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“Report,” Izawa called out as he settled gently into the captain’s chair.

The ensign at Operations replied as he vacated his post for Raffaele to assume, “Three vessels inbound on an intercept course at one-quarter impulse speed, sir. They match the profiles of hostile craft Taskforce Vanguard engaged and destroyed during their arrival at Shul’Nazhar.”

On the main viewscreen, three coppery-colored, octagonal-sided rockets angled towards Valhalla on plumes of blue flame.

From the upper level of the bridge, the chief engineer commented, “If those things are all the way out here, I have to assume they have a faster-than-light drive, but they sure don’t look it.”

“Confirmed,” Raffaele observed as he looked over a sensor-generated schematic of one of the vessels. “It’s a warp drive, but it’s an unusual one. The whole body of the ship acts as a single engine nacelle.”

Cybel slid into her seat to Izawa’s right. “They must be immune to radiation, then.”

“Any response to our hails?” Izawa asked.

“None, sir.”

“Life signs?”

“Indeterminate, sir,” Raffaele replied.

Izawa settled back into his seat, his face displaying a peaceful, untroubled countenance. “Status of their weapons and defenses?”

“Their ssshieldsss are raisssed, sssir,” Ressessk divined from her scans. “Their weaponsss are not armed.”

“A cautious posture,” Izawa assessed, “but not overtly hostile.”

“Now receiving a transmission from the lead vessel, sir. It appears to be a variant of linga-code including a mathematical progression.”

“Analyzing,” Cybel announced. “The coding checks out clean. You can transmit it into our new Universal Translator core we built for the Karera linguistic database.”

“Done,” Raffaele confirmed. “Translation matrix is being formed, but it’ll take a few moments.”

“Let’s hope they don’t take offense at long pauses,” Beresha said with an impish smile.


* * *​

Cybel appeared suddenly in her holographic form outside Ramirez’s brig cell. She tossed a holographic sphere into the cell that stopped dead center of the compartment and opened to reveal one of the alien rocket-type ships. “Captain Ramirez, we’ve just encountered three of these vessels. Do you recognize them?”

Ramirez blinked, “Captain?”

“You were posthumously promoted after your death. Per your service record, you hold the rank of captain. Now, if you don’t mind, the ship?”

“Er… yes, of course. It’s a Namulkai skylance. The Namulkai are rumored to be one of the oldest species still active in these parts, but they mostly keep to themselves. I’ve never encountered them myself, only heard the stories.”

“What are the stories?”

“The Namulkai are said to have elevated themselves to an energy state thousands of years ago, but refuse to leave the physical plane. Instead, they supposedly inhabit elaborate, decorative mechanical bodies. They’re called clockwork men, among other euphemisms. They’re supposed to be difficult to communicate with, very cryptic”

“Are they known to be hostile?” Cybel pressed.

“Not necessarily, though they are somehow tied to a number of ancient space fortresses, Shul’Nazhar among them. They’re said to be very protective of those places, and will defend them to the death.”

“Anything else?”

“That’s all I know.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Cybel said and vanished.


* * *​

On the bridge, Cybel’s avatar summarized this information for the senior staff.

“Namulkai,” Izawa pronounced slowly, as if tasting the name. “Clockwork men… intriguing.”

Raffaele’s console beeped and he offered, “Universal Translator matrix reports ready and estimates a ninety-seven percent linguistic efficacy.”

“Open a channel,” Izawa instructed, standing with the assistance of his cane.

“Channel open, sir.”

“This is Commodore Takeo Izawa of the starship Valhalla, representing the United Federation of Planets. We are on a peaceful mission of exploration and diplomacy. I offer you greetings from our home in the Milky Way galaxy.”

Behind him at the Tactical arch, Ressessk scrutinized their initial scans of the skylance spacecraft, only to see alert tell-tails pop up on her display in reference to damage on the vessel’s hull. She intensified her sensor probe of the hull section in question.

“Federations,” the reply came in a strangely tinny, artificial sounding voice. “You have come through The Gateway, which no longer speaks to us. Why have you taken it’s voice?”

Izawa shot a troubled glance at Cybel as he gestured for the audio to be muted. “Whatever does that mean?”

“I think they’re referring to Shul’Nazhar, Commodore,” the XO replied. “The Gateway is one of its many designations in the LMC. As to what they mean by it’s ‘voice’, I’ve no idea.”

“You have encroached upon our places again, after scattering the pieces of our brethren. You have inflicted much pain upon us and others. This cannot continue.”

A metallurgical and energy analysis scrolled across Ressessk’s display and she hissed in surprise and consternation. “Sssir, one of the ssships hasss hull damage that appearsss to have been caused by Ssstarfleet Class-XI phasssersss. I ssstrongly recommend raisssing ssshieldsss.”

“Not yet,” Izawa raised a hand in a gesture of abeyance.

“This can’t be one of the ships Vanguard faced when they seized Shul’Nazhar,” Cybel observed. “All three of those Namulkai craft were destroyed in that engagement.”

“Looks like Europa’s been making friends,” Raffaele suggested dryly. An alert sounded from his console as he warned, “Now reading their forward weapons charging.”

"Raise shields," Izawa instructed. “Resume audio.” After the affirmation of his order, he said, “Namulkai vessels, we regret the earlier hostilities between our peoples, and I ask you to stand down so we may discuss these issues peacefully and avoid unnecessary conflict.”

A bright yellow beam lashed out from what on an ancient Earth rocket would have been its nosecone. The discharge flared against Valhalla’s forward shields, seeming to oscillate as it probed the frequency of the forcefield blister surrounding the ship.

“They are probing our ssshield nutation sssettingsss,” Ressessk called out.

“Alter our shield frequencies,” Izawa commanded.

Cybel stood and approached Izawa, leaning in to whisper, “The shields do that automatically now, sir.”

“The beam is adjusting faster than we can alter frequencies,” Maddox noted from the Science station.

Izawa’s head dropped fractionally and a soft sigh escaped his lips. “Helm, initiate transwarp jump. Put us five light-years away in any direction.”

“Aye, sir,” Beresha confirmed.

On the main viewer the image seemed to blur and then blink out, to be replaced by the swirling energetic miasma of transwarp-space.

“They seemed rather persistent,” Raffaele noted.

“Rafe,” Maddox called from the upper level of the bridge, “come here and take a look at this.”

Raffaele surrendered the Operations console to a relief officer and strode up the ramp to slide into a chair next to Maddox at the aft bank of stations.

“There’s something weird about this phaser impact pattern on the skylance’s hull plating, but I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is.”

The Italian called up an image of the blast pattern and stared at it while spinning it in three dimensions. After a moment Raffaele burst out laughing. “Okay, that’s a new twist,” he exclaimed.

The storm of colors and patterns on the viewscreen was replaced by a new but equally mesmerizing view of the towering Tarantula Nebula.

“Jump complete, sir. We are exactly five light-years from our last coordinates, relative spinward to the galactic plane.”

Izawa acknowledged the report as he hobbled up to the Science station with the assistance of his cane. “What do you have, Mister Raffaele?”

Raffaele turned to address Izawa and Maddox. “It’s a message in the Ktarian language.”

The Ktarians, an insectoid species belonging to the Federation, had a distinct written language comprised of concentric and overlapping circular patterns in varying sizes.

“A message?” Izawa frowned, squinting at the pattern. “What does it say?”

A star-chart came to life on Raffaele’s display that centered on a gaseous offshoot of the massive Tarantula Nebula. “It’s a set of spatial coordinates, Commodore, utilizing Shul’Nazhar as a reference point. Someone utilizing Federation phasers wanted us to go here.” Raffaele tapped a finger at the location corresponding to the coordinates.

Europa must have done this,” Maddox concluded. “They used their phasers to carve a message into the Namulkai’s hull. That’s brilliant.”

“Brilliant, yes,” Raffaele conceded, “but it also smacks of desperation. Tagging the hulls of random ships in hopes someone from the Milky Way just happens to stumble across it? The odds of that working, even with tagging hundreds or thousands of vessels, are astronomically remote.”

Cybel joined them. “Picking Ktarian was a stroke of genius as well. The written language looks just like random weapons scoring on a metallic surface.” She patted Raffaele on the shoulder. “And perhaps the odds of us encountering them aren’t as extreme as you’d make them out. The Namulkai obviously have a feud with the Federation. If Europa knew that, perhaps they hoped the Namulkai would seek a confrontation with any Starfleet ship they happened across?”

“Perhaps,” Raffaele said, still dubious.

Izawa cast a look towards the viewscreen. “Helm, ETA to those coordinates at transwarp speed?”

“Three hours, twenty-seven minutes, sir. Those coordinates are seventy-four light-years from our present position.”

Cybel stepped closer to Izawa, murmuring, “Didn’t you say you wanted to head back to the system with the planet shattered by the Alpha Weapon for a more detailed forensic analysis?”

Izawa nodded fractionally. “That’s still a priority, but that rubble cloud isn’t going anywhere. This is our first real clue as to Europa’s possible whereabouts. This takes precedence.”

“Lieutenant Beresha,” Cybel called out. “Set course for those coordinates and engage at transwarp.”

* * *​

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