Spock thought Mr. Scott spoke for just about everyone on the bridge when he said, "Now that's something."
The dense molecular cloud of gas and dust spread out before the Enterprise as far as their sensors could read, rendered beautiful by Chekov's false color scheme. Greenish towers curled up and away from a frayed and boiling expanse of stunning red shot through with dense pockets of blue. Yellow and orange highlights marked the cloud's borders, making it easier to see clear paths through the churning structure; they shifted like unbound ribbons tossed in a careless wind. All told, it was nearly fifty light-years across at this end, and Spock's data suggested the widest point might be closer to one hundred light-years wide.
"It sure is," the captain agreed. "How's it looking, Mr. Chekov?"
Chekov pulled up a handful of readouts to the left of the cloud's display and labeled three of the blue regions, one with more extensive text than the others. "The protostar is in this central area, Captain. These other two may soon form into protostars as well, though my projections indicate that will not be for another one thousand years at the earliest."
Spock scrutinized some of the readings. They were as promising as he could have hoped for.
"Scotty, how long are we good to stick around?"
"As long as you don't intend to dive on in there, Captain, we should be fine. The core's been stable since we arrived."
"Good. In that case," Jim turned to Spock, "the cloud's all yours, Mr. Spock."
"Thank you, Captain. Mr. Sulu, if you would please accompany me."
Lieutenant Darwin took Sulu's seat at the helm, and Spock and Sulu left for the shuttle hangar.
Protostars weren't particularly uncommon, but protostars very close to ignition and in a location which allowed for close examination were. Even the Vulcan Science Academy's closet pass to one had been from three light-years out.
The Enterprise was currently a mere ten astronomical units away from the protostar Chekov had identified, and the probes would orbit much closer than that, providing the Federation with a wealth of data. If they were extremely lucky, the star might even ignite during the probes' functional lifespan (and, Spock secretly hoped, his own).
Spock and Sulu made two passes in their shuttle: the first to take measurements for calibrating the probes, and the second to launch them. Everything went smoothly, and they returned to the ship in just under four hours.
By the time they were back on the bridge the probes had finished synchronizing and were streaming to the ship. Spock had thought to find Jim going over the initial results with Chekov, however he was at Uhura's station, discussing something with her that had given them both somber expressions. Uhura glanced to Spock as soon as he approached, which drew the captain's attention as well.
"You didn't pick up any transmissions other than ours, did you?"
Spock raised his eyebrows, somewhat surprised by the question. "No, Captain, though Lieutenant Sulu and I had some difficulty reading the Enterprise through the cloud's interference, despite making adjustments to the sensors. We could easily have failed to detect any other communications directed at us."
To go by their expressions, that wasn't the answer they'd been expecting. Jim nodded at Uhura, and she told Spock, "I've been picking up a subspace signal. Layered transmission, cyclic, very high band, heavily encrypted. It's been running almost the entire time we've been here."
That, at least, explained their concern. Cyclic transmissions almost always fell into one of a handful of categories, and none of them could be taken lightly. "Have you decrypted it yet?"
"Only the first layer, and it's not any language we have on file. I'm analyzing it now, and should have an algorithm to run through the language processor within the hour. Computer Engineering is still working on the other layer."
"Have you ascertained the location of the signal's source?"
Uhura tapped on her console to bring up the chart. "It's not far from here. Our records show a binary neutron star system with a low density nebula and not much else in the area." It was one of the oldest recorded binary neutron star systems on record, with a tiny secondary component.
Jim considered the chart, and Spock considered him in turn. "Weird place for a signal to be coming from," he said.
"It is a curious location, which suggests a need for caution."
Jim nodded and looked from the waveform of the signal to the star chart. "Let's wait until we have some idea of what it says. Thank you, Lieutenant."
"Sir." Uhura turned back to her station. Jim took up a tablet that had been resting on the console and, gesturing at the probe readouts, asked Spock, "Everything okay with your protostar?"
"Yes, Captain. All of the devices are en route to their orbit and appear to be functioning optimally."
"Good." Jim turned the tablet over in his hands. "Let me know if anything interesting turns up."
As the hours of their shift slipped by, it became apparent to Spock that Jim was preoccupied. He had a manner he adopted when he couldn't stop thinking about something, and though he would often work through such situations, it was plain (to Spock) when he was doing so just for a distraction from what was really on his mind.
It was, therefor, not a surprise that Jim was out of the chair on the instant when Uhura said, "Captain. I have some results on that transmission," and gesturing for Spock to join him.
Uhura's display showed two sets of information: one a sparse collection of the output from decryption processes and language filtering runs; the other a set of graphs, charts, and tables linked to an amazingly complex data structure. "I have a complete translation of the first segment," she said, and brought up the message with a tap. There were several versions based on which of Uhura's settings were used, and all of them amounted to the same thing.
"A distress call," Jim said.
Spock scanned the phrases. "It would appear that is the case."
"What's in the other layer, then? Some sort of video or audio message?"
Uhura shook her head. "The other layer is some kind of data protocol, sir. The payload on it is enormous. It's," she hesitated, her expression tightening, then continued, "similar to how the Praxidi Pilots communicate with one another on their private channel. Computer Engineering's trying to reverse engineer it."
Jim didn't react to Uhura's description beyond a nod, and Spock had the distinct impression he'd been expecting her to say exactly that. Jim raised his eyebrows at Spock, clearly waiting for an assessment.
Anything involving the Praxidi was complicated. Interaction with them had started off rather poorly, with the captain being on the receiving end of their less-than-humane tendencies when it came to biotechnology. Despite minor improvements in their relationship since that first encounter, they had no reason to believe it had been atypical of the Praxidi's dealings with others, so at least one truly problematic possibility sprang to mind.
"Could this be a trap set by enemies of the Praxidi?"
"That's what I was thinking." Jim's eyes moved back down at the message. "On the other hand, if it's coming from a neutron star system, that seems like a bad place to stage an ambush."
"Indeed. Interference from the star and its surrounding nebula would confuse their sensors as much as their intended victims', and make targeting weapons and warp jumps difficult. Unless, of course, they have found a way to address these issues, which is possible. The Praxidi's enemies are nearly as technologically advanced as they are."
Jim made a low sound of discontent and folded his arms. He asked Uhura, "Did Computer Engineering say how long it would take them to get anything out of the second layer?"
"They said it might take a few days, sir, unless they catch a lucky break."
"Okay." They waited in silence while Jim stared at the results and fidgeted. "When we're done here we'll go check it out. Maybe by then we'll know what's in that payload."
It was a reasonable enough plan that would give Spock time to consider the situation they might be warping into. "Yes, Captain."
Once Jim had returned to the chair, Spock noticed Uhura was giving him a steady, significant look. He thought he could be reasonably certain what her concerns were, and acknowledged them a minute nod before returning to his own station to work.