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Part III: The Escape




1


Nobody had ever joined Starfleet to be a first officer, to be the second-in-command and perpetually reside in the shadow of other people. Tazla Star understood this well, after all, she had once been a starship captain herself, albeit briefly, and had aspired to such a lofty position ever since she had first felt that undeniable drive to attain greatness after she had joined with the Star symbiont as a young woman.

As was the case for most first officers on starships, she only got the chance to play captain when Owens was away and now that he was, she found that she didn’t enjoy sitting in the center chair at all.

She felt anxious and tense, unable to think of anything else but how to get him back after they had been forced out of orbit of Arkaria Prime to avoid an incoming Dominion fleet.

They hadn’t gone far.

After performing a high-risk, in-system warp jump, to get out of harm’s way in the nick of time, they had dived deep into the lower layers of the toxic methane and ammonia atmosphere of Arkaria V, a class-six gas giant. A maneuver only made possible thanks to their new, overpowered transphasic shield. Buried underneath kilometers of super-dense cloud formations had allowed them to hide from the Dominion ships still searching the system and also complete any outstanding repairs.

Tazla was currently laser-focused on the visual data displayed on the main view screen coming courtesy of a probe they had launched to relocate the away team. The images were distorted due to the interference from the gas giant’s atmosphere but the probe was the only way they could see beyond Arkaria V while they remained hidden in its turbulent depths.

Normally Tazla, and perhaps even the rest of the crew, would have been concerned about the constant vibrations that even their powerful shields and the inertia dampeners couldn’t compensate for, but considering their recent tempestuous journeys across universes and through hazardous environments, this latest situation hardly even rated as more than an inconvenience to a crew long since accustomed to sailing rough seas.

Except for, perhaps Elijah Katanga. “I wonder if this ship will ever be able to traverse the great void without trying to rattle every last one of my old bones,” the veteran physician mumbled as he sat to Tazla’s right, holding on tightly to its armrests.

“All part of the miracle that is space flight,” she said with a little smirk.

“I’ve been zooming back and forth the dark a long time and I can hardly recall ever being on a ship as turbulent as this one. It’s almost as if you folks are going out of your way to try and find the roughest parts of the cosmos,” he said.

It hadn’t escaped her notice that, as was his wont, he still refused to wear his uniform jacket fully closed as to regulations. It wasn’t so much a fashion statement as a minor act of personal rebellion against military rules and conformity. She had been trying to get him to toe the line, and she considered the fact that he hadn’t done so yet a failure on her part. However, considering their tumultuous relationship up until recently, getting the infamously stubborn octogenarian to wear his uniform correctly was not a battle worth fighting, she had decided.

Instead, she appreciated the simple fact that he had come up to the bridge to lend her his moral support during this latest crisis. Besides, there were much more important matters on her mind for now.

“Approaching Arkaria Prime now,” said Deen from operations, her fingers flying over her console as she remote-controlled the sensor probe.

On the screen, Tazla could see the turquoise globe even through the distracting static, looking very much like the last time they had seen it.

“Can we get a fix on the away team’s last known position?”

Deen nodded. “Sensors are locked in on the eastern continent but I’ll need to get it in closer to get a high-resolution scan.”

“Do it.”

Although it didn’t take her long to get the probe into a low orbit, as far as Tazla was concerned it was still not quickly enough and she got out of her chair and took a few steps toward Deen as if this might somehow speed up the process.

“I’ve located the beam-in coordinates,” she said.

“Do you have the captain?”

She shook her head. “I cannot detect any life signs within the area.”

Tazla felt her stomach churn, unable to entirely shake the possible implications of that news.

“However, the probe is detecting residual signs of anti-gravitons.”

Katanga left his chair as well. “What does that mean?”

Leva at tactical answered. “It could indicate that the away team boarded a ship, most likely a shuttle.”

Star nodded, the explanation making sense to her. This mission came first, he had kept telling her. If Owens hadn’t been able to return to Eagle, he was likely attempting to get back to the Ring by other means. At least that was the best-case scenario. She also couldn’t entirely dismiss the idea that they had been taken against their will. “Can we determine where they went?”

Deen shook her head. “There are not enough residual traces to extrapolate a precise heading but the vessel did appear to head toward orbit.”

“Which means off-planet,” said Tazla.

Deen made eye contact. “That would be my guess.”

“Could they still be in the system?”

The operations manager turned back to her console. “Difficult to say but there is a lot of Dominion activity out there, searching for us, no doubt.”

“Which could have given them just the opportunity they needed to slip by them and leave the system,” said So’Dan Leva.

“Wait a minute,” said Katanga. “Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they did manage to get past all those Jem’Hadar fighters zipping around. Won’t they need that Prism gizmo to work the Ring?”

Star had considered that herself and nodded, fully aware that the Exhibitor was still on Eagle. Even if the away team managed to get back into in-between space, they had little means to interact with the superstructure.

“They will also require Bensu’s assistance to interface with the collider’s telepathic controls,” said Xylion who sat at his science station at the back of the bridge.

Tazla regarded the Vulcan briefly, recalling Owens’ warning relating to the enigmatic alien bartender who had recently been revealed to be so much more. Besides his inexplicable knowledge of the subspace aliens, their domain, and the supercollider, what had astonished her the most was the fact that the man wasn’t entirely biological and that with Xylion’s assistance, he had fashioned himself with a synthetic body that would have been the envy of Doctor Noonian Soong and one so convincing, it had fooled everybody, including routine sensor scans.

She was not entirely sure what to make of the vision Owens had told her about--on the surface it didn’t seem to make a great amount of sense--but then again, she was also very much cognizant of the fact that, until a few days ago, she would have firmly believed that extinguishing an entire universe in a matter of seconds would have been impossible as well.

Her train of thought was interrupted by a warning chime from Deen’s console.

“The probe is getting some company,” she said.

Tazla looked toward the screen just in time to see the familiar bug shape of a Jem’Hadar fighter. It fired its polaron weapons not a moment later and the feed cut out.

“Looks like they prefer to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Katanga.

“Which does not bode well for the away team,” added Deen as she glanced up at the first officer.

“A sensor probe of unfamiliar design and with an energy signature the Jem’Hadar do not recognize may be more conspicuous than whatever ride the away team managed to secure,” said Tazla. “We have to assume that they found a way off that plan and get back to the Ring. Which means we need to follow suit.”

“That leaves us with a rather big complication though,” said Katanga. “Namely, a system filled with trigger happy Jem’Hadar ships ready to fire on anything that even looks out of the ordinary to them. How do we get around them?”

“What we need is a distraction.”

Tazla and Katanga turned around to find Lieutenant Alendra standing at the tactical station next to Leva.

The young Bolian had a promising gleam in her eye.


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