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18


If the borders to the Krellonian Star Alliance had been well protected in their universe, here, in this alternate quantum-reality, it appeared the Krellonians were on a virtual lock-down, judging by the countless sensor buoys and automated watch stations which had been set up all along the outer boundary of Star Alliance territory.

Tazla vividly remembered how difficult it had been to enter Krellonia space before—how it had very nearly led to a shootout onboard Eagle with an overzealous Krellonian inspection team—it seemed nigh impossible to approach the border in the universe without the people tasked to protect it from finding out.

Their only chance lay with the Moebius Cluster the runabout was now rapidly approaching, or as rapidly as Culsten could navigate the ship through the challenging area of space which was constantly buffeted by powerful solar winds and radiation from several particularly dense stars which seemed more common in the Amargosa Diaspora than virtually any other corner of the galaxy she’d ever visited.

It made for a turbulent ride even at low warp speeds.

Tazla had always prided herself on her ironclad constitution but she had to admit, the way the small runabout was shaking and heaving, she wasn’t quite sure how successful she’d be in keeping her breakfast down.

“We should consider ourselves lucky that we only have to skim Moebius to get into Star Alliance space. This would be another story altogether if we had to cut right through it,” said Culsten who must have caught a glimpse of her ashen face even while the majority of his focus remained on his navigational controls in order to avoid getting crushed by the gravimetrical eddies all around them.

“Just keep us in one piece,” she said, trying to deflect from her growing discomfort.

The small smile on his lips seemed to indicate that—regardless of his reservations previously—the helmsman was actually quite enjoying himself. Tazla wasn’t sure if it was the chance of making her queasy or the challenge of trying to navigate through what was for all intents and purposes, impassable terrain.

“How confident are we that we will be able to cross the border undetected in this region?” said Sensy who induced Tazla’s envy in no small measure by the way he seemed to effortlessly whether their rough ride. In fact, the Special Missions Team operative had remained standing just behind her and Culsten, with just one hand holding on to the ceiling above to keep him steady. No doubt this wasn’t his first rough insertion into hostile territory. It also made her begin to think that perhaps starship duty had started to make her soft. Back in her days working as an intelligence operative, this wouldn’t have been much more than another day at the office for her too.

“Back home the Moebius cluster is considered so treacherous, it is practically a natural border wall with hardly any patrols assigned to this area at all,” said Culsten as he entered constant course corrections. “Without trying to sound boastful, a lesser pilot wouldn’t get within a thousand kilometers into this cluster without breaking up their ship like a raw egg.”

The runabout shook so hard all of a sudden, Ivory who sat in one of the back chairs was slung out of her seat, Sensy very nearly followed suit but managed to steady himself just in time while Tazla’s head only barely missed a very painful encounter with her console.

“Sorry about that,” Lif said. “This cluster might be somewhat more volatile in this universe.”

Tazla fired a dark glare his way once she had recovered. “Any chance there might be some other things in this reality you hadn’t considered?”

He just shrugged and then turned back to his controls.

Their nausea-inducing journey lasted a painfully-long four hours during which nobody spoke to allow Lif to fully concentrate on piloting the ship and judging from the sweat pearls which had begun to drip down his forehead, he needed his entire focus to traverse the outer edges of the star cluster.

It was only once their ride finally began to smooth out again that Tazla allowed herself a deep breath which she hadn’t even realized she had avoided for most of their tumultuous journey.

Culsten offered her a large grin. “That was fun, don’t you think?”

“I think our definitions of fun are wildly divergent,” she said. “How long until we cross into Krellonian space?”

The grin stayed on his face. “Technically, we’ve been within Star Alliance territory for the last hour. Thanks to taking this shortcut we’re just a couple more hours out from the Piqus system.”

She glared at him again. “You could’ve said something sooner.”

He shrugged. “I’m sorry, I was a little distracted.”

Her features softened and she offered him a nod before glancing at Sensy behind her. “Get your team ready, Senior Chief,” she said

He quickly acknowledged and moved into the back along with Ivory to get ready for their upcoming mission and prep his people which included the Boslic woman Violet as well as the Tellarite Charm.

“I’m activating our sensor camouflage which should make us appear to anyone who’ll casually scan us as nothing more than a standard Krellonian escort,” she said as she activated the right panels. “That is if their ship configurations in this reality match ours.”

“Uh, Commander, I’m detecting a vessel on sensors.”

She turned her head to look at him. “A border patrol vessel? Did they get a chance to scan us yet?” she asked, concerned that they may not have been able to activate the camouflage in time.

But he shook his head. “No, this looks like a freighter. Big one at that. It’s odd.”

“What is?”

“Well, there isn’t much in this sector that would warrant a freighter of that size.”

She considered that for a moment. “The Piqus system used to be home to a large mining operation in our universe. It might still be going strong here.”

“It’s possible but even if that were the case, this ship is on a course away from Piqus and not on any of the usual trade routes which would take it towards the core worlds. It’s heading the exact opposite way.”

Tazla agreed that this did seem peculiar. Of course, they knew very little about the Star Alliance in this reality beyond the scant information Captain Donners had been able to provide them with. Her curiosity piqued, she decided to take the risk and scan the freighter. The results surprised her. “It’s not carrying any cargo. It is, however, jammed-packed with people.”

“What people?”

Tazla checked again. “None of them are Krellonian.”

Culsten looked at her. “Outlanders.”

“It looks as if they have detected us. They are changing course and increasing speed,” she said.

Culsten looked at his sensor data. “To get away from us.”

She nodded. “They’re reading us as a Krellonian ship and must be considering us a threat.”

“I’m opening a channel to let them know we’re not.”

Tazla quickly shook her head. “Belay that, Lieutenant.”

“But, Commander.”

“We’re on a mission to get to Piqus VII and extract Garla and we are inside hostile territory. We cannot give ourselves away at this point and risk mission failure.”

Culsten seemed to understand this and nodded slowly.

“Keep your eyes on that ship as long as it is in range, but we are staying on course and radio silent as long as we can.”

By altering its speed and course, the freighter had apparently drifted within sensor range of other Krellonian vessels and Tazla and Lif watched on quietly on long-range sensors as three patrol vessels were quickly closing in on the large ship. Her worst fears about the nature of the packed Outlander freighter were confirmed when the border vessels began to open fire on it.

“They are broadcasting a distress signal on all frequencies,” Culsten said.

Even if they had the firepower to stand up to three border cutters, there was little to no chance that the runabout could reach the freighter in time, judging how determined these Krellonians were to stop that ship.

After just a few minutes the freighter’s shields collapsed and they both watched on silently as all sensor data from the larger vessel disappeared, leading to only one inescapable conclusion to this drama.

Culsten brought up the last data they had been able to gain from the freighter. “There were over three hundred people on that ship,” he said and stared at her. Tazla couldn’t quite tell if it was accusatory or just pure anger.

She sadly shook her head. “There’s nothing we could have done for them, you know that.”

“Doesn’t make it any better,” he said and stood from his chair to leave the cockpit.

Tazla uttered a heavy sigh, realizing that this away mission was already off to a terrible start.


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