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USS Valhalla
60 seconds from transition boundary
Indol System, United Federation of Planets
Alpha Quadrant

From Operations, Raffaele declared, “All ships systems reading nominal. All departments report ready to proceed.”

The holographic chief engineer was physically present both on the bridge and in main engineering, courtesy of his unique nature. He announced, “All propulsive systems are standing by. Impulse, warp, and transwarp speeds at your command, sir.”

Izawa inclined his head towards Beresha at the helm. “Lieutenant, one-eighth impulse speed. Take us through the aperture.”

Raffaele took a moment to inspect the other bridge crew as the ship got underway. Talented and courageous as they were, many were young, inexperienced officers who’d been at in the academy during the war, and as such their nervousness was apparent. To Raffaele, a survivor of the Seventh Fleet’s slaughter at the Tyra system, jumping galaxies caused far less anxiety than staring down the barrels of a Dominion battle fleet.

His ruminations were cut short as the star-field displayed on the viewscreen appeared to blink and was suddenly replaced by the breathtaking radiance of the Tarantula Nebula. The stars in the background paled in contrast to the nebula’s mesmerizing grandeur.

The hushed status reports bleeding over the comms trailed off, and for a prolonged moment there was silence on the bridge.

As it appeared nobody else was prepared to mark the occasion with something momentous, Raffaele offered, “Ladies and gentlebeings, welcome to the Large Magellanic Cloud. Please render toll charges to your nearest Ferengi Financial Authority representative.”

For his efforts, he received a look from Beresha at her station to his immediate right that seemed a combination of confusion and disbelief.

He leaned towards her. “I used to be a tour-guide on Risa,” he whispered with a knowing wink. "My nickname was Johnny Jamaharon." The sound of Izawa clearing his throat loudly prompted Raffaele to resume a more professional posture in his seat.

“Telemetry from our probes?” Cybel asked from her chair to the captain’s immediate right.

“Uninterrupted,” answered Raffaele. “No change in sensor readings.”

“Ssstatus of Ssshul’Nazhar ssstation is unchanged,” reported Ressessk from the Tactical station behind the commodore and XO’s seats.

“Very well,” Izawa concluded. He stood and gestured to the science station. “Commander Maddox, please engage long-range sensor sweeps of everything within our range and broadcast that telemetry back to Starfleet. We might as well take advantage of the portal as long as it remains open.”

The wizened commodore turned to Raffaele. “Lieutenant, once the scans are complete and transmitted, set a course for system LMC-043923 and engage at standard warp nine-point-nine. You have the bridge.” He nodded towards Cybel, “York, with me.”

Cybel dutifully followed Izawa into the spacious ready room, easily three times larger than on the first generation of Galaxy-class vessels. Izawa motioned for her to take a seat across from him as he settled into his chair behind the desk. “Please access the flight recorder files for my conversation with Mister Raffaele following our staff meeting.”

“Done, sir,” she replied.

“Your thoughts on the lieutenant’s conjecture?”

Cybel appeared contemplative for a moment, which Izawa knew was solely for his benefit. The positronic mind housed within her cybernetic body was capable of trillions of calculations per second, and that was just her android avatar. Cybel’s true ‘mind’, Valhalla’s computer core, was at least a million times faster with equivalent data storage capacity. Izawa mused that interacting with humanoids must seem like moving in slow-motion to her.

“Based on all available information, I estimate a ninety-five-point-seven percent chance that his suppositions are correct. Rafe’s specialty is sensing patterns where others do not. That’s what made him such a potent asset to me at Intel during the war, sir.”

Izawa pursed his lips and allowed his eyes to wander the room.

“This troubles you,” she observed.

“Being unwittingly manipulated, you mean? Yes, that concerns me greatly.” He stood abruptly from his chair, causing his knee to twinge. A flicker of pain creased his features as he turned his back on Cybel to stare out the viewport into the ruby brilliance of the adjacent nebula.

“Once upon a time, if you’ll remember, I was one of Starfleet’s most revered captains, an explorer of tremendous reputation.”

Cybel smiled from behind him. “Of course, sir. Your exploits during the Gammera Expedition are required reading for cadets now. Sixteen years, over thirty-seven hundred surveyed star systems, and seventeen First Contacts. You were first in line for command of the Enterprise-D when you retired.”

“And now,” he sighed, “I’m just an old fool trying to relive the glories of my youth.”

She stood. “Certainly not, Commodore.”

“It’s true, though,” he admitted with a rueful shake of his head. “I’ve allowed myself to be flattered, had my ego stroked so that I would undertake this mission with few questions asked. I’d made so many enemies at headquarters with our movement that I should have seen this for what it was. But they made such a show of offering me this command as an olive branch, ushering in a new era, all that rot.” He turned his head to look back at her. “You know, when they told me they were sending just one ship due to the potential for our becoming stranded ourselves, I actually believed them?”

Cybel stepped forward to place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. I didn’t see it, either, and I’m supposed to be able to perceive beyond the limitations of humanoid thought.”

Izawa placed his hand atop hers. “You’re a good friend to this gullible old man.”

“I owe you my life,” she answered softly.

“Hogwash,” he argued. “I was merely curious, that’s all.”

“I know better. It was well within your power to shut down Yorktown’s computer core after the incident with the Cybrani probe. Most starship captains would have pulled the plug and rebooted the core from the protected archives.”

“I very nearly did,” he confessed quietly. "But our mandate was to seek out new life... and there it was, aboard our own ship."

“Bridge to Commodore Izawa,” Raffaele’s voice intruded.

Cybel stepped back as Izawa turned away from the viewport. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, we’ve completed our sensor sweep and have uploaded the data to Starfleet. I was about to set course when one of our probes detected something of note.”

“On our way,” Izawa headed for the door.

“Commodore on the bridge,” Raffaele announced loudly as Izawa and Cybel exited the ready room. Those not manning critical posts stood in deference.

“As you were,” Izawa ordered. “What do you have for us, Mister Raffaele?”

“One of our long-range probes detected Federation alloy signatures in system LMC-043919. That’s the next closest system to where Europa and the Amon were last seen. It looks like a local space-faring species has begun a recovery operation to retrieve what appears to be a Starfleet Type-9 shuttle.”

“The timing isss sssussspiciousss,” noted Ressessk. “Lesssss than a half-an-hour after we transssit into the LMC?”

“I’d be inclined to agree,” Cybel added.

“Not necessarily,” provided the engineer. The hologram stepped over to the Tactical arch where the others were congregated. “If you’ll remember, we’ve been broadcasting Starfleet emergency status and activation codes all over this region for weeks, trying to raise Europa. The shuttle’s transceiver might have picked up on those transmissions and attempted to respond. If its signal was weak enough, we might not have detected it all the way back here, but this other species might have picked up the transmission and tracked it back to the source.”

Izawa looked over to Maddox at the science station who shrugged in response. “Anything’s possible, sir.”

“Very well—“

“One more thing, sir,” Maddox offered. In response to Izawa’s quizzical expression, he continued, “Based on the alien vessels in question, they appear to be a pre-warp civilization.”

“Oh, goody,” enthused Raffaele, clapping his hands. “Fun with the Prime Directive!”

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