United Trek: Task Force Vanguard
by Sam Redfeather
* * *
Picture the Milky Way Galaxy, the colossal disk-shaped aggregation of stars and gasses that we call home. Nearly all lifeforms known to the Federation evolved in this galaxy, dominated by the bipedal humanoid body-form spread so widely throughout the Milky Way by the ancient Preservers.
Now pull back away from this view, and look relative upward from the plane of the galactic elliptic to glimpse the smaller, irregular galaxies that orbit our own. The larger of these is the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC, a formerly spiral-shaped mass which has been distorted by the gravitational forces exerted upon it by our galaxy and its smaller neighbor, the Small Magellanic Cloud.
The LMC lies approximately one-hundred and sixty thousand light-years from Earth, and contains some thirty billion stars.
As you close in upon the LMC, the first thing that one notices is the panoply of nebulae on display. The galaxy is dominated by the massive, reddish Tarantula Nebula, a phenomenon of such size and intensity that it is visible from Earth with a portable telescope. A host of other gaseous marvels share the local sky here, to include the LN 95 stellar nursery, sixty globular clusters, some four-hundred planetary nebulae, and seven hundred open clusters. Contained within all this are hundreds of thousands of giant and supergiant stars and the remnants of at least one recent supernova.
Near the center of the galaxy, within a dozen light years of the Tarantula Nebula, a battle raged. This conflict involved three species not native to the LMC. It took place in the same star system as an ancient space station whose age was judged in eons and which possessed the ability to open portals allowing instantaneous travel to and from six different galactic bodies closest to the Milky Way.
As space battles went, this particular engagement was not especially notable insofar as the number of craft involved. Even in the very recent history of all three combatant species, far larger battles had been fought involving hundreds of capital ships on either side. These blistering engagements had resulted in massive casualties and catastrophic losses of invaluable matériel. In comparison, this dust-up was little more than a skirmish.
Romulan warbirds maneuvered wildly, tangling with Federation starships and Klingon battlecruisers. The energies released by their weapons, while impressive to some, would have been scoffed at by the intelligent species that used to travel the local star-ways. Nevertheless, in the here-and-now, these weapons were potent, and all those involved in this mêlée were justifiably fighting for their lives.
The Romulans were assisted by a mysterious ally, a former Starfleet officer who now called herself the Baroness, and wielded powerful chronometric technology that gave their side a substantive advantage over their adversaries.
However, both the Federation and Klingon contingents were led by their respective species’ foremost warriors, individuals who relished the opportunity to engage in open warfare, and who had languished in the years since the end of the Dominion War.
* * *
The deck plates shuddered beneath Captain Ebnal’s feet, but neither that or the sparking EPS taps nor the flickering lights could erase the grim smile that testified to his pure enjoyment of the moment.
Ebnal leaned forward slightly in the command chair, as far as the safety restraints would allow, his eyes dancing with the colors of battle flaring across the viewer. “Continue phaser fire on the forward warbird. I want a brace of three quantums aft onto that son-of-a-bitch that’s harassing Gallant. Let me know when we get three or more Romulans within half-a-million klicks of one-another forward, then we’ll let loose that little surprise in our forward tube.”
The officer at Operations clung desperately to her console as she spared a glance back at Ebnal. “Captain, we’re picking up a garbled transmission from Europa.”
Ebnal cocked an eyebrow at the officer. “I thought you said the Rommies were jamming comms?”
“They are, sir. I’m guessing Europa slaved their comms transceiver to that ungodly powerful sensor array of theirs to burn through the localized jamming.”
“Well,” Ebnal snapped, “what the blazing hell do they want?”
The severed engine and wing assembly of a Klingon K’Vort-class frigate spun past on the viewer as Venture’s forward phasers sliced through the failing shields of the warbird they were pursuing and began to eviscerate the graceful Romulan warship.
“Europa reports the Amon have taken a local species hostage and are threatening to wipe out their Class-M planet if Europa attacks. They request further orders and wish to know if you want them to return to assist us or to continue with their mission.”
Ebnal rolled his eyes, the gesture lost in the gyrating motion and cacophonous noise of the battle. “Tell Europa to complete their mission using whatever means necessary, regardless of collateral damage. Then have them get their asses back here to help us hold the line.”
“Grouping of four warbirds assembling at three-four-seven, mark eighteen. Looks like they’re preparing to make a run on the Klingon flagship.”
Ebnal bore his teeth, raising a fist into the air as he exclaimed, “Target that group and fire Alpha Weapon omega-three!”
A moment later a proto-matter explosion ignited a small star which lasted for less than a fiftieth of a second. The intense energy burst and accompanying gravimetric shear engulfed and vaporized two of the warbirds almost instantly, while the other two spun away from the conflagration at a hundred gravities in excess of their inertial dampening fields’ capacity. Their crews were reduced to a thin film along the interior bulkheads measuring only a few microns thickness.
A throaty growl of approval escaped Ebnal as he turned his attention to the tactical display on a fold-out console interface at the captain’s chair.
“Captain, I’m picking up a massive chronometric surge from the Defiant-class ship accompanying the Romu—“
The sound of shrieking metal actually managed to drown out Lucian Ebnal’s string of invective.
* * *
Some time later…
Indol System, United Federation of Planets
The commander stared out the viewport of the starship Valhalla’s observation lounge. Her eyes tracked the variations of light shimmering along the accretion disc that had formed around the mouth of the transit portal. Typically, such gateways were short-lived events that lasted mere minutes, or hours at the most, and never long enough to accumulate such an ephemeral corona.
She could appreciate the phenomenon from an aesthetic perspective as well as a purely scientific one. Reaching out with her enhanced senses, she could perceive the delicate dance of chronitons, photons, and various exotic sub-quarkian particles that both permeated and exuded from the portal.
Some members of Valhalla’s science team had expressed frustration at being in the presence of such wonders while being unable to decipher how such a thing was possible. Their sensors, their knowledge of quantum and astrophysics could only tell them so much, and many stood in awe of a means of transportation that could bridge the vast distances between galaxies.
She understood and empathized with their feelings while being unable to share them.
The doors behind her hissed open gently.
“The old man’s on final approach,” a voice from behind her announced. “They’re assembling a welcoming party in shuttlebay-two. There are flags, bosun’s whistles, dress uniforms, and someone mentioned a cake in the shape of the Federation seal.”
Her smile was visible to the new arrival through her reflection in the transparent aluminum. “The commodore,” she corrected. “You’ll want to break yourself of that habit, Rafe. He’s a stickler for protocol.”
"His reputation most definitely precedes him,” replied Adalgiso Raffaele, his expression tinged with amusement.
The tall auburn-haired woman turned to inspect Raffaele. The large man looked to have just stepped out of a Starfleet recruiting poster; well-toned beneath his form fitting dress uniform. His wavy black hair was styled neatly, while still managing to somehow remain just a touch devil-may-care unkempt.
“I’d like the two of you to get along,” she sounded a confessional note. “The commodore brought you on solely on my recommendation. If the two of you clash, we’ll be nearly two-hundred thousand light-years away from a transfer posting and I’ll end up with egg on my face.”
“I’d never do that to you, Commander,” Raffaele countered, growing somber. “This promises to be an historic mission, and I’m honored to have been selected. I realize my style and Izawa’s might not mesh, but as he’s the one in charge, I’ll be the one who adapts.”
She nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”
Raffaele stepped closer to the viewport and shared in her observation of the portal aperture. “It’s funny. It looks so unremarkable in comparison to the Bajoran Wormhole, and yet it will send us nearly three times as far." He looked askance at the ship's executive officer. "You and your eggheads are sure it's going to remain stable long enough for us to launch this mission?"
She cocked her head thoughtfully. "It's been perfectly stable for the twenty-nine days since we first detected its opening. All the probes and scouting forays we've sent through report back that Shul'Nazhar is intact, but so heavily shielded that we can't tell who or what opened the aperture. If whoever they are want it to remain open, it'll remain open.”
“Why the mystery, though? It’s obviously an invitation, but there’s been no messages, no log buoys, no sign of Europa, the Romulans, the Skorrah or the Amon. If Wu and her people were anywhere within fifty light-years of the station, they’d have detected our signals and responded to our hails by now.”
She studied him with her serene gaze. “It’s been over five years. They could be anywhere in the LMC right now, especially given their transwarp drive. If it was Europa’s crew that activated the portal generator, why not simply use it to pop out right here? I don’t believe this was them, Rafe. It doesn’t feel like that, anyway.”
Raffaele chuckled lightly. “When did you develop gut feelings, boss?”
“It was a package deal with my last software upgrade, bundled with sarcasm and gallows humor.”
He smirked and opened his mouth to retort when their combadges chirped in unison. “All hands, be advised, Commodore Izawa’s shuttle will be landing in ten minutes. All senior staff and those not manning mission critical posts are to report to shuttlebay-two.”
Commander Cybel chucked Raffaele on the shoulder as she turned for the exit. “C’mon, let’s go welcome the old man aboard, shall we?”
“Oh, so you get to call him ‘old man’ just because you served aboard his last ship twenty years ago? Isn’t that blatant favoritism?”
Her laugh was a light, airy sound, and unmistakably genuine. “No, good sir, I get to call him that because I was his last ship.”
“Oh… right. That.”
* * *