The sky was raining fire.
That was Susan Bano’s first thought as consciousness was slowly beginning to assert itself once more.
Her vision was blurry, her ears were ringing and she felt something very hard and uncomfortable underneath her. It took her a moment to realize that it was the wet, durasteel ground.
Her body felt broken and her mind was still playing catch-up on how exactly she had ended up like this. She had a vague memory of chasing something or someone. But who that could have been or why she had no idea.
‘You will find that there comes a time in your life when no matter how hard you have tried, no matter how well you prepared, no matter how strong you thought you were—there will inevitably come a moment when you fall down and everything will appear to be lost.
And that, Susan, will be the exact time when you will have to decide if you get back up and try again or if you lay down, give up and die.’
It was her mother’s voice she heard in her head. The autocratic Bolian woman had always possessed a penchant for the melodramatic, and certainly, that specific life lesson she had imparted on her at the tender young age of nine had seemed a little high-handed at the time.
It had never rung truer than in that particular moment, however.
“Yes, mother,” she whispered even if she couldn’t hear her own words coming out of her mouth due to the persistent ringing sound in her ears.
Trying to move and feeling a sharp pain shooting up her side, she was fairly certain that she had broken her left arm, or at the very least dislocated it from her shoulder.
She still wasn’t sure why she was here, but she knew her mother had been right. She had to get back up and finish what she had started. Whatever the hells that had been.
It took tremendous effort and pain so excruciating, it forced tears into her eyes, but somehow she managed to get back onto her knees.
The rain was pelting down with a vengeance and it wasn’t just water; there were little droplets of fire pouring down from the sky alongside it.
It was nighttime on whatever planet she was on, but it might as well have been daylight considering the bright fires all around her.
She felt a sudden burning sensation on her back and then, realizing that she too was on fire, she quickly shrugged out of her leather jacket.
She considered the discarded garment lying on the ground for a moment and seemed to remember that she had used to like it quite a bit. It was ruined beyond repair now.
Susan forced herself to her feet and looked around
She stood on the landing platform of a spaceport. Or at least it had been one once, it was difficult to tell now with all those fires which even the torrential downpour didn’t seem to be able to douse.
One of the things on fire were the remains of what looked like had been a transport ship once.
She took a few steps towards it, not entirely sure where else to go and immediately stumbled over her own feet.
It took her a moment to try again.
There were three bodies near the ship, all clad in black. One of them still looked alive, blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth and his piercing dark eyes staring up at her as she looked down at him.
She recognized those eyes.
She had been chasing him. He had the Object.
Things were slowly coming back to her.
She knelt down next to him and grabbed him by his black jacket with her good arm, pulling him off the ground slightly. “I’m a goddamned science officer, you bastard. I don’t do this kind of stuff. High-speed chases, phaser fights, and explosions and all this holo-novel crap. That’s not my thing, do you read me? I've had it up to here with this place and this nightmare ends now. We're finished, you and me, we're done. It's over.” She had no idea where this sudden rant had come from but by the end of it, she realized that she was more right than she had guessed. After all, she was holding on to a dead man. "Good riddance," she said and allowed the now lifeless body to slip out of her grasp.
She lowered herself to her knees next to him and started to pat him down until she found what she had been looking for, what she had been after for so long. It was such a tiny and unremarkable little thing considering what she had been through to try and get her hands on it.
She couldn't help but stare at it for a moment. It still had the same effect on her it did when she had first seen it. There was still some inexplicable power to this small device which she could somehow feel vibrating against her entire being.
She quickly slipped it inside her boot and then, still barely managing to endure the pain she was in, she got back on her feet.
She reached for her right lobe, hoping that her in-ear communicator was still working. “This is Bano. I have the Object. Could use an extraction.”
There was no response.
“Does anybody read me?” she said. “Is anyone still alive?” she added much more quietly, fearing the worst.
Uttering a heavy sigh she considering the flaming wreck of the transport ship. “Not getting off this damned planet in that.”
Something made her look the other way and into the darkness of the night. The lights of the city twinkled in the distance and she knew her best bet was to try and find another spaceport somewhere within it.
But it wasn’t the city that held her gaze.
It was something else.
The bright flames which engulfed what remained of a large fuel tank revealed the shadows first.
Five shapes of black-clad men were emerging from the darkness and slowly moving to approach her. They looked almost identical to the man she had just liberated the Object from.
All five of them held weapons, all of them trained on her.
She was surrounded on all other sides by fire.
She was trapped.
“I guess I was wrong after all,” she said, addressing nobody. “This isn’t over yet.”
4 Hours Earlier
There was something to be said about working covertly, not the least of which was the freedom to ditch the restrictive Starfleet regulation uniform for something much more comfortable and to her style, such as the chic, sepia-colored, imitation leather jacket she’d chosen, along with a lightweight vest and matching tan pants. She certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with wearing those tall, white boots while on regular duty. The boots were currently resting on top of a conference table, inside a compact meeting room of a civilian freighter.
Just beyond the tips of her white boots, the man who was her de facto superior was considering her from half a quadrant away via a computer screen.
“I am pleased to find you this relaxed so close to your imminent mission, “ the half-Vulcan said as he peered at her.
She just shrugged. “I just have a good feeling about this.”
“Eteron is not a place to be taken lightly, Susan. There is no Federation presence on the planet, and its close proximity to both the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Neutral Zone makes it a hot zone of smuggling operations and other criminal activities. The Orion Syndicate is reportedly the only true authority on that world.”
“That’s why I’ve got Lieutenant Sorenson and his team of elite security operators along for the ride. Those guys know how to handle themselves,” she said and then removed her boots from the top of the table to lean in closer towards the monitor. “This is the closest we’ve been to obtain the Object in four months. This is the culmination of years of studying those blasted boxes and the shards contained within them and I just know that we’ll find what we’ve been looking for on Eteron.”
But Jarik looked doubtful. “In the hands of a group of Pakled traders?”
She shook her head. “They don’t even realize what they’ve found. I still believe it was a complete coincidence that they managed to obtain it at all. But I’m convinced that it fell into their lap on Gordian XI and they’ll be more than happy to part with it considering what we can offer them in exchange. Nobody’s ever accused a Pakled of being particularly bright.”
“Just promise me you’ll be careful down there. The Pakled may not be smart, but they can be dangerous. And we have no additional assets in the area to support you if things go bad. You’re on your own out there.”
She offered him a smirk. “I’m a science officer by trade, Jarik. I'm no gung-ho, damn-the-torpedoes-type starship captain of yesteryear. I understand risk and I know how to manage it."
“I’ll hold you to that, Commander Bano.”
“Have you made any progress on determining who our competition might be? I still think we’re not the only ones after the Object. Somebody very nearly got to those Pakled after Gordian XI, I’m sure of it.”
Jarik shook his head marginally. “Not yet but I am working on it. Whoever they are, it is absolutely critical that we obtain the Object first.”
Bano nodded. “I know, I’ve seen the same data you have. Whatever these Pandora Boxes truly are—“
She stopped herself when she spotted his noticeable frown, remembering that he didn’t appreciate that term for the mysterious artifacts which had provided them with clues to the location of a possibly even more powerful device which for now they had simply designated as the Object.
It had been her friend and colleague Terrence Glover, who had coined the term Pandora’s Box after they had come across the small, shard-like artifact secured inside a translucent and ornately crafted box during a mission in the Pandorian system.
That had been thirteen years ago while she and Glover had both served on the Kitty Hawk. The discovery of the enigmatic and clearly immensely powerful artifact had changed her entire career path, since only a short while later she had started—in between other gigs—to work for the Department of Special Affairs and Investigations, the secretive Starfleet agency which had long since taken a significant interest in objects and artifacts which seemed to defy easy explanations.
She had worked with Jarik ever since she had joined the organization which was led with an almost singular vision by the Old Man.
It hadn't been until a second box had been found, a discovery once again involving Terrence Glover who seemed to be attracting these kinds of things like a magnet, that they had started to gain an understanding of the true power of those artifacts which were seemingly able to communicate with certain individuals. The boxes had revealed a number of secrets, including the location of Iconian gateways but also, perhaps most disturbingly, the possible whereabouts of an artifact even more powerful. It had been that latest revelation which had brought her to the farthest most reaches of Federation space.
“I know the Old Man prefers to call them shard artifacts,” she said to Jarik who seemed much more pleased with that term. “But I can’t help but feel that the Object the shard artifacts have revealed to us was hidden for a very good reason and that perhaps it was never meant to be found.”
“It seems a bit late for that conversation now. Besides, if we do not get to it first, somebody else will and I fear that if that were to come to pass, we might find ourselves facing a crisis the likes of which we’ve never encountered before.”
“Right,” she said with a dark grin. “End of the galaxy kind of stuff. And all of that because of our damned curiosity.”
“You should take this matter more seriously.”
“Don’t worry, I do. And I’ll get that Object—whatever it turns out to be—and bring it back for the good guys. Besides, as a science officer, I have to believe that a good dose of healthy curiosity is the first step towards real progress,” she said and stood from her chair to get her mission underway. “Unless, of course, you’re a cat.”
The half-Vulcan’s blank look seemed proof that he either didn’t care for her joke or simply didn’t get it.
Susan had never understood how any sentient being in the galaxy could possibly consider what the Klingons called opera as a form of musical entertainment.
To her ears, the wailing sounds coming out of the mouths of the three overweight Klingon performers on the stage were nothing more than loud, ear-splitting noise, hurled at each other in some sort of competition to find out who could most successfully drown out the other two singers.
Unfortunately for her, they had tracked down the four Pakled traders who she was convinced were unwittingly in the possession of what might very well be the most powerful artifact in the galaxy to a large music hall whose main attraction was a marathon performance of Keedera’s collected—and very loud—works.
Despite the thunderous performance taking place on the stage, music halls on Eteron, Susan quickly realized, didn’t seem particularly focused on the music itself. Instead, they functioned more like a meeting place for business, a bar as well as an eating establishment where the live music functioned only as an additional—albeit, in this case, she felt, a headache-inducing—side attraction.
Very few patrons seemed to pay much attention to the Klingons on stage and perhaps surprisingly considering the roaring act, the tumultuous guests were going about their various businesses, somehow able to make themselves heard over the ubiquitous music, mostly by gesturing wildly, shouting or—if that failed—beating each other senseless.
“I don’t like this at all,” said Nels Sorenson, who like the rest of the team was wearing civilian clothes in order to fit in. Susan thought that regardless of his outfit, it was difficult not to peg the blonde-haired, tall and muscular man of Scandinavian ancestry as anything other than a solider. “We’re exposed here.”
“Still better than meeting outside. We seemed to have arrived in the middle of the local monsoon season.” She continued when this didn’t seem to make him feel any better. “It’s a public place,” she said. “Less likely to run into trouble here.”
“Or more likely.”
Susan spotted the group of Pakled sitting at a table at the far end of the hall and nowhere near the stage. Not that it would have a significant effect on the level of ambient noise. “Look, there they are. Let’s just get what we came for and get out.”
“The sooner the better,” he said and then instructed the rest of his people to fan out and keep their eyes open.
Before approaching the table, Susan pulled up the sleeve of her jacket slightly to reveal her wristband computer. It contained a useful device which would keep anyone from getting a transporter lock on her or anything in her immediate surroundings. She activated the portable inhibitor, after all, they had gotten this far and she'd be damned if somebody just beamed the Object away right in front of her eyes.
There were four Pakled, all of them mostly preoccupied with consuming—or rather destroying—a meal which Susan couldn’t even guess at. Table manners, it appeared, were not high on the Pakled’s list of priorities.
“Grubnog,” she said loudly. It was the name of the only Pakled she had spoken to previously and it may have been racially inappropriate, but she couldn’t tell any of them apart, all of them stocky with round fleshy faces and vertically aligned, bushy eyebrows. All wearing practically identical thick gray jackets secured with a multitude of fasteners.
“She’s blue,” one of the Pakled said to the others who quickly nodded while he continued to tear into his meaty meal right off the bone.
Susan thought that she had that coming, considering her own insensitive thoughts and just smiled. “Bolian. On my mother’s side,” she said. “We spoke earlier. About making a sale.”
“We make sales,” said the first Pakled.
“Yes. You have something that we want to buy. We brought a lot of latinum for it.”
“We like latinum,” said the second Pakled.
Susan indicated towards Sorenson who quickly produced a large backpack which Susan took off him, opened up and then threw onto the table, right on top of the Pakled’s dinner. It contained enough gold-plated currency to buy five music halls on Eteron.
Grubnog—or at least she thought it was Grubnog—pushed the bag open further to reveal the latinum which glittered invitingly under the light.
“Let’s keep a low profile on what’s in that bag, shall we?” Susan said quickly, shooting a couple of cautious glances across the establishment, not doubting for a moment that what was in the bag was enough money to incite a mob.
“We look for things,” said the other Pakled.
“You’ll be able to buy a lot of things with that,” said Susan. “Now, about the thing that you’ve found on Gordian XI.”
A third Pakled reached into his jacket to produce what looked like a tiny silver rod, which may as well have been a child’s toy, the way it appeared in his large and thickly gloved hand.
There was no way to tell for certain, but somehow Susan knew that it was what they were looking for. She could feel it. And this wasn't mere instinct either.
The tiny device was radiating pure, unfettered power. She couldn't quite suppress a little gasp coming over her lips. “How exactly did you manage to obtain this,” she said as she stared at it wide-eyed.
“We look for things,” said Grubnog.
“You did mention that,” Sorensen said who apparently was also momentarily mesmerized by the Object.
“Things that can help us,” said another.
“Well, this is certainly going to do just that. It helped make you rich,” Susan said.
The four Pakled seemed to like the sound of that as they looked at each other with large smiles plastered on their faces.
“Now, would you mind passing it to me,” she said, reaching out for it.
“You are pretty,” said another Pakled.
She shot him a very brief smile. “Thanks,” she said and focused back on the device.
“We like pretty things,” said possible-Grubnog.
“Don’t we all. Now, the Object, please,” she said, sounding more insistent.
The Pakled nearest to her took hold of her jacket, pulling her down slightly towards the table and until she could smell his rather foul breath. She had the feeling that he was paying too much attention to her cleavage which made her want to shudder. “We look for pretty things.”
“I think they like you, Commander,” said Sorenson as he stepped closer, his hand darting under his jacket to reach for his weapon.
“A little too much,” Susan said but waved him off, determined to deal with this without causing a commotion. She managed to free herself from the Pakled’s grasp. “Look, I’m flattered but I don’t come with the deal. If it’s company you seek, you’ve got more than enough latinum in there to secure the services of every wench in town.”
Two of the Pakled looked at the bag of money with renewed interest as if they could find said courtesans inside that very case.
“We look for pretty things to make us go,” said the third Pakled.
Susan pinched the bifurcating ridge running between her eyes which she was wont to when she got frustrated. “That’s far too much information. You have your money. Now give me the—“
“Commander, we have a problem,” Sorenson said.
“Tell me about it.”
He shook his head as he was talking to another member of his team who seemed to be listening in on something with his in-ear communicator. Judging by the concerned expression on the young man’s face, he wasn’t getting good news.
Susan quickly reached for her ear to activate her own device and listened in.
“… not sure where they came from but they are right on top of us,” said the voice belonging to one of the team members they had left behind on their ship. “I think we’ve been made.”
“Stand by to extract us along with the Object and then initiate immediate evasive actions,” barked Sorenson.
“They’re opening fire!”
Susan recognized the sounds of battle and from everything she could tell, this was bad. The attackers had caught her ship entirely unaware.
“Shields are gone, hull breach, hull breach. Critical damage to all systems. Abandon ship, abandon—“ There was a lot of shouting and desperation coming over the line just before the voices were drowned out by static and then cut out entirely.
“Mueller, come in. Mueller, can you hear me?” Sorenson was pressing his hand hard against his ear but it made no difference, the line was dead. Susan was fearing that the same was true for the crew and her ship. He looked her straight in the eye. “We have to assume the worst.”
She nodded, trying hard not to think of the people they had likely just lost. There’d be time to mourn later. “What’s the play?” she said. She outranked Sorenson in both grade and seniority but as a science officer, she was more than willing to let the security expert take the lead in a situation such as this.
“We are likely to get company any second now. We need to get out—“
The explosion came so suddenly it threw her and most of the people around her to the ground. She heard cries and shouts of pain and anger all around her and the distinct smell of things being on fire.
“We have to move right now,” she heard Sorenson’s voice yell from somewhere close.
It took her a moment to find her bearings again. The explosion had originated from the other side of the music hall, near the stage, and must have killed and injured at least a dozen or so people there. The entire far wall was in flames, as were parts of the stage.
What had been a chaotic scene just moments before was now erupting in all-out pandemonium as those who still could, scrambled to their feet, shouting and wailing and trying to get to an exit. The Klingon performers, who were used to rowdy crowds seemed to draw a line when it came to explosions and were amongst the first to flee. Clearly, these Klingons were not of the honorable warrior type who’d eagerly throw themselves into battle.
One of Sorenson’s men helped her back onto her feet and he was shouting something at her but he couldn’t make it out through the insistent ringing sound in her ears. She looked straight at the young man to try and perhaps read his lips only to watch as his head jerked back violently in a mist of red blood.
“Sniper, we’ve got a sniper,” Sorenson shouted behind her just as her hearing was coming back and she watched the dead man collapse to the floor.
“We need to move now before we get picked off or trampled to death," said Sorenson. "T’Vel, do you have eyes on the sniper?”
“Affirmative. However, I do not have a shot.”
“Do what you can to cover us,” he said and then grabbed Susan by the arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Not without the Object,” she said, trying to find the Pakled but the growing chaos all around her made that difficult as people were now running passed her from seemingly all directions, most in such a hurry, they didn’t care who or what they were running over in the process.
“No time, we have to —“
Sorenson went down with another sniper blast to the back of his neck. His eyes opening wide in surprise for just a brief moment before they went totally dead and he fell where he had stood.
“Find cover, now,” T’Vel’s calm voice said into her ear.
Susan dove for an upturned table which she hoped would be sufficient to keep her out of harm’s way.
Breathing hard and leaning against the hard surface behind her, she found where the Pakled had sat, their table thrown upside down, two of them desperately trying to stuff the latinum which had spilled out of the bag back inside, the other two having already fled. She was fairly certain that the one who had produced the Object earlier was now on all fours, frantically collecting the money.
“I have eyes on the Object, I think,” she said. “I can get to it.”
“Negative, Commander. Hold your position.”
Another sniper blast rung out and struck the other Pakled in the side of his head, killing him instantly. His friend didn’t even seem to notice as he continued to collect the latinum.
“Commander, I need you to draw out the sniper,” T’Vel said.
“What? How the hell do you expect me to do that?”
“The shooter is at your three o’clock. Approximately eighteen meters. I do not have a clear shot. You will have to attempt to fire at him from your position.”
“I didn't sign up for this kind of crap,” she said, beginning to realize that she was most likely in shock. It took her another moment to understand that considering the people she had already lost on this mission, and with an increasing chance of losing the Object as well, she had no other choice but to take action. "Goddamnit,” she said and reached for her phaser hidden inside a holster under her jacket.
With her weapon in hand, she peeked up over the upturned table.
She saw a blast and immediately ducked back down.
The entire side of the table disintegrated upon impact.
She stared at the missing part of the table with disbelieve, realizing that her head had been there just a moment earlier.
Another shot rang out, this one, she thought, coming from T’Vel to try and suppress the sniper.
“I need you to fire now, Commander.”
“Yeah, piece of cake. No problem,” she said, took a deep breath and then tried again.
She found the sniper exactly where T’Vel had placed him. It wasn’t going to be an easy shot—she was decent enough with a phaser but that was usually on a shooting range, not while stuck in a burning building which was quickly filling with smoke, with dozens of screaming and shouting and running patrons all around her and while taking fire from a sharpshooter who had already killed two members of her team.
She tried to remember her training.
‘Empty your mind of everything but the target. Take a breath, hold it, squeeze the trigger.’ That’s what her firearms instructor had used to say at the Academy. That seemed like a very long time ago now.
Her shot went wide.
And the sniper had her back in his crosshairs, ready to finish her off.
He didn’t get a chance as he was struck by another beam coming from somewhere up above and behind her.
“Target eliminated. I have another hostile, moving quickly across the floor and towards the remaining Pakled. I will not be able to neutralize him from my position.”
“The Object,” Susan realized and quickly scrambled to her feet to dart towards the still unaware Pakled. Then she spotted the man clad entirely in black sprinting in the opposite direction to everybody else.
He had a few steps on her and was moving far too quickly for her to get a beat on him. A compact dagger appeared in his hand seemingly out of nowhere and he buried it deep into the back of the Pakled’s skull with vicious precision and speed.
By the time Susan had reached the dead body, the man in black had already found and removed the Object and darted off again and towards the nearest exit.
“Damn, he’s fast,” she said as she followed him. She tried to line up a shot yet again but it was useless, he had already slipped passed several other patrons and merged with a mass of bodies.
“T’Vel, he’s got the object and is heading straight for the exit. Any chance you can cut him off?” she said as she rushed towards the doors.
There was no response.
“T’Vel, do you copy? Anybody?”
She didn’t know if they were too busy to answer or if they were all dead. The way things were going, she feared the latter seemed most plausible. She was on her own which meant it all depended on her now.
“No pressure,” she mumbled as she kept after him, knowing that her portable transporter inhibitor only had a limited range, and the moment he was more than twenty-five meters ahead of her, there would be nothing stopping him from simply beaming away.
Her first challenge was to get out of the burning building along with what felt like a horde of panicked and terrorized patrons, all rushing the same, small exit. She had to push and squeeze herself past a number of men and women, many of which were much larger than her, which made it easier to slip in-between them, but in the process, she may also have trampled over some smaller individuals in her mad rush, too.
Getting out of the music hall had felt like being squashed through a wringer and for a moment she thought she’d suffocate from the number of bodies pushed so tightly together. It was pure adrenaline which kept driving her and eventually allowed her to somehow come through on the other end mostly unharmed.
Outside she was greeted by a torrential downpour which soaked her to the bone in mere seconds.
She desperately wiped the dripping rain from her face to try and peer into the surrounding city scene. It was nighttime but thankfully the area immediately outside the music hall was well lit by streetlights to reveal a city as decrepit as much of the rest of the planet.
The man she was chasing had made the mistake of wearing all black which would have seemed sensible at night and in the rain, had it not been for the fact that the current fashion trend on Eteron—if one could call it that—certainly for the kind of people frequenting late-night music halls, was a more colorful ensemble which made him stand out from the rest of the crowd.
She spotted him quickly and from her vantage point, it looked as if he was trying to use a communicator, more than likely attempting to arrange a beam-out which of course wouldn’t work while she was nearby.
She set out to follow him across the street, dodging both pedestrian and other traffic, most of which didn’t seem to care much about running over a Bolian woman who had been crazy enough to run right into the street.
The man in black saw her following him when he turned his head and with lightning-fast reflexes he produced a phaser, firing it at her with no delay.
She had to jump to avoid the blast, landing right in a large dirty puddle of rainwater. She ignored her bruises and fired back, but only hitting the building he was running towards.
He was making a beeline towards a group of Valerians who had parked a couple of hoverbikes underneath the building's large canopy to wait out the rain.
He blasted his weapon again and without even slowing down, striking the unprepared Valerian closest to one of the bikes, the force pushing the man backward and over his vehicle where he crumbled to the ground, presumably dead in an instant.
Susan scrambled back onto her feet but was too late to keep him from jumping on one of the hoverbikes and peeling out onto the street.
She reached the canopy just a few moments later, pointing her phaser at the three remaining Valerians who quickly backed up, not eager to share their friend’s fate. “Really sorry, but I’ll have to borrow your ride. I’ll try to keep it in one piece.”
She heard no protests as she climbed on the other remaining bike. “Hope I remember how to do this,” she mumbled to herself as she slipped the phaser back into its holster and then hit what she hoped was the ignition switch.
The bike came to live underneath her, rumbling and sputtering for a moment as it lifted slightly off the ground. This wasn’t exactly a top of the line model, more like a rocket with a seat, seemingly assembled out of spare parts and held together by tape and goodwill.
She had no time to consider how street legal or even safe the contraption was as she pressed down hard on what looked like the accelerator.
The rocket took off, nearly throwing her clear out of the saddle.
With a yelp of surprise at the sudden burst of speed, she drove the hoverbike right through a rickety stand selling refreshments, smashing it in the process and forcing several people to jump out of her way at the very last second.
“Sorry,” she shouted but was already racing away from the scene at breakneck speed as she managed to rain in the bike, albeit somewhat unsteadily, as she swerved down the street. “Hold on to your potatoes,” she said as she sped-up again.
Barreling down a small alley into which the man in black had disappeared, it didn’t take her long to catch back up with him and his bike, finding that he’d had similar issues controlling the over-powered vehicle, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
The alleyways were narrow, thankfully covered by awnings overhead to keep the rain away but they were filled with people and stands even at this later hour.
“Come on folks, you've never seen a high-speed chase through the city before? Get the frack out of the way,” she shouted as loudly as she could as some of the pedestrians were simply moving far too slowly for her liking. She made the best possible effort to try and keep mowing down people and property, though the same could not be said for the man she was pursuing.
After a harrowing few minutes through packed alleyways the pursuit finally took them to wider streets with far fewer people but they also lost their protective coverings overhead which now meant that besides traffic, she also had to manage the relentless rain which made it difficult to keep upright on the bike, not to mention trying to see where she was going.
The man in black was not doing much better and she managed to stay with him as they hurled through the city at speeds exceeding two hundred kilometers an hour, making Susan mindful that even gracing one of those other vehicles they shared the road with would likely cause her to break her neck instantly.
It didn’t stop her from reaching back into her jacket to retrieve her phaser, keeping just one hand on the steering handle and pulling the weapon free to try and get a shot at the other bike.
On a stretch of mostly straight road and with less traffic, she took her chance, lined up her shot and fired.
Instead of hitting her target, the phaser blasted a hole right in-between the eyes of a larger than life Vulcan woman, looking down from a huge billboard with a wide smile on her face, seemingly put there by whatever it was she was selling. The already shaky billboard crumpled after impact and rained down on the pedestrians underneath.
“Sorry, sorry,” she cried, hoping nobody had been injured by the collapsing structure.
Determined not to allow the man in black to get away, she increased her speed, dodged something akin to a taxi cab by about a hair’s width and then, undaunted by its insistent beeping, pushed right into the rear of the bike she was chasing.
The rider turned his head and she got her first proper look at the man. He was human, dark-haired, with steely brown eyes which considered her with little emotion for just a heartbeat or so.
“Stop that goddamned bike,” she shouted at him.
He just turned back around and pressed down harder on his accelerator, pushing away from her.
She lined up another shot, but this time, instead of trying to hit the man, or the bike, she tried to aim in front of him, hoping to get him to slow down.
The phaser blast lit up the road and caused him to swerve sharply to the left and right into a heavy cargo vehicle traveling in the same direction.
He careened off the side of the truck and Susan could tell from the smoke coming out of his engine that the bike had taken serious damage.
He was rapidly losing speed, allowing her to once more catch up with him. “I got you now,” she cried out jubilantly.
Awash in the glow of victory, she missed the sharp turn he made as he slowed down suddenly, leaving her to barrel right towards a high fence instead.
It was all she had time to say as she desperately tried to turn and slow the machine between her legs. To no avail. She crashed through the fence and found a sharp slope just beyond it.
The bike went airborne, far higher than it was designed for. Gravity quickly took hold and Susan braced herself for what she expected to be a painful impact.
The bike slammed into the ground hard and she was thrown clear of the saddle as if she had been riding a particularly wild animal at a rodeo show.
She had the presence of mind to roll as she landed right in a small rill.
It probably saved her life as she splashed down, as did the fact that the runnel was filled with overflow rainwater mixed with some dark, gooey sludge which smelled nasty enough to make her want to vomit. She desperately tried to avoid thinking about what it may have contained.
The impact still hurt like hell as her momentum rolled her right out of the muck and onto an adjacent field.
When she finally came to a stop, she felt the overwhelming urge to just stay where she was, remain on the ground and perhaps drift into a long and restful sleep.
She knew she couldn’t afford it.
Her bruised body objecting with shooting pain, she nevertheless pushed herself back onto her hands and knees, fairly certain that she had survived the fall without breaking any bones.
“Gotta be thankful for the little things,” she mumbled as she pulled herself back up and looked around. “I’ll be damned.”
She had feared that she'd lost the man in black and the Object after her detour through the fence and the grimy stream. Instead, she found his bike lying on its site just a few dozen meters away, the engine compartment smoking heavily, he had clearly abandoned it.
She spotted him not too far from the disabled machine, running across a wide-open space of what she suddenly realized was a spaceport. It wasn’t well-frequented and the expansive landing platform she stood just at the edge of was almost empty save for what looked like a medium-sized Corvellan transport ship, getting ready for take-off.
The man in black who had now been joined by two similarly dressed men was running right towards the transport’s extended landing ramp.
There was no way that she’d be able to catch up with them, not in her bruised and battered condition, not to mention that she was noticeably outnumbered and considering that they likely had even more friends waiting onboard that ship.
But there was something else that caught her eye. A thick umbilical conduit was connected to the hull of the transport ship which in turn was attached to a large, dome-shaped tank of sorts. The ship was still refueling.
“You bastards aren’t going anywhere,” she said as she pulled her phaser free once more, thankful it had survived her fall. She took a knee and then carefully aimed at her target, using both hands to steady her weapon. “Deep breath, hold it and squeeze,” she quietly repeated to herself. “Got to be able to hit one blasted thing tonight.”
The beam ripped across the wide landing platform and struck the large fuel tank.
“Figures,” she said, bemoaning that things were simply refusing to go her way on this night.
If nothing else, the phaser beam had given away her position and all three men stopped in their tracks to turn to look at her. All three pulled out their weapons.
She was fairly certain that they were much better shots than she was.
A loud, low rumbling sound kept them from opening fire straight away as they turned to find the source of the growing commotion.
It was coming from the fuel tank.
It ripped itself to pieces so suddenly and with such a bright explosion, it lit up almost the entire spaceport and Susan had to raise a hand over her eyes to shield herself from it.
It didn’t quite stop there.
Still connected to the transport via an umbilical which had been pumping highly combustive thruster fuel into the ship, with just a second or so of a delay, the explosion ripped into the transport as well and blew it apart in what Susan could only describe as the most satisfying fireball she had ever witnessed.
The force of the eruption may have rivaled a warp core breach and the shockwave flattened the three men in an instant, likely killing them all.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Susan shouted, her built-up adrenaline getting the better of her.
There as just one problem. The chain of explosions didn’t end there.
What she had failed to realize through the gloomy and wet night, was the fact that the fuel tank she had targeted was itself connected by another conduit which ran alongside the edge of the landing platform. Whatever emergency fail-safe may have been been in place had malfunctioned, and the fuel pipeline erupted like a very long and very deadly fuse.
Her eyes darted ahead of the chain reaction of explosions to find that the conduit was not only running in her direction, it terminated at two massive fuel drums which towered just a few meters to her right.
“No, no, no.”
Understanding what was about to happen, she forced her bruised body to start running as fast as it could take her.
The explosion behind her was deafening but it was the shockwave which she was certain was going to end her.
It lifted her clean off the ground and catapulted her forward and high into the air.
There was a moment of almost serene quiet and elation as she felt herself becoming weightless while she sailed through the night sky.
That moment ended quickly.
“No, I think I was right the first time,” said Susan, standing on the burning landing platform of the wrecked spaceport as she considered the dark-clad men approaching her with their weapons drawn. “Seems very much like this is the end of the road for me. Looks as if this might be it.”
After all, where else could she go? Her team was dead. The ship most likely destroyed. Running wasn’t really an option, considering that she wouldn’t make it five meters in her condition without being shot in the back. Fighting would be suicide as well. She had lost her weapon after she had been nearly incinerated by the latest explosion and whom was she kidding? She wasn’t a fighter.
“Now Terrence on the other hand. He’d love this kind of crap,” she said out loud, suddenly wishing for nothing more than for her friend and one-time lover to be at her side. Even if it was for nothing more than not having to die alone.
There were no illusions as to what these men were going to do with her. They had shown no interest in taking prisoners. The only reason she wasn’t dead yet was because they wanted to make sure that they secured the Object first.
Susan took a few steps backward, trying to delay the inevitable. Room was scarce, the burning hulk of the transport ship behind her cutting off any escape.
She considered for a moment to just leap into the flames and taking the Object with her and thereby denying it to her enemies. She was convinced that it was enormously powerful. Jarik had said it himself. The worst-case scenario was for anyone else getting their hands on it. She could only guess what kind of nefarious purposes these black-clad men had, what kind of terrible things they’d be able to accomplish with something as powerful as the Object.
She remembered her mother’s words then. She almost laughed at them now.
“Tell me, mother. What would you suggest I do now? Do you have any worn-out
tropes befitting this situation?”
The persistent ringing sound in her ears which had never really gone away since the music hall—only gotten worse, if anything—was all she heard in response.
“I didn’t think so.”
She felt something vibrating against her left arm now hanging uselessly off her side and looked down to notice her armband computer. Using her right hand she lifted the limp arm to look at the device which miraculously was still operational.
The computer was informing her that her transporter inhibitor was moments away from losing power. “Yeah, of course, you are. Bad news never comes alone.”
It took her a second to realize that keeping the inhibitor active while about to be executed in cold blood was probably the wrong way to go. She found the right controls and turned the device off.
Bano grinned to herself and she looked skyward, letting the rain pelt her gray-blue face. “I know this is a long-shot but if somebody’s up there. I would sell my mother for a beam—“
Her body began to dissolve.
Shocked she looked towards the black-clad men, thinking that she had just been shot. But this wasn’t that kind of disintegration.
By the time they realized what was happening and opened fire on her, they struck nothing but empty air.
Bano grabbed her body, padding herself down as soon as she was back in one piece, halfway expecting to have been pierced by various phaser blasts. Luck was on her side one more time.
“Hello, Susan. You’ve looked better.”
She stood in a small transporter room on a ship—not the same one she had taken to get to Eteron—with Jarik standing just a few meters in front of her.
“What—“ it was the only word she managed to get over her lips before she felt her knees buckle underneath her.
Jarik leaped over to her and managed to steady her before she could collapse. He then carefully guided her to a small bench along the far wall of the room where she gingerly sat down. “I am relieved that you finally deactivated that inhibitor of yours. We had a lock on you for the last two minutes but couldn’t beam you out. You didn’t respond to comms, I am assuming your communicator was damaged.”
Susan reached into her ear, plugged the small device out of the canal and then almost spitefully threw it on the floor.
“How do you feel?”
She glared at him. “Like I’ve been shot at, blown-up multiple times, set on fire and repeatedly driven into the ground.”
“I understand this to mean that there were some complications.”
She couldn’t help but utter a laugh which sounded like it belonged to a madwoman. “Yeah, you could say there were some fraking complications.”
“But you survived.”
“Barely. Did anyone else make it out?”
He shook his head.
“They were good people.”
“Yes, they were."
She reached into her boot and retrieved the Object. “At least I made sure they didn’t die in vain.”
Jarik glanced at it for a moment as if taken aback by the small and unassuming device.
Susan nodded. "I know. I felt it, too. Packs a hell of a punch, doesn't it?"
“Whatever it is,” he said as he never took his eyes off the device in Bano’s hand. “I believe my Vulcan side is even more susceptible to its effects.” He carefully took it off her.
“Now, you want to tell me where the hell you've come from? When last we spoke you gave no indication you were anywhere nearby. I figured you were still on Earth."
“I could not be sure who else may have been listening in. Even secure subspace channels can be intercepted,” he said, still studying the Object.
“Well, turns out you were right. Somebody else very nearly beat us to this. Who were those guys, anyway?”
Jarik shot her a very brief glance.
“Wait a minute. Was that the shadow group the Old Man has been so worried about? That Section—“
He held up a hand to stop her. “He does not care for that name to be mentioned and I suggest you avoid it as well unless you wish to draw his ire. But yes, it appears they were much closer than we anticipated.”
“What do you think it does?” she said, focusing on the Object again.
“You are the science officer. You tell me.”
She shrugged. “According to the Pandora Boxes—the Shard Artifacts—this Object is powerful enough to penetrate time and space. Probably even realities themselves. We'll need to study it in greater detail but something tells me the possibilities of all that power are near-infinite.”
“And all that from such a small little thing,” said Jarik, still studying the silvery rod. He manipulated it slightly in his hand and both he and Susan were suddenly taken aback by the appearance of a construct—having seemingly come out of thin air—hovering in-between them a few meters off the ground. It was a three-dimensional shape, pulsing with green light and obvious power, slowly rotating on its axis.
“What did you do?” Susan asked wide-eyed.
“I am uncertain.”
“It looks like a prism.”
The shape vanished as quickly as it had appeared and Jarik uttered a surprised gasp as the rod dropped to the floor.
“What happened?” Susan asked.
“I do not know,” he said and then took a knee next to the Object lying on the floor, very carefully attempting to pick it up again. He seemed to be able to do so without difficulty. “It felt incredibly heavy and hot all of a sudden and I was unable to hold on to it. Whatever it was, it seems to have reverted to its previous state now.”
“Fascinating—as your people are fond of saying.”
“We’ll have to study the Object as soon as possible,” he said as he stood again.
Susan felt very tired all of a sudden, the punishment her body had absorbed over the last few hours beginning to catch up with her as the adrenaline began to subside.
Jarik seemed to notice as she slumped down further on the bench. “But first you will need medical attention in sickbay.”
She nodded slowly, unable to disagree with his assessment and then laid down flat on the bench. “You’ll have to carry me because I think I’m going to pass out right about now.
It’s been one of those days.”