soldier to regain his composure after the shock transport of his comrade.  As he faced Chris again, the Captain could see the defiance in his eyes.

"I will tell you nothing," he snapped.  "I will die before I betray my people."

"That's okay." Chris's tone was no longer hard or adversarial.  It was almost kind. "You don't have to tell us anything, Mae."

The prisoner blinked. "What?"

"Mae," Chris repeated. "May I call you Mae?  On your Starfleet personnel file, it says your name was Malachi Crosby.  I guess that's a mouthful, sort of like Christopher."

The Entropy stared at him a long time, clearly shaken by the mention of the name, long forgotten by time and even himself.  "I... I don't know who that is?"

Chris glanced at Alex, a gesture for her to proceed as they discussed.  Alex nodded and stepped a little closer to the cell.

"Lt. Mae Crosby of the USS Franklin, born in Chicago in 2233, to Evelyn and Susan Crosby.  You had a brother and a sister, Emma and Liam.  You graduated from Starfleet Academy in 2251 with honors in quantum theory and astrophysics.  Assigned to the USS Franklin in 2255.  During your service on the Franklin, you met Melissa Long, a nurse at Starbase 2.  You were married six months later.  At the time the Franklin was reported lost, Melissa was six months pregnant.  She gave birth to a little boy she called Mae, after you..."

"STOP IT!" the man shouted, clearly distressed by what he was being told.  The facade of control had slipped away completely, and he appeared as if he was fighting to dismiss the truth imparted to him.  "That's not me! I'm Malak of the Entropy.  I don't know who you're talking about."

Alex looked at the Captain, who with a nod, gave her instructions to continue.

"Melissa never remarried, and Mae grew up and joined  Starfleet.  He  eventually  became Captain Malachi Crosby of the USS Endeavor.  He married and had three children, Bella, James, and, of course, Mae Junior.  In fact, there's been a Mae Crosby in Starfleet ever since then.  It was a family tradition to honor your bravery by keeping your name and making sure your family never forgets you.  The present Mae Crosby is a doctor on the USS Saratoga.  She's its Chief Medical  Officer."

He looked up at her this time, and Alex felt her heart soften when she saw the  tears.

"It's all here," she lifted the pad for you for him to see, "everything you've  missed.  Your family line for the last two hundred  years."

The Maverick's senior officers held their breaths for a few seconds, wondering if this gamble would  work.  That too much time had passed for Malak to remember the man he had been or the family left  behind.  As emotional as he appeared to them, Ezra had been on point when he reminded them of what the Franklin's crew must have endured surviving the past two hundred  years.  Perhaps it was too late for  him.

Malak looked up while Chris was in  deep thought.  "What do you want to know?"

Chapter Fourteen:
Creative

The moon-sized asteroid hung in the middle of the viewscreen, rolling slowly like an ancient god in a restless sleep. Smaller versions sped past, riding the currents of cosmic winds. Some collided spectacularly, fragmenting into a million particles, joining the trillion others in the maelstrom of the Gagarin Belt. Energy crackled across the indigo landscape, celebrating their dispersal with spidery webs of lightning and bursts of fireworks. In an otherwise lifeless storm of radiating rock and frenetic strands of energy, it gave the illusion of life to any trespassers.

Chris Larabee stared into this expanse, trying to imagine what it must have been like for Captain Edison and the crew of the Franklin to be drawn to this place, their ship collapsing around them. Two hundred years ago, starships possessed neither the power to escape this phenomenon nor the ability to survive the tremendous gravimetric pressures that must have assaulted the hull. Worse yet, had the ship survived those dangers, the micro-wormholes riddling the Belt would have spirited them away. Even if the ship survived the turbulence of the journey through the rift in subspace, there was no way it would be in any fit state to get home again.

With the Maverick's shields down, Chris could empathize with the tale Malak had told him about the Franklin's metamorphosis into the Entropy. So far, the ablative armor continued to do its work, protecting the Maverick from the ravages of the Belt. However, the ability to use it was not inexhaustible. The Janeway Protocol was intended for combat with the Borg and purely for escape only. Prolonged use was unsustainable.

"How is the armor holding up?"

Another dull thud impacted against the hull, drawing Chris's gaze to the ceiling as if he could see the offending flotsam through the hull.

Ezra Standish, standing behind his semi-repaired tactical console, looked up. "It is holding up well, although fissures are appearing. They will become more acute the longer we deploy the armor."

"Well, with any luck, the shields will be back online in two hours, and we can deactivate it," Buck told Chris, remembering the last status report they received from Julia.

Two hours. Chris's stony expression hid his frustration at having to wait that long. Two hours until it was safe to enter one of those wormholes and find Mary if she was still alive. Not just Mary, but Josiah, Holly, and countless other civilians whose families on board struggled with not fearing the worst. His nails dug into the armrests of his command chair, trying not to revisit Malak's information about the Entropy. Once Alex handed him the datapad, opening up the man's mind to the memories he'd forgotten with the promise of returning home to Earth, the prisoner had been most cooperative.

Chris still didn't trust him.

The Captain was nowhere ready to believe a datapad of genealogical information might unravel the conditioning of two centuries. So far, the intelligence Malak provided appeared truthful. Thanks to the Engineering and the Science Department working tirelessly to conduct repairs, Julia and Alex restored their sensor capability. Though the effort required double shifts that left everyone involved exhausted, the two teams successfully attached spare parts usually intended for the main scanner array to the astrometrics sensors, modifying it enough to do the job in the interim.

Their restored sensors confirmed the existence of the micro wormholes Malak claimed lay scattered throughout the Belt and were the reason the Franklin disappeared so entirely from known space. To retrieve their missing crew, the Maverick would need to make the same journey, and at present, she was nowhere ready for such a treacherous trajectory until she underwent further repairs. Vin Tanner suggested they find one of the larger asteroids hurtling through the Belt to use as a shield while the work was done.

The senior staff continued to occupy the battle bridge for the time being. They sealed the main bridge off until Engineering could remove the Entropy dart that crashed through the dome window above and nearly ejected them into space. Despite the calm, the mood on the bridge remained grim, especially after learning the potential fate of the Entropy's prisoners.

After making a slight course correction to maintain their orbit around the giant asteroid, Vin swiveled away from the Con to face the Captain. The ease with which the enemy penetrated their defenses bothered Vin. He hadn't given it much thought during the battle, but now that things were quiet, the Vulcan had time to consider the attack in greater detail. An idea formed in his mind, one he first dismissed as too outlandish, until Vin realized it might just be crazy enough to work. He debated bringing it up with Chris because the Captain had a great deal on his mind, but any help he could be easing Chris's burdens was a risk worth taking.

"Hey, Chris?"

Chris snapped out of his thoughts, surprised by Vin's informality because the Vulcan stuck to protocol when they were on the bridge. They had long ago realized there were professional lines between them they could not cross if they were to maintain their friendship. However, on this occasion, Chris was grateful for any distraction because Malak's words played on a repeated loop in his mind and drove him crazy.

"Yeah, Vin?"

"I was thinking if we find this planet and run into the Entropy again, we need to come at them differently."

"How so, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra responded from his tactical station, interested in any idea that might help them protect the ship better after the pounding the Maverick had just suffered at the hands of the enemy. They'd escaped using their last ace in the hole, but they would fight their subsequent engagements with no last-minute miracles.

"We've got to face facts. This ship can't fight those darts or whatever you want to call them. If we run into them again, they'll overload our shields the same way. We're just not equipped to fight anything that small."

"The ablative armor held them at bay," Buck reminded, always one to counter an argument. "We might hold them off."

"For how long? We're barely patched up from the last fight, and we need our energy reserves for the shields. "Besides, we might need the armour to escape wherever we're going when we rescue our people."

Although Chris did not comment, he was listening closely. Vin seldom spoke up unless he had something important to say, and though his accounting of their battle readiness was grim, Chris couldn't deny he was wrong. As much as Chris liked to think the Maverick could fend off the swarming capabilities of the Entropy's armada, the truth was very different. Ignoring the obvious would only get them killed.

"What do you have in mind, Vin?"

"We have six Type-9 shuttles in our shuttle bay and two runabouts. All of them have phaser banks and torpedoes. When that swarm comes after us again, I say we use the shuttle crafts to keep them off the Maverick."

"Damn Vin," Buck let out a heavy sigh. "You're talking about an old-fashioned dogfight, with the odds being a thousand to one."

"True, but those bastards got to us by overloading our shields all at once. If we gave the Maverick an escort, we could keep them from carrying out their kamikaze runs."

The idea was bold and damned dangerous, but Chris could see the merits. Krall had used his advantage to masterful effect. The Entropy had nearly dismembered the Maverick because the darts were too small and fast for the ship's phasers to target them all in time. However, the shuttles possessed better maneuverability, and Type 9 shuttles, developed during the Dominion War, packed quite a punch in a fight.

"Mr. Tanner is correct," Ezra agreed, although his expression showed little optimism about the plan. "However, I am concerned we may not have sufficient personnel with the piloting skills required for close-quarters combat."

"Then we better find them," Chris stated, giving Vin a slight nod to show he approved of Vin's suggestion. "Vin's right. We need to get creative to fight this enemy. We got lucky because of the ablative armor, but we don't know what going through that wormhole will do to the ship. The Franklin got trapped there for two hundred years. I don't plan on letting history repeat itself. We need to think about a contingency plan."

"I'll start reviewing our personnel records," Buck suggested, "narrow down the list of candidates."

"I should be one of them, Chris," Vin volunteered, to no one's surprise.

"I figured as much. I'll take the helm while you're gone. If it comes down to needing pilots, we can't waste anyone when I can fly this bird."

"Just try not to fly her apart," Vin cautioned with a slight smirk, recalling what kind of pilot Chris Larabee had been when he occupied the Con. If the term hotshot pilot applied to anyone, Vin decided it would undoubtedly be Chris.

"I volunteer as well, Captain," Ezra spoke up.

"I'm sorry, Ezra," Chris rejected the offer almost immediately. "I need you here on the bridge. Even with Vin's plan, we're still going to have to keep those darts off the Maverick. No one can do that better than you."

He hoped the compliment would lessen the sting of his decision. The security chief always felt it was his duty to take the lead in any action to defend the ship, and while Chris applauded his courage, it was tactically unwise when the Maverick was so compromised.

"I understand, Captain," Ezra sighed in disappointment but understood the Captain's reasoning. Nothing Chris said was untrue.

"I'll go, Chris," Buck said. "If we're sending our people out there to fight these bastards, one of us should be there."

"Uh, Captain," JD, who had been quietly monitoring their trajectory in the Belt, spoke up hesitantly. "I don't know if this is my place to say, but you should also ask Adam."

Chris's spine straightened, not liking that idea, and he was about to ask JD if he was out of his mind until Chris remembered the life Adam lived before he came to this universe. In that alternate reality where humans were hunted for past sins, the boy had been a soldier in combat since he was fourteen years old. Adam probably had more combat experience than most people his age. Still, the idea of risking Adam's life so soon after entering his world was something Chris didn't wish to face.

"Why JD?" Buck asked, wondering if JD knew the position he placed the Captain. How could Chris ask any of his crew to undertake such a perilous task if he could not ask the same of his own son?

"He's an expert pilot," JD swallowed, not missing the hard stare the Captain was throwing at him. "We did a holo simulation where we flew through these canyons in Vulcan, and he was fast. I mean, he never came close to hitting anything."

"Mr. Dunne, there is a vast difference between a simulation and reality," Ezra pointed out, just as aware of how the Captain would feel about Adam being placed in danger.

"No," Chris whispered, hating himself for admitting it but unable to do anything else. "He's right. Adam mentioned it to me once. He flew fighters when he was back there."

No one needed any clarification where back 'there' was.

"I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Buck gave him a look of encouragement.

Chris hated the idea of Adam being in any kind of danger, but there were realities he had to face. Adam wasn't a child. He was about to enroll in Starfleet Academy, and if he made it through, he'd be like any other ensign Chris sent into danger as the master of this vessel. If Chris couldn't accept the threat to his son now, how could he manage it later when Adam gained a posting to a ship under a different commander?

"Get the list together, Buck," Chris said after a moment. "Make sure Adam is on it."


When could only be the scent of steaming hot chocolate wafted through the confines of Deflector Control, Julia Pemberton felt her stomach rumble with hunger. Even though lingering fumes of charred circuits from burnt-out relays drifted around her, the inviting aroma disrupted her focus and reminded her of the basic needs she'd ignored for the past few hours. Lowering her head against the floor of Deck 35, Julia considered a moment to catch her breath. However, if she succumbed to the temptation even for a second, she'd fall asleep down here. Right now, giving in to her exhaustion was not an option. She needed to keep working. When Julia promised Buck Wilmington they would have shields in two hours, she meant it.

Even if she had to replace every graviton emitter and weld the missing plates of diburnium-osmium housing to the damaged device herself.

Footsteps followed the enchanting aroma, and the reverberation of the metal deck traveled up her spine, prompting her to see who was coming. She expected it was most likely Chanu coming to give her a status report on the progress of the repairs to the hull. Of all the damage suffered by the Maverick, the hull breaches were one of the worst. They would have to be repaired before the ablative armor was deactivated. While Julia expected to have the shields restored by then, she wanted those breaches sealed if the deflector failed.

In a combat situation, every precaution counted.

To Julia's surprise, it wasn't Chanu dropping in on the small annex that was Deflector Control in Main Engineering, but the Maverick's second officer, Alexandra Styles. The woman looked just as worn out as Julia felt, having taken a hands-on role in joining the Science team as they assisted Engineering to restore the Maverick's sensors. Instead of waiting for Julia to emerge from under the deflector control station where she was repairing the damaged relays, Alex lowered herself onto the deck floor next to it.

"So you're gonna let this hot chocolate I brought you all the way down here get cold, or do I have to pull you out of there?" Alex spoke to the pair of legs sticking out from under the console.

"You won't go away until I do, will you?"

Julia set down the tool in her hand and shimmied across the floor until she was clear of the workstation so she could sit up. When she did, she found Alex waiting patiently for her, sitting cross-legged against the floor. Sandwiches and two mugs of contents hot enough to exude steam sat on a tray in between them. One cup contained her hot chocolate while the other held raktajino, the Klingon version of coffee. Julia swore Alex would drink raktajino intravenously if she could.

"Nope," Alex smiled faintly, having decided when she went to the replicator to order some food, Julia had to be in worse shape than she was after the hours they put in. "I got a mix of chicken and ham sandwiches," she gestured to the wrapped meals on the tray. "I checked the logs. You haven't eaten in hours."

"Sorry, mom," Julia teased.

"Funny," Alex made a face at her. "It's my job as Second Officer to make sure the Chief Engineer is fighting fit. Besides," she added a second later. "Ezra asked me to see how you were doing."

"He's such an old hen," Julia complained, reaching for her mug, even though it really warmed Julia to hear he was thinking about her, even with the ship the way it was.

"He is, but you gotta love him."

"I do. I think Ezra is still a little worried about me after the whole Borg thing." Julia sipped her hot chocolate and decided it was heavenly.

Alex saw the shadow in Julia's eyes and knew despite the woman's efforts to act as if everything was business as usual, her ordeal in the Collective still haunted her. If there was one person who knew how to bury past traumas behind facades, it was Alex. Unlike Alex, however, Julia liked to remain optimistic for the sake of others. It worked spectacularly well when applied to Julia's role as Chief Engineer. However, the traumas remained, and no one could keep up a facade forever. Eventually, cracks would appear.

"You can't blame him. We really thought we'd lost you, and it was the worst kind of loss. Not the kind where you were dead, and we could mourn and move on. Just knowing you could be out there, going through hell for god only knows how long. It was hard on him."

"I know," Julia admitted, freeing one sandwich from its vacuum-sealed container. "I've tried to get back to normal as much as I can to stop him from worrying..."

"Hey," Alex stopped her before she continued any further. "You don't have to do that for him. Ezra knows what you went through was hard. I'm sure he would rather know what you're feeling inside than have you hide it. What happened to you takes time, much more than what's already passed to overcome. He understands that."

"But you're back to normal?" Julia pointed out, staring at the texture of whole grain bread, hating that she felt so out of sync with herself.

"Normal?" Alex stared at her incredulously. "Don't use me as an example. I still have bad days and worse nights. There's a reason I sleep well when Vin is with me. He soothes my mind with a meld to stop me from waking up screaming, even now."

"Well, that's not surprising," Julia returned, surprised to hear Alex still suffered even if she seemed so recovered. "After what you went through."

"Julia," Alex reached over and touched her hand, squeezing it gently. "What happened to me was a nightmare. I wouldn't want to wish that on my worst enemy, but it was just my physical body that was violated. They took your mind and almost your soul. I have to live with a lot, but I don't have to live with what you faced when the Borg took you. I can't imagine what that must have felt like, and the fact that you're here, making sure the ship can fight another day, is a testament to how strong you are. "

Julia hadn't noticed, but her eyes had moistened at hearing Alex's kind words, not until the tears came down her cheeks. "I just don't feel like I'm in charge of my life, you know." Her gaze swept across the small room. "The Maverick is the one thing I can control, which needs me, even when I'm a wreck."

Alex understood her sentiments with far more depth than Julia knew. When Alex came on board the Maverick, she'd encountered a young, shy Vulcan afraid of everything. He was so wounded and alone that he'd drawn her out of her self-imposed exile. Vin needing her to be his friend was the best treatment she could ever receive. If Julia felt that way about the Maverick, she hoped the ship would help the engineer in the same manner.

"I understand. Sometimes, fixing something in just as much trouble as you makes you forget your own problems. I get it, but I think you need to talk to Ezra about all this. I promise you, he'll be grateful you did. Nothing would make him feel worse than not realizing you're in pain."

"Thank you, Alex," Julia dried her eyes. "I think I needed to say all this to someone."

"I told you," Alex smiled at her, "it's part of the job description."

"Sure it is," Julia returned, not believing her for one second.

Chapter Fifteeen:
Planet Fall

The Entropy, deciding the shock of Ramos's body had worn off several hours after the young man's death, lowered the lighting in the cargo bay again, leaving them in darkness. For the rest of the journey, the Maverick's captives were left to stumble around each other, trying to keep the fear from stoking their panic as they wondered whether or not rescue would come.

Mary no longer remembered how much time had passed, having surrendered to her exhaustion long enough to sleep. Was it a day already or only hours? She woke up with a start when she heard the low drone of Josiah's snore. Lifting her head off his shoulder, she saw that he had fallen asleep. Further along the wall, Sani slept with Holly and Alice, using his shoulders to do the same.

Sleep didn't come after that. Mary's thoughts were rapids running through her mind as she scanned the faces of the other captives. The children were frightened. Even in their slumber, she heard the soft shudders and snuffles that came with nightmares. Billy suffered the same uneasy sleep during the first few weeks following Syan's death. Her heart ached for them, ached that they needed to be placed in this terrible situation, and cursed an enemy that would take children.

Most civilized species tended to avoid taking children as hostages, but the Entropy weren't taking hostages, were they? Ramos's awful death reminded Mary they weren't hostages. They were food. The children had an easier time dealing with this brutal reality, not when they were raised with stories of witches and wolves luring children with gingerbread houses and disguises. On the other hand, adults had great difficulty accepting this as their fate, certainly not comfortable Federation citizens who no longer suffered hunger and want. Not with Starfleet and Federation ethics cocooning them from the brutalities of the universe.

Some would hold their head high and go out fighting. She couldn't see Holly or Sani surrendering to the last, but others, like Thalia, might falter. The woman's fear and her calculation told Mary she was the one to worry about, and if she broke, what would she give the enemy in exchange for her life. The answer was clear - a bargaining chip the Captain of the Maverick would never be able to refuse, and if he did, he would never forgive himself. Mary felt another surge of pain pierce her heart at the idea.

Chris had taken so long to reach this point in his life. Mary loved him dearly and admired his journey from grieving father and vengeful Captain to a man content with his existence. She and Billy had given him some semblance of the family he'd lost, and the unveiling of the Changeling plot to kill Sarah gave Chris closure to that painful portion of his life. And then there was Adam. Adam, who was a gift from another reality, who needed the father he'd never known. How they'd found each other across the dimensions healed Chris, and he was happier than she'd ever seen him. If he was forced to choose the Maverick over her . . .

No, Mary would spare him that choice. She had to escape. Somehow, she had to put herself out of Krall's reach before Thalia or someone just as scared gave her up.


THUNK!

The sudden jolt against the deck woke everyone up abruptly, even Mary, who dozed off amid her fatalistic musings of escape and the choice Chris Larabee might have to make.

With their sudden return to wakefulness, the silence disappeared within the room's low murmur of waking voices. Beyond the hull, Mary thought she heard the drone of something familiar. Soft pelting against the metal that didn't alarm but sounded comforting. Was it rain?

"I think we've landed," Mary whispered as she sat up straighter and brushed a loose strand of blond hair out of her face before swallowing thickly to dispel the dry mouth of sleep. "I wonder where we are?"

"Who knows," Josiah leaned forward, trying to see through the shadows. He wished he had an answer for her.

Their captors had left them alone after the incident with Ramos, other than to provide them with water and food. They reminded him of Starfleet rations and, while barely edible, did the job of staving off any rumblings of hunger. Josiah wondered if it had anything to do with keeping the livestock fat for the slaughter. Of course, as a Counselor, he kept such fatalistic thoughts to himself. The group was tense enough with what they knew about their situation. Thalia Rostov continued to concern him greatly.

While he always found her a little abrasive and somewhat self-entitled during his monthly sessions with the civilians of the Maverick, he had no idea those traits could evolve into something so destructive when she was adequately frightened. Word had gone through the Maverick captives that Mary's relationship with the Captain was not to be divulged to the enemy because the Entropy would use it to take the ship.

However, Josiah was well aware that Mary believed to save herself, Thalia might exploit that kernel of information.

The sudden burst of hydraulic gasses startled everyone as the massive pistons of the cargo bay doors shifted into motion. Light poured through the slowly widening crack, blinding them after hours or was it days, trapped in their prison. An invading rush of air swept past the opening, displacing the stale mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen. The air was fresh and had the balmy consistency of an atmosphere. The hiss Mary identified was louder now, confirming the heavy shower against the ship's hull.

"At least we know the planet's habitable," Josiah commented as the group shuffled to their feet, rumbling with renewed fear and anticipation. Next to him and Mary, Sani, Alice and Holly did the same.

"Yes, we do," Mary spoke neutrally, her mind working fast as she squinted past the open doors, trying to make out any details. Rainfall meant vegetation, a habitable terrain with an oxygen atmosphere. While she saw none of it yet, the possibilities opened up in her mind.

"What's the plan, Mary?" Josiah asked, suspecting things would move fast now that they had reached their final destination. Even as Josiah asked the question, the group's fear intensified with each passing moment. It wouldn't take long for someone to snap.

"Josiah," Mary eyed him thoughtfully, conscious of Holly, Sani, and Alice's attention. The younger crew were alert and aware that their situation was changing. "I cannot allow them to use me as leverage against Chris. You know that's coming."

Josiah's lips thinned into a white line because he suspected Mary's plan was not something any of them would find palatable. "I know," he whispered.

"What does that mean?" Alice insisted, sensing the ominous currents swirling around them with this conversation. Footsteps approach, heavy and determined, on the other side of the open doors. Orders were traded, and fates were decided as the enemy prepared to unload its cargo. Eyes were darting to the internal doors, waiting to see if the Entropy and Krall would be returning to collect them.

"It means I'll do what's necessary to keep the Maverick and the Captain from being compromised."

Before she could elaborate, the main cargo bay doors slid open amidst the squeal of hard steel and hissing hydraulics. Stepping through the entryway from the corridor beyond was Krall, flanked by at least three more Entropy warriors. The silhouette of more appeared through the glaring sunlight pouring through the outer doors as they marched up the landing ramp.

Krall surveyed his prisoners before speaking. "You have arrived at your final destination. If any of you tries anything foolish, my men are hungry, and I have no hesitation in giving them a snack." His eyes shifted towards a group of children. "A small one, perhaps."

The comment sent a sudden burst of rage through Josiah, and before he could think better of it or before Mary could stop him, Josiah stepped forward prompted by the terror running through the faces of the children. Krall's gaze turned to him sharply, and Josiah decided that if he was going to die, so be it, but he was not allowing this to continue.

"We have no power here. You've made that clear. You wanted to make us afraid," Josiah eyed the occupants of the hold. "You've succeeded. We're afraid. We'll do whatever you ask, and if our fate is to die, can you at least desist in terrifying the little ones in the process?"

Mary's heart tightened in her chest as she saw Krall step forward. Both captors and captives watched the confrontation mesmerized, with Mary praying this act of courage on Josiah's part did not cost him his life. The leader of the Entropy said nothing, fixing those vengeful eyes on the Counselor, possibly trying to take the measure of him. Josiah, for his part, didn't flinch, but then Josiah could dress down Chris Larabee when the Captain was at his obstinate worst. He would never bow before a lesser man.

"You are right," Krall finally spoke, and his concession allowed everyone in the hold to release their held breaths. "There is no need to labor the point when you all recognize your situation. I hope that understanding continues to hold, or the consequences will be on your heads."

The Counselor lifted his chin in defiance. "I expected nothing less."

With that, Krall spun on his heels to head for the inner doors, barking at his men one final order before he disappeared into the corridor. "MOVE THEM OUT!"


The planet Altamid appeared to them through a curtain of unrelenting torrential rain.

The rumble of rainfall heard from inside the cargo hold surrounded them with a dull roar amidst the swift dampening of their skin. Everyone who emerged from the ship was soon soaked to the skin, with a biting wind intensifying their discomfort. Still, for a brief time, the watery assault seemed distant as everyone adjusted to the sunlight, trying to peek through the thick, nimbus clouds unleashing its deluge upon them.

A great deal of information became available to Mary at that point. Like the others, she gained her first view of the ship that brought them here. While logic dictated the craft would not be one of the darts assailing the Maverick, it was of a configuration she had never seen. For a few seconds, she studied it and tried to determine if she had seen anything of the like before. It was almost certainly a cruiser of some sort, and Mary was unsurprised that Krall had held this craft back during his initial encounter with the Maverick. The darts might have been challenging targets for the starship to combat, but this craft would have placed both enemies on an equal footing.

Turning away from the ship, Mary focused on the new environment. If she intended to remove herself from Krall's power, studying the terrain was necessary. Although the weather dulled her surroundings' visibility, Mary could still see enough through the teeming rain to make some observations.

The landing site was a gorge carved in the middle of a fold mountain range with jagged rocks that surrounded them on almost all fronts like crooked teeth. The only path not framed by sharp boulders and broken shards of stone was a sharp gravel incline that descended into the rugged valley of trees below. Even from this distance, Mary likened them to the redwoods of Earth, tall and magnificent. She wondered if this was home to Krall's people and supposed a harsh, rugged world might be the reason for their brutal existence. It was no worse than Vulcan's dry, parched terrain, and Mary knew how to navigate that.

"GET GOING!"

A sharp bark got the Starfleet captives moving across the wet, shale ground, their path weaving through the rocky outcrops. Raising her eyes to the sky, Mary noted the faint outline of twin moons through the shower. The closer of the two reflected enough light to reveal the irregularities of its surface. While Lunar of Earth was pockmarked with craters, the assault upon this satellite seemed even worse. It was as if time had slowly eroded away like the layers of an onion being peeled. The second moon was obscured in darkness, robbed of the light it should have received from the sun by its sibling. She suspected it remained forever a crescent moon.

"Where do you think they're taking us?" Holly whispered as she shifted closer to Mary and Josiah. The young woman was hugging her arms against her body, trying not to be affected by the chill of her soaked clothes.

"I don't know," Josiah whispered as they neared a narrow pathway that disappeared into the mountain. The climb would be steep, he thought glumly, seeing the strong flow of water running out of it. "But I suspect that we're not going to like it."

Holly shuddered, and Mary knew her chances of escape would vanish once she entered that narrow corridor. Yet there was only one way to go, down the steep slope that led into the trees below. There was enough vegetation to provide her with cover, but with the rain descending against the sandy ground, taking that route could be exceedingly dangerous, even if she could reach it. However, there was no other choice. It was that way or not at all. What she needed now was a distraction.

"WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN TO US?"

It should not have surprised Mary how things would play out the instant she heard that frightened cry over the sound of the thundering rain. After all, she supposed it was only a matter before someone's nerve finally gave way to hysterics, provoking panic among the others. Children who had been holding in their tears started crying, the horror of the situation, the terrible weather, and fear finally beating them into submission. Some of the adults were uttering furious warnings to quieten down.

"SHUT UP AND KEEP MOVING!"

Josiah turned to Mary when Krall's men issued that demand to Thalia. Judging by the expression on his face, Josiah was just as unsurprised as Mary that it would be Thalia who finally snapped. It wouldn't be long before desperation drove Thalia to bargain with the only chip she had, Mary's relationship with Chris.

"You're out of time, Mary." He looked ahead to the two guards converging on the woman further along the captive train. "When you get the chance, don't look back." He gave that order not only to Mary but also to Sani, Alice, and Holly.

"What..." Mary opened her mouth to question him, but Josiah was already on the move.

The other captives stood aside as he pushed his way to Thalia, shaking the water off him like some great beast emerging from the ocean. Thalia continued to insist on her answers as adamantly as the guards refused to tell her. Even as he hurried to reach her, Josiah could see they were not about to put up with this defiance for much longer and would soon forgo the idea of keeping such a troublesome element alive. Thalia's outbursts disrupted the orderly trek of their caravan, and they had no patience for it. When their orders became threats, Thalia would use her last card.

Josiah made sure he left Mary far behind before he drew any attention to himself. A quick glance over his shoulder told him the Protocol Officer and the others had taken heed of his words. His inability to see them meant they were using the distraction of the guards to break away when the time was right.

"THALIA SHUT UP!" Josiah shouted, his low voice boomed with such command, it could have been the bellow of a vengeful god. With the rain behind him, his voice sounded almost thunderous. Even the Entropy guards froze in surprise by the voice of authority that might have matched Krall's own.

Thalia fell silent in shock. Her expression showed the dismay of a tantrum-throwing child encountering the first sign of challenge. She paused for a second, catching her breath and noting the eyes on her before facing him again. Her apprehension lasted briefly before her eyes narrowed in calculation, and Josiah knew what her response would be before the words left her lips. If he could not temper her words, Josiah intended to use it for the right amount of theater Mary would need.

"Why should I?" She bit back. "You know they'll kill us all unless I tell them who they've got."

"SHUT UP, YOU STUPID WOMAN!" Josiah returned with exaggerated fury, wanting all eyes to remain on him and nowhere else. "Even if you tell them, they'll still kill us!"

"Tell us what?" The head guard demanded.

Josiah was within reach of Thalia now, and he rushed at her. She uttered a short cry of disbelief, not expecting the serene Counselor of the Maverick to actually attack her. Before Josiah could reach Thalia, his way to her was barred by the weapons of the Entropy guards surrounding her. By now, other captives were shouting at Thalia, demanding her silence but the woman, realizing how alone she was, became more determined to save herself.

"If I tell you, will you let me go!"

"If you tell us, we won't' kill you now."

"Thalia, don't!"

Josiah's sentence ended this time with a sharp blow to the face. Pain exploded across his forehead and down the bridge of his nose, making him see stars for a few seconds. He staggered backward but still remained on his feet.

"TELL US!"

Through the haze of pain, he recognized her understanding of what a devil's bargain she had made. Whether or not she regretted it, Josiah would never know.

"You've captured the Captain's girlfriend," Thalia spoke, devoid of emotion. "He loves her. He'll do anything to get her back."


When Mary heard Josiah's booming voice, she knew it was time to move.

She had little time to formulate a plan, knowing only that escape would be out of reach when Thalia revealed her importance to the enemy. With Vulcan discipline, Mary had committed to memory every aspect of their journey since leaving the ship. With the mountains enclosing them in all but one direction, there was only one path to escape, which was dangerous. If the enemy didn't kill her in the attempt, the treacherous terrain she was about to descend could do the job just as efficiently.

Before the shouting reached climax, Mary started pulling away, sneaking towards the edge of the group. Holly, Alice, and Sani did the same while the others simply stared, trying to understand what was happening. Mary didn't speak, but her eyes touched her companions, who nodded silently, agreeing to follow her lead. The Protocol officer knew where she was going and hoped they would have the courage to follow.

"SHUT UP, YOU STUPID WOMAN!"

Josiah's sharp bark told Mary she was out of time. Their jailors' attention was focused on the commotion caused by Thalia and now Josiah. A few seconds was all she had, but it would have to do. Without warning, Mary sprinted away, racing to the break in the rocks she had seen before. No sooner than she had started running, she heard Holly, Sani, and Alice doing the same. Their footsteps splashed water as they ran. To their credit, those left behind managed their shock, keeping silent for as long as possible.

Mary leaped over a boulder, trying not to slip as her palms braced herself against the slick rock. She didn't dare look behind her as she approached the edge and saw the tree line beyond it. Swallowing thickly, she knew the slope would soon be upon her. The others were still behind her. She could hear their pounding footsteps against the mud, their panting as they sprinted after her. Hearing them comforted Mary because it made her feel less alone. As they cleared the outcrop of short boulders, she saw the edge appearing just as an Entropy guard made his loud, exasperated demand.

"TELL US!"

As Mary looked down and saw the 70-degree slope, covered with rocks and vegetation, she tried not to feel afraid. Risking a look over her shoulder, she saw Sani, Holly, and Alice closing in. Behind them, the rain had obscured the other captives, and Mary hoped the Entropy guards couldn't see them either. Not daring to call out when her voice might give away their position, Mary gestured to them to follow her. It wouldn't be long before the enemy discovered their flight.

With that, she stepped off the edge and quickly steadied herself against the ground slick with mud after the relentless battery of rain. Her foot sank deep, but not enough to hinder her next steps forward. Hoping it would hold because the possibility of a landslide was real with this fierce storm, Mary started to descend, her heart pounding in her chest.

Gravity and mud threatened to send her tumbling down like a rolling dervish, and as much as she wanted to hurry, she knew one wrong foot could send her to her death. The choice, however, was taken out of her hands.

"HALT!"

Mary froze just like the others for a split second to hear the angry approach of the Entropy above them. The enemy had the high ground, which made things worse, but Mary wasn't about to get caught alive. Throwing caution to the wind, she hurried forward and let fate decide whether or not she and the others would reach the bottom alive.

Chapter Sixteen:
Extremes

"The planet is called Altamid."

Alexandra Styles began her briefing after Ezra Standish provided her with the intelligence obtained from Malak or Mae Crosby of Earth as he was once known. Once in possession of the data, Alex went to work, pouring over every iota of information she could find on the world Malak claimed to be the home base of the Entropy. Although this briefing was for all senior staff, the Maverick's current predicament allowed Julia to continue her repairs on the ship. At the same time, JD had the Conn for the duration of their meeting.

"This information comes from the Magellan Probes launched in 2114. They were sent into the region designated D1 on the galactic map due to its proximity to the Delta quadrant. They noted the planet's existence after detecting a highly unstable nebula with similar properties to the Gagarin Belt. It was designated the Necron Cloud Nebula, with the planet Altamid located at the very edge of its expanse. Much of the data regarding Altamid and the Nebula did not reach Earth until the probes left the area. The intense density of the nebula prevented any kind of transmission from leaving the area. If the Franklin crashed on this planet..."

"They couldn't call for help," Chris finished her sentence. Once again, he felt more than a passing empathy for the Franklin and its crew. Even if it did not justify Krall's behavior, at least Chris could understand what led to it.

"Damn," Buck whispered under his breath. "Long way to be trapped far from home."

"Malak claims the Franklin was drawn into a wormhole after it was caught by the Belt," Alex continued, but her expression showed her sentiments regarding the Franklin's trials. "If the wormhole is how they're reaching us from Altamid, then it explains a great deal."

"How?" Vin and the rest of the senior staff stared at her with expectation.

"Well, first of all," she began, "this would be our first contact with a truly stable wormhole."

"What about the one in Bajor?" Nathan countered, thinking how galactic politics had been shaped by the Celestial Temple of Bajor.

"That's not a true wormhole," Chris explained. "The Bajoran wormhole was created by the beings the locals called the prophets, what we know to be a highly advanced species existing outside normal space. As astonishing as it is, the Celestial Temple is a construct."

"Exactly," Alex continued. "This Necron wormhole is self-sustaining, drawing its gravimetric currents from the Gagarin Belt. I believe the wormhole is what created the nebula in the first place. Stellar matter and radiation waves could have been displaced from the Belt into normal space, and the build-up eventually became the nebula. It would explain why it's so dense. It's been the recipient of a constant flow of radioactive detritus for thousands of years."

"Jesus," Buck shook his head. "It's a wonder the Franklin survived the trip through the wormhole at all. It would have been like riding through an asteroid field with no shields. Not that it would have mattered much. I mean, the shields back then were pretty primitive..."

"Any breaches and they would have suffered significant radiation poisoning," Nathan added. "It's probably why they were forced to use alien technology to survive."

"That may be so," Ezra spoke for the first time, "however my instincts tell me Mr. Crosby is not telling us the whole truth."

Chris didn't appear surprised. "Yeah, I get that feeling too."

Since being reminded of his past life and the family that still waited for him back on Earth, Malak had been most forthcoming. While Chris wasn't entirely ready to trust Malak, he did think the information provided was genuine. Still, he agreed with Ezra's assertion that Malak was holding something back.

Glad that his view was supported, Ezra explained his allegation. "As you know, I make a habit of being able to read my opponents, and my gut tells me Mr. Crosby is hiding something, something he is deathly afraid of letting us find out."

"He can't think we're going to kill him," Vin exclaimed, unable to think Malak would consider that a possibility after all the lengths they took to remind him of his humanity. "Sure, we pulled a fast one on him, making him think we beamed his friend into space, but he was Starfleet once. He's gotta know we wouldn't go around executing prisoners."

"Anything's possible, Lt. Tanner," Ezra remarked. "We have no idea what effect the alien technology could have had on his psyche. His thought processes may be vastly different to ours."

"I wish Josiah was here," Nathan sighed. "He'd be able to get into that man's head in no time and help him."

The mention of Josiah made Chris's gut clench because as much as he missed and longed for Mary's return, Chris felt just as deeply for the Counselor who had become his close friend and confidante for the last two years. Josiah had allowed Chris to unburden himself of the emotional turmoils a Captain could not let anyone else see. Those evenings where they sat and shared a bottle of Saurian brandy or whatever liquor Josiah had on hand were precious to him. It was like getting back a piece of the father Chris missed so much.

"Alright," Chris spoke up, wanting to steer things back on point. "We know where Altamid is, and according to Malak, it's the most likely place they've taken our people. We have to figure out how to get there."

A murmur of agreement went through the room before Alex continued her briefing. "Captain, when the Franklin was drawn into the Belt, she would have sustained major structural damage that would have undoubtedly stranded them on Altamid."

"Yeah, but the Franklin is not the Maverick," Vin countered, knowing better than anyone how much stress the starship could take. In two years, he'd flown the Maverick through quasars, kept her ahead while being chased by a Dominion armada, and ridden the maelstrom into Fluidic space; he knew what the grand lady could do. "With our shields restored, I can navigate the currents to get her through, and I think we can make it in better shape than the Franklin."

Chris allowed himself a little smile because Vin's declaration corresponded with his own thoughts on the matter. Once again, their mental connection to each other proved itself. "Vin's right. We'll conduct repairs and restore the ship's defensive capabilities, after which we will be going after our people."

No one disagreed with the Captain on that point.

"In that case," Ezra spoke up as Chief of Security. "We must brace ourselves for a difficult confrontation. Krall does not appear to be a fool. With captives in our hands, I can only assume he may be aware of the possibility his location has been compromised. If that is the case, they will be aware of us the minute we enter Altamid's scanner range."

"Ezra's right," Chris could not dismiss that likelihood. "Once they spot us, they'll engage, and it's going to be difficult to search for our people under those circumstances."

Buck didn't speak for a moment and then tapped his com badge. "Chief Engineer Pemberton, come in."

There was a slight pause before Julia responded. "Pemberton here. What's up, Buck?"

At present, Julia was supervising the interior repairs for the Maverick's extensive hull damage and had been allowed to sit out the meeting due to the importance of the work.

"Julia is there any way we can rig one of the runabouts to emit a false signature so that any scanner might pick it up as stray stellar material, like a meteor or something."

"That shouldn't be a problem," Julia replied. "All we'd have to do is program the emitters to generate the same signatures produced by stellar material. It shouldn't take more than two hours to complete."

"Thanks, Julia," Buck grinned, pleased at her answer.

"No problem," she spoke in her normal chipper voice. "Don't have too much fun without me."

Her comment diminished the visible tension in the room, with Ezra smiling affectionately at the unseen woman.

"Okay, Buck," Chris stared at his First Officer, guessing what Buck had in mind. "You're thinking we trick their scanners into thinking our runabout is a meteor?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "When we engage their fleet, it won't be hard for one ship to sneak away with that much traffic in the air. Once it's in the planet's atmosphere, it can stay at low altitude and conduct a search for our people. The Maverick can break off and use the transporters when we find them."

"That's not a bad idea, Captain," Alex voiced her support. "The planet's proximity to the nebula and the wormhole means there's a high probability of meteor bombardment from time to time."

"What do you think, Vin?" Chris regarded the helmsman. Even though this was Buck's plan, Buck would need to lead their shuttle wing when they confronted the entered Altamid space. "Think you can keep off their scanners?"

"Don't see why not," Vin shrugged in his usual laconic way, reacting as if he was asked to undertake some routine task, not embark on a perilous mission.

"Captain, I'd like to...."

"No," Chris said abruptly before the words could leave Alex's lips. "I need you on the Maverick. When this thing goes down, I need you and Ezra on the bridge with me."

Vin gave his wife a smile of assurance that he'd be alright even though her worry remained. However, he understood the Captain's reasoning. With Buck off the ship and Chris most likely taking the conn, they needed the second officer on the bridge.

"Understood, Sir," Alex nodded, not about to argue because he was her Captain, and he was right. She needed to be at his side if Buck and Vin were not. "But I point out that we don't know what sort of technology the Entropy might have access to. Vin can't compensate for what they might throw at him and still pilot the craft."

"Agreed," Chris was grateful she wasn't going to fight him on this even though he knew she had more than a little personal stake in the matter. "I'll get Julia to assign one of the engineering team to join you."

"Captain," Nathan spoke up now that they had a plan for rescuing the hostages. "I've been analyzing Malak's bloodwork. I may be able to synthesize a way of removing the alien DNA from his cells."

The shock moved throughout the room. "Is that even possible after all this time?"

"I think it might be," the doctor answered Buck. "We might be able to remove it like I removed dormant borg nanites from Mary after that whole business at Tenarus."

"By infusing her with Omicron particles?" Alex stared at him. "Forgive me if I'm wrong, doctor, but those nanites were not true organisms. Would it still work?"

It was a good question, but one Nathan had already considered. "I'm not entirely certain the alien cells around the host are true organisms. While these have all the protein markers of living organisms, I am convinced it was designed by someone. At Starfleet Medical, a whole wing of eager beavers are creating designer viruses and bacteria just for research. Those viruses may seem just as real as the common cold, but there are clear markers to reveal they're held together but an artificial bonding agent. I believe that is the case here. I think I can destroy those bonds with omicron particles and kill the alien cells."

"What will it do to them?" Vin asked, unable to imagine this would be a pleasant experience.

"If it works, their original cells will reassert themselves. They'll regain their human form and start to age naturally."

"It would be a formidable weapon."

Ezra's statement captured their undivided attention.

Nathan's eyes widened as the full implications of what Ezra suggested sunk in. Once it did, his reaction surprised no one around the table.

"Are you suggesting I turn this into a biological weapon? So I can inoculate them against their will?"

"Ezra is not saying that," Buck quickly countered because he was just as shocked by the suggestion. "You're not right?"

"I am saying," Ezra was not about to blunt his words. "That if we have no choice, it may be an option. We would hardly be killing them if what you've just told us is correct. In fact, we would be returning their humanity and giving them a chance at life on Earth again. They need not be outcasts. Captain, these people have been mutated beyond recognition because they have been trapped out here alone, forced to use alien technology to stay alive. If there is a chance they can be restored, should we not try?"

"That's not the point!" Nathan burst out. "I won't make this a weapon! I'm not sure if it will even work. What happens if there are side effects? I won't do it!"

"ENOUGH."

The Captain's voice silenced the argument.

Behind his stony mask and sharp stare, Chris's thoughts were racing at a furious pace. What Ezra suggested was extreme, to say the least, and he could understand Nathan's outrage at the suggestion his treatment was developed into a weapon of mass destruction. Chris had no idea what else to call it. However, the Captain of the Maverick remembered the ferocious attack on his ship and the brutal reality they would have to face those forces again to retrieve his missing crew.

Starfleet found biological warfare distasteful. Yet Section 31 had poisoned the Founders clandestinely during the Dominion War. To say nothing about Katherine Janeway's hearing to explain herself after she returned from the Delta Quadrant. While no one could blame Voyager's crew for doing what they had to in order to return home, Starfleet Command still felt uneasy about Janeway's decision to assist the Borg by creating a biological weapon to defeat Species 8472. Ultimately, the whole incident was swept away for expediency, but even Chris felt conflicted reading that report.

Now he faced a similar situation, and suddenly the question of Janeway's actions was nowhere as clear cut.

"Can you develop a mass dispersal system for this cure if it works?"

Gasps swept through the room when the Senior Staff realized Chris was considering Ezra's suggestion.

"I won't...."

"Doctor," Chris cut him off. "Answer the question."

Nathan felt silent, looking to Buck for support and noticing the First Officer's gaze fixed on the dark surface of the table as if hoping the blackness would draw him into its depth. "Yes."

Chris nodded. "Alright, we will not be inoculating anyone against their will, but we are going to ask the Entropy if they want the cure."

Buck exhaled loudly, grateful the Captain hadn't gone off the deep end. For a second, Buck feared Chris's determination to retrieve Mary might force him to extremes. He was glad to know his friend's moral centers were still in place.

"Just like we're going to ask Malak down in Sick Bay. If he's willing to be our test subject and if it works, then I want you to create a mass dispersal system so I can offer it to Krall."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up. "He might be affronted by the suggestion."

"He might be," Alex agreed, sharing Buck's sentiments. "But he'll be even more affronted if we turn them against their will. As you said, Ezra, they've been out here for hundreds of years. They may not want to be turned back, and what if we did? Are we assuming they're going to be happy about it? We have no way of knowing how they'll react. At least if we go with the Captain's plan, we give them a choice."

"And some of them might want the cure, and if enough of them do, that might help us too," Vin looked at them.

"You mean they could begin fighting amongst themselves." Ezra caught onto Vin's meaning. "It is conceivable that some factions of the Entropy may want to be cured, and some might not be. We were fortunate that we were able to connect with Malak, but not all of them might have any human connection to regain."

"We'll just see how it plays out," Chris turned to Nathan. "Is that alright with you?"

Nathan nodded, the beating heart in his chest slowing down now that he understood what the Captain intended. For a moment, he thought he had misjudged Chris Larabee, that the man's ruthlessness might lead him to such extreme actions. Nathan was both relieved and embarrassed for doubting his Captain and his friend. "Yes, Sir, I'm sorry I didn't mean to assume the worst."

"It's okay, Nathan," Chris gave him a faint smile. "I don't think you were the only one."

"Alright then," Buck pushed past the moment because, in truth, he shared Nathan's fears for a brief time and suspected Alex did too. While Ezra was comfortable with Chris making such a decision, Vin showed no reaction at all, perhaps because he could read the Captain with surprising depth and knew how Chris would react. "Captain, what are your orders?"

"We have a plan," Chris sat straighter in his chair. "Now we need to get the Maverick back into fighting shape so we can carry it out."

Chapter Seventeen:
Escape

"HALT!"

Conditioning to the word halted Mary and her fellow escapees for a split second, but only a second.

Despite the danger from the treacherous slope beneath her, Mary started moving again. She ignored the terrible consequences of falling down this sharp slope, with its jagged protrusions of rocks and boulders, the broad trunks of trees interspersed across the hill, and soil that was turning quickly into mud. Overhead, the rain continued to hammer down against the ground, creating a short flow of water along grass and earth that sloshed around her footsteps as she ran down the hill. The roar of its descent matched her labored breathing as Mary allowed gravity and momentum to sweep her forward.

The unmistakable sound of an energy weapon exploded behind her, and Mary flinched instinctively, her head ducking down low to avoid the shot. The blast struck the trunk of a tree ahead of her. A brief flame came alive as the heat scorched the wood, but the burn was no match for the sheets of rain from above. Daring a look over her shoulder, she saw Sani and Holly spread across the hill, within sight of each other. On top of the mountain, the Entropy soldiers were continuing to fire. Still, Sani and Holly's erratic path, not to mention the poor visibility of the rain, made them difficult targets. It worried Mary that she couldn't see Alice.

The ground gave way beneath Mary without warning. Uttering a cry of surprise and fear, Mary landed hard on her rump, but she didn't stop moving. The slick mud slid her forward as if she were sledding without a sled. With her legs stretched out, Mary tried to tuck them in before she snapped bones, but the action only caused her to roll, and the next thing she knew, she was tumbling down the hill like a rolling dervish. The world became a kaleidoscope of grays and green, disorientating her as she became aware of shapes but could do nothing to halt her collision with them.

She stopped with a blinding stab of pain that made her cry out. Mary felt bone snap and knew a rib had broken thanks to her short meeting with a rounded boulder. She rolled onto her hands and knees, driven to tears from the pain but knew they would catch her if she didn't get up. A fog was sweeping across the hill, obscuring the edge Mary had descended, making it difficult to tell if the Entropy was coming after her. Getting to her feet with a grunt, she stood up painfully, clutching her side as she forced her legs to move.

One step. Two steps. Each sent fresh icicles of pain through her body, but Mary refused to give up. She continued down the slope, a little slow, with each step punctuated by a grunt of pain because that was the only way she could keep going. Mary only prayed the pain was due to her ribs and not the indicator of internal damage that was even worse. Ahead of her, trees were the only thing she could see clearly. The rocks only became visible when she was almost on top of them.

However, she could hear something else through the rain.

It was difficult to distinguish at first, but the faint sound was distinct. Mary tried to focus on it as she continued forward. As it was, she was almost sliding down the hill and though she was in a better position to stop herself from tumbling as she had earlier, stopping was no easy thing. Her speed down the slope was increasing, and Mary no longer had the strength to stop herself if danger came. The best she could hope to do was brace herself with her hands.

Trees moved past her, and Mary had to jump to avoid a boulder in front of her. She landed badly on her knee, crying out in frustration as fragments of shale in the mud bit into her skin. Once again, she lost her balance and slid uncontrollably down the slope, sure she was bleeding because she could feel something warmth spread across her flesh. Unable to prevent it, Mary was tumbling down the mountainside. More pain flashed through her body, scrapes and bruises that went from a thousand cuts to constant agony.

The sound she could not identify through the rain became louder until she realized a split second before she could not do anything about it that it was water. It wasn't precipitation but the rush from a river or a creek. She had no more than a second to process this information when the hill came to an abrupt end, and Mary was no longer rolling downhill. She was falling.

She had no idea if anyone heard her scream, but it followed her down what seemed like a long drop.

The river rushed up to greet her. The currents raced, carrying foam with them. Mary's disorientation lasted long enough for her to hit the surface with a tremendous splash. Instead of being pulverized by the shallow depths, she descended further into the murky water. She did not know how deep she sank before her survival instincts reasserted, and she kicked her legs, ignoring the aches and pains throughout her body. Ignoring the urge to panic, Mary regained her senses by clinging to the tenets of c'thia.

She blew out the remaining air in her lungs and watched the bubbles rise quickly to the surface. Follow them, she told herself and continued to kick, ignoring the weight against her chest as her lung demanded air. After a few seconds, she broke water, her head bobbing the currents sweeping her further along the river. Mary shook her hair out of her face, trying to see where she was,

The tall trees Mary had spied from the plateau she escaped were flanking the river that was now carrying her to parts unknown. They were majestic and tall, even against the wet, gray sky. They stood a short distance from the embankment covered by waist riparian vegetation that resembled Mary of bulrushes if they happened to be a vibrant orange. The color was such a contrast to the dull, greenish gray tones of the rocks and river. Craning her neck to look behind her, the mountain she escaped disappeared through the rain, growing distant as Mary was spirited further and farther away. She wondered where the others were. Had they taken the same journey, or were they in the Entropy's hands again?

Mary hoped not. She didn't think Krall was the forgiving sort.

Turning her attention back to her situation, when something hard scraped past her shoulder, she discovered it to be a broken branch brushing past her like the irate traveler at a spaceport. Churning currents carried her with the detritus of the forest. Split logs, dead bark, and twigs clutching leaves in their gnarled grip floated past her. She spied the carcass of some animal, its bloated belly protruding through the waves as it bobbed up and down until it became caught against a large boulder.

She had to get to the shore. Mary had no wish to risk being caught in stronger currents. Her side still ached, and while the cool water had blunted some of the pain of her lacerations, she wanted earth beneath her feet. With a supreme effort that made her cry out in pain as she moved her arm, Mary began the laborious task of swimming toward the edge. Instead of swimming directly to the shore, she gradually approached the left bank since the forest seemed less hostile on that side. The diagonal approach worked, and she felt the pebbled floor of the diminishing riverbed beneath her feet after a few minutes.

The rain began to ease somewhat, lowering its intensity from monsoon to teeming. Mary crawled out of the river on her hands and knees, panting from exhaustion and her many wounds. What a sight she must be. Clothes torn, blond hair plastered to her face, no longer confined in its coiffure and covered in scrapes and bruises. Thankfully the river had washed away any blood, but she knew if Nathan were here right now, he would be inoculating her with every antibiotic he could find.

There aren't just fish in rivers. Some microbes can kill you a dozen ways from Sunday,

The man still had to work on his bedside manner.

Yet Mary would give anything to see her friend. Not just Nathan but Billy. Was he safe on the Maverick? Of course, he was, Mary told herself. If there was one thing she had unshakeable faith in, it was Chris Larabee's love for her child and his fierce devotion to protect Billy no matter what. Chris would never let anything happen to him. Knowing that allowed Mary to focus on her predicament, and she stood up shakily, surveying her surroundings.

She no longer heard any sounds except the lively ambient noises associated with being in a rustic environment. Insects chirped indifferently while branches went about the business of snapping free of a dying tree. The rain muted much of the orchestra but not all, and as her trudging footsteps added to the symphony, it was only slight. She stared up the river and saw the mountain continuing to loom, but its presence didn't feel as confronting. All she saw were trees.

Then as if to intrude on this serenity, her com badge chirped unexpectedly.

Mary had tucked the device away in the pocket of her dress, wanting to hide it from the enemy in case she was searched after her capture. By the time she and Josiah woke up in the hold of the alien ship, the communicator was beyond the range of the Maverick. As it was, only the Starfleet personnel carried the devices. Civilians used the com panels for shipboard communications and did not carry them.

As it chirped in her hand, she debated whether to answer it. The enemy could use it to pinpoint her location. Then again, if Holly, Alice, and Sani had gotten away, they might be trying to find her. With her isolation closing in on her like a vise, Mary decided to take the risk and tapped the device. The com badge chirped, requiring a great deal more abuse than being soaked in water to be damaged.

"Hello."

"Lt. Travis!"

Mary let out a visible exhale of relief upon hearing that anxious voice. "Holly?"

"Oh, thank God you're okay! When we heard you screaming..."

"I'm okay," Mary said quickly, assuring the girl she was mostly in one piece. "Are you alone?"

"No," Holly shook her head. "Sani's with me."

Thank God, Mary thought to herself. "What about Alice?"

There was a pause before Holly answered, her earlier enthusiasm evaporating immediately. "We lost her. We don't know where she is. We couldn't raise her on comms either."

Mary tried not to think the worse, but it crept into her thoughts anyway. Drawing a deep breath, she called on all her discipline in c'thia to push past the ominous dread. "Sani, are you there?"

"Yes, Lieutenant," the young engineer answered. "I'm here."

"Switch to a secured frequency," Mary instructed. "We can't be sure they aren't listening in."

Mary surveyed the surroundings woods once as she uttered that possibility.

"Acknowledged," Sani's voice told Mary he was practicing his own version of c'thia, putting aside their fears for Alice for now because there were urgent matters to deal with. A series of short beeps corresponded with the sounds from Mary's com badge as they both moved to a secure Starfleet channel to continue communicating. If Krall and his Entropy picked up their transmission, it would be nothing more than scrambled noise.

"Where are you?"

"We're somewhere in the woods," Sani replied. "When we heard you scream, we realized you went over the edge and were able to find a path down the mountain. I'm used to hiking through terrain like this, so I was able to help Holly down."

"What about the Entropy?"

"We managed to lose them in the fog, and after a while, they stopped following us. I suppose the Entropy decided we were not worth the trouble, at least in this weather."

The mention of the weather made Mary look up instinctively, and she couldn't disagree with Sani. Even though the rain was no longer as ferocious as it had been, thick gray clouds covered the sky, and the light fog remained. She had no idea how long daylight lasted in this world, but it would be a poor thing to search for captives in this terrain if the night was approaching. She had no doubt they would resume their hunt as soon as the rest of the Maverick's prisoners were secured.

"Fortunately, the river was deep enough to prevent me from serious injury," Mary explained as she saw a boulder, polished smooth by the rain and occasional burst banks, and sat down on it. "It swept me further down the river, but I can't be sure how far along. The currents were pretty strong."

"We can hear it from where we are, so we'll head for it. If you stay put, we'll find you."

"It sounds like a plan," Mary smiled, thinking silently that if she ever got back to the Maverick, she would tell Julia what a fine officer Sani was. His youth didn't keep him from losing his head in such a hazardous situation.

"I recommend we avoid using our communicators too much so we can conserve as much of its power as possible."

"Agreed," Mary thought. Another good suggestion.

"Be careful, Lt. Travis," Holly piped up. "We'll be there soon."

"I'll be waiting," Mary concluded the conversation with a tap of her communicator before replacing it in her pocket.

Once again, silence fell over her save the babbling of rivers and the eerie tranquility of the forest. Stepping further away from the shore, Mary approached the tree line, seeking shelter from the rain. She ran her fingers across her face to wipe away the moisture and get the hair out of her eyes. Mary hoped this water didn't contain any elements that might be harmful to her. The last thing she needed while hiding out here was to get sick.

Despite the circumstances, this was a beautiful world, and she wondered if this was the homeworld of the Entropy. Were there cities here? The sky was obscured by thick storm clouds, so Mary could not see anything that might indicate what planet this was. She couldn't imagine any race would call themselves the Entropy for any reason. Furthermore, Krall and his people knew a great deal about Starfleet and the Federation for an enemy so far unknown to them. Had Entropy spies walked among them?

So many questions, she sighed as she entered the forest between two large trees that reminded Mary of the sequoias of Earth. After she slipped past them, she noted that most of the trees in this wood were of the same species and while they were spread about evenly, the thick canopy of leaves they produced resulted in a healthy undergrowth of evergreen plants. While alien in their appearance, Mary retained enough of her botanical studies from the Academy to recognize the broad leaves characteristic of the type.

While the rain descended, Mary was grateful to find that the canopy above reduced the intensity of it. She felt the light sprinkles against her skin as she sat on the exposed buttress root of one of the behemoths, taking a moment to catch her breath. Closing her eyes, she breathed in and out, placing herself in a meditative state. The idyllic atmosphere of the rustic setting allowed her to focus.

Chris, can you hear me?

On occasion, she could touch his mind. Their emotional and now physical connection to each other permitted it. Syan taught her to form a mental link with him during their marriage. Those connections remained even after his death. During their captivity by the C'Kaia, Mary found Chris on their alien ship, using their growing emotional bond to rescue him from torture. If Mary could reach him now, she could at least assure Chris she was safe.

A branch snapped with a loud crack.

Mary's eyes flew open, and she stood up abruptly, her senses sharpening with razor-like focus. For a moment, she thought the Entropy had found her until she realized following that crack was heavy panting. She peered behind the tree trunk and saw what interrupted her meditation.

It was bigger than a full-grown sehlat. It shared similar traits with the Vulcan beast and the bears of the Ursidae family of Earth. Even as it lumbered on all fours, its approach had been damn near silent. Mary took a moment to study the creature and, judged by the length of its torso, would be eight standing upright. For the moment, however, it took no menacing steps towards her, possibly because it was still debating whether she was a threat or prey.

Its long snout sniffed the air above the tusk-like teeth that reminded her of a saber-tooth tiger. Had it scented d the salty, metallic odor of human blood? While the rain and the river had washed most of it away, apex predators like this one obviously could detect even the minutest trace of blood. When it bared its fangs, Mary realized the creature had decided what she was.

Prey.

It was all the time she had before it sprinted forward with more speed than a behemoth like it ought to have. Mary uttered a short fright before running, attempting to make it to the river but knowing the detour would lose her precious time, and she wasn't sure if the beast wouldn't follow her in. Earth's bears were comfortable in the water, and Mary couldn't take the risk the same might apply here. Besides, on dry land, she might be able to outrun it.

These thoughts fired through her brain like pulses as she raced across the forest floor, the creature's loud roar and grunt of annoyance at her flight chasing her just as relentlessly as its powerful legs. Blood rushed through her ears as her heart pounded like a piston. She ran through the thick growth of evergreen plants, tearing past the thick leaves and delicate ferns, her feet sinking into the soft mud with each step. She felt the earth give away and knew if she fell or slipped, Sani and Holly would never find her again.

Behind her, the beast continued to bellow until she imagined the warmth running down her neck was not rainwater but the dribbles of saliva from its panting breath. Her injuries had become an ally, the pain sharpening her senses as she leaped over fallen logs, sidestepped boulders, and continued her race through the trees, uncertain of where she was and how far away from the river she had strayed.

Suddenly the trees vanished as she saw a wall of rock before her. Where on Earth had that come from? She thought frantically as she saw the craggy stone rush up to greet her. Any attempt at a detour would ensure Mary would never get past the creature. Something that looked like a cleft or a fissure became visible, and though it was small, Mary knew it was her only hope. If she could squeeze through it, she could hide until the thing went away.

The creature closed in, sensing she was trapped, and was near enough to swipe a large paw at her. A sharp pain tore across her back, and though she didn't wish to scream, the choice was not hers to make. Warm blood spilled across her skin, and yet Mary knew that if the wound were truly deep, she would be on the ground, paralyzed from a severed spinal column,

Instead, she forced herself to move, teeth gritted, crying out because it was the only way to manage her pain, and nearly dove towards the fissure.

The creature hastened its pace, sensing she was almost done. Suddenly, a loud crack ripped through the air, not unlike the same snap of wood that gave away its position earlier.

Mary fell through the opening and turned to hear something that sounded like a stun blast. A single shot was fired at her would-be killer. The blue bolt of energy struck the beast dead center, flinging it back the way it came. It landed with a loud squelch that sent mud in all directions. The predator uttered a weakened bellow of indignance before lowering its massive head as its fist-sized eyes rolled. Without another word, it slumped down on its belly without protest.

From where she was, Mary could tell it wasn't dead. She could see the flare of its nostrils from where she stood. Searching the terrain outside, there was no sign of the weapon that saved her life or anyone who might have wielded it. As she tried to process what happened, Mary turned around and withdrew a few steps into the fissure, just in case someone was out there.

Energy crackled around her, and the next thing Mary knew, the fissure disappeared to become the inside of a ship.

Chapter Eighteen:
Letting Go

Vin Tanner sat at the controls of the runabout, his fingers in constant motion as he conducted minor adjustments to the thrusters battling the gravimetric pressures beyond the hull.  Through his view screen, the maelstrom of the Gagarin Belt swirled around him.  Every so often, he conducted a course correction to avoid collision with the thousands of asteroids tumbling haphazardly through the void.  Under any circumstances, he could easily avoid these hurtling pieces of ice and rock, but their situation was far from ordinary.

The  Cimarron  was less than a hundred feet above the hull of the Maverick and had to remain in position no matter what obstacles were flung its way.  Julia Pemberton and her engineering team were hard at work between the runabout and the Maverick's hull.  Aside from repairing the exposed sections of the hull, they were conducting the physical refit of the stellar cartography array to take the place of the main sensor array destroyed by the Entropy.

The only thing keeping the repair crew from being scraped off the hull by the strong gravimetric currents of the Belt was the Cimarron's shields.  While some repairs had to be conducted internally, this particular task needed a more direct approach.  While the Maverick's shields would be restored soon enough, conserving their depleted power reserves was essential.  Furthermore, there were too many hull breaches for them to leave unattended, not if they planned on going into battle again.

"How are you doing, Julia?".

"Oh, we're fine down here," The engineer's voice crackled over the comms.  "Just another stroll in the park, you know."

"Some stroll," Vin swept his gaze across the cockpit window, wary of the spatial phenomena around them.  "Next time, you ought to pick a better neighborhood."

"Well, that happens when you send a man to do a woman's job.  You guys never meet the neighbors, check out the schools, or know where the nearest shopping arcades are..."

Vin burst into a grin and though she could not see it, looked at the figure clad in the environmental suit with affection.  Julia was on one knee, holding a plasma welder to the newly replaced duranium panel on the hull.  Bright blue light reflected off the faceplate of her visor as she worked.

 Since coming on board the Maverick and allowing his personality to show a bit more, he found he and Julia shared the same sense of the absurd and optimism.  Vin's experiences ensured they would never share a rosy view of life, but he did like to see the best in everything, even if he expected to be disappointed.  Until her abduction by the Borg, Julia's unwavering outlook had been a quality Vin admired immensely.  He was glad it remained mostly intact, despite her trauma.

"Yeah, we're only good for opening jars and killing bugs, according to Alex."

"Killing bugs?" Julia's surprise showed.  "Alex?"

"Oh yeah," Vin laughed, remembering how he reacted to learning that particular failing of his wife.  "She has no problem hacking xenomorphs or fighting Klingons but put something small and crawling next to her, and she grabs a phaser."

Julia's laughter rang in his ears.

"Okay, I think we're almost done," Julia announced after a minute.

"Will the repairs hold?" Vin asked, his mood dampening as he swept his gaze across the hull and examined the repair work conducted over the last few hours.  The Maverick's saucer section looked like a patchwork quilt.  The dome above the bridge was welded with duranium sheets, removing the bridge crew's view of the stars above their heads.  At least the Entropy dart was no longer wedged through the damaged window, blighting the main bridge with its presence.

"I think so. This time, we're better prepared."

She meant it too. While she couldn't anticipate the enemy's attack plans, she could take every precaution imaginable to minimize the damage to her ship.  Engineering crews were mobilized like troops preparing for deployment.  Specialist teams were on standby, capable of rushing to repair any damage sustained during the battle.

"Well, hopefully, we won't have to fight them for too long," Vin explained.  "The second I find our people, I'll signal the Maverick so she can break off and come get them."

"That's not going to be easy," Julia commented as she signaled one of her crew with a thumbs up to indicate she was done with her section of welding.  "You'll have to do some fancy sensor work to pick them up, especially if the planet contains abundant life."

"That's why Chanu is coming with me," Vin reminded her.  "He can do the fancy sensor work while I'm doing the fancy flying."

Julia frowned, more than a little dubious about Chanu's expertise in this task.  He was a sound engineer, but acquiring a transporter lock on a hostile planet could be tricky, and time was precious in a life-and-death situation.  She thought of Josiah and Mary, that sweet but feisty kid who had the hapless luck of being Chris Larabee's yeoman, and felt a flash of anger knowing what it was like to be trapped with no escape.  It bothered her greatly that their rescue relied on Vin being able to find them.

"Don't worry," she assured him.  "You'll get the best help I got."


They were as ready as they were going to be.

Chris Larabee strode to the landing bay where Buck and the other pilots acting as the Maverick's escort would be awaiting them. Ezra was at his right flank while Alex remained at the Conn. Now that the Entropy dart was scraped off the hull like a barnacle thanks to engineering, Chris could command his ship from the main bridge again.

Although he preferred to separate the ship, it would take too many resources to perform such substantial structural repairs without a starbase.  Furthermore, he wasn't entirely sure it would be safe to leave the saucer section unprotected.

The Entropy's conduct was so far beyond the norm Chris couldn't be sure Krall wouldn't attack civilians if it suited him.  Despite what they already knew about the Entropy, Chris's gut told them they were missing an essential piece of the puzzle, and the clock was ticking.

Panels along the walls to the landing bay flashed amber, signaling the ship's present status at yellow alert.  The hallways were devoid of all crew except authorized Starfleet personnel, and Chris could not deny it felt odd to see the lack of civilians.  It occurred to him they made the Maverick feel like his ship was a community, not just a military vessel.  Inwardly Chris bristled at having to send them all to their quarters so that they could ride out the battle in some semblance of safety.

"Chris," Ezra spoke up before they reached the launch bay doors.

Chris blinked, startled by Ezra's use of his name.  The Chief of Security was rarely so informal unless they were in the Magnificent Seven program.  "Yeah, Ezra?"

"Captain, Adam is a very capable young man.  I am certain he will acquit himself admirably."

Chris's expression softened, realizing Ezra assumed his pensive mood was due to his concerns about Adam taking part in the air wing supporting the Maverick's engagement with the Entropy.  "I wasn't thinking about him but thank you for that."

"You weren't?" Ezra stared, unaccustomed to reading any situation or person wrong.  Then again, Chris Larabee had proven time and time again that he was a cipher immune to Ezra's powers of observation.

"No," the Captain shook his head, not looking at Ezra.  "I was thinking how empty this ship feels when the civilians are absent.  Strange, isn't it? The idea of having families on a starship was unimaginable a hundred years ago.  Now it feels the same not having them.  We went from being military ships to tiny communities in space.  Now, home comes with us, no matter where we go."

Ezra nodded in agreement. "I do sometimes worry we are placing them in unnecessary danger.  They are facing perils they would never encounter at home."

"True" Chris could not deny that.  He and Sarah had this very conversation before Adam was born.  In fact, Chris suspected many couples did the same before accepting shipboard postings.  "But most of us prepare our families for that.  Sarah," Chris paused, marveling how much easier it was to talk about his late wife as the years moved on.  Josiah was right. Time did heal all wounds.  "Sarah believed families were stronger together, and if anything happened to me, she wanted to be close, not light years away."

Ezra felt a pang of empathy at the sadness in Chris's eyes because the tables had been turned on him.  It wasn't him who would die light years away.  It was Sarah. Life could be a capricious bitch, the Chief thought silently.

"She was a wise woman," Ezra commented, seeing no need to add anything further.

"Adam will do fine," Chris broke the silence when the doors to the landing bay came into view at the end of the corridor.  "He's probably got more flight combat experience than our own pilots."

"I do not doubt it," Ezra agreed.  "Adam is cut from a different cloth than the rest of us.  I do not mean that in the respect that he originated from another universe."

Although Ezra did not voice it, he cared greatly for Adam Larabee.  Ezra first discovered Adam's presence in this universe, and the two had become friends.  Aside from the boy being a decent poker player, Adam possessed a pragmatism that even his father lacked.  Seeing one so jaded even though he was barely eighteen years old was jarring.  Then again, Adam never really had a childhood.

"I have to let him go, Ezra. He's going to Starfleet Academy and will end up on a ship like ours one day.  If I can't do that, I won't be able to function."

"I think he knows that Chris, but he is your son, and I have to believe the Larabee resilience is inherited."

"No," Chris disagreed. "He's Sarah.  Always has been. When I look at him, I don't see me.  I see her. I see what she was, strong, powerful and compassionate.  She was the one who could make the hard choices, the one who sacrificed for me.  When there were decisions I couldn't face, Sarah made them to spare me.  She gave up her career to be a captain's wife, and Adam's like her.  It's why I know he'll be okay."


"Captain on Deck!"

Buck Wilmington's booming voice silenced the rumble of voices inside the landing bay when the Captain and Chief of Security entered the room. Everyone tensed and stood at attention or a reasonable facsimile of it. Amongst the faces waiting for him to address them were Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, Kate Stokes, Jewel Chung, and Adam. Chris saw other officers on a day-to-day basis, performing other duties on the Maverick, though he had little reason to interact with them. As Chris prepared to send them on this dangerous mission, he wished it were otherwise.

While the pilots were pillars of military restraint, the engineers and technicians behind them were the polar opposite.  Like ants, they scurried around the shuttles and runabouts in their berths, preparing the smaller crafts for launch, oblivious to the Captain's arrival.  For them, there were far more critical things to do than listen to speeches.  Chris envied their ability to stay focused on what was important.

"How are we doing, Commander?"

"We're ready as we're going to be Captain," Buck replied, showing no signs of their personal relationship.  "All the runabouts and shuttles have been prepared for launch.  We've boosted shield strength as much as possible and increased the number of torpedoes the shuttles can carry."

"We're approaching the coordinates of this wormhole Malak claims will take us to the Entropy homeworld," Ezra explained,  still carrying a hint of skepticism in his voice that neither Chris nor Buck missed.  "Recommend we have the ships standing by to launch as soon as we emerge.  I do not doubt they will have monitoring systems to guard against intruders."

"Agreed," Chris thought the same.  "We launch as soon as we're out of the wormhole.  Given how fast those darts move, we won't have much time.  Our ships need to be in the air before they swamp us."

Ezra was still doubtful of how successful nine ships would be against the swarm of darts that nearly ripped the Maverick apart but supposed this perilous plan was the only one they had. "I suggest they remain close to the Maverick. With our shields now restored, we will be able to afford them some protection. Lieutenant Rain will be in Transporter Room 1. She will be monitoring the battle and transport anyone she can."

"Good idea," Buck agreed and then added.  "Those of us in runabouts will do the same.  This mission is dangerous enough.  If we can minimize the risk to our people, the better."

Chris could not argue with that sentiment.  Glancing at the pilots waiting for him, he made eye contact with Vin and Adam.  Neither man seemed anxious about what was ahead of them.  As always, Vin wore that unflappable expression that told Chris he wouldn't burden himself with fear when there was a job to get done.  It was thoroughly Vulcan, even if Vin didn't see it.

Meanwhile, Adam was bouncing on the balls of his feet, the pent-up energy of youth bursting at the seams.  He was eager to begin, and Adam reminded Chris of a racehorse stomping at the gate.  Maybe that was precisely what he was.  His time on the Maverick had been one of relative ease, a wholly unnatural state for someone who had spent every day of his life struggling for survival.  Perhaps letting him go to Starfleet was what Adam needed to channel that unspent energy.

Deciding he had wasted enough time procrastinating, Chris stepped forward to address his crew.  "You've all been debriefed on the mission ahead.  I don't have to stand here and tell you how vital it is for us to hold back the enemy until Lt. Tanner makes it safely to Altamid."

All eyes shifted instinctively to Vin, who gave them all a nod of silent thanks for the protection he would be afforded by their efforts.

"The instant Lt. Tanner is safely away, you'll return to the Maverick, and we'll deploy the ablative armor and sound a general retreat.  Our mission here is not to defeat the enemy but to ensure the safe retrieval of our friends and family held captive.  Once we're safe and headed back to a starbase, we can figure out how to level the playing field when we run into the Entropy again.  Your primary task is to keep them off the Maverick, but if your ships experience catastrophic failure and there is an imminent threat to your life, you will signal the Maverick.  Lieutenant Rain has modulated the transporter to our shield frequency, so she should be able to get a lock on you.  I don't want any heroics, understood?"

A low rumble of affirmative answers and bobbing heads indicated Chris's order had penetrated.

"Alright then," Chris sucked in his breath. "Get to your ships, and good luck."


Vin and Adam lingered behind when the group dispersed, and the pilots headed for their shuttles.

Vin had said his goodbyes to Alex earlier, and though he wished he could see her before he left the Maverick, the Vulcan understood duty bound her to the bridge.  With Buck leading the air wing that would protect the ship, Alex was Chris's acting first officer, and she needed to be on the bridge while Chris was down in the landing bay.  Besides, their marriage bond kept them connected.  No matter where they were, they could always feel each other's katra.

Strange how such terms became commonplace after his reunion with his grandparents, T'Laina and Siran.  Melding with them allowed them to pass on the knowledge it would take years of discipline for him to learn.  While Vin would never be like most Vulcans, they had given him the ability to cool his warring emotions and achieve balance.  With a surge of affection, he hoped the Maverick made it back to Federation space because he felt the urge to visit them on Vulcan.

Vin reached Chris before Adam and wanted to make his farewells brief, so Chris could give Adam a proper goodbye.  Only Vin could see Chris's supreme effort to contain his emotions.  To everyone else, he was the stoic Captain, ready to see them through any calamity, but Vin saw a father, terrified of losing a child a second time.  Vin honestly did not know how Chris would cope with such a tragedy again.  Nor did he want to.

"You ready, pard?"

Chris only called Vin that in the Magnificent Seven holo program, and the fact he was using it now was telling.

"Yeah, I'm ready," Vin nodded and noticed Ezra talking into his combadge, no doubt checking in with the bridge.  Buck had already headed off to his runabout and would no doubt be waiting for him to join them when he was done with Chris.  "Try not to crash my girl. She ain't no slick corsair."

"She's better," Chris smiled faintly, remembering Vin's reaction to him piloting the Maverick out of fluidic space.  "Vin, follow the mission parameters, but get out if it gets too dangerous.  We'll figure out another way."

"Chris," Vin shook his head, showing the Captain he would do everything he could to avoid that course.  "I'll find them, one way or another, and I'll bring her back to you."

Chris's jaw tensed, the only reaction to how deeply he was affected by Vin's oath to him.  "Thank you, Vin. You just make sure you bring yourself back.  I don't want to face your woman if anything happens to you."

Vin burst into a grin. "Yeah, you don't want that."

With nothing left to say, both men offered each other a farewell nod before Vin drew away, brushing past Adam, who was waiting patiently for a moment with his father.

Had it been only months ago that Chris stood in Four Corners and saw this boy at one of the tables, looking so much like Sarah, it broke Chris's heart?  It felt like a lifetime ago, and though their time together was brief, how much he loved Adam could not be measured.  The young man had been a gift from the universe that saw fit to grant him a miracle.  Chris wasn't so deluded to believe this was the child he lost, but Adam represented all the possibilities lost when his family died over the plains of Utopia Planitia.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

Chris almost wished Adam would refuse, but everything he knew about his son told Chris this was unlikely to  happen.  Whether in this universe or another, Adam was his mother's son, and Sarah was never afraid of a  fight.

Adam raised his chin at the question, showing Chris his  confidence.  "Yeah, dad, I want to do  this.  Mary's out there, and anything I can do to bring her back to you and Billy is something I'm not going to turn away  from."

"I know," Chris swallowed away the lump in his throat, feeling pride and despair  simultaneously.  "I wish I could be there with  you."

Adam didn't doubt that. His father's fear for him was  real.  Knowing this deepened Adam's resolve to come back in one piece because very little frightened the Captain of the  Maverick.

"I promise I'll be  okay."

It was not a promise Adam could make no matter what Chris would like to  believe.  Instead, Chris leaned forward, his palm pressing against the back of Adam's head to draw the boy  forward.  Their foreheads touched in a simple gesture of affection that spoke  volumes.

 "I love you, kid. You bring yourself back to  me."

"Don't worry," Adam smiled, and once again, Chris saw Sarah's confidence which filled his heart with fresh stabs of  pain.  "This I can  handle."

"I'm sure you can," Chris gave him a little smile and stepped back, giving Adam permission to  go.  As he watched his son head toward the runabout awaiting him, Chris remembered what he told Ezra before arriving at the landing  bay.

He to let Adam  go.

Chapter Nineteen:
Derelict

It was a ship.

Once Mary overcame her shock after passing through the threshold of an opening far wider than the fissure she entered, she realized the structure was not at all man-made. Turning around to face the outside world she had just left behind, Mary saw the creature pursuing her, getting to its feet. Her body tightened like piano wire as it lifted its bulk onto its paws, its head still lolling with disorientation. The stun blast had robbed it of its earlier agility, and as it lumbered to its feet, she noted it scanning the area, looking for the prey it almost snared.

The dark eyes moved across the landscape, over the opening of the fissure, and past it. Its confusion was evident as it sniffed the air, and Mary realized with a sudden start that it couldn't see her. The entrance she was staring out of was far more expansive than the fissure she passed through to escape. Hastily turning away from the creature once this thought surfaced in her mind, Mary immediately searched the dimly lit space and spotted what she was looking for. A device mounted on what appeared to be a bulkhead, its lens-like construction aimed at the entrance.

A holoprojector? Is that what it was?

Facing the beast again, Mary noted the creature sniffing the air, trying to pick up the scent of the prey it lost. It could smell her, Mary thought, but it could not see her. After a few seconds of wrestling with its confused senses, the animal drew away from the cave, much to Mary's relief. She exhaled loudly and braced herself against a wall, only to discover it was smooth and cool, not like rock but steel.

The device that stunned the predator and the holoprojector concealing her and the craft drew power from somewhere. Mary walked further into the room, uncertain if her discovery was not another trap. If this was the Entropy homeworld and this was an entrance to one of their enclaves, her freedom would be short-lived. And yet a sixth sense told her this was not the case. The Entropy did not need to hide. They clearly feared little if they were brazen enough to attack a starship.

With the light from the entrance rapidly decreasing, Mary was mindful of her surroundings. She stayed close to the wall, using it to guide her deeper. Her foot brushed against debris that reminded her of wreckage as she heard the scraping of metal and the sharp lines of broken objects brushing past her as she followed the wall. Once the light from the outside world diminished entirely, the bluish glow of the holo emitter remained, confirming Mary's suspicion that its operator intended to conserve power where they could.

She was almost bathed in darkness when the floor she was standing on ran out, and her boot felt the definite edge of empty space. Dropping to her hands and knees, Mary traced the edges until her hands grasped the reassuring handrail of a ladder. Peering into the passage, Mary couldn't tell how deep it was and debated whether or not she ought to descend to find out. After a few seconds, she supposed if she wanted answers, she would have to take a chance.

Swallowing away her anxiety, Mary gripped the handrails tight and lowered herself onto the first rung to begin the climb into the darkness. Taking each step slowly, Mary made her journey down the passage with her heart pounding so loudly it felt like the sound would echo throughout this lonely place. The fresh air that managed to pass through the fissure was gone now, and what she breathed in felt musty and stale. Trying not to think about where she was, she focussed on the ship and how it came to be here.

As she climbed the ladder, something about it felt familiar though she couldn't place why at present. She suspected this might be a maintenance shaft, the kind she often saw Julia using in Engineering. The rungs were covered in dust, and an experimental touch of the wall revealed the same and more. She felt the soft, spongy sensation of moss and vegetation creeping along the walls. This did not surprise her at all. While she had been stumbling about in the dark, Mary felt loose wires hanging from the unseen ceiling, vines, and other plants.

How long had this ship been here?

Thunk.

The reverberation of her boot against a floor startled her, and for a minute, Mary composed herself, trying to adapt to this new situation. Still clinging to the handrail as she put both feet down on the floor, she looked around, trying to see something in the pitch-black darkness, and was immediately rewarded with a red light blinking at her. Reminding herself that fear of the unknown was foolishness, Mary let go of the ladder and started her slow approach to it.

This time, there was no debris on the floor and her path, though taken cautiously, was unhindered by any unseen obstacle. The light beckoned her, and Mary thought for a moment that she was a ship floundering on the dark waters of some unknown sea, drawn to the shore by a lighthouse. She made her way across a room of modest size, and a few inches before the light, she was halted by the hard edge of what felt like a console. Running her hands over the surface of it, her palms touched buttons and knobs, switches and toggles. Once again, a sense of familiarity struck her.

The reddish glow came from a small button above her, a screen alive with a cursor flashing dully in the far right corner. Until she was close enough to the console, Mary had not seen it due to its angle. Staring into it, her eyes widened in surprise.

SYSTEM ON STANDBY.

The words were in English.

How could that be? On a world so far away from Earth, it boggled the mind. The language filled Mary with bewilderment, and the instructions left behind were equally tantalizing. System on standby. What did that mean? Had this system been set on standby all this time, patiently waiting for initialization? Mary was no engineer, but she once showed enough aptitude to help Chris separate a C'Kaia ship and escape, so she took a leap of faith.

Her fingers found the keyboard beneath the display and welcomed the familiarity of the QWERTY format beneath her fingertips as she began typing. As her fingers moved, she saw her commands appearing on the screen and keyed in the necessary instructions to take it off its current standby mode.

INITIALIZE.

The reaction was immediate.

Almost as if the craft was uttering a groan of satisfaction, Mary jumped, hearing the creak of metal and the hiss of hydraulic gasses come alive across the ship. Lights flooded the room and what it revealed made Mary gasp in shock. As her eyes surveyed the room, there was no mistaking what this place was. The bridge of a starship. Her astonished mind wrestled with how this was possible and wished Chris was here. He would be able to identify its model in a second. Mary might not have been that expert, but she knew it was old. Constitution class, maybe?

These ponderings were forgotten when her eyes rested on the command chair. It was occupied.

What sat there wasn't even a corpse. What remained of the person seated in their chair was almost gone. There was a skull with strands of fine white hair resting against the padded shoulders of the body suit holding some semblance of shape. Dust covered the seat, and Mary knew instinctively it used to be flesh. Cobwebs had grown around the skull, resting against the curved backrest. Mary's shock withered away to sadness because her anthropological background told her immediately this was someone of slight stature, possibly female. Who was she?

Had she been crew, and was it her fate to die here alone?

Did she find herself trapped in the world of the Entropy with no means of escape, using what resources remained on this derelict ship to stay alive? The clothes were not a Starfleet uniform. Then again, if this poor soul was trapped and alone, it would be understandable if she ignored protocol. The bridge's illumination revealed the other consoles and workstations, prompting Mary to retreat to a chair and lower herself in it.

Taking a breath, she examined the room again and then caught sight of something just as startling as the dead body in the command chair. It was covered in dead vines and dust, but its discovery prompted Mary to her feet, and she stood up from her chair and walked quickly to it.

It hung against one of the unoccupied walls and was barely visible through the foliage and dirt accumulated over who knows how long. Clearing away the vegetation and dust, Mary stared at the badly tarnished plaque and understood where she was.

THE USS FRANKLIN.


Once she recovered her shock, Mary composed herself enough to make a deeper investigation of the ship.

Before embarking on the mission to negotiate the truce between the Fibonans and the Teenaxi, Mary had studied all the available data on that sector of space. The existence of the two warring races had been recorded by the USS Franklin, a Freedom Class starship that left the San Francisco shipyards in 2150. Under the command of Captain Balthazar Edison, a MACO veteran of the Xindi War and the Romulan conflict that followed, the Franklin carried out fourteen years of service before meeting its end in the Gagarin Belt.

While speculation had run rife over what had brought about her demise, it was more or less assumed she was destroyed in the turbulence of gravimetric forces in the Belt. While the Franklin was one of the most advanced ships of its time, there was no denying the frailty of starships some two hundred years ago. It was not an unreasonable assumption for Starfleet to believe the ship with all hands was lost.

She supposed Starfleet had not been wrong. The Franklin was lost, just not in the way they imagined.

Somehow, the Franklin survived the maelstrom of the Belt and crashed here, wherever this world was. The discovery of the starship gave Mary an inkling of where she and the other captives might be, although this was little help to her. Still, the discovery of the Franklin gave Mary options she did not have before. The Entropy did not know this ship was here. The safeguards put in place to conceal it made that obvious. Despite its dilapidated condition, it was not stripped of everything valuable, and as she moved through the empty halls, Mary noted some effort to repair the damaged systems.

Internal lighting followed her as she walked through the place, like an abandoned puppy clinging to the heels of a friendly face.

Since coming on board the Maverick, Mary had brushed up on her engineering skills, recalling how useful it had been when she and Chris were captives of the C'Kaia. While she would never have the expertise of someone like Julia Pemberton, she recognized the attempts to maintain the Franklin did not come from someone with a Starfleet background in Engineering. Once again, she thought back to the body she discovered, the one not clad in Starfleet uniform. Did they try to repair the ship?

During her search, Mary entered what was once the main conference room. Someone had converted it into a suite, with curtains hanging along the windows. Mary peered past the fraying cloth and saw the panoramic view beyond. The Franklin landed on a cliff's edge, with part of the saucer section suspended past the edge. In the distance, she saw the sharp, serrated line of mountains and the deep gorges furrowing through the terrain. It was pretty striking, and she could understand why the owner of this room had positioned the bed facing it.

Feeling like an intruder as she explored the room, it was clear no one had been there in a long time. Dust and cobwebs covered all the furnishings. Amid the Starfleet equipment, some knick-knacks and trinkets were definitely alien in origin. On one desk, she found rolls of papers covered in dust, yellowed and furled from time. Mary dusted it off, creating a brief cloud as the particles scattered.

Drawn in pencil or some graphite tool, the face staring at Mary was humanoid.

While the race eluded her, the artist was skilled enough to sketch an image, perhaps a self-portrait, of an elfin-like beauty. The young woman with high cheekbones and intelligent eyes had a sweet face that reminded Mary a little of Holly Jones. Across the subject's face were what could have been tattoos, but Mary's gut told her these were natural, like Trill spots. They ran from her hairline along each temple before disappearing under her jawline. A more ornate pattern sat above the bridge of her nose while her long hair was pulled back into a tight braid that hung between her shoulders blades.

"Who were you?" Mary whispered to herself and hoped it was not the corpse in the chair.

She committed the face to memory, making a silent oath to discover more about this race if she ever returned to the Maverick and continued scanning the room. A few minutes later, her diligence rewarded her with a blaster of some kind. A quick examination revealed it was still half charged. If it worked, it would help her to decide what came next. Taking aim at the ceiling, she squeezed the trigger gently.

The bolt of energy exploded out of the barrel with a sudden burst and struck the bulkhead, superheating the metal and causing it to sizzle with a loud hiss. Mary exhaled loudly in relief, glad she was no longer unarmed. Lowering the blaster, Mary now retrieved the combadge in her pocket. She could see the sun descending over the horizon through the open windows. Whether or not the Entropy was still searching for its fugitives, her encounter with the creature earlier proved this was not the terrain to be in after dark.

Sani and Holly were still out there.

Tapping the device, it uttered a soft, assuring chirp.

 "Sani, come in."

Sani's reply was immediate.

"Lieutenant Travis, where are you?"

The anxiety in his voice was evident, and Mary hoped it was because of his fears for her and not because he and Holly found themselves in some new difficulty.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Mary said, studying her surroundings. "Suffice to say, there have been some developments. "Stay put. I'm coming to get you."

Chapter Twenty:
Leaf in the Wind

After making his farewells to the Captain, Vin Tanner dispersed with the other pilots in the air wing to their respective vessels. He and Buck were piloting the only two runabouts while everyone else was taking the Maverick's shuttles. As Vin walked towards the cockpit, he was grateful that he and Alex said their goodbyes privately, where both could express their emotions without an audience. Although she could appear quite mercurial, their marriage bond told him how worried she was. As Starfleet officers, they knew the risks and this mission, like any other, was their duty to accept. However, the possibility of losing each other was never easy to face.

He sealed the hatch of the runabout Brazos, expecting to see Chanu in the engineer's seat when he was greeted by someone else entirely. In hindsight, Vin supposed he should not have been the least bit surprised.

"Julia!"

Julia didn't look up at Vin as she ran through the pre-flight diagnostics, mentally bracing herself for the argument to come if his exclamation was any indication.

"At your service," she said cheerily. "I haven't started the prelaunch sequence. I'm guessing you'll want to do that when you take the center seat."

Even Vin's superior Vulcan brain needed a few seconds to play catch up as it fought through the confusion. "What are you doing here?"

"You needed an engineer to help you locate Mary and the others on the surface of Altamid, and I decided I was the best person for the job." She answered without a hint of guilt at blindsiding him.

"But I thought Chanu...." Vin stuttered a reply, thinking fast. Ezra was not going to like this. He almost reached for his com badge when Vin was reminded that technically Julia outranked him. Friendship aside, questioning her orders was insubordination. Not that he ever imagined she would exercise it.

"Vin," Julia exhaled loudly, "Chanu's a great engineer and the only person on the Maverick I trust to not mess up my engines, but you're going to an alien planet we've never encountered before, using technologies just as exotic. You need someone who can think on their feet, and I can do that."

Vin resisted the urge to point out that Chanu was more than qualified to do that before he remembered Julia had once been trapped on the Sulaco with a xenomorph hunting her. The lady had not only managed to kill the thing but also provide the Away Team on Fury with a timely rescue. Despite her Mary Poppins outlook on life (a classic holo-movie she made him watch), Julia Pemberton could take care of herself.

"Ezra ain't gonna like this," Vin pointed out, convinced neither the Captain nor Ezra was aware of Julia's presence on board. He'd seen them seconds ago, and if this bombshell was known to them, both men would have voiced it.

"Ezra's not the boss of me," Julia insisted, but the slight creep of color across her cheeks said otherwise. She did feel guilty that she hadn't spoken to him about this. The relationship guide in Cosmo Magazine clearly stated this was a fact Julia should have brought up with her future fiance. Then uttering a sigh of resignation, she dropped her gaze to the deck of the runabout to collect her thoughts before facing him again.

"Vin," she drew in a sharp breath because what she was about to say was hard. "There's not a lot about being assimilated that wasn't hell...."

"Julia," Vin wanted to stop her from unburdening herself to him. He did not require any explanations. If Julia decided she could do this, Vin respected her enough to believe it. Not only because she was his superior officer but because she was his friend. "You don't have to explain. If you want to ride shotgun into this mess, I'll be pleased to have you."

"Thank you," Julia gave him a grateful smile but felt compelled to continue. "But let me finish."

"Sure," Vin nodded, guessing whatever was on her mind was important.

"As I said, there isn't much about assimilation I care to remember. Most of it still feels like a nightmare I didn't wake up from. I still have moments when I think all this will disappear, and I'm still in some Borg module regenerating. It's an awful feeling."

Vin made no comment, aware Buck suffered similar trauma following his assimilation.

"The one advantage of going through all is the leftover information about the Collective in my head. I haven't told anyone about it, not even Josiah or Ezra. The idea of anything Borg inside me is more than I can stand, but every so often, something surfaces I can use. The Borg assimilated thousands of civilizations, not just their people but also their technology."

"You mean you have access to that?" Vin stared in shock, supposing it made sense. He knew Julia still carried Borg nanites, neutralized by radiation. Who was to say they were entirely inert. The Collective was such a mystery. Anything was possible.

"Not exactly," Julia did not want Vin to misunderstand her. "I'm not the font of all Borg science, but I may be able to recognize the technology if I see it. The crew Franklin discovered the remnant of an alien culture and used their technology to become what they are now. Maybe if I see it for myself, I might be able to use the Borg data in my head to get around it."

It was a good idea, and Vin was the first to admit that was an advantage they couldn't afford to squander. As it stood, he would have a hell of a time trying to fly under the enemy's radar to conduct a scan of the planet to find the hostages. If Julia could do that and more, their odds of getting everyone back to the Maverick rose significantly. He only hoped Ezra didn't kick his ass when he returned to the ship.

"Alright then," Vin said with a grin. "Let's get this done, but you're telling Ezra and the Captain. I ain't getting into their crosshairs over this."

"Oh," Julia winked, "they're a couple of teddy bears."


No matter how many years passed since he was the officer of the conn, Chris Larabee could not deny he still felt exhilarated whenever he occupied the chair again, even for a little while.

With the repaired view screen on the main bridge acting as his guide, Chris flew the Maverick through the violent maelstrom of the Gagarin Belt towards the coordinates provided by Malak. Eyes fixed on the screen, he operated the controls by touch as the ship sailed into the turbulent heart of the Belt. Energy struck the hull in lashes of white-blue, their radiance flaring briefly into being and then vanishing just as rapidly. For all its danger, Chris couldn't deny the light show was spectacular with the stellar debris swirling about, moving at a less frenetic pace. It served to add more theater to the already breathtaking tableau.

Chris knew he ought to be in his command chair. Other junior officers were capable of taking Vin's place at the helm, but something inside of Chris balked at the thought. The Maverick was as much Vin's ship as it was Chris's. In Vin's two years as the chief helmsman, Chris witnessed Vin's ability to coax the Maverick into performing feats no one else could. If Vin could not be here at this moment, Chris felt it was his duty to take his place until he returned.

Right now, Vin and the rest of the Maverick's air wing were waiting in the hangar deck, poised for the order to launch. He suspected many of them were mentally preparing for a battle Chris feared would cost heavy casualties. As the Maverick approached the coordinates, Chris tried not to think about one of those casualties being his son. Not for the first time since agreeing to let Adam join the mission, Chris repeated the silent mantra he used to help him cope with his anxieties about his son's life.

You have to let him go, Chris. If not now, when?

The voice in his head always sounded like Sarah's.

No, he decided to allow Adam to go, and it was a choice he would not regret, whatever the consequences.

"Captain," Alexandra Styles interrupted his thoughts and returned him to the moment.

Apart from Alex, Ezra and JD were all that remained of the senior staff of the Maverick. Chris didn't look behind him to meet her gaze, nor did he want to. If he looked, Chris was sure fears for Vin would show on her face, and he could not bear that. Nor did he want to see the empty seats flanking his command chair. Seats that were usually occupied by Buck and Mary. His ship may have been repaired thanks to Julia's engineering team, but she was nowhere healed. Not until every member of his crew was back on the Maverick.

Overhead, the clear dome window was replaced with a temporary blast shield, cutting off their view of the stars. Instead of transparent plexiglass, the window was sealed with duranium. When they faced the Entropy again, there would be no repeat of the earlier assault on the bridge. Still, the extraordinary effort put in by engineering to restore the main bridge did not hide the scorched marks across the walls and the still damaged terminals. Considered non-essential repairs, they reminded Chris his ship was still crippled.

Chris closed his eyes and composed himself, ignoring everything wrong with his world because it did nothing but compound the despair he was trying to suppress.

"Yeah, Alex?"

"I'm reading a sharp increase in neutrino levels, theta-band emissions, and ionized hydrogen, dead ahead. If Malak's right, these readings are consistent with quantum singularities or a wormhole. The sensors are also detecting rising gravimetric forces beyond the hull."

"How are our shields?" Chris asked automatically, keeping their course steady although he reduced impulse speed as he waited to hear how his ship was handling these abuses. If they could withstand the pressures against the hull and maintain shield strength, they would enter the wormhole in good shape and remain that way when they emerged from it.

"Thanks to Chief Engineer Pemberton," Ezra answered from his station, unable to completely conceal his pride, "we are at full shield strength."

"Captain," JD added from the navigator's station. "I'm detecting a subspace distortion three thousand kilometers ahead. I think it's the wormhole."

The view screen showed no sign of the phenomenon, but the debris swirling about the Belt suddenly altered direction. Attracted by the gravitational currents leading to the wormhole, they resembled comets rushing past the great ship. Beyond the bow, the energy flares intensified, their strikes concentrating on a particular point in the vista of magenta and crimson clouds. While Chris couldn't see the wormhole, he and the rest of the bridge crew knew it was there, awaiting their arrival.

"Time to intercept?" Chris asked, paying more attention than ever to what he was doing since the gravimetric currents produced by the wormhole were propelling them forward faster, without any increase of speed from the helm. With their increased velocity, the engine drone deepened until the ship trembled from the forces pressing against the shields.

"Two minutes," JD announced while studying the data on his console, "at our current speed."

"We're accelerating," Chris stated to no one's surprise. They could all see it on the view screen. The shudders against the shield grew louder, proof of the gravimetric forces assaulting the Maverick. At least the Maverick could withstand such pressures, unlike the Franklin, who most likely made this journey with a terrified crew fighting to stave off destruction and failing.

"Buck," Chris spoke into the open channel between him and the First Officer. "It's time to get this show on the road. We're two minutes from the wormhole. Tell the air wing to standby for launch."

"We're rearing to go, Captain," Buck's easygoing reply belied the moment's tension.

"Good to hear," Chris said with a faint smile, fighting the urge to speak to Adam before reminding himself it wasn't just his son going to risk his life. It was every member of the air wing. Buck, Vin and so many others.

The shuddering against the hull increased again. This time Chris could feel the stress against the shields vibrating from the deck up the length of the helm control station to his fingertips. It would get worse. Chris needed to address his crew because there would be no time later.

"All hands, this is the Captain. We are on approach to the wormhole. We will be experiencing extreme turbulenc so all civilians are to continue observing emergency safety procedures. Stay in your quarters until this crisis is over. All Starfleet personnel is to maintain yellow alert protocols. We will apprise you of the situation as we progress. Bridge out."

No sooner than Chris uttered those words, the ship lurched forward with a single, violent jolt. On the viewer ahead, the screen showed the rapidly approaching wormhole. From a distance, it resembled a single bright star shining through the clouds of iridescent color. As they closed in, the star became a vortex, its immense gravitational pull drawing to it all stellar material unfortunate enough to stray within reach of its event horizon.

Klaxons screamed with more urgency, angrily demanding the escalation to red alert.

Increased gravimetric forces and the collision from the debris dragged towards the vortex ahead hammered the hull with percussive bursts.

"Shields?"

"Shields holding," Ezra answered, monitoring the system carefully. "They are still at maximum strength."

The tension in his voice told Chris that Ezra was concerned about how much strength they would lose going through the distortion since they would almost certainly be at battle stations when they emerged.

"Structural integrity is also at optimum levels," Alex added, and Chris didn't have to look at her to guess that her response was to allay Ezra's worries about shield strength. "The shields are keeping us from sustaining any damage, and the repairs to the hull are holding."

"Remind me to buy Julia a drink at Four Corners when we get out of this," Chris remarked, eyes fixated on the view screen, his fingers moving of their own accord, compensating the ship's trajectory to avoid shaking the Maverick apart.

"At least," Ezra answered, barely audible through the hum of the ship evolving into a loud drone.

Around them, the warp engines throbbed even louder. It felt like the Maverick's heart was pounding harder inside its chest. The reverberation through the hull drowned out the ship's customary beeps and alerts. Powerful waves of radiation impacted against the hull, the resulting tremors moving through the superstructure of the craft until they could feel it in their teeth.

"Wormhole is now five hundred kilometers away," JD announced, throwing a sidelong glance at Chris.

Chris returned his gaze briefly and felt a swell of pride in the young man. After two years, JD was no longer unnerved by the things they faced. The kid was holding together as he made that statement before returning to the business of plotting Chris a course that would avoid collisions with stray debris.

"All hands," Chris spoke up again. "We are entering the wormhole. Brace for extreme turbulence."

Not that he needed to warn them. The wormhole, now an open maw in the center of the screen, with its iris of white, blinding light, was waiting to receive them. The ship shook so violently that Chris struggled to maintain his grip on the helm station to avoid being flung.

"I'm increasing power to the inertial dampeners!" Alex shouted over the noise.

"Shield power is starting to drain!" Ezra added. "Dropping to 97 percent."

 "Screw this," Chris growled under his breath. "We're punching through this son of a bitch."

"Captain, the ship may not be able to take it," Alex warned automatically, wondering if Vin was aware that he'd relinquished the helm to a pilot that was even crazier than he was.

"She'll make it," Chris said confidently.

"Our proximity to the wormhole is disrupting the sensors. I'm having trouble detecting...."

She hadn't finished the sentence when the bow of the Maverick dropped suddenly, driving both Alex and Ezra to their knees against the deck. The rest of the crew was grabbing at anything within reach, and while Alex had no external view of the maneuvers Chris Larabee was performing, she understood why soon enough. An enormous asteroid, almost the size of a small moon, hurtled over them. Had the Captain not dove at that last second, the object would have crushed the starboard section of the ship.

"Jesus Christ," JD whispered, his composure shaken as the asteroid continued towards the wormhole until the intense gravimetric pressures created fissures along its surface.

"HANG ON!"

The asteroid cracked apart like an egg. Debris expanded outward like the wake of a tremendous explosion, sending fragments of rock as large as mountains or as small as pebbles in all directions. Then as spectacular as the eruption had been, the powerful gravity well pulled the deadly barrage towards its center. For a second, it appeared like the battle between two titans had ended, with one being consumed by the other.

Despite the danger posed by the asteroid and its demise, the Maverick still rocked in the grip of the wormhole's powerful gravitational field. Chris thought quickly and decided there was only one thing he could do.

"I am a leaf in the wind," he whispered, remembering the phrase uttered by a pilot whose name no one remembered anymore except by his final words.

Chris disengaged the main engines.

"Captain, what are you doing?" Alex stared at him, uncertain if he was insane or making perfect sense. Pilots, she thought silently, even when they became starship Captains, were crazy.

Sometimes the best way to ride the rapids was to go with the flow, Chris thought. Fighting the currents would only strain their engines and drain main power. For the battle they were going to wage with the Entropy, it was energy they could ill afford to lose.

"We're going to ride this thing out. I'm using thrusters to steer, but the more I fight what's going on out there, the more stress we'll put on the ship's superstructure."

"That's a hell of a gamble," Ezra replied, and despite the tension in his voice, Chris swore he could almost hear the excitement in his voice. Ezra might have been chief of security, but he was still a slave to games of chance.

"Yeah," JD drawled as the wormhole approached. "But I still wouldn't bet against him."

Chapter Twenty-One:
Wormhole

"This is incredible."

Mary couldn't blame Sani for his astonishment. The junior engineering officer was peering through the observation windows of the derelict ship, staring into the canyon below them as the sun dipped behind the craggy mountains. Holly was similarly gripped with awe as she examined the objects inside the conference room. At one point, she paused to pick up a silver hairbrush and wiped away the dust with her sleeve to admire the intricate patterns etched into its handle.

Mary's first priority after discovering this place was to contact Sani and Holly to bring them here. These woods were unsafe for anyone unfamiliar with the terrain. A quick search of the ship led her to the Franklin's storage bay. While much of its inventory had been stripped, she did find one malfunctioning tricorder she was able to repair. The device, primitive compared to its 24th-century counterpart, still functioned well enough for Mary to locate her comrades.

"It's been here all this time?" Holly returned the hairbrush to where she found it and joined them at the observation window.

"I believe so," Mary nodded. "I haven't had a chance to do a real search of the place to determine what happened to the crew, but obviously, the person who occupied this room took pains to make sure the ship wasn't found."

"You think she was Starfleet?" Holly asked, thinking the hairbrush could only belong to a woman.

"I don't think so," Sani turned away from the window. "I looked at some of the repairs on the way here. I don't think any Starfleet engineer did that, not even two hundred years ago. Of course, under the circumstances, they might have been forced to use whatever was necessary, so who knows?"

"So what do you think our chances of getting this to fly?" Mary asked, hoping the Franklin's final voyage might get her and the rest of the hostages back to the Maverick.

"This old thing?" Holly gaped at the two Starfleet Officers.

"Well, there's power coming from somewhere," Mary pointed out. "Batteries wouldn't be able to run this ship for as long as it has."

"There might be enough charge left in the dilithium crystals to maintain main power," Sani speculated. "I really need to see what condition the warp engines are in. However, even if the crystals aren't polarized, that's far from being space-worthy."

"If we can get some of the systems running again," Mary suggested, not about to give up hope. "Could we at least get the transporters to work? Maybe we could transport our people here."

Sani seemed doubtful. "We'd have to locate them to start with and then ensure we can get them out quickly. With the state of these old transporters, I wouldn't want to risk that."

Mary frowned at Sani's caution because he was right. Josiah was the only other person with a com badge. While they might be able to lock on to him, trying to transport all the hostages quickly without Krall harming them was a gamble. They would suffer the consequences if she and Sani couldn't get them all at once. As it was, she hated to think how Krall might retaliate for her escape.

"What about communications? We could at least call for help. If we can contact the Maverick, they can come get us."

"That's a good idea," Sani agreed, confident that the request was within the realm of possibility. "Let's look at the engine room and see what we have to work with. I think I can figure something out."

"Do you think they're still there?"

Holly's question made Mary stiffen because, until now, Mary had not allowed herself to believe the Maverick could be destroyed. Everyone she cared for was on board that ship. Billy, Adam, and of course, Chris. She closed her eyes briefly, shaking off the despair that taunted her with its whispers of doom. Finally, Mary looked inward at the one place she could rely upon without any doubt, the one place that gave her answers even when things were at their darkest.

Her heart.

"The Maverick is still there," Mary stated in a tone that tolerated no argument on the subject. "I know it is."

Mary could still feel Chris. If she could do that, it meant he was alive somewhere, and Mary knew Chris would rather die than allow the Maverick to be destroyed. She had faith in that, if nothing else.


Josiah Sanchez's jaw clenched when the body was dumped at his feet.

Their new prison resembled the inside of some great titan's skull, bleached and hollow. After Mary's escape, their Entropy kidnappers marched them along the winding trail through the craggy plateau until they arrived at what appeared at first sight to be a mining facility. While a few domed ivory-colored structures appeared on the surface, numerous pods and shafts were honeycombing the rock to imply most of the complex remained underground.

A search party had gone after Mary and the other escapees, and Josiah had feared reprisals on the rest of the hostages, but other than a few loud boasts of recapture, there was no further action. An island had formed around Thalia Rostov during their march, and had Josiah any compassion to give, he would have understood her actions. Except Josiah didn't. Earlier, he feigned outrage to distract the guards, but he was furious at the woman for what she had done.

They had been left alone in their cell with guards visible through the walls constructed of thick lengths of ivory that looked like the long tusks of some dead behemoth. Josiah prayed they would be too focused on recovering Mary after Thalia's revelation to bother with their other captives for a while. He resumed the business of keeping everyone calm, although the mood continued to be bleak. Despite her escape, the prisoners did not hold much faith in Mary being able to get them help. Truth be told, neither did Josiah. He was just glad Krall was robbed of the chance of using Mary's life to force the Captain into any untenable bargains.

The doors to the cell lifted upwards, and Krall stomped into the room. There was no ignoring the hatred in his eyes as he took centre stage with a small group of warriors accompanying him. Everyone shrank quickly into a group and retreated to the back wall, like lemmings facing a cliff. Josiah's stomach hollowed when he saw Krall's warriors carrying something that wore Starfleet blue.

"You!" Krall headed straight for Josiah. "All this time, you had such a prize in your grasp, and you said nothing! I would have released all these people just to have her!"

No, you wouldn't, Josiah thought silently, convinced of that. Krall had taken them hostage long before he knew of Mary's identity, which meant he had needed them, no matter what game of brinksmanship was denied him.

"See now what happens when you attempt to play games with me!"

He gestured to his soldiers, who stepped to the front and flung the body in their grasp. It fell on the floor, not with the soft thud of flesh, but with the sharp crack of ceramic. The body that landed on the ground was barely recognizable, and Josiah knew this poor soul had suffered the same fate as Lt. Ramos. The eyes were black sockets, and the skin clung to her bones like parchment. There was a phaser burn on her side, but it was clear she had not died from that wound. Life had been drained out of Lt. Alice Jagera.

Cries of horror shook the room, and Josiah stared at the young woman's body, trying not to let the rage overwhelm him.

"Now, are there any other secrets you are keeping from me?"

"You've made your point," Josiah said, wrestling with his anger, his eyes fixed on Alice, whom he had met only a short time ago. "There will be no other escapes."

"You'll forgive me if I do not take your word," Krall hissed, leaning closer to Josiah until their face were inches apart. "Just remember, we don't need any of you to be healthy to serve your purpose, and pain is something we are adept at dispensing."

The threat had the desired effect, and another rumble rippled through the room, filled with fear and soft whimpers. Josiah had his work cut out for him when this cruel bastard left. No doubt, he'd leave Alice's body behind, just as he had done to Ramos, as a warning against disobedience. However, as Krall lingered before him, Josiah noticed something different about the man. The bony ridges across his face did not seem as prominent as if they were retreating somehow. Impossible, Josiah shook it off, but still, the thought stuck in his mind, refusing dismissal.

"I have no doubt of that," Josiah said fearlessly, aware that Krall was trying to unnerve him. With Mary gone, Josiah had become the unofficial leader of their group. If Krall could make him afraid, the others would be similarly cowed. Josiah saw through the attempt and had no intention of giving this alien that much power over him. "Will there be anything else?"

Krall pulled back as if scalded. Rage filled Krall's eyes but to Josiah's surprise, he restrained it.

"So, the Federation hasn't turned all of you into sheep yet." He snorted and turned away, gesturing at his troops to follow him out. A few seconds later, the captives were alone again, and Josiah's chest heaved in anguish as he approached Alice's dead body. He had been talking to the young lady only a few hours ago, and now he barely recognized her. Dropping to his knees, he pulled off his blazer and covered her face, giving her some dignity.

"This is Lieutenant Travis's fault!" Thalia burst out. "If she'd only given...."

"SHUT UP!"

Josiah's roar echoed throughout the room, silencing everyone with the thunderous weight of an angry god. Everyone jumped, startled that the usually calm counselor had erupted with such volcanic fury.

Thalia started to speak when she noted the rebuking gazes of the others in her direction. The woman swallowed the visible lump in her throat and dropped her eyes to the floor.

Josiah doubted it was in contrition.

"This is no one's fault. We all knew the risks when we signed on to this life. I am sorry this happened to you," he regarded the children whose faces showed the fear they lacked the experience to conceal. "But I know at this moment, the Maverick is doing everything it can to bring us home. So you mustn't lose hope. We're going to get through this, and the worst thing we can do," he glared sharply at Thalia again, "is to turn on each other."

Nods of agreement followed. Thalia Rostov retreated to the room's far end. No one tried to stop her.

"Counselor Sanchez?"

A twelve-year-old that Josiah recognized as Taro Nakamura, son of Lt. Nakamura of the Science department, who spent his afternoons working in the arboretum, stepped forward. "What do we do now?"

"We wait," Josiah answered honestly, having no magic solution except the truth to offer him. "We wait together."

Josiah hoped it was enough.


We're coming.

Chris stared down the gullet of the wormhole, feeling no fear. His blue eyes were fixed on the screen ahead with utmost concentration, his fingers moving across the helm controls of their own accord. The exhilaration of being at helm control had faded, and Chris felt an almost symbiotic connection to his ship as he guided her through the turbulence ahead. The inside of the wormhole was a storm of moths, with the bombardment against the hull a constant. The shields blunted the impact, but there was no doubt the ship was taking a beating.

The Maverick weaved through the maelstrom of stellar material drawn to the wormhole like the flotsam of a whirlpool. Around him, the ship was silent. Alex had temporarily silenced the emergency klaxons that would be screaming all kinds of warnings throughout the Maverick at this point. The situation was tense enough, and the jolts, heaves, and lurches experienced by the Maverick could not be mistaken for anything other than their approach to the wormhole.

Alex gripped her terminal, watching the Captain fly the Maverick towards the wormhole, her teeth chattering in her skull as she monitored the effect of all this on the ship. She imagined Engineering was a hive of activity as Julia instructed her team of deflector shield specialists to compensate for energy loss by drawing it from elsewhere. As soon as their shield strength fluctuated, engineering reinforced it to full strength almost immediately.

Meanwhile, Ezra watched closely the larger pieces of debris accelerating in their direction. With the phasers armed, he managed to deflect a few to give the Captain, who was performing a dazzling feat of piloting, some breathing room. It was easy to forget that Chris Larabee started his career in Starfleet, serving at the helm with no less than Captain Jennifer Dunne of the Alexander, JD's mother. Ezra supposed it was why JD gained an assignment on the Maverick fresh out of the Academy, having lost Captain Dunne over the Battle of Sector 001.

Duranium groaned loudly around them as the tremendous gravimetric pressures outside assaulted the hull. The reverberation traveled through their bones, across the deck, along walls, and every bulkhead. It felt as if the ship might crumble at any second as the strain against the Maverick's superstructure increased.

"Structural integrity starting to fail, Captain!"

"She'll be fine," Chris answered automatically, not looking at her, his fingers still moving like a concert pianist across the Conn.

Another giant asteroid hurtled their way, and Chris fired the aft thrusters, spinning along its circumference before firing the engines just enough to push the starship clear of the obstruction. The bridge crew gaped at the sight in the view screen of the Maverick making a sharp 180-degree swing by the saucer section before righting itself and continuing towards the center of the wormhole. With less than a hundred kilometers left to travel, it glared at the Maverick like the burning eye of some fabled maiar spirit.

For a moment, Chris thought the wormhole was daring him to enter to test him and the Maverick against the might of gravimetric forces and quantum anomalies so potent a lesser man would flee. Chris might have taken the cautious path at any other time, but today was no ordinary day. His ship and the lives of the thousand people on board, the son he gained through the miracle of fate, and the friends who would fly willingly into the fire with him, were at stake.

And finally, Mary was on the other side of that wormhole.

There was no question that Chris Larabee would cross the Rubicon for her and all those he cared about.

"We're going in!"

Not that JD had to warn them. Appearing through the view screen was a well of white, powerful light. With the Mavericks Increased velocity, it rushed at them with such speed that in seconds, the entire bridge disappeared under a flash of brilliance so intense even Chris had to look away or be blinded. Previously restrained klaxons would tolerate no more suppression and began screaming throughout the bridge and across the whole of the Maverick.

"SHUT THAT OFF!"

"Computer! Disengage warning!" Alex ordered above the sound of the noise, clutching her workstation until her knuckles were almost as white as Ezra's.

"I doubt we need the computer to tell us we are in danger!" Ezra shouted in her direction, never one to hold back a quip.

The bridge shook more violently than ever. The tremors became groans of protest as the powerful forces beyond impacted every system in the ship. Vibrations ran through their bones as terminals started cracking from the increased pressure. Dark displays fissured with spidery strands across the glass, allowing sparks of energy to escape and scatter across the floor. Overhead, the lights flickered on and off, bathing the bridge briefly in the glow of condition red.

Ezra glanced at his console, trying to maintain his composure. Extreme turbulence turned the eggs benedict in his stomach into something threatening to regurgitate if relief did not come soon.

"Captain, our shield strength is down by ten percent."

"Tell engineering to keep rerouting power from other systems to maintain maximum shield strength. We need to be fully protected when we emerge."

The Captain answered so smoothly Alex had to wonder how he could disconnect so effortlessly from the chaos around them to maintain his equilibrium. It was as if riding into a maelstrom was a bit of piloting the Captain performed daily. For the first time, she wondered if Vin entered such a calm state when he flew the Maverick or if it was some mental ability known only to Vulcans. If they survived this, she made a note to ask him.

More displays cracked, the breakage muted by the groan of the superstructure around them. Panels tumbled to the floor, exposing wires and conduits. Some broke free with small bursts of energy, filling the bridge with smoke and sending sparks dancing across the carpet. Junior bridge officers who had not been reduced to quivering wrecks scrambled to the damaged systems, grabbing fire suppression equipment on their way. Straight paths became ungainly zigzags across the upper bridge as they grasped any secure surface to help them get there.

Then as if the ship's suffering reached climax, the violence ceased.

The sudden stop dropped some of the staff to the deck. As always, Ezra maintained his poise, unruffled by the sudden change in conditions. Beside him, Alex relaxed visibly while JD exhaled loudly. The white glare flooding the bridge started to recede, shrinking into the view screen once again. Everything returned to some semblance of calm, with the crew still blinking the spots out of their eyes. Smoke wisped through the air from burnt wiring, carrying noxious fumes. Meanwhile, damaged displays flickered erratically from console to console.

On the view screen, there was no sign of the wormhole, only the stars of uncharted space beyond the Gagarin Belt and a peace everyone on the bridge knew was temporary.

"Damage report?" Chris asked, engaging the impulse engines now they were back in normal space.

"Minor. A few overloads, but engineering reports nothing vital." Alex revealed, scanning the data streaming across her terminal from all department heads.

"What about our shields?"

"Still at full strength," Ezra answered this time. "Engineering did a remarkable job reinforcing it during our trip through the wormhole."

"Good," Chris nodded and tapped his combadge. "Buck, are you listening?"

"Aye, Captain," Buck Wilmington, who had spent the last few minutes wondering if they would ever survive to launch the flight wing, replied promptly. "We're awaiting your orders."

"Alright then, Commander. You have a go. Let's get our people back."

Chapter Twenty-Two:
Payload

For the crew of the Maverick, their emergence from the wormhole did not reveal a similarly spectacular view as it did when they entered it. From this side, the wormhole resembled a splatter of white against the black canvas. Gasses and strands of energy, pulverized by the gravimetric forces during the journey, bled into space at a lethargic pace. Nothing remained of the turbulence the Maverick suffered to reach this location.

While the area beyond the wormhole seemed lackluster, the nebula in the distance did not. It was a giant veil of amber, translucent enough to allow the light of the stars to shine through it. It looked like a golden shower, shimmering with glorious beauty across the expanse. It was a breathtaking sight that almost made everyone on the bridge forget they were in enemy territory and minutes away from detection and attack.

"Alex, where are we?"

Alex was already scanning, trying to match the area to the information in the stellar cartography database. Images of numerous formations and systems flashed across her display rapidly as the computer tried to pinpoint the exact location. A second later, it settled on one choice, the name blinking across the screen as if the computer were an expectant puppy waiting for a pat on its excellent behavior.

"Captain," Alex looked up. "We're on approach to the Nekron Cloud Nebula. It's right where the Magellan Probes said it would be, in Sector D1 of the inner sphere of the galactic center. Judging by our present location, we're sitting at the narrowest point of Beta Quadrant facing Delta. My analysis suggests this was a binary star system, with the nebula and the wormhole resulting from one star going nova. If Malak is correct, the planet Altamid where the Entropy originated, is probably one of the worlds orbiting this binary system."

"Wouldn't that mean the planet should be lifeless?" JD looked over his shoulder briefly before turning back to his own station. He could see the archival data being uploaded to his navigation terminal, updating simultaneously due to an influx of new information.

"Not necessarily," Chris stated. "Sometimes, the destruction of one sun might provide the right balance for a previously uninhabitable world to support life."

"Exactly," Alex agreed with the Captain's response. "I think that is the case here. We will probably find that before the star's collapse, the planets in this system were probably lifeless."

"Captain," JD looked at him now that his navigation computer had recalibrated itself with new data. "At maximum warp, it will take us six months to return to Federation space if we don't go through the wormhole."

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

If we get to it, Chris thought silently, not wanting to think that far ahead when surviving the next few hours was his primary focus. "For now, we have bigger problems."

"I cannot argue with you about that," Ezra said, thinking it was the perfect time to speak up. "The flight wing is about to launch."

The monitor screen showed the view of the Maverick's starboard section. External bay doors, used only when power conservation was necessary, slid open and released the first of the ships. Leading the charge was the runabout Pecos, led by Buck Wilmington. The craft sailed out of the Maverick, gliding expertly beneath the underside of the saucer section before it escaped the ship's shadow and hovered less than a hundred feet from the bow.

"I'm in position," Buck addressed the bridge and the entire flight wing, "We are forming attack formation Alpha."

A chorus of voices chimed in affirmation, and the bridge said nothing for a few seconds as they watched the graceful departure of runabouts and shuttles. Upon leaving the hangar bay, the ships quickly formed an arrowhead pattern at the Maverick's bow, with Buck at the frontmost position. It was an impressive sight even though they would soon face overwhelming numbers.

"Vin," Chris spoke up and noted Alex reacting just enough to show that she worried for her husband despite her attempts to remain professional. "You ready for this?"

"More than ready, Captain."

The voice that replied did not belong to Vin Tanner.

"What the goddamn hell!"

Chris gaped when the viewer flickered on, and Julia Pemberton appeared on screen, taking up the engineer's station in the runabout cockpit.

"Julia!" Ezra gasped in shock, dropping his usual stoic mask, wholly horrified by her presence next to Vin.

"This ain't my idea, pard. She outranks me." Vin quickly spoke up in his defense as the ripples of shock moved through the bridge. Somewhere in the background, Buck expressed a similar surprise.

"Julia, what the hell do you think you're doing? Chris demanded before Ezra had a stroke, wrapping his mind around the fact his Chief Engineer had somehow volunteered herself for this mission without his permission.

"Captain, before you get mad, hear me out," Julia said, not at all repentant of her actions. "You need someone who can figure out alien tech fast, and no one can do that better than me. I was assimilated by the Borg, and all their knowledge is still in this head of mine." She tapped her skull for emphasis. "I can use it to find our crew. Vin will be too busy flying the ship and keeping us from getting blown to smithereens, and no one has this kind of knowledge but me. Commander Wilmington," she kept her tone formal, aware Buck was listening and probably having the same conniptions she could see on Ezra's face. "You know what I mean."

There was a pause before Buck spoke.

"Goddammit," Buck swore loud enough for everyone on the bridge to hear. Chris didn't have to ask Buck if the first officer understood exactly what Julia was saying. Like Julia, Buck was part of the Collective, and its traces remained inside him, no matter how much he loathed it. Furthermore, Julia was right. No one would have a better handle on alien technology than her if she retained even a fraction of Borg knowledge.

"Chris, she's right. I hate to admit it, but she is. If anyone can figure out how to get past their tech, it's Julia."

"Captain," Ezra burst out. "You cannot think this is a good idea."

"Ezra," Chris looked over his shoulder long enough to make eye contact with the Chief. "You know as well as I do we need every edge we can get no matter what our personal feelings on the matter. People's lives are at stake."

Ezra opened his mouth to argue but fell silent because, on so many occasions, he was on the other side of the argument, reminding the Captain of the same. How many incendiary situations had Mary Travis entered playing mediator to races ready to annihilate each other? Chris had not liked it either, and it was Ezra who played devil's advocate. Facing the screen, he stared at Julia as if they were in the same room and not separated by miles of space. "You should have told me."

"I should have," Julia agreed as her expression softened. "But I knew you would stop me. I love you, Ezra, but we're Starfleet officers, the pair of us, and this is the job."

Ezra inhaled loudly, the anguish constricting his words, but she was right. How many times had the shoe been on the other foot, how many missions had he gone on, where he might be the one who died. He had recited the same speech to her, and now it was his turn to hear it.

"Be careful."

"Always Chief," she tossed him that familiar smile, complete with a cheeky wink to diffuse the tension between them.

No sooner than Ezra accepted the situation, the ship's warning systems uttered a loud, shrilling beep that ended any further discussion.

"Proximity alert!" Ezra announced, seeing the warning flashing across his security display.

"How far?" Chris's jaw tightened, facing front and readying himself mentally for what came next.

"Ten thousand kilometers and closing."

"Red alert!" Alex declared, prompting the ship to utter the warning across the Maverick that they were about to enter a combat situation. Red warning lights flashed across every alert panel on the bridge and throughout the ship. "All hands, Battlestations."

"Shields up! Buck, the enemy's on approach. Everyone, remember your orders. Your job is to keep them off us, not perform kamikaze runs. If you think you're at risk, get back to the ship."

Julia's face vanished from the screen, replaced by Buck, devoid of his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor.

"We'll get it done, Captain," Buck assured him with a tone of formality for the benefit of the other pilots in the flight wing who did not have their close personal friendship.

"Good Luck, Commander," Chris said because there wouldn't be an opportunity to do it later.

Once Buck's face vanished from the scene, the view shifted to the space beyond the phalanx of ships. For the moment, all seemed peaceful, but Chris knew it wouldn't last. Previously, the Entropy had come at them so quickly that the Maverick still reeled from the shock. At least this time, they were better prepared for it.

"Can we determine how many of them there are?"

Chris asked while the ship sailed forward, continuing its journey towards Altamid, maintaining the ruse they were headed for the planet to rescue their crew, not playing the part of decoy.

Alex tapped the terminal before looking up. "At this range, there might be a margin for error, but I'm detecting a hundred darts."

The bridge fell silent, and Chris faced front again, seeing the flight wing waiting to fight those numbers, and swallowed thickly. Adam was out there. He had resisted contacting the boy earlier because, at this moment, more than any other, he had to be Captain and not father. Adam understood this. He had been raised by a commander a hell of a lot more formidable than Chris Larabee by all accounts,

"Commander, deploy our little surprise when they are within 500 kilometers."

"Will do," Buck's voice returned through the combadge.

During their journey through the Belt, Chris's primary concern was how they would fight ships so small that targetting by phasers and photon torpedoes proved ineffective. Their first engagement with the Entropy revealed their vulnerability to this form of unexpected attack. When the Maverick returned to Federation space, Chris intended to bring the subject up with Starfleet Headquarters. The Maverick was one of the most advanced ships in the fleet, and it had nearly been taken apart by Krall and his Entropy,

However, recognizing their disadvantage did not eliminate the threat, forcing him to get creative with the assistance of his senior staff. JD came up with an idea so simple and effective that Chris was exceedingly proud that he'd brought the young man on board his ship. With Ezra and Alex's help, engineering and security pooled their resources to make JD's idea a reality. While it would not deliver a decisive victory against the Entropy, it would undoubtedly improve the flight wing's odds against the swarm when it arrived.

"If this works JD, I'm buying you a drink when I get back." Buck quipped, sounding like a proud uncle.

JD should have been glowing with pride, but Chris only had to throw a sidelong glance at the navigator to know praise was the last thing on his mind.

"Just make it back, Buck," JD said quietly, "That will be enough,"

Amen to that, Chris thought silently,


"Well, they didn't transport you out of the cockpit, so that's a good sign."

Vin Tanner looked at Julia, who had taken up the co-pilot's seat in the cockpit. The engineer was bringing up the long-range scanners to monitor the progress of the enemy approaching them fast. "The Captain knows a good point when he hears it," she said without looking up from what she was doing. "Besides, I'm too cute to say no too,"

Vin uttered a short laugh. "Won't argue with you there."

She looked up then and flashed him a radiant smile, one Vin was convinced would have floored Ezra if he were here. "It's a long way from the Rutherford, huh?"

"A lifetime," Vin agreed, reminded that aside from Chris Larabee, he and Julia were the only ones who served on the USS Rutherford during the Battle of Sector 001. He'd been a terrified junior helmsman and she had been the spirited junior engineer, known for breaking out into choruses of Oklahoma whenever she was working at her station. "Sometimes it's hard to believe it was only two years ago we stared down that Borg cube."

"I never got to see it, and I'm glad I didn't. If I'd seen it, I don't think I would have been able to pull myself together and keep the Rutherford in one piece."

"You made sure we gave her one hell of a send-off, Julia," Vin reminded the woman how she had been the only one left standing in engineering, performing miracles to allow the first officer to save them all.

"I did, didn't I?" She gave him a bittersweet smile, remembering all the friends who died that day.

The sudden beep on the console snapped her out of her reminiscence as she examined the message it was trying to relay. "The Entropy is approaching our defensive perimeter."

Before Vin could react to that news, Buck interrupted from the Pecos. "Flight wing prepared to enter dispersal formation. We're going to dump our payload before they get here."

"Aye, Commander," Vin answered before turning to Julia. "Can we see them?"

Her fingers tapped the smooth glass, and a second later, a gray cloud appeared on the screen. Julia magnified the image immediately, giving the cloud a little more definition, not that it made their situation any better. Cloud or no cloud, the enemy's numbers still outmatched the flight wing by a factor of ten. Even with the shields and weapons the shuttles and runabouts possessed, it would be a tough battle. Vin felt guilty that in the midst of all that, he would be leaving his comrades to fly on another mission, though he understood the importance of it.

"Christ."

Julia couldn't blame Vin for his remark. To look at them, the Entropy's numbers seemed overwhelming but as an engineer, she looked past numbers and conducted a deeper scan with the Brazos's sensors. "Buck, the analysis of the dart we scraped off the Maverick revealed the composition of the metals on their hull is fairly lightweight, and their power is focussed on speed and weapons. Their shields are pretty substandard. It won't take much to overload them. Two or three hits from our phasers will probably punch a hole through it."

"Copy that. Let's see if we can even the odds before they get here."

The nine ships in its arrowhead formation accelerated in a sudden burst of speed, like mini-stars flaring in the dark sky. Soundlessly, they drew away from the Maverick's bow, widening the gap between themselves and the great ship in seconds. The Pecos took the lead, with the Brazos sitting on its left flank while the other seven shuttles, each named after the pantheon of Mesopotamian deities, trailed behind them.

Once the Maverick was far enough behind them, the flight wing spread out in a crescent-shaped formation, with Buck taking the lead again.

"Alright, carry out the rotation maneuver on my mark." Buck ordered through all flight wing cockpits. "Now."

Aft thrusters fired simultaneously before each craft made a neat 180-degree turn, repositioning itself to face the Maverick instead of away from it. The crescent smile became a frown which suited the situation they were facing.

"Deploy."

Cargo bay hatches on all the small crafts slid open, unleashing a collection of spherical objects into space. They numbered in the dozens and had been hastily crafted thanks to a coordinated effort by engineers and security personnel. Each sphere, no larger than a soccer ball, was encased with metal and a secondary ring across its circumference. Upon release, it began glowing with green light. The spheres spread out with a guidance system providing the devices enough velocity to maintain position without becoming caught by the flight wing's retreat.

The devices took up equidistant positions and numbered in the hundreds by the time the short-term propulsion system exhausted itself. Despite this, their small size made them barely visible, and, thanks to Alex's expertise, they would not appear on the enemy scopes until it was too late.

"Payload deployed, Chris. For what it's worth."

"If it can buy us time, Buck," Chris said from the bridge. "It's worth everything."

Chapter Twenty-Three:
High Noon

High Noon.

The thought surfaced in his mind as Chris Larabee stared down the swarm of Entropy through the view screen. Just like the Old West program where he played the Man in Black, he and his crew were facing down an enemy in a no holds barred battle to the death. While it might appear to a bystander that the Maverick was the most formidable contender in this fight, Chris knew otherwise. The Entropy had shown him how vulnerable his ship could be. Chris suspected if they launched similar attacks against the Federation, the rest of the fleet would find themselves similarly disadvantaged.

Whatever happened here today, one thing was clear. Chris had to stop this threat here and now.

"The enemy is two hundred kilometers from our perimeter."

The magnified view on the screen already displayed the advance, but Ezra's announcement revealed how much time they had before their plan reached fruition.

"Buck, split up when they get a taste of our little surprise. Outflank them while the Maverick comes in hot. I don't want any of our ships getting caught in the crossfire. We're going in full spread and taking out as many of them as possible while they're trying to regroup."

"Understood, Captain, Alpha Team, you're with me. Everyone else, you're with Beta. Follow my lead."

"Aye, Commander," Lt. Drew Katovit, leading Beta Team, responded unseen.

"Vin," Chris addressed their ace in the hole. "You know what to do."

"I do, Captain," Vin responded with a tone of formality appropriate for addressing his Captain instead of his friend. "When the candle gets lit, I'll head for Altamid."

In the background, the proximity alert increased the rhythm of its warning trill. Without needing to hear Ezra's announcement, Chris knew this was because the enemy was closing in fast. Facing the front, he mapped out how to make this head-on confrontation.

Disconnecting your emotions will allow you to master control.

Captain Savil had told him that once and since becoming Captain, Chris finally understood what that meant. Savil, despite displaying a persona of Vulcan virtue, possessed a heart as big as a moon though the man never admitted it. Savil brought Vin on board the Rutherford, recognizing a lost young man who needed a place to thrive and people to care for him. At Savil's instigation, Chris offered the junior helmsman his friendship. It was an order Chris would never regret, especially now.

"Alex, order all hands to brace themselves for extreme maneuvering."

"Aye, Captain," Alex didn't question the order, perfectly aware of what that meant. "All hands, this is Acting First Officer Commander Styles. We are entering a combat situation. All non-essential personnel must remain in your quarters and follow emergency procedures. We will be experiencing g-forces for which the anti-gravs may not compensate. Take all necessary precautions to protect yourselves. All Starfleet personnel, remember your training. Styles out."

"Captain, the swarm has penetrated the defense perimeter."

"You know what to do," Chris told Ezra with ice in his voice. "Light them up."



The swarm flew into the field of small spheres, too small to be seen with the naked eye. Sensors making a general sweep would identify them as space debris of little consequence. As the enemy darts flew past the spheres, the devices were swept up by the armada, clinging to the hulls or caught by the forward inertia of smaller ships. One by one, the devices followed the darts as the Entropy ships flew toward the small group of Federation shuttles and runabouts about to confront them. It was a silent dance in the airless void, and the Maverick watched the performance with anticipation, aware things were about to become very volatile.

Mini novas erupted across the dark void in rapid succession. The bursts of orange, white and blue flared across the armada, and the snake-like advance halted abruptly as ships began exploding. Some were destroyed outright. Others were flung off course by the shockwave. From a distance, it looked like the deconstruction of an ancient space-borne leviathan. As the enemy line completely disintegrated, the Maverick surged forward at full impulse.

Instead of flying straight at the enemy, the starship began rolling, performing a tight corkscrew maneuver unseen in a vessel of that size. Plowing ahead as it spun, the Maverick's deflectors protected it from the collision with the tiny ships. They bounced off the energy field, flying out of control in the great ship's wake. Other darts banked sharply to avoid being struck and succeeded in colliding with their comrades.

When the armada first attacked the Maverick, the starship had been unprepared. Krall had directed his fleet like a serpent, overwhelming the starship within its coils. While there was every chance Krall's forces would regroup to attack them in such a manner again, Chris intended to reduce the potency of that attack by destroying as many of the tiny ships as they could. The Captain wanted to create a diversion of such chaos; the Entropy would not have time to consider anything else but the Maverick's attack.

"Brazos! Get moving!"

From within the runabout's cockpit, Vin watched with awe and horror as Chris Larabee flew the Maverick like a goddamn lunatic. It was not the first time Vin witnessed Chris taking the Con, but each time he did, Vin wondered what the man was doing commanding a starship when he could fly like this.

"You heard Buck," Vin shook off the thought and returned to business. "Let's get out of here while they're busy pulling up their shorts from the ass-kicking we just gave them."

"Charming," Julia made a face as she spent a few seconds more staring at the Maverick's antics, unable to imagine what the Captain's piloting skills were doing to her ship. She would have to send repair crews across the hull to fix the micro-fractures Chris was creating. "Oh, we'll be repairing stabilizer coils for months."

Vin smiled at the comment as his fingers flew over the console. The sudden rush of stars past the cockpit window revealed the Brazo's change in direction. Breaking formation from the flight wing, Vin fired the thrusters, intending to take advantage of the confusion created by the Maverick's offensive, aware that it wouldn't last long. The sooner he took the runabout beyond intercept range of the enemy ships, the sooner the Maverick could withdraw to safety. After all, this was never about defeating the Entropy. This was always about retrieving their missing crewmates.

As Vin piloted the runabout, Julia monitored their comms and navigation. The explosions behind them reflected off the Brazos's windows, and she spared a second to pull up the view of the ship's rear as it drew away from the fighting. The Maverick was still performing its hazardous maneuvers, undertaking feats no starship of such size was intended to do. The Larabee hat trick at work, Julia thought. By now, the Maverick was unleashing a barrage of phaser fire. She was a deadly catherine wheel flinging destructive power in all directions instead of colorful filaments of dancing light.

"We're moving beyond intercept range," Julia announced to Vin and Buck on the Pecos. She watched the blip representing the Brazos moving across the grid on the screen before adding, "another thirty seconds, and they won't catch us, even if they come at us at full throttle."

"Alright then. The rest of us are moving on to the next part of the plan. With any luck, we can allow the Maverick to withdraw before Chris tries to perform cartwheels with the ship."

"Good luck with that," Vin drawled, although the idea made him wince inwardly. Then again, the term 'fly her apart' was tailor-made for the Captain of the Maverick.


On board the Maverick, JD Dunne was trying very hard not to lean over the side of his console and puke.

He did not suffer queasiness easily but the stars spinning on the screen in front of him made JD feel as if he were trapped inside a kaleidoscope. The disorientation affected him despite JD's best efforts to keep it at bay. Taking Vin's advice on a previous occasion, JD fixed his focus on his console. For the most part, it helped, but with each death-defying maneuvre, the chicken sandwich JD ate earlier that day threatened to make its way back up his throat.

Beside him, the Captain was a figure carved from marble, showing no indication that the Maverick's relentless spinning was affecting him. Chris Larabee's fingers flew across the helm controls like a man playing a fine instrument, entirely at ease and oozing confidence. Around them, klaxons blared, trying to reason with the ship's pilot with its loud warning plea.

"WARNING - Structural integrity is now at 80 percent."

"Captain! We can't keep this up much longer!" Alex shouted over the noise of the computer. Her feet were firmly planted against the floor. She clutched the side of her workstation to avoid being thrown against a wall. "I'm detecting microfractures across the hull. The Maverick isn't made for this kind of handling. "

"She'll be fine," Chris shrugged off the warning, perfectly aware of what his ship could do and confident the Maverick would endure. "How many ships have we disabled?"

"At least twenty-five," Alex returned. "Either through collision or via phaser bombardment."

"I fear our window of opportunity is narrowing," Ezra remarked, noticing the steady stream of darts getting out of the Maverick's way. "My scanners show they are regrouping."

"It was always going to happen." The news did not surprise Chris at all. "Buck, where's our package?"

"Almost out of intercept range. Fifteen seconds more, those darts won't be catching up to them, even if they do notice one of the gazelles separating from the herd."

"Commander Wilmington," Ezra winced. "Do you think you could choose a less dire metaphor?"

"Confirmed, Captain," Alex interrupted Buck before he could respond. "The Brazos has just escaped intercept range."

"Alright, we're breaking off. Buck, cover our retreat as much as you can. "

"Aye, Captain."

Space stopped spinning in front of them as the Maverick flew out of its corkscrew trajectory. The view screen showed the stars slowing as Chris returned the Maverick to a more stable flight path. An audible sigh of relief spread throughout the bridge as everyone regained their equilibrium after the turbulence of the last few minutes. Around them, the Entropy darts resembled scattered ants searching for direction.

As satisfying as Chris found the scene, it would not last. They had taken the Entropy by surprise, nothing more.

Almost as if Fate knew what was in his mind, the communications station chirped loudly.

"Captain," JD looked up at him. "Incoming transmission. Audio only"

"Well, that didn't take long," Chris muttered. "Put him through."

JD nodded, supposing it could be no one else hailing them. "I have Krall, Sir."

"Hey there, Krall," Chris didn't wait for him to speak, preempting the inevitable tirade the man would no doubt unleash on him. "How's things?"

"Better than you shall be in a matter of minutes," Krall sneered but the gloating tone was blunted by the rage he was trying to hide from his voice. "This pathetic attempt of yours to reach our homeworld has failed. You may have gained a temporary advantage by your brazen attack, but you know as well as I do your starship is no match for our ships."

"Maybe not," Chris agreed, more interested in firing the aft and starboard thrusters to change the Maverick's course. "But we took a hell of a lot of you with us."

"If you think this pitiful attempt will change your fate, then you are gravely mistaken..."

"I don't think anything, Captain Edison."

For a second, the entire bridge fell silent at the Captain's use of that particular card and waited in anticipation of Krall's reaction. The commander of the Entropy held off his rebuttal for a long pause and when he finally spoke, Krall's voice was as cold as a dead star.

"I hope you killed the traitor who gave you that lie."

It was no lie, and Krall's reaction proved it to Chris more conclusively than any DNA evidence Nathan had provided. Perhaps it was a truth so buried in the past, Krall himself could not face it.

"If you mean Lieutenant Mae Crosby, he's very much alive. In fact, we showed him his family on Earth, a family eager to meet him when we get back to Earth. No one blames him for what he had to do to survive since the Franklin got lost out here. In fact, none of us blames the Franklin's crew for what took place today. Under different circumstances, we might be in the same position. "Captain Edison," Chris's tone softened. He wanted to convey to Krall his next words were not an effort at brinksmanship but a genuine gesture from one Captain to another. "I understand you had to survive out here any way you could, but this doesn't have to end with us at each other's throats. All of you can come home. We can even help you undo whatever it is you've done to your....!"

"YOU KNOW NOTHING!"

Krall's bellow startled everyone on the bridge, including Chris, who realized then there would be no way out of this without a fight,

"We have nothing in common with those hypocrites on Earth! Hypocrites who would presume to seed the galaxy with their kind, with no thought and consideration for those they'd abandoned. I am Krall, and the Entropy will end the spread of the pestilence, calling itself the Federation! The crew of the Franklin is dead, just as you will be."



The open channel to the Pecos ensured Buck heard every word Krall uttered to the Captain of the Maverick. While he admired Chris's olive branch to the former Captain of the Franklin, Buck could have told him it would be for nothing. Balthazar Edison was so buried under the persona of Krall that there would be no reaching him after all this time.

Instead, Buck readied himself to enact the plan they devised on the Maverick, the instant the Brazos passed beyond intercept range. The tiny blip on his console screen representing Vin Tanner's ship was no longer visible, shifting Buck's focus to the Maverick and the Entropy darts rapidly regrouping after the starship's offensive. That cohesion accelerated with Krall's outburst, and Buck knew the Maverick was less than a minute from a ferocious onslaught.

Krall would send everything he had at the Maverick not because he wanted to destroy the starship but because he wanted its Captain to suffer for daring to remind the Entropy who they once were.

The Maverick banked sharply, halting its advance against the remaining darts and altering its trajectory for the Nekron nebula in the distance. The darts did not intercept the great ship for the moment, opting to regroup into the serpentine formation that had nearly torn the Maverick to ribbons.

"We're going in full throttle," Buck spoke to the flight wing, "Fire one torpedo each to disrupt their formation. Keep an eye on who's next to you, and try to space them as much as possible. We need to make these shots count. If we can keep them from regrouping, the less chance, they'll try any suicide runs. The Maverick has to be able to deploy the ablative armor when the time comes."

"No problem, Buck," Adam addressed him directly, not bound by any Starfleet protocols because he was a civilian. For now. "According to my scans, these things focus all their power on speed and weapons. Their deflectors suck."

Buck almost laughed until Kate's voice interrupted him. "Commander, look!"

Buck didn't have to look. He knew what he would see.

Ahead of them, the darts had regrouped as quickly as Buck imagined they would. The scattered ships were flying in formation, resembling not a snake, he thought absently, but the appendage of some Lovecraftian horror, reaching for the Maverick. The starship was flying away at full impulse, heading towards the Nekron nebula. If worse came to worse, Buck knew if the Maverick could not reach it, Chris would take the ship back through the wormhole to avoid being shredded by the Entropy.

"All ships! Follow attack pattern omega!"

Leading the charge, Buck flew the Pecos towards the armada, charging weapons as he closed in on the enemy ships. Coming in from an entirely different angle with Kate Stokes playing wingman, Drew Katovit did the same as he approached the Entropy from the opposite direction. The swarm of ships rushed past the flight like a living thing. Buck thought of a school of fish he'd seen scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and how coordinated their movements had been. They were as fluid as the ocean they were navigating.

The Entropy darts displayed the same precision as they closed in on the Maverick.

Was Krall leading the charge, or was he surrounded by the pilots under his command? Buck suspected the former. The rage Buck heard in Krall's voice told Buck his hatred for Chris had become very personal after the Captain's revelation of his human past. It was not a slight Krall would let pass. If he couldn't kill Chris with his bare hands, he'd do it by destroying the Maverick.

The Entropy fleet showed no reaction to the small collection of shuttles flanking them on either side, and Buck supposed the Maverick's flight wing didn't appear terribly formidable. Whatever the reason, Buck would use their indifference for as long as he could.

"Torpedo away!"

The torpedo exploded out of the runabout's turrets, an amber star hurtling through the sky before it struck the enemy flank and detonated. In space, the explosion was soundless, but there was no denying its destructive power. As Buck banked hard to avoid the shockwave, he could feel its shudders in the walls of the Pecos.

"I'm going in!" Adam's voice filled the cockpit.

A glimpse through his window allowed Buck to see another torpedo streaking through the void before it erupted just as spectacularly as the one he had fired a few seconds earlier. Adam had aimed his shot a little further along the fleet, and the results were just as violent. Debris from destroyed darts flew outwards, carried by the shockwave. The advance halted briefly as one segment of the serpentine formation broke off entirely.

Buck should have been satisfied by inflicting the same damage upon the Entropy as they had done to the Maverick, but any sense of triumph would be short-lived.

This battle was just beginning.

Chapter Twenty-Four:
My Little Khio'ri

"Try it now."

Standing over the communications console at an empty bridge station, Mary flicked a small switch on the instrument panel and prayed for success.

It was well into the night in this strange world, and they had been working steadily for hours. Once the Entropy's escapees navigated the darkness of the ship to reach Engineering, Sani assessed the warp engines' condition. All was as he expected. What systems remained alive did so on the back of the minimal charge left in the dilithium crystals of the dormant anti-matter drive. While they would never be able to power up the Franklin to any formidable capacity, at least they could use it to turn on some of the lights so they could conduct repairs on the ship's communication systems.

A single globe on the instrument panel flickered to life. The sleepy red eye blinked at her twice before it disappeared abruptly. Mary frowned, discouraged by the setback.

"It flickered briefly," She reported to Sani, who lay flat against his back on the floor, his body partially concealed by the communications terminal he had crawled inside to repair.

"Hmmm," Sani murmured unseen but, like all engineers, accepted that no one ever got it right the first time. It was all a matter of trial and error. Unless, of course, you were Chief Pemberton. "Let me check the relay attachments. Give me a minute. I'll let you know when you can try again."

"Alright," Mary eased back into the chair in front of the station. As Sani worked, she surveyed the bridge of the old-style Freedom class starship. In its day, it was the first new class of ships launched after the formation of the Federation, replacing the original NX Class ships. A few consoles were shattered and never repaired, while black scorch marks covered the walls like crude artwork. She imagined the journey through the Gagarin Belt must have been catastrophic and marveled that the ship had landed safely.

Although how safe could there have been if there was only one survivor?

Footsteps along the deck floor dismissed Mary's thoughts about the Franklin, and she looked up to see Holly Jones emerging through the doors. The beam of light from Holly's torch caught Mary's eye, and the protocol officer winced, turning away from the glare. Although Sani had brought some systems alive, he had wanted to limit their power consumption to the essentials, so Holly had gone exploring using a torch.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Holly apologized, deactivating the torch while cradling a bundle of silver packages in her arms. While they had been conducting repairs, Holly had gone off to scrounge for valuable supplies, determined to make herself useful since she had no engineering skills to offer.

"I found some food.".

"Food?" Mary stared at her in surprise. "Here?"

It took a moment for Mary to realize the packets Holly was carrying were standard-issue Starfleet emergency ration packs. While she hadn't personally tried any herself, Mary knew they were non-perishable and made to last indefinitely. Her nose wrinkled at the idea of eating ancient protein bars until the slight rumble in her stomach reminded Mary this was not the time to be selective. No matter how it tasted, they needed food to keep up their strength.

"Ration packs," Holly confirmed, handing her one of the silver packets and resting another on the console for Sani when he finished what he was doing. "From what I can tell, the batteries kept one of two food lockers operational for emergencies, I guess."

"Make sense," Sani sang out from beneath the panel. "The computer probably registered the life sign of the survivor maintaining the ship and rerouted power to the systems they would need. Food lockers only need minimum power to continue operating. Okay," he said, exhaling beneath them. "Try it now."

Mary gave Holly a hopeful glance before she reached for the switch once again. Flicking it on, she expected the same disappointing result. However, this time, his efforts produced a satisfying hum that followed the illumination of the whole panel, not just one switch. Lights flickered across the console, bringing displays to life and filling the air with the excited chirps of newly awakened systems. Within seconds, the room glittered with light globes flashing a spectrum of colors.

"It's working!" Holly exclaimed excitedly, sounding very much like the young woman she was.

Mary was not that exuberant, but she was pleased with their success and began testing switches and toggles to see just how much functionality Sani had returned to the panel. The console reacted to her touch with lively sounds, corresponding to the data flashing across the displays. Beneath her, Sani slid out from beneath the panel to sit up and examine his handiwork.

"How does it look?" He asked.

"It looks good," Mary smiled, studying the readouts on display, her face illuminated by its glow. "According to this, we're capable of transmitting,"

"We will need to use an encrypted frequency," he remarked, telling her nothing she didn't already know. "Perhaps one of the bands we used during the Dominion War."

"Good idea," Mary agreed. If the Entropy were listening, the last thing Mary wanted was for Krall and his warriors to be led back here. "We don't want them to find us."

Holly shuddered visibly at the thought.

"I only hope the Maverick believes the message is genuine. Even if encrypted, they can identify the Franklin's registry. After all this time, they might think it's a trap."

Ezra would undoubtedly question it, Mary thought, and if not Ezra, Chris and Alex. "We need to send them a message they can't possibly believe is false."

"What message could do that?" Holly stared at the two Starfleet officers in question. She felt very out of her depth in this situation and wished she could contribute more than just ration packs.

Mary fell silent for a moment, giving the question some thought. It had to be personal yet obscure enough to ensure the enemy wouldn't decipher it, even if they could break the message's encryption and hear its contents. Something only the bridge crew would recognize.

It came to her like an epiphany,

"I got it," her eyes lit up like stars. "Sani, I need access to the library computer. Can you check if it's still functioning?"

Sani immediately took her place at the console and began pounding the keypad furiously, his fingers moving across them like a concert pianist, trying to make his instrument sing. The computer produced its own music in old-style, clicks and beeps done away in modern starships.

"I'm in." He said triumphantly, "What are we looking for?"

Mary smiled, "Something very old."


Vin Tanner never thought flying away from the Maverick could be so hard, but it was.

In space, explosions vanished in the void before they barely had time to bloom. With no air to carry the sound, Vin could picture all of it taking place without him. Telling himself that the mission to Altamid was critical, that everything the Maverick and the flight wing were suffering was to ensure he and Julia could reach the world without notice, did little good. He still felt like he should be there, fighting alongside his friends.

Julia, on the other hand, didn't have to imagine it. She kept a close eye on the battle through the consoles and com channels, listening to battle signals traded by the Maverick and the flight wing. The Maverick was retreating now the Brazos were safely beyond intercept range of the Entropy's fleet. As anticipated, the enemy regrouped quickly and was now on the offensive. Buck's flight wing was doing everything possible to aid the Maverick's retreat. Even though Julia couldn't see the fighting from the scanner, she felt every impact against the Maverick's hull.

'They're doing okay," Julia assured Vin, aware the tension in his jaw likely saw its origins in the Maverick's engagement with the Entropy. She couldn't blame him when she felt similar fears for her shipmates, friends, and, most of all, Ezra.

"Thanks," Vin tossed her a look of appreciation for that information. "Let's go find Mary and the others so we can get back to them."

"Right," Julia smiled at him and returned her attention to the display. "We're about a lightyear away from the system. I'll start scanning for settlements and alien communications when we're close enough.

"Try for com signals as well."

"Com signals?" Julia stared at him, puzzled.

"Mary and Josiah are bridge officers. They have com badges on them. We didn't find the devices at the abduction sites, so the badges must have gone with them. If Krall and the Entropy were former Starfleet, they might mistake the badges as part of the uniform, not communication devices."

It made sense and was entirely possible. "Good idea. If we detect a com signal, we might be able to transport our people."

"Better not," Vin dismissed that idea immediately. There were too many variables involved to risk such a thing. "We don't know what the situation is, and one com signal isn't enough to pinpoint the location of fifty people. We might get Josiah and Mary, but what about the others? I think it's best we locate them first and then figure out what to do next."

"I'm impressed," Julia flashed him a smile of admiration. "You're not just a pretty face."

Vin uttered a short laugh. "Yeah, these looks can be so tough to live with."

Julia was about to comment when the silhouette of Altamid appeared through the view screen. As the Brazos approached, the distant sun peeked over its horizon, exposing the crescent-shaped horizon of a blue-green world teeming with life. Even from this distance, there was no doubt that Altamid was a Minshara-Class world that did not look that different from Earth. For a few seconds, they admired the globe as it loomed large in the cockpit window before remembering why they were traveling to this distant world tucked away in the Nekron Nebula.

 "Alright, I'm going to start scanning," Julia announced, lowering her head to her console.

Vin didn't answer because he was conducting his own analysis of what was ahead. The sensors indicated no other ship in the area, most likely because all the Entropy craft were engaging the Maverick. While Julia conducted more specialized sweeps of the approaching planet, Vin could tell from his station if they were entering the range of any planetary surveillance. This entire mission would be for nothing if they were spotted before reaching the planet's surface.

"Vin, head towards the southern hemisphere of the planet," Julia advised when she raised her head from her console. "I'm detecting the presence of proximity detectors and settlements in the northern hemisphere, particularly around one of the larger continents. There's some interference with the readings, though."

"What sort of interference?" Vin asked as he punched the change of course into the controls. "Is it the Entropy?"

"Oh, I'd definitely say it's them," she threw him a sidelong glance. "But I think the interference may not be artificial but geographical."

"Geographical?"

"Yeah," she nodded. "I think these settlements might be underground."

"Hell," Vin swore under his breath because that would make any rescue more complicated. Underground interference meant transporting their shipmates would be more complex, and with fifty people, such an undertaking could not be rushed, especially if they were beaming through rock.

As he ruminated on how they would approach the problem, Vin directed the Brazos to the southern hemisphere of the world, in keeping with their plan to avoid any of the Entropy's surface scanners. Approaching from the far side of the planet would allow him to slip beneath scanner range, and Julia had configured the Brazos's shields to emit a signal to further mask their presence. Nevertheless, Vin made a cautious entry into Altamid's atmosphere.

Daylight flooded the runabout cockpit as Vin approached the far side of Altamid. Nearing the surface, Vin caught sight of oceans and land masses covered in untamed forests and impressive mountains. It was a beautiful, rustic world with natural resources efficiently utilized by any sentient race settling there, making Julia's report about the settlements being underground baffling. Why? Why bury themselves beneath rock when there was this majesty above them?

Suddenly, his attention was caught by the sharp trilling from Julia's station.

"What's up? Are we spotted?"

"No," Julia gave him a look that showed her puzzlement. "I'm picking up a signal. It's riding one of our encrypted channels, the ones we used during the Dominion War. The Entropy couldn't possibly know about it. We used these for secured transmissions."

It was no mystery to Vin. "Put it through. It's our people."

"You think?" Julia exclaimed with wonder and then realized it could be no one else. "It could be a trap. They could have made someone talk."

Vin's jaw tightened at the possibility, and he knew Julia had an excellent point. Among the civilians taken hostage had been a handful of Starfleet personnel. While he liked to think they would not give up sensitive Starfleet data like that, the Entropy had proven themselves quite ruthless. The captives may not have had a choice.

"Only one way to find out. Genuine or not, we need to hear it."

Julia couldn't argue and tapped the console pad with a few short commands that filled the air with chirps before the message was entirely relayed.

It was a message without words but music.

No more than 15 seconds long, the haunting melody was the chorus of a more extensive work, reaching a crescendo in the time it was afforded before repeating again and again. Julia listened to it, enthralled but also confused. While it was lovely and alien, she didn't understand why this was being played on a secured Starfleet channel. Did the Entropy think playing this odd selection would confuse them? She was about to ask Vin when she turned to see the helmsman smiling,

"It's Mary."

"What?" Julia exclaimed, wondering how on Earth he'd jumped to that conclusion even as the song continued to play in the background.

"The music," Vin smiled broadly as he quickly pinpointed the source of that transmission so he could fly the runabout there. "It's Vulcan. It's a piece that T'Laina, my grandmother, plays. It's called My Little Khio'ri."


Upon entering the atmosphere of the planet Altamid, the runabout maintained a low trajectory above the planet's surface. The Brazos took advantage of the twilight conditions of the southern hemisphere as it circumnavigated the globe. Instead of heading toward the settlements, Julia had detected from orbit, the runabout now closed in on the source of the signal Vin was convinced came from none other than Mary Travis. Her ingenuity in using music that was not only his grandmother's favorite but whose title was her nickname for Vin's mother made the authenticity of the message unassailable.

"It's coming about ten kilometers from where I detected the settlements," Julia announced as she studied the sensor readings as the runabout skimmed over the surface of a large ocean. The craft was low enough to leave a trail of foam across the dark water. In the distance, she could see the faintest outline of a mountain range, gaining definition with the coming of the dawn.

"Did you manage to locate Josiah's combadge?" Vin asked, wondering if it would be detected in the same place.

Julia didn't answer for a few seconds as she expanded her search parameters to include the comm frequencies. To her surprise, it took less than a second for the communications panel to begin beeping excitedly at its success. "I found it!"

"Where?"

Her green eyes studied the display and quickly interpreted the data before her. "It's experiencing the same interference as the settlements. What the heck..."

Vin couldn't help smiling at Julia's attempt to curse. She just didn't do it well. "It means that they got separated. I'd say the signal belongs to Josiah, but I have no clue what's going on with Mary."

"If that's Josiah's com badge, then I'm detecting multiple human life signs around him," Julia added. "Not the complete fifty but most of them."

Vin said nothing, hoping the lack of the complete number of hostages didn't mean the Entropy had killed anyone. After the brutal attack on the Maverick and the attempt to board the ship, it wasn't unreasonable to assume Krall might have killed some of the hostages. He hoped one of those casualties wasn't Josiah.


"Captain's Log... I don't remember the stardate. All distress calls unanswered. Of the crew only a handful remain... thisshig rrrerrk...! I won't allow it! The indigenous race abandoned this planet long ago. They left behind sophisticated mining equipment and a drone workforce... thisshig rrrerrk...! They have some sort of technology that prolongs life... thisshig rrrerrk...! I will do whatever it takes for me and my crew. The Federation do not care about us. You'll probably never see me again. But if you do, be ready."

"Oh my God," Mary leaned back into her chair, her color drained from her face as she stared at Captain Balthazar Edison on the display screen before her. While she did not recognize the human features, the voice, the voice was unmistakable.

When she and Sani had been searching the Franklin's library computer for the piece of music Vin Tanner would recognize immediately as coming from her, she had stumbled upon these log entries. With the priority being the transmission of the encrypted signal, she'd set aside the log entries for the moment and set to work on their more immediate objective. However, once the transmission was sent, there was nothing to do but wait. Mary had opted to review the entries, thinking there might be some clue as to what happened to the ship's crew. Never in a million years had she expected to find this.

"It's him," Mary whispered. "It's Krall. I know that voice."

"How can that be?" Sani, who had been hunched behind her with Holly, watching the same logs, stared at her in astonishment. "This was three hundred years ago!"

"That's what he meant," Mary gasped, understanding the full measure of Krall's words now that she had viewed these tapes. "We're food to them. Not our flesh but our life force! That's how he's stayed alive this long. They're drawing life force from other beings to stay alive."

"You mean Counsellor Sanchez and all the Maverick's hostages? They will be murdered like Ramos so the Entropy can keep living?"

The horror of it was too much to bear. Yet as Mary studied the frozen image of Captain Edison on the screen, seeing the despair and desperation in his eyes, she could well understand how a Starfleet officer could be driven to such extremes. The Franklin had crashed on this world with no hope of rescue because everyone on Earth had given them up for dead. Captain Edison had watched his crew die slowly before his eyes, with no way to save them. What Captain wouldn't do anything to save his people from a slow death on an alien world, with no hope of ever seeing home again.

Would Chris Larabee be any different?'

Suddenly the dimly lit room lit up with an amber glow forcing all three of them to spin around. The golden shower of energy appeared in the middle of the room, prompting Mary and Sani to reach for their weapons until the forms taking shape gained definition.

"Wait!" Mary hissed.

As the glittering light show coalesced around the familiar shape of two people, everyone exhaled loudly as Vin Tanner, and Julia Pemberton appeared before them.

"Hey there," Julia beamed once the drone of the transporter beam ceased, her eyes dancing as she spotted them. "Someone ordered pizza?"

Chapter Twenty-Fire:
Rescue

When Mary transmitted the fifteen-second message into the wilderness, she knew realistically there was a one in a thousand chance of it being detected. She kept these odds silent from Sani and Holly because she had no wish to dampen their hopes of rescue. Now, as Mary gaped at Julia and Vin, her shock evaporating into elation, she was tremendously grateful for taking the chance. Mary assumed the call for help would bring an Away Team, but she never imagined the message would reach the one person whom it was intended for in the first place.

"Julia! Vin!" Mary laughed happily, seeing her friends again. As always, Julia was quick to discard professional protocols and quickly moved in to give her a warm hug of greeting, which she repeated with Holly before patting Sani on the back. Vin did the same, to Mary at least, but held back from Holly and Sani, whom he was too unfamiliar with to take such liberties.

"Great thinking on that message Mary," Vin complimented once he pulled back, smiling. "I knew right away it was from you."

Not only was Vin exceedingly grateful to find Mary alive, but he was pleased to see Holly present. Although the captain hadn't voiced it, Holly's abduction bothered him almost as much as Mary's and Josiah's. Despite their constant bickering, Vin knew that Chris was very fond of the spirited young woman who had no difficulty standing up to him when needed.

"It was all I could think of to get past them," Mary admitted readily, flushed with satisfaction that her gamble paid off. "Where's the ship? Is everyone alright?" She resisted the urge to demand updates on her son and Chris, not when everyone on board was in similar danger.

"The ship is fine," Vin assured her and hoped the Maverick had succeeded in withdrawing from the Entropy's forces once he and Julia made good their escape from the fighting. "Everyone is okay, but we need to get you out of here fast."

"How on Earth did you find this ship?" Julia asked, her gaze moving across the bridge of the Franklin now that they had a moment to catch their breaths. "When we honed in on your signal, we couldn't figure out what we found until I detected the projection field. It's genius."

"It's not our doing," Mary confessed, not about to take credit for that feat of magic. "I didn't know what Krall intended to do after he took us hostage, and some of the civilians were starting to get nervous." She exchanged a glance with Sani and Holly, issuing a silent order to ignore Thalia Rostov's part in her escape. There would be time for that later. "I was worried someone would let my relationship with Chris slip, and Krall would try to exploit it. When they were moving us from the ship that brought us here, the three of us and Lt. Alice Jagera ran for it. We managed to use the woods to hide before I found this ship. I don't know what happened to Alice."

No one spoke, but everyone assumed the worst.

"That explains why Josiah's com badge signal was at another location," Vin exchanged a glance with Julia, understanding the reason for their sensor scans in light of Mary's explanation.

"Do you know where the others are?" Holly asked.

"Approximately," Julia said. "We tracked his signal to an underground location about ten kilometers from here. We can only get a transporter lock on his combadge. Some interference in the structure prevents us from reading the others clearly. We could have beamed him up, but that would alert the Entropy to our presence."

"Yeah, we didn't want to tip our hand until we figured out what to do next."

"Krall is ruthless," Mary stated bitterly. "If you just got Josiah, he'd kill the others out of spite. We've seen what they do to hostages."

"Mary, the Entropy is the Franklin's crew," Vin explained, suspecting she would find that truth difficult to believe even after discovering this relic from a different era.

"I know," Mary said quickly, ignoring their surprise at the revelation. "We found the ship's logs. I'm not sure how, but they've found a way to stay alive by draining life force."

"Life force?" Vin gaped at her.

Throughout their discussions about the Entropy, one question remained elusive. How did the alien cells in their host's bodies sustain themselves? Now Vin understood why Malak was so reluctant to reveal the truth. How would Chris have taken it if he knew there would be no negotiating with the Entropy for the return of their missing crew? Vin dreaded Chris's reaction if he for one moment suspected that Mary, Josiah, and everyone taken was fodder for the Entropy's continued immortality. Chris Larabee could be utterly ruthless when provoked and this would be reason enough to drive him to extremes.

"Oh my God," Julia's shock mirrored Vin's horror.

"That's why they took all of you," Vin whispered. "You weren't hostages. You were livestock."


Once both parties exchanged information on what they knew of the situation, Vin had a clearer idea of how to rescue their comrades. Given what they knew about the Entropy, Vin decided they couldn't wait for the Maverick to arrive on Altamid to rescue the hostages. God only knew how many hostages the enemy would use to sustain their longevity, especially if they had no intention of honoring any agreement with the Maverick to return its crewmembers,

"We can't wait for the Maverick to get here," Vin stated firmly, prompting nods of agreement from the group.

"That's easier said than done," Julia reminded, never one to be a pessimist, but they had to face cold, hard realities. "The runabout won't take that many people, even if we could transport them."

"What if we bring them here?" Holly suggested. "At least they'd be safe from the Entropy for a while."

"We can't assume that they won't know how to find this ship if they get in their mind to locate it," Vin reminded. "Remember, they're the ones who abandoned it in the first place. If we grab Josiah and the others without the Maverick being in orbit, they'll know we're hiding somewhere on the planet and start searching the place more thoroughly."

A grim possibility, Mary thought, and also a real one, which left them with the same problem. "So what do we do?"

"It's too bad this ship won't fly." Holly let out a frustrated sigh. She had never felt so helpless in her life. What good was a captain's yeoman at a time like this? She wanted to contribute but couldn't think of how. As it was, her outburst embarrassed her. Didn't Sani already say this ship was nowhere near spaceworthy? Even then, she didn't need to be an engineer to see that the Franklin was in no shape for such a feat.

Everyone expected Julia to balk at the suggestion, except the Chief Engineer didn't.

Instead, she lapsed into silence and walked away from the group, her chin raised as she examined the derelict bridge with greater scrutiny. Her expression became thoughtful, and both Vin and Mary realized Julia was giving Holly's initially preposterous suggestion some thought.

"Chief?" Sani called after her, also familiar with his superior's habits.

Julia paused before a workstation, its panels and displays blinking with light and activity. She studied the readings carefully.

"Sani, did you run a check on the engines when you were trying to power up the Franklin's systems?"

"Yes, Chief. The main engines are functioning. We found the body of someone who remained on the Franklin after the crash. From the looks of it, she spent her time scrounging for parts to repair and maintain the ship's systems. She was trying to get it off the ground, but I took a look at the anti-matter reactor. The ship is down to one cracked dilithium crystal. That might have been enough to keep the lights on but not enough for launch, especially from a cold start."

"Do you seriously think you can get this ship flying?" Mary asked incredulously.

"I'm not making any promises," Julia replied, wanting to manage expectations on what was possible. "Not until I see what we've got to work with. Sani, you and I will run a complete diagnostic of this ship, the propulsion systems, the anti-matter core, everything. We need to know what shape she's in for me to try what I've got in mind."

"She looks fine structurally," Vin recalled what they saw of the ship once they penetrated the projection field used to hide it from trespassers. "The nacelles are intact, and we didn't see any major damage on the hull other than the weathering."

"She probably fried all her systems during the trip through the Gagarin Belt. Those older circuits weren't built with the safeguards we now have. It's no wonder the dilithium crystals were compromised."

Vin nodded in agreement with Julia's assessment.

"Landing here would have been their only choice. With one crystal, they could barely keep the ship powered, let alone cross the distance to get home. Without the wormhole, it would take the Maverick six months at high warp to reach the outskirts of Federation space. It would have taken the Franklin years, if not more, to make that trip. I can understand why they abandoned the ship and took their chances on the planet."

"Won't they come after us if we leave?" Holly asked the obvious question.

"They will," Vin wasn't about to lie about that. The instant the ship lifted off, the Entropy would know it. "But we don't have to go far, just long enough for the Maverick to come get us. It will be easier for the Maverick to get everyone off the Franklin in open space, than in orbit around Altamid."

"But you said this ship has only one dilithium crystal," Mary pointed out.

"I did," Julia nodded, "but if the anti-matter reactor isn't compromised, we can transfer the crystals on our runabout to the Franklin's dilithium chamber. Remember, this ship is almost two hundred years old. They were used to operating on much less refined crystals than the type we now use. Our crystal would provide the reaction needed for the anti-matter engines to function at maximum capacity.

"Let's confirm that," Vin said now that they had the outline of a plan. "Once we do, we'll need to get Josiah and the others here. We can use his com badge to track him, but to get the others, I'm going to have to get down there with a transponder beacon and set it up so the transporter can get a lock on them. We'll have to get them all out at once."

"I can do that," Mary volunteered. "I'll get them on the runabout and then transport them to the Franklin since Julia and Sani will be needed here."

"It's a plan," Vin gave her a look of gratitude for her assistance. "Now, let's go get our people."


Something was going on.

Josiah wasn't sure what, but it had the Entropy guards assigned to their cells distracted. Less than an hour ago, klaxons had started screaming. Unlike the shrill sound made by the Maverick's alarms, the Entropy version sounded like a bellowing horn and reverberated throughout the walls like the earth itself was quaking. The noise mobilized the Entropy. Josiah could hear them hurrying past, their movements urgent as their footsteps pounded into the distance.

"What do you think happened?" Taro, who had remained close to him since Krall's last visit, asked.

"I'm not sure," Josiah admitted, wishing he could offer the boy better news. Josiah suspected the sudden excitement had something to do with the Maverick, but what that bode for the prisoners in this room was unknown. Thalia Rostov had said little since Josiah's rather harsh rebuke. The wide berth the remaining hostages were giving her indicated they, too, were unimpressed by her behavior.

There was nothing to do at present but wait, with everyone taking the pause to catch their breath. The younger children were curled next to the teenagers or the few civilian adults taken in the Entropy's sweep. Josiah wondered if Mary, Holly, and Sani had made it. If they had been recaptured, Josiah had no doubt their Entropy captives would have made a big show of it. The lack of news gave Josiah hope that their missing crew was still at large, although how long they could last in the rustic terrain, he had seen worried him.

A familiar hum that could not possibly be under the circumstances suddenly filled the air. At first, Josiah thought he'd lapsed into sleep and was dreaming, but when everyone else reacted to the shimmer of light, he realized it was real. Josiah jumped to his feet, his eyes darting to the doorway. Only one guard was on watch, but the sound would be distinct enough for him to investigate.

Josiah sprinted across the room, even as the transporter beam materialized in the middle of the cell. As anticipated, the hum attracted the attention of their jailor. The door slid open a split second after Josiah took a flanking position next to the entrance. By now, the figure in the middle of the beam was already beginning to form enough features for Josiah to recognize who it was. Before the guard could take advantage of the lapse between full materialization, Josiah emerged from his hiding place by the doorway and slammed hard into the man's side.

The Entropy guard, taken by surprise, stumbled sideways, dropping his gun. The weapon clattered across the floor out of reach. Before he could recover enough to retrieve it, Josiah closed in again, throwing a punch across the man's jaw. Around him, the room broke into pandemonium at the erupting fight. The Counsellor did not consider himself a skilled combatant, but he knew how to throw a punch, and Josiah delivered the most brutal blow he could manage. His knuckles ached from the impact, and he hoped the strike would disorientate his enemy long enough for the person in the transporter beam to arrive safely.

It did not.

The guard took the blow as if it were nothing. While Josiah had surprised him earlier, his opponent was now prepared for the assault. He shook off the punch like a dog shaking off water and glared at Josiah angrily. Launching himself at the Counselor, he would have brought them both down if not for the sudden burst of energy that struck him in the flank. Uttering a cry of pain, he collapsed against the floor with a hard thud. A gasp of relief moved through the room that Josiah shared as he turned to the shooter.

"Thanks for the help, Counsellor."

"Good timing, Lieutenant." Josiah grinned broadly as he approached Vin Tanner, like everyone else in the room.

"I could say the same for you," Vin returned before turning to the bodies crowding in on him. "Everyone, hold on for a minute. I'll answer your questions soon enough, but we're still in trouble. Josiah," Vin retrieved the spare phaser from his belt and handed it to the Counsellor. "Follow me."

Josiah didn't argue as Vin left the excited group of captives and stepped out into the hallway beyond the cell. No other guard was in sight, but that didn't mean they were safe.

"Stay by the door and cover me," Vin instructed as he went to the door panel and aimed his phaser at it. "We need to disable the door, so they can't get in. We've got a runabout waiting to transport everyone out of here, but it's going to take a little time. "

"I understand," Josiah nodded and felt silent for a moment. He'd ask his questions once their cell was secured.

Vin activated the door's closure just as he blasted the control panel into scrap. As soon as the doors started to close, both he and Josiah hurried back into the room before they sealed completely. The low hiss of hydraulic gasses abruptly ended with a loud, dull thud. Vin did not doubt the noise would alert the Entropy guards, but the minutes it would take to unseal the doors was time he intended to put to good use.

"Okay," Vin exhaled loudly and looked at the group of civilians, mostly children and a few adults. Their faces were lit up with fear and expectation, and after the terror Krall subjected them to, he couldn't blame them for their anxieties now that escape was so close. "We're going to start transporting all of you out. We're using a transponder beacon to get a lock on you because there's some interference due to you being underground. It has a range of five meters, so you have to get in close. Children first."

Ignoring the questions bombarding him, Vin took the hexagon-shaped device, setting it on the ground before activating the button in the center of its casing. A strobe of iridescent blue energy spread across the floor like someone had aimed a spotlight in the middle of the room.

"You heard the man," Josiah addressed the group. "The youngest first."

As the captives moved into the range of the beacon, Josiah saw Thalia assisting the Maverick's youngest crew members into position. He met her gaze across the floor and saw the contrition on her face. When they returned to the Maverick, he'd have her into his office to talk about all this.

"Mary," Vin tapped his com badge as the first group was ready to transport. "Have you got them?"

"Mary?" Josiah exclaimed. Another surge of relief flooded his being at the sound of the protocol officer's voice. For one terrible moment, Josiah had thought they would have to leave Mary, Sani, and Holly behind to escape. Then again, considering how resourceful the woman could be, it would not surprise Josiah if Mary had some hand in their present rescue.

Vin didn't immediately answer Josiah as Mary's voice responded through the com badge. "I've got them. Transporting them now."

As the whine of the transporter was heard, Vin turned back to Josiah. "It's a long story, but Julia and me found Mary, Sani, and Holly. We've got a plan to get you all out of here and meet up with the Maverick."

"The ship is safe?"

"Last time I looked, although I'm thinking that we won't be staying around once all of you are on board," Vin hoped he wasn't wrong about the Maverick's state. He hadn't risked trying to contact the ship in case the transmission was being tracked in any way. As it was, Vin left the runabout hovering below the enemy's sensor range, concealed in the trees. "There's a story behind these Entropy you're not going to believe."

The sudden blast of weapons from the other side of the door sent panic through the crowd. However, the impact didn't penetrate the thick steel of the door. To keep the group from descending into further panic, Josiah shouted at Thalia.

"Keep going!"

The woman nodded quickly, determined to show she could help instead of being a hindrance by gathering the captives into groups of five for their departure.

"Okay, Counsellor," Vin threw Josiah a smile. "Just like that old movie, Nathan made us watch about the two outlaws and the bank. It's up to us to hold them off."

Josiah stared at Vin in exasperation. "Vin, the outlaws in that movie DIED."

Chapter Twenty-Six:
The Price

"Buck! I mean, Commander! On your left!"

Adam's warning came as an Entropy dart flew right at the runabout Pecos. Almost on reflex, he banked hard, pulling out of the enemy ship's path as it attempted to blast him out of the sky. His craft performed three rolls before Buck hit the thrusters and flew up the dart's rear, firing all phasers as he did so. The streaks of amber crossed the narrow gap between them quickly. The dart's hull flared briefly with angry red heat before the entire ship exploded in a ball of fire. By the time the runabout flew over the space it had occupied, nothing was left but debris and solar dust.

"Thanks for the heads up, kid," Buck complimented before he checked his sensors to see the state of the Maverick.

The starship was still keeping the Entropy from inflicting the same damage it suffered during its first engagement with the enemy swarm. Chris wanted to give Vin all the time he needed to get clear of the battle and, more importantly, reach Altamid without notice. If the Maverick and their small air wing could keep the swarm busy long enough, Vin might even be able to slip beneath the range of the Entropy's terrestrial sensors.

Another flare of light at the corner of his eye made him look up to see one of the shuttles besieged by at least three darts. They were attacking the ship with the ferocity of hyenas tearing apart a carcass. Glancing quickly at his sensor readings, as Buck flew to the pilot's aid, he could see its shields starting to buckle. A couple of more hits and the shuttle would be wide open. It was the Kefler piloted by Jewel Chun.

"Jewel, transport to the Maverick now!" Buck ordered, seeing the Kefler fast approaching complete destruction.

"Aye, Sir!"

She sounds scared, and Buck couldn't blame her. The kid was a good pilot, but nothing in her experience prepared her for a fight like this. Hell, he couldn't even remember the last time he was in an old-fashioned dogfight. Hopefully...

Before he could finish the thought, a fourth dart came out of nowhere, but this one did not waste time trying to penetrate the hull with more volleys of blaster fire. This one slammed into the small craft at full speed. With the Kefler's shields already hanging on by a thread, the collision was nothing less than devastating. The shields buckled, and the two ships impacted against each other in a brilliant flare of white followed by the antimatter shockwave. The blast radius threw the remaining darts off course.

"JEWEL!"

"Maverick, did you get her?" Buck recovered from his outburst long enough to ask.

"No, Sir," Rain's voice was devoid of its usual spirit, and Buck didn't have to be in the room with the Transporter Chief to know how emotional she had to be to make that admission. "There wasn't time."

Buck swallowed thickly, forcing away his emotions and the memories of the young lady with the bright smile filled with the eager joy of her first starship commission. "All pilots, be aware these sons of bitches aren't above going on kamikaze runs to take us out. Keep an eye on your flanks. Just because they aren't firing doesn't mean they're not coming after you."

"Don't worry, Buck. That's the last free shot they're getting," Adam stated, and something was disconcerting yet familiar by his assurance. He's his father's son, Buck thought with an inward smile.

Adam's shuttle, the Garibaldi, flew past his bow, firing at the enemy while at the same time performing a corkscrew maneuver that made it nigh impossible for the enemy darts to get a target lock. Energy spewed forth in all directions, taking out at least four darts as the Garibaldi swept past them like a rolling dervish. However, his success attracted the attention of the other darts, and Buck saw them converging on him in a ring.

"Drew! Kate! Help the Garibaldi!"

Buck gave the order as the Pecos shuddered from another battery of energy bolts. A trio of darts had him in their sights and were trying to attack him the same way they had destroyed Jewel's shuttle. Fortunately, the runabout had more shielding than the Kefler, not to mention maneuverability. He dropped the nose of the Pecos and dove straight down, his engines firing at maximum. The sudden burst of acceleration freed him from the kill zone and allowed him to detect the fourth ship that had attempted to sneak up on him. No doubt, this was the strategy used to end Jewel's life.

"Better luck next time," Buck said before firing his phasers.

The enemy exploded in front of him, but Buck couldn't pay it any more attention than that. More ships were trying to converge on the Maverick, despite Chris's insane antics at the helm. It was good that Vin wasn't around to see what Chris was doing to the starship. Buck suspected the helmsman might need a sedative if he did. The shuttles were doing their best to fend off the attack, but they couldn't keep up the defense indefinitely. They were too few and the enemy too numerous.

"Get clear, kid!" Buck heard Drew Katovit, Ezra's trusted second in command, through the comms.

Adam's ferocious attack, not to mention his superior piloting skills, had made him a target. As he flew the Garibaldi away from the kill zone the enemy had formed to trap him, Buck saw the Cole, Drew's shuttle, lay down enough firepower to ensure the Captain's son had a way out. Flanking him was the Ivanova, piloted by Kate Stokes. She covered Drew from enemy fire as the more darts pulled away from the starship and focussed on the smaller ships protecting the Maverick.

"You okay, Adam?"

Buck didn't know if Chris was listening in but suspected the Captain had probably opted against it. Chris had enough on his mind trying to keep ahead of the swarm to be distracted by his worries for his son. Even so, Buck did not intend to allow any harm to come to the boy. He would never forgive himself if Adam were hurt on his watch.

"I'm okay," Adam replied, a little less cocky than he had been. Buck suspected that the near misses reminded Adam of the high stakes they faced. "Just a little singed."

"DREW! ON YOUR RIGHT!"

Kate's frantic cry made Buck turn sharply to his scope, and even if he didn't see it with his own eyes, he could imagine what was happening.

Out of nowhere, a dart, concealed by the others, sped up and flew straight into the Cole's hull. It struck with such force the shuttle spun on its side, energy spewing from ruptures across the duranium. It looked like a Catherine wheel spinning across the black canvas. To Buck's horror, the cockpit window shattered in the split second before the entire craft tore apart. If explosive decompression didn't destroy the ship, the hull ruptures did, and the Cole lit up like fireworks.

"Oh my god," Buck heard Kate's choked voice and knew she was saying those words through tears.

Buck swore under his breath because Drew Katovit had been a good officer and friend. He had been on board the Maverick since it left Space Dock. It hadn't been long since they had been drinking at Four Corners, celebrating Drew's recent engagement. Jesus, Buck thought. How was Chris going to tell Kara about this?

"This is the Captain," Chris Larabee's voice filled the Pecos and sounded more hollow than ever. "All ships return to the Maverick. Repeat, all ships return to the Maverick."

"Chris," Buck tapped his combadge, talking while trying to dodge enemy fire. "Are you sure?"

"I'm not losing anyone else."

"Alright," Buck nodded, understanding that sentiment. "You heard the Captain! All ships return to the Maverick!"

No sooner than he issued the order, Buck saw the remaining shuttles, all five of them heading towards the Maverick's landing bay. Like the rest of his comrades, Buck leaned over the cockpit controls and adjusted the Peco's shields to generate the frequency required to allow it to penetrate the Maverick's deflectors. Another blast struck the hull, and though the deflectors held, he knew the sustained fire would soon buckle it. If not, all it would take was another ship to lay in a course for collision, and not even his shields could avoid overload.


Chris looked over his shoulder at tactical when the Cole was destroyed.

Ezra Standish stood at his console, continuing to work the Maverick's firing controls despite the pain they all knew he must have felt. While not a senior staff member, they considered Drew a friend, especially Ezra, who mentored the young officer since his arrival on board the Maverick. Maintaining his poker face, Ezra never faltered in upholding the Maverick's defenses, even as they watched the Cole disappear from the battle like an exploding star.

The situation didn't even allow the bridge to observe a moment of silence, not when alert klaxons continued their shrill cry of alarm as the ship fought off the Entropy swarm. Condition red warnings still flashed across the functioning displays while the computer continued to provide unwanted commentaries of the battle. Each time the Maverick was struck, a calm, dutiful voice reported the status of their dwindling shields.

Despite their dire situation, the Maverick continued to hold its own against the enemy. Thanks in part to the Captain's superior piloting skills and because this time, the Maverick was prepared for the enemy's attack strategy. While the small group of ships blunted the ferocity of the Entropy attack, the cost had been high. Three shuttles were lost in the battle, and Drew Katovit's death had been particularly cutting.

Nevertheless, Ezra kept his composure amidst the loss of his friend. With the same skill he used when dealing cards, the Chief ensured the starship provided the air wing with as much support as possible. Chris suspected Ezra was forcing himself to stay focused, so they lost no one else. Meanwhile, Alex, who stood next to Ezra at the science station, reached over and squeezed his shoulder in sympathy. Alex understood all too well what it was to lose a trusted friend and comrade. Chris saw her grief when they retrieved Charlotte Richmond's body from the bottom of turboshaft 5.

"Incoming transmission from Krall!"

JD's announcement intensified the high tensions across the bridge even further. Everyone exchanged quick glances despite the chaos around them before staring at the Captain in anticipation of his response.

"This ought to be good," Chris drawled in a low voice. "Put him through JD."

Krall's face appeared a second later. The human-alien hybrid wore that same mask of hatred, although this time, it lacked the supreme arrogance of their earlier communications. Perhaps Krall realized the Maverick was nowhere as vulnerable as his posturing had indicated.

"So," Chris said, showing no signs of weakness. "Ready to surrender?"

The Captain's audacity boosted his crew's morale. Even if they didn't win the day, they wouldn't go down easily.

"This useless posturing will not change the outcome of your imminent defeat," Krall bit back, his ire clearly showing the Captain's words struck home more closely than he liked. "How long do you think you can stay like this, Christoper?"

"As long as I need to get my people back," Chris only engaged with Krall because he was stalling for time. Right now, all that mattered to Chris was ensuring the air wing returned safely to the Maverick's hangar bay. After Drew's death, Chris was losing no more lives today. As it was, the number of dead was already too much.

"Then surrender. You don't have to fight for a Federation that will not care what happens to you if you die out here. Surrender and I may consider leniency."

"Leniency?" Chris had to give the son of a bitch credit for his gall. "I'm not the one who launched an unprovoked attack under the guise of treaty negotiation. I'm sorry, Edison. I'm sorry you and your people got lost out here, but that doesn't give you the right for anything you did today. If you at all honored what you fought for as Captain Balthazar Edison, you would know that."

"BALTHAZAR EDISON IS DEAD!"

"Bullshit," Chris bit back, not holding back now that any pretext of negotiations had been discarded. "He's still there, burning alive with hatred and rage. Life dealt you and your crew a poor hand Edison. I've been there, but you've aimed that anger at the wrong target. You were a Starfleet officer, and risk is part of the game. We fight for something better than ourselves, to protect something worth defending, and sometimes Edison, we lose. That's not the Federation's fault. That's life."

Behind him, Alex kept her voice low and out of the Captain's earshot as she watched the progress of the air wing's return to the Maverick. The Garibaldi made it back first, and Alex wasn't surprised that Buck ensured Adam reached the Maverick ahead of everyone else. He was the only pilot in the air wing who wasn't Starfleet. The kid was a hell of a pilot, though. She watched his expert navigation of the Garibaldi through the enemy ships, weaving and diving to escape their fire and brutal air tactics.

By now, the Entropy concluded the air wing was retreating and was doing everything they could to destroy the Maverick's crew before the shuttles and Buck's runabout could reach safety. After Drew's end, Alex was not about to let that happen. Tapping her controls lightly, she accessed the plasma ejection system.

"Ezra, give me a single phaser shot when I eject the plasma exhaust."

Ezra glanced her way long enough to realize what she intended and nodded. "I can certainly oblige you."

Even though he showed no signs of it, Alex didn't miss the deflated tone of his voice. It pained her that he couldn't express his grief at Drew's loss because the Maverick needed him to do his job. She would have said something to him, but this was not the time. Their priority was getting their friends back on board the ship. They would mourn Drew more appropriately when they were all safe.

"Buck," Alex tapped her com badge. "I'm venting plasma. Divert all power to your shields. Our ships can take the blast. I'm betting those darts can't."

"Good thinking, Commander," Buck's answer came through another burst of static.

Without being in the runabout, she knew it had suffered another hit from a dart. She had to get this done before the enemy fire overloaded the shields of the smaller crafts. Usually, she would have run this plan by the Captain first, but he was parlaying with Krall, keeping the man talking while the shuttles tried to slip through the swarm's offensive. Fortunately, Alex knew her Captain well enough to be sure he would support any plan to save their crew.

Keying the final sequence into the controls, Alex watched through the small display as the green plasma gas escaped the Maverick's vents and filled the dark space near the stern with an emerald-colored cloud. As the ship continued forward, the shuttles, one by one, flew through the thick fog, with enemy darts in close pursuit.

"On my mark," Alex told Ezra, who was also watching his display. The gas fog continued to pull away from the Maverick, even after the shuttles and runabout passed through it to begin their approach to the landing bay. As anticipated, their shield modulation allowed them to pass through the Maverick's defenses even as the darts raced after them, disappearing into the cloud.

"Now."

Ezra's poised finger tapped the tactical controls just once. A bolt of amber energy flew from the Maverick's phaser turrets, detonating in the heart of the cloud. The explosion that followed was spectacular, enough so that the flare could be seen through the domed window of the Maverick's bridge. Even Krall could see the blast from his ship. The white light filled the view screen, flashing across his face as it dawned on him what had just happened.

"We're all on board, Chris!"

"What have you..." Krall started to sputter, but Chris stopped listening after Buck's announcement.

"JD cut transmission!" He ordered, having no patience to listen to Krall any further. Balthazar Edison was gone, Krall was not wrong about that, and Chris had extended the last olive branch he would ever afford the man. "Ezra, deploy the ablative armor!"

"Aye, Sir," Ezra had been waiting for that order when he registered the docking of Buck's runabout on the hangar deck.

Chris returned his attention to the helm, discontinuing their current trajectory towards Altamid. They would make this journey again but on their own terms. Right now, he had to get his ship away from here. Banking hard, the viewer showed the Maverick veering away from the swarm and the planet. The Nekron Cloud Nebula lay ahead, and if Chris could get the Maverick there, the starship could hide indefinitely until they heard from Vin and Julia. On the viewer, Chris saw the enemy ships regrouping and surging after them in relentless pursuit.

"Ablative armor deploying."

Within seconds, the Maverick's hull disappeared under the thick ablative plating designed to protect Federation ships from the Borg. In this instance, it would ensure Krall's suicide runs against the Maverick would cause no further damage. Not that Chris had intended to wait that long. Earlier, they had been taken unawares by the ferocity of the Entropy's attack strategy. This time Chris was using every tactic he had to ensure the safety of his ship and crew.

Beyond the bridge, he could hear the dull thud of the Entropy ships bombarding the Maverick with all the firepower they could muster to break through the ablative plating. None of it would penetrate, but Chris couldn't afford to deplete the Maverick's energy reserves by using the armor any longer than they had to. This was just the distraction to let Vin slip through to Altamid. They still had a rescue to carry out.

"Alex, we're going to warp."

That was all the warning he needed to give her as he punched the commands into the helm controls. This was the plan long before the battle had begun.

Alex tapped her com badge to reach the entire ship. "All hands, brace for maximum warp."

No sooner than she said the words, the ship roared as the Maverick lurched forward. On the view screen, the stars suddenly became streaks of light rushing past them at warp. Judging by how quickly the swarm disappeared from their scopes and the pounding rhythm of the engines as it increased power, Alex suspected the Captain had blasted out of the battle at warp nine. For a few seconds, no one spoke as the alert klaxons began to taper off.

We did it, Alex thought. The plan succeeded. Yet as she turned to Ezra and saw the pain the Chief was finally allowing himself to feel, Alex couldn't help but mourn the heavy price they paid for it.

Chapter Twenty-Six:
Phoenix

With Julia and Sani busy getting the Franklin ready for launch, it was only fitting that Holly waited at the dilapidated transporter room on board the ship, preparing to welcome more visitors.

Mary Travis was on board the runabout, performing a technological sleight of hand by transporting a handful of captives at a time. Leaving them in the pattern buffer for a cycle after transporting them to the Brazos, she then redirected their patterns to the Franklin. Holly stood in the transporter room for a few minutes, with its dusty walls and panels, vegetation growing in some places, and insects occasionally chittering across the deck, feeling her gut knot in anticipation. Only when she heard the transporter's comforting hum, albeit a pitch or two higher than what she was accustomed, did Holly relax.

The youngest members of the Maverick were the first to appear on the deck of the Franklin, somewhat bewildered and still scared. The children recognized her as the Captain's aide. That might as well translate into being the squire to their knight in shining armor, Chris Larabee. Holly didn't mind, and it served if it meant them obeying her as they might do the Captain. Besides, Holly was thrilled to contribute something since she felt like a fifth wheel in this rescue effort.

Once they were on board, Holly took the children to the Franklin's mess hall, filled for the first time in centuries, and fed them ration packs. It was the only space large enough to hold all of them and gave everyone a view of the outside world. After days of confinement, it lifted their spirits. Leaving some of the older children in charge, she went to receive more rescued crewmen.

The latest group to arrive included Thalia Rostov and some adults, including Fedir Bondarenko, father to Oleg Bondarenko, one of Julia's engineers. Fedir had come on board with his son to help care for Oleg's young daughter Nyura after her mother's passing during the Battle of Sector 001. He was a big jolly man with a thick beard and even thicker eyebrows that made you think he'd climb down your chimney in December. Fortunately, little Nyura had not been taken, but that didn't stop Fedir from obeying Mary and Josiah's instructions to keep the children calm.

"This is an NX class ship!" Fedir exclaimed as he examined the transporter room.

"Yes," Holly nodded. "It is. How did you know?"

"I am an old Starfleet navigator. These ships were still commissioned when I was a cadet at the Academy."

Holly's eyes blinked. "Okay, hold on to that thought because we might need your help later. Can you find the mess hall from here?"

"Oh yes," he nodded. "I can do that."

"Good. I've collected all the ration packs I can find, so there's food if you're hungry."

"I'll help too," Thalia said contritely.

There was a decided look of shame about her, and Holly didn't have it in her heart to be unkind. Not now. "I'd appreciate that."

Mary's voice suddenly filled the air. "Holly, I'm sending Josiah back. The minute I do, Vin and I will head back. Tell Julia to get ready to make the transfer."

"I will," Holly's eyes lit up with gratitude that their rescue plan had gone off without hurting any of their crew. Once Mary's voice faded, anyone still on the transporter pad moved off it quickly. The energized platform hummed to life as the latest pattern started to form before them. For a few seconds, the room was a glow with amber light before the shape of Josiah Sanchez appeared, looking somewhat flustered, a phaser in his hand.

"Josiah!" Holly burst out with delight, hurrying to hug him, decorum be damned.

"Hello," the big man said with surprise as he hugged her back, still recovering from the sudden change in environment. "It's good to see you."

"Are you alright?"

"Yes," he nodded and looked up at everyone, his relief at seeing the others in the room evident. "Everyone made it?"

"We're all here, Counselor," Fedir said before Holly could. "Thanks to you, Lt. Travis and Tanner."

"I just made sure we didn't end up like Butch and Sundance," Josiah muttered, thinking back to the firefight in the last few minutes before their escape. Once the Entropy regrouped, they assaulted the doors like an army of Visigoths attacking the walls of Rome. Vin had been the last to transport, providing enough cover fire once the doors had been breached so Josiah could escape. "Did Vin make it up to the ship?"

"Sure did Sundance,' Vin's disembodied voice chose that moment to be heard. The channel between the combadges remained open, allowing Vin to continue communicating with the counselor, which was especially useful during their fight with the enemy. "Holly, can you check the landing bay and see if it's clear? When Julia and I took a pass at the doors, the holoprojector hid it, but I need to know if it's clear so we can bring in the runabout."

"Sure thing," Holly was happy to help out and saw the volunteers ready to assist if the path wasn't clear. "We'll get it done."

"Alright then," Vin replied. "Once I get the runabout back to the ship, we can get off this planet."


The landing bay of the USS Franklin was nowhere the size of the Maverick's, but the ship's unknown guardian had taken precautions to ensure no one stumbled across it during its long sojourn on Altamid. Like the entrance Mary Travis stumbled into, a holoprojection field had been generated so anyone outside would see another rock formation. Yet the hologram was not a force field. It wouldn't prevent animals from stumbling through it by accident.

Starship landing bays did not have doors and utilized force fields to protect them from a vacuum. As a result, a barricade had been erected consisting of crates, furniture, and anything large enough to serve the purpose. The patchwork barrier was sturdy, held together with tree logs and branches where necessary. Josiah, who led the clean-up, wondered about the person who guarded this ship for so many years. For the sanctuary she provided the Maverick captives, they needed to honor her, even if it was posthumously.

Once the opening was cleared, the runabout sailed into the Franklin's landing bay. It crushed whatever debris they hadn't removed from the dismantled barricade. Only Josiah waited for Vin and Mary to appear after the craft set down. Holly had ushered the civilians to the mess to join the children waiting anxiously for their departure. Considering how rocky that journey would be, Josiah didn't want them to be alone.

"Mary!" Josiah hugged Mary when she emerged from the runabout first. He hadn't seen the lady since she made her escape bid, and though Vin told him she was alright, Josiah still felt relieved seeing it for himself.

"I'm so glad to see you!" Mary laughed, giddy with delight at finding him alive. She had been terrified that Krall might take her escape out on Josiah, the most senior member of the Maverick officers among the captives.

"Likewise," Josiah grinned broadly. "I must admit, when you said you were coming back with help, I didn't quite imagine this." His gaze swept over the landing bay and the ship around them.

"It's still a long way to the Maverick," Mary reminded. "I just got us away from a cell. We haven't escaped yet."

As she spoke, Vin jogged down the ramp of the runabout, not pausing as he headed towards the door. "I'm going to get these dilithium crystals to Julia!"

"Dilithium crystals? Josiah stared at Mary in explanation since Vin had already disappeared out the door.

"Julia plans to fire up the main engines with the dilithium crystals in the runabout," Mary explained as they started out the landing bay and stepped into the corridor beyond. "She and Sani have been repairing the Franklin's main engines. The ship has been running on one damaged dilithium crystal since it crashed here. The woman who looked after the Franklin hoped to repair it enough to leave Altamid."

"You think this ship can really fly?" Josiah's skepticism showed.

"It's the only way we can all leave this planet," Mary explained, unable to blame Josiah for his doubt. Outwardly, the Franklin looked like the wreck it was, but the lack of cosmetics hid the painstaking work conducted by the ship's mysterious caretaker. "From what Vin told me, Chris kept the Entropy busy so the Brazos could sneak through the planetary defenses to locate us. If we can get the Franklin in the air, the Maverick won't have to penetrate Krall's defenses to rescue us. Besides, Krall may have access to alien technology we can't even begin to imagine. I hate to think what he could have in store for the Maverick if Chris tried to reach us here."

"True," Josiah nodded, understanding the man a great deal more now that he knew the truth about Krall. Since this all began, the one thing Josiah couldn't understand was the level of contempt Krall held for his captives. While the enemy was always expected to display some form of hostility, Krall's enmity seemed more profound. Much like Chris Larabee, Josiah now understood why. "We represent everything he and his crew have had to turn their back on. They hate us because they were us."

"Not just that, but we are what the Entropy needs to sustain their immortality. Honestly, Josiah, I rather take my chances on a long shot than play it safe and risk getting cannibalized while we wait for rescue."

When she put it that way, Josiah couldn't disagree.


"Make sure you monitor the power regulators," Julia told Sani as she stood by the warp reactor controls. "These old relays may not handle the power influx from the newer crystals. The last thing we need is to burn them out. We have to regulate the power flow incrementally to see what she can handle."

"Aye, Chief," Sani nodded in understanding, fixing his gaze on the instruments now that he had been given that instruction.

"Alright," she took a deep breath and stared at the warp reactor, humming pleasantly in its pre-launch initialization. As soon as Vin had given her the dilithium crystals from the Brazos, Julia had been busily configuring the Franklin's systems to accept the new power source. She only wished she could have met the person who worked so hard to restore these engines after the starship's crash. While some of the repair work was definitely unorthodox and bore little resemblance to Starfleet methodology, Julia recognized the skill behind it. It certainly made powering up the main engines a good deal smoother.

"Vin," Julia tapped her combadge. "We're bringing the main engines online."

Vin, who was now on the bridge with Mary and a handful of others, replied promptly. "Okay, but to get out of this shelf, I'm going to have to hit the thrusters hard, and you better tell Sani to hang on to something. There's only one way to get this bird into the air, and it will be rough."

"The ship can manage thrusters but stay on impulse control for as long as you can. I can't guarantee hull integrity if we go to warp."

"If we're lucky, we won't have to use it very long. Can you give me at least five minutes of warp speed?"

Julia didn't answer immediately, wishing the diagnostic tools of this ship were a little more precise. From what she had observed when the Brazos penetrated the cloak and sighted the Franklin, the hull mainly appeared intact. However, Julia knew micro-fractures could exist, and they were almost impossible to detect with better sensors than they had right now. She studied the readings one more time and decided she would have to go with her gut.

"Yeah, I can give you five minutes of warp, but no more than Warp 2. Anything more than that, and we're risking a hull breach."

"I hear you."

With that, Julia turned her attention to the controls in front of her. She exchanged a glance with Sani across the deck floor. Both of them acknowledged their next course. Sani stared at the power regulation instruments in front of him, and Julia began the business of bringing the Franklin's engines back online. With careful control of the flow switch, Julia gradually powered up the main reactor. The reactor chamber quickened, and the familiar engine drone became sharper as Julia raised the power levels.

Across the Maverick, dormant systems hummed with renewed life. The main computer celebrated its return by flooding the empty hallways and corridors, sitting in darkness for centuries with light. Circulated air wafted throughout the ship at the presence of new life signs while panels blinked and chirped with giddy delight. Like a sleeping giant stirring from a deep sleep, the Franklin left its dark dream of ruin to take its place in the waking world.

"All systems are go," Julia announced with a grin, her eyes lighting up at the sight of engineering's rejuvenation. "How are things looking over on your end Sani?"

"The relays are holding, Chief," he flashed an equally bright smile. "They seem to be handling the increased power flow well."

"I'm not surprised," Julia admitted, still scrutinizing the engineering controls. "An old engineer once told me that even if the designers didn't have the most advanced technology, they built each component with every safeguard imaginable, not to mention increased capacity. In deep space far from any Starfleet starbase, a ship would have to make do with what it had, so they built everything on board to last."

"That's a good thing for us."

"Yes, it is," Julia agreed, seeing the power levels on her console flash green. "Vin, primary engine power has been restored. You're good to launch."


On the Franklin's bridge, Vin, and Mary had been hard at work configuring the controls for its eventual departure from Altamid. During the ship's turbulent arrival on this world and through the Gagarin Belt, many of the consoles and terminals had been ruined by energy spikes and overloads. Only three or four of the workstations had survived the landing. Vin was sure helm control would have been left unscathed since he couldn't imagine the ship setting down in this position without some direction from the Conn.

He was correct in the assumption that helm control was in good shape, other than the need to replace a few burnt-out components.

Meanwhile, Mary was working on restoring the deflector controls. She knew the instant the Franklin powered up the impulse engines, the Entropy would detect their former ship, holo projection or not. It wouldn't surprise Mary if the ship's guardian masked the slight readings given off since its crash landing.

However, while slight readings were easy to conceal, it would be impossible to hide the ones produced by a fully operational impulse engine.

"How are you doing, Mary?" Vin asked from the Conn.

"I'm done," Mary climbed out from beneath the deflector control station. She stood up and dusted the dirt off her dress. Strands of blond hair hung around her face, escaping the twist Mary knotted into a bun to keep it out of her eyes. There were smears of old grease and dirt on her cheeks, and she looked far removed from the graceful woman who often mediated warring factions at the negotiation table. "For what it's worth." She patted the panel with affection.

"Every little bit is worth something," Vin complimented and glanced at the navigation station. "How about you, old timer? You got the lay of the land yet?"

Fedir Bondarenko had offered his assistance as navigator, and Vin had accepted the help. It took a little time for the retiree to get familiar with the controls of an NX class ship, but once his memory returned, he handled the navigation station expertly.

"It's been a while since I've had to fly an NX-Class ship, but it's like riding a bike. You never forget how." He capped off this statement with a booming laugh, and Vin wondered if Alex would mind terribly if they adopted him.

"What about you, Josiah?"

The Counsellor was at the com station, having had enough Starfleet training since coming on board to know how to operate shipboard communications as well as learning how to transmit messages. Josiah looked up after running through the instructions the helmsman had given him earlier. "I'm ready."

"Good. Let the folks down in the mess know they better get strapped in. We'll have to dive down this canyon to get the velocity to climb out again. That will be a hell of a ride, with g-forces that will make you lose your lunch or pulverize you if you're not careful. The anti-gravs on the Franklin isn't going to make much of a difference."

"Understood," Josiah did not look forward to the experience and strapped himself to the seat he was in before he did anything else."

"Alright then," Vin saw no reason to delay once he and the rest of the bridge crew did the same. "Let's fire up this bird."

Placing his palms against the old-style throttles at each handrest of the Conn, Vin brought the main engines online. Beneath them, the old deck plates began to shake, and earth quaked beneath the craft. Through the view screen, they saw trees and soil ripped away from the land by the force of the roaring engines. The Franklin lurched forward with a sudden jolt as it started to move. Debris and dirt accumulated from hundreds of years were blown away as the ship edged towards the shelf it had used as its home since arriving on Altamid.

Beneath them, the canyon didn't seem so deep when considering what they were about to do. Vin supposed it was some consolation that if he failed to pull the ship out, the death that followed would be so quick none of them would know what hit them until it was all over. The Franklin's advance over the edge felt painfully slow and yet terrifyingly swift as well. Vin gripped the controls tightly, watching open air suddenly surround them.

"Oh my God, I hope this works!"

Vin heard Mary cry out and couldn't blame her as the saucer section of the Franklin tipped over the edge, giving them a bird's eye view of the ravine and the jagged bottom that waited to obliterate the ship if this gamble failed. He couldn't afford to feel such fear when it was up to him to keep everyone alive. Was this how Chris felt all the time? Vin wondered a split second before the Franklin plunged over the edge and dove down the walls of the cliff in what almost felt like a free fall.

While everyone was probably offering silent prayers to whatever deity stood at the center of their faith, Vin's eyes were fixed on the readings of their speed, racing towards terminal velocity. The ship was still shuddering violently, gravity and speed after years of inert activity taking its toll. When it seemed like the bottom was almost upon them, and they were seconds away from death, Vin shouted the order Fedir had been waiting for.

"THRUSTERS NOW!"

Fedir's palm slapped against the panel, proving age had not slowed him down one damn bit. With an explosive burst of sound that deafened all of them, the Franklin's thrusters fired. Vin pulled back hard on the controls. Fighting the gravitational forces refusing to give up its prize, the Franklin banked hard, just short of crashing against the deadly canyon floor. She swooped down and then started climbing sharply, escaping the ground's death grip to soar.

Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

Chapter Twenty-Seven:
Rendezvous

To avoid the Entropy, Chris flew the Maverick into the dense center of the Nekron Cloud.

Within the mists of swirling plasma, turbulent waves of ionized gas, and gravimetric forces, the Maverick could remain concealed from the enemy until Vin's signal gave the starship reason to emerge. After the Maverick entered a holding position, Chris relinquished the helm for his command chair, leaving the conn to one of the junior helm officers for the time being. He'd take up the station after they received word from the Brazos about the location of the captives.

The senior staff needed rest, but no one wanted to leave while the ship was on yellow alert. Though the klaxons were silent, the status bars on every display indicated the Maverick was at tactical. Yet the tension hung heavy in the air, and no one was immune to it.

Alex spent her time fine-tuning the astrometric sensors, temporarily serving as the Maverick's main sensor array, which was destroyed during their first engagement. Although she seemed focussed on the work, Chris knew she had to be worrying about Vin. How could she not be when Chris was just as preoccupied with thoughts about Mary and Josiah? When Vin and Alex married months ago, Chris worried about how they would work together as husband and wife, especially under conditions like these. Where did the line exist between their professional and personal relationship? Fortunately, a situation had yet to surface where it had become an issue.

On any other day, Chris would not be able to read Ezra Standish. Ezra was the most guarded person on board the Maverick. Today, however, his stoic mask couldn't hide the grief Ezra felt at the loss of Drew Katovit. Drew had been a junior officer when he arrived on the Maverick almost two years ago. Through all the missions and crises the Maverick had weathered, Drew had been there, ensuring Ezra's exact standards for the ship's security remained constant, even in his absence. Ezra relied on Drew, mentored him, and considered the young officer the bright star of his Security team.

More than anything, Chris wished Josiah were here because the Counsellor would know the right things to say. God knows Chris didn't.

JD seemed a little more relaxed now that the air wing was back on board the Maverick. Buck's survival preyed heavily on the young lieutenant during their engagement with the Entropy. It didn't escape Chris's notice just how anxious JD had been. Buck had become the boy's family since JD came on board, which pleased Chris to no end. In truth, he'd asked Buck to take charge of JD because Chris knew his old friend too well. Buck was at his absolute finest when someone needed a guiding hand and friendship. JD's mother, Jennifer Dunne, had done the same for him when he was a terrified ensign serving under her for the first time. Much of the captain Chris became had much to do with Captain Dunne's influence.

The doors to the turbo lift hissed open, and Chris sat up straight in his chair and looked over his shoulder.

"Buck!" JD burst out, unable to contain his joy at seeing the First Officer return to the bridge. Next to Buck was Adam, engendering a similar emotion from the master of the vessel.

"Permission to return to my station Captain," Buck said after giving JD a knowing wink.

"Sit your ass down, Commander," Chris grinned. "It's good to have you both back."

"Thanks, dad," Adam smiled happily at his father as Buck took his usual place on the bridge.

Chris didn't bother with professional decorum and hugged his son because, until now, the fear of losing Adam in that fight had been something he kept at bay. Now that the danger to Adam was over, he could admit just how terrified he had been, and that emotion was hard to contain. He hugged his son, this gift of fate, and thanked all the deities for his safe return.

"You did good out there," Chris complimented, and had to admit, JD had not exaggerated when he said Adam was a great pilot.

Adam's expression dropped, and he shook his head. "Not good enough," he glanced at Ezra, who showed his pleasure at their return with a little smile, but not enough to hide his sorrow at the lives lost. "I'm so sorry about Lt. Katovit, Chief. He saved my neck out there."

Ezra swallowed thickly, "I expected no less from him."

It was all the Chief would say on the matter for now. Ezra gave them an approving nod of acknowledgment before facing his workstation again. He wanted to bury his pain in his work before his emotions spilled over in an unacceptable display.

"It's good to have you back, Commander," Alex said from her chair. "It looked ugly out there."

"It was," Buck nodded sadly. "We lost good people."

"We did," Chris agreed. "We'll mourn them appropriately when this is all over. I promise you that." He made that statement not just for Drew Katovit but also for Jewel Chung and Charlotte Richmond. Their loss diminished the community of the Maverick, and it was a wound everyone would carry.

"Any word from Vin?" Buck asked.

"Not yet," Chris said, "but it's early days."

"What about the Entropy? Did we lose them?"

"Yes, we did," Alex answered for Ezra, who was understandably preoccupied. "Once the Captain took us to high warp, we lost them. The cloud density is quite thick in this area with radioactive particles capable of confusing sensors."

"They probably guessed our trajectory, but unless Krall is prepared to come in and look for us on his own, I'm guessing he's traveling with his armada to get here at light speed. That will put him at least a day away."

"So we have that long to hear from Vin?" Buck nodded in understanding.

"Captain!"

JD's cry startled everyone on the bridge.

The navigator was excitedly staring at them once he had their undivided attention.

"What is it?"

"I've got an incoming transmission from Lieutenant Travis. Audio only, riding a tachyon pulse."

For a moment, Chris almost didn't believe it. Hope flooded his chest at the thought Mary was reaching out to him until his natural suspicion reminded him this could be a trick. The enemy was out there, hunting for the Maverick, and it wouldn't be beneath Krall to use the hostages to lure them out. Still, he couldn't keep from hoping Vin and Julia succeeded in their mission to find the missing Maverick crew.

There was only one way to find out.

"Let's hear it."

JD nodded and faced front, fingers flying across the communications console before the message played for its captivated audience.

"This is Lt. Mary Travis hailing the USS Maverick," Mary's voice echoed through the room following a burst of crackling static. "I can't transmit this message for long because I can't be sure the Entropy isn't tracking us, but do not approach Altamid. Thanks to Lieutenant Tanner and Pemberton, all the hostages except for two casualties have been rescued. We are presently on board the USS Franklin. Julia has managed to repair the ship's main engines enough for us to leave the planet. We are about to hit warp 2 but cannot maintain that speed for more than five minutes without suffering a hull breach if Ruy Lopez is correct. If you hear this message, we are making our way to the wormhole. We hope to rendezvous with you there. Lt. Travis out."

For a few seconds after the message faded, no one could scarcely believe it.

"Who the hell is Ruy Lopez?" Buck had to ask the obvious question.

"Ruy Lopez isn't a person," Ezra spoke up. "Is it Captain?"

All eyes turned to the Captain.

"No," Chris shook his head, a little smile forming on his lips. It was just like Mary to come up with such a simple but brilliant way of telling him this was no ruse. "It was her opening move the last time we played chess."

"Outstanding," Adam said with admiration. Chris touched his shoulder as they shared a moment of relief, knowing the woman they both cared for was safe, at least for now.

"Good way to let us know it's safe," Buck added.

"But the USS Franklin? That's gotta be a wreck!" JD stared at them, unable to believe that a two-hundred-year-old derelict could still fly.

"It's possible," Chris wasn't about to discount it.

"I agree," Ezra said, perfectly aware of what his Julia could do when properly motivated. "No doubt the Franklin would have sustained considerable damage when it came through the wormhole, but she must have been intact enough to land on the Altamid for the crew to escape the ship."

"I agree," Alex tossed in. "The Franklin might not have been in any condition to return home, but it might be intact enough to make a short trip, especially if Julia works her magic on it."

"We'll get those questions answered later," Buck turned to Chris. "What are your orders?"

Chris didn't answer him immediately, choosing to tap his combadge. "Engineering, this is the Captain."

"Yes, Captain," Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu responded automatically as the bridge crew wondered what was on the Captain's mind.

"What's the status of our cloak?"

"It's operational, Sir."

"Acknowledged," Chris nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Captain out."

'Captain, is that wise?" Ezra had to ask once the Captain's attention was back on the bridge. "If we utilize the cloak, we will be unable to raise shields."

"You're right, but it will help us sneak out of this cloud and get as close to the wormhole as possible without being seen by that swarm," Chris said. "The cloak was no good to us when we were fighting them, not with that many ships in the air, but we've got to reach the wormhole in one piece and in reasonably good shape. The Franklin might have warp power, but she'll be vulnerable when that swarm closes in on us."

"Agreed," Buck nodded. "I'm amazed they managed to get the thing off the ground. Our best bet is to get to them and transport everyone off the ship before the Entropy takes us apart."

"It's a much better chance than we would have had trying to remove them from Altamid," Alex pointed out, her spirits lifted now that she knew Vin was alive and well.

Chris took his seat at the command chair and gestured to Adam to sit in Mary's usual spot. After what Adam did to help the Maverick today, the kid had earned the right to remain on the bridge for a while. Besides, it wasn't the first time.

"Alright, everyone. Looks like we got a rendezvous to make. Let's go get our people back."


The Franklin shuddered at the near miss of another energy blast prompting Vin Tanner to glance at the ceiling to see if the cracks he imagined forming along the walls were really there.

To no one's surprise, the Franklin's departure from Altamid did not go unnoticed. As the starship escaped the atmosphere and climbed into open space, the Entropy's planetary defenses detected them almost immediately. While Vin could sneak past them earlier in the Brazos, no such stealth was possible with several billion tonnes of starship. Even with their restored shield function, the Franklin's race to rendezvous with the Maverick would be dangerous.

Their enemy was not about to let them go without a fight.

So far, Vin managed to avoid the terrestrial artillery, but it was almost certain the Entropy on the surface would contact Krall to appraise him of the situation. There was no way the Franklin would withstand an assault from the enemy armada. Another volley of amber energy flew towards the starship, and Vin banked hard using the starboard thrusters. The ship tilted at a 45-degree angle and allowed the enemy fire to pass along the underside of its starboard section.

Close enough to singe the hairs on your belly, Vin thought absurdly.

"Did you get the message away?" Vin hollered at Mary, who was gripping the sides of the communication terminal where she had been working.

"Yes!" She shouted over the sound of detonating blasts. "I think so."

More detonations followed, and the ship rocked around them, but the blasts soon became distant and the shudders less. When the view screen revealed the stars ahead, despite the distortion and cracks along the glass, Vin knew the Franklin was now past the range of the planetary weapons. So far, there was no sign of the swarm. With any luck, the armada was still searching for the Maverick elsewhere. Either way, Vin couldn't take the chance of running into them.

"Julia, we've cleared the planet. Are we ready for warp?"

"As ready as she'll ever be," Julia responded from engineering, where she and Sani kept a vigil on the old warp reactor. "Remember, no more than five minutes. I can't guarantee structural integrity. The dilithium crystals may have given this lady some life, but a runabout's power input is nothing like a starship's. We need to be careful not to overload them."

"I hear you, mom. I won't take my bike out of the yard."

"MOM...!"

Vin cut the transmission off, grinning.

"Young man," Fedir smiled at him from the navigation station. "Did your mother never teach you not to anger redheads?"

"Have you met his wife?" Josiah remarked.

Fedir broke into that booming laugh that was so infectious it had them all chuckling despite the situation.

"Josiah, if you please." Vin smiled at the older man.

Josiah, who had never participated in combat situations, was pleased to lend assistance on this occasion. "All hands, brace for warp speed."

Josiah's voice sounded soothing even when he was alerting the ship to their changed battle conditions. Vin exchanged a glance with Mary in silent acknowledgment of her suggestion for Josiah to make the announcements. Facing front again, Vin punched in the commands for warp and prepared for light speed. Then he gripped the throttles on his armrest and pushed up in one smooth, steady movement.

The ship lurched forward violently. However, the burst of propulsion and the shudder everyone felt gave way to the sight of the Franklin entering warp. Even the static and the cracks on the viewer could not diminish the brilliance of the vessel as she exploded into warp. The stars rushed past them as if the Franklin were caught in the tail of a comet. Propelled forward, she surged ahead with abandon, leaving Altamid far behind.

Around them, the familiar pulse of the warp engines hummed louder, beating with a steady rhythm. The drone sounded healthy, at least for now, and just like the Rutherford, Julia had breathed enough life into the Franklin to fight one last battle.

"The warp field is stable," Mary reported from her station. Usually, this would be Alex's duty, and she wished the science officer were here instead. "So is our hull integrity. The shields are keeping any structural stress to a minimum."

"Good," Vin nodded. However, he still wanted to conserve shield power as long as possible. When the swarm caught up with them, they would need every gigaquad of it to survive until they reached the Maverick.

The helmsman suspected that right now, they were only at the eye of the storm.

Chapter Twenty-Eight:
Belly of the Whale

The only evidence of the Maverick's departure from the dense center of the Nekron Nebula was a slight shimmer in the clouds of dust and radioactive particles.

She gave no other indication of her presence as she sailed into open space, like the submarine skirting the ocean floor in long-ago battles. Both long and short-range sensor sweeps revealed no one present when she slipped out of hiding, with cloak engaged. Fortunately, the expanse of the nebula was vast, and the swarm was still hours away. When Julia examined one of the darts, she discovered its lack of a warp engine. The dart appeared to be short-range vessels whose primary systems were dedicated to weapons and speed more than shields and warp capability.

It made some tactical sense and explained the Entropy's attack plan. With their numbers and ferocity, the Entropy could take a larger enemy apart before they could mount enough of a defense to fight back or hit warp. It almost worked with the Maverick. They would all be dead now if not for the special modifications the Maverick possessed to combat the Borg, such as the cloak and the ablative armor.

Krall's ship probably possessed a warp engine, but Chris doubted he would travel without his armada. When Krall arrived, he would most likely search for the Maverick close to the nebula's heart. As any good starship captain would know, it was the best place to avoid detection. With any luck, by the time Krall learned the truth, the Maverick would be well on its way to make the rendezvous with the Franklin.

"Any signs of the Entropy?" Chris asked from his command chair. For the moment, there was no need to take the helm. A junior could do the job well enough until they got Vin back or until they ran into the swarm again.

"Not at this time," Alex, at her station, shook her head in response. "The skies ahead are clear."

"I think you were right, Chris," Buck said, looking at the view screen ahead. "They're still en route the old-fashioned way."

"Let's hope our luck holds."

"I am uncertain if we are in Lady Luck's favor during this affair," Ezra frowned. Drew Katovit's loss still hung heavy on him, and his typical witty snark had been replaced by more doom than anyone needed to hear right now.

"Easy, Ezra," Buck gave him a look to keep such talk to a minimum for now. Morale was low enough without the junior officers seeing the senior staff losing hope.

"My apologies," Ezra dropped his gaze to his console, embarrassed by the display. Usually, maintaining a stiff upper lip was part of his trade, but Drew's death hit him hard, and not even his gambler's facade could hide it. "I meant to say I hope our good fortune does not mean that Krall and his ilk are turning their attention to the Franklin."

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of," Chris was forced to agree, thinking along those lines himself. Instinctively, he turned to the helm. "Helm, increase our speed to Warp 7. We need to get to them fast."

He no sooner gave the order when Nathan Jackson's voice filled the bridge.

"Captain, I need to see you in Sick Bay immediately."

Chris exchanged a quick glance with Buck, who detected the same urgency in Nathan's voice he did. The Captain tapped his combadge to reply. "I'm on my way."


While the Maverick struggled with the Entropy, Nathan had spent the time in Sick Bay, trying to understand the nature of the alien cells that kept Malak, once Lt. Mae Crosby, alive for the past two hundred years. With the promise of being returned to Earth, Malak had cooperated enough for Nathan to risk confining him to Sick Bay, behind a security forcefield and two guards maintaining a vigil.

Throughout that time, Malak had taken only a little food in. Nathan supposed his reluctance at accepting a chicken sandwich might have to do with the fact that he'd been severed from Earth cuisine for two centuries. However, as the hours ticked by, Malak's condition took a turn for the worse. His physical appearance displayed gauntness, with his cheeks sinking and dark circles forming around his eyes. Lethargy and fatigue followed, prompting Nathan to conduct another scan of Malak, and the results were troubling.

The alien cells were deteriorating and taking the human ones with them. Malak was dying, and Nathan had no idea why.

When he questioned the former lieutenant, Malak had no answer, but Nathan had enough experience with patience to realize he was being lied to.

Before Nathan called the bridge, Malak had tried to sit up in bed, only to collapse against the floor. Nathan deactivated the force field and Ensign Carver, one of the two security guards keeping watch, rushed in to help. No sooner than he reached Malak and dropped to his feet to help the man lying face down on the floor, Malak leaped back to life. The prisoner grips the front of Carver's uniform, his fingers digging into the man's chest.

When Malak's fingers seemed to glow, Nathan didn't know what was transpiring, but Carver started spasming in pain. Everyone in Sick Bay was momentarily stunned at Malak's palm pressed against Carver's chest, snaring him in a death grip. Lt. Mejer reacted swiftly once the shock had dissipated, although Nathan suspected the officer would reproach herself for not acting faster when this was over. She drew her phaser and fired once. The stun bolt struck both of them simultaneously, and they collapsed on top of each other like puppets with cut strings.

Nathan rushed in to examine both men, still trying to wrap his brain around what happened in his sick Bay. He finally understood as he turned over the unconscious duo and stared into their faces.


Chris and Buck arrived at Sick Bay to find Malak on a biobed along with Ensign Carver.

Both were still unconscious, but Carver's appearance shocked the Captain. He'd seen the young officer only hours earlier in the hallway. Carver was a six-foot-four Black man who always looked as if he was whistling a happy tune in his head. When they talked, it was about football, which Carver played at the Academy. Now the young man looked emaciated. His pallor was grey, and his skin hung off his bones.

"What the hell happened to him?" Chris demanded, not wasting time on pleasantries when he reached Nathan.

"Malak," Nathan said grimly. The results of his tests had produced a most unfortunate answer. "Malak did that to him."

"Malak?" Buck's eyes widened. Malak might look alien, but Carver had about a foot of height on the Entropy warrior. "How?"

Nathan exhaled loudly. "By stealing his life force."

Both senior officers stared at Nathan in shock, but Chris spoke first. "I want a better explanation than that."

"That's the closest I can come to giving you one, Captain," Nathan stiffened in annoyance. "The alien cells need life force to sustain themselves. Don't even ask me how it works, the science is beyond me, but Malak's condition was deteriorating, and I didn't understand why. When he collapsed, we lowered the force field to get to him, but he latched onto Ensign Carver and drew what I can only assume is life force energy because Malak improved a little, and Carver, well, you can see what it did to Carver."

Captain and First Officer turned instinctively to the Ensign on the biobed.

"Is he going to be okay?" Buck asked worriedly.

"I think so," Nathan nodded, taking a quick glance at the readings on the biobed's display. "Fortunately, Lt. Mejer reacted fast and halted the process before it got too far. Carver's life signs are weak, but we can repair any damage caused. I'm not sure how much time his connection with Carver bought Malak, but if this is how the Entropy stays alive, then we've got a problem."

To Chris Larabee, the 'problem' was more significant than Nathan could imagine.

Now that Chris understood the full measure of them, he realized this wasn't about swarms of ships that could destroy starships but the fate of any captives taken by the Entropy. Now more than ever, he was grateful Vin had succeeded in rescuing Mary, Josiah, and the other hostages. The Entropy needed life force to sustain their long lives, and the capture of Federation citizens was how they intended to do it.

"Captain to the bridge," Chris tapped his combadge.

"Aye, Captain?" Alex replied promptly from the bridge where he'd left her in command.

"Take us to maximum warp. I want to get to the Franklin as soon as possible."

"Yes, Sir." Alex did not need to question the order, not when she recognized the urgency in the Captain's voice. Something had changed, and he wasn't obliged to explain it to her until it was required.

Buck and Nathan stared at him in puzzlement as the warp engines hummed louder around them. They could feel the power through the deck and the walls around them.

"We can't let them reach the Federation. It's not just territory they want. It's people. We can beat them back if they attack Federation territory, but anyone captured alive before we get there won't last long. They'll either end up like Carver or, worse yet, get turned into whatever Malak is now."

Buck's expression darkened, and something about that statement stabbed at the First Officer. It reminded him of the only time he wanted to die. "Like the Borg."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Like the Borg."


The sharp alert that whined through the bridge of the Franklin caught everyone's attention. Save Josiah, they knew what warning was being issued, but it took Fedir at navigation to voice it out loud.

"Proximity alert," the former navigator threw Vin a sidelong glance. "I'm detecting ships on approach."

They had emerged from warp speed a reasonable distance from Altamid, with the spacial phenomena of the wormhole visible through the viewscreen. As of yet, there was no sign of the Maverick, but Vin expected that. After the battle to allow the Brazos to slip through the Entropy armada to reach Altamid, the starship would have fled the scene or risked sustaining more damage. If he knew Chris's mind, the Captain would have taken the Maverick into the densest part of the nebula, where they could hide to await Vin's signal.

"How long do we have?"

"Fifteen minutes," the older man replied, and Vin didn't have to look at him to hear the anxiety in his voice. Vin couldn't blame him. The Franklin was in no better condition to face the Entropy armada than the Maverick.

Vin stared at the wormhole whose aperture was a glowing eye surrounded by a maelstrom of gas, rock, and other stellar material, the flotsam drawn from the vortex on the other side of it. He knew just as well as Fedir, Mary, and even Josiah that there was no way they could defend themselves against the enemy assault. Yet they had to survive long enough for the Maverick to reach them, and Vin knew that Chris was on his way. His faith in the Captain allowed him to believe nothing else.

"What kind of shields have we got?"

"Now that we've disengaged the warp drive, we've got 50 percent shields, but they won't stand up to those ships. You know their attack pattern. They'll attempt to collapse our shields by overloading it like they did the Maverick."

"I don't mean to fight those sons of bitches off," Vin clarified. "I mean to get closer to the wormhole. Can we get there without the hull tearing apart?"

Bewildered by what he intended, she glanced down at the instrumentation and then looked up. "I think so."

"Okay," Vin nodded before he increased power and steered the ship towards the wormhole, the image of which grew larger and more prominent in the view screen as they closed in on it. "Those ships are smaller. The gravimetric forces from that wormhole will mess them around more than us. That might give us a little more time."

Mary and Fedir stared doubtfully at him, but neither could fault his logic.

"It's a plan," Mary said after a pause, but her tone implied she didn't think too much about their chances.

"If you got a better one, I'm listening. If it's a choice between the wormhole and the Entropy. I'll take the wormhole. Besides, the wormhole will just kill us. These sons of bitches intend to drain us one by one like cheap Saurian brandy."

"Do it."

Josiah spoke after remaining silent until now because he was somewhat out of his depth. But he also knew Vin Tanner, who never asserted himself, was stronger than duranium. Vin was the only person on board the Maverick who didn't flinch under the harsh power of the Larabee glare. Chris Larabee not only considered Vin, his best friend, but he was also Vin's mentor, and Josiah had faith in the Vulcan's ability to learn quickly.

"If you think this is what we must do, we're all behind you."

Vin gave Josiah a slight nod of gratitude before facing front again.

"Distance to intercept is closing," Mary announced from her station. "They may have figured out we're heading towards the wormhole and increased speed. We don't have fifteen minutes anymore."

Vin didn't waste any time, pushing the engines even harder. Around them, the old impulse engines hummed louder in protest, not ready for this much exertion after two centuries of slumber. Around them, the hull groaned loudly, and Vin anticipated he would soon hear from Julia demanding an explanation for what he was doing to her ship. The screen became filled with more than just the wormhole ahead of them. Large chunks of rocks the size of moons drifted in front of them, some of which had enough mass to pulverize the Franklin into solar dust if the ship collided with it.

One gigantic asteroid hovered before the mouth of the wormhole, having attained enough mass to seem immune to the expulsion of energy and debris escaping the vortex. It remained defiantly in place, and even without hearing Mary's analysis, Vin knew it was perhaps just a little smaller than Lunar, Earth's moon. Vin altered the Franklin's trajectory, pouring more power into the engines. Around them, the ship's hum became a loud drone.

"Lieutenant, what are you doing?" Fedir asked beside him. "You are heading straight for that big asteroid."

Even as he made the statement, the asteroid on the screen loomed larger and larger until the formations on its surface started to sharpen with clarity.

Vin didn't answer. He didn't have time to. The journey towards the wormhole while fighting all the radiation and various energy forms exuded by the exit threatened to sweep the Franklin off course and straight into the Entropy's arms. Not to mention, Vin had to avoid all the smaller asteroids and space debris that could overload their weakened shields. He knew the strain he was putting on the engines, but he had no choice. This had to work if they were going to survive until the Maverick's arrival.

"Ten minutes to intercept," Mary said tautly, not about to question Vin's course at present. He had a plan, she couldn't fathom what it was yet, but like Josiah, she had to believe he had one, or they would all die.

"Vin, what the hell are you doing?" Julia's voice demanded from Engineering. "The shields can't take the stress. We can barely keep the engines running. If they get overloaded, I can't divert any power to the deflectors."

Even as she spoke, they could hear the shudder throughout the ship each time something collided with the shields. So far, they were holding, but everyone on the bridge knew the Franklin could not endure this battering for long.

"That rock is getting pretty close," Josiah said, transfixed with fascination and horror as the asteroid in front of them took up the entire view screen.

Vin continued to ignore the noise around him, focussing on the asteroid.

"Vin, we're less than a hundred kilometers from collision!" Mary cried, her nerve giving way at last. Judging by the way Josiah was gripping his seat, Julia's demands for answers, and Fedir's warnings about the body's gravitational pull, she wasn't the only one who was just as anxious. Meanwhile, Vin continued to fly towards it, oblivious to the fearful reactions of his comrades.

"WARNING! COLLISION ALERT!"

The computer wailed through their ears, heightening their anxiety even further.

By now, the pock-marked surface of the asteroid became clearer, and Mary could see serrated peaks that resembled mountain ranges, deep canyons, and gorges that ran across it like veins. She also saw craters, and a thought occurred to her then. Like cold water splashing across her face, Mary understood what Vin intended all along. As if rewarded for her realization, the Franklin chose that moment to pull up sharply before it crashed onto the surface. Mary gripped the edge of her console when she lost her balance.

Instead of sending the Franklin back into space, Vin kept the starship close to the surface, no more than a few hundred meters above the ground. A ship this size had no business flying that close to any stellar body, but Vin, like Chris Larabee, was an extraordinary pilot. The Franklin skimmed across the face of the asteroid.

"The Entropy will intercept us in three minutes," Mary said, suspecting Vin's plan would reach fruition before that happened.

"What...." Josiah started to ask when suddenly the mouth of a narrow canyon appeared on the view screen.

It resembled the angry scowl of a Klingon. With narrowly parted lips and jagged teeth, it looked like a terrible gash across the gray-white terrain of the asteroid. Yet when they closed the distance, its dimensions grew much wider. Wide enough for a starship to hide for a time.

"Mary, how deep is that canyon?" Vin spoke finally.

Mary was already scanning to answer that question. "At least five kilometers deep."

"Good enough," Vin said. "Let's hope the anti-gravs hold up."

Without another word, Vin flew the Franklin into the canyon's depths. As the darkness swallowed them whole, Mary thought of Jonah, only they were choosing to enter the belly of the whale.

Chapter Twenty-Nine:
Minotaur

I am unaware of the bell and drum announcing the break of dawn.

In my dreams, I am a joyful butterfly, carefree.

Su Dongpo - 11th century AD.

Once upon a time, he was a starship captain.

He could remember standing under the heat of a Californian afternoon, surrounded by friends and family, celebrating his captaincy, even if it had been unexpected.  All his life had been spent defending Earth as a soldier.  The transition to Captain left him uncertain.  Still, the future remained bright.  Humanity was expanding in all directions thanks to the formation of the United Federation of Planets.  His sacrifice and many other MACOs during the wars with the Xindi and the Romulans gave birth to a new era of peace.

Standing on one of the manicured lawns of the newly erected Starfleet Command facility, the view from Hayes Gardens was breathtaking.  The sunlight bounced off the Pacific, sparkling across the water like diamond dust.  At the same time, the Golden Gate Bridge stood guard over the city.  His family had come in from Pennsylvania to celebrate the day.  He remembered his father's pride, his mother's usual reminders to eat appropriately, and the laughter of his younger brother Jonah.  It felt good to be alive that day, knowing he had helped to build this new world.

Sometimes Krall wondered if it had all been a dream.

Perhaps Captain Balthazar Edison only existed in his mind, fragments of a life that felt more and more like fantasy than memories of the past.  A philosopher whose name Krall couldn't remember anymore once claimed to have dreamt he was a butterfly and, in waking, wondered if he was the dream of a butterfly.  Krall often pondered if he existed only in Edison's mind until his reflection in the mirror told him the awful truth.  Edison would never dream of him because Krall was a nightmare.

The others had forgotten their memories years ago because the pain was unbearable.  It was the only way to cope with the reality of their existence.  To continue living, they had to feed on others.  Most of them had been Starfleet officers with a strict code of morality.  A few could not break it and paid with their lives.  The others were now too ashamed to remember what they had been.

But that was in the beginning.  Now the Entropy ranks included more than just the original Franklin survivors.  Others had joined once he learned how to command the technology left behind by Altamid's original masters.  No one knew what became of them, but Krall ensured their works were put to good use.  Using the vast network of factories existing in subterranean caverns, he built ships and populated them with captives of invaded worlds.

The Entropy, using the wormhole in the Gagarin Belt, reached civilized worlds and offered its people a choice.  Face an invasion they would lose, or provide a tribute of flesh.  Just like King Minos demanded of the seven young men and women of Athens for sacrifice to the Minotaur, Krall demanded they surrender a few so that the many may live.

In the end, the weaklings always surrendered.

Some joined the Entropy but most refused and suffered the consequences.  It mattered little to him, his people needed to survive, and if some semblance of Balthazar Edison still existed, it was his devotion to protect his own.  He promised to keep them alive, and he would.  No matter what the cost.

"They disappeared."

"They are hiding," Krall said coldly, not looking at his second in command, Manas, but fixed instead on the brilliant starscape surrounding the wormhole.  Asteroids hurtled around it languidly, riding the energy waves released by the vortex.  "Our old friend cannot go through the wormhole without being torn apart, and they can't face us, so they are hiding.  Probably waiting for the Maverick to arrive."

Manas nodded in agreement and studied his console.  "I can't locate them. They're not anywhere near the wormhole."

"They wouldn't be. You know the condition of the Franklin after we came through.  It won't be able to withstand the gravimetric forces a second time.  We survived because we had full shields but even then, our hull integrity remained barely intact.  As talented as their engineer might be, no repairs can make the Franklin capable of entering it again.  Concentrate your search on asteroids.  Find me a big one."

Manos tried not to think of the days when he served on the Franklin.  To recall their arrival in this system would lead to more unpleasant memories.  Memory was a treacherous thing.  One minute you were wandering down a pleasant enough place of sounds and warming sights.  Before you knew it, you were surrounded by the grief and anguish of losing a wife or a son.  Or the possibility they would look at your face and recoil in horror.  No, Manos had no need of any of that.  Best to forget.

His terminal flashed simultaneously and offered an enthusiastic shrill of discovery.

"There!"

The screen magnified the image of the wormhole at least twenty times its standard view, and floating before the phenomenon was an asteroid.  Its large size attracted smaller rock fragments to it until it created a ring around it.  Kraal leaned forward in his chair and examined the spatial body for a few seconds before he leaned back, satisfied.

"Direct all our ships to open fire on that asteroid and scan for any opening large enough for the Franklin.  We'll blast them out of their foxhole."


It was good while it lasted. Vin Tanner sighed when the first blasts were heard past the hull of the Franklin.  In truth, he didn't expect his gamble to last very long, and it had always been a desperate ploy to stave off the inevitable, to begin with.  Nevertheless, hearing the enemy ships bombarding the asteroid's surface above them still felt disappointing.  He'd hoped they'd been able to hold out longer before discovery, but then again, Krall wasn't just another alien attacker.  He was once Balthazar Edison, a MACO soldier promoted to starship captain.  He didn't get that rank by being easily duped.

"How long do you think it will take them to break through?" Josiah asked once he dropped his gaze from the ceiling to the bridge again.

"A while, but that's not what I'm worried about.  Those ships are going to come after us in here."

"Should we try to leave?"

"No," Vin shook his head. "We've got enough shields to keep their darts from damaging us too badly, and they don't have a lot of maneuvering space, so they can't send any more than a handful after us.  We've got forward weapons, so our best bet is laying down suppressing fire when they come at us in a frontal assault."

"Vin," Mary spoke up. "We should be prepared for them trying to board us."

"As they did with the Maverick," Fedir nodded in agreement next to Vin.

Vin thought quickly. The Franklin's shield was barely functional in the impending assault.  It would be further weakened, creating enough gaps in its strength to permit a transporter beam.  Considering most of the Maverick's crew were children, such a possibility would be disastrous.  Tapping his combadge, he did the only thing he could come up with to eliminate the threat.

"Julia, I need you to go to the Brazos and get the transporter inhibiter."

 Julia responded a split second later from engineering.  "What?"

"Get the transporter inhibiter and bring it to Engineering.  We have to keep those bastards from beaming us right off the ship."

"I'm on it," she answered without hesitation.  Yet even as he heard her footsteps running out of Engineering towards the landing bay where the Brazos was presently docked, Julia still had questions.  "But why Engineering?"

"You need to be near the ship's engines, and I'll send everyone to you." He glanced at Josiah, who immediately caught on.  Even as Vin spoke to Julia, Josiah was already contacting Holly at the mess hall to instruct her to get everyone to engineering.

"We'll be ready for them!"

No, we won't be, Vin thought silently, even as he heard the increased bombardment against the surface of their hiding place. But I ain't making it easy for them to get us.


"Detecting enemy ships!"

"Where?" Chris sat up straighter in his command chair at hearing Ezra's announcement from tactical.  Ahead of them, the stars still rushed past the view screen as the Maverick sped towards the wormhole at maximum warp.

"Near the wormhole, but they seem to be holding position."

Chris exchanged a glance with Buck, who occupied Vin's seat at the Con.  "How many?"

"At least 50 darts, including Krall's flagship."

"Any sign they've detected us?" Buck asked.  Although the Maverick was cloaked, there were too many unknowns about the Entropy's technology for him to make any assumptions.

"Not at this time, but their attention is focused on the wormhole." The security chief's expression appeared confused by this fact.

Chris had a worrying suspicion about why that might be.  "Any sign of the Franklin?"

This time it was Alex who responded from her science station.  "No, Captain, I can't locate her signature."

"Captain, the enemy ships are opening fire!"

"On what?"

"On an asteroid," Alex replied.

"Buck, take us out of warp. Ezra, maintain our cloak."

As both officers carried out his order, the warp field surrounding the Maverick dissipated, and the stars seemed to slow from their race across the screen to lie still.  Instead of a vast empty starfield, the Maverick was now confronted by the sight of the wormhole looming over the expanse of asteroids and ships hurtling through space.  Even without sensors, enemy ships were easily seen.  The Entropy ships clustered around an asteroid the size of a small moon, bombarding it with so much firepower angry red lines of molten rock crisscrossed the superheated surface.

"Alex...."

"Already scanning, Sir," Alex spoke without looking up at Chris, pre-empting his question.

"What are they doing?" JD voiced the unspoken thought of most of the junior officers on the bridge.

"Trying to crack an egg," Chris answered, staring at the screen with an idea of why that asteroid might provoke the Entropy's wrath.  If he were right, it was a course he might have taken himself if the Franklin had managed to get this far with an armada in pursuit.  It wouldn't save the ship for long, but it could give them enough time to wait for the Maverick's arrival.

"I don't understand...."

"Captain, I'm detecting a ship inside the asteroid." Alex interrupted, sparing Chris the trouble of having to explain.  "She's about two miles deep beneath the surface.  It's the Franklin. The ship is inside a large cavern.  I detect a passage leading to it from the surface wide enough for them to enter with thrusters."

"Vin must have taken the ship in there to hide from the Entropy," Buck glanced over his shoulder.  "He won't be able to stay there much longer.  Shields or not, they're turning that rock into lava around the Franklin."

"That's not all," Alex added, trying to keep her professional tone intact to hide her fears for Vin's safety.  "The Franklin's not alone in that hollow.  There are at least five darts in there with them."

"They're trying to drive the Franklin out," Buck said.

"That would be easier said than done," Ezra commented after studying Alex's reading on his tactical display.  "If the Franklin has even partial shields, it could stave off that attack with some success."

"Which is why Krall is blasting the hell out of the asteroid," Chris stated, understanding what was unfolding in front of him now.  "We need to get them out of there before it collapses or those darts buckle their shields.  JD, hail the Franklin."


The blasts didn't feel distant at all this time, but right across their nose.

The impact against the weakened shields shuddered throughout the Franklin.  Its walls shook so violently that the bulkheads groaned in protest, and tremors reverberated through the deck plates beneath their feet.  Despite Julia's valiant efforts to keep the shields up against energy bombardment and the darts trying to punch through by collision, Vin Tanner knew she couldn't maintain it for long.  Getting the Franklin this far had been a boon.  The starship was in no shape for a fight even the Maverick could not withstand.

"Shield strength draining!" Mary cried out from her station, not bothering with c'thia or composure because she was scared.  She could hear the engines groaning, trying to maintain the power output from the antimatter reactor on the rapidly draining dilithium crystals.  Like Vin, Mary knew the Entropy was attempting to collapse their shields to beam them straight off the ship.

"Julia, how long can you maintain shield strength?" Vin demanded through the open channel while, at the same time, firing the starboard thrusters.  The ship banked hard, the screen showing the perpendicular angle of the saucer section as the enemy dart attempting to slam into the ship's bow was thwarted.  Instead, it flew beneath the saucer and was repelled by the shields.  Thrown off trajectory, its suicide run ended with a fiery collision with a rock wall.

"Not for much longer!" Julia shouted through the background of whining klaxons, fearful voices, and constant bombardment against the shields.  "Getting her to warp was a miracle enough.  I never expected we would have to take her into a fight too!"

"Neither did I!" Vin said as Fedir fired a single phaser blast at another oncoming ship.  It exploded spectacularly, but when it did, the cavern around quaked at the impact, with chunks of rock breaking free from its roof.  One of them fell into the path of a dart, and the meeting ended poorly for both.  Brilliant white light flashed briefly across the bridge.

Another dart, taking advantage of the momentary distraction, chose to ram the port nacelle.  This time, not even the shields could keep the ship from suffering the worst of the impact.  Everyone on the bridge, save Vin, went tumbling from their seats.  The helmsman, more than accustomed to such turbulence on the Maverick, held fast and stayed in his chair.

Even without hearing Julia's inevitable report, Vin knew that collision had cost them.

"Vin! Our shields are down to five percent. We can't take another hit like that."

"I hear you! Whatever happens, stay within the field of the transport inhibitor.  If they try to capture us alive, they'll have to come on board to do it!" There was no need to add that the device could not protect those of them on the bridge.

Another three ships entered the cavern, flying towards the Franklin at top speed.  Krall didn't intend to let them catch their breath.  These kamikaze attacks would continue until their shields collapsed, which was not far away.  Once that happened, nothing would stop the Entropy from beaming aboard.  Transporter inhibitors would do little to prevent them from recapturing their hostages.

Then as if an unspoken prayer had been heard, Josiah's unmanned terminal emitted a familiar shrill alert.  Someone was hailing them.

Mary practically launched herself from her terminal and hurried to the station, hardly daring to breathe.  She opened a channel and replied swiftly, almost breathless with anticipation.

"... is the USS Maverick. Come in, Franklin."

The message bursting through a cackle of static could have been trumpeted from heaven as far as everyone on the bridge was concerned.  Everyone exhaled loudly in relief at JD's voice speaking through the comms.

"We're here!" Mary replied promptly.  "Our shields are almost done, and we'll be boarded any minute.  We need immediate transport."

"We hear you, Franklin. Help is on the way."

It wasn't JD who spoke. It was the Captain.

Chris Larabee's voice, full of calm and strength, swept across the bridge like a wave of good tidings.  Despite the phaser bombardment by the enemy ships and the sharp maneuvers, Vin was performing to avoid the darts from collapsing their shields,  Chris's voice was like the peace in the eye of the storm.  It did exactly what he intended.  To assure every member of his crew, not just Mary, that he would not let anything terrible happen to them.

"It's good to hear your voice, Chris," she knew this was hardly the place to be so informal with him, but she couldn't help it.  A day ago, she feared she would never see him again, let alone speak to him.  Now he was here, and she couldn't keep herself from being overcome with emotion.

"Likewise, Mary."

Those two words were all the affection he would show her under the circumstances, but it was enough.

"Vin, we're approaching your location using the cloak, but the minute we start transporting people off the Franklin, Krall and the Entropy will know it."

"I hear you, pard," Vin nodded, unflappable as ever but he was still grateful to hear the Captain nonetheless.  Like Chris, he knew the timing was everything if they intended to leave here alive.

"I need you to get the Franklin out of there." Chris continued.  "I know they'll see you, but by the time you're out of the asteroid, we should have all of you back on the Maverick.  Is Julia there?"

"I'm here, Captain." The open channel with Engineering allowed Julia to hear everything including the Maverick's hail.  "I'm lowering the transporter inhibitors so you can start beaning us off the Franklin."

"Good, but I need you to do something else."

"What is that, Sir?"

The Captain told her.

"Are you sure, Captain?" Julia echoed the shock experienced by everyone on the bridge after Chris issued his  orders.

"It's the only way," Chris said without  hesitation.  "Can you do  it?"

"Of course, I can, Sir," Julia's tone regained its usual  confidence.  "She'll be ready in  time."

"I never doubted it,  Lieutenant.  Now disable those inhibitors, and let's get everyone back on board the  Maverick."

Chapter Thirty:
Critical Mass

"Commander! They're coming out of the asteroid field!"

What should have been a triumph for Krall had the opposite effect. True, his strategy of bombarding the Franklin's hiding place with so much firepower the hollow risked being buried in rock probably prompted the exit, but something didn't feel right. The moon-sized asteroid could endure a few more minutes of bombardment before the danger became urgent. It appeared the old starship was fending off the darts well enough to remain entrenched for a little while.

No, if they were emerging, it was for another reason.

The answer came to him after barely a second of thought.

"Scan the area!"

"Sir?" Manos stared at Krall.

"The Maverick is here! That's the only reason that ship is coming out early! It's got help! Find her!"

"But Sir, she's cloaked!"

"She still has to get everyone off the Franklin! Scan for transporter signatures!"

Once again, Manos was reminded of what a brilliant commander Captain Balthazar Edison had been and what glory he might have achieved as Captain if not for their arrival in this quadrant. Still, the best of Edison's intellect continued to live in Krall, and at moments like this, Manos couldn't help but feel proud to serve the man.

"Scanning," he tapped the console of his station, the memories of his own Starfleet past surfacing long enough to instruct him on what he was seeking. In the background, he half-listened to Krall barking new orders.

"All ships spread out. We have a big fish to net!"

Manos glimpsed the smaller darts through the view screen, forgetting all about the Franklin. They abandoned their assault on the asteroid or the starship they had only minutes ago been determined to capture. Instead, they converged a few hundred kilometers off the flagship's bow, their number so large that the space beyond could only be seen through a few dark cracks in the tight formation.

Manos's station began to emit a short burst of beeps, drawing his attention back to his display. The data streaming across the dark screen told him that, once again, Krall had guessed right. The Maverick had kept its presence hidden for a good reason.

"Commander, I'm detecting multiple energy signals between the Franklin and Mark 4, 7, and 9!"

"That's where the ship is! Fire all weapons! She can't raise shields under cloak."


"FIRE!"

At the same time Krall was unraveling the mystery of the Franklin's sudden exit from the asteroid, Chris Larabee, seated in his command chair, issued the order he had been waiting to give since revealing his plan to Julia Pemberton.

"Firing quantum torpedoes."

"Target the flagship and then the thickest part of the storm. Let's scatter that anthill."

"With absolute pleasure Captain," Ezra returned, his lips curled in uncharacteristic cruelty.

Three torpedoes escaped the Maverick, diverging in direction as soon as they cleared the ship. Glowing with amber light, the first torpedo struck the bow of the entropy flagship, the force of it penetrating the hull all the way to the other side. Plasma fire, shredded hull plating, and bodies exploded outward beneath the ship as explosive decompression tore out the surrounding sections.

Elsewhere, the remaining torpedoes struck the thickest part of the converging darts. The following explosions created a shockwave large enough to scatter the armada of smaller crafts in all directions. They spun out of control, colliding with each other in the wave of that tremendous blast.

"Transporter Room, do we have them yet?" Buck, who was still at the helm, asked.

"Aye, Commander!" Rain's ebullient voice sang over the bridge. "Everyone except for Lt. Commander Pemberton and Lt. Tanner is on board. Doctor Jackson is taking them straight to Sick Bay."

Buck threw a sidelong grin at JD, smiling just as pleased at the news that the lost sheep had returned to the fold.

"Julia, what's your status?"

"I'm just about done!" Julia spoke from the deep well of engineering on board the Franklin.

"Captain, the enemy ships are regrouping!" Alex cried from the science station.

Even as she spoke, they could see the scattered ships regrouping fast. When that happened, they would be coming for the Maverick.

"Lower the cloak and raise shields."

The Maverick shimmered into view of all the ships arrayed against it no sooner than he gave the order. Ezra lowered the cloak and raised shields, now fully restored thanks to engineering's tireless efforts. Proximity alerts screamed to life across the console across the bridge.

"Captain, the enemy ships are regrouping and converging on our position."

"Good," Chris had expected that would be the case the instant they lowered the cloak. But that action was a means to an end. While the enemy ships were fixated on the Maverick, they would pay little attention to the Franklin and those still on board.

"Ezra, fire at will. I want to light up the sky with those bastards."

"As you wish," Ezra replied, already tapping the commands into the tactical station.

A fresh volley of quantum torpedoes exploded out of the port and starboard turrets. The amber orbs of energy detonated randomly across the path of the approaching ships, giving the Entropy little or no time to avoid the deadly blasts. The explosions lit up space like mini novas, and the effect resembled rocks being thrown into a still pond. The shockwave threw ships off course. Some were caught in the blast, but others were pressing on, with enough numbers to ensure that the Maverick paid for the injury to their comrades.

"Captain, we're on board the Brazos," Julia interrupted again. "I've set the reactor to overload. It will go critical in five minutes."

"Good job Julia. Vin, we'll meet you at the mouth of the wormhole."

"Don't make us wait too long, pard. This is going to be close."

"We'll be there," Chris smiled faintly to himself. "But if it gets too much, cut loose and run."

"Understood."

"Enemy ships are closing in!" Alex announced, watching the rapid approach of the armada. The quantum torpedoes had hurt them but not enough. Once they reached the ship, the darts would assail the Maverick's shields as they had before.

"Buck, evasive pattern alpha. Keep us ahead of them long enough for the Brazos to get where it's going."


On board the runabout, Julia conducted last-minute checks on all systems. Although they operated on half the dilithium crystals they possessed when they left the Maverick, the ship was still at full power. Vin could afford to wring every ounce of energy the Brazos had because the runabout only needed to reach the wormhole. After that, it wouldn't matter if the engines burned out. If he and Julia weren't off the small craft by then, they would die with the Franklin.

"We should have taken the body out of the Franklin," Julia lamented as she strapped herself in. As much as Julia wanted to go to the conference room that had been their unknown savior's sanctuary to recover her remains, there hadn't been time. "Whoever she was, she restored the Franklin enough to save all our lives."

Vin didn't answer straight away. He concentrated on getting them off the Franklin before she reached her final end. Around them, the engines hummed louder when the Brazos' primary systems were initialized. As the drone intensified, reverberating through the floor and walls, Vin readied the flight systems for launch. Beside him, his co-pilot monitored the progress of the starship's imminent core breach.

The runabout lifted off the deck with a sudden lurch. Through the cockpit window, Vin and Julia witnessed the Brazos hovering off the launch bay before Vin fired the thrusters and aimed the nose of the craft at the open hangar doors and the waiting space beyond it.

"Here we go."

With a sudden burst of propulsion, the runabout accelerated out of the hangar bay, leaving the Franklin for the last time. As the walls of the old starship disappeared around them, Vin saw Julia's sad expression and knew her thoughts were still centered on the mystery woman they were leaving behind. Whomever she had been, she wasn't a member of the Franklin's crew, and yet every component and system had been repaired and maintained well enough for it to be their salvation so many years later.

"She should stay with the Franklin. Taking her off her ship wouldn't feel right. This may have been Balthazar Edison's command once, but it's hers now. She never abandoned it. We're here because she spent years putting it back together. The Franklin made it this far because of her. She should be there for its last trip."

Julia nodded, admitting Vin was right. If the end came for her during a fight, the Maverick was where she wanted to be. During the Battle of Sector 001, she had been willing to stay on the Rutherford to the absolute last minute and would have been prepared to die there if it came down to it. "I just wish we knew her name."

"We'll remember her," Vin said kindly. "That's enough."

"Right," Julia brushed away her sad thoughts because they still had a mission to complete. From her station, she could see the enemy ships in hot pursuit of the Maverick, who was once again playing decoy long enough for the Brazos to enact its part of the plan. "Okay, I've diverted all power to the tractor beam."

The Brazos slowed once it was an appropriate distance from the Franklin and hovered in space. As of yet, the Entropy had not noticed what they were doing. Vin could see the enemy ships preparing to converge on the Maverick and instinctively worked faster. Considering how much damage the swarm could inflict on the galaxy-class starship, Vin couldn't afford to waste a second.

"Tractor beam initializing."

The tractor beam activated with a loud chirp, and its effect on the Brazos was immediate. The small ship jolted hard when the energy beam extended and ensnared the Franklin. Although much smaller than the NX-01 ship, runabout tractor beams were designed with graviton emitters that reduced the mass of the object being towed in a vacuum. While there was no way the Brazos could perform the same action on the Maverick, which was a much larger ship, the NX-01 class ships of two hundred years ago, was manageable.

"Firing impulse engines."

The Brazos flew towards the wormhole, taking the Franklin with her.


On the bridge of the Maverick, Chris had one more card to play before the end.

"JD, hail the flagship."

"Captain?" Buck stared at him in surprise. The armada was almost on them, and it seemed like an odd time for Chris to want a final tete-a-tete with the commander of the enemy fleet.

"I want to give him one last chance before we carry out our plan."

Buck nodded in understanding. Whatever he might be now, Balthazar Edison was a respected soldier of the Federation. He and others like him contributed to the peace they grew up with. Despite what became of Edison since the crash landing on Altamid, no one could forget that. "You heard the Captain JD."

"Aye, Sir," JD nodded and faced his station.

A few seconds later, Krall's face appeared on the screen, glaring at Chris with his hard alien eyes.

"Are you surrendering, Chris?"

"I think we know each other well enough by now to know that's never going to happen." Chris let out a deep sigh, his expression softening. "Captain, I wanted to give you one last chance to end this. There's no need for this hatred and violence to continue. I won't deny the Federation failed you and your crew all those years ago, but their actions do not justify what you've done since. You are still Balthazar Edison, Captain of the USS Franklin. You fought to create a new era of peace for all of us. Don't force my hand, Captain, please."

Krall stared at him through the view screen, confused by his gesture. Chris could see the conflict in the man's eyes. Perhaps something Chris had said penetrated.

"No, I'm sorry." Krall shook his head, but his voice lacked the hard edge of their earlier exchanges. "It's too late for that, too late for any of us. What has happened cannot be forgotten. We have only one course left and will follow it wherever it leads. Surrender your vessel, and I promise no harm will come to you or your crew. We'll leave you on a planet somewhere, as we were left."

"Krall," Chris didn't hide his disappointment. "Even if I took you at your word, then what? You take my ship and enter Federation space again? What happens to those thousands who will die to keep you and the Entropy alive? If you remember anything about being Edison, you know I can't make that bargain."

"So be it," Krall's expression hardened once more, revealing at that moment that the die was cast. What would be would be on both their heads. "Suffer the consequences! We'll take your ship apart and your crew with it!"

"Bring it on," Chris hissed back. "End transmission."

"Aye, Captain," JD said before the screen went dark. Krall's face was replaced by the approach of his armada and the wormhole.

"Captain, the darts are breaking formation. They're coming at us in two directions. I believe they are trying to surround us."

Chris agreed with Ezra's assessment of the situation. "They're going to try and cut us off from the wormhole. Divert all power to the front shields. Buck, we're punching through them. Alex, what's the Franklin's position?"

Alex glanced at her display and saw the digital image of the ship approaching the wormhole steadily, unaccosted by Entropy ships. "They are five hundred kilometers from the wormhole. You were right, Sir. Decloaking caught the Entropy's attention. They're focusing entirely on us and have forgotten about the Franklin."

"Probably because they know she'll never survive another trip through the wormhole. Krall probably figures he can circle back and deal with the Franklin after he's done with us." Despite this minor victory, Chris was not about to celebrate. Both the Maverick and the Franklin were far from safe. He tapped his combadge, needing to move the final phase of their plan into action. "Julia, how long until the Franklin reaches critical mass?"

The silence sent a surge of worry through them, particularly Ezra. Alex felt the same fear but was about to comment that the gravimetric waves spewing out by the wormhole could affect subspace communications when Julia responded through a loud burst of static. Her scratchy transmission, though audible, echoed with distortion.

"....two minutes!"

It was time to finish this.

The Chief Engineer had just given them a deadline. The Maverick would fly to freedom in two minutes or be shredded like the flotsam beyond the wormhole opening.

"Buck, pour more power into the engines. We need to get ahead of those ships!"

"You got it," Buck tapped the flight controls on the helm station. The beating heart of the Maverick quickened as the ship surged forward, its engines pulsing with all the power it could muster.

"Incoming fire!"

The Entropy unleashed a barrage of energy, trying to disable the Maverick as the galaxy-class ship started to pull away from the swarm. Klaxons screamed condition red alerts through all decks as enemy fire impacted against the ship's aft.

"Gloves off, Commander," Chris eyed Ezra so the Chief would get his meaning. "Fire at will, Ezra. Give them everything we've got. Quantum torpedoes and phaser banks. Alex, help him.."

"Aye, Captain," Ezra said when Alex joined him at the tactical station. "Ready for a duet, Commander?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Alex took up position at the secondary firing controls. As Ezra fired quantum torpedoes, she manned the phaser banks. Ezra knew his business and prevented the darts from converging into a swarm. He maintained a relentless pace, like an enraged child hell-bent on pulverizing an ant hill and its occupants. Meanwhile, Alex focused on Krall's flagship, still trailing behind the main fleet.

The bombardment against the deflectors continued as the Maverick flew at maximum acceleration towards the wormhole, conscious of the seconds ticking by. Ezra and Alex continued their assault, ensuring the lead Buck gave them was not squandered by any Entropy ship attempting a suicide run.

"Captain, we're out of weapons range!" JD announced, taking up Alex's duties while the science officer was busy at tactical with Ezra.

"Ezra, Alex, cease firing. Engage the cloak."

No one questioned the order because this had always been part of the plan. Now that the Maverick was out of weapons range, it was a race to the wormhole. The shields could be lowered temporarily. The Franklin was closing in on the wormhole with the Brazos leading the way. They were out of time. He had to retrieve Vin and Julia from the ship now or lose them when the Franklin reached critical mass.

"Transporter Room 1, the second we're in range of the Brazos, initiate transport. Get Vin and Julia back here."

"I'm scanning for them already," Rain, an experienced Starfleet officer and the best damn transporter specialist in the fleet, knew what was required of her before the Captain made the request. She'd been monitoring the situation on the bridge from the moment they disengaged the cloak, scanning for Julia and Vin's life signs so she could lock onto them the instant they entered transporter range.

Ahead of them, the mouth of the wormhole loomed large. It swirled in an iridescent vortex of color, beautiful and terrifying all at once. Unlike the Celestial Temple of Bajor, this was a natural phenomenon, and Chris ached at what he would have to do to it to protect the Federation and his ship. The Franklin and the Brazos were almost to the event horizon. Once past it, the gravitational forces of the wormhole would draw both vessels to it.

Chris intended for the Maverick to be gone before that happened.

"Enemy ships have altered their trajectory for the wormhole," Alex announced from the Science Station, returning to her post now that the ship was cloaked.

"They don't have to see us to know where we're headed," Buck commented. "We've got nowhere else to go."

Buck was right, Chris thought. Krall's armada was accustomed to using the wormhole for expeditions to Federation space and the surrounding territories to acquire new bodies. He knew they had no choice but to use the wormhole to escape, making the Maverick's next move predictable. Without using the passage, it would take a year to get home with the Entropy dogging their every step.

No, Krall would not relent in his pursuit, not when he could chase them all the way to Sector 001.

Well, Chris had a little surprise for him.

"Bridge, I've locked on to Lt. Tanner and Lt. Commander Pemberton!"

With time running out fast, it was just the report Chris wanted to hear. Across the bridge, a swell of relief swept across the Senior Staff. The Captain had no doubt that for Ezra and Alex, that emotion ran deeper, but the duo was much too professional to let it show. Not while the ship was still in its current situation. Both officers kept their feelings close to the vest and would probably express joy in a more private setting.

"Great work, Rain, transport them straight to the bridge."

"Aye, Captain."

Rain had no sooner finished speaking when the hum of a transporter filled the bridge. Two figures shimmered into existence between the view screen and helm and navigation stations. Within seconds, the beams transformed into the familiar shape of the people they knew and loved.

"Good to have you both back," Chris said.

"We missed you too," Julia flashed the Captain her usual cheery smile and looked past his shoulder to give Ezra a little wink, to which the Chief responded in kind with his usual dimpled grin.

"Permission to go to engineering and see what you've done to my ship?"

"Granted."

Julia hurried towards the turbo lift, blowing Ezra a little kiss as she left. Chris was glad to see her cocky spirit re-emerging. Since her assimilation by the Borg, he missed seeing it.

"The Brazos is locked on course to the wormhole Captain," Vin didn't waste time with greetings, although he did give Alex a faint smile of affection. "Recommend we get the hell out of here."

"She's all yours," Buck quickly vacated the helm, perfectly aware Vin would want to reclaim his seat as the Officer of the Con.

"Thanks for keeping her warm for me," Vin returned and slid into the seat a second later. If they were entering the wormhole, he wanted no one else to pilot the Maverick but him.

"Ezra, raise shields. Vin, hit it!"

"Captain, Krall might have guessed what we're planning. The darts are now on an intercept course with the Franklin."

"For all the good it will do. They'll never reach the Franklin in time," Buck said coldly, taking his place next to the command chair. He felt not one ounce of regret for what they were about to do. Not after the friends they had lost since this all began. The Maverick quickly closed in on the wormhole, passing the Franklin and the Brazos. The two ships were celebrating now, thanks to the gravitational pull of the vortex.

As the Maverick flew past them, Chris glanced at JD.

"JD, raise Krall one more time."

The young officer gaped at him, puzzled at the request, but he remembered himself and complied.

Krall's face appeared before the bridge crew less than a second later. Whatever understanding he and Chris had shared as two starship captain's was no more. The eyes glaring at him burned with more than just hatred but bald fury. Chris had no doubt that if he were in the same room with Krall right now, the former Franklin captain would have killed Chris with his bare hands.

"Do you think this is going to stop us? Ships can be rebuilt. More bodies can be found to replace those lost today."

"You damn right I'm going to stop you," Chris's icy demeanor was a stark contrast to Krall's rage. "I told you I would never let you harm anyone in Federation space. So I'm taking away your shortcut. If you want to get to Earth, you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way, and since I'll be getting there first, I'll make goddamn sure Starfleet is ready when you arrive."

Understanding flooded Krall's eyes as the entirety of Chris's threat washed over him, and he exploded in impotent fury at the trap he had not seen until it was too late.

"YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS! IF I HAVE TO STRIP THE BONES FROM YOUR FLESH MYSELF..."

"Shut it off," Chris said calmly, strangely satisfied with ending their conversation there. "Vin, let's get the hell out of here."

The starship sailed past the Franklin and the Brazos, leaving both ships behind as they flew into the vortex's epicenter. Everyone took a moment to honor the sacrifice that would save them and the Federation. Until the Maverick began shuddering violently, fighting the turbulent currents of the wormhole as they entered the subspace conduit. As the maelstrom swallowed them again, Chris was grateful Vin was at the helm.

"Ten seconds before the Franklin goes critical!" Alex cried out.

Although they could no longer see the Franklin inside the wormhole, the countdown still continued. The Maverick rocked dangerously, forcing everyone to hold on as they rode the currents.

"Nine... eight... seven...."

If the enemy ships were in pursuit, Chris could not see them, but he suspected the Entropy would be far more interested in disabling the Franklin than coming after them.

"Five... four... three...."

Around them, panels flew off walls, energy overloads spiked terminals, and the ship lurched and heaved in protest of the forces assaulting it from all sides.

"Two...one...zero!"

The Maverick didn't need to see the destruction of the Franklin or the Brazos behind them. They could feel it. The anti-matter reactor Julia had rigged exploded inside the wormhole sending raw power surging through its network. Torrents of radiation rushed through the portal like the ocean breaking through the walls of a dam. Gamma rays, high energy particles, and volatile plasma created a potent mix that resulted in a blast akin to a small star going nova. The shockwave obliterated the Brazos and any ship close enough to be caught in its expanding onslaught.

Its effect on the wormhole was nothing less than devastating.

High-energy neutrinos, bombarded by the massive surge of explosive power, destabilized the conduit's fragile reactions. Spidery tendrils of blue cackled along its walls, shredding the vortex. As the Maverick rode the turbulent currents of gravimetric forces, ruptures along the walls spat random energy bolts at the Maverick. They lashed the hull like demon whips of power.

"All hands brace for impact!" Chris warned when they saw the tidal wave of explosive power rushing at them through the screen.

No one had time to do anything but grab on when it struck. Antigrav systems and fully engaged shields were no match for its tremendous fury. The Maverick was hurled through the wormhole as if it were swatted away like a toy. The ship spun in 360-degree turns, throwing everyone out of their seats and against floors and walls. The overload to the deflectors created deadly surges everywhere, and the view screen, repaired only a few short hours ago, shattered violently again. Its fragments sprayed in all directions. The overhead lights dimmed and then went out completely. Emergency lights flooded the bridge with an angry red glow amidst the continuous squeals of sirens and alerts.

The Maverick continued to spin out of control. Through the chaos, Chris kept his wits long enough to agonise over what this was doing to his crew and ship. As it was, he maintained a death grip on his armrest so he didn't fly across the bridge into a wall, unlike Buck, who was unseated. However, Chris could not go to Buck's aid as the ship continued its hazardous tumbling. JD had wisely tucked himself under his station, wedged between the console and his chair. Meanwhile, Vin clung to the helm station, his Vulcan strength ensuring he would go nowhere unless he wished it. Craning his neck, Chris saw Alex and Ezra gripping the rails along the raised floor behind them.

Then without any warning, the Maverick's pinwheel journey began to slow. It took another full minute before it stopped spinning entirely, but no one was remotely recovered. The bridge was in shambles as Buck hobbled back to his seat, clutching his side. Vin stood up from his chair, turning to the science station to see if Alex was alright. There was an ugly gash on her forehead, no doubt the result of broken glass.

"Alex?" He eyed her with concern, wrestling with the desire to go to her instead of staying at his post.

"I'm okay," she assured him as she dabbed the blood with her sleeve. "It's just a little cut. I'll be fine."

It was a bit more than that, Chris thought. However, he let the matter go for now. They had bigger problems.

"We have stopped moving," Ezra announced.

"Yeah," Vin agreed as the helmsman returned to his station. "Captain, helm control is unresponsive."

"Engineering, damage report!" Buck tapped his combadge. "What's our status?"

"Just hold on a second, bridge!" Julia's irritated voice bit back, caring nothing for protocol under the circumstances. "We're still picking up the pieces down here. The warp engines are offline. The power overloads might have ruptured a few coils."

At this moment, however, Chris was more interested in where they were. It was evident by the absence of the earlier turbulence they were no longer in the wormhole. Chris's plan hinged on collapsing the portal linking the Nekron Nebula to Federation space and delaying hostilities until Starfleet was ready for the Entropy. Now it appeared the Franklin's destruction had done far worse than that. It might have destroyed the network entirely and flung them into parts unknown.

"Alex, where are we?"

"Just a minute, Sir," she cleared away the debris of glass and broken paneling across her console. A few seconds later, the screen beneath her came alive, bathing her face in a greenish glow.

At least they still had power.

"This can't be right," JD spoke up from navigation, his brow furrowed in worry as he studied what was before him. "Commander Styles, are you reading what I am?"

Alex didn't look up, but Chris knew her well enough to see the tension on her face. "If you're reading the presence of a dwarf star system we classified P23, then I'd say yes."

"P23?" Buck stood up from his chair. His knowledge of stellar cartography did not require her to explain further. "Oh shit."

Chris was almost afraid to ask the question, but it was better to know to decide what came next. "How far?"

Alex looked up at him, her expression grim. "A thousand light years. At maximum warp, it will take us a year to get home."

Epilogue:
The New Normal

"Captain's Log - Stardate 2378.497.

It has been twelve hours since the Maverick found itself in the system Starfleet designated P23. Aside from numerous blown relays and couplings throughout the ship caused by massive overloads, the Maverick appears to be in good shape. Chief Engineer Pemberton requests that we remain offline so Engineering can conduct repairs after our battles with the Entropy. I have granted her the time unless we encounter any trouble that requires us to leave the area in a hurry.

So far, there is no sign of Krall or the Entropy. Considering he stayed at the rear of his armada when we entered the wormhole, there's a good chance he is still trapped in the Nekron Nebula. Considering what damage we suffered following the wormhole's collapse, I doubt any of his Entropy darts survived the blast. Nevertheless, Security Chief Ezra Standish is continuing to scan the system for any signs of the enemy. With my approval, he has deployed several proximity buoys throughout the area to warn us of danger. Since our main sensor array needs to be rebuilt and our stellar cartography sensors were a quick-fix solution, this will shore up any gaps in our scanning systems.

In the meantime, Science Officer Alex Styles is conducting detailed scans of P23. As indicated by the deep space probes that passed this area, P23 is a dwarf star system with five uninhabited planets. The second planet does exhibit signs of primitive life and possesses raw materials we should consider acquiring to bolster our stores for the journey home. While we have enough supplies to last us six months, we will have to consider rationing."

Doctor Jackson has provided me with a definitive casualty count. We lost twenty people in this incident. Among those are Lt. Drew Katovit, Lt. Charlotte Richmond, and Ensign Jewel Chun, whose loss the bridge crew feels most profoundly. We worked with them on a day-to-day basis and considered them friends. Counsellor Sanchez suggests we hold a memorial service as soon as possible, and I'm inclined to agree. We have a long year ahead unless we find an alternate way to get home faster. We should start off on the right foot by honoring our fallen friends.

As for the Entropy, if our plan succeeded, any of their further incursions into Federation territory will be undertaken using conventional travel. That journey will take them as long as ours. However, Lt. Commander Styles and Lt. Dunne, with Engineering's help, are modifying our communications array with hyper-subspace technology. Developed by Lt. Barclay of the Pathfinder project, Starfleet used it to communicate with the USS Voyager while it was in the Delta Quadrant. I am confident we can send a message to the nearest Federation subspace relay and warn them about the Entropy. Otherwise, we'll have to wait three months to be in range."

Chris paused his log and leaned back into his chair, reaching for the Hawaiian blend cup of coffee Holly had left him before he started recording. Staring out of the window, he couldn't help admiring the view. Although the dwarf star was reaching the end of its life, from this distance, it was the brightest star in the night sky. Surrounded by a cosmic cloud of pink and blue, some of the crew had taken to calling it Pearl 23, which Chris liked. He supposed if they were going to be in the sector, they might as well gather some data on the way home. After everything they just went through, Chris was grateful for some routine stellar cartography. He only wished he wasn't missing twenty members of his crew. At least Mary was safe.


Even though the impulse to see Mary had been great, it was a full hour after they arrived at P23 before he could tear himself away from the bridge to get down to Sick Bay. As he went there, wincing at the damage he witnessed in the hallways covered with debris and wreckage and the injured escorted to Sick Bay, Chris hoped Krall got blown to hell for what he'd done to the Maverick. Engineering teams were sitting on the floor, catching their breaths, and some jumped to attention, but Chris gestured for them to remain at ease.

The engineering teams had saved them all and deserved the rest.

When he arrived in Sick Bay, the scene was no less chaotic. The casualties had filled the facility even before their last confrontation with the Entropy. Now it felt wall to wall. Doctors and nurses were trying to maintain some order with the number of patients, and Chris heard Nathan barking orders to his staff to send non-critical patients to their quarters to make room for the seriously injured.

"CHRIS!"

Chris swung around and saw Mary pushing through the crowd. People made way for her, aware that she was en route to see the Captain. Locks of golden hair hung around her shoulders, having broken free of the tight coiffure she always wore. There was dirt on her face and scratches on her skin. What the hell had she been through?

He never got to ask because Mary, the always poised and collected protocol officer, discarded all restraint when she wrapped her arms around him and planted a fierce, passionate kiss on his lips. The surprise lasted for a second before he reciprocated in kind, not caring that people stared at their display with amusement. After a day like this, everyone deserved a warm greeting from those they loved.

The world was drowned out for a few seconds, and though he knew this wasn't the kind of thing the Captain could indulge in for long, he relished it while he could. When Krall had taken her, Chris had feared he'd lost her for good, and after Sarah, it nearly broke him. That she was back in his arms like this, filled Chris with gratitude and joy.

"I'm sorry," she managed a little laugh when she pulled back. "I didn't mean to ..."

"It's okay," he smiled, trying to hide he was bursting with emotion as well. "I'm glad you did. Are you alright?"

"Yes, I'm fine. In fact, we all are." She swept her gaze around the crowded Sick Bay to the rest of the rescued crew. Mary guessed Chris had torn himself away from the bridge to find her, and the knowledge filled her with warmth. However, she'd been a Captain's wife long enough to know he didn't have much time. "Thank you for coming down here."

"I thought..." he dropped his gaze, unable to admit how much he feared the worst and what a gift it was to have her back.

"I know," she spared him having to say it, her hand resting on his cheek. "I had the same thought too."

For a moment, neither spoke, but after nearly two years on board the Maverick, they seldom needed words. They'd been lovers ever since they laid eyes on each other, in spirit and then in the flesh, and now Chris couldn't imagine his world without her. But he was still Captain.

"I have to go," he said reluctantly.

"You do," she agreed. "Nathan says I'm fine. I'm going to go back to my quarters and see Billy."

"He's there with Adam. You should go to them. They both need to see you."

"I need to see them," she admitted readily enough.

She, Chris, Billy, and Adam had become a family. Although Adam wasn't hers, he still felt like it to Mary, and she needed to go to her son and the marvelous boy who had become a gift to not just Chris but to her and Billy.

"Go," he prompted. "We'll catch up later."

Mary beamed. "Count on it, Captain."


Josiah thought he might sleep for a week once he returned to his quarters on the Maverick, but after a few hours of rest, a good meal, and a long shower, he felt much better. It took him only a short time to get appraised of everything that took place during his absence, and he realized his skills as a Counsellor were in more demand than ever. Loss reached across the ship in ugly black tendrils. No one on board remained unaffected, not the people whose loved ones were lost or the friends trying to nurse them through their grief.

Once refreshed, Josiah went to Engineering to check on Julia, who had been worried about her ability to work under pressure since her assimilation by the Borg. The woman was accustomed to masking her insecurities under a mask of good cheer, and as a Counsellor, Josiah knew how exhausting that could be to maintain. However, Julia was stronger than she believed. Anyone who read her service record would realize Julia had nerves rivaling even Chris Larabee. Even if the Maverick were falling to pieces around her ears, Julia would still plant her feet firmly on the deck, refusing to leave until she fixed the problem.

When he stepped onto the deck, he found her commanding the room like the ringmaster under the glare of bright circus lights. Gathered around her was her engineering team, looking just as tired as her but ready to follow Julia's orders. Josiah didn't interrupt, allowing her to finish her instructions to her staff.

"Team 4, I want you to check the starboard nacelle for radiation leaks. Use hand-held tricorders if you have to. With the overloads to our computer systems, we need to run a full diagnostic of the mainframe to ensure there's been no corruption. Team 5, do the same for the port nacelle. The Entropy targeted those sections of the ship trying to disable us. Let's be sure they didn't cause any damage we can't immediately see."

Heads bobbed in the affirmative, giving Julia leave to continue.

"Team 3, I want you to go deck by deck on the saucer section and start repairing wall displays. People are frightened and confused. We need those running so the Captain can keep them apprised of what's happening. Team 2, replace all the damaged circuits in this room. We can't fix the rest of the ship without fixing this deck first. Lt. Chanu and I will be working on the biogenic neural circuits."

At that, she dismissed her team and, as they dispersed, saw Josiah hovering in the background next to her alcove.

"Josiah," Julia greeted, unaccustomed to seeing the Counsellor in her bastion. "What are you doing here?"

"I didn't have a chance to ask how you ended up on the Brazos to come rescue us."

"Vin needed an engineer," Julia said, indicating to Chano that she'd be there in a minute to help him with their task. "I was available."

"Were you really the only one who was?" He eyed her with a knowing look.

Julia shifted guiltily. "Okay, I wasn't, but I was most qualified. No one can detect alien tech better than I can."

"Of course, but...."

"Alright!" She threw her hands up in exasperation. "I wanted to know if I could handle it, okay? I couldn't take not knowing for much longer."

"And how do you feel now?" Josiah asked, trying not to show how proud he was of her. She'd taken the risk to rediscover her strength even though it was no surprise to him. He always knew she had it in her.

"I feel good," Julia gave him a little smile. "Better than I was. I can do this job."

"I never doubted it," he said warmly. "It's alright to be uneasy about what happened to you. I won't lie and say that feeling disappears, but you will learn to live with it in time. You've done remarkably well, even before you went charging off to Altamid with Vin. Trust yourself. We do."

Julia blinked as emotion filled her eyes. Those words, coming from the Counsellor, moved her, and for a second, she could do nothing but swallow away the lump in her throat. Josiah was right, and she should have known that all along. "Thank you, Josiah, for being there all these months. I wouldn't have managed it without you."

"I think you would have, but you're welcome.' Josiah touched her shoulder with affection before retreating. "Now you have lots to do, and I'll leave you to it."

"For now, but we'll catch up over coffee once I get everything working again," she winked and turned away, whistling 'A spoonful of Sugar' as she went.


When Chris returned to Sick Bay a few hours after his reunion with Mary, he was pleasantly surprised by the absence of the earlier chaos.

As Chris entered, his crew offered the customary greetings, which he returned in kind. He noted that the atmosphere was less frantic despite every bed being occupied and medical staff going about their business briskly. Judging by the number of staff on the floor, Chris guessed the regular duty shifts had resumed, allowing exhausted workers to get the respite they needed after the rush of casualties during the battle. Nurses hovered over patients, checking vitals and seeing to their comfort, while junior doctors conducted ongoing treatments on biobeds.

Doctor Joey Pare, a new member of Nathan's staff, ran a dermal regenerator over the forearm of a Bolian child who sustained severe burns. The child couldn't be more than five, and it stung Chris to see her wounded. He made a mental note to visit with her and the other patients and staff once he had a moment.

Approaching the clear glass doors of the CMO's office, he glimpsed Nathan sitting behind his desk, tapping on his datapad, no doubt filling out the mountain of paperwork following the situation they had just experienced. When Nathan looked up from his pad and sighted him, the CMO immediately set the device down and left his desk to greet him at the doors.

"Thank you for coming, Captain. I know you're busy dealing with all that's going on."

"We're all busy," Chris commented, glancing at the main floor of Sick Bay. "Things here look a little more settled."

"Well, we released the children once they were checked out. Most were unhurt, just a little traumatized, but the best medicine for that, according to Josiah, is to let them go home to their families. He's going to check in on them over the next day. I sent the non-critical patients back to their quarters once they were treated. I'm sure they'd be a lot happier there than here."

Chris couldn't disagree with that. He wouldn't want to stay in Sick Bay longer than necessary if he wasn't seriously injured. Then again, he'd feel the same even if he was. "So why did you need to see me?"

"It's Crosby," Nathan's casual mood darkened, and he gestured for Chris to follow him.

The doctor didn't elaborate until they left the main floor of Sick Bay through an alternate set of doors leading to the rest of the facilities. Chris guessed that Nathan wanted privacy for what he was about to discuss with the Captain, and Chris hoped it wasn't some new calamity they hadn't foreseen. Right now, the Maverick had enough to deal with.

Nathan led him to an alcove further along the hallway, flanked by two security officers.

"It's Crosby," Nathan explained. "He's deteriorating."

As Chris looked at Malak, once Mae Crosby, he could well believe it. Chris didn't need to understand all the biobed readings to see Malak's worsening condition. Malak looked as if he'd dropped half his body weight. The striations of his tough alien skin seemed deeper and grayer. If Chris didn't know better, he'd swear Malak was simply withering away before their eyes. The man's eyes were closed, and his breath escaped him in ragged puffs.

"Can't we help him at all?"

Malak might have been Entropy, but he was once a Starfleet Officer who had become this way because he and the others on the Franklin had been forced to survive. As abhorrent as their choices had been, Chris could empathize with them, even if he loathed what they did.

"Chris, I don't even understand how the alien cells function the way they do or what processes he had to undergo to get this way. If I had access to the technology that did this in the first place, there might have been a chance. As it stands, there's no way to nourish those cells without sacrificing someone else. I've tried substituting every nutritional supplement I can find to stop the deterioration, but nothing is working. He needs life force."

Well, that wasn't going to happen, Chris thought immediately, but even so, he didn't want Malak to die, especially when the man had helped them. All Mae Crosby wanted to do was see his family. It felt like a punch to the gut that Fate would deny him that.

"So he's going to die?"

"Two hundred years too late, but yes," Nathan nodded sadly. "There's nothing more I can do for him."


"JD, hand me that transtator."

Alexandra Styles stared into a wall of circuitry above her head, wrestling with the internal workings of JD Dunne's communications and navigation station as she completed the last hyper-subspace modifications. In their present circumstances, a message by subspace would take months to reach Federation space. With the possibility of the Entropy marshaling their forces for an attack, the Maverick needed to warn Starfleet Command as soon as possible.

"Here," JD handed her the component resting on his console.

Around them, the bridge was a hive of activity. At present, Buck had the Captain's chair while Vin helped the engineering technicians with the various repairs across the bridge. The Maverick was operating under emergency conditions after their turbulent arrival in Pearl 23. Anyone with expertise was lending their assistance to repair the damage caused after their recent troubles.

"How's it going, Alex?" Buck called out.

"I'm almost done with the modification according to Pathfinder's specs. We should be able to transmit within the hour. Julia's already carried out the hyper-subspace adjustments to our communications array."

"Good," Buck nodded with approval, finding it disconcerting to stare at the space where the view screen was and see nothing but a wall. Vin and one of the engineering techs were lifting the new screen into place while two others secured it. Even though enough working terminals surrounded them to let them know what was happening in the space outside, Buck still felt like the Maverick was flying blind without the viewer. "I had an idea that once we catch our breaths, we could recommend to the Captain that we install Bussard collectors on the saucer section."

"A what?" Vin looked over his shoulder in puzzlement.

"Bussard collectors," Alex climbed out from beneath the station, dusting her palms off when she emerged. "That's not bad. We can use them," she glanced at Vin to explain, "to collect hydrogen and stellar gasses to help produce deuterium."

"A wise idea," Ezra chimed in from his security station, where he worked remotely with engineering to conduct a diagnostic of their weapon systems. "After combat with the Entropy, we must maintain our power levels to make the extended journey home."

"Yeah," Buck agreed with a nod. "We used a lot of torpedoes in that last fight. We'll have to use them sparingly going forward. We'll use phasers only until we have no choice."

"You think we'll run into more unfriendlies out here?" JD tensed, his expression worried. They were so far away from Starfleet. If anything happened to them, there would be no help coming. He didn't want the ship or his friends to end up like the Entropy.

"We know so little about this area of space, JD." Buck caught his unspoken anxiety. "What we know comes from deep-space probes we've launched out here."

"And even so," Alex added, "probes can only collect data about anything along the range of their trajectory. "

"Then we're really on our own out here," JD sighed, the reality of what they were facing sinking in.

"Hey," Vin spoke up, not just to his friends but to everyone on the bridge. "We have to look on the bright side of things."

"Does anyone find it ironic that this is coming from the Vulcan in our little troupe?" Ezra commented, a little smile on his face.

Vin made a face at him and continued. "We're out here where no one has been before. Sure, it could be dangerous, but it could also be exciting. We don't know much about the area, but while we're out here, we can fill out those gaps and explore. It isn't much different from the five-year missions carried out by those old Constitution Class ships."

"He's right," Buck liked Vin's optimism because morale was low after their recent losses and the long journey awaiting them. "And we're only a year away from Federation space. We've got supplies to last us six months, but we can stretch that out longer if we're smart about it."

"And we can look out for alternate resources on our way home. We're assuming we're alone out here, but there could be races we've yet to encounter, and who knows, they may not all be hostile."

"Some might even wish to do business," Ezra added following Alex's comment. "If I recall correctly, Voyager's logs recorded numerous instances where they traded with other races for supplies. Our replicator technology could be used to manufacture goods for barter."

Of course, they would also have to be cautious about it, Ezra thought. Because valuable technology could also make the Maverick a target but there was no need to voice that concern. Yet.

"Suffice it to say. It will be an interesting year."


The memorial service had been hard.

Three days after they arrived at Pearl 23, the crew gathered in the sixteen holodecks throughout the Maverick to pay their respects to their fallen comrades. The ceremony, such as it was, took place in different garden settings, the Mirabell Palace of Salzburg, Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, and Alanatiana Nature Walks of Betazed. Chris briefly spoke at his favorite, the Summer Palace of Chengde.

He was never good at such speeches, but he did the best he could under the circumstances. His crew still felt raw from their recent tragedies and the difficulties they would face over the next year, so Chris needed his words to count. He kept it simple and mentioned everyone by name, some familiar ones like Drew Katovit, Jewel Chun, and Charlotte Richmond. Others were not so familiar but held special places in the hearts of those who loved them.

The loss of Starfleet personnel affected Chris profoundly, but as a captain, it was a reality of the job. No, it really hurt knowing many of the dead were civilians. Their deaths hit him the most. People like Mitzi Gillis, Cathe Mae Ceechin, and Gretchen Felix had become regular fixtures in his life. He saw them at gatherings, at Four Corners, and walking through the halls. They gave the Maverick its life and made his ship more than just a vessel of war but a community.

Chris Larabee would miss each one of them.


Sitting in his Ready Room, Chris let the tension ease out of his bones following a particularly hectic day. The Maverick maintained its position for the time being, allowing the Captain to fulfill his promise to Julia to give the Engineering crew time to repair the ship fully. Besides, according to Josiah, the pause was good for his crew. Starfleet personnel and civilians alike were still processing the new normal of the following year. Aside from being cut off from the Federation, many had families waiting for them, assignments, and personal plans that were now on hold.

His son Adam's plans to attend Starfleet Academy had been scuttled. Still, thanks to Mary's review of Starfleet Academy's first-year curriculum, it was possible he could gain credit by serving on board the Maverick as a cadet. At the very least, Adam could complete the coursework required over the next year. The kid was receptive to the plan. Chris suspected participating in defense of the ship had made joining Starfleet more than just an idea but something Adam wanted for himself.

This relieved Chris to no end. For a time, he feared Adam had been living the life of the young boy who died in that shuttle accident over Utopia Planitia, for the father he found in an alternate universe. As much as Chris loved the young man, he did not want that for Adam if it was not his desire. No matter what, Chris would still be proud of him.

The sharp chirp of his combadge tore Chris away from his thoughts and the spectacular view outside his window.

 "CAPTAIN!"

Holly's voice exploded in his ears like artillery fire and nearly startled him into spilling his coffee.

"You're meant to have dinner with Lt. Travis, Billy, and Adam at her quarters in twenty minutes! You've been in your office for most of the day, so you barely have time to stop by your quarters and get a fresh uniform. I've replicated some roses for you to take. You better hurry, or you'll be late."

Chris tapped his com badge with irritation. "I'm not going to be late! I know exactly what time it is."

Actually, he didn't, but he wasn't telling her that.

"Don't deflect, Sir. You need to get going. Any reports can wait. It's not like Starfleet will get it any time soon."

Chris glared at his combadge as if he could see Holly's face on the gold surface. How on Earth did this 100-pound blond get to run his life? Narrowing his eyes, Chris swore Buck would pay for this.

"Yeoman, don't make me leave you on a deserted planet. I'll do it!"

"No, you won't, Sir," Holly returned, not at all intimidated by his threats. Since becoming his Yeoman, she'd heard them all. "Now get moving. You're going to be late!"

Begrudgingly, Chris stood up from his desk, swearing.

A year of this? He'd never make it.

THE END


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