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Chapter 3

"We're still unable to communicate with the visitors. The Universal Translator is doing its best, and we've made a little progress: we know the leader's name is Yala, and the other one that accompanies him...her...whatever...everywhere is Gorem. At least...I hope that was what they were telling us." Nizeri frowned, lost in her thoughts for a moment.

S'Tel raised an eyebrow, the faintest twitch of a smile playing at the edges of her mouth. "I can assure you, Lieutenant, they are the same race. More than likely, they were stating their names. The logical starting point in finding a common language is how to address someone."

Nizeri returned from her thoughts, her cheeks flushed red. "Right, sorry. Of course." She tapped the controls on the conference table, dimming the lights of the conference room. A three-dimensional hologram appeared above the center of the table of a planet and its five moons. The image shifted to center on one of the moons. "We've managed to collect information from their ship's navigational computer, as well as a data cache they were carrying in the event of a first contact."

Obruz grinned and turned to Jessica. "I'd say they were intentionally looking for someone in space."

Nizeri winced. "Actually...it's not good. I mean, yes, they were intentionally looking for us. But that's only because they knew we would be here."

A flat projection appeared over the table as the hologram of the planet and moons faded. On the projection a recording played; dark green ships, unmistakably shaped like curving wings, flew across the image, as if they were being watched from below. Jessica frowned as the recording cut and the planet returned over the table. "Romulans."

Nizeri nodded. "Their planet is just on the other side of the old Neutral Zone border. While militarization and colonization were forbidden before the fall of the Romulan Empire, both sides sent covert missions into the Neutral Zone, whether it was for scientific study or for spying. From what we've been able to glean from their data cache, the Romulans have been flying over these people's planet for centuries."

Jessica shook her head. "Please, continue."

"Right." Nizeri tapped her PADD, calling up her briefing and allowing the holographic image to begin animating; the moon that was the center of the image began rotating. "This is their planet, or rather, moon. Allebin V, moon four. To these people, it's called 'Etam.' The major powers on their world have been involved in a space race for the better part of the last two centuries, thanks in no small part to the Romulans' presence in their skies. There have been at least four major, 'world' wars on Etam in the past two hundred years, the second of which was nuclear." Nizeri frowned sadly as images appeared superimposed over the holographic Etam; cities utterly annihilated, processions of missiles and marching soldiers, flashes and mushroom clouds. The conference room was eerily silent as the senior officers looked away from the images of the apocalyptic Etam.

Nizeri cleared her throat. "They included a basis for measuring time like them, and Yala was kind enough to help translate and count, so I've managed a rough estimation in our timing. It was about thirty years after the fourth world war that the - uh...Etamans? - launched their first warp-capable ship. Ten years later, they launched three more. Yala and Gorem's ship is the tenth warp mission in the past fifty years for these people."

Elaina leaned back in her chair quickly, confusion etched on her face. "Fifty years of successful warp travel, and all they've managed to push is warp two?" She shook her head. "How have they been unable to achieve at least a warp five engine by now, especially considering all they're flying is basically a warp sled like the Phoenix or the NX Project ships, and not an actual starship?"

Nizeri shook her head. "We're still poring over the data to figure that out, but they aren't unified like other races have been when they began achieving warp speeds. There are large rifts between major nations on the planet, though we're not entirely sure why. Yala has tried explaining it but..."

"We're still not up to speed on the translator; right." Jessica sighed. "Still, multiple nations are sending up warp-capable ships, and they're obviously looking for the Romulans. Are they hoping the first ones to make contact with the aliens will be able to use them to back up their nation and win the planet?"

Nizeri shook her head. "Fortunately, the reasons for their ventures into space aren't that sinister. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends." She tapped the PADD again.

Jessica's eyes widened, and she heard a gasp from Elaina. Obruz and Wirstowx both leaned forward in their chairs, equally alarmed. Even Seymour, who up until now had been paying what seemed like the least attention, turned his head to get a better look at the new hologram.

The new image was a misshapen rock, slowly rotating in the air above the conference table. Smaller rocks hovered around it, and a large tail of released gases trailed behind it.

"This is the comet 'Zed-three-three-Allebin-two-nine-five-six." Nizeri took a deep breath after that. "They call it 'Praxt a-loot.' If I had to guess, based on the way Yala and Gorem talk about it, it probably translates roughly to 'end of the world.'" Nizeri smirked sadly at her attempt for a little gallows humor.

"Where is this comet now?" Jessica felt compelled to ask, though she was sure she knew the answer already.

Nizeri swallowed the lump that had lodged itself in her throat. "Based on the data provided by the Etamans, and our own stellar cartography...Praxt is going to hit Etam within the week. More than likely, the planet is already being struck by meteorites dislodging from the comet as it passes; its projected path with take it around Allebin and then on a collision course with Etam on the return trip out."

"How...um...large...is this thing?" Seymour coughed uncomfortably as all the eyes in the room turned towards the normally silent officer. He did his best not to shrink under their stares, focusing as best he could on the image of the comet Praxt.

Nizeri looked surprised for a moment and paused before finally looking at the data on her PADD. "From what I can estimate from the Etaman's measurements and Starfleet's logs of the comet...it will be roughly twenty kilometers wide on its trip towards the Allebin star, and about fourteen kilometers when it comes back around to threaten Etam."

Wirstowx blinked as his chest rumbled. "It would take a considerable amount of firepower to destroy the comet. I would estimate it would exhaust our supplies of quantum torpedoes..."

"Mister Wirstowx, I do not believe you grasp the complexity of the situation." S'Tel sat forward in her chair to address the man. "We cannot interfere."

"Wait." Jessica leaned forward as well, looking aghast. "You can't be serious."

S'Tel raised her eyebrows, her mouth barely turning down in a frown as she explained. "The Prime Directive is very clear in this matter, Commander. We cannot change the natural course of this species."

Jessica shook her head. "We can't just let them die! A comet that large would wipe out their entire civilization and every living thing on the planet!" She looked around the table, hoping for support.

Wirstowx nodded. "While I was ready for a tactical option, the doctor is correct. We cannot be involved."

"We're already involved," Obruz countered with a frown. "We rescued their ship, we've made first contact. What are we supposed to do, drop them off at their planet, wish them the good graces of the Prophets and then watch from orbit while their planet burns?"

"They're a warp capable species, as well." Elaina added. "I realize it's a very arbitrary measuring stick, but it's one we've used multiple times before making first contact with other races."

"But you said yourself, it's an arbitrary measurement of a race," Nizeri answered, sitting down in her chair and turning off the holographic projection. "They haven't made it past warp two; it took Earth eighty years before they hit warp five, and that was with the Vulcans not sharing technology and advising extreme caution."

"But there was interference," Seymour spoke up, eliciting a few more surprised looks from the senior staff. "The very presence of the Vulcans on Earth was interference enough; them holding their technology over the heads of Humans and saying 'look at what you can have, but we won't tell you how to get here.'" He turned to S'Tel. "No offense, Doctor. These people, they've seen the Romulans and who knows how many other races flying overhead for years. They've known they weren't alone for most of their existence; the fact that they aren't revering the nearest Romulan Warbird - or even the Rafale and us - like a god should say how ready these people are for the galactic stage."

"The Lieutenant does raise a...valid argument," S'Tel admitted, which only further stunned the senior officers. "However, the Prime Directive also forbids changing the course of natural evolution of a planet and its species. This comet has not been interfered with by outside forces; it was set on its path millennia ago."

"We can't prove there hasn't been some kind of interference," Sonia countered.

"Regardless, we have done nothing to set these people on this path."

"But we can help get them off of it!"

"What do you suggest then, Mister Sonia?"

The room was dead silent as everyone stared in shock at Jessica. For her part, she did a good job ignoring the stare, instead leaning back in her chair at the head of the table and crossing her arms over her chest.

Seymour cleared his throat, finding his voice again. "Excuse me?"

Jessica shrugged, glancing out of the corner of her eye at Obruz. "You seem...pretty vocal about this. What do you think we should do?"

Obruz blinked a few times in shock. Nizeri looked from Seymour to Jessica and back a few times, her mouth hanging open. Even the normally stoic Wirstowx and S'Tel glanced at each other in restrained surprise.

Seymour considered the request with a nod. "I suggest...we intervene." He motioned towards Wirstowx. "The lieutenant had the right idea, but the execution needs some work." He leaned forward, pointing to the center of the table. "Lieutenant Sano, can you bring the comet back up?"

Nizeri blinked, wondering for a few moments what had happened in the room when she felt Obruz kick her chair. "Right, uh, sorry..." she stammered, finally bringing the projection back above the table.

Seymour stood up, leaning over the table to reach. "We concentrate our fire at a weak point. Say, for example, here," he pointed at a small crevice on the surface of the ball of ice and rock. "Suppose we scanned and found this to be a weak point of the comet? We focus our fire at this location, in an attempt to slice the comet into more manageable pieces. And, if the comet is rotating while it's traveling, we hit it so that when it breaks apart..."

"The pieces fly away from the planet," Nizeri finished, nodding. "That's not a terrible idea."

Jessica studied the image of the comet for a moment in silence. "It's the best we've got going into this." She stood. "Make the preparations. Sonia, work with Sano and Wirstowx to get a targeting pattern down. Sano, get your geologists on our sensor readings; I don't want any surprises when we start shooting into the rock." She smiled a little. "I'm going to go meet our guests. Obruz, lay in a course for Allebin, maximum warp."

===


Yala twisted her head towards the entrance as the chime rang again, her dark eyes narrowing in annoyance. The sound wasn't very pleasant, nothing like the gentle taps of the wooden knockers on her own world. This was a high-pitched noise, like tiny bells ringing far too fast to be pleasant.
Gorem looked over from where he was inspecting the alcove in the wall. The alien that had escorted them had used it to create a clear, tasteless liquid. He had slowly said the word a few times for their benefit - "water" - and Gorem had been hard at work seeing if the device would recognize any other commands.

He had succeeded, much to their shared surprise. It was soon followed by disgust; the device had created out of a thin air a rolled up, flat piece of bread that looked like it had been dropped in a hot bucket of grease to be cooked. Inside was whatever this alien culture's equivalent to cheese was, though not nearly as aromatic, along with some kind of soft grain, shredded meat that tasted oddly like nothing, and garnished with a thick green paste.

"What could it be now?" he huffed in annoyance. "They were just in here five minutes ago."

Yala dipped her head forward. "I don't know." She flared her nostrils in mild amusement at the man. "We are new to them. They're trying hard to communicate with us."

Gorem dipped his head before opening his mouth to bark the word the aliens had said - "Comb!" - and then moved to stand behind Yala, ready to protect her. "We are wasting too much time. Etam does not have much longer, and they're the only ones who can help us now!"

The door opened, allowing one of the aliens entrance. Yala and Gorem stopped talking immediately, staring in surprise at the new alien.

Its uniform had yellow accents, in stark contrast to her bright blue skin and hair. It moved the sides of its mouth upwards - something Yala saw most of these aliens do, and decided it was not as threatening as it was to her people - and stopped at the door, its hands nervously clasped behind its back.

The alien opened its mouth to speak, a higher pitched, melodious sound issuing forth. Yala decided the alien was female, like herself; there was something about the way this one carried herself and the sound of her voice that convinced her it was a female.

The words were still completely alien to them - rushed, short, harsh at times. The alien touched her chest, slowing down her speech. "Jessica Saint Peter."

Yala blinked her eyes in recognition of the gesture, and stood to her full height while pressing her hand on her own chest. "Yala," she replied in her own tongue, letting the word flow beautifully with a slight warble in her voice. She motioned to her companion, adding "Gorem."

The male inclined his head out of courtesy before leaning forward to Yala. "This is a waste of time," he hissed.

Jessica held her hands out in front of her and shook her head, starting to speak again, looking agitated, anxious even. Yala reared her head back out of curiosity, before turning to silence Gorem. "She's afraid, Gorem. That was rude!"

Gorem titled his head from side to side in annoyance. "What difference does it make, she cannot understand us! They won't know anything about Praxt -"

Jessica gasped, and Yala and Gorem both turned to stare at the blue-skinned alien. She pointed at Gorem, repeating the word "Praxt" before continuing in her own tongue.

Yala nodded her head, tapping Gorem on the arm. "See? They know about the comet."

Gorem folded his arms over his chest, letting out an annoyed breath. "But do they even know where Etam is?"

"I'm sure they can follow star charts, Gorem." Yala sat back down, nodding her approval at Jessica. "We did give enough to the one with the spots and red fur on her head a way to at least count like us."

"We're actually en-route to Etam now."

Gorem's head snapped around to face the alien again, his eyes wide in shock. Yala pulled her head backwards again, equally surprised.

Jessica brought the corners of her mouth upwards again, looking much more relaxed and relieved. Her voice had changed, taking on the more familiar warbling and breathiness that Yala was used to hearing. "I think you can understand me now." She tapped the gold pendant on her chest - the one that every alien on the ship wore - and spoke aloud to the air, "Sano, I think the Universal Translator is working now."

Yala stood back up, stepping towards the woman. "How remarkable; you can speak our language."

Jessica shook her head, tapping the brooch again. "It's called a 'universal translator;' it's a tool we use that helps us communicate with other races." She pointed to herself again. "Let's try this again; I'm Commander Jessica St. Peter. On behalf of the United Federation of Planets, welcome aboard my ship, the Rafale."

Yala dipped her head forward, flaring her nostrils with enthusiasm. "I am Yala of the Etamba, mission commander of WS-53; this is my navigator, Gorem," she added, again motioning to the male. "There is little time to spare; you know about the comet?"

Jessica nodded, the corners of her mouth dropping so that her face suddenly looked severe. "We do. Like I said, we're en-route to Etam now."

Gorem stepped forward. "And you can save our people, then?"

"Gorem," Yala chastised.

The male narrowed his eyes menacingly, moving the corners of his mouth upwards threateningly. "Etam will burn if they do not stop the comet! We've wasted enough time trying to learn to communicate." He faced Jessica then. "Will you help us or not, alien?"

"Gorem," Yala hissed, craning her neck to dip her head in front of his. "You will show the woman respect!"

"She is not Etamba!"

"She is the commander of this vessel, just the same," Yala hissed again, pushing her head towards his. Gorem finally blinked, looking away from her and taking a step back. She regarded him for a second more before turning her head to look at Jessica again. "I apologize for my navigator. He is understandably worried."

Jessica nodded her head forward - a sign of agreement, no doubt - before replying. "I understand; no offense taken. And..." She looked uncomfortable for a moment, struggling with her words. "We're going to see what we can do," she finally said, looking into Yala's eyes. "Please understand: I can't promise anything. But we're going to try to help."

Yala flared her nostrils. "That is the most hope our planet has had in decades, Commander. We thank you."

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