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Chapter 3

The hunting party stood on the bridge of the stricken ship, looking on in silent disbelief. Starfleet officers lay slumped over their consoles or on the ground in broken heaps, not moving. Lifeless eyes stared out at the Hirogen in fear, causing the mighty aliens to shift uncomfortably in the dim red light.

Alpha Tajaln knelt in front of the woman who sat limp in the central command chair, gently lifting her chin to look at her better. He had never seen such hopeless fear before except in prey he had killed as a child.

“What happened here?”

Tajaln turned his head slightly to look over his shoulder. His cousin, the Gamma, was inspecting another of the Starfleet dead, and had voiced the question all eight of the Hirogen had been asking themselves. He turned back to the dead woman and let her small head fall back down on her chest. “I have never seen such death, Gamma.” He snapped his fingers at another hunter and waved him over. “Scans. Now.”

The summoned Hirogen pulled a Romulan scanner from a pocket on his belt and activated it, waving the device over the deceased woman’s head. He squinted at the display and tapped it. “This is strange, Alpha.” He handed the scanner to his superior to check his scans.

The lead Hirogen frowned in annoyance. “Neural activity ceased days ago.” He nearly flung the scanner back at the hunter as he stood and pounded his fist on the back of the dead woman’s chair. “We were beaten here.” He reached behind his back, removing a small weapon from its holster on the back of his belt and holding it out to show his hunters.

His Gamma’s eyes widened with recognition. “Neural disruptors? But Alpha, I thought we were the only pack in this region of space?”

“It appears others are hunting here.” He replaced the weapon, looking around the dead command center of the ship. “They took no trophies.”

“They weren’t worthy prey?”

Tajaln laughed. “What is more impressive: the prey, or the story you tell of your trophy?” He shook his head. “Surely one among these Federations provided a fight. Look here.” He lifted the dead woman’s hand for his cousin to see as the smaller hunter stepped forward. “She is unbound; no bruises; no blood. The same is true for them all.”

===


If it could, it would have salivated.

The energy was intense here, and bountiful. Whatever these creatures were, it was as if they were illuminating the darkness with a light like a hundred suns. Crashing cymbals in the otherwise silent void that it knew. It reached out to the light in the center of the gathering of stars.

Yes. This would do. They could all feed and be satisfied.

But, it couldn’t go back empty-handed. It needed proof, something that would draw the interest of the others. Traveling was difficult; there had to be a good reason to drive them to move.

It reached again.

They would not be hungry for long.

===


“There was no fight here,” his cousin declared, stepping towards his superior. Tajaln let the woman’s hand fall back to her lap as the younger hunter continued. “No, this was a slaughter. We are not this…clean.”

“That certainly is true, Gamma.” Tajaln smirked. Maybe there was hope for the young hunter after all. “Be on guard. Separate into hunting teams and sweep the ship. I want to know if there are any survivors and who -” Tajaln stopped. He quickly drew his knife and whirled around, expecting to stab whoever was so uncomfortably close behind him. The rest of the hunters stepped away, confused.

“Alpha?” Tajaln turned his head to his cousin, who looked at him with equal confusion. “What is it?”

“Something is here. I felt it breathing down my neck.” He was breathing heavily, his eyes wide and darting from side to side. “We are not alone.”

As if on cue, the lights on the bridge flickered, startling the Hirogen. There was a sound like tearing fabric, and the lights flashed blue again.

The Gamma raised his weapon, looking around the bridge. “What is this?”

He heard a startled shout and whirled around. He gasped, lowering his rifle as he watched Tajaln rise into the air, his eyes wide in terror. The Alpha kicked his legs futilely as he grasped at his neck, struggling to breathe. The lights flickered again, and he was sure he could see another figure holding the Hirogen aloft, before it disappeared as the lighting shifted again. There was another tearing noise, and Tajaln dropped to the floor of the bridge with a sickening thud.

No one moved, their eyes transfixed on the unmoving body of the Alpha. The young Gamma stepped forward and reached under the cuff of his cousin’s suit, checking his wrist for a pulse. He drew in a sharp breath before looking around the boarding party in disbelief.

“He’s dead.”

===


“Elaina? Could I speak with you, please?”

Seurer paused for a moment before she finished inputting the series of commands on her PADD. “What is it, St. Peter?” She turned around from her station and crossed her arms over her chest.

Jessica frowned and tilted her head towards Elaina’s office. “In private?”

Elaina smirked and laughed a little. “Sure.” She led the blue alien into her office, stepping around to the chair on the other side of her desk and sitting down. She leaned back and kicked her feet onto the desk, tossing the PADD off to one side. “What can I do for you, Jess?”

Jessica waited for the door to close before she answered; she was already uncomfortable enough talking to her engineer without an audience. “You were pretty late for the meeting this morning.”

“As I understand it, so were you.”

“Hazard of the job; I was finishing my brief.”

“And what a fine brief it was, too.” Elaina tilted her head back to look at the ceiling. “If you’re checking on me down here, I can assure you every system on this ship is checked out and ready to go. I’m not expecting any trouble -“

“Would you just shut up?” Jessica pounded the desk with her open hands and leaned forward. “What the hell is your problem?”

“My problem?” Elaina brought her feet off the desk and leaned forward as well, resting her elbows on her desk. “I’m not sure, Lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant Commander, Elaina.”

Seurer scoffed and narrowed her eyes. “As I remember it, you went over my head at Vega. All of you disobeyed my orders and did what you could to get us all killed.” She leaned back in her chair again. “You should have been thrown out for that, Jessica.”

St. Peter narrowed her eyes. “I wouldn’t have gone over your head if you had acted.”

“I was acting.”

“You were turning tail and running away!” Jessica frowned more as she stood back from the desk. “And like it or not, Command left me in charge.”

“And that was a stupid mistake.”

Jessica took in a sharp breath. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, Elaina.”

“It’s ‘Lieutenant Commander’ to you.”

“You don’t outrank me, Seurer.”

Elaina laughed again and turned her chair around. “The hell I don’t.”

“Is that what all this is about? You can’t stand the fact that you have to take orders from me?” Jessica straightened up, to be as intimidating as she could manage, crossing her arms in front of her. “Why the hell did you stick around, then?”

Elaina shrugged. “It’s my ship. I had to make sure she was in good hands.”

St. Peter rolled her eyes. “I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s not your ship.”

The Braidan woman whirled her chair around and was on her feet in an instant. “Bullshit! You don’t know a damn thing about this ship, Lieutenant. I’ve been keeping her running for years; this is my ship.” She sized up the alien facing off with her and shook her head. “And with some luck, you won’t blow us all to kingdom come. Again.”

“You’re out of line.”

“Just like you were over Vega?”

Jessica glared daggers at the engineer, raising her voice to a shout. “You know damn well why we couldn’t turn tail and run away from that fight! Thousands of lives were at stake!”

“Don’t give me that crap.” Elaina put her hands on the desk to brace herself as she leaned further forward, raising her voice to match. “Everyone knows you did that to save your little friends! You didn’t think for one minute about the other thousands of lives, between their ship and ours! You were selfish and stupid and reckless.”

St. Peter stepped back like she had been slapped. “It doesn’t change what happened. We saved the Merveille and everyone aboard her!”

Elaina rolled her eyes again and turned to look out the window of her office. On the other side, engineers moved about the Engineering compartment, keeping the ship running smoothly. “You don’t have to remind me. Your friends brought plenty of their own friends with them from the Merveille. I don’t know half of my own department anymore.” She turned back around to face Jessica and leaned on the wall. “Are you done trying to play captain, so I can get back to work?”

Jessica opened her mouth, staring incredulously at the rebellious engineer. She was silent for a moment, searching for anything to say. She finally closed her mouth and nodded.

Elaina started to walk past when Jessica grabbed her roughly by the arm. “What do we need to do to at least be civil?”

Seurer scoffed, shrugging off the other woman’s hand. “Stay out of my way. I can do my job just fine without you sticking your nose around.”

“Fine. Anything else?”

Elaina shrugged. “You’re not Mal’Kon, Jessica. You won’t be, and you won’t be my captain until you can show me you can do this. But, while you don’t have my...devotion,” she paused, sizing up the other woman again. “Just know that I won’t do anything to put this ship in danger. You can at least count on that, Lieutenant.”

Jessica nodded. Elaina began to move past again when she spoke up, stopping her again. “Just to be clear, Lieutenant Commander, I am the same rank as you now. I don’t care if you like it or not. But you’ll address me as such. Clear?”

Elaina smirked and gave her a mock salute. “Aye aye, Lieutenant Commander, sir. Permission to be dismissed, sir?” She turned and walked out of the office without looking back.

Jessica grumbled in the back of her throat at the other woman’s disrespect. “Dismissed,” she hissed after the engineer.

===


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