“Somebody give me a status report!” Kirk shouted over the blaring of the red alert klaxons.
The bridge rocked again. The hull groaned and rattled as the ion storm continued to disrupt the space around the Enterprise. A few unlucky crewman were sprawled on the floor of the bridge, clutching chair posts and railings.
“Captain, the intensity of the storm is only increasing. At this rate, it will damage the ship beyond repair.” Another intense pulse threw Spock against his chair harness. He grunted, catching himself against the edge of the science station console. Despite the restraints, the edge of the console dug into his chest.
Even Kirk was gripping the captain’s chair with white knuckles while Lieutenant Darwin was tapping at the controls, cursing under her breath.
Spock checked the ion pod readings again. At force-7 intensity, Kirk had called for red alert and ordered all crew members to their emergency stations. The storm’s power was still rapidly climbing, now to potentially deadly proportions. The Enterprise would not be able to hold out for much longer. Kelvin pods would be equally useless while still in the storm. They had minimal shielding and would shake apart faster than a starship would. In deep space, it might take ages for a passing starship to hear the distress signals and find all the pods.
Sulu banged his fist against the navigation console. “I can’t get any indicators for location or heading. The storm is interfering with all of our sensors, Captain.”
“Injuries on decks 7 and 13,” a security cadet said as the ship shook again.
All at once, the ion storm ceased. The violent shaking turned off as if controlled by a switch. An uneasily silence stole over the bridge crew as the klaxons continued.
Spock looked back down at his station readings.
Kirk heaved a huge sigh. “Keep us at red alert but lose the alarm. What a headache. How’re my shields, Darwin?”
“The ion storm knocked us down to 40%, Captain.”
“Sensor readings returning. Determining location now. We’re... No, that can’t be right.” Sulu twisted in his seat, mouth agape. “We’re in the Beta Quadrant, sir. In the 40 Eridani star system.”
Spock glanced at Kirk, their eyes meeting as Kirk looked over at the same time. No doubt gauging his reaction. It had been more than six years since Spock had been in this system. Without Vulcan, there had been no reason to return. The painful reminder of Nero’s victory remained, a patch of space forever dark and blank.
Kirk inhaled slowly through his nose. “I need a little more than that. Everyone start checking surrounding space. There’s no way in hell we could have jumped so much. It was an ion storm, not a temporal distortion.”
At the direct order, the entire bridge crew turned in unison to begin checking sensors, scanners, and communication channels. Lieutenant Svoek, at Spock’s immediate left, was already logging and analyzing the ion storm data. Only a few security officers on the bridge were exempt from the orders, instead helping check injuries of the few crewmembers who hadn’t been at their stations and had been thrown to the floor. Kirk waved them off the bridge. They would need immediate medical attention from McCoy and M’Benga down in medbay.
The turbolift hummed as it took them away.
Spock glanced down at his own console. A strange reading gave him a long pause.
“Sir, there’s more.” Sulu had spun back to his console and was double checking the readers manually. “We’re in the star system but we’re right next to where Vulcan is. Was,” Sulu stumbled, clearing his throat awkwardly.
“Is,” Spock corrected, his voice a near whisper. Svoek’s head snapped toward him. It felt like the entire bridge stopped their furious work to look at Spock. “Captain, you will want to polarize the viewscreen for this.” Spock tapped the release button his emergency harness, freeing himself to stand up. He walked to Kirk, standing beside the captain’s chair.
The view screen shifted from data readings and star charts, revealing the space before them. A yeoman still clutching the handrail near a station gasped and sank to his knees. There, in its red glory, gleamed Vulcan. Untouched, unblemished. Spock’s throat felt tight at the sight of it. The sensor readings had said it was there, a planet where none should have been, but seeing was another matter entirely.
Even Kirk seemed choked with emotion. When Spock folded his hands behind his back and looked down, Kirk had a hand covering his eyes and was trembling. “Could it be an illusion, Spock? A deep space mirage? There have been old wives’ tales that starships start to misbehave out on the far reaches. Vulcan shouldn’t...”
“No, Captain. The sensors could malfunction, yes, but can our own eyes lie?”
“If you want something bad enough, Spock, yes.”
Spock cocked his head to one side, dissecting that phase.
Darwin did not allow him time to linger. “Ship approaching, Captain! Visible on the viewer.” She pointed to the top left of the screen. A starship was just sliding out from behind Vulcan. At first, it continued to follow the slow pull of Vulcan’s orbit but finally broke free and headed toward the Enterprise at speed.
“Uhura, you hailing them?”
“Yes, Captain. On all frequencies. I’m getting no response.”
“Shields still up, Darwin?”
“Yes, sir. Shields are still damaged from the ion storm. We won’t be able to take many hits if we’re engaged.”
Spock dropped a hand to Kirk’s shoulder, squeezing. “Wait. Magnify approaching vessel, helm.” Darwin complied immediately, filling the view screen with a digital enhancement of the ship. An identical copy of the Enterprise was storming toward them.
“Well, that’s impossible,” Kirk said.
“Captain, we need to proceed with extreme caution. An ion storm, sudden transportation to the Beta Quadrant, a Vulcan that still exists, a ship identical to our own. I can only think of one explanation that fits all the peculiarities occurring.” Spock removed his hand from Kirk’s shoulder.
Kirk frowned, staring out at the mirror image of the Enterprise. “Her color is wrong.”
“She’s dark. I.S.S. Enterprise and she’s two shades too dark. Uhura, let’s send a visual hail. I got a weird feeling about this. Keep red alert on for the rest of the ship but let’s turn off the visual indicator for the hail. They don’t need to know we’re on the defensive.” Kirk retracted his own emergency harness, standing and pulling at the edge of his shirt to smooth it. “Let’s greet our friends, Spock.”
“Greetings!” Kirk walked around the helm and Spock followed on his heels. “I’m James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC 1701-A. This is Commander Spock, my second-in-command. That’s a mighty fine ship, you’ve got there. Seems we’ve gotten a little lost. We’re peaceful explorers in need of some help turning back toward home.” He nodded once to Nyota when he was finished with his greeting. Kirk crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
Darwin removed the magnification from their view. The I.S.S. was slowing to impulse. She was a stark beauty against the undiluted red of Vulcan behind her.
“Receiving incoming transmission, Captain. Audio only.” Nyota did not wait for Kirk’s response. She immediately patched the message through. A husky laugh filled the bridge, making Spock shudder. Kirk tensed next to him, tilting his head to one side as if trying to hear it better.
For a moment, nothing followed the laugh except the low sounds of a bridge crew working in the background of the audio message. “Captain Kirk,” the voice purred. “Today has been a day of surprises, hasn’t it?” The question did not seem posed to them.
“Visual incoming,” Nyota reported.
The view to Vulcan and the other ship was covered immediately by a visual transmission of the I.S.S. Enterprise’s bridge.
“Greetings, indeed, little one.” The captain of the vessel had remained seated but he rose elegantly after seeing Kirk, unfolding his crossed legs. He ran a hand down his own uniform, tugging the bottom just as Kirk had. It was not the Starfleet issues uniform top that Spock was used to. It was green, a color no crewman had ever worn, and sparkling. The V cut of the neck drew Spock’s eyes to the other captain’s peeking collarbones and hint of tanned chest. There were patches and medals Spock did not recognize including a dagger piercing Terra. The combination was made even stranger by the gold sash tied smartly at the waist. “You were always striking, Commander, but especially in your youth.”
Spock looked back up, noting that the captain was looking directly at him instead of Kirk. He felt a chill and repressed the urge to react to it. There was something so familiar about the captain.
“Can you believe we were so young once?” The captain threw the question over his shoulder, half turning to address a crewmember not visible on the viewer. The rest of the crew of the other bridge were silent, looking down at their consoles with studied indifference. As if they were not allowed to engage unless instructed to.
A Vulcan stepped into the view. “Yes. It seems like only yesterday that you took command from Pike.”
Kirk inhaled sharply next to him. For a moment, Spock thought it was the mention of Pike that had startled him. The Vulcan had turned completely toward them and Spock suddenly understood. It was unmistakable. The commander had a goatee but Spock knew his own face creased with age after many meetings with Ambassador Spock.
“Who are you?” Kirk asked. There was a tightness in his voice that told Spock that he had figured it out too.
The captain stepped forward with the commander in unison. “I’m James T. Kirk of the I.S.S. Enterprise, NCC 1701. This is Commander Spock, my second-in-command. I’ve always been a sucker for the Enterprise. She is fine, gorgeous even. You are lost, however, if you think you’ve come to a peaceful place. The Empire hasn’t sought peace in a long time.”
“The Empire?” Kirk parroted. “Whose empire?”
“The Terran Empire, of course.”
Kirk shook his head in disbelief. “There’s no Terran Empire. We belong to the United Federation of Planets. Our starships are research vessels and peacekeeping tools. Terra is just a small part of the Federation. We don’t rule over anyone. All the united planets work toward the common goal of universal peace.”
The captain’s smile was slow, sharp, and tinged with danger. He exposed his teeth like a snarling animal but his voice was light, filled with false cheer. “You’re mistaken. Terra has ruled the universe with a blood and violence for centuries. We conquer other planets, subjugate them, advance ourselves with their technology and war weapons. Anything we want, we take. Commander,” the captain threw an arm around the commander’s shoulders, smile still fixed firmly on his face. “Do you know what I want most in the world right now?”
“No, Captain,” the commander answered. He was still looking at Spock and Spock squared his shoulders, as if that could protect him. “What do you want?” The commander turned finally toward his captain. They shared a long, measured look that surely communicated as many things as Spock and Kirk could communicate with a simple glance.
“Another Enterprise. Bring me that ship. Kill everyone on board.”
“As you wish, Captain.”