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Observation Lounge, Deck 1
USS Valhalla

“In light of the fact that this species has no name for itself, we will henceforth refer to them as the Karera,” Izawa announced from the head of the conference table.

“Japanese for ‘they’", Cybel provided from beside him.

Izawa continued, “The Karera have provided us with some valuable information regarding this region of the LMC. Unfortunately, they haven’t had any contact with Europa, nor do they know the ship’s whereabouts. They stumbled across the shuttle when it began responding to our broadcast of activation codes. Despite our initial attempt to hack into their collective consciousness, after scanning Valhalla they realized the similarities between our ship and the shuttle and returned it to us.”

“Nice to find a friendly face in a new neighborhood,” Raffaele remarked.

“Just so,” Izawa agreed. “Commander Maddox, can you update us as to what the Karera shared with us?”

“The Karera’s information, in conjunction with our own scans confirm this region of space is sparsely populated, at least by the Milky Way’s standards. The percentage of sentient species is low by this metric, and that of those capable of interstellar travel even lower. According to the Karera, that hasn’t always been the case, and this region was relatively active as little as ten-thousand years ago, but many of those species either destroyed themselves or one another, or left the scene courtesy of migration or evolution to a higher state.

“This region is also extremely resource poor, both due to the vagaries of planetary formation in local sectors as well as over-mining by various advanced species over the past several million years. Those species now reaching the level of technology necessary for interplanetary and interstellar travel are hard-pressed to locate sufficient raw materials to construct the industrial base necessary to support spacecraft or orbital habitats.”

“I would seem,” Izawa said, “that aside from Shul’Nazhar this region is of little scientific interest.”

Cybel inclined her head in agreement. “The Karera have already begun emigrating out of the area in search of the proverbial greener pastures.”

“If we’re moving on as well, I’d suggest leaving behind a network of comms-buoys and reconnaissance satellites in order to monitor the local area in case Europa moves though this region again after our departure. It’ll also help us stay in real-time communication with Starfleet Command via the portal.” This from Raffaele, who threw a hologram into the air with a drag-gesture from his padd atop the table.

A three-dimensional map appeared overhead, displaying the proposed sensor and communications network.

“Approved,” Izawa stated definitively. He looked at the faces of his assembled officers. “Where from here?”

The engineer offered, “Computer records from Sandhurst’s shuttle indicate that he was giving the super-cluster at these coordinates at lot of attention during his transit from Shul’Nazhar.” The hologram tapped at the LCARS interface set into the table top and the image overhead shifted to show a stellar nursery adjacent to the Tarantula Nebula some seventy light-years distant. “He scanned the area dozens of times, looking for both Borg and Starfleet metallurgical traces.”

“Trying to find the Amon or Europa,” concluded Dr. Zelbin. “Without his shuttle, even if he were able to find another warp-capable ship, I’m dubious as to whether he could reach that location without starving. From what we know, without infusions of the bio-energy the Amon consume, the onset of starvation is almost immediate. Their bodies don’t seem to be able to metabolize any nutritive value from food that isn’t permeated with that energy.”

Cybel looked to Izawa. “It’s the best lead we have so far.”

Raffaele snorted. “It’s the only lead we have so far.”

Izawa turned his stony expression on the Italian. “You have something to add, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. We’ve been in the LMC for a week, and the portal is still open. Shul’Nazhar is still not talking, but neither is it threatening anyone. Starfleet is sitting with a task force of twenty-five ships on the other side of the portal protecting against any potential incursion from here. Can’t we at least request more assets to help? Every additional ship could expand our reach significantly.”

“As we’ve discussed, Mister Raffaele, Starfleet has tasked us, and only us, to this mission. Regardless of your opinion about the wisdom of that decision, those are our orders.” His countenance brooked no further argument.

Izawa stood, causing the others to rise to their feet. “We will set course for the cluster at transwarp after dispersing our reconnaissance net here. I will convey our thanks to the Karera while we deploy the satellites. Please make all necessary preparations.”

As the senior staff exited the observation lounge, Cybel pulled Raffaele aside in the corridor leading to the bridge. “When are you going to learn to leave well enough alone?”

“When someone around here starts acting rationally, sir,” was his biting retort.

“We should disobey orders because the great and mighty Adalgiso Raffaele decrees it?”

“Look me in the eyes and tell me our mission profile makes rational sense,” Raffaele demanded.

Cybel scrunched up her face, glaring fiercely. “I can’t because it doesn’t, Rafe! Just because you’re right doesn’t change anything. We still have a job to do.” She looked away, seeming to collect herself.

Raffaele felt a momentary twinge of unease, wondering how much of her behavior was genuine and how much of it was simply artifice.

“I’d remind you that since the portal remains open, the commodore still has the option of going back there and sending your problematic ass directly home.”

“Can you just explain to me why we can’t even ask for help, Commander?” Raffaele practically begged.

“Who says we haven’t?”

Raffaele had no response to that.

“Takeo Izawa would never put his ego before the welfare of his crew, Lieutenant. Of course he’s asked!”

He seemed taken aback by that.

“The answer was an unequivocal ‘no’. Like it or not, we’re on our own.” She sighed and seemed to regain her composure. “Is this someone’s sick political game? Almost certainly. It’s probably revenge for the commodore’s anti-militancy movement after Operation Vanguard wound down. But, again, that changes nothing. I’m done listening to you beat your head against the bulkhead on this subject. You so much as mention this again, and I’ll reassign you to the bartender’s billet in Ten Forward. Are we clear?”

“As Andorian ice, Commander,” Raffaele replied stiffly.

“Mister Raffaele, you are absolutely, positively dismissed.”

As he walked away, Cybel doubted Raffaele had moved with so rigid a posture since his last cadet review.

* * *​

It had been three weeks since Valhalla had arrived at NGC 2074, or what the crew had named the Seahorse Cluster for the great gas cloud’s historic appearance from the Federation’s core sectors.

The dark tendril of nebular gasses was approximately twenty light-years in length, and was in the process of spawning a new star cluster. As a stellar incubator, the region was rife with proto-stars, quantum-strings, plasma storms, and general gravitic instability. This diminished the effectiveness of the ship’s sensors, and turned scanning the region with any accuracy into a headache for Maddox and his science department.

As with nearer Shul’Nazhar, this area evidenced a dearth of spacefaring civilizations, with few detectable ships transiting the local space-lanes. Of those identified, only one species, the semi-aquatic Dalu had any interest in contact. This time, the Universal Translator worked reasonably well, but the Dalu held little value in intercultural exchange for its own sake. Once it became apparent that the Federation had nothing to trade, the Dalu quickly moved on.

* * *​

The starship Mombasa slalomed gracefully past slashing Cardassian corsairs and burning Jem’Hadar fighters, the nimble vessel’s shields gamely absorbing the glancing blows from incoming fire.

Beresha was focused on her controls with laser-like intensity, knowing that her skill, or the lack thereof, would likely decide her fate and that of her forty-one fellow crewmembers.

“Maintain forward fire,” called Raffaele from the center seat as the ship shuddered from the explosion of a nearby Excelsior-class vessel in its death throes.

“Galaxy-wing Beta has been completely wiped out!” the eerily familiar young officer at Ops shouted in a voice tinged with panic.

“Stay the course,” Raffaele replied, forcing iron into his tone to try and maintain his bridge crew’s focus. Panic now would be lethal.

“Helm, there’s a seam between that Jem’Hadar battleship and those Keldons. If we soften it up with a volley of quantums, do you think you can get us through there?”

“Aye, sir,” Beresha answered with a certainty she did not feel.

Cardassian torpedoes executed sharp turns to try and catch the compact Saber-class ship as Beresha threaded a nearly impossible gap between the shield bubbles of the enemy vessels. The pursuing ordinance impacted the enemy’s own warships, leaving a brilliant blossoming wave of destruction in Mombasa’s wake.

“Stand by aft torpedoes. Engage any enemy craft that make it through that mess alive.”

“We’ve got another wave of enemy vessels moving to cut off our egress,” Ops advised in a brittle voice. “One Cardassian cruiser and five Jem’Hadar fighters.”

“Target phasers on the fighters and torpedoes on that cruiser,” Raffaele instructed.

Ressessk obliged from the Tactical console, picking her targets with the discrimination of an apex-predator. “Multiple hitsss,” she assessed. “Cruissser is veering off, but the fightersss are ssstill inbound.”

“Beresha, keep them off us. If we can get past them to Phase Line Draconis we’ll be able to jump to warp.”

Even as Ressessk peppered the incoming Scarab-class heavy fighters with phaser fire, Beresha deftly maneuvered around the first two as the third pivoted sharply to try and gain a pursuit angle. The fourth fighter, however, drove itself directly into Mombasa in a suicide run so suddenly that Beresha hardly had time to register the impact when she found herself surrounded by a brilliant white flash.

When the light subsided, Raffaele, Beresha and Ressessk were seated on an otherwise empty holodeck.

The human officer stood, flinging his chair across the compartment with obvious anger and a string of colorful curses.

Beresha observed him curiously. “I don’t understand, Lieutenant. Mombasa survived the battle, and was one of only a handful of allied ships to escape the Tyra system. What is the purpose of reliving this incident?”

“Don’t you see?” Raffaele gestured animatedly. “This is the two-hundred and seventeenth time I’ve run this simulation. Mombasa has never survived the scenario, not once!”

Beresha gave him a skeptical look as she posited, “Perhaps you just got lucky? These things happen.”

“No, it’s not just luck,” he replied vehemently. “I don’t subscribe to luck or divine intervention. Our survival wasn’t just statistically unlikely, it was impossible!”

“What doesss it matter?” Ressessk asked innocently. “Whether your godsss intervened or you were jussst fortunate, you lived. That isss all that ssshould concern you.”

“That snot-nosed kid wetting himself at the Ops station was me! I was here when it actually happened. We couldn’t have survived this, but we did, and that fact makes me crazy. I can’t abide improbabilities.”

Ressessk’s mouth twitched, the Selay variation of a human cocking their head. “Thisss isss why our current misssion upsssetsss you ssso, isssn’t it?”

Raffaele didn’t respond, but his demeanor and posture were answer enough.

The Tactical officer stood abruptly and strode out of the holodeck without another word.

Beresha came to her feet more fluidly and approached Raffaele in her graceful gait. “Improbabilities may frustrate you, Adalgiso, but they do exist. You were the fortunate beneficiary of one this day on Mombasa. You might take a moment to consider that your best friend was born of a statistical improbability that even she’d have difficulty calculating.”

Raffaele rubbed his temples, sighing. “I can’t wrap my brain around it. I hate that. I despise the limitations imposed on us by nature.”

“You need to get help, Lieutenant. There’s no shame in that. The war was horrific.”

He glanced up at her, his eyes red and brimming with tears. “It’s not the war that scarred me. It’s the fact that we won when we shouldn’t have.”

“Would you have preferred that outcome?” she asked in all seriousness.

“Yes,” he practically whispered. “I’d have preferred that billions were enslaved if it would just silence the doubts cracking my bones.”

Beresha had no reply.

* * *​

“Commander,” Maddox called to Cybel from the upper level of the bridge, “I’m seeing what looks like a space battle in a neighboring system. About a dozen ships of various configurations exchanging fire in orbit of a gas giant’s Class-L moon.”

Cybel stood and ascended the ramp to the Science station where a long range scan from Valhalla had been enhanced with closer range sensor readings from one of Starfleet’s stealth reconnaissance probes.

She leaned over her husband’s shoulder for a better view of the readings, though it was completely unnecessary. She could see the scans from a dozen different perspectives in her mind’s eye with far greater clarity than a mere visual display.

“Strange to see someone shooting it out given how few spacefaring species we’ve encountered,” Cybel commented. “You’d think there’d be plenty of room for everyone.”

Maddox countered. “Room perhaps, but with as resource starved as many of these regions are, everything is at a premium. Species in our galaxy have fought over less.”

“True enough.” She gestured to the sensor returns relating the pitched battle. “So besides this being an anomaly, what’s so special about this little dust-up?”

He sat back in his chair. “I won’t ruin the surprise.”

Time seemed to cease as everything on the bridge froze for Cybel. She shifted from what she termed ‘people-time’ into ‘machine-time’. Cybel dissected the sensor scans for every iota of data she could glean, analyzing and cross-referencing millions of facts and inferences in the time it takes a human to blink.

“One of the aggressor ships has two Romulan life-signs aboard,” she announced, her eyes narrowing at the revelation.

“So there are survivors from the Romulan taskforce,” Maddox mused. “This complicates things a bit.”

Ressessk overheard this and stepped over from the Tactical arch. She looked over the weapons signatures being fed to the ship by the reconnaissance probe. “None of the vessselsss themssselvesss are Romulan, but I am detecting Romulan disssruptorsss among the armamentsss of the ssship they’re on.”

“Commodore to the bridge,” Cybel requested via the comms. She hated interrupting the older man’s sleep cycle, but this event met his established threshold for notification.

Maddox enlarged the area of the battle on the display. “The side with the Romulan weapons is dispatching their opponents quite efficiently. Their opponents are trying to retreat, but the aggressors are taking out their engines and weapons pods.”

Raffaele strode up the ramp, having surrendered the Ops station to a relief officer. “It’s piracy,” he announced with conviction.

Cybel shot him a skeptical look. “And you know this because?”

Raffaele reached past Maddox to toggle the console, calling up a cross-section of the alien vessel in question. “The thing is a mobile scrapping rig. See the big open section amidships? That unfolds into a gantry system that encloses the captured craft. They seize it, gut it, and chop up the rest for scrap. The Orions used to operate similar ships out of the Molari Badlands late last century before the Border Service shut down the practice.”

A hologram of Izawa flickered to life just behind them, courtesy of the holographic communications station installed in the commodore’s quarters. “Report,” Izawa instructed.

Cybel filled him in on their discovery, and Izawa looked equal parts curious and troubled. “Thoughts?” he solicited.

“Jump in at transsswarp and ssseize the ssship, capturing the Romulansss,” Ressessk offered eagerly.

“It’s not a Romulan ship,” Cybel cautioned. “We’re new to this galaxy, and we have no idea what the protocols between species are out here. What those ships are doing may look like piracy to us, but by their standards it could be perfectly legal.”

“Piracy or not, the Romulans are ours,” Raffaele practically purred. “After the attack on the Starfleet/Klingon taskforce at Shul’Nazhar, the Romulan government publically disavowed the actions of the Romulan strike force. That makes them criminals, and their attack on our people violated our standing agreements with the Star Empire. We’re legally entitled to take them prisoner and return them to the Federation for trial.”

Cybel glanced to Izawa’s image. “I won’t vouch for Rafe’s enthusiasm, sir, but his legal analysis of the situation is spot on.”

Maddox said, “I’d recommend we follow them, sir. They’ll likely have a base of operations around here somewhere. If necessary, we can capture the two Romulans there with less chance of causing any unfortunate diplomatic incidents with the locals.”

His wife gave him an appraising look as Izawa nodded.

“Let’s go with Commander Maddox’s plan,” Izawa decided. “The Romulans may have existing agreements with whichever species operate those vessels. I’d rather avoid any unnecessary unpleasantness with these people in what will likely be a First Contact situation. Rig for silent running with Valhalla presenting minimal EM profile and continue to follow those brigand ships. Keep me apprised of any significant developments.”

With that, Izawa’s image faded away.

Cybel straightened. “Okay, people, we have our orders.”

* * *​

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