"Someone sent out a call for Security personnel?" Ezra Standish entered Engineering cautiously. One of his paid informants--a necessary precaution for a man who made as many enemies as he seemed to--had told Ezra that a coup had been executed in Engineering, immediately prior to a hazardous passage through a spatial rift of uncertain characteristics.
"No, Chief, everything is under control here," Josiah Sanchez's familiar voice replied from behind a wall panel.
Ezra observed the powerfully built man as he worked. Sanchez's nonchalant attitude appeared misplaced. As he temporarily entombed half of his body to reach a conduit deep in the ship's walls, the majority of the personnel in Engineering looked on with poorly concealed hatred.
Security Chief Standish understood their infuriation. Having tapped into the intra-ship communication network, Ezra had overheard the calm way Sanchez had coped with what must have been a potentially deadly situation. He had then also heard how Captain Larabee appointed Sanchez the new Chief Engineer, completely disregarding Lieutenant Carmichael Janssen's successful bid for power. If Sanchez was not careful, all of Engineering would turn on him.
Josiah thrust a hand backward and requested a certain tool. A glum and glaring Janssen quickly retrieved the tool in question and moved to give it to Sanchez. However, the lieutenant's movements were too smooth, too practiced, and he was holding the tool with an over-handed grip, as though turning the hefty scanner into a club.
Before Ezra could move or shout a warning, Josiah Sanchez flowed out of the open wall panel--there was no other word for it, really--and twisted Lieutenant Janssen's free arm into a painful lock. "That's a nice scanner," Josiah stated quietly, but with a violent, maniacal glint in his bright blue eyes. "Can I have it?"
Janssen surrendered the scanner without argument and Josiah returned to work as though nothing had happened.
Ezra stifled the urge to smile. Evidently, his worry had been misplaced. The too-kind half-Betazoid clearly knew how to conduct himself in hostile circumstances. "Counselor," Ezra interrupted, "might I have a moment of your time?"
Josiah placed the scanner on a nearby counter. "Of course. Janssen, you have command while I'm gone. I want you to run a full, level three diagnostic. There's no telling what that spatial anomaly did to the warp core."
The counselor did not speak again until he and the security chief were in the corridor outside Engineering. "They're a good group," he commented of the men and women who worked in his newly-acquired section. "They just need a firm hand."
"A quick mind seems valuable as well," Ezra stated neutrally, but Josiah just laughed.
"I would have to be slow not to realize that the Lieutenant Janssen regards me as an obstacle. . .but I doubt you wanted to talk about my career."
"Fascinating as the subject is," Ezra joked, "no. I am fulfilling your requirement in regards to protecting my own." The surprised look on Josiah's face revealed to Ezra even without using his telepathic abilities that the counselor, with everything that had been going on, had forgotten about the promise he had extorted from Ezra. "Strangely enough," Ezra continued as though he had not noticed Josiah's lapse in concentration, "I do require your advice in a matter regarding the ship's security."
Josiah nodded. "Is it something to do with the newly- acquired members of our flock or with the sudden transportation to a highly-contested parsec?"
Ezra smirked. "Both, in a way. I do not know if you are aware of my posting prior to this one. . ."
"According to my contacts," Josiah said, fervently not thinking of a certain Armada admiral named Travis, "you were dispatched to handle a. . .delicate situation in the Romulan Star Empire, and needed to make your way back to Armada space through Klingon territory because something went wrong."
Ezra laughed. "I cannot think of one thing that did not go wrong," he muttered. "My prostheses cracked and fell off at the first sign of pressure. I had to keep a supply of emergency putty to build up my ears. Never have I been so grateful that my hair covered most of the additions. As you may have noted, the sector we are currently occupying is contested by all three empires."
"In our universe, at least," Josiah clarified. "Here, it seems that the Federation and the Klingon Empire have come to an understanding rather than fighting over it openly."
"The system that Kor referred to as Four Corners," Ezra explained, "that was the area I had been told to study. The system has only one planet. It is a desert planet, inhabited by the scum and remnants form all three empires. Some people are simply unlucky enough to live there. . .it was a Terran Empire civilian colony before it became disputed territory. However, it was at a time when the Romulan and Klingon empires did not reach as far as they currently do. The planet's orbit now takes it at different times of its solar circumnavigation into space controlled by each of the empires."
"Why hasn't there been conflict over this region?" Josiah asked in confusion. Even though his background was in politics and psychology, he understood the military side of the Terran Empire's ambitions.
"No one realizes the importance of the planet," Ezra confessed. "While I was there, I discovered that the planet in Four Corners system, in addition to being home to several politically useful people, has a high concentration of dilithium crystals."
Josiah nodded. Until or unless the scientists in any of the empires unlocked another means of travel through space, dilithium was to this century what oil had been to the twentieth and early twenty- first. As soon as someone with business connections found out about the cache of dilithium, Four Corners system, and that small planet in particular, would be like the small towns of the American western frontier in the late eighteen hundreds, lands bought out from under settlers in the name of 'progress' and the railroad. Then something else occurred to him. "Who are the politically significant settlers?"
Ezra grimaced. "Admiral Travis' son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. It is my fault they were endangered. When I needed to escape from Romulan territory, Stephen Travis offered to smuggle me out through the Klingon trade routes via a rogue Andorian freighter. Stephen Travis accompanied me to make sure the captain of the freighter would not be difficult. Everything was going smoothly; we were only a few hundred thousand kilometers from Armada-controlled space when the Klingon ship stopped us. I remained hidden, but Stephen Travis was on the bridge. The Klingon commander recognized Travis, and allowed us to pass unharmed. Stephen Travis died a few weeks ago, in an unrelated incident."
"So, everyone survived the initial encounter, but now the Klingons have reason to suspect that the Terran Empire views this region as important," Josiah concluded.
"My superiors were not pleased," Ezra admitted. "It was all the admiral could manage to have me placed aboard this vessel rather than reassigned to starbase duty near Sector One."
"And that was only after he had convinced them that stationing you here, under Larabee, would be greater punishment than a desk job," Josiah said, but his voice revealed that it was not a guess.
Ezra's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Who are you, Counselor?" Ezra asked. "You were not surprised by anything I just told you, and you seemed to know of the arguments for my reassignment, information which is supposed to be unavailable to someone in your position."
Josiah sighed. "You are the second person to ask me that in the past day."
"And?" Ezra prompted impatiently.
"And," Josiah said, smiling as the pair came to a stop outside Sickbay, "I believe it is time for me to secure your career. If you will excuse me, Chief Standish. . ."
Josiah disappeared into the one place on the ship that Ezra did not want to enter. Ezra paced in the corridor adjacent to Sickbay, mulling over his options. When Josiah did not exit the ship's clinic, Ezra steeled himself for a confrontation and brazenly entered Sickbay.
"Counselor," Ezra stated blithely, not pausing to observe the situation he encountered lest he realize its incongruity to the customary behavior of officers toward one another. "You failed to inform me of an advisable action for the circumstances I elucidated." Ezra inclined his head in a nominally polite gesture of recognition that he was in another crewman's domain. "Doctor Jaksonar," he acknowledged before swinging his gaze back to Sanchez. The dark-skinned Cardassian and the half-human Betazoid had been sharing some private joke when he walked in, which was strange. Officers who had no opportunity to compete with each other for position nevertheless rarely enjoyed one another's company. Ezra felt one of his eyebrows rising to express his bewilderment and quickly subdued the reflex because it threatened to reveal the very trait he was so desperate to hide.
Josiah turned to face Ezra. He seemed surprised that Ezra had dared follow him into sickbay. (In all fairness, Ezra was shocked by his own actions.) Finally, Josiah spoke. "Perhaps you should tell the captain," he suggested. "The history of that system might be important to our success in this region. We will accompany you. Nait has a disturbing report that the captain needs to hear, and I ought to tell him that the engines won't be fully operational for a few more hours. Follow me."
Yet another surprise was how both officers obeyed Josiah's suggestion without protest, despite the mutual detestation they felt for each other. Nait Jaksonar asked what Ezra meant about the nearby star system, and reluctantly Ezra explained.
"If it is the same in this universe," Josiah theorized, "we would at least have a steady supply of dilithium. I noticed that parts of the warp coils were damaged."
"The sooner we repair the engines, the better," Nait Jaksonar commented. "Medical scans of the crew show that our molecules are not precisely in phase with this universe."
"That doesn't make sense," Ezra protested as they rounded a bend in the corridor and approached a turbolift. "If we were out of phase, then the Romulans should not have been able to attack us."
"The Romulans fired on us with energy weapons. Energy is different from matter," Josiah reminded Ezra gently. "It is possible that energy readings are more similar across the universes than matter is."
"And that isn't the worst of it," Nait complained. "The crew's cellular structure is degrading rapidly. I estimate that we don't have very long before it begins to affect crew performance."
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Ezra queried, unable to hide his disgust at the dark-skinned Cardassian's ineptitude.
"I'm a doctor, not a molecular physicist!" Nait exclaimed in annoyance. The turbolift door opened to accept the three officers.
Uncomfortable silence descended upon the three officers until they arrived on the bridge, where Chris was discussing matters of food rations with Kor. "Sorry, no, we don't keep live food on board. I believe some of the crewmen have pets, but I wouldn't recommend eating those."
Buck laughed, JD hid a smile by turning back to his instruments, and Vin leaned almost lazily against the railing separating the weapons control panel from the command chair area. To one not practiced in reading the temperamental Vulcan's body language, Vin appeared completely relaxed. In reality, he was simply waiting for one of the Klingons to make a mistake so that he could disable them, violently, painfully, and permanently.
Chris, on the other hand, truly was at ease. He understood Commander Kor, perhaps recognizing a being of similar tendencies and character to his own. "However," Chris concluded with a slight smile, "I believe the ship's cook would not mind making extra-rare steaks for dinner tonight."
Kor nodded, recognizing that--if he had so desired--the human captain could have just as readily denied the Klingon survivors food altogether or forced them to eat vegetables, rather than attempting to meet their culinary preferences. "This will be acceptable."
"Captain?" Josiah interrupted. "There have been some developments that you should be made aware of, sir." He indicated Ezra and Nait with a tilt of his head. "Our reports would be best delivered in private."
What Josiah did not say was that the information might very well cause a panic if the entire ship knew. As it was, it would be difficult enough to force the officers to work together toward their collective survival.
"Fine," Chris replied. "Buck, you have the con. Vin, you're with me. Harriman, try to realign our sensors. I don't want the Romulans sneaking up on us again. My Ready Room, now," Chris ordered, not unkindly, and the officers in question complied with his varied directives.
No sooner had the doors swished shut behind the last officer when Chris turned on his crewmen. "Well?" he demanded impatiently.
Josiah reported on the damage to the warp coils, Ezra revealed his knowledge of dilithium deposits in the nearby solar system, and Nait Jaksonar explained the danger that remaining in this universe posed to the crew.
Chris latched onto Nait's report, since Ezra's seemed to solve Josiah's issue. "How long do we have?" Chris asked. "Is there anything you can do to slow the process?"
Nait considered for a moment. "I believe neural functions will become impaired before we see any physical defects. We probably have between forty-six and forty-eight hours before the crew becomes completely incapacitated. I could administer booster shots to the crew to put off the inevitable. . .maybe a protein-rich vitamin supplement. Placing the crew in suspended animation might delay the effects, but we don't have enough chambers for the entire crew. Please keep in mind, sir, this is completely uncharted territory. The closest thing anyone has ever seen to what the crew is afflicted with would be radiation poisoning, where every cell in the body is deteriorating because of a hostile environment."
Chris nodded tersely. "See to it, but tell the crew it's a vaccine or something. We can't afford to have a panic right now. Sanchez, we're already headed for the solar system with Standish's dilithium. Hopefully his memory of the system holds true in this universe. Keep me updated. Dismissed."
The officers all filed out of the office quickly, with only one exception. The doors closed behind the last one to leave, and Chris leaned against the bulkhead next to his Ready Room's porthole.
Vin sat in the chair facing Chris' desk. "What's wrong?"
Chris snorted and refused to play Tanner's game. "Nothing."
Vin almost smiled despite his extensive training in emotional control. "Come on, Chris. You never let officers off that easy. Actually, you never let anyone off the hook like that, so something must be bothering you."
Finally, Chris turned to face Vin. "You mean, aside from being in the wrong universe with a limping ship and potentially hostile 'guests'? No, that's everything."
Vin crossed his arms, trying not to let the powerful emotions coursing through his mind affect his judgment. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the Travis' blood debt, would it?" When Chris shot him a surprised, cornered look, Vin shrugged. "You've been on edge ever since coming back from Kor's ship. Since you and he seem to be getting along better than expected, you must be worried about something else that happened at about the same time."
Chris scowled. "Damn you and that Vulcan logic," he swore, only half-jokingly. Not for the first time, Chris considered himself lucky that he and the violent Vulcan were friends. . .Vin was too dangerous and cunning an alien to have as an enemy. "You're right, though. Things have been strange ever since the Travises started interfering in my career. This was just the last straw. I'm supposed to protect this system, but I never figured that would mean making deals with the Klingon Empire."
"Still sore about the attack on the colony you lived in?" Vin asked.
Chris smirked, the fear and pain of remembering the sneak attack that had cost him his family suppressed for the moment. "That's one way to put it. I'm trying not to blame the whole species for a single group's allegedly unauthorized offensive, but. . ."
"But the academy doesn't encourage forgiveness and understanding," Vin finished Chris' thought easily. Then, he realized what Chris had said. "Wait, I thought we were just patrolling the sector. Are you saying that the Four Corners solar system is important to the Armada?"
Chris shrugged. "It's important to Admiral Travis, anyway," he explained, not overly upset that Vin had caught on to the larger plan. Vin, for all his faults, could be trusted to remain loyal to Chris; which was a strange and inexplicable occurrence in their native universe. "We're supposed to stabilize the entire region, but it was strongly suggested that efforts would be best served by concentrating on Four Corners."
Vin's eyes narrowed, as though he was trying to see Admiral Travis' endgame by squinting. "He must realize that that would be difficult, because of the nearby Romulans and Klingons. Either empire could consider our patrol an act of war."
Chris grimaced. "One ship against two empires. . .that sounds like my kind of fight."
Vin studied Chris intently when the human's tone of voice revealed that his sentiment was not entirely in jest. If ordered to do so, Vin had no doubt Chris would take on both empires. The human captain would die, his crew would killed or captured, and his ship would most likely be destroyed rather than given as a trophy in defeat, but Captain Larabee would have cut a substantial swath through both enemies' space before either had recognized that it was more than mere border disputes. "Hopefully, it will not go that far," Vin stated guardedly
Chris nodded slightly. He no longer relished the thought of death, but neither was self-preservation his primary objective. "At least this way we get two chances." Smiling coldly, Chris continued, "From what we've seen, Romulans don't behave any differently in this universe than in ours, so their reaction to our patrol of the Four Corners system will give us warning of what could happen after we return."
"You seem pretty certain that we will get back," Vin commented, and Chris shrugged.
"Better to think that we will than to admit that we won't," Chris explained. "Besides, if I'm wrong, we'll have less than two days to worry about it."
"Counselor Sanchez?" JD called out quietly across the bridge as Josiah exited the captain's ready room. Nait Jaksonar and Ezra Standish continued to the turbolift and departed from the bridge, but Josiah veered off and approached JD's station, coming to a stop between JD and Harriman, effectively blocking the helmsman's view of JD with his large frame.
"Please, son," the ship's counselor intoned in a quiet voice," call me Josiah. As I've already told you. . .I am not your superior officer."
"Alright," JD agreed nervously. "I was just wondering--what we were talking about earlier. . .I've concluded that the ship jumped back in time by two days when it made the leap into this universe. Furthermore, I believe that the lapse in time will be corrected when we make the return trip, and I. . ." JD's voice became even quieter and its pace sped up so that it was nearly unintelligible as he concluded, "I was wondering what that would do to the ship's logs, sir."
Josiah considered what JD meant. During JD's counseling session, they had danced around the issue of Admiral Travis' controversial orders, specifically because of the ship's surveillance systems. If, upon returning to their universe, no records of conversations such as that one remained because it had not yet happened, then Travis' team of well-placed officers and crewmen could freely discuss the Admiral's objectives without consequence in this universe.
When JD could see in Josiah's gaze that the half-Betazed had connected the dots, JD shrugged and went on. "I mean, even if the ship was not adversely affected, we could claim that we were talking about a specific doppelganger from this universe."
Josiah nodded. "That's a good idea, JD, but I may have a better one. Come by my quarters after your shift."
After Josiah had left, Harriman scowled. He hadn't been able to overhear anything except Counselor Sanchez's final statement, but clearly Ensign Dunne was not as smart as all the officers seemed to think he was. Having sessions with the ship's counselor was a sure-fire way to be court-martialed or executed for treason. Everyone knew that nothing was sacred in the Armada, so why would a promising young ensign be prepared to throw it all away for a few hours of openness and discussion? He resolved to follow Counselor Sanchez later.
It was not that he worried about Ensign Dunne's safety. . .he simply suspected that Sanchez was preparing evidence against Dunne, and wanted to see the fallout for himself.
Josiah left discreetly worded messages in the quarters of every crewman that Admiral Travis had hand-picked. The nature of his job on board was such that he had been given an electronic master key to override the security protocols on every door on the ship. He knew that Nait would be perturbed at the violation of his personal quarters, Ezra and Chris would be angry, Buck would be confused, and Vin and JD would both quietly file the knowledge of Josiah's privileged access abilities for later use, though it was likely that only Vin would dare use that information against Josiah.
"I must protest the use of such cramped quarters for the purpose you are suggesting!" Ezra argued as he tried to glare at Counselor Sanchez.
The half-Betazoid only smiled serenely in response. Evidently, Admiral Travis had been aware of Ezra's Romulan ancestry, and of the Security Chief's telepathic abilities. Those became useful when the ship's own security mechanisms made talking about the subject they were about to cover an act of treason.
"Besides, you promised not to reveal the source of my. . .ability." Ezra's voice trailed off, realizing that without establishing a two-way connection between himself and the half-Betazoid, there was no way to say everything he wished to tell the counselor. As he caught the wave of thoughts that Sanchez sent his way, Standish cringed. "Of course, the boy thought of that paradox, but why are you acting upon it, and how am I supposed to help is unclear--assuming, indeed, that I do not report you to the next Dark Service agent we encounter." Ezra ignored the mental jibe that Sanchez made, questioning whether there would even be a Dark Service in this universe. Instead, Ezra read the answer to his questions and stumbled back in shock. "No," he whispered, not so much a denial as a reaction of disbelief. "He can't possibly. . ."
"Do you trust me?" Josiah said, out loud. As Ezra floundered, Josiah concluded, "Then trust the other five as well."
"You managed to find five?" Ezra exclaimed, albeit weakly. Rebellion on an individual level had been known to happen occasionally, resistance to the Empire's policies occurred in large numbers only through sheer happenstance or collective disgruntlement, but organized, tactical revolution was unheard of. "How. . ." Ezra wondered, "and who are they?"
Josiah allowed pictures of the other five members of their seven- man team to pour into his consciousness. Growing up on Betazed, he had learned how to broadcast his thoughts. Even though he was only an empath, concentration on his part could make telepathy easier for those with the ability.
Ezra smirked as he intercepted the image of Ensign JD Dunne. "No surprise there," Ezra commented. Then, he saw pictures of Doctor Nait Jaksonar, First Officer Buck Wilmington, First Officer Vin 'Tanner' and even the captain. After Ezra had accepted all the images, he was offended to see that Counselor Sanchez was not reaching for a weapon. Any officer who unveiled such an audacious plan ought to be prepared for any or all of the proposed members to reject it and turn upon the enemy of the Terran Empire. "How can you be certain of me?"
Josiah shrugged. "The Admiral speaks highly of you."
Ezra sighed. "The level of communication you are suggesting. . .it has never been attempted outside of groups made completely of telepaths. Even then, the results were unevenly distributed, not reliable, and difficult to maintain."
Again, Josiah just smiled. "Have a little faith, Ezra. Ah, here they come."
Ezra spun in surprise as the doors of Josiah's quarters swished open and a rather confused group of people poured in. Never had all seven of these men been in the same room at the same time; tempers were running high, while patience was nearly non-existent. Most of the officers present looked confused or slightly angry; only JD was beaming as he recognized the very people that Admiral Travis had--in one way or another--placed on this ship.
"Everyone, please take a seat," Josiah invited, gesturing to the bed, chair and floor as possibilities. It took some convincing, and a lot of discussion, but finally, everyone tentatively agreed to establish a telepathic connection.
"This will not work in the conventional sense," Josiah explained. "The captain will be able to broadcast orders or warnings to Ezra or Vin, who will then plant the thought in the group's collective consciousness. Other members of the group can concentrate on their own thoughts, which will then be sensed by Ezra or Vin and passed up the chain of command if necessary."
"Humans don't have that ability," Nait Jaksonar pointed out, only to be corrected by Josiah.
"Ezra is part Romulan," Josiah revealed.
Ezra glared at Josiah, but with less heat than usual. "Traitor," he whispered angrily at Josiah.
Every being present shifted uncomfortably at the word, since secret communications generally led to those involved becoming precisely that, but Josiah smiled. "I only promised not to use your lineage against you, not that I would never speak of it again."
"Is this actually possible?" Chris asked guardedly. "I've heard that full Romulans and Vulcans have the capability to do something like this--that's part of the rationalization behind the dilution program encouraged in captured planets' populations."
"In theory, and with absolute trust, yes, such a feat should be possible," Ezra conceded.
"Ok, who wants to start?" JD asked excitedly. When several stares--some bemused, some irritated--focused on him, JD belatedly added a quiet, "sir?" to the room at large.
Ezra smiled slightly. "Since you volunteered, Ensign. . .First Officer Tanneresjacheisoek, if you would assist me, please."
JD gave a barely perceptible flinch at the prospect of First Officer Vin Tanner being inside his mind again. The last time had been. . .unpleasant to say the least, but JD braced himself and prepared for the connection despite his misgivings. If this was how he could help solidify the unlikely group's loyalty, then his discomfort was a small price to pay.
However, instead of the abrupt, almost violent mind meld that Vin had performed when JD was being punished, Vin extended his right hand slowly and recited a mantra, "My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts. Our minds are merging. . .our minds are one."
This time, the connection was gentle and smooth, more like steeping through a doorway than breaking through a window. Vin's mind was assaulted by the loud, persistent doubts of Ezra's thoughts and the nervous, but eager emotions that poured off of JD in near-constant pulses.
When it became apparent to the other four crew members that the connection had been established without any negative effects, the others all agreed to join the mental link. As soon as all had joined, the captain and crew members sat, staring at one another; literally lost for words, both verbally and mentally. Finally, a tentative voice that reminded everyone present of JD asked, Um. . .is this thing on?
Everyone but Vin smiled, a few of the men laughed, and Ezra replied verbally, "I have harbored doubts about the existence of your intellect, Ensign Dunne, but there appears to be some kind of presence in contradiction to my fears."
JD tried to scowl, but recognized the humor in Ezra's voice, so he could not remain angry for long.
Admiral Travis really felt that this was necessary? Chris thought, trying to bring the meeting back into some semblance of order. He had received the basic outline of Admiral Travis' orders from Josiah, through the connection with Vin and Ezra. They were nearly identical to the orders he was currently obeying; only the goal of the orders was questionable.
In order to maintain peace between the three empires, yes, Josiah's explanation was routed through Vin, since that connection was less diluted and more powerful than Ezra's. The combination of Josiah's empathic abilities, Ezra's genetic predisposition toward reading thoughts from a distance, and Vin's Vulcan ancestry made a single, solid connection that seemed to be able to convey very specific thoughts throughout the seven-being group. A Terran Empire presence, both in this system and along the borders of this region, Josiah continued to clarify, will put the Klingon Empire at ease, and will make the Romulan Star Empire nervous.
Like in this universe? JD interrupted. What if that leads to war, though?
Josiah shrugged. It is a risk the admiral was willing to take.
I don't see the admiral out here, risking his neck with the rest of us, Ezra protested.
If his involvement were discovered, Buck contradicted, thinking of his little brother, how close he was to the disputed region of space wouldn't matter; he would suffer the same fate as the rest of us.
Josiah felt an overbearing sadness emanate from Buck. Vin and Ezra moved quickly to shield the others from the disturbing thoughts and images that were overpowering Buck's mind, but Chris shook his head.
"No, let us see," Chris ordered. "We're all in this together; we each deserve to know the consequences of our actions."
A moment of horrified realization occurred as the others were subjected to glimpses of the communiqué Buck had received about his brother's execution, and flashes of the painful method of execution itself seared into the collective consciousness. JD clasped Buck's hand in sympathy, rather than reacting with the horror that the group's other members reflected. As Josiah sensed the thoughts and emotions of the group, he noticed subtle, but important changes. Instead of thinking as individuals concerned with their own survival, the psyche was rapidly changing to reflect a cohesive unit, one that would seek its collective survival and success in this endeavor.
Outside Josiah's quarters, Ensign Harriman drew back from listening at a ventilation shaft in surprise and disgust. As a full- blooded human, he could not understand why Captain Larabee--a man who, up until this moment, he had believed epitomized the ideal StarArmada officer--would not only associate with, but also engage in undermining the state with such a diverse group.
Ensign Dunne was a fool; Harriman had known that from the start, but he could not accept the notion that Larabee harbored the same thoughts toward the Terran Empire. He had not overheard much because much of what was said had evidently taken place inside this newly- formed telepathic connection. . .Harriman shuddered. He did not want to think about aliens and traitors being inside a loyal StarArmada officer's mind.
However, if the StarArmada officer in question was not loyal, then he should be reported. Moving quickly, Ensign Harriman went to his quarters and began documenting what he had seen on a datapad.
"Is the Away Team ready?" Captain Larabee asked of First Officer Wilmington.
Buck had taken over JD's station, and was checking the status of Transporter Room Two. "Aye sir, he's ready to beam down." Chris nodded permission for JD, Josiah, and Vin to beam down to the allegedly dilithium-rich planet. Buck sent the confirmation via the communication controls as Chris and Ezra looked on, and Nait moved around the bridge, giving injections to the crew. In an announcement earlier that day, Chris had informed the entire crew that the Rigellian Flu had been released from a previously sealed container; evidently the person who had packed the container was contagious, and the virus had been sealed into the box. When the box was opened, some of the crew became infected, and now everyone needed to take the vaccine.
What Chris had not told the crew--what they could not have handled hearing--was that this universe was slowly pulling at the very threads of their existence. The vaccine was a stop-gap measure, a means of slowing that process down, but only a return to the StarArmada universe would fully stop the gradual disintegration. In an unusual display of kindness, Larabee had ordered Nait to adjust the 'vaccine' for Klingon use, and suggested to Commander Kor that he order his men to also take the medicine. So far, all of the Klingons had obliged.
Chris stared at the small, M-class planet below them. It was comprised mostly of deserts and mountains. All but a few of the planet's water resources were underground, but the planet's real resource lay in the veins of dilithium found in the mountain ranges on the western continent, or so Ezra had told them. JD, Josiah, and Vin had been chosen for the away mission due to their characteristics and areas of expertise.
JD was the communications officer and human, which meant that he would be able to convince the planet's inhabitants to share some of their resources. Josiah looked human, could sense the emotions of those around him, and had a passable knowledge of Engineering, so he would be able to determine whether the dilithium was warp core grade. Vin, though he was obviously not human, had been sent on the mission because Chris did not know what to expect from this universe. If the planet's inhabitants were violent, Chris wanted his best tactician there to ascertain what danger they posed.
"What makes you think this planet has dilithium?" Kor rumbled from where he and two other Klingon officers stood by the turbolift.
"We don't," Chris lied easily, "but this is the closest inhabitable planet to our present location. If there is dilithium, the residents will know about it."
Ezra had tensed momentarily when the Klingon commander raised the question, fearful that Chris would betray him as Josiah had, that the captain would inform Kor of Ezra's mission to discover dilithium on this planet in the other universe. Then he relaxed, relieved that the tenuous alliance between the six other crewmen and himself seemed to be holding.
When Josiah, Vin and JD materialized on the planet's surface, JD's confidence that the Tiberius had actually travelled to an alternate universe was shaken, Josiah's years of experience in avoiding conflict proved to be necessary, and Vin's frustration at not bringing along more weaponry than his phaser threatened to break past his Vulcan stoicism.
"I guess we should've called ahead?" JD suggested as he and the two older officers were disarmed and relieved of their communicators by frightened but armed locals.
"Come with us," one man ordered, and the small posse led the three StarArmada officers into a ramshackle town comprised of structures built with the convertible material from the 23rd century colony ships. "The Judge wants to see you," the group's leader informed the three prisoners just before they were shoved into a low-ceilinged building that seemed to double as a courthouse and tavern.
"You'll have to excuse Mr. Potter and the others," a distinguished-looking older man said as he sat at a table and poured some strong-smelling liquid into a glass. "They aren't used to visitors, and given our recent experiences, outsiders are viewed with suspicion. Have a seat, gentlemen."
Vin and Josiah obeyed, but JD simply gaped. "Admiral Travis?" Whoever he was in this universe, the man referred to as 'the Judge' was a dead ringer for the StarArmada admiral who had brought the seven members of the Tiberius' crew together.
"I'm Orin Travis," the old man admitted, "but I've never been called Admiral before. Most folks around here call me Judge. I am the governor of this colony, son of the founder. My daughter-in-law and grandson live in this encampment. From your uniforms, I can guess that you're part of a starship's crew, and you heard that our little planet has dilithium." Replying to the surprised looks that Josiah and JD exchanged, Orin Travis continued, "That's a rumor. I don't know who started it, but it's brought us nothing but trouble out here. With the Klingons on one side, the Romulans on another, every penny-ante space-pirate and renegade that comes through this system, we've learned to be self-sufficient. Patrols by Starfleet are few and far between, so we often need to protect ourselves." Glancing toward the emblem on Josiah's uniform, Orin asked, "Have we been out here so long that Starfleet changed its symbol?"
Josiah smiled. "No, we're members of a special division within Starfleet, meant to patrol the Neutral Zone more frequently. You're right, we had heard the rumors about this planet's dilithium supply, and hoped to replenish our stores. We were attacked recently, and took some damage to our Engineering section."
Orin Travis' expression became momentarily conflicted. "Was it the Romulans? I heard they were stepping up patrols also. . .but your ship survived mostly intact?"
"Sure, we only need to patch up a few more bulkheads on D- deck," JD started to report, and then remembered that he was talking to a civilian. No matter how much he looked like Admiral Travis, this man was not in JD's chain of command. JD's mouth snapped shut audibly and he began to blush.
Vin suppressed a smile. Since initiating the seven-being mental connection, he had been bombarded with emotions and was finding the task of restraining his own a more difficult chore. He, too, was unsettled by the appearance of Admiral Travis' doppelganger, but he would not show it. "Are the Romulans giving you trouble, sir?" Vin asked, thinking that if the Judge was lying, then offering aid might convince the colony's governor to be more forthcoming.
"Not the Romulan Star Empire, no," Orin Travis said quickly, almost desperately. "You must understand. . .it is a rogue faction, one that the Romulan Praetor has no control over. . ."
"And this faction has threatened your colony," Josiah surmised.
Orin Travis nodded. "Yes. The Romulan who leads them is called Commander Andralek. They say that Andralek lost his mind while fighting in the Earth-Romulan War, but he has many devoted followers, and they secured the use of a ship. Upon learning of the rumors about this planet, the commander demanded that we mine and process dilithium, or else he would return in two weeks and take it from us by force. That was ten days ago. We sent a subspace message to Starfleet, but they said the nearest ship would not arrive for at least three weeks."
"The Earth-Romulan War was centuries ago!" JD blurted out, only belatedly remembering which universe he was in, and hoping that his knowledge of history was accurate.
"Romulans have life-spans similar to Vulcans, son," Orin Travis reminded JD. "Andralek had just been promoted to the rank of Centurion when his ship was destroyed, and most of the crew along with it. Those who survived became a close-knit cadre of officers, with him as their unofficial leader. They all went on to have successful careers, some in the military; some in politics, but Andralek progressed to the rank of Commander, and has fought to remain there."
Josiah rose from his chair. "Thank you for your time. We apologize for the intrusion. Vin, JD, let's go."
"Wait!" Orin Travis called after the trio as they turned to leave. "The rumors are greatly exaggerated, but there are some small deposits of dilithium. We will give you those if you help us."
Josiah hesitated. "I must confer with my captain. You will have an answer soon."
"Do you trust him?"
Chris Larabee regarded the three returning officers with suspicion. As a measure to ensure the Klingons' cooperation, Commander Kor and two of his officers had been permitted to attend the debriefing in the conference room. Buck Wilmington had the con, and Nait Jacksonar was in Sickbay, but Vin, JD, Josiah, and Ezra were all present. Kor regarded Vin, Josiah, and JD with the same doubt that Chris did.
Josiah shrugged. "Governor Travis seems to genuinely need our help, and I could sense no deception in him."
"If we help and then they refuse to give us the dilithium, we can always take it by force."
Chris spun in surprise to face the speaker, Josiah frowned, and Vin raised an eyebrow. Kor growled when he heard who had made the suggestion. Ezra smirked, wondering if the ensign was not as naïve and kind as the other six beings had previously believed him to be.
JD grimaced. "I'm not saying we should. . .only that this ship has the capability to do so."
"I agree with JD," Vin said. "But if we can force the colony to give us a supply of dilithium, why not do it now? We have already had one battle with Romulans. The ship might not survive another attack."
Chris silently acknowledged the logic of Vin's argument, but some part of him rebelled against leaving a colony to the non- existent mercies of a power-hungry and battle-crazed Romulan commander. Maybe it was the telepathic bond with the other six beings, alerting him to the losses that every one of them had experienced, or perhaps it was the similarity between this situation and the attack on the colony he lived on before joining the Armada, but Chris simply could not allow the Four Corners colony to be destroyed.
"I will beam down to the colony with a small security team. Standish will accompany me." Ezra started to protest--he did not want to relinquish the responsibility of guarding the Klingon officers, but Chris guessed what Ezra was thinking, even without the benefit of telepathy. "Vin will take over whatever part of your duties you think most important, Ezra," Chris ordered gently. "Meet me in Transporter Room One in five minutes."
With a look and a thought, Ezra transferred responsibility for the Klingon officers to Vin, who accepted with a nod and a barely perceptible smirk. Kor witnessed the exchange, noted that his own officers wished to discuss the human captain's apparent weakness, and assured the Vulcan first officer that he and his crew members would return to the barracks Larabee had given them. With a curt order in Klingonase, Kor forced his officers to maintain their silence until they had privacy.
Despite the Klingon commander's assurances, Vin followed the 'guests', ascertaining that they kept their word. Klingon warriors were generally more trustworthy than Klingon politicians, but Vin decided to take no chances. After ordering Security to inform him if Kor departed from the improvised barracks, Vin returned to his other duties.
"Why would he not take what his ship needs?" Kor's first officer asked. "Is Larabee a coward?"
Kor laughed. "Larabee is many things, Murtagh, but no one could accuse him of cowardice. I do not understand why he is cooperating either. Perhaps the Klingon High Command misjudged him."
"How could they?" Kor's second officer countered. "He hates other species, and barely tolerates mixed members of his own crew. His record is full of instances of anti-alien actions."
Kor shrugged. "Larabee is more complicated than our dossier on him gives him credit for. Leave me; I wish to check the device alone." Kor waited for his officers to obey and then went to observe the patchwork machine the Klingons had cobbled together from communicators and tricorders that the crew had been holding when transported out of their doomed ship.
Tapping a few keys, Kor started playing the tape of JD talking to Josiah on the bridge about the probability that the ship's logs would not have recorded anything of what happened in this universe once the ship returned through the spatial anomaly.
Since one condition of Kor's cooperation with StarArmada's crew had been that he recall his conversation with Larabee regarding espionage, Kor had taken that comment as an invitation to plant listening devices in inconspicuous areas around the ship. The Klingons were largely confined to this converted shuttle bay, but with the supplies looted from his attempted assassinator's quarters (that particular Klingon had possessed an unsettling number of small electronic bugs. . .so many that Kor suspected the deceased Klingon had been in the employ of Imperial Intelligence) Commander Kor could maintain an intelligence advantage over the human captain.
Kor scowled as he heard the near-treasonous talk of the young StarArmada ensign that he was honor-bound to protect. Evidence such as this would only make his vow that much harder to fulfill. Glancing around the shuttle bay to confirm that no one was watching him, Kor accessed the damning audio file and deleted it.
Chris beamed down to the surface with Ezra and a security team. The second landing party received only a nominally more polite greeting--mostly because Chris' glare automatically precluded the possibility of the starship crew members being disarmed as the first landing party had been.
"Stand down!" a man ordered, and as Chris recognized Admiral Travis, he resisted the urge to salute.
The elderly gentleman currently approaching the Away Team through the warm wind of the planet's desert surface looked similar to the Admiral Travis of the Terran Empire's universe. Instead of a uniform and a desk at StarArmada headquarters, though, this Travis had stately but simple clothing and command of a colony.
Without hesitation, Governor Travis approached Captain Larabee, ignored the tense stances of the security team and the nervous way Ezra Standish was touching his phaser as though he wished to draw it. Shaking the captain's hand before Chris even realized he had accepted the gesture, Governor Orin Travis asked, "You are the man who is going to save our colony?"
Chris smiled tightly. "We'll do what we can, sir. What sort of planetary defenses do you have?"
"Very little," the governor admitted. "We do not have any weapons beyond a few outdated phase cannons. Those are commonly used for scaring off the larger wildlife, but have been occasionally fired at scout ships, discouraging hostile parties from landing."
Grimacing, Chris demanded to have a tour of the colony and its supplies. By the end of the trip around the main settlement, Chris' harsh look had softened. The settlement was comprised mainly of families, which reminded Chris of the unprovoked attack on his former colony. As he walked to the outskirts of the main settlement, Chris saw a large pod meant to carry cargo. It did not match the ore used in the colony buildings, and bore the marks of near-constant contact with a vacuum.
Indicating the large pod, with a glance, Chris asked, "Did the Romulan commander leave that?"
Governor Travis nodded. "He demanded that we have it filled by the time he returned, and threatened to torture some of us if we did not comply."
"He will come early," Chris cautioned the governor.
"Romulan commanders like Andralek know that the best tactic is often the one least expected," Ezra added, thinking of his time within the borders of the Romulan Star Empire.
"We're aware of that," Governor Travis replied. "The entire settlement is ready to evacuate to some caves to the south that are resistant to scanning from orbit. It is not a perfect option, but--"
"But at least some of you will survive that way," Chris completed the thought. "That is a good plan. My ship will try to stop Andralek in orbit, but if a landing party or attack squadron breaks through, the colonists should already be hidden. Here is what I want you to do," Chris began explaining the plan that would hopefully draw Commander Andralek into a weak position tactically.
Commander Andralek ordered that the storage pod he had left behind twelve days earlier be analyzed from orbit by the ship's sensors. The planet's two moons were just coming into view over the horizon formed by the planet's atmosphere against the infinite darkness of space.
Sub-Commander Tomar received the report from a member of the crew. "The reading is crystalline, but not dilithium."
Commander Andralek's nostrils flared in anger and his tightly-clenched fist against the armrest of his command chair. "Do they think we are fools?" he asked rhetorically. "Hail the colony!" he ordered.
Instead of a response from the planet, though, a ship that looked similar to the Federation vessels appeared from the far side of the nearest moon and opened fire, narrowly missing the Romulan bird of prey. A human's face appeared on the screen, surrounded by a bridge full of officers who were only partially human. A few Klingons hung toward the back.
"I suggest you find another system to steal from," the human captain stated, his expression uncompromising.
Andralek studied the human captain's uniform intently and noticed that he did not bear the same emblem as the other, weak- minded members of the Federation. "This system can scarcely be said to belong to the Federation. According to your uniform, you have no more loyalty to that gathering of cowards than I. If we both attack the colony, we could split what we take."
The human captain raised his right hand, clearly signaling the Vulcan officer to his right, and another beam of energy lanced out, this time missing the weapons section even more narrowly than the first warning shot.
"Warp out of here, Commander," the human captain ordered. "The war is over."
Commander Andralek gave a bitter smile. "Just how many of you humanitarians are there?" he asked, trying to judge whether the enemy was a single ship or several.
The bird of prey's sensors detected the Federation-like vessel's photon torpedoes locking onto the Romulan ship's location.
"Enough," the Vulcan officer replied, his tone cold, and his eyes conveying battle lust.
A few of the younger officers on Commander Andralek's bridge swallowed nervously. Andralek only observed the Vulcan with something akin to admiration. Vulcans were supposed to be peace- loving, but this one appeared to have a warrior's desires instead.
Since he also seemed to be the other ship's tactical officer, the Romulan commander nodded. "My compliments to your crew, Captain," Commander Andralek said quietly. Signaling for his own communications officer to end the transmission, Andralek then ordered the helmsman to take the bird of prey out of sensor range.
"There's no way we scared them off that easily," JD commented, forgetting for a moment that he was surrounded by superior officers.
Instead of a harsh look, though, Chris shook his head. "You're right, Kid. He'll come back. Keep the ship on Yellow Alert, and--"
"Sir, we're being hailed by the colony," JD interrupted as a light on his panel flashed. "It's Admiral--I mean, Governor Travis. Should I patch him through?"
"Onscreen," Chris ordered shortly. After accepting the praises of the colony's governor for a few minutes, Chris tried to politely explain that he--and the rest of the crew--needed to return to their duties.
However, the governor would not hear of it. Exuberant about the easy, bloodless victory, Governor Travis insisted that Captain Larabee and his officers come down to the planet for a celebratory dinner. Grudgingly, Chris acquiesced, and then terminated the communication.
"Ensign Dunne," Chris ordered, "you, Buck, and Josiah will beam down first. I will lead a second group in a few hours to relieve you. Report to Transporter Room One. Kor, I'd like to speak with you in my Ready Room."
Vin tensed and started to rise, but Chris sent a mental order to stand down.
Curious, Kor followed Chris without protest. The Klingon commander was beginning to understand that the human captain was not a creature who gave frivolous commands. In fact, since shortly after intercepting the discussion between the Terran Empire's counselor and 'the Kid', Kor had noticed that the top echelon of officers scarcely needed to speak. They seemed to communicate with each other on a level that approached telepathy. That was ridiculous, of course--only the Vulcan would have the power to share thoughts, but that practice took control, which the Tiberius' Vulcan first officer definitely lacked.
After Kor entered Chris' Ready Room, the Klingon leaned nonchalantly against a bulkhead with his arms crossed, refusing to ask why the captain had summoned him. Admitting that he did not already know or suspect the reason for this meeting would be a sign of weakness.
Chris stared out the small porthole at the planet below and sighed. "Do you still have a science officer, Commander?" Chris asked as he turned to face the Klingon.
Taken aback, both by the question and by the fact that the human captain had used his title, Kor replied automatically. "Yes, he was among the survivors. Why do you ask?" Kor sneered. "Is there a task which your officer is incapable of performing?"
Chris glared, but did not rise to the bait. "The anomaly we came through is too small for this ship to pass through. Hopefully, by the time the situation in the Four Corners' system is resolved, we will be able to return. If something happens to my crew, it is vital that you find a way to return."
"I have never known an officer of the Terran Empire to concern himself with the survival of Klingons," Kor stated, his suspicions rising.
Chris grimaced. "Sure. . .and how is that 'year and a day' vow working out for you?" His point made, namely that sometimes circumstances forced officers to make strange decisions, Chris continued. "According to JD's calculations, returning through the anomaly should send us back to the moment we entered the rift. But being displaced in time is tricky. We can't guess whether the consequences of entering the rift will be reversed."
"My crew might not be dead?" Kor whispered, conflicted about what such an outcome would mean. On one hand, dying in the line of duty was honorable, but on the other, he had lost some good friends.
"Like I said. . .we just don't know," Chris muttered, not noticing the hopeful look that momentarily crossed Kor's face. "When the time comes, if my crew is unable to return, you will need to get the ship back through the anomaly."
Kor nodded slowly. "What about your security personnel?" he asked. He was not worried that they would pose any significant threat, only that the weak guards might slow his crew down enough that they would miss the window in which to pilot the Tiberius through the rift.
Chris smiled, and the expression caused Kor to briefly wonder whether the human captain was part Klingon. "If the tactical situation is so dire that you're in command of my ship, Security won't be a problem. Also, if both crews manage to return through the rift successfully, we will need to pretend that nothing has changed between us, or else our superiors will assign our ships to opposite ends of our respective empires."
Kor grinned. "Such a ploy will be easy on my part," he gloated, and Chris suppressed the urge to sigh in response.
Commander Andralek gave an eager, bloodthirsty smile as he watched his science officer calculate the trajectory of the slowly- approaching ion storm. At its current rate of speed, the spatial disturbance would not reach the system for a few more hours, and would miss the inhabited planet entirely, but at its current location, the ion storm would wreak havoc with the other ship's long-range sensors. As long as they stayed on the far side of it, the renegade Romulan's vessel could duck into the system undetected, and hide their warp signature in a nearby asteroid belt.
"Follow the storm in," Commander Andralek ordered his helmsman. "Keep it between us and the human's ship. We can break off at this point," Andralek indicated the heading on the helmsman's station, "and hide the ship here. By then, we will be clear of the ion storm, and our long-range sensors will be operational. I want continuous life-scan readings, both for the planet and that ship. Inform me of any changes."
JD, Buck, and Josiah materialized and were met by a very different kind of reception committee. Instead of guns and hard, suspicious expressions, there were smiles and friendly conversation. After being led to the tavern where Josiah had negotiated with Governor Travis earlier, Josiah fell into discussing the merits of different political structures regarding small, colony-type populations.
JD was offered a seat at a nearby table and almost immediately a plate of home-cooked--rather than replicated--food was placed in front of him. Buck disappeared into a different building, along with one of the colony's single women.
In what seemed like no time at all, Chris, Vin, and Nait beamed down and joined the revelries. Chris refused to return to the planet until the promised dilithium was delivered, so Governor Travis had agreed to the exchange, beaming up the payment before Chris beamed down. Chris left orders with the Engineering staff to install the dilithium crystals immediately.
When Chris saw how much JD and Josiah seemed to be enjoying themselves, and noted that Buck was nowhere in sight, the captain gave up on ordering Buck, Josiah, and JD to return to the ship.
Instead, Chris stepped out of the tavern to get away from the noise, opened his communicator and prepared to hail the ship. Before he could do so, several Romulans materialized at the edge of the Federation colony's encampment. Commander Andralek was among them.
Chris drew his phaser, but was quickly overtaken by the Romulan landing party. With an especially potent glare aimed at the Commander Andralek, Chris relinquished his weapon, but did not raise his hands in what he perceived to be a humiliating gesture.
"Call your officers out here," Commander Andralek ordered.
"I'm the only one," Chris lied. "The governor wanted to talk to me--"
Commander Andralek struck the human captain across the face. Despite being well into his second century of life, the Romulan was still almost twice as strong as any human, and the captain had to fall back a step, not quite reeling with the impact. "My ship has been monitoring the planet, captain." Andralek's tone insinuated that he doubted the human deserved such a title. "I know that you and five others beamed down after running my ship out of the system." In a quieter voice, Andralek concluded, "Order them to come out here, or my men will search every building, killing anyone who resists."
Chris' jaw clenched as he considered the options. He had left Ezra in control of the Tiberius--hopefully the devious Security Chief was already aware of the situation and working on a solution. Reluctantly, Chris re-set his communicator to contact both the landing party and the ship, and said, "Landing party, this is the captain. Regroup immediately at the southern end of the encampment. That means you too, Buck." Hopefully, the ship would intercept that transmission and scan the area he had mentioned. When Ezra realized what was happening, Chris would have the capabilities of the Tiberius at his disposal. . .and Commander Andralek should be completely unaware of the advantage.
Commander Andralek raised one eyebrow at the unconventional use of a subordinate officer's first name in such a familiar--if demeaning--tone. He had been under the impression that the Federation disliked such unprofessional means of address.
Chris shrugged. "Knowing Buck, he's probably more. . .intimately occupied than the others. If I didn't call for him specifically, he would have ignored the order."
Commander Andralek nodded at the human captain's assessment. A few members of his crew had similar tastes in recreational activities, though none of them would have been stupid or suicidal enough to ignore the general order. Commander Andralek issued orders to his landing party, and Chris could only watch helplessly as Josiah, JD, Nait, Vin, and finally Buck, hesitantly left the buildings and were disarmed by waiting Romulans.
As Chris' landing party was herded away from the small Federation encampment, Vin leaned closer to Chris and joked, "We'll take our dilithium, now."
Chris smiled mirthlessly, but the comment had raised his spirits, if only marginally.
"Take us to the opposite side of the planet, ensign," Ezra ordered. "Keep us out of the Romulan ship's weapons range."
"But sir, you heard the transmission," the helmsman complained. "We should be beaming down a security team, not running and hiding--"
"I have the con, ensign," Ezra replied, his tone cold, but his gaze uncertain. "You would do well to remember that. Carry out your orders, or I will relieve you of your duties and pilot the ship myself."
"Aye, sir," the helmsman reluctantly agreed. The rest of the bridge crew wondered if this was Security Chief Standish's bid for power. With all the officers who might challenge him on the planet below, this would be an ideal opportunity to let the Romulans do his dirty work and then claim the captaincy. Some of the more ruthless members of the bridge crew admired the audacity of his plan, while others speculated--albeit silently--about how Standish expected to succeed without consequences.
"Keep weapons locked on the Romulan vessel," Ezra added, "and come to these coordinates on my command."
The bridge crew relaxed. If Security Chief Standish expected to assume command of the Tiberius, at least he was conveying the air of a captain.
Sub-commander Tomar whispered something to Commander Andralek, who chuckled briefly before addressing the human captain. "Your ship has fled, Captain. Evidently, not all of your officers are as trustworthy as those you brought with you."
The human captain failed to hide the pain of betrayal that flashed across his features. The young one looked confused, as though he refused to believe what Andralek had just said. Among the other captives, there were varied reactions, from the stoic, unyielding calm on the Vulcan's face, to the anger and desperation on the dark-skinned Cardassian's.
The colony's governor, on the other hand, was not nearly as entertaining as the other captain's away team. Governor Travis would not reveal the location of the plentiful dilithium mines that this planet was purported to possess.
Andralek considered following through on his threat to torture the colonists, but decided that when they did finally tell him the dilithium's coordinates, he would need them as labor. Another option was far more beneficial, and would give him the satisfaction of killing the smug human captain and his landing party.
"First, my ship will execute your valiant protectors," Commander Andralek informed the huddled and frightened colonists in a voice that carried to the enemy landing party. "Then, if you still refuse to cooperate, we will begin killing your constituents, Governor." Opening his communicator, Andralek ordered his ship to use the phaser-banks to fire on the human captain's group of officers.
"Ah hell," Buck breathed, "sorry we got you into this, JD."
Putting up a brave front, JD answered cryptically, "There's still time."
Josiah sighed. "I admire your optimism, but we must consider the possibility that Ezra has betrayed us."
Before Chris, Nait, or Vin could add their comments, phaser-banks discharged, but the energy beam lanced across the night sky, rather than down to the planet's surface.
The Tiberius' landing party seized the moment of amazement, disarming a few of the closest Romulans and ducking for cover as an all-out firefight began.
Sub-commander Tomar watched the other crew's landing party fight, and was surprised by their tenacity and skill.
The oldest among them was deceptively strong; taking on two Romulans in a style he recalled from the cultural propaganda tapes as something humans called 'boxing'. Even when he disarmed those two crewmen, the oldest member of the human captain's landing party only tossed the particle weapons to the part-Klingon and the human boy instead of keeping one or both of the weapons for himself.
The boy, once he had a weapon, fought with great bravery and no hesitation whatsoever. He had no concern for his own safety. Indeed, more often than not, when he broke from cover it was to provide a distraction so that one of his superiors could return to a safe vantage point. Either the boy was exceedingly loyal to the superior officers--a trait that he had heard Starfleet crews engendered--or he believed each of the officers to be his close friends.
The dark-skinned Cardassian fought acceptably with a phaser he had stolen back from one of the Romulan guards, but when he obtained a set of throwing knives from one of the fallen Centurions, the Cardassian became such a fierce combatant that even Sub-commander Tomar, who feared no one, ducked briskly as a few accurately-aimed throwing knives bounced off a nearby rocky outcropping.
The part-Klingon officer fired accurately and quickly, ducking from cover to cover and often pulling the human boy out of the line of fire. He seemed to spend as much time lecturing the boy as he did taking shots at the Romulan landing party. . .a fact for which Sub- commander Tomar was grateful, as the part Klingon officer's speed, strength, and aim rivaled that of the best Romulans currently planetside.
Vulcans were supposed to be non-violent and logical, the Sub- commander complained silently, but this one used his logic only to prioritize which Romulan to shoot first, and appeared to have forgotten the bulk of Surak's peaceful philosophy. More than once, Sub-commander Tomar had to retreat slightly to take himself out of the Vulcan's deadly range.
The human captain should have been among the least worrying of the landing party, but Sub-commander Tomar rapidly changed that assessment. Moving with a lithe, flowing gait, the lethal human seemed almost to melt into one set of shadows and appear in a different set several yards closer to the slowly retreating Romulans. In addition to his stealthy movements, the human captain had an impossibly fast draw, and took down twice as many Romulans as any other being among his landing party.
Sub-commander Tomar fell back to Commander Andralek's position, and advised the commander that it would be wise to retreat.
"Retreat?" Commander Andralek snorted derisively. "From these sub-Romulan renegades? I think not." Aiming his own weapon at the human boy, whose stolen phaser's fuel pack had run down--it was the equivalent of a projectile weapon running out of ammunition--Commander Andralek fired just as Sub- commander Tomar opened his communicator and ordered that the survivors be beamed up to the ship.
Seeing what Commander Andralek intended to do, Buck threw himself in front of JD, taking the full force of the laser in his chest. Buck collapsed as the remaining Romulans dematerialized in the shimmering transporter effect.
As soon as the others realized that the fight was over, Nait hurried toward JD and Buck. With a meaningful glance toward Chris, Nait waited to treat Buck until Chris and Josiah had dragged a distraught JD away from the gravely injured First Officer.
Nait took out a medical scanner that--since it was not a weapon or a communicator--had not been taken from him prior to the attempted execution, and ran it over the affected area. His mouth set in a grimace. "The phase pistol was set to 'kill,'" Nait informed the other officers. JD gasped, and Nait continued. "Fortunately, the beam did not fire at full strength--I think it was stopped when their transporter began the dematerialization process."
"Is he going to be alright?" JD asked, his voice trembling as he fully realized that Buck had only been injured because JD had chosen to take stupid risks.
"It's too soon to tell," Nait hedged. "I need to get him to Sickbay immediately."
Josiah retrieved his communicator from one of the Romulan bodies and requested that the landing party be beamed up. Seconds later, six forms disappeared from the planet's surface and reappeared on one of the Tiberius' transporter pads.
As soon as he solidified, Chris marched to the nearest intercom and pressed the button to connect with the bridge. "Standish," Chris tried to control the fury in his voice, but failed, "report."
"Your presence on the bridge is requested immediately, sir," Ezra Standish replied. "Additionally, I recommend that Interim Chief Engineer Sanchez return to Engineering, as his 'good group' currently requires some of the discipline which only he seems capable of providing."
"Is Janssen causing trouble again?" Chris grated out, the vein at his right temple throbbing dangerously.
"Such a statement would imply that he at one time ceased to cause difficulties, captain," Ezra answered.
Even though Ezra was on the bridge and the others were in a transporter room several decks away, Nait, Josiah, JD, Chris, and Vin could all picture Standish smirking.
"Understood," Chris responded. "Larabee out." Sending a glare toward the transporter technician for not contacting Sickbay already, Chris and the away Team strode out of the transporter room. Vin went with Chris to the Bridge, Josiah took the turbolift to Engineering, and Nait and JD carried Buck between them to Sickbay.
"Vin," Chris said as the turbolift doors opened, and then continued his order silently.
Swiftly, Vin drew his phaser and relieved Ezra of both the phaser and the dagger that were standard Terran Empire issue. The Bridge crew did not think it strange that the Vulcan First Officer had carried out Larabee's orders without actually hearing said orders. Rather, they assumed either that the captain had made his wishes known before the turbolift doors parted to reveal the Bridge, or that Vin was capable of anticipating the captain's moods.
If Ezra was shocked by the turn of events, he did not show it. Instead, he rose gracefully from the command chair, allowed himself to be disarmed, and smiled bitterly. "It was necessary to retreat temporarily, Captain, in order to trick Commander Andralek. Clearly, my tactic was successful, so why do you appear ready to have me beamed into space without the benefit of an environmental suit?"
Chris glared, but his voice was steady when he replied, "If I wanted you dead, Standish, I wouldn't give someone else the pleasure of carrying out my orders. Sit down."
Without any of his usual sarcastic remarks, Ezra instantly leaned against the banister that divided the science and communications stations from the front portion of the bridge.
"Vin, what is Andralek doing?" Chris demanded.
Vin peered at his sensors and then quirked an eyebrow as he observed the situation and deduced the delusion Romulan commander's intent. "Shuttles are leaving the ship," Vin stated. "The Romulan ship's heading has changed to a collision course with us. He is approaching ramming speed."
"Captain, this is Engineering," Josiah Sanchez's voice came through the com, reporting, "I can probably give you Warp Two, but that will be pushing it, sir, and these crystals aren't ideal. I think it may be the same problem Nait told us about."
"Warp two will have to be enough," Chris conceded. "Helm, bring us about to heading 147.2--"
"Sir, there's an ion storm crossing the system on that heading," the helmsman informed the captain who, shockingly, smiled.
"Those are your orders, Ensign," Chris replied. "If Andralek is trying to ram us and shuttles are abandoning ship, then he is either alone or operating with a skeleton crew. Either way, pursuing us into an ion storm will be difficult. It might throw off his readings enough for him to miss us. At just Warp Two, we need all the luck we can get. Engage."
Reluctantly, the helmsman entered the heading and operated the controls to set the Tiberius in motion toward the spatial anomaly the ship had entered a scant two days earlier
As the Tiberius entered the ion storm on course for the spatial anomaly, the ship bucked and weaved unpredictably. Ezra found that he needed to grip the banister tightly rather than leaning nonchalantly, or risk being thrown across the bridge.
"There was not this much disturbance on the way in," Vin stated calmly, voicing everyone's fears that this tear in space had been stable enough only for a one-way trip. That possibility was even more disconcerting for the few officers who knew that the failure to return to the Terran Empire's universe would mean their own deaths due to the molecular disintegration.
"Sanchez, report," Chris said after he punched the buttons on the console to open the comlink to Engineering.
"It's these new crystals, sir," Josiah explained. "They're affecting the shape and strength of our magnetic field, drawing the storm with us. However, it is pulling the entire storm, not just the low-grade parts."
"Thirty seconds to the spatial anomaly," the helmsman reported.
"Andralek's ship is being torn apart by the storm, and our hull integrity is at eighty percent and falling," Vin added.
Chris resisted the urge to growl in frustration. "Divert power from all secondary systems to shields and engines." When Vin replied that rerouting the power had increased the shields and engine capacity significantly, Chris gave a small smile and whispered, "Let's ride."
Only Vin heard Chris' eager commentary over the clamor and confusion of the Bridge, and it was not logical to expend the energy to fight back a smile while he was also required to report on the widely-fluctuating readings.
"Commander Andralek's warp core is going critical," Vin noted, knowing that the Tiberius could not move quickly enough to avoid the fallout of the inevitable explosion.
The helmsman gave a final countdown. "Entering spatial anomaly in three. . .two. . .one. . ."
Abruptly, JD was on the Bridge, scanning his equipment. Moments before, he had been standing next to Buck, watching Nait fight what looked like a losing battle to save the first officer's life. Spinning in his seat, JD observed the Bridge crew.
Vin was approaching Casey Well's station to confirm the approaching ion storm; Chris was in the command chair, Harriman was at the helm, and Buck was nowhere in sight.
JD groaned as a sense of déjà-vu swept over him. Turning to face the view screen, though, the ensign witnessed a Romulan vessel detonating.
In an instant, the ion storm, Andralek's ship, and the spatial rift all collapsed into nothingness, leaving only a Klingon bird-of-prey and a Terran Empire ship overlooking a small star system known colloquially as 'Four Corners'.
"JD, hail the Klingons," Chris ordered, his tone disbelieving.
Moving quickly to obey, JD opened a channel, only to find an enraged alien commander on the other end.
"Is this more Terran trickery?" Kor growled as he glared out from the screen at the Tiberius' captain.
Chris simply stared, momentarily at a loss for words. Then, when he comprehended that Kor was upholding the suggestion Chris had made about pretending to hate each other, Chris retorted, "Check your sensors, Kor. The communications rift we came here to investigate has closed. There is no other reason for you to taint Armada-controlled space with your sorry excuse for a ship. I suggest you leave, before I realize that the 'year and a day' is still in effect, and that the deck is now stacked in my favor."
Kor sneered and started to berate Chris, calling him the yellow- bellied son of a--
JD cut off communications at Chris' signal, and the rest of Kor's undoubtedly noteworthy rant was lost in subspace.
Chris ordered Vin to charge phasers, and the Kronos-class ship that Kor commanded withdrew slowly from the system.
"Keep tracking them on long-range sensors, Ensign Wells," Chris said. "If they change course before they reach Kronos, I want to hear about it. Vin, JD, my Ready Room, now."
In the relative privacy of Chris' Ready Room, the captain called for Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and Nait to join them. For once, JD was silent, since he was aware that what the devices in the ship's walls now recorded could not be excused as the irrelevant ravings of a parallel universe.
When everyone had arrived, Chris asked, "Will someone please explain to me what just happened?"
"Commander Andralek's warp core breach sealed the inter-dimensional rift at the moment that our ship and Kor's entered it, but since we were returning, the ships never actually entered the rift," Vin supplied, but Chris shook his head, partially in amazement at the paradox, and also because--despite the evidence that their continued existence provided--he did not believe it entirely.
"As far as I can tell, sir," JD guessed, "matter was reversed to its original state when we returned to our own time."
"What about our memories?" Ezra inquired.
Chris growled. "My memory is fine, Standish. Don't you ever run out on me again."
Ezra raised an eyebrow in a speculative fashion. "If your mistaken perception of my temporary retreat is the betrayal of which you speak, then technically it never happened." Ezra noticed the increased ire that entered Chris' glare as Ezra tried to cower behind the time-travel element of their few days in the alternate universe, so he added quickly, "However, I shall endeavor to avoid alleged slights, whether real or imagined, in the future."
"What I want to know is. . .if our memories are unaffected," JD began babbling, and then switched to broadcasting his thoughts, "does this still work?"
Buck, Ezra, and Josiah smiled; Chris resisted the urge to roll his eyes, Nait nodded a reply, and Vin closed his eyes in concentration.
The connection in their native universe was even stronger than the tenuous one formed in the Federation's universe. As a result of the increased strength, Vin's mind was able to reach past the small Ready Room, back to the bridge, and sense the distressed thoughts of Ensign Harriman, who was concerned when he realized that the documentation he had made of the officers' treasonous collaboration no longer existed because it had not yet been created.
Vin directed the information solely to Chris, excluding even Ezra and Josiah from that particular thought. Chris nodded, barely perceptibly, and verbally ordered everyone to get back to work.
When they had all left his office, Chris sent a communiqué to Admiral Travis, claiming that Ensign Harriman's presence on the Tiberius was detrimental to the continued success of the crew's mission to patrol near Klingon and Romulan space.
The next day, a transport ship was diverted from the nearest deep space station, and Harriman was taken into custody for dereliction of duty. Harriman's insistence that it was the officers--not him--who were betraying the Terran Empire went unheeded, because the communications rift situation had been defused so neatly and immediately by Larabee. A few weeks later, Harriman was killed by a Klingon inmate also being held for questioning at the same station, and all lines of inquiry regarding the possible treachery of Captain Larabee and his most trusted officers were abandoned.
Admiral Travis received an intercepted report from the Dark Service, in which Commander Kor claimed that Larabee could not be trusted, and requested that he be the one permitted to patrol the border with the Terran Empire. In his office, back at StarArmada headquarters, Admiral Travis smiled. Josiah had already reported the ploy to him; basically, Kor and Larabee had both decided that pretending to hate one another would cause each leader's superiors to assign him to that contested region of space.
In reality, Kor and Larabee would be perfect for maintaining a truce between the Klingon Empire and the Terran Empire, and might even join forces against the Romulans if the situation dictated such an alliance.
In the Four Corners star system, the Federation starship Enterprise responded to Governor Orin Travis' request for aid three days after the Romulan renegades had been defeated. Captain Kirk was surprised to hear that someone who called himself Captain Larabee had already taken care of the problem. There was no documentation of any such ship or captain in Starfleet's muster of vessels.
Grateful as he was to have arrived at the colony and found it intact and safe rather than destroyed by the battle-crazed Commander Andralek, some other unanswered questions left the situation unresolved. Commander Andralek's crew had been recovered from various planets and returned to the Romulan Star Empire; Commander Tomalak's vessel had transported them back across the Neutral Zone for trial. Sub-commander Tomar and the remaining crew members were facing charges of piracy and violating the Neutral Zone.
However, Commander Andralek had disappeared, along with his ship. Likewise, there was no sign of Captain Larabee or the heroic ship and crew that had saved Governor Travis' colony. Captain Kirk submitted his report to Starfleet, and was informed that additional starships would be diverted to patrol that region more frequently.
The admirals and politicians gathered at their semi-annual meeting in San Francisco. It was traditional for the leaders of StarArmada and members of government to meet regularly in order to assess the state of the Terran Empire. Some called it an oligopoly ruled by a tyrannical elite class, while others considered such an alliance to simply be good politics. The latter group led the Terran Empire while the former remained silent or lost their lives. . .or at least that had been the situation until a few years ago.
After a relatively minor fact-finding mission near the Four Corners star system, the border between Klingon and Terran space had become stable and relatively undisputed. At the time, both the admirals and the politicians had welcomed the respite--the Romulans provided enough trouble without needing to worry about the Klingons as well.
However, as news spread of the successful businesses and peaceful lives that common citizens could lead in the Four Corners region of space, trillions of Terran Empire dwellers flocked there. Every day, Four Corners and a growing number of nearby systems became prosperous colonies where individual rights translated into local governments that were closer to democracies than autocracies, and some of those rights were disturbing to the politicians and military men at this gathering. Several dozen media outlets had been founded on these planets near Romulan and Klingon space, and only a few were supportive of Terran Empire policies.
Normally, the Terran Empire would have provoked the Romulans or Klingons, depending upon retaliatory strikes to hit the Four Corners region and take out the political malcontents, but for some unknown reason Klingons no longer attacked that region, and Romulans were loath to attack Four Corners because the Terran Empire's military response would cut deep into the Romulan Star Empire's territory.
Though the conference lasted for many days, at the end of it, StarArmada's admirals and the Terran Empire's politicians had still determined no solution. The problem with Four Corners was that, despite causing some political unrest in the planets closer to Earth, it also provided hope for a freer way of life. Hope could be used to keep trillions of other citizens complacent. Maybe, the politicians mused, Four Corners is not such a problem after all. Perhaps, the admirals argued, it would be best to let sleeping dogs lie--the tentative alliance with the Klingons was too good a prospect to jeopardize over such a small region.
As the conference broke up, less concerned about the implications of the Four Corners region's relative freedom, one admiral smiled contentedly. Admiral Travis was amazed at the results Chris Larabee and six others had wrought in so short a time. He had never imagined that their quiet rebellion would be insidious enough that even the politicians and admirals disregarded it even as it happened.
Who could say for sure? In a few hundred years, the ideologies slowly awakening in Four Corners and bordering systems might spread to include the rest of the Terran Empire, or even influence the Klingons to some extent. Clearly, Admiral Travis' expectations about seven members of the Tiberius' crew had been magnificently understated.