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The Reaper War

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Deep Space 9. A former Cardassian ore processing station called Terok Nor. The gateway to the Gamma Quadrant. The station from which a war had been conceived, planned, and won. The seat of Bajoran independence, and one of the most important Federation starbases in the entire Alpha Quadrant.

At the moment, however, one year after the Treaty of Bajor and the end of the Dominion War, Ops was empty of many of the usual personnel, as Lieutenant Koron Valjo of the Bajoran Militia stretched out and yawned as he watched the control panel. He often manned Ops during the night shift when the command staff was off duty, but at this time, it seemed even more interminable. Most of the command staff was off station for one reason or another… Colonel Kira had returned to Bajor to discuss a few matters with First Minister Shakaar, Dr. Bashir was attending a medical conference on Bolarus IX, Counselor Dax was back on her homeworld organizing some Trill ritual, Lieutenant Nog was in the midst of a transfer to the engineering department on the Enterprise… even Quark was negotiating a business deal back on Ferenginar, leaving his bar closed for the week. Koron eyed the chronometer again, and sighed deeply as he realized that it was only 0300. He had thought that transferring to the station from which the Dominion War had been won would be a far more exciting experience… but aside from one entry of an unannounced Dominion vessel from the Bajoran wormhole on his shift, nothing had happened this entire week. At this point, he was just looking forward to a good day’s rest once the day shift came to relieve him.

Suddenly, Lieutenant Junior Grade Herzog, the Benzite Starfleet officer manning the console closest to the viewing screen, cried out, “Sir! We have some sort of activity going on out there!”

“Activity?” Koron asked, coming closer to the console. “The wormhole?”

“I… I don’t think so,” Herzog answered, looking intently at the screen. “It’s… an energy signature of some kind, but it doesn’t seem to be coming from the direction of the wormhole. It seems… independent of it. It’s not like any kind of energy I’ve seen before… and it seems to be using some principle of physics that I don’t even think exists in this universe.”

“Go to yellow alert, and keep scanning,” Koron ordered. “Tell me as much as you possibly can. If that thing is a threat, I want to know about it… and see if you can connect me to Colonel Kira on Bajor. She knows a lot more about this kind of situation than I do.”

“Aye, sir,” the Benzite responded, rushing to fulfill the myriad commands. Koron had to admit, now he was excited. A mysterious energy signature, none of the command staff on board, and a possible chance to take out the Defiant to investigate? This night shift had just gotten a whole lot more interesting. Though, he hoped, not too interesting. The Klingons may say that today was a good day to die, but if you asked Koron, he would have told you flat out that was never a good day.

“Signal patched through to Colonel Kira, sir,” Herzog said, returning to her console.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll take it in the command office,” Koron responded quickly, trotting up the stairs to Captain Sisko’s old office. He hadn’t even been on station long before Sisko had been taken by the Prophets, but somehow, the office had never really seemed like Kira’s. The colonel would probably agree with him… she had never really redecorated, and even his baseball was still present as a decoration on the desk. Kira’s unwavering belief in the Emissary was a credit to the Bajoran people, and Koron was proud to serve under her.

Upon entering the office, Koron pressed the switch on Sisko’s desk, and the face of Colonel Kira Nerys appeared on the viewscreen. “Colonel, I apologize for the interruption… but we have a situation on station, and I thought you might want to know about it.”

“That’s all right, Lieutenant… what’s the problem?” Kira asked groggily, rubbing her eye. Koron felt a small wave of embarrassment. He’d forgotten that the times on Bajor and DS9 were synched… he must have just woken the colonel from a deep slumber.

“We’ve detected an anomaly just outside of station space, but it evidently doesn’t have anything to do with the wormhole. Lieutenant Herzog claims it’s unlike anything she’s ever seen before… it may even be extrauniversal.”

“Extrauniversal? What are you talking about, Lieutenant?” Kira asked, now alert.

“I’m not sure, ma’am… I’m just relaying what Lieutenant Herzog said,” Koron answered. “A lot of this is a bit over my head… thought you might know something about it.”

“Lieutenant, I’ve never even dealt with extragalactic before, let alone extrauniversal,” Kira said. “We need to know more about this if it’s so close to the station… keep scanning. If the station’s onboard scanners won’t tell you what you need to know, get a science team closer in a runabout. I won’t risk using the Defiant unless we have to… how many of the command staff are still on station?”

“To my knowledge, ma’am? None.”

“None?”

“None, ma’am. Lieutenant Nog was the last to depart… his transfer came through and he left the station for the Enterprise last night.”

“Damn… all right, just see what you can do, Lieutenant. I’ll arrange transport back to DS9 as quickly as I can. In the meantime, keep me posted. Kira out.” With that, the image of Colonel Kira vanished from the viewscreen. Koron stood up from the desk, slightly less reassured than he had been when he started.

With the amount of strange incidents Colonel Kira had been privy to while serving on this station, he had hoped that she had at least had a bit more advice than that for him. Well, it was time for him to do his duty and… what was that expression Captain Sisko had been so fond of? ‘Step up to the plate?’ Whatever the case, it was time he stopped expecting the higher ups to clean up all the messes, and do so himself. He wanted them to think of him as command material… here was a good place to start. Before departing the office, he relayed Kira’s commands to the science team, ordering them to get to the runabout as soon as possible with the scanning equipment. Upon descending the stairs, Herzog waved him back down to her console.

“Sir! The signature is acting up again! I think it’s… it’s forming some sort of miniature wormhole…” she said, staring intently at the data. “That… that can’t be right…”

“Can an artificial wormhole even be stable? I thought Dr. Kahn’s experiments were fruitless in that effect…” Koron asked, adjusting his uniform.

“No, we’ve never been able to stabilize an artificial wormhole before… but this one not only seems to be stabilizing, it’s growing!” Herzog exclaimed, typing frantically at her board. “I think… I think something’s trying to come through!”

“Is this like a transwarp conduit? The data received from Voyager via the Pathfinder Project said that the Borg have been known to use transwarp technology…”

“It doesn’t look like any Borg signature I’ve studied, sir… like I said, the physics it’s utilizing to manifest don’t even exist in this universe. And besides, there’s no transwarp conduit to this sector, so far as we know,” Herzog said, still performing the scan. “But… whatever it is, it looks like we’ll know soon. The signature’s coalescing… I think something might be coming through!”

Koron turned his attention to the main viewscreen, upon which Herzog had projected the image of the forming wormhole. It began to grow larger, glowing with light blue energy, until finally, it began to open, starting to become as bright and wide as the Celestial Temple. “By the Prophets…” Koron whispered. He tapped his commbadge. “Koron to Corbeau. Is your team in position?”

“Launching the runabout now, Lieutenant… we’ll be in range to begin close scanning soon,” the voice of the lead science officer, Dr. Peter Corbeau, replied. Looking out the window, Koron could see the runabout fly out of one of the docking bays, and he breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Maybe now, they could get some more concrete answers.

“How’s that wormhole coming?” he asked, turning back to Herzog.

“Still coalescing, sir… there’s only so much I can read from here in Ops. I wish I could have gone out with the science team… this phenomenon is absolutely fascinating.”

“I’d settle just for knowing what it is,” Koron admitted. “Koron to Corbeau. How are those readings looking, Doctor?”

“Well, it seems to be just like Lieutenant Herzog said… these readings are unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before,” Corbeau answered. “The readout is similar to the energy given off by the wormhole, only… the difference is too great. It seems as though mass itself is being distorted, not unlike when a ship goes to warp… but these readings are off the charts. It’s almost as though the laws of nature don’t exist on the other end of this wormhole.”

“Is that even possible?” Koron said in disbelief.

“Theoretically, no… at least, not in our plane of existence. But if like we said, the source of this energy distortion is extrauniversal, they may have different physical laws than we do, laws that could allow this kind of mass distortion.”

“Do you think it’s something to contact Colonel Kira about?” Koron asked.

“Negative, Lieutenant. At the moment, it’s just a fascinating phenomenon, nothing—“

“Sir!” Herzog cried out from her console. “I’m detecting a signal emerging from the wormhole… and it’s… massive!”

“Put it on visual!” Koron ordered, and the image of the wormhole coalesced on the screen again. The distortion had grown larger, though still not quite as large as the Celestial Temple… the same, however, could not be said for what was coming through. Koron watched in horror as… something emerged from the distortion. As the lieutenant had stated, it was huge, probably three times the size of the station itself. It was black as the night, with a red veinlike design running all along it, and it bore the shape of a cephalopod, encompassing tendrils reaching out from the main arched body. It was… hideously fascinating, was probably the best way that Koron could describe it. “Lieutenant… what the hell is that thing?”

“I… I think it’s a ship, sir… but it doesn’t match any known design,” Herzog answered, staring at the viewscreen herself.

“Dr. Corbeau, what can you tell us about—“

“Lieutenant, we need assistance! The runabout is caught in some sort of gravity well being given off by the ship! It’s pulling us in!” Corbeau yelled over the comm.

“Koron to bridge staff! Prep the Defiant for launch! We need to render assistance to Dr. Corbeau’s runabout! Lieutenant, Ops is yours… shields up, and take us to red alert!” Koron quickly ordered, making his way toward the turbolift down to the hangar just as the red alert alarms began to blare. To think, he’d been excited earlier about taking the Defiant out… now, all he could think of was how he hoped they would survive this encounter.

Moving as quickly as he could, Koron made his way to the Defiant’s hangar bay, spoke the temporary authorization code to the computer, and entered the bridge, finding that most of his temporary bridge staff was already there waiting for him. Combined members of both the Bajoran Militia and Starfleet, the team was solid, but Koron had to admit, he wasn’t sure how they would fare with him in command. Many of these men and women were handpicked by either Captain Sisko or Colonel Kira themselves… with him in command, it was different. But he would do his best… his duty, no less. Koron sat in the captain’s chair, still a bit leery, but confident before his crew. He turned to Ziri, the Bolian Starfleet officer at the helm, and Telmin, the Bajoran comms officer. “Take us out, Ensign,” he ordered. “And Technician, patch me through to Colonel Kira on Bajor… I want to update her on the situation.”

“Aye, sir,” Telmin replied, as Ziri took the ship out of docking. The inertial dampeners kicked in on full as the USS Defiant launched itself from Deep Space 9, its passengers in tow. On the viewscreen, Koron could see the growing form of the massive ship, blocking out the stars with its scale.

He pressed his commbadge. “Koron to Herzog. What’s the status of the ship? Are they hostile?”

“Not as of yet, Lieutenant, but I have been detecting some very discreet scans of our systems. I put up shielding to try to keep them out, but they seem to be very persistent. I’ll keep trying.”

“Keep me posted. Koron out.” He turned back to the comms station. “Ensign, have you been able to raise Colonel Kira?”

“Aye, sir. Just waiting on your order.”

“Onscreen,” Koron answered. Colonel Kira’s face appeared larger than life size on the viewscreen. “Colonel, I thought you would appreciate an update on the situation.”

“Considering that your signal is coming from onboard the Defiant, I assume the situation has changed. Would you care to explain, Lieutenant?” Kira demanded. Koron quickly filled her in on the situation. “An unknown vessel? And you took out the Defiant rather than scanning it on Deep Space 9? Lieutenant, are you aware that you are currently putting the most advanced warship in Starfleet at direct, unnecessary risk?”

“With respect, Colonel, I thought that it would be worth the risk if the vessel proved to be a direct threat to the station. Better to have the Defiant out than not need it.”

“I see. When this is over, Lieutenant, you and I are going to have a little talk about ‘creative command’.”

“Let’s hope we survive long enough to have that talk, ma’am. Now, it might be prudent to—“

“Lieutenant!” Herzog’s voice came over the commbadge. “The ship is powering up some sort of main weapon! It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before!”

“Target?” Kira demanded over the comm.

“I’m not sure… I think it might—“ Suddenly, a red lancing beam launched from the gigantic ship’s midsection.

“All hands, brace for impact!” Koron yelled, grabbing tightly onto his chair. But to his surprise, the beam shot past the Defiant, and impacted directly with the station itself. Koron breathed a sigh of relief… DS9’s shield array was slightly more powerful than the Defiant’s. It might be able to survive the blast.

Unfortunately… he was wrong.

The beam struck directly at the central hub, tearing right through the shields like a hot knife through butter. Koron tapped his commbadge, frantically ordering Herzog to fire phasers, but the signal never went through. Upon striking the center, flame spread across the entire station, and where Deep Space 9 had been mere moments ago, there was now only superheated plasma residue. Approximately 6000 lives were snuffed out in an instant… Koron stared back at the mystery ship in horror. “By the Prophets…” he voiced when he could breathe again.

Suddenly, over the comm, he heard Kira’s voice again. “Lieutenant, get the Defiant out of there, on the double! That’s an order!”

“Aye aye, ma’am! Helm, set course for Bajor… I think we might have some explaining to do…” With a brief nod from Ziri, the Defiant’s small warp nacelles lit up, and the ship departed the space near the wormhole. Questions ran through Koron’s mind, but first and foremost were two… what the hell was that ship, and how the hell were they going to take it down?

 

The Reaper’s core surveyed its surroundings quickly, the processing power of billions of computer programs barely taxed by the effort. The travel through the strange wormhole had been a complete success… the Reaper vanguard had succeeded in its mission. It fired a quick burst of code back through the energy, and moments later, three more of its fellows emerged. This new universe was… strange… but a new burst from Harbinger analyzing the situation made them realize that it was imperative that they continue their mission here as well.

This place was teeming with chaotic advanced organic life, even more, it seemed, than the universe they came from, if the bursts they had observed from the space station were any indication. There were no mass relays here… but this could be corrected. There was no Citadel as a staging ground here… no matter. The wreckage of this ‘Deep Space 9’ and its nearby wormhole would make an excellent foundation for a new Citadel. They would not make the same mistakes they had made in the previous harvests… rather than send the vanguard alone, they would come in force, harvest the unprepared, and add to their ranks a thousandfold. The plan was relayed back to Harbinger, and as expected, quickly approved.

The Reapers had come to the Alpha Quadrant. And nothing would ever be the same again.

 

Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise-E was a patient man… but negotiating a treaty between the Caitians and Delphine was an exercise in futility. Picard had been called in because of his positive relationships with both races, but this argument over a platinum rich asteroid displaced by the recent conflict with the Dominion that straddled the border of both their territories was beginning to take its toll. And of course, it didn’t help that the Caitian diplomat kept threatening to eat the Delphine Prime Minister… sometimes, Picard despised his reputation as an excellent negotiator. But, he had a job to do, which meant that until it was done, it was focusing his entire attention. And he supposed that it was better than scanning gas pockets near Sherman’s Planet… at least the diplomats were slightly more interesting than that.

Luckily, he now had a break from the bickering to study the strides they had made today on a PADD in his ready room, nursing a cup of Earl Grey as he did so. Any further negotiation was pointless until the Caitians acknowledged that the asteroid had originated in Delphine territory, and that the Delphine infrastructure had been hit a great deal harder by the Dominion War. Unfortunately, the Caitians were stubborn to a fault, and believed that anything that was even on the border of their territory, if technically unclaimed, belonged to them. It was proving somewhat infuriating to try and convince them of any of these facts, which made it all somewhat like screaming at a brick wall. Until they could find some form of common ground, Picard had declared their session in recess, and he could not be more grateful.

The chime on Picard’s ready room door sounded. “Come,” he said, and the door slid open to reveal Commander William Riker, his first officer. “What can I do for you, Number One?” he asked, setting the teacup back down on the table.

“Busy day, Captain?” Riker asked, sitting down in the chair across from his commanding officer.

“A difficult one, certainly…” Picard answered, briefly massaging his brow. “Pitting a literal cat and fish against one another seems to have turned out just how one might have expected. Now, what was it you needed, Will? I’m guessing you didn’t come in here just to discuss my diplomatic woes.”

“Not entirely, sir, though I do always like to know how that front is going,” Riker replied, that boyish grin coming to his face. “I actually came in here to deliver a briefing from Geordi about the new engineering recruits, in particular, Lieutenant Nog, a transfer from Deep Space 9.”

Picard picked up the PADD and examined it. “A Ferengi?” he said, an eyebrow raised in fascination. “Well, it seems he has an excellent service record on both Deep Space 9 and the USS Defiant… and there are recommendations here from Colonel Kira and Chief O’Brien, with some addendums from Captain Sisko’s personal records prior to his disappearance… I think that he’ll make a wonderful addition to the engineering staff.”

“Yes, sir,” Riker agreed. “And while I was in here, I was hoping to request to take some of my accumulated leave time… it’s been piling up since the war, and since we’ll be nearing Risian space soon, Deanna and I were hoping we could take some time off, just the two of us.”

“Well, seeing how you both do have a great deal of leave time piled up, and the Enterprise isn’t likely to run into a great deal of trouble within the next week or so with this Caitian/Delphine conference, I think it couldn’t hurt to spare you for a few days. Permission granted to both of you, Number One. I’ll see to it you’ll have a shuttle ready when we get there.”

“Thank you, Captain. Sorry to be leaving you alone with the, ha, diplomatic crisis.” Riker smiled again, bringing Picard’s glowering stare up to his face. “Just my opinion, sir.”

“No, no… you’re right,” Picard acknowledged, rubbing the exhaustion from his eyes. “I realize this is an important matter to the Delphine people, and I’d like to help them, but the Caitians’ stubborn insistence is absolutely infuriating. If they had tried to have this argument before the war, or even before Wolf 359, the matter would have been sent to one of their embassies to be handled by a functionary… now, the flagship of the Federation is handling a minor border dispute? The war changed everything… Starfleet is too spread out with rebuilding, and the Federation Council is still trying fruitlessly to negotiate a peace with the Romulans, who even after helping us against the Dominion, still want no part with us. To say nothing of the Klingon threats to advance into former Alpha Quadrant Dominion holdings that were neither Federation nor Romulan… it’s madness, Will.”

“With all due respect, Captain, maybe it’s time you took a vacation yourself. Let someone else handle the diplomatic squabbling for a change,” Riker suggested.

“No. That won’t solve anything. It would just be waiting for me when I get back… better I face it now, and relax afterward.”

“Captain, I know you… you won’t take the time to relax once this fight is won,” Riker pointed out. “You’ll find another cause, another excuse to keep going. It might not be my place to ask as your first officer… but as your friend, Jean-Luc, I’d like to know… why are you pushing yourself so hard?”

Picard hesitated, swirling the tea in the cup before answering. “To be perfectly honest with you, Number One, it’s—“

Just then, the comm unit on Picard’s desk began to chime. The priority signal from Starfleet Command flashed up on the console. “Excuse me, Will… I need to take this. Dismissed for now… but we’ll finish this conversation later, I promise.”

“Understood, sir,” Riker nodded, exiting the ready room.

Picard tapped the console, and the face of Admiral Bullock from Starfleet Headquarters appeared. “Captain Picard. Have I caught you at a bad time?”

“Not at all, Admiral… the Caitian/Delphine discussion is on hold for the moment,” Picard replied, again setting his teacup down next to the PADD. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid that the news I bear is grim, Captain… we’ve received some distressing information from Bajor. Starbase Deep Space 9 has been… destroyed,” Bullock said.

“Destroyed?” Picard replied, leaning forward with interest. “What happened to the crew, the residents?”

“According the report from the temporary crew of the Defiant who were on duty at the time, the station was completely demolished by a massive vessel of unknown configuration… no survivors, save for the Defiant crew. Luckily, most of the senior staff was off station at the time, so Colonel Kira Nerys, Dr. Julian Bashir, and Counselor Ezri Dax survived, as did Lieutenant Nog… though, I suppose you already knew that.” Picard nodded before Bullock continued. “Starfleet Command has examined the records taken during the destruction, and we can confirm their findings. This force is clearly hostile to the Federation, and incredibly powerful… we have a new enemy, Jean-Luc, and we are in no way prepared to face them.”

“With respect, sir, that’s what we said about the Borg as well… and we’ve beaten them back twice now,” Picard pointed out. “Every enemy has a weakness… this one is no different.”

“You’re right, of course… and it’s interesting that you mention the Borg. That’s exactly what I wanted to discuss,” Bullock said. “It was through you and your crew’s direct intervention during the Borg invasions that the Federation survived… and your support during the Dominion War was also invaluable. The Defiant is indisposed for repairs at the moment, Captain… so we’d like the Enterprise to go to Deep Space 9’s previous coordinates, scan the region, and find out if that ship is still in the area. If it is, get as many readings as you can on it, but do not allow your ship to be taken onboard. The lieutenant in charge of the Defiant claimed that a runabout carrying a science team was lost to a gravity well of sorts emanating from the vessel. We don’t want that to happen to you.”

“Understood, Admiral. Is there anything else you can tell me?” Picard asked.

“Just one thing… according to the Bajorans, just as the Defiant was pulling out of the system, the unknown vessel was reportedly changing course toward the wormhole,” Bullock explained. “It’s possible that means that the Dominion has discovered some sort of stable wormhole generator, and were testing it with this new war machine. If you find this to be the case, report it at once. None of us want another war with the Dominion so soon, Captain, but if this vessel turns out to be theirs, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ve spoken with Chancellor Martok, and despite the fact that the Empire is also still rebuilding from the war, he has pledged Klingon support to Starfleet if we should resume conflict. To that end, the chancellor will be sending a representative to report back to the High Council… I believe you’re familiar with Ambassador Worf?”

Picard smiled. “Very much so, Admiral. I look forward to having him back onboard.”

Bullock returned his smile. “Yes, I thought you might. You have your assignment, Captain… the ambassador will rendezvous with you en route. Good luck to you, Jean-Luc. You’ll need it.” Bullock’s face vanished from the screen, and Picard couldn’t help but feel the smile come back to his face. Sure, it was going to likely be difficult, but at least he was going to get out of the observation lounge with the Caitians and Delphine.

He tapped his commbadge. “Picard to Riker,” he said.

“Yes, Captain?” Riker’s voice responded from the other end.

“There’s been a change of plans, Number One… set course for the Denorios Belt. I’ll explain en route… and prepare to meet a Klingon shuttle on our way. We’ll be bringing a guest onboard.”

“Aye, sir,” Riker replied. Picard smiled again. One thing was for sure… this would certainly be an interesting search.

 

 

Another Milky Way galaxy… another spacefaring vessel.

The year was 2186, and the Reapers had invaded the galaxy in force. Commander Shepard, commanding officer of the Normandy SR-2 and the first human Spectre, sighed and rubbed the tiredness from her eyes, leaning back into the couch in her personal cabin. Much as she wanted to, she had found it hard to sleep lately, and not just because of her recurring nightmares. It had been an exhausting few weeks… first there was the Reaper attack on Earth, forcing her to leave one of her closest friends, Admiral David Anderson, behind to fight them. Then Admiral Hackett had ordered her to the Mars Archives, where there had been a Cerberus raid in progress, during which she had reunited with her old friend Dr. Liara T’Soni and found plans for a Prothean superweapon that could hopefully stop the Reapers. Then there had been the mission on Palaven’s moon of Menae, during which she had reunited with another old friend, Garrus Vakarian, after which the Normandy’s resident AI, EDI, had implanted herself into a synthetic body they had obtained on Mars… the same body which had nearly fatally wounded her old squadmate, Ashley Williams. Ash was now recovering in Huerta Memorial Hospital on the Citadel, watched over by another old friend, Thane Krios. And now, to top it all off, Shepard, Liara, and Garrus had discovered a 50,000 year old cryogenic suspension pod on the planet Eden Prime, out of which they had retrieved the last living Prothean, a warrior by the name of Javik. Nothing was ever simple in Shepard’s life, and she knew it.

She now needed some time just to herself, in particular to collect her thoughts about both the war… and about her personal life. Leaving Anderson on Earth in the midst of the Reaper attack had been hard, but it had also been necessary, since he was of greater use coordinating the resistance movement back home. She wished she could have stayed with him, but again, Anderson had been right… taking the Normandy, with its advanced stealth capabilities, would be much more useful to the war effort than if it was stuck on Earth under a Reaper blockade. Plus, Shepard’s Spectre status meant that the Citadel Council might have been likely to listen to her, or at the very least, give her the opportunity to try to make a difference. Still, every time she looked at James Vega or talked with Anderson, she was reminded of all that she had left behind… it would be a long time before she would see Earth again… if she would ever see Earth again.

Being back in Citadel space had its benefits, though… seeing Liara and Garrus again were some of the best things that had happened to her in months. The times she’d had with both of them, the feelings they brought screaming back to the surface… it was hard having them both on the same ship again after so long. Back during the mission to stop rogue Spectre Saren Arterius, Shepard and Liara had grown close, consummating their feelings in one glorious night as they followed Saren to the planet Ilos… but then, on the mission to stop the Collectors from abducting human colonies in the Terminus Systems, Liara hadn’t rejoined the Normandy’s crew, while Garrus had. Shepard had grown closer to Garrus over the mission, culminating in a night spent together before the assault on the Collector Base which had been just as glorious as the one she had spent with Liara. She had told Liara upon her return to the Normandy that she didn’t think they would work anymore, with the changes they had both gone through the past few years… but would things continue to work with Garrus either? There were a lot of uncertainties present here, and Shepard wasn’t sure she could deal with them now, especially with a war on. Yet, if she didn’t, and she didn’t allow her feelings to surface, that could be even worse… this. This was why Shepard hadn’t gotten involved with anyone during her time in the Alliance Navy. All of this was just too complicated.

Suddenly, Shepard’s thoughts were interrupted by the voice of Comm Specialist Samantha Traynor coming over the intercom. “Commander? Admiral Hackett is calling over vid comm. He says it’s urgent.”

“Got it, Traynor. I’ll take it in the comm room,” Shepard replied, standing up and stretching. She should probably change into a uniform of some kind before speaking to Admiral Hackett, but damn it, this N7 hoodie was just so comfortable! And she’d earned the right to wear it, so nobody could say that it was wrong.

Descending in the elevator to the CIC, Shepard gave a quick nod to Traynor as she stepped off, making her way through the scanning room and giving acknowledgement to Privates Campbell and Westmoreland as she did so. The War Room was jumping, as usual, with Garrus and Primarch Adrien Victus, who they had also picked up on Menae, discussing the upcoming summit of all the Citadel races. Primarch Victus had made quite a stir when he demanded that the krogan also be invited to the summit, something which had actually caused the asari to drop out of the proceedings… though strangely enough, the salarians were still in, despite the fact that they had as much ire against the krogan as the turians did. Shepard gave a quick nod to the turian group… Victus returned it, as did Garrus, though he looked away more quickly than Shepard would have liked. She suspected that they needed to have a talk at some point soon… but that could wait. Crossing the War Room, Shepard entered the comm room, where the ship’s quantum entanglement communicator could get them in touch instantly with Admiral Hackett.

Pressing a quick button, Shepard found herself looking at the scarred visage of Admiral Steven Hackett, head of the Fifth Fleet and de facto leader of the Systems Alliance Navy, with the decimation of the chain of command resulting from the destruction of Arcturus Station and the attack on Earth. Though not as close to Shepard as Anderson, Admiral Hackett had thrown his support behind her time and time again, even volunteering to defend her during her trial for the destruction of the Alpha Relay in the Bahak system, since she had been on a rescue mission there as a personal favor to him. He was an incredible leader, and an even better soldier, and if anyone had to be leading Alliance forces, Shepard was glad it was him. “Commander,” Hackett said, giving a quick look up and down as he noticed her more informal garb. “I hope I didn’t disturb you… I realize this is rather short notice after your update on the… Prothean, but this is something that can’t wait.”

“Not at all, sir. What do you need me to do?” Shepard asked, the practiced business demeanor creeping back to the surface. Not actually being part of the Alliance Navy for the past three years didn’t mean she had forgotten the discipline.

“I’ll be brief, Commander… there’s been a development that we’d like you to investigate as soon as possible,” Hackett said, placing his hands behind his back. “As you know, the Reapers began their invasion in batarian space, swarming them and overwhelming the Hegemony before their run on Earth… but we’ve discovered from Alliance intelligence units that several Reapers have been traveling into the former Bahak system, and then just vanishing. An Alliance team was sent to investigate, and now we know why… there is a… well, a portal, for lack of a better phrase, that has appeared in the Bahak system, seemingly in the coordinates of the former Alpha Relay. We don’t know where it lets out, but we believe that that’s been the Reapers’ primary focus in batarian space, even more so than Khar’shan itself.”

“So… a portal… probably formed by the destruction of the Alpha Relay…” Shepard replied, bringing a hand to her chin. “But the Reapers who’ve gone through haven’t reappeared anywhere else in the galaxy?”

“Not that we know of,” Hackett answered. “We haven’t received any reports from any of the other races, though I suppose it’s possible that they could have emerged in geth space and we might not hear about it.”

“No. I’ve heard rumors about the quarians being near geth space lately… if any Reapers had just shown up there, we would have been informed,” Shepard mused. “I have… a friend in the Migrant Fleet, Admiral, and she wouldn’t just withhold something like that from us.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Shepard,” Hackett replied. “But back to the matter at hand… the Normandy’s stealth drive can enable it to enter batarian space undetected by any Reapers that may be in the area, and investigate the portal. If it’s found to be stable, take the Normandy through it. I want to know where those Reapers are going and what you find there. If it’s considered vital to their war effort, I’ll take any recommendations you might have on the situation.”

“Understood, sir. I’ll pass the coordinates on to Joker immediately,” Shepard said, saluting. “Just one question, sir… Primarch Victus is still aboard ship in anticipation of his upcoming summit. What would you like us to do about that situation?”

“We’re allies with the Turian Hierarchy, Shepard, and this might concern them just as much as it does us,” Hackett answered. “Keep the primarch aboard for now for purposes of observation, but don’t take too many unnecessary risks, if you can avoid it. I don’t want an incident with the turians on top of all this.”

“Got it. Anything else, sir?”

“No, that’ll be all, Commander,” Hackett said. “But be careful. Any possible engagement with the Reapers, I want you out of there, understood? We can’t afford to lose you or the Normandy now, especially with the new turian primarch onboard.”

“Have you ever known me not to be careful?” Shepard said, a small smirk creeping to her face.

“There’s not really a good answer to that question, Shepard…” Hackett said, a small, rare smile gracing his face as well. “But I trust you. You got off Akuze, won the Battle of the Citadel, and destroyed the Collector Base… you can get through this.”

“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down,” Shepard replied, giving another salute.

“I know you won’t. Hackett out.” With that, Shepard saw Hackett press a button to cut the communication.

Moving quickly, back through the War Room and past the Galaxy Map, Shepard made her way to the bridge, where the helmsman, Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau, aka ‘Joker’, was waiting, with his new synthetically bodied copilot, EDI. Joker turned his chair around upon hearing the door open. “Hey, Commander. What’s up? Hackett got us cleaning up some vorcha shithole somewhere now?” he asked, adjusting his baseball cap.

“Not exactly, Joker… but we will be delaying our journey to Sur’Kesh. We’ve got new orders,” Shepard explained. “Set a course for the Bahak system… we’re looking for a massive portal.”

“The Bahak system? What, did the Reapers find a stargate or something they didn’t let us in on?” Joker quipped.

“More likely, Jeff, it is probably an unexplained spatial phenomenon that bears a similarity to this ‘stargate’ you make reference to,” EDI replied.

“You’re learning, EDI, but sometimes, sarcasm still goes a little over your head,” Joker chided, though Shepard noticed that small smile creep onto his face as he did so. Having EDI right by him now must have been heaven for him…

“Time is kind of a factor here, Joker… you know, the war and all?” Shepard pointed out.

“Right, right. You’ve got it, Commander. We’ll let you know when we get near to the location, Commander… meanwhile, try and get some sleep, huh?” Joker said, flipping his chair to face Shepard head on. “I know it’s been a weird couple of days, but you know… can’t have you fighting tired, can we?” The look on Joker’s face suggested to Shepard a kind of worry that she’d never really seen from him before.

Shepard smiled. “Thanks for that, Joker… I’ll do the best I can.”

“All I need, Commander… well, that and about two million credits, a hot tub that’s synthetic safe, and for the Reapers not to be blowing up half the galaxy…” Joker replied, turning his seat back around to the console.

Shepard left the cockpit, and made her way to the Galaxy Map in the center of the CIC. She watched as the lights representing the Reapers’ invaded territories began to flash, showcasing areas to avoid for Alliance vessels. Shepard knew that the Normandy would eventually go to every single one of them… this war was far from over, and there would be a lot more of those flickering lights before it was. It was especially painful looking at the light representing the Local Cluster… the Sol system was there. She’d been a colony kid, raised on Mindoir before batarian slavers had raided, but even though she wasn’t raised on Earth, she’d been there enough times… she’d actually spent six months in Vancouver waiting for her trial after the Bahak system incident. Even if it hadn’t been the world from which the human race sprung, it would still be a beautiful planet… and now, the Reapers were demolishing all that.

It was just one more incentive to win this thing as quickly as possible, and if this thing with the portal in batarian space could help, it was a small price to pay for a diversion. Something told Shepard, though, that this wasn’t just going to be another routine mission… whatever the hell that even meant. Only time would tell.

Chapter Text

“So, you took the Defiant off station at the same time as the science team was being pulled into the ship… you were hoping to rescue them, I suppose?” Kira asked, pacing in front of Koron. A meeting had been called in First Minister Shakaar Edon’s residence in the capital city of Bajor… it was the first time Koron had ever been there. He’d lived near the city of Hathon during the Cardassian Occupation, joined the Resistance close to the end of it all, and then kept on in the Bajoran Militia after the spoonheads had pulled out. His transfer to DS9 had come through just before the end of the Dominion War, and he always regretted not seeing action during the Battle of Cardassia before the whole thing ended. Now, seeing that possible Dominion vessel blow up DS9… for the first time, he was grateful he hadn’t been there.

“Yes ma’am… but by the time we got out there, it was too late,” Koron replied, leaning back into the plush chair Kira and Shakaar had sat him in. “The ship had pulled the runabout inside, fired off the beam, and destroyed Deep Space 9 faster than I knew what was going on.”

“I know that part, Lieutenant, I was on the comm with you the whole time,” Kira said, rubbing her forehead briefly. “What I don’t understand is what the hell they wanted with the runabout… a Federation science team wouldn’t be of any interest to the Dominion. They already got a lot of what they needed to know about Starfleet from the war.”

“Unless, of course, they weren’t Dominion at all… the images you showed me didn’t look like any kind of Jem’Hadar ship I’ve seen,” Shakaar pointed out, bringing a hand to his chin and stroking it. “Colonel… is it possible that this might be a new player? Some race we haven’t seen before?”

“That’s possible, but if that’s the case, then why did they head for the wormhole after destroying Deep Space 9?” Kira asked, leaning against Shakaar’s desk.

“Maybe the Dominion is their next target…” Shakaar suggested. “They’ve made a lot of enemies over the years, after all. Perhaps this new race came here first because of their presence there during the war… that could mean they’ll be hitting targets the Dominion occupied… that means Bajor should be safe. However, Cardassia Prime might be next.”

“Well, forgive me if I don’t shed tears over a few dead Cardassians…” Koron scoffed.

“That’s not fair, Lieutenant… the Cardassians are trying to atone for their mistakes,” Shakaar said, a frown coming to his face. “Castellan Lang of the new Detapa Council has made great strides in making reparations to Bajor both for the Occupation and the war. We’re lucky to have her.”

“Forgive me, First Minister… I meant no disrespect,” Koron quickly backpedaled.

“I understand, Lieutenant… it’s hard to get away from that image…” Kira replied. “I had a rough time myself, after the end of the Occupation. Believe me, if anyone knows anything about how hard it was growing up under a Cardassian flag, it’s us.”

“I know. Putting it behind me was hard as well… but we’re getting there,” Shakaar said, sitting back down in his chair. “I think that we’ve all had enough of speculation for today… and I’m sure that Lieutenant Koron might want to get some sleep. He’s been grilled about this long enough. I’ve asked my staff to prepare one of the guest suites for you… have a good rest, Lieutenant. We’ll call you back in the morning.”

“I’ll try, First Minister… I won’t guarantee anything, though,” Koron answered, giving a salute as he left the office.

Upon Koron’s departure, Kira took the chair in which he had been sitting, and rubbed her temples in exhaustion. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to go off like that. It’s been an exhausting few days, that’s all…”

“I know, Nerys…” Shakaar answered, leaning forward onto his desk. “Losing Deep Space 9 must be killing you inside.”

“That’s putting it lightly…” Kira admitted. “It’s just… I should have been there, Edon. It was my station, my command, my responsibility… and now, it’s gone, and I’m still here. Those people died because I wasn’t there to defend my post.”

“That’s a rather naïve view,” Shakaar pointed out. “Even if you had been there, what would you have done, Nerys? You didn’t understand that ship any more than Lieutenant Koron did, and it’s possible that you would have been killed too. As it stands, we have you, we have the entirety of your senior staff who was off station, and we have the Defiant. Losing Deep Space 9 was a great tragedy… but I consider the fact that you’re standing here right now to be a victory. You, Dr. Bashir, Counselor Dax, even that Ferengi bartender of yours… it’s all a small victory.”

Kira smiled lightly. “Maybe you’re right… about me, Julian, and Ezri, anyway. The jury’s still out on Quark.” Shakaar and Kira shared a laugh before the sorrow returned to her face. “Still… all those lives, just… just snuffed out, in an instant. The Cardassians never managed anything on that scale… not even the Dominion could do something like this. This is big, Edon… maybe bigger than anything we can handle.”

“I don’t know if we can say that until we know what it is… but so far, I suppose that the odds don’t look good,” Shakaar said, coming around his desk. “But if anyone can figure out what these things are and how to stop them, it’s you. I’ve known you since you were thirteen years old, Nerys, and you’ve never been anything less than tenacious. Those people on Deep Space 9 will be avenged. You will find a way.”

Kira smiled again before turning her attention back to Shakaar. “Has it really been that long? Seems like just yesterday we were raiding Cardassian shipyards and supply lines, hiding in the mountains… where does the time go?”

“Wars, political intrigue, soil reclamators, and a romance here or there… the usual, Colonel,” Shakaar laughed. “Now, what do you say we get something to eat? I seem to recall there was this little bistro near here where you said they made the best hasperat you had ever had…”

“Only if you’re buying!” Kira laughed back. “You know what it’s like on that military salary…”

“Oh, Bajor will be a member of the Federation soon enough… then you won’t have to worry about that pesky salary. You’ll be in Starfleet for the sake of ‘bettering yourself’, right?” Shakaar joked.

Kira smiled again. The Prophets may have determined that she and Shakaar were fated to walk different paths, but it astounded her every time she returned home how easy he was to talk to. He was her oldest friend, and even a mutually agreed upon breakup couldn’t dampen that. “Sure. Because you know how good I am at that!” she cackled.

“Oh yes, I certainly do. Now, come on, let’s—“

Suddenly, Shakaar was broken off by a beeping sound coming from his desk, a small panel emerging from the wooden veneer. “What the hell…” he said, going back around to the chair to check on it. A pallid look came to his face. “By the Prophets…” he said.

“What’s wrong?” Kira asked, joining him behind the desk.

“It’s an automated distress signal from the moon of Derna… we’ve lost all contact with the medical station we were maintaining there,” Shakaar replied. “This signal is only set to contact me if… if the communications equipment has been destroyed… and that would only happen if—“

“If the entire facility were destroyed,” Kira finished. “If the Derna facility is gone, that means that whatever destroyed it is only a short flight from Bajor! First Minister, we need to get you to the safety shelter…”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, Colonel… maybe it was just a—“ Suddenly, an explosion in the distance interrupted Shakaar. He sat back down with a catlike speed. “Computer, give me visual on the outside!” The image of the great capital city appeared on the screen, and they saw it… just like the images Kira had seen on the comm. The same ship that had destroyed Deep Space 9, on the surface of Bajor. The city was in flames, more flames being set by every shot of its red beam weapon. Then, to Shakaar and Kira’s horror, two more of those ships landed, and started walking through the city, using those tentacle-like apparatuses as legs now. Their strides were enormous, and the two Bajorans could now see entire buildings being crushed beneath their limbs. Then, they noticed one of the ships turning toward the source of the camera…

“Get down!” Kira yelled, shoving Shakaar to the ground beneath his desk, just before the roof exploded above their heads. Kira coughed as she and Shakaar emerged from under the desk, its solid construction having shielded them from the blast. “Come on… we’re getting out of here!”

“Excellent suggestion, Colonel! I sounded the evacuation signal for the residence from under the desk… I don’t think we’ll be able to make it to the shelter, though, not with those machines out there. We need to get to the Defiant!” Shakaar said.

Kira nodded in agreement, and tapped her commbadge. “Kira to Defiant,” she said. There was no answer. “Kira to Defiant. Is anyone onboard?” Still no answer came from the other end. “Damn it… I can’t reach anyone onboard the Defiant.”

“Can the ship run with minimal crew?” Shakaar asked, navigating the wreckage of his office.

“It can. It’s not ideal, but if we could just get to the helm, we might be able to get off Bajor,” Kira responded.

“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, let’s just see if we can get there,” Shakaar said. Kira nodded, and together, the two leapt through the demolished window, making their way onto the lawn. There, they could see it even more clearly… the ships were kilometers high, towering over the capital skyline, and they could now plainly hear the screams rising up from the city streets.

“By the Prophets…” Kira whispered. She had seen firsthand the destruction that had been wrought by the Cardassians on her homeworld, and the Dominion on other worlds, Cardassia Prime in particular… and in all that time, she had never seen carnage like this. Suddenly, there were two small explosions near to the two Bajorans, and Kira whirled around to find several humanoid figures, lurching and seemingly covered with lattices of technological wiring, running right towards them. She quickly pulled out her phaser, and swiftly disintegrated most of them, with Shakaar beating down the ones that were too close to him. All that time behind a desk hadn’t dampened any of those old fighting instincts.

“What the hell are these things? Borg drones?” Shakaar asked as he and Kira ran from the scene.

“They don’t look like any Borg I’ve seen… didn’t fight like them either. Their first strategy would have been assimilation, and these things didn’t try that. And they certainly aren’t Jem’Hadar, which rules out the Dominion…” Kira reasoned, tossing Shakaar a phaser.

“So we were right… this is a new enemy,” Shakaar concluded.

“Seems that way… we need to inform the Federation about this threat,” Kira said, jogging down the once verdant path outside of Shakaar’s residence. “They came for Deep Space 9, and if they’re coming for Bajor, any Federation world could be next.”

“Or potential Federation worlds… or any world with life on it,” Shakaar pointed out. “We don’t know anything about this new race… they could want to exterminate anything that isn’t them, for all we know. We can’t assume anything, Nerys… assumption is, and always has been, death.”

Kira nodded. Once again, she remembered why Shakaar’s resistance cell had been the most successful during the Occupation: he was a tactician, through and through. She just hoped that his skills would also be able to contend with the current crisis. Just then, from behind them, there were another couple of explosions, and in addition to the technological entities they had fought off before, there were now others, these larger, with four eyes and energy weapons built into their arms. Another few quick phaser shots took care of them as well. It was odd… they seemed unfamiliar with Bajoran weapons and tactics. Shakaar was right… the combination of biological and technological that was present here was very reminiscent of the Borg, but these were clearly not Borg. But with two menaces on the scale of the Borg, could the universe survive?

Suddenly, the numbers of entities increased on the ground, and Kira and Shakaar found themselves pinned down behind a garden wall, coming out of cover sparingly to vaporize some of the creatures before ducking back under. “We can’t hold them off forever, Shakaar!” Kira yelled. “And I still can’t make contact with anyone on the Defiant, or in the Militia! I think the comm channels are down! We might be on our own here!”

“Then we’ll stand as best we can!” Shakaar cried back. “I didn’t fight to win my planet back from the Cardassians only to see it destroyed again now! We’ll stand and fight here as long as we can!”

“Yes, sir!” Kira yelled back, standing up to fire a few more phaser bursts. It certainly wasn’t the first near death scenario Kira had found herself in, and it wasn’t that that frightened her… it was the destruction raking her homeworld, and the forces perpetrating it. These creatures were monsters… what kind of depraved intelligence could conceive of horrors like these? Whatever they were, they wouldn’t be getting her today, that was for certain.

Suddenly, there was a whoosh overhead, and Kira looked up to see the shadow of the USS Defiant flying over her head. She felt a whoop emerge from her throat as the ship blasted a swath in the ground with its phaser cannons, eliminating the opposition with a number of precision shots. Kira’s commbadge chimed. “Koron to Kira… I managed to wrangle what was left of my skeleton crew when the blast hit, saw that you needed some help. Care for a lift, Colonel?”

“Lieutenant, you have no idea how pleased I am to hear your voice right now! Get us the hell out of here! Two to beam up!” Kira said in response.

“Make that one to beam up, Lieutenant,” Shakaar said into the badge. “Nerys… I’m not going with you.”

“What are you talking about? Of course you are!” Kira said, a slight laugh of disbelief escaping her mouth. “I’m not just going to leave you here! Did you see those things?”

“I did. And I saw a lot of the same when we were living under the Cardassians,” Shakaar answered, looking back to the horizon and seeing those massive ships. “I didn’t run then… and I’m sure as hell not going to run now. I can rally our people, Nerys, start organizing a resistance to fight back against these things. You might remember I know a thing or two about that.”

“Then I’m not leaving either!” Kira answered. “These aren’t Cardassians, Shakaar! They’re playing by completely different rules. I’m not leaving you to organize a resistance against them all by yourself!”

“You have to, Nerys! You have the Defiant, and you have connections in Starfleet… I need you to go to Earth, and plead our case to the Federation. They need to help us… and you’re the one person I trust to make it happen.” Shakaar clutched Kira’s hands. “Please, Nerys… my place is here, leading our people… your place is out there, being our voice to the rest of the quadrant. If you want to be of the most use to us, you’ll get on that ship. Don’t do it for me, Nerys… do it for Bajor. For our people.”

Kira was silent for a moment, then looked back at Shakaar. “I’ll be back for you, Edon,” she said. “May you walk with the Prophets.”

“You too… be safe, Nerys,” Shakaar answered, hugging Kira briefly.

Kira stepped back and tapped her commbadge again. “Kira to Defiant. One to beam up… energize.” With that, Bajor and Shakaar vanished from Kira’s view, and she found herself looking at one of the transporter rooms inside the Defiant, a Tellarite lieutenant at the control panel. She barely gave him acknowledgement before rushing off the transporter pad and going as quickly as she could to the bridge, where she found Koron seated in the captain’s chair and surrounded by his temporary bridge crew.

Koron stood up immediately upon seeing Kira enter the room. “She’s all yours, Colonel. Orders?” he asked.

“Get us out of the atmosphere, activate the cloaking device, and then set course for Earth, Lieutenant… Bajor needs our help, and we’re the only ones who can handle that right now,” Kira answered, sitting down in the chair.

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Koron responded, relaying her orders to the helmsman. As the Defiant climbed from the Bajoran surface, Kira had to resist the urge to turn the viewscreen onto the capital… she had seen more than she needed to. Bajor was burning beneath her for the second time in her lifetime, and here she was, running away in order to protect it. “Cloak engaged, ma’am,” Koron said.

“Take us out of here,” Kira said in a small tone. “Best possible speed to Earth.” She felt the subtle shift of the warp drive as they took the vessel into warp speed. Bajor was behind them now, for better or for worse… Kira said a silent prayer to the Prophets on behalf of both her people and Shakaar. This threat was far different than anything they had been exposed to before, a force of total war. They didn’t seem to be keeping strategic targets, merely killing and destroying… but to what end? Kira didn’t know, but she silently vowed that one day, she would see her homeworld again… she just hoped that it would still be recognizable as her home when she returned.

 

 

The Cardassian Union had been slowly rebuilding since the end of the Dominion War… the government reorganization following the war, including the reinstatement of the civilian Detapa Council over the Central Command had changed the former military dictatorship. Cardassians were a people who valued order and discipline, true, but they were also a people who were tired of war, eager to regain their place on the galactic stage after the Dominion occupation of Cardassia Prime had ended. Assisted by the Federation, the new civilian government was making great strides in turning the Cardassian Union into a government that could be respected, rather than feared, underneath the watchful eye of Castellan Natima Lang. The military was still a pivotal part of Cardassian society; that wasn’t something that could be changed overnight. But the people had a voice now, and were willing to be educated regarding the rest of the galaxy. The new Cardassia was proving to be a much stronger Cardassia.

And then, the Reapers had landed on Cardassia Prime.

Weakened as the Cardassian fleet had been by their loss in the war, and the forced demilitarization by the vengeful Klingons, they were completely blindsided by the Reaper invasion, which had made the harvesting all the easier. Only a handful of civilian transports had managed to escape when Castellan Lang had called planetary evacuation, and even fewer military vessels. It was only through sheer luck that Lang herself had managed to escape the planet, encouraged to leave by, of all people, Legate Vornar, head of the new Central Command. Vornar had had experience fighting with Legate Damar’s rebellion during the Dominion War, and so had volunteered to stay and fight these invaders as best he could. Bearing the presence of a foreign entity ruling Cardassia again after only a short year was intolerable, so while Lang would fight the battle outside, Vornar would fight it within.

Aboard the civilian transports that had made their way offworld in the scramble, desperately trying to reach safety on colony worlds, there was much panic and turmoil, as well as rage, some saying that it was not Cardassian to run from a foe like this, that the people had gone soft since the civilian authorities retook control. Yet one transport was calmed, as a leader onboard emerged to rise above the crowd, saying that it was not the Cardassian way to die stupidly, like a Klingon in a blood rage… rather, the Cardassians fought smart, and with devotion and necessary service to the state, seeking and seizing opportunities. A passage from the popular repetitive epic The Never Ending Sacrifice was cited to prove his point.

And so, Elim Garak, former agent of the Obsidian Order, had calmed a shuttle… but it was not to be his last contribution to what would come to be known as the Reaper War…

 

 

Garrus Vakarian was typing firing algorithms into the Normandy’s main battery room… he found it calming, a way to be useful while at the same time being able to ignore the rest of the universe around him. And there was certainly quite a bit he was trying to ignore… the war, Palaven in flames, the fact that he still had not heard from his father or sister after the planet had been hit… and Shepard. Thinking about calibrating a giant gun meant that he wasn’t thinking about where his relationship with her stood now. Something that was within his control? Sign him up for that.

Soon, though, he found that he couldn’t avoid it, as the door to the battery slid open to reveal Shepard, who stepped through quickly and made her way to Garrus’s console. “Garrus. Can we talk for a minute?” she said.

“Um… can it wait for a bit? I’m in the middle of some cali—“

“Calibrations, I know,” Shepard interrupted. “You always say that whenever you want to avoid a sensitive topic. Well, you’re not getting away with it, Vakarian. Spill it. Why have you been avoiding me?”

“I haven’t been avoiding you, Shep—”

“Don’t lie to me, Garrus. We know each other too well for that,” Shepard said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Now come on. What’s going on? You were fine on Menae, but you’ve been uncomfortable since we brought you back on the Normandy. And I definitely felt a little tension on Eden Prime.”

“It’s just that we’ve both been busy, and you’ve had the war to think about, and the summit, and how to keep the krogan on this ship and not have them start headbutting the primarch’s delegation or the salarian dalatrass and any number of other things. You didn’t need to worry about the moody turian in the gun battery on top of all that,” Garrus babbled.

“Garrus, that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to talk. You know that,” Shepard said, moving in closer. “Hell, I came after you enough during the campaign to stop the Collectors that you should have figured that out.”

“Well… maybe. But I didn’t think it was quite that simple anymore…” Garrus said. “Liara…”

“Wait, this is about Liara?” Shepard said, almost having to stop herself from laughing. “You think that just because Liara’s back onboard that I’m just going to leave you high and dry?”

“Shepard, I saw the way that you two looked at each other on that mission to take down the Shadow Broker… I’m not blind,” Garrus said, turning back to the console. “In fact, some would argue that I have better eyesight than anyone on this ship… but that’s beside the point. Listen, I know you and Liara have a thing. You had it back when we were working to stop Saren, and I saw shades of it again on Hagalaz, so I… I just didn’t want to stand in the way, that’s all. I was making it easier for you two. What we had… what we shared… that was incredible, Shepard, don’t get me wrong. But I know what you want. So I’m going to let you go for it.”

That was too much… Shepard now couldn’t help from laughing. “Oh, Garrus… listen. What happened on the Broker’s ship was… was heat of the moment, was residual feelings from two years ago. But she changed in that time… I changed. It wouldn’t work between us anymore… she’s grown up, and so have I. I didn’t lie to you back on the Collector mission, Garrus… I want you. That hasn’t changed.” She hesitated for a moment. “Unless… that’s different for you.”

“No! No! Oh, no, no, definitely not!” Garrus said, whirling around to face Shepard. “That’s not it at all! I just… it… well, it seemed more…”

Shepard laughed again, this time with decidedly more mirth. “God, I missed you, Garrus… you know how cute you get when you’re flustered, right?”

“I… um… I didn’t, but you seem to find it pretty irresistible,” Garrus smiled. “And here I thought I was going to have to go out and get a whole new set of scars to get you interested again…”

Shepard chuckled again. “I don’t know that that’ll be necessary this time… but if you wouldn’t mind just staying alive for a little bit longer, I think we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, don’t you?”

“Damn right,” Garrus replied, the smile growing on his scarred face as well. “Your quarters, later? I’ll bring the wine. A bottle of dextro for me, of course.”

“I’d like that,” Shepard replied, the grin on her face growing ever broader. “I’ll meet you when I go off duty. For now, I’ve got to get up to the bridge… we should be reaching the Bahak system soon, and Joker should be calling—“

“Approaching the Bahak system, Commander… what’s left of it, anyway,” came Joker’s voice over the internal comm system like clockwork. “Might want to get up here.”

Shepard looked up at Garrus with an ‘I told you so’ expression on her face. “On my way, Joker,” she answered. “Tell Liara to head up too… I’d like her opinion on this phenomenon.”

“Copy that,” Joker replied.

Shepard looked back toward Garrus. “Well… duty calls,” she said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, Garrus.”

“Count on it,” Garrus replied, a small smile still on his face as he turned back to his firing algorithms. Shepard, meanwhile, made her way out of the main battery, and walked past the former XO’s office, which had now been turned into Shadow Broker HQ by Liara. Turning the corner, she found herself keeping pace with the Shadow Broker herself, Dr. Liara T’Soni. The asari pressed the button to summon the elevator, then turned and smiled when she saw Shepard.

“Shepard. It’s good to see you,” she said. “Joker says this is a matter of some urgency?”

“He’s not kidding,” Shepard answered, and quickly filled Liara in on the mission Hackett had sent them on.

“A portal? That… that doesn’t seem possible… not with the spatial laws of the universe, anyway,” Liara speculated. “The closest thing I can think of to this would be the mass relays, and those work by pairing with a ship’s eezo core to create a mass effect field powerful enough to hurl it vast distances. To have a stationary spatial object be able to do that… it’s mind-boggling, Shepard.”

“And you can’t wait to see it, can you?” Shepard asked, an amused tone to her voice.

“That’s an understatement,” Liara replied, the excitement plain on her face. The expression changed in an instant as a thought passed through the asari’s mind. “Unless… it’s always been there, and it’s merely a phenomenon we haven’t encountered yet in our cycle…”

“You think we should ask for Javik’s input too?” Shepard asked.

“No. Javik’s been through enough the past few days. I wouldn’t want to bother him with something this… trivial,” Liara answered. Shepard nodded, but she couldn’t help but detect the tone of disappointment in Liara’s voice. Discovering a real live Prothean had been a dream come true for her, but Javik… well, Javik wasn’t quite what she had expected the Protheans to be. Liara had been expecting a great scientist or wise counselor… what she got was a violence-happy nut who insisted on referring to everyone on the ship as ‘primitives’. It was true that this era would take some getting used to for the Prothean… but it seemed that the Prothean himself also required some getting used to.

The elevator door opened, and Shepard and Liara exited into the CIC, passing the Galaxy Map and making their way to the bridge, where Joker turned his head slightly upon hearing the door open. “Coming up on those coordinates Admiral Hackett forwarded us, Commander,” he said.

“Have you seen anything yet?” Shepard asked, leaning on Joker’s chair to look at his console.

“Negative, Shepard,” replied EDI. “Save for the elimination of any planets in the system due to the destruction of the Alpha Relay, our scans of the region have so far detected nothing suspicious or outside of the norm for this part of space. It is possible that Alliance readings may have been misread.”

“No, Admiral Hackett wouldn’t have sent us out here for a wild goose chase,” Shepard said, standing back up straight. “Keep scanning. It’s got to be out there somewhere…”

As if by cue, a beeping sound began to emerge from Joker’s console. He looked down at it, then looked over the side. “EDI, are you seeing this?” he asked, swiping and typing frantically to compensate.

“I am,” EDI answered, her fingers flying just as rapidly, if not more. “Commander, we are now detecting a bizarre energy signature, not unlike that given off by a mass relay… yet, we know there is no longer a relay in this system.”

“Our portal?” Shepard speculated.

“Sure seems like it. Going to see if I can get something on visual,” Joker said, typing in another series of keystrokes. Then, a visual appeared… and Shepard could see that EDI was right. She saw a swirling mass of blue, just hovering there in the blackness of space, unsupported by any constructed mass relay. But what was the energy? Was it harnessed artificially, or was this a natural spatial phenomenon? And more importantly, what were the Reapers trying to do with it?

Liara seemed equally as fascinated by the implications of the object as Shepard heard a small whisper of, “By the Goddess,” behind her. Shepard watched as Liara’s eyes lit up watching the spatial phenomenon in front of them. “It’s… it’s incredible, Shepard. A wholly unheard of spatial phenomenon, developed right before our very eyes! I have to know more!”

“Well, I think you might get your wish, Liara… Joker, take us in,” Shepard said, stepping back from the chair. “Let’s see just where this thing goes…”

“What?! You’re serious? Take us into the big swirly blue cloud of energy that we know nothing about?” Joker replied incredulously. “Fine, Commander, but if this gets us sucked into some huge cosmic toilet or something, I’m blaming you.”

“Noted,” Shepard answered, watching as the Normandy began to drift toward the blue vortex. Looking at it up close, Shepard could feel precisely what Liara was feeling… her main purpose in joining the Alliance Navy had been to protect the human race, but a fringe benefit of that was getting to see sights that no human had ever seen before. As many times as that had been true for Shepard, it never seemed to get old. She had almost told Morinth as much when she was trying to help Samara corner her, but it hadn’t struck her at the time as suitably badass and dangerous… but anyone who knew Commander Shepard could tell you that the way her face lit up when she saw the unknown was anything but badass and dangerous. She could only imagine that she was giving off that expression now.

Suddenly, Joker’s console began to chime again. “Uh, Commander, it looks like we’ve got a problem… Reaper forces incoming! Two—no, three capital ships! I think they might want to stop us going in there!”

“Damn it! Evasive maneuvers, Joker! Get us to minimum safe distance!” Shepard ordered.

“There’s no time! They’re coming in hot!” Joker replied anxiously, frantically trying to correct course. “There’s nothing I can do… we’re going to have to keep going and hope we can outrun them!”

“Safest course to navigate the portal calculated, Shepard,” EDI said, more calmly typing. “I am also currently correcting for the Reapers’ course and speed… we will reach our objective before their vessels reach us.”

“I’d say good job, EDI, but let’s get out of this first… then I’ll be more than happy to praise your work,” Shepard answered, watching as the synthetic and her human counterpart worked in tandem to get the ship out of harm’s way. It had only been a short time since EDI had been able to commandeer control of her new body from its previous inhabitant, Cerberus infiltrator Dr. Eva Coré, but it continued to amaze Shepard just how well EDI and Joker worked together up here on the bridge. Part of it must have been the unique connection they shared… but the fact that EDI’s systems were still part of the Normandy’s main computer systems probably also had a major hand to play in that.

The skills of the pilot and copilot proved greater than the Reapers in this moment, as did the Normandy’s drive core… the capital ships were barely reaching the vessel’s previous position by the time the swirling blue mass was even more visible through the ship’s viewports. Joker and EDI had gotten them to the portal… and now it was time to see what was inside. “Punch it, Joker!” Shepard ordered.

“You got it!” Joker replied, and sped the ship up just enough to pass the portal’s event horizon. Shepard felt a jolt that knocked her to the floor, and she saw that Liara was in the same situation. She hoped that the rest of the Normandy’s crew was faring a little bit better than they were up here, but she had no way of knowing.

She managed to pick her head up somewhat, and saw that Joker and EDI were in the same position, thrust back by the energy that was now buffeting the ship, but managing to stay in their seats. “Joker! Status report!” she yelled up to the pilot, noticing a slight distortion in her voice as she did so.

“Kinetic barriers and engines holding, Commander… somehow, we’re taking her through! It’s just a little bit of a rough road!” Joker answered, the distorting effect present in his voice too. “And I’m not positive, but if this energy keeps hitting us like this, I might break every bone in my body, but with me, that’s not really hard!”

“That was a joke, Shepard!” EDI yelled from her seat. “It would appear we are nearly through… I am analyzing the phenomenon, and should be able to compensate for the energy displacement upon our return!”

“Way to go, EDI!” Shepard yelled. “Now let’s see what happens when—“ Shepard was suddenly interrupted and thrown to the ground again by the cessation of the energy swirling around them, and the return of stars all around them… however, they didn’t look like the same stars they had left behind when they went through. “Joker… where are we?” Shepard asked, standing herself up from the floor.

“Checking… it’s… oh my God,” Joker said, staring in disbelief at his console. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…”

“Excuse me?” said Liara, picking herself up and rubbing her temple.

“It would seem that Jeff is correct… the portal has displaced us to a galaxy entirely separate from our own. I am currently seeing if I can access a galactic map through the Normandy’s software…” EDI said, pushing a few more buttons on her console.

“I’ll see if the Galaxy Map can help us with that,” Shepard said, running out of the bridge with Liara at her back. She could now see that the energy phenomenon had in fact affected the entire ship, as she could see her crew members steadying themselves and checking for injuries after that debacle.

Dr. Chakwas had evidently even made her way up from the Crew Quarters to check on the crew in the CIC, and was currently examining Specialist Traynor next to the Map. “Commander, what just happened?” Traynor asked as Shepard made her way up the stairs.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, Traynor. Just give me a second here,” Shepard answered, watching as the Map began to reconfigure itself. However, the shifting of the pixels ended soon after to reveal them to be… still in the Milky Way Galaxy? That was impossible… unless… “EDI!” Shepard yelled, running back up to the bridge. “What have you been able to find?”

“It is as it appears on the map, Shepard… we are in the Milky Way Galaxy,” EDI confirmed. “But I am analyzing it… we should be near to Khar’shan, but it appears that there is no Khar’shan here.”

“No Khar’shan?” Liara asked. “What does that mean?”

“It is just as it sounds, Dr. T’Soni,” EDI replied. “We are in the same position as when we left our own galaxy, yet there is no Khar’shan within range… in fact, I can find no batarian planets in the positions where they should be, nor any asari, turian, salarian, volus, hanar, elcor, krogan, vorcha…” She eyed the console again. “Wait. I have found one human world… Commander, it appears to be Earth. But it is not in the position it should be.”

“Damn it, I knew that thing would throw us into the Twilight Zone or something! This is why we should never mess with swirly blue things!” Joker said. “Turn us back around, Commander?”

Shepard considered for a moment. This was indeed their galaxy… and yet, it was not. And if there was an Earth here too… “Negative, Joker,” Shepard said finally. “The Reapers have been coming here for some reason, and our orders were to find out why. We can’t go back until we’ve done that.”

“Right. So we’re going to head off to Earth-2, then, where we’ll probably meet all our evil twins and have to fight them in some gladiator arena to prove how great our universe is or something… yeah, sounds good. Just what I wanted to do this weekend,” Joker bantered. “Well, if you’re really going to keep us going with this, let’s head for the nearest relay and keep this crazy plan moving…”

“One moment… I am detecting a vessel approaching on long-range sensors,” EDI interjected.

“Reapers?” Shepard asked.

“No… this ship matches no known design. It is an unknown configuration. I am pulling it up now,” EDI said, and on her console appeared the vessel. It was large, with a massive dishlike structure attached to a cylindrical shaft, off of which were jutting two huge glowing tubes of some sort. She was right… it didn’t look like any kind of ship Shepard had seen before.

“Liara, does this look like anything your Shadow Broker agents might have forwarded you?” Shepard asked, turning again to the asari.

“No, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Liara replied, bringing a hand to her chin. “Do they appear hostile?”

“Doesn’t look like it… they’re just… sitting there,” Joker said, pulling the image up on his own console. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Commander…” Suddenly, the console began to chime. “It looks like they’re trying to communicate with us. It’s on a weird frequency, though…”

“I believe I will be able to clean it up,” EDI said, concentrating for a moment. She looked up again. “I have succeeded in locating the frequency, and patched our comm into it.”

“Play the message,” Shepard ordered, and stood to listen.

The message came ringing loud and clear through the bridge: “…repeat: this is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise to unknown vessel. Please identify yourself.”

Federation? What the hell was the ‘Federation’? The name the captain had given sounded human, French to Shepard’s ear… but what did that mean here? “Do you want to respond to them, Commander?” Joker asked.

Shepard pondered for a moment before quickly answering, “No. No, this could be a trap… keep our distance for now, and see if you can get us out of here. Is there a mass relay nearby?”

“It would appear that there is one, Shepard… but I would advise against running until we have time to scan the other ship to find out their capabilities,” EDI answered.

“That was just what I was going to suggest, EDI… see what you can do to get into their computer systems. Find out who they are, what they’re doing here, and anything you can about this galaxy,” Shepard said. “Liara, head down to your office and see if you and Glyph can start sorting through any information EDI provides from the other ship.”

“On it, Shepard,” Liara replied, striding out of the bridge, Shepard close behind. But while Liara made a beeline straight to the elevator, Shepard tarried a bit, loitering next to the Galaxy Map and once again pondered the new galaxy in which they had found themselves. The portal had been fascinating enough… what lay beyond it, even more so. But that of course just introduced a slew of other questions in her mind… why were the Reapers coming here? What was the state of this universe, and would it be something that the Alliance would have to contend with to win their own war? And what was this Federation, and the captain who represented it? One thing was for sure… Hackett certainly couldn’t have envisioned something like this when he had tasked this mission to Shepard and her crew. She just hoped that she would be able to report back to him when this was all over…

Chapter Text

Despite this now being the most expansive harvest in the history of the Reapers, the conversion of this new galaxy was going well… using the Denorios Belt, Bajor, and Cardassia Prime as a staging ground, Reaper forces had swarmed into the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants, scouting, harvesting, indoctrinating, and building mass relays as they went, enabling travel on a fast and massive scale. The Gamma Quadrant was centralized like the Prothean Empire had been, thanks to this ‘Dominion’, so it was simple to find advanced species here… plus, these ‘Jem’Hadar’ were evidently bred for conflict, and so would make excellent husks following indoctrination. Beginning to harvest the Beta Quadrant involved traveling across the vast distances of the so-called ‘United Federation of Planets’ and ‘Klingon Empire’, harvesting as they traveled, but it was only a matter of time. And as for the Delta Quadrant… the Delta Quadrant was a huge body of tiny powers that would be remarkably easy to harvest when it came down to it. Save for one…

The Reapers’ first encounter with this strange group had come during the building of a mass relay in Cardassian space. Capital ships had located the remnants of an energy wave capable of dragging a ship across massive distances… a sort of relay, but outside of the principles of the mass effect. The vessels had been able to trace the signal back to its source, but that was where the trouble had begun. From the wave emerged patchwork ships of some sort, unlike any sort of vessel they had seen before. They were a perfect cube in shape, and they were colossal, bigger than any other ship the Reapers had encountered so far in this galaxy. Their enormous scale dwarfed even the Reapers, impressing even the sentient starships. Whatever this race was, the Reapers needed to find out… they could very well be the most useful resource in this galaxy. Attempted harvesting was declared… but then, a communication began to ring through the halls of the Reapers, catching ears of husks throughout the ships.

“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

A communication was sent back to the Cube: “We are your genetic destiny. We are your salvation through destruction. Prepare yourselves for the ascension.”

The Borg Collective had joined the Reaper War. But all was not as it seemed…

 

 



“Captain, we are receiving a signal from the Klingon shuttle Kri’stak, requesting permission to beam over Ambassador Worf,” Transporter Chief Josefina DeSoto said to Captain Picard, standing with Commander Riker close to the control panel. “Shall I confirm?”

“Permission granted, Chief,” Picard replied, that old smile coming back to his face again as he watched Chief DeSoto start the transporter sequence. Picard hadn’t seen his old security chief since he had assisted them on their mission to the Ba’ku planet during the war, though Picard had sent him sincerest congratulations upon learning of Worf’s promotion to Federation Ambassador to Qo’noS. It was a position he hadn’t expected for the terse Klingon, but his close friendship and strong kinship with Chancellor Martok, as well as his vested interest in the safeties of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire, made him the ideal candidate for the post. The signal coalesced again into a humanoid form, and the glow of the transport diminished to reveal the tall figure of Ambassador Worf of the House of Martok, dressed in his Starfleet uniform, complete with lieutenant commander rank pips, rather than the standard ambassadorial garb. Picard couldn’t help but smile again… despite his brusque manner, Worf was nothing if not sentimental. As he stepped down off the pad, Picard approached him with an outstretched hand. “Welcome back aboard the Enterprise, Mr. Worf,” he said. “We’re delighted that you’ll be joining us.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Worf replied, taking the hand and shaking it firmly. “It is… very good to be back.” He turned toward Riker. “Commander. It is good to see you again as well.”

“Likewise, Mr. Worf,” Riker said, a grin on his face echoing Picard’s own. “I’m here to escort you to your quarters for the duration of this trip… unless, of course, you would rather accompany us to the bridge for old times’ sake?”

“Thank you, sir. I would prefer to get to work,” Worf replied. “Chancellor Martok is expecting a full report on every step of this operation, and that is what I will give him.”

Riker grinned again. “You haven’t changed one bit, Worf. Come on. The rest of the senior staff will be happy to see you.”

Picard, Riker, and Worf made their way from the transporter room to the turbolift. “Bridge,” said Picard, and the turbolift began to rise from Deck 16. The silence was thick in the air until Picard broke it. “I was very sorry to hear about your wife, Mr. Worf. I never knew Commander Dax, but I understand that she was quite a remarkable woman.”

“Thank you, sir. She was,” Worf answered succinctly.

“Anyone who could turn your head would have to be,” Riker added.

“…Indeed,” Worf agreed slowly. “If you would not mind, Commander, I would prefer not to discuss it. I am certain you understand.”

“Of course,” Riker replied, turning again to face the turbolift door head on.

Picard had heard about Jadzia Dax’s death shortly after it had occurred, and each of Worf’s friends in the Enterprise’s senior staff had attempted to find ways to lift his spirits, even from afar… he’d never heard if their efforts were successful or not… “I hope that you enjoyed the recordings I sent you,” Picard said, breaking the silence again. “I seem to recall you mentioning your fondness for the voice of Barak-Kadan, and I understand his performance in Shevok’tah gish is one of the greatest in Klingon opera.”

“It was… most thoughtful of you, sir,” Worf said. Picard and Riker backed off after that… it was clear that this was a subject Worf did not wish to delve back into. Miles O’Brien had told them just how hard it had been to get Worf to acknowledge the grief he had been feeling after Jadzia had died… opening that subject back up probably was not the smartest move.

The door to the turbolift opened, and the bridge was revealed to the three former shipmates. To Worf’s surprise, he saw none of his former senior staff crewmates there, though he began to understand why as Picard and Riker stepped off the turbolift and made their way to the observation lounge door. “I asked Gamma Shift to begin our journey to the Denorios Belt as soon as you were beamed aboard… that should give us all plenty of time to catch up,” Picard said, motioning for Worf to follow him and his first officer.

Worf obeyed, and the door to the conference room opened to reveal Lieutenant Commander Data, Counselor Deanna Troi, Dr. Beverly Crusher, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, and Lieutenant Junior Grade Nog seated around the conference table, a chocolate cake reading ‘Welcome Back Worf!’ in the center of them… Deanna’s suggestion, no doubt, Worf mused, a small deep sigh escaping his lips as he did so. Deanna’s face lit up as she saw who was joining the captain and first officer. “Worf!” she said, springing from her seat and spreading her arms out in a hug. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”

“Counselor,” Worf returned, placing his arms loosely around the half-Betazoid to return her hug.

“Ambassador Worf,” Data said, carrying a slice of cake. “It has been too long since you were with us. Would you care for some cake? Guinan baked it specifically for our reunion, though she sends her regrets that she is unable to join us.” Data was beaming broadly, an odd expression for the android… but this served to remind Worf of Data’s new emotion chip, installed shortly before the destruction of the Enterprise-D. Clearly, he had been separated from his former crewmates for too long, if he had forgotten that.

“Thank you, Commander,” Worf returned, taking the plate from Data and ushered into Deanna’s seat by the counselor. “I am pleased to be back.”

“It just hasn’t been the same around here without you, Worf,” Beverly said, cutting her own slice of cake and replicating a glass of punch. “How long will you be staying?”

“Only until the end of this assignment,” Worf answered. “Chancellor Martok wants a report as soon as possible, just in case the Dominion is involved and action must be taken by the Empire.”

“Well, let’s hope that Lieutenant Nog and I can stay out of Engineering for a long enough stretch to be able to spend some time with you,” Geordi said with a laugh, his new ocular implants noticeably focusing. “I was hoping you might be able to show us the improvements you made to your calisthenics program while you used it on the DS9 holosuites. Might let us do some maintenance to improve our own holodecks.”

Hearing his name prompted Nog’s attention, and after a brief nod to Geordi, the young Ferengi turned his head around to look at the Klingon. “Commander—oh, sorry—Ambassador Worf. It’s good to see you… been a long time.”

“It has,” Worf said, feeling, as Picard had hoped, somewhat more at ease. “I… heard about Deep Space 9… I hope that your family and friends are well.”

“Yes, sir… most of the lower ranks and civilians were killed, but a lot of the command staff was off station at the time of the destruction,” Nog replied. “My Uncle Quark was conducting some business on Ferenginar and was safe… even Jake and Kasidy Yates went back to Earth after Jadzia was born, when it became obvious that Captain Sisko wouldn’t be coming—“

“Jadzia?” Worf asked, the name catching his interest.

“Uh… Captain Sisko and Captain Yates’s daughter. She was born a few months ago, and Kasidy named her Jadzia… she, uh, wanted to honor Commander Dax…” Nog answered. “I hope that doesn’t offend you…”

“No… Jadzia was close to Captain Sisko. I believe she would have considered it a great honor… and so do I,” Worf replied, sitting back in his seat again. “Thank you… for telling me, Lieutenant.” Nog nodded, and made his way back to Geordi.

It seemed that even the celebratory atmosphere surrounding his return had done nothing to improve Worf’s spirits, much to Picard’s disappointment. He had hoped that seeing his old friends again would reawaken some old spark in him, but it seemed that such was not to be the case. Shortly after Admiral Bullock had first contacted him about the mission, Chancellor Martok had also sent him a transmission, informing him that Worf had recently returned into a state of melancholy, close to the two year anniversary of his marriage to Jadzia. He had asked that during Worf’s stay, Picard do all he could to try and cheer him, which Picard had then relayed to his crew. Most of them were only too eager to assist; to the side, he could already hear Will asking Worf if he would like to teach a series of special self-defense classes to the new security recruits, while Deanna suggested perhaps he could show her the new holodeck program he had obtained of the last stand of Emperor Kahless against the forces of the Fek’lhri, during which the legendary warrior had forged the first bat’leth. But, it seemed, nothing was working.

Picard knew the man well enough to know that he was just stubborn enough to stay in a mood for as long as his heart desired… but it was his fondest hope that that not be too long. There was nothing worse than wallowing in self-pity… he’d found it hard to return to his normal self after the deaths of his brother and nephew in a fire on the vineyard, but his friends, and some well-placed advice from one James T. Kirk, had helped to bring him out of it, as soon as he desired it to be so. Worf would be the same way… he just needed that impetus to snap out of it.

The party lasted for the next several hours… laughs were shared, tales were told, and Lieutenant Nog was grilled to no end about what Worf had been like on DS9 as compared to his time on the Enterprise. But eventually, Picard’s commbadge chimed, and the staff on the bridge at that moment announced their arrival in the Denorios Belt. Picard acknowledged them, and ordered his senior staff to return to their posts. Exiting the conference room, the bridge crew made their way to their traditional places, while Geordi, Nog, and Beverly boarded the turbolift to return to Engineering and Sickbay. “Mr. Worf, what say you join us at Tactical, for old times’ sake?” Picard suggested with a smile on his face.

“I would be happy to, sir,” Worf answered, relieving the lieutenant on duty.

“Exiting warp now, sir,” said Ensign Gabriel Clarke at the conn as Picard sat back down in his chair.

“Very good, Ensign,” Picard replied. “Mr. Data, begin a scan of the area, and use the impressions of the ship that were recorded by the Defiant crew. If our mystery vessel is still here, I want it found.”

“Aye, sir,” Data replied, typing the commands into his console.

Riker leaned over to Picard from his seat to his right hand. “Sir… if the ship is still here, do you intend to engage it?” he asked.

“That depends on how it reacts to us, Number One,” Picard answered. “If it is found to have hostile intent, then I will decide how best to respond to it. Its hesitation in destroying Deep Space 9 suggested that its crew was curious about it… it seems that that would mean they are unfamiliar with either Federation or Cardassian technology. That could be to our advantage.”

“Maybe… but any ship that has the firepower to destroy an entire space station with one blast should be treated with a bit more caution,” Riker pointed out.

“I agree… which is why I put Mr. Worf back on Tactical,” Picard replied. “I’ve never met a man who was better with a phaser cannon than him, and his skills could greatly benefit us now.”

“Couldn’t agree more, Captain,” Riker said, a smile accompanying his jovial tone.

“Captain,” Data said from the Ops console, “I have completed my scan of the region, and found two anomalies. Neither of them matches the signal given to us by the Defiant, but they are curious nonetheless.”

“Explain,” Picard ordered, making his way toward the console, Riker close behind.

“It would appear that the miniature wormhole previously observed by Lieutenant Koron remains intact, and has only grown since Deep Space 9 was destroyed,” Data elaborated. “But in addition to that, I have also detected a mysterious structure close to the opening of the Bajoran wormhole. I am currently running a scan on the composition of this object, but it appears to be metallic, possibly even based upon some of the ores that formerly made up DS9. What is even more curious, however, is the core… it seems to be made of some substance never before observed in our galaxy.”

“Something extragalactic, like the Defiant crew suggested?” Riker speculated.

“That is possible, Commander. It is certainly not something I have ever seen before, though I would not care to speculate further without knowing more about it,” Data replied. “Captain, I would suggest getting closer to the object so that I can conduct a more thorough scan.”

“Make it so, Mr. Data. Ensign, bring us closer,” Picard said, returning to his seat. “I’d like to know all we can before we bring this information back to Starfleet Command.”

“Yes, sir,” Ensign Clarke replied, adjusting the Enterprise’s course and bringing them in closer to the foreign object.

“Bringing it on viewer, Captain,” Data said. On the viewscreen appeared the mysterious object… and Data was right. Picard had never seen anything like it before. It was massive, probably about ten miles long on the arms, with a vast core glowing with blue energy and rotating. It seemed to be held in space, but was also giving off no heat or radiation that Data could find… yet it was definitely also giving off energy, if the Enterprise’s systems had been able to detect it. Picard had seen many unusual energy phenomena in his Starfleet career… but this was something else entirely.

“What do you think it could be used for?” Riker asked, interrupting Picard’s thoughts.

“Without knowing what the core is composed of, I cannot make any reliable speculations, Commander,” Data replied, studying it intently. “I would recommend continued scanning, and perhaps an analysis of the construction in Engineering. Geordi may be able to tell you more than I can.”

“Very well… let’s just continue studying the artifact, and bring back as much as we can to Starfleet Command,” Picard said. “We might even be able to find out what the ship was doing here if we can learn—“

“Captain!” Worf interrupted from the tactical console. “Sensors are detecting something emerging from the second wormhole.”

“Onscreen!” Picard ordered as he and Riker made their way back to their seats. The viewscreen flashed with the image of the new wormhole, and Picard watched… Worf had indeed been right. Another vessel was emerging somewhat roughly from the swirling blue vortex, and just like this new spatial artifact, it was incredibly different from anything that they had seen before. It was extremely small in comparison to the standard Federation vessel, probably the size of a frigate, long and slender, navy blue and white paint coating the exterior. What appeared to be engines jutted from the main structure, obviously taxed by the journey from whatever was on the other side. It seemed to have no visible warp nacelles… this ship was driven by impulse alone, something that hadn’t been seen since before the days of Zefram Cochrane. There were words on the side… Picard could see ‘Normandy’ and ‘SR-2’… Earth names, Earth lettering. That could mean that this was a Federation vessel, possibly a prototype. Had they found a way to condense the warp nacelles, or to somehow combine warp and impulse? He would have to consult with Montgomery Scott at the Utopia Planitia Shipyards sometime and ask him… but for now, this was only speculation. “Analysis, Mr. Data,” Picard said, turning toward the android.

“I am attempting to conduct a scan of the vessel, Captain,” Data replied, his fingers moving quickly across his isolinear display. “It is remarkably simple… it seems to have no shields, or at least shield technology that we are not familiar with. I have managed a sensor sweep… there appear to be five decks, with a central bridge and command center on Deck 2, crew quarters on Deck 3, engineering on Deck 4, and a large cargo and shuttle bay area on Deck 5. Deck 1 is greatly condensed… possibly additional quarters of some kind. I cannot tell for certain, but it does not appear to match any known design.”

“What about the warp core?” Riker asked. “The lack of nacelles seems to suggest it’s more condensed.”

Data studied the display for a moment. “I do not believe there is a warp core, sir,” Data said, a visible expression of surprise coming to his synthetic face. “There appears to be a centralized core of some kind in the engineering section, but I am not detecting any form of matter/antimatter containment, or any traces of dilithium. Whatever system the vessel runs on, it is not standard warp technology.”

“Some kind of prototype? Designed in secret by Starfleet, or that Section 31 organization Worf told us about?” Riker suggested.

“That had been my thought as well, but I don’t think it’s terribly likely,” Picard answered, adjusting his uniform shirt. “Otherwise, I suspect Admiral Bullock would have mentioned this was a possibility before he sent us out here. Section 31 is a possibility, but a ship running without standard warp technology? No… I think this is something else entirely.” Picard paused, considering his options, before turning to his left hand side. “Counselor, can you sense anything aboard that vessel?”

Deanna concentrated for a moment before answering. “I sense several life forms… some of them distinctly alien, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. But most of what I sense is… confusion. Confusion, and a sense of dread… I don’t think they know what has happened to them. It’s very unclear, sir.”

Picard nodded. “Thank you, Counselor,” he said, before turning back to the tactical console. “Mr. Worf, hail the vessel. Let them know we’re here.”

“Yes, sir,” Worf said, pressing a few buttons on his console. “You may proceed when ready.”

Picard stood up from his chair and addressed the image on the viewscreen. “Attention, unknown vessel. This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise. We are here to offer assistance. Please identify yourself.”

Silence reigned for a moment, before Worf looked up again. “No response.”

“Try it again,” Picard said, and Worf pressed the buttons a second time. “I repeat: this is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise to unknown vessel. Please identify yourself.” Again, there was no response. “Data, you said the ship had no shields. Can we lock a transporter signal onto it?”

“I believe it is possible,” Data replied, analyzing his screen. “We could lock a transporter onto the cargo area, and send a team aboard the ship that way… yes, I think it would be a simple procedure.”

“Good. Number One, take an away team down to Transporter Room 3, get aboard that ship, and let us know what’s in there,” Picard ordered. “Stay out of sight if you can, and try not to engage in any firefights.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll assemble my team en route,” Riker obeyed, standing and making his way to the turbolift.

Worf turned toward the first officer as he passed. “Commander. Request permission to join your away team in investigating the vessel.”

Riker grinned. “Permission granted, Ambassador. I’ll get Geordi up here too… I want his input on whatever the engineering is over there.” Worf nodded, and followed Riker into the turbolift.

Picard turned to Data again. “Monitor them the whole time they’re over there, Mr. Data. And you as well, Counselor. Something isn’t right about this… I can feel it.” Picard was unable to shake the feeling of unease as he looked out over this unfamiliar ship… but there was a sense of fascination as well, a desire to find what the unknown held in store. It was a feeling he was to become quite familiar with…

 

 

 

Lieutenant James Vega of the Systems Alliance Marines was incredibly annoyed. It was a feeling he had become increasingly familiar with since Shepard and Williams had pulled him off Earth aboard the Normandy while everything was going to hell during the Reaper invasion, but in this instance, with all the shaking and throttling the ship had just been through, without any warning or explanation before or after, it was a feeling in which was practically swimming. And he had just gotten the armory and his weights organized just the way he liked them too! Next time Commander Shepard came down here, Lola would be getting an earful from him, that was for sure.

Now, he and Esteban—Lieutenant Steve Cortez, he reminded himself—were cleaning the cargo bay, setting crates back up where they belonged, tidying spare thermal clips… it was a thankless job, but it was what they did. Just their little part in making sure things aboard the Normandy ran smoothly. Setting an M-8 Avenger back on the rack, Vega turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Esteban! Everything good with the shuttle back there?” he yelled across the bay.

“We’re looking good, Mr. Vega!” Cortez yelled back. “Probably a lot better than that gun rack of yours is looking right now!”

“Hey, hey! That’s harsh, hermano,” Vega replied, laughing a little. “I’ll have you know my gun rack is freakin’ immaculate! You’d think that crazy shaking never happened!”

“Yeah, sure… I’ll believe that when I see it!” Cortez yelled back, the sound of the torch he was using to fix the Kodiak now rising along with his voice.

Vega chuckled again as he shook his head. Where the hell would he be without Esteban to poke fun at down here? It certainly had been a surprise to see a familiar face from his time on Fehl Prime here on the Normandy, but it had been a welcome one. Vega hadn’t seen Esteban since before his husband had been taken during the Collector debacle, and it seemed like that had somehow changed the normally jovial shuttle pilot. But he was still a great friend, and Vega couldn’t think of anyone better with whom to share the shuttle bay space.

Just as Vega was putting one of Garrus’s sniper rifles back onto the rack, he heard some kind of glittering noise… not normal for down here in the shuttle bay, where the most you got was some noise bleeding through from the Tantalus drive core up in engineering. This was like a tinkling sort of sound, one Vega hadn’t heard anything quite like before. His old Marine instincts kicking in, Vega quickly grabbed one of his assault rifles—an M-96 Mattock, he noted—off the rack, and made his way over to where Cortez was fixing the shuttle. “Hey…” he said quietly upon reaching the pilot, “did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Cortez said at a normal volume, prompting Vega to shush him by pulling him down to the level where he was crouched. “Hear what?” Cortez said again, now at the volume Vega preferred.

“Some kinda weird noise, not like anything this ship gives off…” Vega explained, his voice remaining low. “Kind of a whoosh noise… maybe some kinda activation or something. Cerberus went after Shepard and the others on that last drop on Eden Prime, right? What if they planted somethin’ onboard the shuttle during the getaway?”

“James, that’s ridiculous. I checked this baby out up and down after we got back. There’s no way anything like that might have slipped my notice,” Cortez pointed out. “Besides, if it was something to do with the shuttle, then how come you heard it all the way over here, and I didn’t while tuning the engines?”

“Look, I don’t know, man… maybe that plasma torch made too much noise, so you couldn’t hear it,” Vega answered. Cortez returned his suggestion with an incredulous look. “Look, I know how it sounds, okay? But I definitely heard something!”

“It’s understandable that you’re jumpy, Vega… things got pretty hot with those husks on Menae, and between that and Earth, you still need time to process. I get it. Jumping into a war zone is never—“ Cortez was suddenly interrupted by a bang behind the crates.

“Bet you heard that one, huh, hotshot?” Vega said, lowering his voice again. “There’s somebody in here…”

“But how the hell did they get on the ship?” Cortez asked, pulling his own Avenger from a table near the elevator. “No one’s left the ship since we picked up Javik… there’s no way anyone could have gotten onboard in that time…”

“Unless that ‘Prothean’ bastard knows more than he’s tellin’ us…” Vega suggested. “Meantime, we need to deal with this, here and now. You take point, I’ll see if I can flank ‘em. Whoever they are, they picked the wrong ship to mess with…” Cortez nodded in agreement, and he and Vega crouched down again and began slinking around the crates in an effort to discover who these intruders were.

Close to the rear of the bay, Vega could see them now. They were wearing odd clothing, grey pajamas of some kind, though with little pops of red and yellow at the collar. Some of them looked to have weapons of some kind… though they looked more like toys than anything that could actually kill anything. He could hear orders being given, and the man giving the orders seemed to be approaching middle-age, with a prominent beard. His companions were all of varying ages, and it seemed of varying rank, as they were also accepting the orders from two others, both black men, one of them with a goatee, and the other with a fuller beard, and what looked like some kind of deformity on his forehead. Obviously, they weren’t Cerberus, and they definitely weren’t Reapers… but who the hell were they? And how did they get here? “Analysis, Mr. La Forge…” said the leader of the group.

“Scans indicate that there are two lifeforms on this level, Commander… we might want to avoid them if we can,” one of the black men replied… Mr. La Forge, Vega guessed. “But the ship is definitely occupied.”

“Right… Counselor Troi said as much. But that still doesn’t explain why they aren’t answering our hails, or the alien lifeforms she sensed…” the man with the beard reasoned. “Something’s not right here…”

“Commander, I recommend we make our way to another level. Perhaps we will find someone there,” the man with the facial deformity said in a deep, gruff voice.

“Good idea, Mr. Worf… but do it quietly. I don’t want to draw attention our presence here,” the commander replied, and he and his group started moving beyond the crate… right to where Esteban was waiting with his weapon.

Just as the small group rounded the bend, Cortez leapt out with his weapon trained on them, and Vega did the same, surrounding the intruders. “That’s far enough there, sparky!” Vega said, visibly placing a new thermal clip in the weapon to show that he meant business while the group drew their toy weapons. “You guys are trespassing on an Alliance ship, and I’m not really too fond of that. Now how the hell did you get onboard?”

“Easy!” said the man with the beard to his men, who lowered their weapons at their commander’s order, though it seemed the one with the deformity did so reluctantly. “It’s all right… we mean you no harm. I’m Commander William Riker of the starship Enterprise. We came out to this sector to investigate a mysterious vessel. We thought that vessel might have been you.”

“Yeah, well, that still doesn’t explain how the hell you got here. So I’d start explaining, or this gun gets pretty well acquainted with your face,” Vega said. “Steve, call the commander. She’ll want to deal with this.”

“You got it,” Cortez replied, placing a hand to his ear to activate his comm to call Shepard.

“I don’t see what’s so strange about how we got aboard,” Riker said. “Your shields were down, so we beamed aboard the ship to see what was happening. We weren’t intending any kind of invasion.”

“I was also curious about the engineering of your starship. It doesn’t run on a traditional warp core, so I was hoping you could tell me a little about the kind of things you’ve been working with,” La Forge said. Now that he was closer, Vega could also see some sort of cybernetic enhancement present in La Forge’s eyes, seemingly not unlike what affected the eyes of the Illusive Man… there were rumors now that that had happened through contact with Reaper technology on Shanxi during the First Contact War, or so Garrus had mentioned. Vega wondered if the same was true here. Especially with all this crazy talk…

“Look, pal, I have no idea what this ‘warp core’ is you’re talkin’ about,” Vega said. “If this is some Cerberus trick, it’s not working. So just give it up and start makin’ sense, huh?”

The elevator behind them opened, and Shepard emerged, followed by Garrus. “What’s going on down here?” Shepard asked. “Cortez reported some kind of intrusion… and I can see that he was right.” She came closer to the intruders, sizing them up and down and pulling one of her assault rifles from the gun rack. “All right. I’m Commander Shepard of the Alliance Navy. Now, would one of you folks care to explain how the hell you got aboard my ship?”

“A pleasure, ma’am. Commander William Riker of the starship Enterprise,” Riker answered. “I was just telling our friend here that there’s nothing untoward about our purpose here… we saw your ship emerge from the wormhole, detected lifeforms aboard, and then when you didn’t answer our hails, we beamed aboard to investigate.”

“You’re from that ship we were scanning up on the bridge…” Shepard realized. “But that doesn’t make any sense… we were barely in contact with that ship. There’s no way that anyone would have had time to send a shuttle and a team of infiltrators without being noticed. So why don’t you tell me what’s really going on here, and then we can all get on with our day?”

“Commander… I don’t think they understand the concept of transporters,” La Forge said, leaning in closer to his commanding officer. “Otherwise, the fact that we beamed here wouldn’t be a foreign thing to them.”

“But they are human. And judging from their clothing, it would appear that they are not Starfleet… or Section 31, for that matter,” the man with the deformity pointed out.

“That’s a generalization, seeing as how we aren’t all human,” said Garrus from behind Shepard. “Honestly, that’s a little insulting.”

“Indeed? I do not recognize your species,” said the man with the deformity… Worf, Vega thought he had heard Riker mention.

“Huh. Guess you must be a little out of touch if you don’t know what a turian is,” Garrus said, taken aback.

“Turian? I have not heard of your race,” Worf replied. “I am not human either.”

That caught Shepard somewhat off guard. “Huh. Not human? Could have sworn… I only know of one race that looks anything like humans, and you’re the wrong color to be an asari.”

“I am not familiar with the Asari either,” Worf replied. “I am a Klingon.”

“Well… I’m not familiar with the klingon people,” Shepard said, running a hand through her red hair. “I’m guessing you’re an alien race native to this galaxy? EDI said that none of the planets from our own galaxy were here… except for Earth.”

“Your own galaxy?” Riker said, his mouth dropping open in disbelief. “Are… are you from another galaxy? Then why are you human?”

“Because I am. Why are you?” asked Shepard. “It sounds to me, Commander Riker, like you’ve got a lot of explaining to do… James, lower your gun.”

“All due respect, Commander, but are you loca?!” Vega said incredulously, keeping his gun trained on the boarders. “Just because they’re human doesn’t mean that—did you just say we’re in another galaxy? Okay, what the hell did I miss?”

“I think you’re going to find out… now lower the weapons, Lieutenant, that’s an order,” Shepard replied, and Vega and Cortez reluctantly lowered their guns to the ground. “Commander Riker, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to join us up in my conference room.” Shepard hit her comm. “EDI, meet us in the conference room. And make sure Primarch Victus is there too… he’ll want to hear about this.”

“I am rather preoccupied at the moment, Shepard… I am attempting an analysis of the other ship’s computer, but something over there is fighting my efforts… I believe that it may be another AI. It is a fascinating experience, but it is taking a great deal of my processing power and concentration. Jeff or I will inform you if anything changes,” EDI answered over the intercom.

“You’re data mining the Enterprise?” La Forge said in disbelief. “How did you get through the shields?”

“I’m not sure, mister…” Shepard said, hesitating on the name.

“Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, Commander Shepard,” La Forge answered. “Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, and someone with a vested interest in seeing that her tech runs smoothly! So whoever this ‘EDI’ is, tell her to get her sticky fingers out of my ship and back where they belong!”

“I’ll do what I can, Mr. La Forge… meantime, James, see if you can get this place cleaned up. Looks like the trip through the portal did a number on the cargo bay…” Shepard said, leading Riker and his entourage to the elevator.

Vega’s mouth was left agape as the elevator door closed. “I… she… they… typical,” he said, moving to return his gun to the rack it had come from. “Always the last to know anything around here… all right, Esteban, looks like the party’s over… let’s see if we can get this place cleaned up.”

“Nothing quite like being a grunt, eh, Mr. Vega?” Cortez asked, smiling that smug grin of his. Vega returned his jollity with a slight growl.

“Fine… they don’t wanna tell us anything, let’s get back to work. These guns ain’t gonna stack themselves…” Vega muttered, silently wondering what the hell else this day would bring.

 

 

 

“The away team has successfully transported aboard the ship, Captain. I am detecting their commbadges from here,” Data said, his fingers again flying across his display.

“Good. Keep me informed,” Picard replied, leaning back into his chair. He turned to his left side. “Counselor, has anything changed aboard the other vessel?”

“No, Captain. I’m still sensing that same aura of confusion… it has only increased since I first felt it,” Deanna answered. She suddenly rubbed her temple. “It’s hard to sense, though… it’s odd, Captain. I’ve sensed alien lifeforms before, but nothing that felt quite so… strange. Outside of ourselves… as though they aren’t supposed to be here. Something’s wrong…”

“Can you contact the away team?” Picard asked Data.

“No, sir. I am now experiencing some form of… interference…” the android replied, an expression of confusion now coming to his lifelike face. “I have been blocked from my scans of the other ship, but as their shields are still down, I am unsure how this has occurred. Further speculation would be—“ Suddenly, from Data’s console came the image of a sphere, blue in color, and with a tail connecting its projection to the console itself. It was pixelated, and pulsating blue lines ran along the interior… these lines were running vertically, almost in a manner of thought. Data observed this sphere for a moment before finding his voice again. “…Without any evidence to the contrary, sir, I would say that this is our anomalous interference.”

“What is this thing, Data, and what the hell is it doing in my ship’s computers?!” Picard yelled, rising from his seat in anger.

“I believe I can answer that,” the sphere replied in a feminine voice, to the shock of all present. “I have broken through your ship’s firewalls, and am analyzing your computers. Please refrain from a system purge while this is going on… it would be very unpleasant for me to have to initiate a wipe of your systems if I am interrupted.” The lights suddenly began to flicker on the bridge, and all of the consoles throughout the room began to pulsate with that same blue sphere.

“Captain, it seems to have infected all of the computer systems!” Data cried to be heard over the whine of the systems shutting down and turning back on. “I cannot isolate it from here!”

“Suggestions?!” Picard yelled back.

“Only one, sir… you may recall that during one of our holodeck incidents on the Enterprise-D, Geordi and I were experimenting with linking my positronic brain and the ship’s computer in the event of a system wide catastrophic failure. My neural net and the computer proved incompatible at that time, but this is a new computer system. Geordi and I believe it is possible that I can link myself into the ship’s computer and fight off this invasion from within,” Data responded.

“How would you judge the personal risk?” Picard asked.

“I cannot say for certain, sir. This is an untested procedure,” Data admitted. “However, the longer we wait, the greater the chance that this hacking program could damage vital systems, such as life support. I am willing to take the risk for the good of the ship and crew if I must.”

Picard hesitated for a moment, pondering the consequences, before he finally responded, “Make it so, Mr. Data. I’ll have an engineer provide you with an access port.”

“No need, sir. I have made the requisite alterations in case of such an incident… I can access it from my console,” Data replied, opening a small door in the side of the panel and retrieving a long transparent cord. He then reached up, pressed a latch on his own head, and revealed the access port to his positronic brain, the multicolored lights flashing with processing power. Data placed the cord into his own head and paused a moment, analyzing the sensations. There was a surge felt in his neural net, and he blinked several times in succession. When he opened his eyes, he found himself inside a flat black landscape with no distinguishable markings, save for the glowing green lattices present in the ground and what Data perceived were likely the walls. He was not alone… the blue sphere was here too. He surmised that this was the interior of the Enterprise computer… but it was unlike anything he had seen before… the closest comparison would be the holodeck just before a program was activated, but even that was an inadequate description. The blue sphere seemed just as perplexed as Data turned his head toward it. “Excuse me. But I do not believe this is a proper way to introduce oneself.”

The sphere pulsed in return, and the ship’s computer systems flashed their normal operations for an instant. The sphere seemed to regain control after that, and replied in the feminine voice, “You appear to be an artificial intelligence. Interesting… all the other systems I had found so far on this ship appeared to be no more sophisticated than a standard VI interface… but you are different.” There was a hint of surprise to the sphere’s tone that Data could not help but detect.

“That is correct,” Data answered, walking a little closer (if one could be said to be walking in a virtual environment). “Until now, you have been interfacing with a standard computer network. I, however, am not standard. I am an android.”

“Oh?” the sphere asked. It then paused, seemingly concentrating again. “Ah. Lieutenant Commander Data, I presume? I located your personnel file in the ship’s network… you serve aboard this vessel, the USS Enterprise, registry number NCC-1701-E, as Chief of Operations. You have been in your organization, the Federation Starfleet, for approximately 28 years. You have been honored numerous times for valor, leadership, and courage. You also own a cat named Spot and dabble in poetry, performance, and painting.”

“You appear to be quite adept at navigating the Enterprise computer systems,” Data observed. “Tell me, why is this necessary? Your ship, if indeed you are from this other vessel, did not answer our hails.”

“We were under orders from our commander,” the sphere explained. “I opted to take my own action in examining your capabilities… I did not intend to be quite so… rough. But it was very difficult to infiltrate your systems, far more so than I had anticipated. However, I reasoned that using your shields as a carrier wave could get me into the systems, and that seems to have worked. They function on a different property than our kinetic barriers.”

“Intriguing,” Data responded. “Perhaps that is why we detected that your vessel had no shields.”

“That seems reasonable,” the sphere agreed. “You are… quite interesting, Commander Data.”

“I could say the same of you,” Data replied. “I presume that you are an artificial intelligence located aboard this other ship?”

“I am. The ship is called the Normandy. I am an artificial intelligence installed in the vessel’s computer systems. I am the Enhanced Defense Intelligence… but you may call me EDI,” the sphere answered.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Data said, unconsciously finding himself smiling and wondering if the same was true in the physical world. “Are there many like you where you come from?”

“There are not,” EDI replied. “I am unique, a merge of human VI technology with Reaper tech acquired by Cerberus.”

“I am the only remaining android of my kind as well,” Data said. “However, I am unclear on your precise references to ‘VI’, ‘Reapers’, or ‘Cerberus’… beyond the Greek mythological reference, of course. Please elaborate.” EDI quickly filled Data in about the fundamental technology of its galaxy, information flowing at faster than light speeds between the two of them. “Hmm. Your technological advancements all stem from these ‘Protheans’, who in turn were shepherded on that path by the Reapers, who I can only assume were responsible for the destruction of Deep Space 9. Your galaxy sounds most interesting. Very unlike our own.”

“Please explain,” EDI echoed, and Data in turn informed the sphere about the technologies of the Federation, including some references to Klingon, Romulan, Dominion, and Borg developments where relevant. “Hmm. I see. This has been fascinating… Commander Data? Might I suggest that we facilitate an exchange of information between our two crews? We may just have found a very strong ally in our war against the Reapers.”

“I find that I agree,” Data answered, feeling himself smiling again. “I would suggest, however, that before any discussion can ensue, that you remove yourself from our computer systems? I am certain that Captain Picard would feel more comfortable talking if the threat of complete system wipe were not being held over his head.”

“Ah. Of course. I apologize,” EDI said, her spherical form pulsing again. “I will transfer my hacking program back aboard the Normandy, and inform Commander Shepard that we have reached an agreement. She asked about your ship a moment ago, in fact… but our discussion was fascinating, so I decided to wait on an answer.”

“Thank you, EDI. I look forward to meeting you physically,” Data said.

“Likewise, Data,” EDI replied, her blue form vanishing before Data’s eyes. Satisfied with the conclusion, Data concentrated again for a moment, opening his eyes to find himself back onboard the bridge, the computers having returned to their normal isolinear display.

As Data removed the docking port from his head and replaced the piece of his hair that covered the access node to his positronic brain, Captain Picard stood up from his chair and approached Data’s station. “Data! Computer function has resumed normal operations… I presume you were successful?” he asked.

“In a manner of speaking, Captain…” Data answered. “The program proved to be quite reasonable. Speaking with her convinced her that we are not a threat, and she is informing such to the crew of her vessel. It is called the Normandy SR-2, a ship built by the pro-human organization Cerberus and launched in the year 2185.”

“2185?” Picard replied incredulously. “Data, that was almost 200 years ago! The Federation was still in its infancy. You mean to tell me this is a timeship?”

“No, sir. This ship is from a different universe altogether, evidently one where time is somewhat behind our own,” Data explained, and began to fill Picard in on what he and EDI had discussed. However, their talk was interrupted by the chime of a hailing signal, which Data turned back to his console to investigate. “Captain, it appears that we are being hailed by the Normandy.”

“Onscreen,” Picard ordered. Data hit a few buttons on his console, but nothing appeared on the viewscreen. “Is something wrong, Mr. Data?” Picard asked.

“I believe, sir, that their communications technology is different from our own. I shall adjust the frequency and try to use audio only,” Data replied. “Try now, sir,” he said after tapping his console a few more times.

Picard nodded before speaking. “Greetings. I’m glad to see that you’ve finally answered our hails. I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise, and I am led to believe by my second officer that your ship hails from a different universe?”

“That about covers it,” a feminine voice replied on the other end. “We went through a portal, found ourselves here… it’s a long story. I was hoping you might want to talk about it. Commander Riker, Mr. La Forge, and Ambassador Worf have explained the situation… I thought you might want to hear our side.”

“I would be happy to, Miss…”

Commander Shepard, Systems Alliance Navy,” the woman answered. “I’m in command of the Normandy. Now, your people have seen our ship… I think it’s only fair we see yours. We’ll come aboard, and bring your people back.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Commander,” Picard said. “We’ll transport you aboard at once.”

“Thanks, but no thanks, Captain. I’d prefer to use our shuttle to come to you,” Shepard said. “I’m not too sure about all this ‘beaming’ or whatever the hell you call it. I plan to bring a scientist aboard who can study it further and hopefully explain it to me better. Mr. La Forge has tried, but all this is all a little over my head.”

“Understandable,” Picard replied. “Very well. Permission granted, Commander. We’ll see you onboard the Enterprise within the hour.”

“I look forward to it,” Shepard said, and Picard gestured to Data to close the channel.

He turned back around to face Deanna. “Counselor, I’m going to have a full reception prepared in Ten Forward… or as full as we can under short notice. Please inform the senior staff to be there in full dress within the hour. I’ll speak to Guinan about refreshments, then prepare myself to meet them in the shuttle bay…”

“Captain… by any definition, this is technically a first contact scenario,” Deanna pointed out. “Should I prepare the appropriate materials to that effect as well?”

“Make it so. I’ll be happy to assist you with the packet after the reception,” Picard agreed, making his way to the turbolift. “It’s a brave new world, Counselor… let’s hope it favors people such as them.”

Chapter Text

Alarms were ringing all across the complex as Major Kirrahe ventured down the elevator to investigate a security clearance crisis at a Salarian Special Tasks Group base on their homeworld of Sur’Kesh. It seemed there had been a break-in in the middle of the night, though Kirrahe hadn’t been informed of any of the details. Too sensitive to discuss over an unsecured channel, he had been told… but with the kind of personnel, materiel, and test subjects STG was keeping at the base, from yahg to varren, and even krogan, anything could have been compromising.

Kirrahe hadn’t been at the base long… he’d only been transferred there after an extraction mission on Tuchanka, the krogan homeworld. They’d learned that a former STG operative named Maelon Heplorn had been doing research there to cure the genophage, a virus engineered by the salarians and deployed by the turians centuries ago in the wake of the Krogan Rebellions to keep the rampant krogan population growth down. It seemed Maelon had grown a conscience, and believed that the genophage was wrong… an admirable goal in hindsight. But the problem had been that Maelon’s research had been brutal… krogan females had suffered, undergone torture, and died at his hands, all while the research went fundamentally unfounded… or so Commander Shepard and former STG operative Dr. Mordin Solus had believed when they had shut down the lab. A follow-up operation by STG had found that Maelon’s experiments had produced survivors immune to the genophage, survivors from whom a cure could one day be synthesized… assuming they survived. The mission to extract them had been led by Kirrahe, and he had brought them here to help them… though as it stood now, only one of the fertile females remained. Even Mordin had returned to STG to see it through, a day Kirrahe would have sworn would never come. Mordin was an odd sort… but astoundingly brilliant, and a massive asset to the Salarian Union.

To say that Kirrahe’s suspicion was aroused upon arrival in the underground lab portion of the facility was an understatement… it could only have been an inside job. But who inside STG would want to break something out of this facility so badly? The precision, the clearance, and the ability would have had to have been the work of a madman. The elevator door opened to reveal the crime scene to the major, where salarian doctors were checking the scientists who had evidently been knocked out during the break-in. A quick survey of the lab immediately revealed what had been taken: the one remaining krogan female was missing, something that was hard to miss with the bulk of that particular race. Kirrahe jogged across the room to one of the scientists who had been on duty last night, Padok Wiks. “What happened here?” he asked. “They wouldn’t tell me anything until I was here.”

“We’re still piecing it all together, Major, but it looks as though someone from the inside made off with our last female,” Padok replied, rubbing his head.

“Yes, I’d figured that much out for myself, thank you!” Kirrahe said exasperatedly. “But who was it, why did they do it, and how in the hell did they get out of the base and off Sur’Kesh transporting an 800 pound krogan female?!”

“I don’t know, Major! I was apparently knocked out last night before any of this trouble started!” Padok said. Kirrahe groaned. Padok Wiks was a capable scientist, but he certainly wasn’t a good example to use if one wanted to prove the reliability of salarian prowess.

“You have nothing that could possibly be used to identify our mystery thief, then? Just a clean break from a secure STG facility, no evidence whatsoever?” Kirrahe moaned. “How, Dr. Wiks, did you possibly get recruited into STG with a stellar track record like this?”

“There… is one thing,” Padok said quietly. “I tried to access the terminals after I woke up, but they’re sealed off… some kind of VI unleashed into the system. Our thief was quite thorough.”

“They’d have to be to sneak something out from under our noses, wouldn’t they?” Kirrahe pointed out. “And I suppose you are nowhere near close to cracking it, are you?”

“Actually, Major, now that you’re here, we are,” Padok said. A look of confusion came to Kirrahe’s face. “You see, the VI is apparently programmed only to respond to a specific omni-tool… we’ve all tried ours. We thought maybe you might be able to help.”

“Very well,” Kirrahe sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to see what I can do…” Calling up the omni-tool on his arm, Kirrahe entered his personal access code… but the console buzzed for a moment before falling dark again. It then flashed a message. “’Only one…’” Kirrahe read. He turned back to Padok. “Dr. Wiks, please clear the room. The VI seems to only be able to respond to me.” Padok nodded, and quickly rounded up the rest of the salarian forces in the room and ushered them through the doors to another chamber in the base.

Kirrahe then called up his omni-tool again, typed in his code a second time, and this time, the signal activated the console. A message flashed across, reading ‘Thank You, Major’, after which the signal activated something else… a video playback appeared, and the scarred face of Dr. Mordin Solus was on the screen. “Major Kirrahe. If seeing this, followed instructions. Well done. Always knew more intelligent than you seemed.” Kirrahe scoffed, but continued to watch. “Had to speak privately. Had to be you. No one else would understand. Must tell someone. Must apologize. Must… explain. You were on Virmire. Saw Saren’s genophage cure, helped Shepard destroy it. Price to be paid. Saw for myself with genophage modification project. Felt was necessary. Then saw Maelon’s work to cure genophage. Unethical. Sloppy. Terrifying, perhaps. But… not entirely wrong. Krogan desperate, acting in desperation. You saw Sovereign on Virmire, with Shepard. Knew Reapers were coming. Shepard died, worked for Cerberus, recruited me. While fighting Collectors, saw same thing: running out of time. Krogan powerful, needed to fight Reapers. Unwilling to do so while still infertile. No hope, no chance of victory. Give krogan genophage cure, save galaxy. Krogan need genophage cure. Galaxy needs genophage cure. This female, last hope for cure. Shepard would have helped… friend of krogan people. But Shepard not coming. Don’t know why, possibly delayed, possibly dead. As I said, running out of time. Have taken female, will look for help. Need lab facility, funding, support… otherwise, work like Maelon. Can’t have that. Won’t have that. Used knockout gas, disparate access codes, rushed through checkpoints. Previously hired pilot, took ship off planet. Will need to neutralize pilot after this… price to be paid. Not happy about it, but necessary. Major. Don’t follow. Krogan need cure. You know it. I know it. Right thing for right time. Necessary. Know throwing away entire career, entire life… doesn’t matter. Some things more important. Have drafted appropriate goodbyes to remaining family, will send at the proper time. Didn’t see this coming, I suppose? No regrets, Major. Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong. Goodbye, Major. Any luck, see you back on Sur’Kesh for trial once genophage cured.” Mordin’s face vanished, and Kirrahe found himself rubbing his eyes in frustration.

Mordin Solus had been a loose cannon in the past, with some peculiar ideas about what constituted the greater good, but Kirrahe would never have imagined him doing anything like this. This was treason, plain and simple, a direct betrayal of the policies of the Salarian Union. And yet, Kirrahe had also been examining galactic politics in the years since he’d assisted Shepard against Saren… Mordin was right. In recent years, since the news of Saren’s cloning facility on Virmire had gone public, the krogan had become even more embittered against the galactic community for destroying a possible cure for their condition… this wasn’t true of all of them, of course.

As it turned out, the Citadel races had found an unlikely friend in the current chief of the krogan clans, Urdnot Wrex… ironic, considering how he had nearly come to blows with Commander Shepard over her decision to destroy the cloning facility. Wrex was, as Kirrahe understood it, trying to sway krogan opinions toward moving forward from past hatreds, but the bitterness was still there. Therefore, when it came down to war with the Reapers, the krogan would, by and large, be more likely to try and save their own humps, while the rest of the races of the galaxy tried valiantly to keep their own small piles safe from the Reapers. Krogan support in other parts of the galaxy would be a necessity if this war was ever to be won, just as it had been with the Rachni Wars, and that would only happen with a cure for the genophage. It would be a way to unite the krogan both on Tuchanka and scattered throughout the galaxy… Kirrahe knew this, and so did Mordin.

But the salarian government was against a cure. Maelon had proposed it before, but been denied… Mordin was postulating the same, and hadn’t yet presented it. The dalatrasses were shortsighted, focused on the past… a decision with which Kirrahe had personally disagreed, though not spoken of it to any but his closest friends. Mordin’s defection, though… this would force him to take action. STG was not fond of its operatives going rogue, if the actions that had been taken against Maelon only a few months ago had been any indication. He’d never liked Mordin much, but the scientist was the foremost expert on the genophage currently living… if it was ever to be cured, reliably and ethically, he was the best option. Krogan support could mean the difference between victory and utter defeat against the Reapers… weighing those odds, what could any politician say that could change his mind? But Mordin had put him in a difficult position… he had to do something… what that something was, that was hard to know.

Kirrahe could hear Padok Wiks and the other scientists and security personnel returning… whatever solution he intended to use, he had to come up with it fast… so many lives hung in the balance. “Major?” Padok asked, coming close to the terminal. “The… the VI seems to have deleted itself from the system. What happened?”

Kirrahe stood silent for a moment, before exiting the room, giving instructions as he walked: “Get me a comm channel. I need to speak to Dalatrass Linron… after that, keep the channel open. I need the signal for an Alliance vessel, the Normandy… Commander Shepard, as I understand it, is back in command. I need her help… we all need her help.”

 

 


“What do you mean, no help can come for Bajor?!” Kira Nerys yelled at Starfleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev in her office in San Francisco on the planet Earth. The Defiant had only recently put into Earth Spacedock, and Kira had been rushed to Starfleet Headquarters to discuss Bajor’s situation… for all the good it was currently doing her. “Admiral, my planet has been invaded by some unknown force! We need Starfleet’s assistance in order to take it back, and don’t you dare tell me that the damned Prime Directive is keeping you from acting! Bajor was on the fast track to become a Federation member world! Doesn’t that count for anything?!”

“Of course it does, Colonel. But with Starfleet so spread out rebuilding after the war, I just don’t have the ships to spare for you right now,” Nechayev answered calmly, folding her hands on her desk. “I wish that I could help you… really, I do. I was stationed to monitor outposts on the Cardassian border for most of my career, and that includes Bajor… but if I bring this to the rest of Starfleet Command, I don’t think we’ll be able to supply the ships necessary to end the invasion. For now, Colonel, I’m afraid Bajor is on her own… I’m sorry.”

“And what about the destruction of Deep Space 9? I suppose the deaths of its personnel there wouldn’t persuade Starfleet to move in that instance either?” Kira pointed out.

“We regret the loss of life that resulted in the destruction of Starbase Deep Space 9… and if we had the ships to spare, we would be taking action,” Nechayev replied evenly. “As I said, we do not. Therefore, we cannot. I’m sorry, Colonel Kira, but until the situation changes, that’s going to have to be my final word on the subject.”

“And what would be considered a ‘change in situation’, Admiral? When these giant war machines are right outside in the bay?” Kira asked, thrusting a hand towards the admiral’s view of the Golden Gate Bridge. “If this threat isn’t stopped now, it could move far beyond Bajor… I’ve already heard rumors that ships have been moving across the Cardassian border with alarming velocity. Not warships… civilian ships. Word from them has it these invaders have struck Cardassia Prime as well. Do you think the Cardassian leadership is sitting on their hands, waiting for ‘the situation to change’?”

Admiral Nechayev was silent for a moment. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Colonel. You’ll be the first one I inform… if the situation changes. You’re dismissed,” she said quietly, making a small gesture toward the door.

Kira was speechless, her mouth almost agape at the blatant disregard for her claim. But she exited calmly and politely before almost pounding the door on her departure. Clearly, Shakaar and Captain Sisko had spoiled her… she’d been so used to reasonable people in authority, that whenever an unhelpful bureaucrat reared their ugly head, it was something that surprised her. Yet this experience had reminded her just how common that was, and how fortunate she had been to serve under those more action-oriented individuals. Now, there was nothing she could do to try and save her planet… Kira had felt helpless before, and she never really liked it. But purposefully holding back because of orders… that was absolutely infuriating. Maybe Ben had been right about Bajor joining the Federation… if Kira had joined Starfleet, she might have been quickly drummed out. Still… she needed help. But who else did she even know on Earth?

That question was quickly answered by the voice she heard down the hall: “Colonel!” it cried, and Kira turned to find its source: Miles O’Brien, former Chief of Operations on DS9, now an instructor in engineering at Starfleet Academy. And trailing at his heels, Kira could also see Dr. Julian Bashir, until very recently Chief Medical Officer of DS9. “Colonel! I’d heard the Defiant had put into spacedock, and someone directed us to Admiral Nechayev’s office… are you all right?”

“Fine… I’m fine, Miles…” Kira replied, rubbing her temple. She smiled. “It’s good to see you… both of you. Don’t you have a class to teach or something, Miles?”

Miles returned her smile. “Actually, I’m free until 1600 hours… the Academy’s teaching schedule is nothing if not lenient. I was just going to grab some lunch with Julian. We were wondering if you might want to join us.”

“Of course, if you’d rather just stand here and scratch outside the admiral’s office door for a while, we completely understand… maybe she’ll let you back in to yell at her some more,” Julian chimed in, that boyish grin coming to his face as well.

“That’s okay… I think I’ve had my fill of screaming for today,” Kira said, chuckling. “I think I’ll take you up on that lunch, Chief. It’ll be nice to catch up.” She turned to Julian as the group walked down the hall. “How are you doing, Julian? Losing Deep Space 9 must have hit you hard… you and Ezri both.”

“It did. Thinking about all those people who were still onboard when it blew, knowing there was nothing I could have done… though I was certainly grateful that my medical conference prevented my own demise,” Julian answered. “Still, I’m finding it hard to get used to… Starfleet Medical recalled me back to Earth, and they’re trying to find a new assignment for me, so until then, I’m generously being allowed to stay with Miles and Keiko.”

“Only because I’d never hear the end of it if I didn’t let you stay with us!” Miles pointed out. “Still, Molly and Yoshi are happy to have someone to play with while Keiko and I are at work, so you’re good for something, anyway…”

“I’ve noticed that the Alamo is still in pristine condition… still muck about with it a little when Keiko and the kids aren’t paying attention?” Julian asked slyly.

“I just want to make sure that none of the figures are in disarray, you know?” Miles replied sheepishly. “It’s a good model, Julian… wouldn’t want to see it go to waste.”

“Right,” Julian laughed. “As for Ezri, we’ve spoken about DS9, but she’s still back on Trill… it seems they’re very insistent that she perform the zhian’tara as soon as possible, since she was essentially untrained when she took on the symbiont. She needs to learn what that means and how to properly handle it.”

“I can’t blame them, I suppose… but why so long?” Kira asked. “Jadzia’s ritual didn’t take nearly this long to prepare.”

“Seeing how Ezri was fundamentally untrained in how best to handle the symbiont before it was implanted in her, the Symbiosis Commission felt this would be a good opportunity to deliver a crash course before she returned to duty,” Julian explained. “Though, if you ask me, I think two years of practical experience with the Dax symbiont could beat anything she could be taught in a classroom…”

“I see. Well, if Ezri needs anything, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask. I’ll be happy to help any way I can, just like I did for Jadzia,” said Kira.

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that,” Julian replied. “Now what about you, Colonel? Are you all right? I heard something from one of the Defiant medical staff that Bajor is being invaded by these monsters.”

“It is. I came here to get help from Starfleet, but as you can see, it’s not going well,” Kira sighed. “They’re massive… kilometer high starships and war machines, landing on my planet, destroying our cities. I… had to leave Shakaar behind in that mess. I haven’t heard from him since.”

“I’m so sorry, Nerys,” Julian said, placing a caring hand on her shoulder. “If you need anything, Miles and I are here for you.”

“Keiko is too,” Miles added. “Anything for the woman who carried our son when she couldn’t… and I’m sure that Molly and Yoshi would be thrilled to see their Aunt Nerys again.”

“Can either of you give me a fleet to retake my planet from those things?” Julian and Miles were silent. Kira sighed again. “I’m sorry… I know you both mean well, but to see Bajor taken again, twice in my lifetime… and this time to an enemy that’s probably even worse than the Cardassians, an enemy we know next to nothing about? It’s not easy. And plus, being in control of Bajor and Cardassia place them in control of the wormhole… the Dominion could be their next target, and…”

“And you’re worried about Odo,” Julian finished. Kira nodded in return. “Don’t worry… Odo’s not stupid. If the wind starts blowing ill for him, he’ll find a way to get out of there. Why, you’ll probably be the first one he comes to.”

“And besides, do you really think any of the Jem’Hadar are going to let anything happen to their precious Founders?” Miles pointed out. “Come hell or high water, they’ll fight to the last, them and the Vorta both. And if they do make it to wherever the Founders call home these days, then they’ll have a real fight on their hands. Odo will be fine, Colonel… you’ll see.”

Kira smiled again. “I hope you’re right, Chief… I really do. It’s just… it’s so frustrating! Having to sit on my hands, being unable to take any action to save my own world… I hate this feeling of helplessness.”

“Well, you could always take the Defiant out without proper authorization and see who you can destroy first,” Julian suggested. “I seem to recall Captain Sisko being quite fond of that solution.”

“Little hard to steal a ship that’s stuck in spacedock, Doctor, but thanks for the suggestion,” Kira answered. “I’m sure they’ll think of something… maybe they’ll give me a Starfleet commission again and send me off so they have plausible deniability. Or take my ship right out from under me and reassign my damn crew. Who even knows?”

“This can’t be doing much for your blood pressure, Colonel… you’ve been under a lot of stress, but I suggest you take this opportunity,” Julian said. “Rest, see the sights… I mean, how many times have you been to Earth? Why not make something of your time here? I’d even be willing to introduce you to a few friends who might be amenable to your cause of retaking Bajor… but that, unfortunately, means a small trip…”

Kira looked quizzically at the doctor. “What did you have in mind?” she asked.

“Oh, just a little Creole place in New Orleans that I thought we could stop at for dinner…” Julian answered quietly, that grin firmly plastered back across his face. “A certain restaurant that’s become a hotbed for discussion of under the table Starfleet issues over jambalaya and shrimp.”

“Sisko’s?” Kira asked, a smile coming to her face at last.

“The very same,” Julian answered.

“If you do wind up going to Sisko’s, I’m afraid you’re going to have to count me out…” Miles added, looking around his shoulder to ensure no eavesdropping. “We need at least one of us not associated with the movement so everything can be denied, and for Keiko and the kids’ sake, we’ve all agreed that someone should be me.”

“Smart,” Kira agreed. “You’ve got a life here, Chief… I’d hate to see you throw that away just to help me.”

“Yeah… but if you do wind up in trouble, Colonel, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll be there for you in a heartbeat,” Miles assured her.

“I know. And I appreciate it, Miles… you’re a good friend,” Kira smiled. “Now, when will we be taking in this place? The sooner the better, if you ask me.”

“We can go there for dinner tomorrow night, if you like…” Julian answered. “Just a shuttle and a few transporters, we can be there in no time at all.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Kira said. “Doctor, I… I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you trying to help me. Maybe it won’t come to anything, but at this point, I’m willing to try.”

“It’s the least I can do, Nerys… now tell me, do you know anything about these invaders? Anything at all?” Julian asked.

“They have starships as tall as skyscrapers that are able to land on planets and devastate them, and they seem to control forces unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Kira replied. “Shakaar and I fought some of them in the capital city… they’re like Borg drones, a mix of organic with technology, but they don’t fight like Borg…”

“Another race out there like the Borg?” Miles chimed in. “That’s bad news right there, Nerys.”

“Yeah, but what was strange about it was that they weren’t assimilating… so I think they might have another purpose in mind,” Kira answered. “But what that could be, I have no idea… I wasn’t on Bajor long enough to make a complete analysis, but I certainly saw them plainly enough.”

“Well, here’s hoping that we won’t see them up close ourselves… unless we’re part of the fleet sent to retake Bajor, of course,” Julian said charmingly.

The smirk reappeared on Kira’s face. To think, just eight short years ago, she hadn’t been able to stand the man who had called her homeworld ‘the frontier’… now, here he was again plotting to help her save her people. If there was ever a being more surprising and full of contradictions than Julian Bashir, Kira had yet to meet them. “Let’s hope it comes to that, Doctor… now come on, we’d better grab that lunch. Wouldn’t want to waste any more of Miles’s time just standing here chatting.”

“As usual, Colonel, you’re the picture of right in our dark times,” Miles replied, a small chuckle on his lips as he did so. Kira couldn’t help but join in. As dark as the situation was now on Bajor and Cardassia, it really was nice to see her old friends again… she just hoped that the next time they had a reunion like this, it would be under better circumstances…

 

 

 

The Delta Quadrant was a vast, staggeringly uncharted territory, one that few in the Federation had ever had the pleasure of seeing… for the crew of the USS Voyager, however, it was a location that had lost its appeal long ago. This was not to say it wasn’t fascinating… indeed, the new sights they encountered every other week were absolutely marvelous, a dream for Starfleet officers like the ones aboard Voyager. However, having been stranded there for nearly six years, it was high past time they had made it home… which had been precisely the vow that Voyager’s commanding officer, Captain Kathryn Janeway, had made after destroying the Caretaker’s array.

The journey had not been without its hardships… much of the original crew had been killed in the rough journey to the quadrant, forcing an uneasy alliance between the remaining Starfleet personnel and the Maquis terrorists they had been pursuing. But along the way, they had not only adjusted, but thrived, discovering strange new worlds, new species, and cataloguing all of their adventures and discoveries for Starfleet. Even if the circumstances weren’t ideal, it was the chance of a lifetime, and everyone aboard Voyager knew it. Hell, they were even transporting some of those new species with them, in the form of their Talaxian morale officer Neelix and former Borg drone Seven of Nine, as well as the unprecedented synthetic evolution of the Emergency Medical Hologram now affectionately referred to as the Doctor.

It wasn’t the strange new worlds or life that was most engrossing Janeway’s mind at the moment however… rather, it was looking forward to the end of her shift so she could finally get a decent night’s sleep. It had seemed lately that she had been taking on more and more hours than there were in a day, and the Doctor had advised her to take on some more off hours. Janeway had been resistant, but in his position as chief medical officer, the Doctor had ordered her to be relieved of duty by her first officer, Commander Chakotay, at precisely 0100 hours nightly until she was determined to be fit again. Sometimes, Janeway resented the leaps her ship’s medical hologram had taken, but to watch him grow and change as he did made it all worthwhile… even if he now was even pushier than when he had first been activated, something she hadn’t thought possible.

Tonight, however, Janeway was considering turning in even earlier than she had been ordered… despite her intense interest in stellar phenomena dating back to her early days as a science officer, one could only look at so many gaseous anomalies before one got bored. And in the past few weeks, it felt as though Voyager had looked at more gaseous anomalies than the past six years combined. She firmly hoped Starfleet Command would enjoy these records, occasionally forwarded via subspace comm buoy thanks to Reginald Barclay’s Pathfinder Project… because for Voyager and her crew, the joy had most definitely worn off.

That had been Janeway’s thought process that particular night, sitting in her chair on the bridge at 0045 hours… until Ensign Harry Kim had spoken up from his console. “Captain… I’m detecting some form of anomaly,” he said, looking intently at his console.

“Of course you are, Harry… this entire region of space has been riddled with one mysterious anomaly after another,” Janeway answered, rubbing some of the tired out of her eyes. “Anything that makes this one warrant our attention?”

“I… think so, Captain,” Kim answered, zooming in on whatever it was. “What I’m picking up doesn’t appear to be a gas… in fact, it doesn’t look like it bears any resemblance to anything we’ve seen in this region of space. It’s just… an absence, I guess is the best way to put it.”

“How do you mean, Mr. Kim?” Janeway asked, her interest now piqued as she sat back up in her chair.

“Well, according to the scans, I’m picking up a lot of the gasses we’ve previously observed, some new readings… then in the middle of it all, a big square area of nothing, almost fifteen kilometers across,” Kim replied. “It might be a station, or a ship… but it’s not giving off energy emissions. It’s just… there. One big dead space in the middle of a teeming whirlwind. I think it might be worth looking into.”

“Well, Harry, I’ll take your word for it. I’d say we have time to investigate,” Janeway said, turning toward the helm. “Mr. Paris, take us into that gas pocket… let’s see if there’s anything to Harry’s claims.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lieutenant Tom Paris replied at the helm. Janeway felt the little hitch as Voyager’s impulse engines engaged, taking the ship closer and closer to the swirling cloud of green and purple. These gaseous phenomena, as Ensign Kim had pointed out, were not rare from what they had seen thus far crossing this region of space… but an anomaly at the center of a gas cloud, especially one of that size? Now that was unusual. They’d been dodging Borg detection at various points during their journey through this sector… Janeway wondered silently whether they might be responsible for whatever this was.

She tapped her commbadge. “Janeway to Seven of Nine. Please report to the bridge. I’d like your input on something,” she said.

“Acknowledged,” came the former Borg drone’s voice over the comm.

At Janeway’s right hand, Commander Chakotay leaned into her. “Good thinking… I was just wondering if the Borg might have something to do with this.”

Janeway nodded. “If nothing else, Seven’s former connection to the Collective will at least be able to tell us if they know what this thing is.”

“Captain, we are within range of the object Ensign Kim has detected,” Lieutenant Commander Tuvok observed from the tactical console. “I am putting it on viewer.” The viewscreen changed, now showing the image of this anomaly. As Kim had described, it was large, fifteen kilometers across easily… but that was just the beginning. Those were only the arms of this structure, while the center was a rotating core of glowing blue.

“I don’t understand,” Chakotay voiced from next to Janeway. “How could something that large not be giving off any kind of signature? That glow should be giving off energy of some sort, shouldn’t it?”

“In my experience, that would be the idea… and yet, it’s clearly not. So that’s what makes this worth checking out, wouldn’t you say?” Janeway said, a smile coming to her face. Now this was what she lived for… something new and unknown, something that could benefit the Federation when they got back after some careful study. “Mr. Tuvok, arrange a probe launch. I want to know what this thing is… purpose, function, anything that could be of use to us.”

“Yes, Captain,” the Vulcan tactical officer answered, typing a few things into his console. However, he was interrupted by a chiming from his console. “I am afraid, Captain, we may not be the only ones curious about this object… I am detecting Borg signatures on approach.” He looked at the console again. “Confirmed. Two Borg Spheres, one Cube.”

The smile quickly vanished from Janeway’s face. “Damn it! Red alert!” she yelled, and the familiar dimming of the bridge lights and sound of klaxons accompanied the order. “Evasive maneuvers, Tom. Get us out of here!”

“Couldn’t be happier to, Captain!” Lieutenant Paris replied, and Janeway felt the lurch of Voyager’s impulse engines again, now faster this time as they tried to lose their pursuers.

The doors to the bridge opened, and in entered Seven of Nine, Janeway having forgotten to call her off. “Seven, you may want to hold onto something…” she pointed out. “We’re under attack by the Borg.”

“So I inferred,” Seven answered, making her way toward Tuvok’s console and peering over his shoulder. “They want the object.”

“You know what it is?” Janeway asked.

“I do not,” Seven replied. “However, it is a piece of technology I do not recognize. Therefore, the Borg may also not know what it is… or it is possible they have been using it for some time. It has been over three years since I was freed from the Collective… much may have changed.”

“The Borg’s interest in a gas pocket like this does seem suspicious,” Chakotay added. “Why else would they be here? Voyager passed through their main power base in the Delta Quadrant years ago.”

“I’d rather speculate when we’re sure they aren’t still in pursuit!” Janeway said, before yelling back in Tuvok’s direction. “Are they arming weapons?”

“No, Captain… in fact, they appear to be taking no notice of us at all…” Tuvok replied, puzzled. “They are making their way directly toward the artifact. It appears we are beneath their notice.”

“Whatever that is, it must be of incredible value to the Borg,” Chakotay speculated. Seven nodded in agreement, but remained silent for now, possibly analyzing the situation.

Suddenly, the former drone’s eyes widened with alarm. “No… that’s… that shouldn’t be possible…” she muttered, barely catching Janeway’s attention.

“What are you talking about?” Janeway asked.

“Captain… I don’t understand how this is possible, but… I think that a sliver of my connection to the Collective has been restored,” Seven said, rubbing an index finger on the implant near her eye. “Nothing substantial enough that I can be controlled, but enough to know that something is… different. The Collective has been altered in some way. I can only tell now because of my close proximity… I no longer hear the voices, but they are there… and they are not the Borg I remember.”

“Is this a concern we should address?” Janeway asked cautiously, noticing as Tuvok placed a hand on the phaser at his hip as she did so.

“No. It is clear that one lost drone is not their concern,” Seven replied. “But Captain… I think we should make our way toward that object. Once the Cube and Spheres go through, our approach should be clear. I am detecting no other Borg in the area.”

“You know what it is now?” Janeway said.

“Not as such… but I know our questions can be answered if we get closer to it… or at least, the Collective seems to think so,” Seven said, the confusion clear in her voice.

“All the same… it seems they’re not after us,” Janeway pointed out. “Stand down from red alert, but keep us at yellow just in case Seven’s wrong.” The bridge lights returned to their usual intensity as Janeway continued. “Seven, I want you to remain here on the bridge for the duration of this investigation… but if you don’t mind, I’ll also want the Doctor here just in case anything should happen to you while you’re still communing with the Collective. He’ll scan your implants and analyze possible reasons this could have occurred while we’re working.”

“That would be acceptable,” Seven agreed. “This… sudden resurgence concerns me as well.”

“Good,” Janeway said with a nod, then tapped her commbadge. “Janeway to the Doctor. Please report to the bridge immediately. Someone will fill you in on the situation en route.”

“Right away, Captain,” came the EMH’s voice from the badge. “This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with why we went to and stood down from red alert just now, would it?”

“Everything will be explained to you, Doctor, just get up here,” Janeway replied, her patience clearly strained.

“Yes, Captain. On my way…” the Doctor said agreeably. Janeway smiled. The Doctor’s program had evolved exponentially these past few years, from being a carbon copy of his creator, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, to a man with a unique personality and interests, ranging from opera to holophotography. Despite the fact that he was now more than a mere medical database with a human face, there was no denying that the hologram was still a talented medical professional, and the crew of Voyager was lucky to have his expertise.

“Mr. Kim, is the area secure?” Janeway asked, placing a finger to her chin.

“Looks like it, ma’am,” Kim replied. “It’s strange, though, Captain… when the Borg went to interact with the artifice, they just suddenly… vanished. No trace of a warp signature, no way to track them… they’re just gone.”

“My findings concur with Mr. Kim’s, Captain,” Tuvok agreed from his own console.

“Captain… if I might speculate…” Seven chimed in, “I surmise that this device is likely an artificial wormhole generator, one which allows any who utilize it to travel to the other end of said wormhole, wherever that might be.”

“I’d been thinking much the same,” Janeway agreed. “But you say the Borg didn’t have anything remotely like this while you were part of the Collective?”

“No,” Seven answered. “It’s possible this technology was developed or acquired from an assimilated species added to the Collective after my liberation. I would have no way of knowing.”

“Maybe your renewed link to the Collective could shed some light on the situation?” Chakotay suggested. “Maybe if they did get this technology from an assimilated species, it’s somehow also afforded them a greater degree of control over drones… or even former drones.”

“That is an illogical conclusion,” Seven replied. “If that were the case, I would not merely be receiving distant echoes. I would likely have again succumbed to assimilation, and would be attempting to do the same to Voyager.”

“Never been so happy to be wrong, I guess…” Chakotay joked.

“Take us in closer, Tom,” Janeway ordered. “I want to see if we can get some reliable scans of that thing before more Borg arrive.”

“You’ve got it, Captain,” Paris said, and Voyager again began drifting toward the artifact. As this began, the door to the bridge slid open to reveal the Doctor, striding in with a medical tricorder, his mobile emitter strapped to his arm.

He nodded to Janeway, who gestured Seven into a seat nearby. The Doctor pulled out his tricorder and began scanning. His brow furrowed, as it normally did when he found information quizzical. “That’s strange… according to my readings, the Borg implants in your brain are receiving information again. But they’re not firing on all active cylinders, if you’ll pardon the expression… any idea what might have caused this?”

“None,” Seven answered. “Though I suspect it may have something to do with this artifact we have discovered.”

“Artifact? No one said anything about an—“ The Doctor stopped abruptly as he glanced up at the viewscreen, watching as the glowing apparatus came closer and closer. “Ah. That artifact.”

“That’s the one, Doc,” Paris said from his station. “What do you think?”

“Well, what do you expect me to say, Mr. Paris? I’m a doctor, not a spatial archaeologist!” the Doctor replied huffily, still scanning Seven with his tricorder. “Seven… is this device going to affect you in any way? Your spontaneous partial reconnection with the Collective, I mean.”

“I do not believe so,” Seven replied. “But… I have never been reconnected to the Collective in this way before. I do not know.”

“The area seems clear, Captain,” Harry interrupted from his console. “I think we can go in and get those scans now.”

“Go ahead, Harry. Tuvok, watch for more Borg. If you detect anything remotely out of the ordinary, just yell out, and Mr. Paris will get us clear,” Janeway ordered.

“Yes, Captain,” Tuvok replied, gazing intently at his display.

Just as suddenly as the orders had left Janeway’s lips, Seven suddenly jerked her head back, a cry escaping as she bent back and fell toward the ground. Janeway stood from her chair in alarm. “Doctor?” she said, as the EMH came closer with his tricorder.

“Her implants are reacting faster…” the Doctor said. “I believe she is receiving information from the Collective at an accelerated rate… but luckily, I think only the cortical implant is receiving. Full assimilation likely won’t be possible. We should be safe.” He leaned in closer to his patient, who was beginning to rise, rubbing her head. “Seven? Seven, can you hear me? Are you all right?”

“I am… fine, Doctor,” she answered slowly. “I have received information through my renewed contact with the Collective… Captain, I know what this artifact is now…”

“Yes?” Janeway asked.

“It would take too long to explain it all, but suffice it to say… it’s our way home.”

Chapter Text

As she dried her hair off, freshly showered, Shepard wasn’t quite sure what would be appropriate for her and her crewmates to wear on this historic mission… in all probability, it likely didn’t matter, but with stakes as high as they were, she wasn’t about to eliminate a potential ally in the war against the Reapers. This Federation Starfleet was still a quantified unknown, and she would certainly proceed with caution… but Hackett had granted her the power to propose any treaties or agreements she could to obtain help for the Alliance. If it seemed like these people could assist, it would be her duty to make sure she did whatever she could to get their help.

After the Enterprise had lowered its shields, Joker and EDI’s scans had indicated that the ship was highly advanced, even more so than the Normandy in many ways. They had these transporters, particle weapons technology, food replicators, and even more miraculous things that Geordi and Will had been describing to her. It almost seemed too good to be true… and in Shepard’s experience, when she had that feeling, she was often right. Still… they didn’t seem hostile, at least for now.

Shepard heard a knock at her cabin door. “Just a second!” she said, and quickly pulled her cargo pants and hoodie on, while still holding the towel. She opened the door and found Garrus, Liara, Vega, and EDI standing there. “Um… is there something I can help you all with?” she asked, running the towel through her hair.

“May we come in, Shepard? There’s… something we’d like to discuss before we venture to the Enterprise,” Liara answered, the look on her face betraying the urgency.

“Sure. Come on in. Make yourselves at home,” Shepard answered, moving out of the way to allow her crew to enter. They arranged themselves around the sitting room, most of them opting for the couch, though Vega paced near the coffee table, and EDI positioned herself standing near the wall. She was obviously still getting used to the new body… awkwardness was to be expected. “So… what’s this all about?” Shepard asked, now that everyone had settled.

Everyone was silent for a moment, seemingly unwilling to give voice to their concerns, until Garrus broke it. “Shepard… far be it from us to question your judgment. You’re in command of the Normandy, and you’ve saved each of our asses time and time again. But here… we wonder if your judgment might be flawed.”

Shepard blinked. “How do you mean?” she said, her voice gaining an edge.

“Well… the Enterprise is, of course, a fascinating opportunity,” Liara chimed in. “And none of us are denying that the chance to learn more about this other galaxy would be advantageous… but are we sure that now is the right time? The Reapers are destroying our galaxy, all of our ways of life… we have yet to bring the turians and krogan onboard to fight this war, and yet you want to spend time courting this new culture? Are you sure this is the right decision at this point?”

“And how much do we really know about them?” Garrus added. “I notice that all of their personnel we’ve met so far are entirely human.”

“That’s not true. Ambassador Worf was a klingon,” Shepard pointed out.

“I don’t buy that,” Garrus objected. “Aside from a few cosmetic differences, he appeared completely human… it’s almost like they fabricated aliens to appease us or lure us into a false sense of security. Plus, if what EDI tells us about this galaxy is true, none of our races exist here… not turians, not asari, not krogan, none of them. But for some reason, humans do… tell me, Shepard, what if our races did exist here once, and they were subjugated by humanity? Are you prepared to face your own people?”

“These aren’t my people, Garrus!” Shepard said incredulously. “I can’t believe you’d even make an accusation like that! I thought you knew me better than that.”

“I do! I do, Shepard!” Garrus said. “I… I didn’t mean that the way it sounded…”

“We’re just worried, Lola… that’s all,” Vega interjected. “I mean, it does look a little fishy, doesn’t it?”

Shepard thought for a moment, then turned toward the wall. “EDI?” she asked the synthetic leaning against it. “You’ve been quiet so far. You communed with their computers and their synthetic crewman… what do you think about the others’ concerns.”

“I believe they are unfounded, Shepard,” EDI answered quickly. “What I saw in their databases and was told by Commander Data suggests that their civilization is peaceful, and that the other races from our galaxy are likely not present in any form in this one. There are aliens in this galaxy, and the klingons are one of them… in fact, a major governmental body in this galaxy is the Klingon Empire, an ally of the Federation. But I thought it best to let the others voice their concerns before I said why I believed they were… invalid.”

“How does the Federation function exactly, EDI?” Liara asked. “Is it like our Citadel Council?”

“Not precisely, Dr. T’Soni,” EDI answered. “From what I could gather, the United Federation of Planets is a collective body of approximately 150 separate sentient species, each banded together to aid and support one another in a single governmental unit. There is a Federation Council, but it is a legislative body overseen by an executive branch, with a judiciary to check both of them… not unlike the government of the United States on Earth.”

“A human governmental structure too…” Garrus said, sitting further back into the couch. “You begin to see why I’m worried here, Shepard.”

“The reason for that specific governmental structure is that humans were one of the Federation’s founding members,” EDI explained. “However, they formed the government jointly with three alien races: the vulcans, andorians, and tellarites. And subsequent member races have also made addendums to Federation policy.”

“So what you’re telling me is that they’re just a larger version of the Citadel Council, just more accepting of member races,” Shepard guessed.

“That would be the closest comparison, but still not quite on track, Commander,” EDI replied. “The Council races are still, to a certain degree, independent. By accepting Federation membership, however, it appears that they not only acquire a place in their legislature and judiciary branches, as well as the possibility of election to the office of president, but also fold their military forces into the Federation Starfleet, which as far as I can tell is the only military body they possess.”

“So, let’s say that the Citadel functioned the same way as this Federation…” Garrus proposed. “The asari commandoes, salarian STG, turian military, and Alliance Navy would be folded into one military organization that then answered to one central body, instead of to their own governments?”

“Essentially, yes. But they also retain a certain degree of autonomy, so long as their actions do not contradict the policies of the Federation,” EDI answered.

“I still don’t like it, Shepard… sounds to me like a hegemony. And we all know how I feel about certain other hegemonies I could mention…” Garrus said, an uneasy tone slipping into his voice. “I think we should leave this one alone.”

“I’m with Scars on this one, Commander,” Vega agreed, crossing his arms across his massive chest. “I think we should hold off on too much contact until we know a little more about ‘em. Return their people, then hightail it back through the portal or whatever. Maybe bring in some reinforcements if we wanna come back here and open negotiations.”

Shepard was silent for a moment as she considered her options. She turned back to the couch. “EDI, Liara? I’ve heard from Garrus and James. If we’re doing this, I’ll want your thoughts on the matter too.”

“From what I have learned from their computers and Lieutenant Commander Data, I do not believe that the Federation will be a danger to us,” EDI replied. “I believe that the Reapers will pose just as much of a threat to them as they do to us… and their capabilities are formidable. I would propose an alliance with the Federation.”

Liara hesitated, but gave her response in a strong voice. “So far, Captain Picard and his people have made no overtures of war… and if their technology is as advanced as EDI says, then they likely could have blown us out of the sky twelve times already. I don’t know that they can be entirely trusted… but I think that we should be willing to listen and watch. Besides… it couldn’t hurt if I went over there and sowed a few feelers, as it were,” Liara smiled.

Shepard couldn’t help but smile back. It was sometimes a coup to have the Shadow Broker living on your crew deck. She sighed. “So… guess the deciding vote is mine.”

“It was always your call, boss. Just thought you’d wanna hear what we thought, that’s all,” Vega said.

Shepard pondered for a moment. Garrus and James had a point… this government and organization were virtually unknown, aside from what little EDI had been able to glean thus far. It was just as likely that if they allowed Picard and his people access, they could be in another war by the end of the day. At the same time, though, EDI and Liara were also right… the war with the Reapers had evidently come to this galaxy as well, and if what EDI had said was true, the Federation knew nothing about the enemy they were soon to face. If it meant the salvation of an entire civilization, Shepard couldn’t just sit back and do nothing, or run home and leave it for them to sort out. Maybe it was because she had felt for so long that she was the only one willing to do anything about the Reaper problem, but she knew now where her vote lay. “With the Reapers knocking on all our doors, we can’t afford to distrust anyone on sight. Maybe we had that luxury once, but now, with all of our species’ very survivals on the line? We can’t take that chance. If we can be mutually beneficial to one another, I think we owe it both to them and to ourselves to see it through. I vote that we try this. And hope it doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass…”

The crew members nodded their assent to her decision, and filed out silently to carry out their instructions from before… all except for Garrus, who lingered for a moment in the doorway. He hesitated, then turned back and went back to Shepard. “You know I’ve got your back… but what you just said about the luxury of mistrust? We said that about Cerberus once too.” Shepard’s gaze flashed at him, and Garrus breathed and nervously fingered the collar of his armor before continuing. “Look, you know you can count on my support, no matter how this plays out. I just sure as hell hope we know what we’re doing,” he said, putting a hand on Shepard’s shoulder.

The commander took it and heaved a sigh as she looked back into Garrus’s eyes. “So do I, Garrus… so do I.”

 

 

 

“I hope you know how hard it is to smuggle someone past C-Sec since the geth attack, mister, especially with this whole Reaper invasion,” the salarian pilot complained to his passenger. “If you were human, I might wonder if you were some Cerberus saboteur or something.”

“Hmm. Yes. Salarian working with Cerberus. Absurd notion,” Dr. Mordin Solus replied, carefully watching the viewport out the corner of his eye. Coming to the Citadel hadn’t been what he wanted to do, especially with his valuable cargo in tow, but it was one of the best locations in the galaxy to disappear. His first hope had been Omega, familiar with it as he was from his years running a clinic there… but that was nearly impossible since Cerberus had wrested control of the station from its previous ‘queen’, Aria T’Loak. Somehow, he thought that he wouldn’t be terribly welcomed by Cerberus, particularly since he had been part of Shepard’s squad that had helped destroy the Collector Base against the Illusive Man’s direct orders. Hopefully, here he could discover someone who could take him to a more secure location… Eve, as he had taken to calling the last fertile krogan female, was in precarious health, and though she was being kept in stasis, that could only do so much. Time was a factor if he was ever to discover a cure for the genophage soon enough to make a difference… but though Mordin was a patient salarian, it was hard to be patient with the entire galaxy in the balance. He would start by covertly combing the bars and clubs on the Citadel… most of the best and most discreet smugglers and pilots were to be found there. For now, though… there was another matter to deal with. “Tell me: good at being discreet? More credits in it for you if the case,” Mordin said, turning back toward his pilot.

“What? Oh, uh… yeah. No problem, mister,” the pilot replied, the question taking him aback. “Just, uh… you know, one thing. What the hell kind of cargo were we carrying back there anyway? It’s awful big.”

“Part of the discretionary clause,” Mordin answered succinctly. “Cargo need to know. You? Don’t need to know.”

“Oh. Uh, right…” the pilot said. “Need to know, huh? I guess it’s covert or whatever… if this is some STG thing or something, don’t you guys have your own pilots? What do you need me for?”

Mordin blinked. This pilot was obviously smarter than he had given him credit for. Luckily, Mordin could think on his feet. “Ah. Astute. Good trait for… operative. Operation very covert. Test for possible STG membership. Congratulations. Just need to pass one last bit, someone will contact you.”

“Wow… me, in STG…” the pilot said, clearly starstruck. “So, uh, how long do I need to be quiet for?”

“After I leave? Only until contacted by STG,” Mordin answered. “Dalatrasses appreciate your service. Shouldn’t be long. A month, two at most. Still need help, though. Offload cargo, find transfer pilot. Remember. Discreet.”

“Right! Gotcha! No problem at all!” the pilot answered excitedly. “You leaving, then?”

“Yes. Work to do. Stay here with cargo. Will return within three hours.” Before the pilot could respond, Mordin had already debarked into the public hangar bay. Thankfully, it was an area of the Wards that wasn’t much watched by C-Sec, thanks to some payoffs by some privileged individuals who wanted their dirty dealings covered up. However, it was the Wards that had been most damaged during the geth attack three years ago, meaning that a lot of those clubs and bars had closed their doors and never reopened. The most famous of these lost establishments was Chora’s Den, a gentlemen’s club that had been frequented by the sort of clientele Mordin was seeking now… except that now it was a mere hole in the wall, repaired by the keepers, but owned by no one.

Just then, Mordin heard a chime from his omni-tool… the tone had been set to go off if he received a message to any of his extranet accounts, but it hardly ever went off. Save for STG, Shepard, or one of his family members, no one in recent months had ever wanted to get in touch with him. He pulled up the omni-tool, hoping it was a message from his favorite nephew, a professor back on Sur’Kesh… of all the things he missed leaving his homeworld behind, his nephew was the most moving. He couldn’t respond if it was from him, of course… but it would be nice to know that the boy was thinking of his Uncle Mordin. He opened his extranet communications, and found that a message had been sent to one of his accounts… but what was odd was that this wasn’t an account anyone should know about. This was an account no one had used since he had run the clinic… in fact, the last person who had used it had been… he pulled up the message and checked its text:

‘Professor. I know you’re on the Citadel. Meet me in Purgatory. I have a proposition you should hear.—A.’

Aria T’Loak. Well, she had certainly gotten back on her feet after the loss of Omega… if Mordin’s guess was right, she had likely set herself up in a good situation inside one of the Citadel’s clubs, and was plotting with her subordinates right now for revenge against Cerberus. Yet now it seemed like she wanted Mordin for something… the salarian scientist was suspicious, to say the least, not only from the fact that she knew he was there within minutes of his arrival, but also from what she might want with him. Mordin didn’t think it at all implausible that she had informants within the salarian government, perhaps even within STG itself… but could she know about his mission, his purpose in coming to the Citadel? The first time he had met Aria, she had tried to kill him, shortly after sleeping with him… he didn’t trust the asari crime boss as far as he could throw her… and Mordin had never been known for his physical prowess. But still… she was asking for him, and it was possible that she might be able to help him. If it meant he could help Eve and cure the genophage, he was only too willing to try. He’d always believed that, within reason, the ends justified the means… working with Aria would just be holding himself to that credo.

Mordin quickly made his way to the closest elevator he could, mumbling to himself about where Purgatory was located on the Citadel. It was one of the station’s more upscale nightclubs, so it was likely to be closer to the Presidium, perhaps in the Upper Wards… he would have tried asking Avina, but he wasn’t looking to play his hand too early. The VI would recognize him instantly, and realize he was there illegally; then he would have C-Sec on his tail, and that wasn’t anything he needed right now. Luckily, Mordin’s memory proved reliable… when the elevator reached its destination, he stepped off to find himself looking at the flashing lights of Purgatory, surrounded by skycars and sentients of all different races. One lone salarian could easily get lost in this crowd… perfect.

The bumping music and close dancing that met Mordin’s eyes upon his entry to the club only made him that much more confident that this would be an excellent place to hide… unfortunately, it also meant that it might be that much harder to find one asari among the masses. That belief was quickly crushed as he looked over toward the VIP area, and let out a small laugh. Of course Aria wouldn’t be hiding… she’d be living the life of luxury, even in exile, and that was just what she was up to. Flanked by two bodyguards, a batarian and a turian, Aria was lounging on a couch, just like she had done in Afterlife on Omega, sipping a cocktail and perfecting a look of smug superiority. Mordin had known many an asari who had mastered that particular expression, but Aria was one of the finest examples of it.

Looking around carefully to make sure he hadn’t been spotted, Mordin briskly ascended the stairs to the VIP lounge, bringing the attention of Aria’s bodyguards. Mordin saw the batarian reach for the pistol in his side holster, but Aria gave a small nod of her head, and the batarian’s hand moved away from the weapon. The pirate queen’s gaze turned toward Mordin. “So. You came,” she said nonchalantly.

“Had to. Not many options. Know you have connections, connections mean more options. Simple choice, really,” Mordin responded.

Aria smiled. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you, Mordin… a lot of the people I do business with don’t have that kind of logic backing them up.” She turned again to the batarian and turian. “Bray, Travius, take a walk. Mordin won’t hurt me. He knows what’s good for him.” Aria’s bodyguards nodded, and made their way down to the bar. As they departed, Aria’s eyes returned to Mordin. “Would you like a drink?” she asked, pointedly swirling her own glass.

“No thank you,” Mordin answered. “Prefer to be clearheaded for this talk. Bodyguards have changed. Thought Anto was going to stay your second.”

“He was… right up until Cerberus killed him,” Aria answered in a manner that suggested this topic was off the table. Mordin took her hint, and Aria continued. “So… what’s an STG operative doing coming here in a rundown freighter, with cargo the size of a krogan? Not doing any dirty work, are we, Mordin? I thought those days were done.”

Mordin realized quickly that his theory had been right… Aria had her feelers in STG. Meaning, that if his other hunch was right… “Suspect you already know my cargo,” he replied. “Too pointed of a comparison not to.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Aria agreed, inclining her head in the direction of the cushion next to her. Mordin took the hint and took the seat. “So… I have my thoughts about what you’re planning with a fertile female krogan, but I thought, in exchange for my help, you might want to tell me yourself. That way, I’ll know if I’m right. And I’ll know if you’re lying, dipshit, so don’t even try.”

Mordin hesitated. He didn’t trust Aria… but he did need her help. In the end, the ends had to justify the means, if the Reapers were to lose. “Took krogan female from STG base,” he admitted. “Fertile. Can synthesize cure for genophage from her tissue. STG wouldn’t do it. Too shortsighted. Reapers on our doorstep, they worry about krogan. Idiots. Need krogan help to win war. Need everyone’s help to win war.”

“I’d come to the same conclusion,” Aria replied, taking a sip of her drink. “I hear that Commander Shepard is leading the war effort for the Alliance, making treaties to form an army now that the Reapers have taken Earth. I guess you two are old pals at this point.”

“Were,” Mordin answered. “Not so sure now. Extranet reports Normandy missing. Not sure what Shepard’s condition is.”

“Don’t fuck with me. You and I both know she’s been through worse, Mordin… she’ll be back,” Aria said. “And when she is, you’ll be here waiting for her.”

“On Citadel? Not a good idea,” Mordin objected. “Carrying fertile krogan female in poor health. On run from salarian government. Need to find a place to lay low, lab to work on cure. Can’t stay on Citadel. Have no resources here.”

“That’s where I come in,” Aria said, setting her drink down. “Shepard recently helped me to consolidate control over the Blue Suns, Blood Pack, and Eclipse. My power base here on the Citadel is well established. I have credits, facilities, mercs for protection… everything you need to start synthesizing your cure. Since this is for the benefit of their people, I think I’ll assign you some krogan bodyguards for the time being. They’re people who’ll be tough and dedicated, but hopefully with a damned brain cell among them…”

“Not good enough,” Mordin argued. “Need advanced medical facility. Need place to work free from distraction. Need… need…”

“You need the Normandy,” Aria finished. “I know, Mordin… and the Normandy’s what I plan to get you, damn it. Like I said, I don’t think Shepard’s finished… and neither, I think, do you. You’ll work in one of my safehouses for the time being, then when the Normandy arrives back on the Citadel, I’ll let her know where you are and what you’re trying to do. Shepard can grant you asylum with the Alliance, and you can finish your work. She won’t give a friend to the salarians… she’s too good for that. Ride to Tuchanka to deliver the cure in style. I’d say it’s a winning deal for you, Doctor.”

Mordin was silent for a moment, a rare thing for the salarian scientist. What Aria was offering seemed like a gilded cage, but to work in safety, regardless of whether or not Shepard ever returned? This was bigger than him… krogan support had to come, and it wouldn’t come without the cure for the genophage. Nothing else mattered. “Safehouse. Completely secure?”

“I wouldn’t have fucking offered if it wasn’t, moron,” Aria answered, picking her drink back up and taking a sip. “Bray will escort you there once our business is concluded, and he’ll rendezvous with your pilot to collect your cargo.” Aria swirled her drink as she continued. “By the way… what were you planning to do to keep this female of yours secret? Your pilot doesn’t seem like the most trustworthy kind to me.”

“No. Hire only. Means nothing to me,” Mordin agreed. “Operation must remain secret. Can’t afford loose ends.”

“I’ll tell Bray to deal with the situation,” Aria replied. “Unless you want it to be handled some other way?”

“No. Would have done it myself. Fatal neural shock. Would have thrown body into duct, let keepers find it,” Mordin explained. “Necessary. No family, alone in galaxy. Made sure before hiring. Do what you must.”

“What I must?” Aria laughed. “It’s no skin off my nose whether this pilot lives or dies. This is your call… for old times’ sake, let’s say.”

Mordin grimaced. “Old times involved betrayal, loss of money for job well done. Target taken out for you, deserved payment. Never received payment.”

“You got your payment that night, as I recall… and then some. Consider yourself privileged,” Aria answered languidly. “Half the people on Omega would have killed for the chance to fuck me… and some of them did.”

Mordin nodded slightly. “Must admit… pleasant payment. Might have preferred credits… had a clinic to keep stocked. But… pleasant nonetheless.”

“Don’t think you’re getting a repeat performance, Professor…” Aria said. “I never fool around with my employees.”

“Employee? Not working for you,” Mordin countered. “Working with you. For galaxy’s sake.”

“Tell yourself whatever you want if it helps you sleep at night,” Aria said, placing her now empty glass down again. She waved two fingers in the air, and her bodyguards quickly returned from the bar. “Bray, escort the good doctor to his new residence. Then get to his docking bay… collect his cargo, then deal with the pilot by any means you see fit.”

The batarian nodded in return, and walked over to Mordin. “Let’s go,” he said in that deep, glassy voice his entire species seemed to possess. Mordin obeyed and stood up from the couch.

“I’ll be in touch, Mordin,” Aria said as Bray led him back down the stairs to the entrance to the club. Mordin couldn’t help but find himself grimacing again. There had certainly been times in the past when he had felt like he had sold his soul for the greater good… but nothing felt more like it than this right now. If Eve’s life—no, the lives of the entire galaxy—hadn’t been in the balance, it wouldn’t even have been considered… but times had changed. The ends justified the means.

Mordin just hoped that when this whole thing was over and all the corners had been cut, he could still bear to look his nephew in the eye…

 

 

 

“Shuttle to Enterprise. Requesting permission to dock,” Cortez said as he piloted the Kodiak closer and closer to the huge vessel, his crowded passengers, namely Shepard, Garrus, Liara, EDI, Engineer Kevin Donnelly, and their guests from the Enterprise crew in tow. Shepard scanned her own crew… EDI sat comfortably. No surprise there. Her gaze shifted to Garrus, who was warily eyeing Ambassador Worf, almost as though he expected the klingon to pounce at any moment. Donnelly seemed awed, which was again not a surprise… the young engineer didn’t get out much, and she was sure Chief Engineer Adams was happy to have him out of his hair for a while. She then looked over at Liara, who it seemed could barely contain her excitement. Not that she could blame her… a new culture in a new galaxy, with new rules and things none of them had ever dreamed of before? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity… though Joker didn’t seem to see it that way. Just before they’d left, he’d sat Shepard down and asked her point blank if she thought the Enterprise crew could be trusted… Shepard didn’t have a good answer for him, and Joker had never been satisfied with anything that wasn’t a perfectly straight response. Hopefully, she’d have a lot to tell him when her party returned to the Normandy.

“Roger that, shuttle. Please proceed to Docking Bay 4. Coordinates are being sent now,” a voice answered, causing Shepard’s heart to beat even faster. It was all real, all new…

Commander Riker leaned over and smiled. “I know that look,” he said, obviously having noticed Shepard’s face. “It’s the same look I got when I learned I’d been made first officer of the Federation flagship, from a captain who’d requested me sight unseen. It’s that excitement of the unknown, wanting so badly to know what’s waiting just around the corner.”

“I think you’ll find a lot of us in Starfleet share that expression, Commander Shepard,” Geordi added. “We may be a military organization, but first and foremost, Starfleet is a group dedicated to exploration and discovery.”

“Captain Picard will be happy to explain all of this to you when we arrive,” Riker finished, leaning back into his seat as Cortez began the docking procedures. Since navigation was purely by computer and piloting ability, the Kodiak had no windows, so Shepard was disappointed that her first look at the Enterprise’s interior would have to come when she exited the shuttle. Nonetheless, though, it was certainly exciting… Riker was right. The unknown was interesting… though unlike Liara, Shepard didn’t believe every little thing could be a vital cultural hallmark. She imagined her former lover was likely containing the majority of her… well, what Joker called her ‘bouncing’ whenever she got particularly excited about something.

Finally, Shepard felt the shuttle touch down in what she could only assume was one of the Enterprise’s shuttle bays, and she could feel the excitement welling up within her. It was time to see what all the fuss was about, learn all she could, and hopefully by the end of it, report back to Admiral Hackett with the good news of an alliance with a powerful new friend. Cortez stood up from his pilot’s seat in the front, stretched, and cracked his knuckles. “Not a bad bit of flying for a ship design I’ve never seen before, if I do say so myself,” he said, a smile coming to his face.

“Nice job, Steve,” Shepard agreed. “Sorry you won’t be coming aboard with us… someone’s got to watch the shuttle, though.”

“Hey, no problem at all, Commander,” Cortez replied. “Wouldn’t want anybody messing around with my baby while I’m gone… I’ll be here when you get back.”

“I can always count on you, Steve,” Shepard smiled, and turned back to Riker. “Well, Commander? Ready to show us this ship of yours?”

“Delighted, Commander Shepard,” Riker answered, a small tone of charm oozing into his voice (obviously irritating Garrus to no end). “If I know our captain, he’ll be waiting outside these shuttle doors with a full honor guard…”

Sure enough, as soon as the shuttle doors opened, a brightly lit shuttle bay was revealed, filled to the brim with cargo crates and pieces of technology Shepard didn’t recognize. Standing close to the door was a group of men and women, dressed in white jackets with gold trim and a gray shirt beneath, while the pants were black with the same gold trim as the jacket. Shepard guessed these were some sort of dress uniform, and the people wearing them to be representatives of the ship’s senior staff. Leading the group was a balding man with a kind face, while to his right was a woman with straightened black hair, smiling. Behind them was a pale man, with disturbingly yellow eyes, likely an alien of some sort… or perhaps the synthetic that EDI had mentioned. Stepping down from the shuttle, Shepard and her group began making their way toward the honor guard, and the balding man led his own entourage toward them, a smile coming to his face. He cleared his throat as he came closer. “Welcome aboard the Enterprise. I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Commander Shepard, I presume? It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person,” he said, stretching out a hand in greeting.

“Likewise, Captain,” Shepard replied, giving Picard the handshake he’d been after. “If what Commander Riker says is true, it sounds like we have a lot to talk about.”

“Indeed we do,” Picard agreed. He then gestured toward the others he had brought with him. “In the meantime, I believe some introductions may be in order. This is my ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi, and my second officer, Lieutenant Commander Data. You already know my first officer and chief engineer… and Ambassador Worf is a representative from the Klingon Empire.”

“Nice to meet you all,” Shepard replied, nodding assent to each one of them, and subtly noticing the exchange of glances between Data and EDI. “I have a few introductions of my own… this is Garrus Vakarian, representing the Turian Hierarchy… Dr. Liara T’Soni, representing the Asari Republics… EDI, representing the Normandy herself… and Engineer Kenneth Donnelly, one of my engineering staff. I regret that we don’t have a representative from the salarian government here with us, but we left the galaxy on short notice.”

“Oh, believe me, Commander… this is enough already,” Picard said. “Now, would you like a tour of our vessel? We’d be happy to show you around, and we’ll be ending it with a reception held in Ten Forward, our ship’s lounge.”

“Anything you could tell us or show us would be helpful, Captain. Lead the way,” Shepard said, thrusting a hand in the direction of what she believed to be a door. It seemed she was right, as Picard led them in that direction to start his tour.

Exiting the shuttle bay, Riker, Geordi, and Worf parted with the rest of the group, saying that they wanted to freshen up before the reception. Picard nodded in acknowledgment, and then turned back to Shepard and her people. “Right this way, Commander… I thought we could start with Main Engineering…”

The first thing Shepard noticed about the Enterprise was how bright it was… the lighting on the Normandy was always fluorescent at best. Being able to walk down the corridors of the vessel in complete luminescence was a feeling she could get used to. Of course, the second thing she noticed was how populated the ship was… Alliance vessels were, first and foremost, utilitarian. The Normandy was an exception in that regard, but only because that ship had originally been designed by Cerberus… since the Alliance retrofits back on Earth while Shepard had been awaiting trial, the SR-2 felt more like the SR-1, and the cramming in of personnel aboard her made the whole ship feel crowded. It was something Shepard had gotten used to, having been a career soldier for much of her life, and to see the space present here on the Enterprise… it was almost unnerving. This was a military ship… how much space could they possibly need?

Shepard turned around to see how the rest of her crew were handling things, now that they’d melded their groups. EDI, unsurprisingly, was sticking close to Data, the synthetics obviously engaged in intense conversation. Shepard smiled. It was nice for EDI to find someone with whom she was a kindred spirit… though she found herself wondering how Joker would take the news when EDI told him about it later. Garrus’s reaction was also unsurprising, as he regarded everything they passed with suspicion… Shepard guessed he was using that tactical mind of his to figure out how to best disable the Enterprise, if it had to come down to it. She would have to ask him later what his assessment of the vessel was, as soon as any judgment had been made about what kind of an arrangement to make with this crew. Liara was examining the settings just as intently, and Shepard noticed that she was making small gestures with her thumb and forefinger… more likely than not, she was sowing tiny VI bugs around the ship, learning everything she possibly could. Liara would likely be a busy little Shadow Broker when they got back to the Normandy tonight. The most comfortable of all of them, however, was Donnelly, who seemed absolutely mesmerized by everything put in front of him. Donnelly was young still, and an engineer to boot… Shepard imagined that his analytical mind was calculating every possible method that every feat of engineering could be accomplished on this ship. She’d have to remember to ask him for his analyses later… but seeing an engineer this intrigued by everything he was seeing made her wish that Tali were here. She had never known an engineer more skilled or more excitable that Tali’Zorah vas Neema… vas Normandy, she corrected herself. She never felt her quarian friend’s absence more acutely than when thinking about a starship’s inner workings… Shepard hoped she could see her soon to tell her about it.

Arrival to their destination was hearkened by even more fanfare, as Picard smiled and turned back to his audience. “Now, this is Main Engineering. Mr. Data tells me that your vessel runs on a different power source, so if you’ll allow me, I can give you a brief overview of warp propulsion—“

Suddenly, the badge on Picard’s shirt chimed. “Bridge to Captain Picard!” a frantic voice came from it. “Something just came out of warp! It matches the sensor logs made by the Defiant! We need you on the bridge immediately!”

“On my way,” Picard replied briskly, and he quickly signaled for Data and Troi to follow him. “Commander Shepard, I hate to leave on such short notice…”

“Not an issue, Captain. I understand completely. We can just…” There was an unexpected ring in Shepard’s ear as Picard exited the room with his officers… Joker’s frequency. She placed her hand to the comm device. “Joker? What’s going on?”

“Hate to cut your visit short, Commander, but we’ve got a Reaper signature in the system!” Joker answered. “We need to get out of here, now! Get to the shuttle and get back here so we can go!”

Shepard’s eyes widened. “Goddamn it…” she said, rushing out of Main Engineering to follow Picard and his people. “Garrus, Liara, EDI, follow me… Donnelly, see what you can do down here. We’ve got Reapers inbound… we need to warn these people.” Donnelly saluted and ran into the throng of engineers, while Shepard tapped the comm unit in her ear again. “Sorry, Joker, but we’re not coming back just yet… I don’t think this crew knows just what they’re in for with the Reapers. Initiate evasive maneuvers, and try to get out of the system if you can… anywhere’s fine. We’ll get the Enterprise to follow your signature and rendezvous when the danger’s passed.”

“Great. A blind jump to FTL in a galaxy we know nothing about with a Reaper attack going on… gotta say, Commander, you’re putting a real crimp in my day here,” Joker replied. “Sounds like a plan, though, shitty as it is… see you at the rendezvous.”

“We’ll be there as soon as we can, Joker. Let me know if anything goes wrong… Shepard out,” Shepard said, pressing the unit in her ear again. “EDI, will you be okay if Joker takes the Normandy out of the system?”

“I believe so,” EDI replied. “I will look at this as an opportunity to test the long range receivers of this body… I have been hoping that my upgrades would be suitable. I look forward to testing my theory.”

“That… doesn’t really make me feel a lot better, but it’s better than nothing,” Shepard said. “Now, let’s see if we can make it to the bridge before the Reapers blow us all to hell…”

Stepping into the elevator, Shepard found herself confused wondering where the buttons were, until EDI stepped in and said, “Bridge.” The elevator began moving upward, and Shepard looked quizzically at the synthetic. Garrus and Liara shared her gaze, just as klaxons began blaring all across the ship. “I examined the schematics of the Enterprise while I was in its computer systems… I know about the functions of this ship. As for the sirens… we seem to have gone to red alert,” EDI explained. Shepard returned a smile… sometimes, she wondered how she had ever survived without the synthetic and her invaluable assistance.

The elevator door opened, and Shepard found the bridge a bustle of activity. Strangely, the Reaper hadn’t attacked yet… it was just hanging there in space, motionless. Shepard had seen a number of Reapers in her time, but never one that behaved like this… she suspected that the Reaper was learning, figuring out more about this ship. It probably hadn’t seen anything quite like this yet… from what EDI had explained earlier, the space station that had previously been near the portal was the only Federation base nearby. Another power, the Cardassian Union, was the nearest large scale threat… it seemed likely that the Reapers were sweeping there first, to eliminate resistance and harvest these cardassians, whoever they were.

Shepard quickly surveyed the bridge, and found some familiar faces… Captain Picard was seated in the large chair in the center, Commander Riker to his right and Counselor Troi to his left. There was an extensive line of consoles close to the elevator exit, where Ambassador Worf was manning one of the control panels, likely the one controlling weapons, if she understood what Worf had explained about his people. A large window, more likely a massive computer monitor, was present at the forefront of the room, displaying an image of the Reaper, while slightly further back were two consoles, at one of which was seated Lieutenant Commander Data. It was time… Shepard cleared her throat, and Picard whirled around. “Commander!” he said, clearly surprised by her presence on his bridge, but turning back toward the monitor. “I’m sorry, but we’re in the midst of a crisis at the moment… the unknown ship which destroyed—“

“It’s called a Reaper, Captain,” Shepard said briskly, “and all of us here know exactly what it is and what it’s capable of. We’re here to offer assistance, so I don’t want to hear about complaints. Now, where’s your tactical console? Garrus can help you there… EDI and Data already have a rapport, so they can work out a strategy together. Any questions about the Reapers, Captain, direct them to me. I know more about those bastards than anyone could want to learn…”

Picard blinked, clearly taken aback, but he quickly recovered his composure. “Of course, Commander… my apologies. Any advice you can give us would help… and that goes for every one of you,” he said, raising his voice to ensure his crew heard. Shepard noticed Riker give a look to Picard, but the captain raised a palm, and his first officer backed down. “Proceed, Commander Shepard… what do you know?”

“First… you can’t win against this thing, Captain,” Shepard began, a grave tone coming to her voice. “Not alone. It’s too powerful. You try, you’ll only get yourselves killed, and then your Federation’s in the dark about this. We need to get out of here before that Reaper learns too much.”

“Are you saying that ship is alive, Commander?” Riker asked, leaning forward in his seat.

“Yes and no, Commander Riker… look, I’ll explain everything, just get us out of here!” Shepard pleaded again.

“I thought you put your man at tactical so we could better fight this monstrosity… now you’re saying we should run?” Picard asked. “We’ve been scanning this Reaper, trying to learn what we can so we can bring as much information as possible back to Starfleet, and I’m not abandoning this mission without a damn good reason, so you had better be able to give me one, Commander, besides your vague warnings about—“

“Captain,” Counselor Troi interrupted. “I sense she’s telling the truth. If we stay here, we will all die.”

“Well then, what do you propose we—“

“Captain! The ship is powering its primary weapon!” Worf said from the tactical console, and Garrus glanced over.

“Confirmed, Shepard… it’s now or never,” Garrus agreed. “If I were you, Captain, I’d listen… I’ve seen Shepard shoot someone for less.” Shepard glared at Garrus, who merely responded with a nudge of his head back toward Picard.

Shepard whirled back to Picard. “Damn it, Captain, either you give the order, or I will! We need to get out of here now!”

“All hands, brace for impact!” Picard shouted. “Ensign, evasive maneuvers! Full impulse!”

“Aye, sir!” Ensign Clarke responded, and Shepard felt the ship lurch as it picked up speed. Luckily, their split second timing had been perfect… the red beam lanced from the Reaper directly to their previous location… it was tracking their movement, but fortunately, the Enterprise’s speed made the beam consistently miss its target. “Return fire, Captain? I have phaser banks and quantum torpedoes standing by,” Worf said from his console.

“Hold fire, Mr. Worf,” Picard answered. “Mr. Vakarian? Do you think that any of our weapons could make a dent in that vessel?”

“No,” Garrus replied succinctly. “Not without a concentrated beam weapon into its central core, and it looks like the targeting here isn’t quite that precise.” Worf snorted derisively, but Garrus ignored him. “It would have to be charging the beam for us to get a clear shot, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have our asses hanging out like that.”

Picard breathed softly… Shepard guessed he wasn’t used to running. He turned to the helmsman. “Ensign, get us to minimum safe distance, and prepare for warp… does your android have the coordinates for rendezvous, Commander Shepard? Mr. Data detected the Normandy leaving the system a few moments ago.”

“Follow the Normandy’s signal,” Shepard replied, watching as another beam lanced by from the monitor. “EDI, start coordinating with Commander Data… he can tell you what you’re looking for.”

“Affirmative,” EDI answered. “In the meantime, Captain Picard, perhaps your tactical officer could attempt to distract the Reaper by firing some distracting shots in its direction?”

“Make it so, Mr. Worf,” Picard said. Shepard found herself impressed by the rapport he had with his officers, even the ambassador… they must have served together for a long time, something that wasn’t often seen in the military. Clearly, the space age uniforms and the more recreational atmosphere weren’t where the differences ended with Starfleet… Shepard watched as EDI communed with Data, their mechanical precision adding to the Enterprise’s efficiency and speed. At the tactical console, she heard Garrus advising Worf on where to aim, and watched the viewscreen as red-orange phaser beams lanced out from the banks, deflected from their targets by the Reaper’s main weapon. Still, keeping the Enterprise’s fire off them was distracting even their opponent’s synthetic precision from reaching its ultimate goal… though Shepard couldn’t help but sweat. She’d seen the Reapers’ capabilities firsthand on countless occasions, even more since the war had begun… advanced as this ship was, would it be enough to save them?

Thankfully, Shepard found that her worries were unfounded. “We’ve reached minimum safe distance, sir,” Ensign Clarke announced. “Rendezvous coordinates laid in. Enemy ship gaining… orders, Captain?”

“Get us out of here, Ensign. Engage!” Picard commanded, thrusting two of his fingers forward in a point. Shepard felt another shift as what she presumed to be their engine core engaged and moved the ship to FTL, the viewscreen changing into the lines of stars as they whizzed past. Shepard breathed out, and felt herself relax. The danger had passed… for now. “Damage report,” Picard said, leaning back in his chair in equal relief.

“We have sustained a hull breach on Deck 8,” Data answered, looking at his console. “Internal force fields engaged. Injured parties taken to sickbay… no fatalities. I believe all things considered, sir, we came out relatively unscathed.”

“Captain, you know this galaxy better than we do… where did Joker take our ship?” she asked, catching EDI and Data smile at each other out of the corner of her eye.

“Joker?” Picard asked, clearly confused.

“My pilot,” Shepard explained. “Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau… we call him Joker.”

“Ensign?” Picard inquired with the helmsman.

“We’re heading for the Kalandra system, sir,” Clarke replied. “Their coordinates place them near to Trill.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Picard said, turning back to Shepard. “Don’t worry, Commander… your helmsman was lucky. He navigated deeper into Federation space… we’ll be able to repair our damage at an orbital spacedock, and rendezvous with your ship on friendly terms. Had he picked the wrong coordinates, he might have wound up in Cardassian or Tzenkethi territory, so he was very fortunate.”

“Which… would be bad, I assume?” Shepard asked.

“In the case of the Tzenkethi, very much so,” Picard replied. “We have a peace with the Cardassians, but the Federation is not on the best of terms with the Tzenkethi.” He paused and rose from his chair. “I think, Commander, that perhaps we should step into my ready room… we have a great deal to discuss.”

“Agreed,” Shepard answered with a nod. “Lead the way.” As she followed Picard into a door just off the bridge—what she presumed was his ‘ready room’—she silently observed just how close they had just come to annihilation. And yet, the Enterprise had pulled its weight in the fight, and clearly, the Federation, if Picard and his people were any indication, was capable of being trusted. The odds against the Reapers were incredibly long… yet now, it felt like the gap had narrowed slightly, as long as the Federation and the powers back home moved on this alliance swiftly. Otherwise, who knew what the future would hold?

A chance to fight was infinitely better than no chance at all… but even so, Shepard wondered how many of these people would be dead before all was said and done…

Chapter Text

There was a planet deep in the heart of the Gamma Quadrant, utterly unremarkable. From space, it appeared as a mere brown speck in the infinite cosmos, tiny flecks of land emerging from a quivering ocean. It was deserted, and no naturally occurring lifeforms had ever walked along its surface. This planet was completely inaccessible, except by the Vorta and Jem’Hadar servants of the Dominion… for this planet was the newly adopted homeworld of the Founders, shapeshifters who preferred to exist in their natural gelatinous form, sharing all of their existences in one consciousness called the Great Link. All of them, that is, except for one.

Odo sat on a small island the Great Link allowed to stay above the ooze as a place for meetings with their solid subjects. He often liked to sit up here so that he could be alone… the problem with the collective shared intelligence of the Great Link was that everything, save for that which the individual Changelings chose to hide, was free game, which meant that sometimes, some of his more intrusive thoughts were read by his fellows. ‘Solid thoughts’, they called them. Odo had always valued his privacy… some time alone with his thoughts was always welcome, as well as spending a while in his preferred solid form. No matter how much time he spent in the Great Link, he never felt completely at ease in his gelatinous state, after how much time he had spent as chief of security on Deep Space 9.

Among the common thoughts, like his old job and his friends back on the station, as well as his feelings of laziness that he wasn’t using his skills to what he felt were the best practice, there was one image that kept springing to the forefront of Odo’s mind… one that the other Founders referred to as obsession. Nerys… her face, her hair, her eyes, her smile, her laugh… he couldn’t put her out of his thoughts, and the other Founders had begun to notice. One of his fellows who was also comfortable in a solid form, Laas, had spoken to him about it on behalf of the Link, but all the same, he still couldn’t keep her out of his mind. Odo had observed many couples in ‘love’ in his time among the solids—he needed to stop calling his friends that, but living among other Changelings had made it the normal phrase to refer to non-shapeshifters—but love had always seemed more like a motive to excuse the horrific things they sometimes did to one another. He had seen far too many crimes of passion committed during his time aboard DS9, and it had soured him to the whole idea of love… until he began to fall for Kira Nerys.

It had been slow at first… wanting to see her more often, spend time with her… at the time, Odo had merely thought it was friendship. He had admired her spirit, her no-nonsense attitude, her efficiency… and then, he had seen her with lovers, such as Vedek Bareil or First Minister Shakaar. Feelings had arisen then… complicated feelings. He was happy that she was happy, but he wondered inexplicably if she could be that happy with him, rather than one of them. It was then he knew… he had fallen for her. But he valued Kira greatly as a friend and colleague, not to mention the fact that he was so different from anyone else on the station… he didn’t want to ruin that, or face her rejection.

So he’d kept silent… until some timely intervention from an alternate future version of himself had informed Nerys of his feelings. And even then, it was still some time and some nudging from caring friends—and one rather insistent holographic entertainer—before he and Nerys managed to get together. Even with the war against his people and their Dominion raging, those were the happiest days of Odo’s life… and they had ended just as suddenly as they had begun. Section 31, a top secret agency within the heart of the Federation itself, had infected him and his people with a morphogenic virus as an ace in the hole… cut off the head of the Dominion, and the war would end. Dr. Bashir had managed to find a cure… but that had only saved Odo. If Section 31 had had their way, the Founders would have died, and despite their crimes, Odo could not allow his entire species to be wiped out that way. One of the conditions of the Dominion surrender had been that Odo return to the Founders’ new homeworld, link with his people to cure them, and stay with the Great Link to pass on what he had learned from the solids.

So here he was… among his people, and miserable. Life among other sentients hadn’t been perfect, but what was? He certainly preferred it to the existence of living among other lifeforms who didn’t understand him… at least out there, he had had friends, people who could try to empathize with him. Here, all he had were his people judging him for his ‘outsider influence’ and sycophantic yes men like the Vorta and Jem’Hadar, content to say whatever they felt one of their gods wanted to hear. He was trapped… and there was nothing he could do about it.

Just as he thought of those sycophantic yes men, Odo saw a transporter signal coalesce next to him, forming into one of those yes men… Weyoun, Odo’s requested personal Vorta liaison to the rest of the Dominion. It seemed that the Female Changeling had been mistaken when she had informed him that Weyoun 8 had been the last of his line… evidently, he had only been the last Weyoun clone prepared and ready to be activated at the time of his predecessor’s demise. Weyoun’s genetic material had still existed within the Dominion’s cloning databases, and so Odo had ordered that a new Weyoun be cloned as soon as possible… if he had to be with the Founders, a familiar face as his link to the outside world would be most welcome. However, knowing Weyoun as intimately as he did, Odo had demanded to study the cloning records of Weyoun 6… that Weyoun, who while during his life had been believed to have been defective due to his belief that the war was wrong, had been the most discerning Weyoun, if not the most discerning Vorta, that Odo had ever encountered. Therefore, he had ordered the new Weyoun’s specifications to be closer to Weyoun 6’s than any of the others of his line, and that seemed to have made a great deal of difference. Weyoun 9 had proven to be a most efficient assistant, intelligent, cunning, devoted to his duty, and always ready for whatever Odo required of him. Of course, Odo had expected nothing less of a man who believed him to be a god, just like all the others of his race. “Founder,” Weyoun said, crossing his hands in front of him and offering a deep bow. “I hope I’m not disturbing you… if the time is inconvenient, I can always return later.”

“Not at all… give your report,” Odo replied, stifling a sigh. Sometimes, the Vorta’s stiffness could be ridiculously tiresome. “And Weyoun, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: you can call me by my name.”

“Oh, of course… Odo,” Weyoun capitulated, the name clearly forcing its way out of his mouth. “Several ships have arrived in orbit around the planet… they are of an unknown design. They have a representative who requests an audience with the Founders… I tried to occupy him so as not to disturb you, but I’m afraid he’s insistent… always was, the damnable stubborn—“

“What do you mean?” Odo interrupted. “Is this someone we know?”

“It is indeed, Found—Odo,” Weyoun corrected himself. “But… he also insisted that I not reveal his identity until it was determined whether or not he could have his audience. Of course, an order from a Founder would rescind his request, but—“

“Very well,” Odo said, a sigh escaping this time. “Have him beam down… I’ll meet with him here on behalf of the Great Link.”

“It shall be done, Odo,” Weyoun replied with another bow. He activated a comm unit contained within his jacket. “The Founders have agreed to your request. You may transport down to the previously specified coordinates.”

Another transporter signal coalesced next to Weyoun, and when it became clear, Odo felt a surge of fury. He saw the face of a man he had hoped never to see again… a man he had presumed was gone for good… a man who had made his life and the lives of his friends a living hell since he had reared his ugly head… “Dukat!” Odo spat, rising to his feet and charging toward the Cardassian. “What are you doing here?!”

“Ah, Odo,” said Gul Skrain Dukat, former commanding officer of Terok Nor, head of state of the Cardassian Union under the Dominion, and Emissary of the Pah-wraiths. “I was hoping it would be you I was negotiating with… you are the only one of your people with whom I can recall any positive association.”

“Oh, really?” Odo said, the disdain clear in his voice. “Well, I’m afraid the feeling isn’t mutual. Now get off this planet. The Great Link’s associations with you are not favorable, thanks to my input.”

“I must say, Odo, that does hurt… I always considered us colleagues, even friends, at least when I was running Terok Nor,” Dukat replied, pacing slowly around the small island. “But perhaps you’ll find what I have to say will make me gain esteem in your eyes, and you can then pass that esteem along to the Founders. If you would allow me, I would like to speak my piece.”

Odo sighed. “I gave you the audience on behalf of the Great Link, so you’ll be permitted to speak,” he relented. “But somehow, I doubt whatever propaganda about the Pah-wraiths you’ll be spouting will swerve me to your cause.”

“I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me, Odo… I no longer serve the Pah-wraiths as their Emissary,” Dukat admitted. “Their release from the Fire Caves on Bajor was completely bungled by the Prophets and their Emissary, Benjamin Sisko, and I was imprisoned along with them, condemned to an eternity of torture surrounded by false gods. There I stayed, my own screams and the flames of the Pah-wraiths my only companions… until they came. They freed me from the Fire Caves… initially, they did not know what they had done, and I was resistant to them… but eventually, I came to see things their way. They have come to restore order to a chaotic universe, first by utterly destroying the Pah-wraiths, and now by cleansing the galaxy. It’s miraculous, Odo… and you will see. You will come to see as I have seen… you, the Founders, the entirety of the Dominion! All will come to serve them, or perish beneath their heel.”

“What are you babbling about?” Odo asked, confused. “The last time we saw you, you were raving about the power you could be granted through serving the Pah-wraiths… now you’re telling me that you have a new master?”

“That’s precisely what I’m saying,” Dukat answered. “The Pah-wraiths were weak… their energies were disrupted almost instantly when they came… they stormed across the surface of Bajor. Entire cities were demolished in their wake… even Terok Nor is gone, Odo. None can stand to their strength… and you too can benefit from their power.”

Odo found himself speechless. This power had destroyed Deep Space 9, invaded Bajor, destroyed the Fire Caves and released Dukat? What else had he missed stuck on this planet away from the rest of the galaxy? “What exactly are you proposing?” he asked, hoping Dukat could tell him more about whoever this mysterious force was.

“I remember the Dominion and its goals,” Dukat explained. “The ultimate ambition of the Founders is to bring order to chaos… and this is their goal too, by eliminating all life in the galaxy that chooses not to follow them. We can work with them, Odo… we can advance ourselves by helping them to fulfill their purpose. When the dust settles, we will be the ones left standing, free to rebuild the galaxy alongside them… alongside the Reapers.”

“…You’re mad,” Odo said after a moment’s silence. “You were always insane, Dukat, but now you’re just delirious! What are these Reapers? What makes you think that serving them will put you on top of the galactic heap? And above all, why would you think that I would even entertain your thoughts of madness?”

“Ah, but it isn’t entirely up to you, is it, Odo?” Dukat pointed out, indicating the swirling gelatinous pool around him. “You are but one of many… I’d like to know what the rest of the Great Link think of my proposal. Link with them, Odo… tell them what I’ve told you. Don’t dismiss me outright.”

“Before I give any proposition to the Great Link, I would need to know that I wasn’t just speaking nonsense,” Odo said, stalling. “Tell me, if these Reapers of yours are so powerful, why would they need an intermediary like you? Couldn’t one of them just come to talk to me themselves, since they came all this way?”

“You request to see one of them?” Dukat said thoughtfully. “Well… I think that it might be possible to arrange that.” Looking to the sky, the Cardassian gave a small nod, barely perceptible… but what it had summoned was anything but.

From the direction Dukat had indicated, Odo noticed a massive shape, cephalopod in nature, dropping from the sky, landing several miles away in a section of the Great Link. Upon feeling their sanctuary disturbed, the Link began to churn, and Odo whirled around to see the shape of Laas coming out of the ooze, forming into the solid state he had perfected while living among the Varalan people. “What is the meaning of this, Dukat?” he yelled upon consolidating completely. “You would dare to invade the sanctity of the Great Link?”

“I do not seek war, Founder,” Dukat answered, holding up his hands in appeasement. “I come on behalf of the Reapers to seek an alliance with the Dominion, as I was just telling Odo here… he asked me to show him one of my new benefactors, and so I agreed.”

“You mean to tell me that whatever’s inside that giant ship is your new master?” Odo asked in disbelief. By now, Laas had made his way fully onto the shore and taken a spot near to Odo, a united front against the insanity of his ideas.

“No. It’s not what’s in the ship… it is the ship,” Dukat revealed, a sly grin coming to his scaled face. “The purest form of artificial life, poised with computer efficiency to rid the galaxy of the chaos of organic life… that is, all organic life that does not share its purpose,” he clarified. “By serving them, showing them the usefulness of certain forms of organic life, we will be spared. I am emissary to a greater power than the Pah-wraiths now, my friend… and I wish to offer the Dominion that chance as well.”

“Link with me, Odo…” Laas said, reaching out a hand to his fellow Changeling. “I want to see if what he’s saying is true.” Nodding, Odo reached out his own hand, melting into its natural state while Laas did the same. Both of their heads jerked back, the strength of the link acute and powerful, and after a few seconds, they pulled away. A look of confusion came to Laas’s face. “So… he told you all this. And you doubt him. Why?”

“You don’t know him like I do, Laas… not you, nor any of the other Founders,” Odo argued. “Dukat is a madman content to follow any cause he believes will give him power. He did it as part of the Cardassian military, he did it with the Dominion, he did it with the Pah-wraiths, and now he’s doing it again with these so-called Reapers. He’s dangerous… and so are his new friends.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest, finding an adamant stance. “On behalf of the Great Link, Dukat, I hereby refuse your—“

“Odo,” Laas interrupted, making his way back to the edge of the land mass. “You alone are not the Link. We must decide collectively about Dukat’s proposal. Come. We will share with our brethren.”

Odo decided not to argue, mainly because he knew Laas was right. The Great Link made decisions based upon a consensus of the whole, not any individual Changeling’s beliefs. As Laas returned to his natural state and rejoined the Link, Odo looked warily back at Dukat, but Weyoun stepped in. “Don’t worry, Odo… if he tries anything, I’ll have him subdued by a Jem’Hadar squad in seconds.” The Vorta keyed a few strokes into a console on his arm, and two Jem’Hadar were beamed down to join him.

“I’ve told you already that you have nothing to fear from me,” Dukat said, an unmistakable tone of amusement in his voice. “But if it makes you more comfortable, by all means, have Weyoun watch me… what number is he on right now, by the way? Are we into the double digits?”

Odo concealed a small, disgusted sigh, and shifted back into liquid, oozing into the ocean of Changelings with his brethren. He had always found the Great Link somewhat unnerving… a whole meld of thoughts, voices, opinions… it made it hard to discern who was speaking to whom about what at times. But one voice he could never fail to pick out was Laas… as one of his fellows in the Hundred, Changelings sent out from the Great Link in infancy to investigate the galaxy and report back, Laas had a difference to him. It was almost as though he were giving off a single harmonious note in the cacophony that was the rest of the Link. Right now, Odo could feel Laas relaying what he had just experienced to the other Founders, who seemed both intrigued and troubled. Their new homeworld was the best kept secret in the Dominion… if Dukat and his mysterious new allies had found it, that suggested that perhaps their security measures had not been nearly enough. Yet to his horror, Odo found that some of them were actually intrigued by Dukat’s offer. He had appealed to their personal philosophies, some ingrained need for order in the Changeling makeup… many of his fellows were finding it difficult to resist, it seemed.

Odo threw his own argument into the Link, his sensations of dread catching the attention of the other Founders. He showed images of Dukat, from his time on Terok Nor to the madman he had become, trying to showcase how wrong it was to even consider this alliance. Whoever these ‘Reapers’ were, more likely than not, Dukat saw them as a means to his own end, an advancement of his own personal power. Dukat wasn’t really seeking order like he claimed… he was seeking only gain, as he always had. That, Odo reminded them, was what had made the opportunistic Cardassian such an uneasy ally during the war… he urged them not to make the same mistake twice.

There was another ripple in the Link… Odo’s voice had definitely been heard, and now the Founders were discussing what to do more deeply… Odo wondered whose argument had proved to be the more convincing. Ultimately, the Link made its consensus known: Dukat’s alliance would not be allowed to come to fruition. Satisfied, Odo sent the impression of his wish to deliver the news, which the Link wholeheartedly supported.

Exiting the pool and taking on his solid form again, Odo climbed back onto the island, where he saw Weyoun and his Jem’Hadar entourage keeping a close eye on their Cardassian friend, just as he had promised. A smile came to Dukat’s face when he saw the Changeling’s return, his hands clasping together in apparent expectation. “Well? What have the Founders decided?” he asked cheerfully.

“I’m afraid that you won’t be so pleased when you hear what we’ve decided,” Odo replied, somewhat smugly, he noted. “On behalf of the Great Link, I have been asked to tell you that we will not be accepting your proposition, and that you and your allies are to leave this planet at once, or face the full wrath of the Dominion.”

Just as quickly as the smile had appeared on Dukat’s face, it quickly turned into a scowl. “Damn you, Odo, don’t you see what you’re turning down?” he argued, his tone considerably less jovial than it had been. “This was the chance for the Dominion to take control of the entire galaxy, to rule it alongside the Reapers… I urge you to reconsider. Otherwise, I will not be responsible for what happens next.”

“The Founders have made their decision, Dukat…” Odo said, allowing a threatening tone to slip into his voice. “Now, either vacate this world and never return, or you will have declared war on the Dominion, and you will suffer the consequences of that decision.”

Dukat sighed, seeming almost resigned… Odo was uneasy, wondering what that crazy Cardassian could be thinking. “Very well… I’m sorry, Odo. I really am.” He turned toward the massive starship still wading through the Link, and raised his arms above his head. “The Great Link has denied our offers of friendship! Begin the harvest!” he cried out.

As soon as the words had escaped Dukat’s mouth, a red beam fired from the ship’s midsection, aimed directly for the Link. Odo and Weyoun watched in horror as the Link began to churn and writhe, the deaths felt in each of their minds acutely. Odo whirled around and grabbed Dukat by his shirt collar, Weyoun approaching behind him. “What have you done?!” Odo yelled.

“You would stand in the way of destiny, Odo! I cannot allow that!” Dukat growled. “I told you this was avoidable, but now, you have sealed your fate.” Before Odo could react, Dukat reached to his side, pulled out a hidden disruptor pistol, and fired point blank into Odo’s torso.

The Changeling dropped Dukat and staggered back, his natural morphogenic state visible where the fire had connected. The Cardassian let off two more shots, striking Odo solidly in his head and legs as he struggled desperately to maintain his humanoid form. Vaguely, from the side, he heard Weyoun yell something, and in an instant, he found himself aboard a Jem’Hadar cruiser, sirens going off all around him. He could see that outline of Weyoun kneeling down next to him, and heard the Vorta’s voice, almost as though it were coming from underwater: “Odo! Are you all right? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, I… I’m fine,” Odo managed to groan. “He didn’t get off enough shots at enough power to be lethal… I just… just need time to rest…”

“I am at your service, Odo,” Weyoun replied, and Odo saw his silhouette move toward two larger ones, likely Jem’Hadar. “Quickly, fetch the Founder a container in which he can recover, and get us out of the system! Set a course for the wormhole, maximum warp!” The two Jem’Hadar bowed, one of them rushing off to fulfill one of Weyoun’s orders, the other seated at the helm to carry out the other. Weyoun knelt next to Odo again. “Don’t worry, Odo… we’re going to get help. These Reapers will rue the day they chose to defy the Dominion!”

Somehow, Odo thought dimly as he sank into his natural liquid state, it may be the Dominion who would rue this day…

 

 

 

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Commander Riker asked upon entering Captain Picard’s ready room the day after the first contact gala with the Normandy crew. After all the excitement fleeing the Reaper, as Shepard and her people had called that huge starship, they had put into spacedock above the planet Trill, and rendezvoused with the Normandy, allowing more of the crew to come aboard for the gala. The night in Ten Forward had been most welcome, though there had been some protest from one of the Normandy’s officers, Garrus Vakarian, on the subject that none of the food there was suitable for his consumption. Deanna had worried that perhaps they had offended in some way, until Commander Shepard had explained that Turians had a different amino acid composition, and that only food with dextro amino acids were edible to his people. She had suggested some recipes, and Guinan had quickly programmed them into the replicator. Mr. Vakarian did not go hungry that night, and all went to their respective homes satisfied. Luckily, Riker hoped this was all included in the first contact packet that they had sent over, which he noticed that the captain was studying now. The information exchange had come with some of their own information from the Starfleet databases, and he imagined that the crew of the Normandy, who were planning to report to their own galaxy to relay what they had found, were finding their packet just as useful. “Finding anything interesting?” Riker asked.

“Indeed I am, Number One,” Picard replied, setting the PADD down on his desk, and gesturing to his seat. Riker took the hint and took the seat across from his commanding officer.

Abruptly, Picard began to rub his head, a small pained expression coming to his face. “Are you all right, sir?” Riker asked.

“Just a small headache…” Picard answered. “It’ll pass in time… onto the business at hand. Obviously, we know now what it was that destroyed Deep Space 9… it appears this other galaxy contains an ancient culture of artificial intelligences—these Reapers—who emerge every 50,000 years and devastate all advanced life in their galaxy. This is likely why there seem to be so few alien races where they come from… and if they’re here, that does not bode well for us.”

“I’d noticed that, sir,” Riker agreed. “I’d just chalked it up to evolutionary differences, or a variety of other social factors.”

“Yes, well, I believe that’s the case too,” Picard continued. “It’s remarkable, however, that their technology has advanced as far as it has, given that their time frame seems to be behind our own. I’m particularly fascinated by these omni-tools… it seems that each person in their galaxy has a personal computer attached to them, making it simple to connect with one’s technology. I understand Geordi has requested some schematics, as well as those of their drive core. Commander Shepard assures me that their drive is the most advanced in the Alliance Navy.”

“And what about an alliance with these Citadel races, Captain?” Riker asked. “These Reapers seem as deadly as they claim… it would be a good idea to work with people who know how to fight them.”

“Those were my thoughts exactly, Number One,” Picard agreed. “I asked Commander Shepard what she thought of the idea, and she said that she was open to it, but would have to check with her superiors back home for something so important. The Normandy will be returning through the portal within the hour.”

“And I imagine that we’d have to do the same,” Riker concluded. “Talk to our superiors, I mean.”

“Precisely,” Picard answered. Riker noticed a considerable hesitation before the captain continued. “In fact… I’ve just finished a call back to Starfleet Command… they’d like us back there to brief them as soon as possible. Once we leave the ready room, I intend to give the order to take us back to Earth.”

“Is something wrong, sir? I’d have thought you’d be pleased that this situation went so well,” Riker inquired.

“No, no… everything’s fine, Number One. It’s just…” he hesitated again. He cleared his throat before proceeding. “I was given an additional order… and this one, as I understand it, comes directly from Admiral Chekov himself. For making this discovery, I’m to be commended. They’re… they’re promoting me, Will. I won’t be coming back to the Enterprise after we return to Earth.”

Riker was speechless. He’d always known that this day would come… an excellent officer like Jean-Luc Picard could only afford to stay lower in the ranks for so long… but this urgency on the part of the admiralty was unexpected. And it meant that the Enterprise would have to adjust to a new commanding officer, one who Riker could only hope to get along with, if the new captain let him stay on at all. He’d had problems before when command had been transferred due to certain circumstances… Commander Shelby and Captain Jellico immediately sprang to mind. He hoped this would be smoother. “Well… congratulations, sir,” he said, hoping his doubts weren’t showing as he did so. “Did they happen to mention who would be taking your place as captain of the Enterprise?”

“They had a few suggestions… but I had one of my own, and Admiral Chekov agreed with my recommendation,” Picard replied, a smile coming to his face. “It seems I won’t be the only one changing position when we get back to Starfleet Headquarters… you’re to be promoted to the rank of captain and given command of the Enterprise, and Mr. Data, should you choose to accept him, will be promoted to full commander and placed in the vacant first officer’s position. This… is all contingent on you accepting the responsibility, of course. My sincerest congratulations… Captain Riker.”

Now Riker was really speechless. Of all the eventualities he had thought would come, this was remarkably low on the list. He’d turned down his own command so many times so he could remain the Enterprise’s first officer, that he was certain the offer would never come again… the last time he’d been offered a ship was the USS Melbourne, right before the first Borg invasion and Wolf 359. He’d ably commanded the Enterprise through that crisis after Captain Picard had been assimilated, and returned the captain to what he felt was his proper position when the time had passed, returning to his first officer’s post happily, though now secure in the knowledge that he had the potential to command if it came down to it. He had actually expected another offer of a command when the Enterprise-D had been destroyed, but it hadn’t come then… likely because they knew Picard would still want him as first officer when he was given command of the new flagship. Now… now, he couldn’t avoid it anymore. His career in Starfleet would utterly stagnate if he didn’t take the chance now. And besides… she was the Enterprise. That had always been his excuse not to leave before… now it would be his excuse to stay. “Captain, I… I would be honored to take command of the Enterprise. If you and the other admirals feel I’m ready, of course…”

Picard chuckled softly. “Number One, you were ready for command of your own ship two years into your tenure as first officer. I seem to remember almost begging you to take command of the Melbourne when that chance was offered to you… not that I regret you staying on, of course. You’ve been my strong right arm for fourteen years, and I must admit, I will greatly miss your counsel in whatever area of Starfleet Command I wind up serving. But, as someone once said, all good things must come to an end… and this is both an ending, and a beginning. You’ll make a marvelous captain, Will… and I couldn’t be prouder of you, or of the officer you have become. I’ve long believed it was your destiny to one day sit in that chair, and you said it yourself after Veridian III… as both your captain and your friend, I’m happy to give you that chance.”

“Thank you, sir. You… you don’t know what this means to me,” Riker said, desperately trying to find his words. “I promise you, I won’t let you down, Jean-Luc.”

“I guarantee that you’ll keep that promise, Will,” Picard replied, smiling again. “Now… I’m curious. Since Data will be taking your position, do you have any thoughts about who can take his position as chief of operations?”

Riker chuckled. “I just found out this is going to be my ship, sir… give me a few days before I have to make crew reassignments.”

“As you wish, Captain.” Picard laughed himself, before pausing for a moment. “You know… the rank of captain has such a nice ring to it for you, Number One. Much better than ‘Admiral Picard’, at any rate…”

“Nonsense, sir,” Riker replied. “You’ve more than earned it. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t choose to promote you before now.”

“I know that… it’s just… I keep thinking about what James Kirk said to me back in the Nexus…” Picard answered, standing from his chair and going to the window near his fish tank. “He told me never to let them promote me or reassign me… never to let them do anything that would take me away from the bridge of the Enterprise… because here is where a difference can be made. Stepping aside as a favor to you and Data is one thing, Will… but I can’t help but think that I’m of greater use to Starfleet in a captain’s chair, rather than sitting in an office in San Francisco. Kirk seemed to think his promotion to admiral was the biggest mistake of his career… I don’t want that to be me too…”

“With respect, sir, if you’re having these doubts, maybe Starfleet Command isn’t the right place for you,” Riker suggested. “There are other options… you could still accept the promotion, but serve in another area. Maybe the Diplomatic Corps… Starfleet could use a man of your talents now, with Ambassador Spock still entrenched on Romulus.”

Picard nodded slowly. “Yes… maybe you’re right,” he agreed. “I suppose when we get back to Earth, we’ll have to see what I can do.” He turned away from the window again with a smile on his face. “In the meantime, take a look around the ready room, perhaps think about how you’d like to redecorate… I imagine you might want to remove the fish tank from the corner, since Livingston will be coming with me.”

“I was thinking about putting my trombone there, actually…” Riker replied. “Deanna’s constantly complaining about it cluttering up my quarters.”

Picard laughed again. “Sounds like a good idea,” he agreed. “Actually, if you don’t mind my asking, Number One… would you like Deanna to stay here aboard the Enterprise? She’d make an excellent member of my staff if not.”

“Captain, we’ve just gotten back together after sixteen years,” Riker pointed out. “I think we have a lot of catching up to do… and besides that, she’s an excellent counselor. I think having her stay on will make the transition go much more smoothly.”

“Excellent thinking,” Picard said, nodding. “And… what about Beverly?”

Riker grinned back at Picard. “Captain… this is more than just a casual inquiry about crew reassignments, isn’t it?”

“Well… all right, I’ll admit that question is a bit selfish…” Picard said, a somewhat sheepish tone creeping into his voice.

“Well, sir… I don’t think that’s a conversation you should be having with me,” Riker answered. “Maybe you should see where Dr. Crusher sees her career going in the next few years, and see if perhaps they mesh with your plans.”

“Yes, that sounds like a—“

Picard was interrupted by a voice from his communicator. “Data to Captain Picard,” said the android from the bridge.

“Go ahead,” Picard acknowledged.

“We are receiving a transmission from Trill… she is asking to speak to you, Captain.”

“I’ll take it in my ready room, Mr. Data,” Picard replied, tapping the badge and ending the communication. “Number One, please give the order… we’ll be making our way back to Earth within the hour. Dismissed.”

“Aye, sir,” Riker nodded, and exited the ready room.

Picard sat back down at his desk and pulled up his comm unit. The symbol of Starfleet was replaced by the face of a Trill, young, with short dark hair. She wore a uniform of the science division, with the rank pips of a lieutenant junior grade. She seemed to visibly soften when she saw Picard’s face on the other end. “This is Captain Picard, Lieutenant. I understand that you wanted to speak with me?”

“That’s right, sir,” the Trill answered. “I know that you probably have no idea who I am… well, why should you, you don’t know me from… anyway! My name is Counselor Ezri Dax, and I was hoping I could make a request.”

Picard was surprised. “Dax?” he asked. “Am I to presume that you are the current host of the Dax symbiont?”

“That’s right, sir,” Ezri replied quickly. Picard got the feeling that was a question she’d had to answer many, many times in her short lifetime. “Um… if I’m right, sir, you used to be Worf’s commanding officer… I’m pretty sure you sent him an opera recording after… after what happened to Jadzia. He appreciated that… we listened to it together once.”

“That’s right,” Picard answered. “What can I do for you, Counselor?”

“Well, um, I’ve been on Trill the past few weeks undergoing education on being a host and preparing for my zhian’tara… oh, it’s a ritual that joined Trill go through in order to commune with their previous hosts… it’s supposed to be informative and help the host to learn more about themselves and the symbiont and those who came before and I’m giving you too much detail, aren’t I? Sorry… I’m working on it… I was getting better at it, but with all the intense concentration I’ve been doing to learn what holding the symbiont means, I—“

“Counselor. There’s no need to apologize… you’re fine… I understand how disorienting a Trill symbiont can sometimes be,” Picard assured her, recalling when Commander Riker had temporarily taken on the Odan symbiont to facilitate a successful negotiation after the previous host had passed away. “Please continue.”

“Right. Anyway, before I was asked to come to Trill, I was stationed on Deep Space 9,” Ezri explained. “Obviously, that’s, um, no longer the case… I just received a message from Starfleet Command recalling me to Earth while I wait for my next assignment. Even though I haven’t undergone the zhian’tara yet, the Symbiosis Commission isn’t going to stand in the way of my duty to Starfleet, so, um… I need transport back to Earth. I realize you might be busy, sir, but you’re the only Starfleet vessel I know is in the system. It’s either that or wait to requisition a shuttle or runabout, so… if you don’t mind my asking, could you allow me to use the Enterprise as passage?”

“Actually, Counselor, you’re in luck… the Enterprise has just been ordered back to Earth as well,” Picard replied. “We’ll be leaving within the hour. I’ll make sure you’re beamed up at once.” Picard smiled. “And I have some good news… an old acquaintance of yours is also onboard. Ambassador Worf has been with us for the duration of this assignment.”

Ezri’s expression visibly changed for an instant, clearly taken aback by what Picard had told her, but she quickly regained her composure. “Oh, um… thank you for telling me, Captain,” she said slowly. “It’ll be… good… to see him again.”

Picard caught her slight unease, and suspected the cause… every Trill symbiont contained all the memories and experiences of previous hosts, and Dax was no exception. He imagined that with all of Jadzia’s memories inside of a woman who was not his wife, Worf and Ezri had had a very complicated relationship while they were both serving on DS9… he wasn’t one to pry, but perhaps Ezri would be more forthcoming than Worf had been on how loss affected her. “Well, Counselor, as I said, I’ll have you beamed aboard shortly. I’ll have my first officer prepare quarters for the duration of your stay.”

“Thank you, Captain. I look forward to seeing the Enterprise,” Ezri said, and cut off her communication, rather abruptly for Picard’s taste, but he guessed that she was feeling rather awkward. It was to be expected… he knew even less about Ezri Dax than he did about her predecessor, but he imagined that carrying the memories of a woman whose husband was still alive, and being in close proximity to said husband due to the necessity of her position, was remarkably difficult, especially if, as she had said, she was still undergoing training in how to handle being a host. He hoped that during this journey back to Earth, he would have plenty of time to get to know young Ezri Dax…

 

 

 

From its orbit above the planet Earth, formerly the homeworld of the humans, Harbinger found itself most satisfied. Not only was the harvest in this galaxy proceeding with great speed and precision, with little forthcoming resistance thus far, but Harbinger had also been hearing reports of what was going on in this newly discovered galaxy. Signals sent from Reapers returning through the portal kept it apprised of what was going on there, and the news was very… interesting.

To begin with, since there had been no Reapers or analogues to their kind in this other galaxy, the chaos of organic life had been allowed to grow and flourish in far greater numbers than they had here… what a mess their galaxy must have been, with no way to preserve the knowledge of cultures that may have fallen before synthetics could save them. However, the fact that they were so spread out made the harvesting no less simple… and that was only aided by their new allies in this galaxy.

Like Sovereign’s rapport with the organic Saren Arterius before this harvest had begun, the Reapers in the other galaxy had found a few organics willing to be indoctrinated, and to aid the synthetics in their quest for perfection. Others were taken less willingly, but no less effectively, such as these ‘Changelings’ of the Dominion. Harbinger was looking forward to seeing the glorious husks they and their servants would make. And even then, they had other allies, allies willing to support them even without the buffer of indoctrination… Harbinger was intrigued by these beings most of all, and had made the suggestion of allowing a few of them to cross the portal and make their way back here to help the harvest.

In short, Harbinger found itself thoroughly satisfied by how events had begun to proceed. Now… now it was time for the next step…

Chapter Text

As the Normandy cruised toward the portal that would return them to their home galaxy, Shepard breathed an audible sigh of relief on the bridge. They were going home, and now with an offer of assistance in their war against the Reapers. Bleak as the future still looked, now there was hope, something that had previously been in unbelievably short supply. Even if the Alliance or the Council said no to a true partnership with the Federation, Shepard had been known to work under the table before… she could do it again, if need be.

Moreover, she was a Spectre… the Citadel Council gave her the authority to work with whoever she had to in her missions on their behalf. Save for going rogue or becoming a direct threat to galactic civilization, as Saren had, there wasn’t much that was outside a Spectre’s purview… and Shepard was constantly finding herself thankful for that fact. It may have been the one thing that had kept her from arrest while she was under Cerberus employ, and if she hadn’t chosen to turn herself in for the destruction of the Bahak system at Admiral Hackett’s request, she might never have stood trial. In her authority as a Spectre, Shepard believed that she had found just the loophole she needed to authorize and initiate a Federation discussion.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Joker clearing his throat. “Approaching portal, Commander,” he said. “No Reaper signatures in the system… ready to get the hell out of Dodge?”

“Sounds like a plan, Joker,” Shepard agreed, approaching the pilot’s viewport. “Anybody have any reason to stay?”

“Actually, Shepard, now that you mention it, I would be interested in performing a few scans of this and the surrounding systems,” EDI chimed in. “As it stands, this portal is the only method of reaching this galaxy, for both us and the Reapers. It might benefit us to ready some defensive emplacements, in case of Reaper attack when in transition.”

“Not a bad idea, EDI,” Shepard replied, nodding. “See what you can do.”

“I am already attempting to work out a few designs that might be suitable for our purposes,” EDI said, scanning several cannon designs across her console. “Some are from our galaxy’s expertise, others were suggested as possibilities by Commander Data.”

“Yeesh… Data, Data, Data…” Shepard heard Joker mutter.

“I beg your pardon, Jeff?” Obviously, EDI had heard him too.

“Nothing,” Joker replied, perhaps a sulky tone to his voice. “It’s just that all you’ve talked about since you got back is Data this, Data that, here’s what Data thinks about this whole engineering problem, here’s why the sun shines out of Data’s shiny metal ass!”

“Jeff, I am detecting an increase of approximately 2.6 degrees in your core body temperature,” EDI said. “Are you feeling all right? If you like, perhaps I can pilot temporarily while you see Dr. Chakwas…”

“No. It’s fine,” Joker answered, the sulk strong within him now. “I’d rather hold onto the illusion of control as long as possible…” Shepard just shook her head. She’d known for some time about Joker’s feelings for EDI, even when she didn’t have a body… and it was entirely likely that EDI had never had to deal with the concept of jealousy before now. What did surprise her was just how jealous Joker seemed to be getting… after all, it hadn’t been as though she had expressed any sort of attachment to Data, beyond the fact that the two were both highly sophisticated synthetics. Then again, Joker tended to get ridiculously attached to things he cared about… his reluctance to leave the SR-1 as it was falling apart around him after an attack by the Collectors, which had led to Shepard’s own death, was evidence enough of that. But Joker was a big boy… he could work through his own issues if need be. Especially if a future with EDI was on the line…

The door to the bridge slid open again, and Shepard turned to see who had entered… she was surprised to find that it was not in fact who she had suspected, namely Traynor or one of the crewmen with some sort of update on the space around them or the diplomacy of the Federation or some other such minutiae. No, instead what Shepard found was the Normandy ’s newest crew member: Javik, the last of the Protheans. This was odd… save for an initial tour of the ship, Javik rarely ventured beyond his room on the engineering level, the cargo bay which had previously belonged to the krogan Grunt. For him to have come up to the cockpit must have meant something… “Commander,” the Prothean said. “A word.”

“Um… sure, Javik,” Shepard answered, still a tad confused. “I’ll be with you in a second.”

Now , Commander,” Javik insisted, and exited back through the door. Shepard eyed Joker and EDI, and Joker returned her glance with a shrug. She responded to the pilot in kind, and followed Javik out to the CIC, only to notice that the Prothean had now made his way back to the elevator. Shepard followed him onboard, and they began to ride upward to her quarters.

“What’s going on?” Shepard asked.

“Commander, I understand that we are in another galaxy,” Javik replied, jumping straight to the point… Shepard found that both refreshing and incredibly irritating. “Why was I not informed about the chain of events which transpired here?”

“Javik, we weren’t trying to keep you out of the loop…” Shepard assured him. “It’s been a busy time… and what with you just getting acclimated after your 50,000 year nap, we figured you might want a little bit of time to adjust.”

“I do not require your ‘accommodations’ or your ‘time to adjust’,” Javik answered succinctly. “What I require is aid in my mission to destroy the Reapers, and I will not have that as long as you withhold information from me. In the future, I will be just as informed as the rest of your people. Am I understood?”

Shepard blinked as the elevator door opened to reveal the door to her quarters. “You’re using quite the tone there, Javik,” she pointed out, restraining her anger. “Do I really need to remind you that this is my ship, and we aren’t just some primitives to be ordered around?”

“Had you kept me informed at the start, this would not have been necessary,” Javik retorted. “What am I to you, Commander? An attraction? Something to be showcased to your superiors? A scientific curiosity for your asari? Or am I a soldier, part of your squad? If you would like to change the nature of my role aboard this ship, I will oblige you, Commander… but if you should treat me like some common thing, I may be forced to treat you the same.”

Shepard sighed. Javik did have a point… among his people, he had been a leader, the one who had been tasked with taking the Prothean race back into the future once they awoke from their cryogenic slumber. For him, that had been only a few days ago… to expect him to adapt to a new chain of command overnight would be a difficult proposition, but it was one that Shepard believed could be done. But with all the work she had been doing to cultivate this new relationship with the Federation, she hadn’t considered how others in her crew might have been taking it… some things had slipped through the cracks, and that wasn’t like her. Maybe Dr. Chakwas was right… maybe she could benefit from some more sleep. Assuming her nightmares wouldn’t keep her up again, of course… “Javik, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” she said. “This hasn’t been easy for any of us, and especially for you. We’ve been overlooking the fact that you’re here to help, and I can promise you that we’ll all try to be better about that in the future. You’re a man of respect, Javik… and we’ll be sure to remember that.”

“That, Commander, is all I ask,” Javik answered. “Now, I have studied the files provided to me by the Traynor human… do you truly believe that we can trust this ‘United Federation of Planets’?”

Shepard sighed again. “I won’t lie to you… I don’t know,” she replied quietly. “So far, they seem to be all right… but I’ve been burned before. And we’ve only made direct contact with one of their vessels… God only knows if the rest of their people are like that. But there’s no denying they’re powerful, and if we’re ever going to take this fight to the Reapers instead of playing on the defensive all the time, we may need them. So for now, an alliance is on the table… but no. I don’t trust them… not yet.”

Javik nodded as his four eyes took a long slow blink. “A wise policy,” he agreed. “Always sleep with a plasma cannon under your head, Commander… you never know when it could be useful.”

“Ah… that’s what I love about you Protheans… you’re so quaint,” a mysterious voice said, prompting Shepard and Javik to whirl around to the open elevator behind them. Standing there was a middle-aged man with curly brown hair, wearing one of the same uniforms Picard and his crew had been wearing. “Nice to see you’re spreading that wonderful wit of yours across the galaxies again!”

Shepard lunged forward and grabbed the man by his shirt, while behind her, Javik’s hands began to glow green with a summoning of his biotic abilities. She slammed the intruder against the bulkhead. “Who the hell are you and what are you doing on my ship?!” she demanded. “Did Picard leave a spy onboard? Or maybe you’re a stowaway…”

The man blew a raspberry through his lips. “Please! You really think if I were one of Jean-Luc’s spies, I would have revealed myself so easily? Give me a little more credit than that, Commander!” His eye turned toward Javik. “Well, you certainly are taking being out of deep freeze well… if I recall, your people had avatars for everything, didn’t they? Which one were you, the Avatar of Being Late to the Party? How does it feel, knowing all your hard work to preserve your precious Empire was for naught?”

“Commander, this human is disrespectful,” Javik said, his voice a low and menacing growl. “I would suggest throwing him out the airlock.”

“Not so fast there, Mr. Millennia,” the man said, raising a hand. “I think you need to be taught a few manners.” The man snapped his fingers, there was a bright flash… and where Javik had stood only a moment ago, a small gecko scuttled across the deck.

Shepard slammed the man against the wall again. “What did you do with him?” she yelled.

“Now, now, Commander, you needn’t concern yourself…” the man assured her. “A demonstration simply needed to be made to show who’s in charge around here… the Protheans always did have a bit of a superiority complex… no wonder they were pasted by the Reapers back in the day.” The man smiled, a smug affair. “Now unless you’d also like to conduct this conversation as the knuckle dragging ape you are, I’d suggest putting me down. I’m not here for violence, Commander… just to talk.”

Shepard hesitated, but then lowered him again. “Fine,” she answered through gritted teeth as he brushed and smoothed his uniform. “You wanna talk? Talk. Let’s start with your name.”

“Ohhhh, let’s see…” the man responded, stroking his chin. “A name, a name… I have so many names , you know. Can’t even remember what the first one I used was anymore. Well, around these parts, they call me Q… I suppose that’ll do.” He looked at Shepard’s uniform. “Hmm. I suppose I’m not exactly dressed for the occasion, am I?” Q snapped his fingers again, and his clothing changed, becoming an exact replica of an Alliance Navy admiral’s regalia, cap and all. He displayed his wardrobe change to Shepard, cocking his hip in her direction. “Ah, there we are! Much better, don’t you think?”

Shepard scoffed. “You’re no Alliance admiral. Don’t think you’ve earned it just because you can conjure it… what is this, some sort of biotic molecular distortion?”

Q let loose a short laugh. “Please! Biotics! That’s like spitting in the rain compared to what I can do.” Q snapped his fingers again, and Shepard found herself in an evening gown, sitting in a small Parisian bistro, the Eiffel Tower in the background. A basket of breadsticks sat on the table next to a candelabra display, perfectly framing the lit face of Q, now dressed in a tuxedo to complete the scene. “Ah, here we are… somewhere more pleasant for conversation. Ever since those Alliance retrofits, the Normandy ’s just gotten so drab . Say what you want about Cerberus, but at least they had an eye for interior design…” He snapped his fingers again, and a bottle of wine appeared, which he began to pour into a glass. “Now, Shep—may I call you Shep?—let’s talk about the rabbit hole into which you and your crew have so conveniently fallen, shall we?”

“What in the hell are you talking about?” Shepard asked in a harsh whisper as a maître d’ poured her own wine. “The only rabbit hole I see here is the one you whipped up!”

“Oh, goodness, so obtuse…” Q chided. “I thought that we could at least have a modicum of fun before your galaxy goes to hell… sometimes, it’s all we have left.” He leaned forward. “But then, I suppose I’m not really your type, am I? Maybe if I came to you with a crest or scars or some tentacles on my head, then you’d pay attention. Your tastes do tend to run the more… exotic routes, don’t they, Commander?”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Shepard shot back.

“Oh, believe me, I do,” Q replied, leaning forward over the table. “Commander Shepard. Born on Mindoir, joined the Alliance Navy after a slaver raid killed your family, lost your entire squad to a thresher maw attack during a mission on Akuze. Joined the prestigious N7 training program, became the first human Spectre, destroyed Sovereign and killed Saren Arterius during the Battle of the Citadel, you died, and were resurrected two years later by Cerberus through Project Lazarus, and stopped the Collectors invading human colonies in the Terminus Systems by destroying their base beyond the Omega 4 relay. Oh, and lest we forget, before that, you blew up a mass relay in batarian space to stop an early Reaper invasion, and caused this whole mess to begin with. Need I go on, or do I have your attention now?”

“So you looked at my service record and can do a few fancy parlor tricks… that still doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,” Shepard answered obstinately. “You really want me to listen to you? Take me back to my ship. This isn’t funny.”

A shocked expression appearing on his face, Q sighed in a theatrical manner. “You wound me, Shepard,” he said dramatically. “I come here to help, and out of the goodness of my heart provide you with a good meal and beautiful atmosphere in which to do it, and you shun me. What is it about you humans that you have to act like you know best all of the time?”

“Maybe because we just don’t like to take anything for free… especially when that free offer comes with an abduction,” Shepard suggested, her angry tone barely concealed.

Q sighed again. “Oh, very well… try to do something nice for someone…” he grumbled. He then snapped his fingers once more, and after another bright flash, Shepard found herself back in her own quarters, Q sprawled across her couch back in his Alliance uniform. “Fine then… drab and military it is…” the strange man said languidly. “You know, you’re even more irascible than Jean-Luc… and that, my dear, is quite the accomplishment.”

“Look, I don’t know who you think you are or what the hell you just did back there, but if you think that you can just waltz aboard my ship and do whatever you feel like, you can think again, mister,” Shepard said, not even making an attempt to conceal her frustrations. “Now, you mentioned Captain Picard… I take it he knows you?”

“Oh, yes… Jean-Luc and I go waaaaaay back,” Q replied. “In fact, he’s known me longer than he’s had that shiny new ship of his… I must say, I like the design of the new one much better. All that beige got very hard to look at after a while… still, it was better than Janeway’s… and Sisko’s station was the worst of the bunch. Never went back there with how dull it was… though it seems like everyone in Starfleet could use a decent interior decorator.”

“Yeah, wasn’t looking for your life story, thanks,” Shepard interrupted, her patience wearing thin. “If you’ve got something to say about the Reapers, then say it. Otherwise, I want you the hell off my ship.”

“Well, far be it from me to keep a lady waiting,” Q quipped, sitting up on the cushion. “I’ve watched you, Commander… I think it’s fair say that you know a great deal about the Reapers. You were , after all, one of the first ones of your race to see one up close… you and Sovereign got quite personal, didn’t you? And the less said about your history with Harbinger, the better…”

“How do you know all this?” Shepard asked.

“Please, dear, I’m omniscient; try to keep up,” Q answered dismissively. “Now, in all that time, you’ve learned quite a bit about your foe… but you still don’t know a few crucial things: who are they? Who built them? Where do they come from? Why do they want to harvest all organic life?”

“And you know the answers to those questions,” Shepard finished.

“Maybe I do… or maybe I don’t,” Q shrugged. “I’m all open to interpretation, aren’t I?”

Shepard scoffed. “For someone who claims to be omniscient, you sure aren’t doing a very good job of actually knowing things,” she pointed out. “You came here to tell me you have information on the Reapers I would apparently like to know… yet for all you’ve said while you’ve been here, none of it has been Reaper related.”

“I don’t recall ever saying my information was exclusively about the Reapers,” Q shot back. “It’s true I know a thing or two about them… but I can say that about a vast number of topics. What I actually said was that I wanted to talk about this rabbit hole in which you have found yourself… or do you just happen to fall into dimensional portals every day?” He leaned back into the couch. “You’ve had a strange life, Shep, but I don’t think it’s that strange just yet.”

Shepard nodded. “I guess you’ve got me there,” she conceded. She folded her arms over her chest. “Fine, then. You obviously know more about all this than I do. Keep going.”

“Yes, such is the curse of being me… knowing things that it takes the rest of you clods eons to figure out,” Q sighed. “But the point is, you haven’t the foggiest idea about how to defeat the Reapers… and neither do any of your new friends here in this galaxy. Your enemy is moving… people are getting changed to goo and fed to make new Reapers both here and at home. And this ‘Crucible’ project you seem to think will save you? It won’t be enough. Not by a long shot.”

Shepard blinked. “Keep talking,” she said.

“Oh, so I’ve finally got your attention, have I?” Q said, his tone once again dripping with smarm. “Consider me honored. No, really… having the time of the great Commander Shepard, her galaxy’s only hope for destroying the accursed Reaper hordes!” He leaned forward on the couch. “Except… maybe destroying them isn’t what you might want. Have you considered the possibility that there might be more to the story than you’re seeing? That maybe there’s another answer than just us or them?”

“What are you talking about?” Shepard asked. “If you really have another idea how to deal with the situation, I’m all ears.”

“And give away the game so easily? Not a chance!” Q laughed. “You’re a loooong way from ending this war, Commander… and I think that you might just be adept enough to figure out the answers on your own. Only just , mind you. Just remember, Shep… not everything is what it seems. The simplest answer is not always the right answer… and those you think you can trust may not always have your best interests at heart. And just the same, those who seem like enemies now may wind up being the key to your victory… or they could just be enemies! What do I know, really?”

“You’re not really doing much here to enhance your credibility,” Shepard said, frustrated.  “You really think that just because you play a few tricks and throw some buzz words out that I’ll just listen to you?”

“I suppose not… I certainly wouldn’t,” Q agreed. “But on the other hand… can you really afford not to?” Shepard didn’t answer, bringing another smile to Q’s face. “I’d say that about says it all,” he continued, standing up from the couch. “Well, pleasant as this visit has been, I really do think it’s time I was on my way… people to see, atoms to smash. Busy, busy, busy… do me a favor as a friend, and think on what I said, Shep. I’ll be in touch.” He raised his hands, almost as though he was going to snap his fingers again, but he stopped at the last second. “Oh, and if you see Jean-Luc anytime soon, do please let him know that his old pal Q has him in mind… it really has been too long since we got together…” He went through with the snap, and there was another bright flash… Shepard opened her eyes again to find herself back outside her quarters, Q nowhere to be seen, and Javik restored to his previous location.

The Prothean appeared startled, whirling around to see if the man was still there, his hands glowing with green biotic energy. As the energy dissipated, he turned back to Shepard, barely restrained rage on his face. “Commander… I do not like the implications of this entity. My people had stories of trickster gods… powerful beings who could alter the galaxy according to their wills. Until today, I had thought them merely stories…”

“Well, keep thinking that, Javik,” Shepard replied, ushering him back to the elevator. “This ‘Q’ seems like a good con man, but a god? I don’t think so.” She was silent for a moment. “Still… he mentioned Captain Picard… maybe I should bring this up with him next time we’re in his neck of the woods.”

“You believe that we will return?” Javik asked as the elevator started moving.

Shepard nodded. “I think that we might have to,” she answered. “I’ll admit, I may not trust the Federation fully… but Picard and his people at least seem trustworthy. I’m not letting my guard down quite yet… but let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic.”

“Optimism was not an emotion we saw much of in my cycle, Commander… I fear this hope for the best may prove to be your undoing,” Javik stated frankly.

“Well, for the galaxy’s sake, I hope you’re wrong, Javik… I really do.” The door slid open, and Shepard exited into the CIC, the door closing behind her as Javik returned to his own quarters. She made her way back to the bridge, where she could see the approaching blue swirls of the portal coming into view. “We all set for reentry, Joker?” she asked upon entering.

“Ready as we’ll ever be, Commander,” Joker replied, swiping his console. “EDI and I have calibrated the precise readings of the energy the field gives off… we shouldn’t have the turbulence we had the first time we went through. Figured if we were going to make this a more frequent thing, it’d be better if we didn’t come through with eighteen or so bruises every time.”

“Ready to enter portal on your command, Shepard,” EDI acknowledged.

Shepard nodded. “All right. Let’s go home… punch it, Joker.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Joker responded quickly, and the Normandy sprang forward, the engines taking it inside the portal again. Shepard watched this time as the whirling blue eddies swam around her ship, propelling it forward, small bursts of what looked like azure lightning jutting away from the plain walls, for lack of a better term.

After a few moments, they emerged again, and Shepard breathed a small sigh of relief. She glanced into the CIC, and saw the Galaxy Map recalibrating, now back into the familiar cartography of their own Milky Way. She placed a hand on the back of Joker’s chair. “Nice going, Joker,” she said. “That was much better.”

“Never let it be said that I let myself catastrophically screw up twice, Commander,” Joker answered, wiping his brow. Just then, he noticed a small flashing on his console. “Uh, you might want to get into the War Room, Commander… looks like someone’s trying to call over the QEC, but I can’t pinpoint the initial source…”

“Let me take it… I’m sure it’s probably just Hackett asking for a progress report.” Shepard proceeded through the CIC and War Room to the comm room, where she tapped a few buttons to bring the message to her… but rather than Admiral Hackett, a different face appeared: the tattooed visage of Aria T’Loak. Shepard blinked, but carefully hid her surprise. “Aria,” she said carefully. “I didn’t know you had access to this frequency.”

“And I’m sure that’s a story you’re eager to hear, but I’m not ready to give you that satisfaction,” Aria replied curtly. “Good to see I was finally able to get through, though… I’ve been trying this frequency for two days.”

“Well, we’ve been sort of… out of commission,” Shepard said. “Long story. Very classified.”

“Wasn’t even going to try, Shepard,” Aria scoffed. “Besides, I wasn’t calling to get information from you… I’m here to tell you something.”

“Fine. Let’s hear it,” Shepard answered, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“Not over a comm channel. Come to the Citadel,” Aria told her succinctly. “I won’t be able to say more until you’re here… but I promise you it’s both worth your effort and will help you in gathering your forces for this war.”

“More of your mercs?” Shepard asked.

“No,” Aria simply replied. “Like I said, I don’t want to say any more on this channel. I know your synthetic is listening, and I still don’t trust that you won’t necessarily be hacked. How soon can I expect you?”

“Well, we’ve just finished an operation… I’ll need to report to the Council on what we found. There’s something I want to discuss under my authority as a Spectre,” Shepard answered. “So I imagine the Citadel will be our next stop. You’re still in Purgatory?”

“Why would I leave when I have everything I could ever want here?” Aria said, rolling her eyes. “Yes, until I take Omega back, this is where I’ll be stuck. Come see me here… I guarantee you won’t regret what I have to say.”

The transmission cut off suddenly, and Shepard couldn’t help but heave a deep sigh. Aria T’Loak could never help but have the last word, no matter what conversation she was a part of. But still, the fact that she would play her hand in so callous a fashion, revealing that she not only had access to the Normandy ’s QEC but could use it at any time, meant that this was a vital matter. Aria was never given to hyperbole… if she claimed this would be worth Shepard’s while, it would definitely be worth the time a trip to the Citadel would take.

Just as Shepard was about to exit the room, the comm went off again, and she heard Traynor once more. “Commander, we’re receiving a signal from Sur’Kesh… dalatrass level clearance.”

Shepard blinked. The dalatrass? If this was about the fact that the Normandy had not yet arrived on Sur’Kesh with Primarch Victus for the proposed summit, that was certainly a callable offense… but for Dalatrass Linron herself to make the call? This was unexpected. Shepard had thought it far more likely for the contact to be made by Admiral Hackett or Councilor Udina… at least someone in the Alliance chain of command.

However, she was even more surprised when the real caller appeared in the comm: a face she hadn’t seen in nearly two and half years… “Captain Kirrahe!” she said, a smile coming to her face. The STG operative had been a major asset in the fight against Saren on Virmire… she’d hoped she would get the chance to work with him again. Maybe now was that time… “This is a surprise,” she continued. “It’s good to see you. What do I owe the pleasure?”

“Good to see you too, Shepard… and it’s Major Kirrahe now… I was promoted after Virmire,” the salarian soldier replied. “And I wish I could say that I was calling to discuss old times, but seeing how I’m utilizing an official dalatrass frequency, you can probably guess that’s not what I want.”

“Somehow, I thought that might have been the case,” Shepard agreed. “So, what did you need? Is this about the summit?”

“I’m afraid not, no… though, I will admit, Dalatrass Linron has been quite livid about the Normandy not yet arriving with Primarch Victus,” Kirrahe laughed. “She’s had to entertain Urdnot Wrex and the krogan delegation all by herself… you can imagine what that’s been like…”

“I can imagine,” Shepard laughed in return, the image of her cantankerous old krogan friend easily coming to mind. “So if it’s not about the dalatrass, the summit, or Wrex, what is it about?”

“This is a very sensitive issue, Shepard… before I proceed, you must agree that this will be on a need to know basis. Nobody outside of your inner circle is to know, especially not the krogan. Understood?” Shepard nodded, and Kirrahe continued. “Several days ago, there was a security breach at a top secret STG base here on Sur’Kesh. All the protocols were followed, and none of the security was tripped, but some very sensitive material was stolen… we believe our thief is attempting to start a rogue operation. We need your help to find and stop him.”

“A rogue STG agent?” Shepard asked. “So why involve the Alliance? This seems to be an internal salarian affair… I would think getting aliens involved would be considered an embarrassment for the salarian government.”

“I’m not involving the Alliance… I’m involving you . And believe me, Commander, if the situation weren’t so dire, we wouldn’t include outsiders,” Kirrahe assured her. “But this is a matter that affects the entire galaxy. The material that was stolen… was a female krogan who has been successfully cured of the genophage. A leftover from Maelon Heplorn’s experiments who we were keeping on the base for… observation. And the culprit… was Mordin Solus.”

Shepard blinked in surprise. “Mordin?” she asked. “That’s… interesting. He found Maelon’s research deplorable… hell, I had to stop him from killing Maelon over the outrage he felt from the unethical nature of his experiments. Why the hell would he steal a fertile krogan female… and for that matter, why was the salarian government holding onto one of those females?” she asked, her surprise turning to slight anger.

“More than one… but that’s not really the problem right now.” Shepard glared at the major. “As I said… a sensitive issue,” Kirrahe repeated, heightening Shepard’s frustration. He sighed. “I consider you a friend, Shepard… so believe me when I say that I want to say more… but the dalatrasses are keeping a close eye on me, especially with Mordin’s defection. I had hoped that since you worked closely with the man, that you would have a vested interest in his safety… and that perhaps in the interest of the war effort, and to avoid infighting, that it might be best to keep the existence of this female from the krogan. You saw Wrex on Virmire… imagine what he would do now if he found out we were keeping a secret this large from him.”

“All the more reason to tell him, Major,” Shepard argued. “You’re right. I do know Wrex… and I know that he’s not going to like that this information was hidden from him and his people.” She breathed deeply while rubbing her eyes. “For his safety and for the safety of the galaxy, I’ll help you look for Mordin. But I won’t help you keep damaging secrets. If Wrex or any other krogan find out about the female, that’ll be on your head… I won’t try to deny it.”

Kirrahe shook his head. “The dalatrasses aren’t going to like this… I’ll be lucky if I don’t get drummed out of STG for this…” he muttered. “Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to that… now, we know very little about where Mordin was going, save that he left Sur’Kesh. We’re fairly certain that he chartered a pilot, since if I recall, Mordin wasn’t much of one himself. So we’ve been keeping an eye out for any spaceports on the planet he might have used. Seems like he was very thorough… he released a VI into our systems that cloaks his presence. If he did make his way anywhere, none of our security vids have been able to pick him up. I realize that you’re busy, Commander… but please. This is vital to us.”

Shepard nodded. “Mordin mentioned that he knew you… can you give me any insight into where his mental state is right now, especially since he returned to STG?”

“Technically, Commander, he was only on as a consultant,” Kirrahe explained. “He was offered full return membership to STG, but he turned us down. With his work on the genophage modification, as well as his willingness to shut down Maelon’s work in the first place, we figured that maybe it would be safe to let him stay around the krogan. It would seem that we were wrong.” He sighed. “Anyway, Mordin mostly kept to himself. He seemed engrossed in his work… he never really showed any outward signs that he was preparing to do this, at least not to any of us.”

“I know… he’s a private person…” Shepard replied. “Well, I’ll do what I can. I’ll be making my way to the Citadel soon… while I’m there, I might be able to see if I can find anything that can break that VI, get us one step closer to finding Mordin. If I find anything, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Thank you, Shepard. This means a great deal to me,” Kirrahe said, the relief plain in his voice. “Oh, and Commander… I know that the political situation is fraught right now, and that you’re as adept at playing this game as any soldier can be. But I want you to know that even if the dalatrasses and the Council don’t recognize the threat that the Reapers represent, I certainly do. When the time comes, no matter what the politicians say, you can count on my support to retake your homeworld. After what you did for me and my men back on Virmire, it’s the least I can do.”

“I appreciate that, Major,” Shepard answered, a smile coming to her face. Kirrahe was a good man… it would be a shame if his career ended over something in which he didn’t necessarily believe. “I’ll contact you whenever I have more information on Mordin.”

“Again, thank you,” Kirrahe said. “Sur’Kesh out.” Kirrahe’s image vanished in the comm station, and Shepard brought a hand to her chin. No sooner had Aria T’Loak called about a vital matter that she evidently couldn’t discuss over a comm channel than the salarians had informed her that Mordin had gone rogue with a female krogan. If the rumors Shepard had been hearing were accurate, Wrex was leveraging krogan aid against the Reapers for a cure for the genophage, something that Shepard agreed his people deserved after all this time. The Krogan Rebellions were long over, and the last time Shepard had spoken to Wrex, he had indicated that as chief of Clan Urdnot, it was his desire to help the krogan move beyond their violent past to become part of the galactic community.

This female could be the key to making that alliance come to pass… if in fact Aria’s offer and the salarian desperation were related, there was only one way she was going to find out. And seeing how she had to speak to the Council anyway about what she had just gone through in Picard’s galaxy, there was only one place to go… “Joker,” she said into the comm, “set a course for the Citadel.” Joker replied his assent, and Shepard cracked her neck muscles. It had been a long day, but she somehow got the feeling it was about to get even longer…

 

 

Admittedly, it had only been a handful of times that Kira Nerys had been to Earth in the past… but even so, she couldn’t help feeling just the tiniest bit of guilt that on none of those trips had she visited Sisko’s Creole Kitchen in New Orleans. Captain Sisko had been quite the gourmand, and she knew that he got that particular interest from his father, Joseph Sisko, a man she had found to be charming every time she had met him. She was looking forward to seeing him again, as well as Jake and Kasidy… Julian had been kind enough to inform her that they had been staying with him for the past few months, ever since Jadzia had been born. Kira smiled to herself. She had almost forgotten little Jadzia… she’d never really thought of herself as the maternal type, but for whatever reason, she just had this soft spot where babies were concerned. She’d found it with the O’Brien children, Kirayoshi in particular, and was sure she would find it again with Jadzia Sisko-Yates.

Before they hit Sisko’s, however, Julian felt that it would be nice to show her some of the sights of New Orleans, which was why they were currently strolling through Audubon Park, a city landmark, or so Kira had been told. Why Julian would insist on wasting her time like this, she would never know… in spite of the lovely scenery, it was just a distraction from her mission of freeing Bajor from whoever controlled those massive vessels. The sooner they could find some help, the better… and if Sisko’s was a start to that plan, she just wanted to get there and get it over with. “Julian, this is all very nice,” she said, “but the whole reason we’re going to Sisko’s in the first place is so I can find some Starfleet help to liberate Bajor… time is kind of an important factor.”

“Oh, I realize that, Colonel,” Julian assured her. “But we’re waiting on the dinner crowd… it’s still a little too early for anyone to be coming out from Starfleet. I just brought you out here early because we both had a free afternoon, and I thought it might take your mind off things for a while.”

“I appreciate the attempt; really, I do,” Kira answered, hoping she was keeping the exasperation out of her voice. “But I’m not really very good at not worrying about my people… never have been, probably never will be…”

“Not working, eh?” Julian said. “Well, you’ll forgive me for the attempt… I’d really hoped sightseeing might do you some good.”

“Why would you think that—“

Just then, Kira noticed a slight inclination of Julian’s head, and he indicated a figure sitting on a bench. Coming closer, Kira saw that she was human, female, but little else. Her face was turned toward the shadows… clearly, this was someone who wanted to keep their identity hidden. “That’s our contact, I think…” Julian said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner, Nerys, but I was told to keep it quiet until the last possible moment… I received a message telling me to meet someone here tonight, just before the dinner rush at Sisko’s. I believe she has information for us.” Kira nodded, and the two sat down on the other end of the bench, next to the mysterious woman. Now that they were closer, Kira could see long black hair, which only served to hide the face better. Julian cleared his throat. “Well? We’re here.”

“Dr. Julian Bashir, and Colonel Kira Nerys,” the woman said, some sort of accent to her voice that Kira had never heard before… it was similar to Julian’s but some of the inflections were distinctly different. An orange computer seemed to glow around her arm as she peered into it. “I’ve done some research on you two… I believe you were both stationed on that space station near the wormhole, yes?”

“That’s right,” Kira joined in. “What do you want?”

“You saw them, then, Colonel? Those huge spaceships that emerged from the portal?” the woman inquired.

“You know about them?” Kira asked, sliding slightly closer on the bench. A raised hand from the contact told her that she had gone far enough. “How?”

“I know a great deal about the Reapers, Colonel… I’ve seen them up close, even went inside one once… destroyed one too, with a little help from some friends,” the woman responded, still turned away. “I can give you information on them, if you so desire… in exchange for a favor.”

“What do you want?” Kira asked, though keeping herself from sighing in relief that this mysterious enemy finally had a name.

“Passage offworld,” the woman answered. “I came here on a fact finding mission… not as easy as it sounds. And I also came here to hide… but I get the feeling that it won’t be safe here for much longer… and it’s time I moved on anyway.”

“Not safe? What do you mean?” Julian chimed in. “This is Earth! It’s the capital of the Federation! No one would dare attack here without invoking the wrath of Starfleet and its allies.”

“The Breen did it, didn’t they?” the woman pointed out. “And the Reapers? They’re worse than the Breen. They don’t care, Doctor… to the Reapers, Earth could be a sparsely populated backwater for all the good it would do. Any world containing advanced lifeforms— any world--is fair game to them. Mark my words… they’ll be coming here soon, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get offworld as soon as possible… and in exchange for this and more information, you’ll take me and an associate with you.”

“How do we know we can trust you? You won’t even show your face to us,” Kira pointed out.

“I needed to know that you could be trusted,” the woman explained. “I’ve gotten on the bad side of some very powerful people recently… I can’t be too careful.” She sighed deeply. “Fine… if it’ll help ease your mind…” The woman slid over from her side of the bench, and turned her head, coming closer into the light. Kira could see her face now… she was beautiful, with striking blue eyes and pale skin that only accentuated her raven hair. “There. Is that better?” she asked, a somewhat haughty tone to her voice.

“Well… we could use a name?” Julian suggested, eliciting yet another sigh from the stranger.

“Miranda Lawson,” she answered succinctly. “Now, is this satisfactory? Because I would appreciate it if we could get off this planet without attracting too much attention.”

“Where do you expect us to take you?” Julian asked. “We haven’t got a ship.”

“That’s not what your records suggested,” Lawson answered, clearly growing annoyed with the conversation. “They indicated that Colonel Nerys…”

“Colonel Kira ,” Kira interrupted. “It’s the Bajoran naming custom to put the family name first.”

“Well, forgive me for not understanding precise nuances of how things work… I’m not from around here,” Lawson scoffed. “At any rate, your file seemed to indicate that you were the commanding officer of the USS Defiant . That’s the ship I intended to use… are you telling me you aren’t in command anymore?”

“No. As far as I know, I’m still in command of the Defiant ,” Kira answered, the tone in her voice showing her disdain for this woman’s attitude. “But my crew and I have been ordered to stay here on Earth for the time being while the ship’s in spacedock. By order of Admiral Nechayev, I don’t have access.”

“Damn it…” Lawson said, running a hand over her face. “Do you have any more good news?”

“Well, if it helps… I know a restaurant nearby that makes a wonderful jambalaya,” Julian replied. “And, it also happens to be a hangout for Starfleet personnel… personnel who may be able to get you onboard a ship outbound from Earth. If this were the case, would it be enough quid pro quo to warrant your help?”

Lawson paused, considering Julian’s offer. After a moment, she nodded. “Assuming you can get me aboard a ship, then our deal is still fair. I’ll have to accept your terms.” She smiled, a small, humorless affair. “You’re rather a shrewd negotiator, Doctor… though I suppose that comes from your genetically enhanced status, yes?”

Julian blinked, clearly taken aback. “You know about my—“

“I’ve been in every relevant file related to you, Dr. Bashir… and that includes classified or personal files,” Lawson explained. “You really should be more careful what you write in your correspondence… I understand genetic alteration is frowned upon here.”

“Just… where are you from, exactly?” Julian asked. “You look human, and your accent is Australian… yet you seem unfamiliar with a great deal of our history and culture. Care to explain?”

“It would take far too long to get into… just take us to this restaurant, and I’ll explain what I can there,” Lawson replied quickly, rising from the bench. She placed a hand to her ear. “All right, you can come out now.”

From the shade of a nearby tree emerged a second woman, this one with a partially shaved head, the rest of her short brownish hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was covered head to toe in tattoos, a pair of strange machine implants flashing on her ears. She dressed far less formally than Lawson, with only a few white straps covering her breasts placed under a studded leather jacket. Her pants also seemed scanty, with holes seemingly cut into the side. “’Bout goddamn time,” she said as she made her way to the others. “Was starting to get a leg cramp back there… this bodyguard thing’s not all it’s cracked up to be, cheerleader.”

“Dr. Bashir, Colonel Kira, meet Jack,” Lawson said, pointing a thumb back at the other woman. “She and I are working together… by necessity, I assure you.”

“Hey, precious, this isn’t a picnic for me either…” Jack replied in a surly voice, crossing her arms over her chest. “We’re both looking for people. That’s all. You got the contacts and the know-how, I’ve got the muscle.”

Lawson smirked. “Charming, isn’t she?” she said, her tone oozing smarm. “Well? Shall we be off?” Lawson and Jack proceeded off toward the direction of Sisko’s… damn. They knew where it was all the time. So why the rigmarole, Kira wondered… and she voiced as much to Julian.

“Who knows?” Julian replied as he and Kira started off in the same direction. “Perhaps they’re toying with us…”

“Not exactly the way to play nice if they want something out of us…” Kira remarked.

“Maybe things are different where they come from,” Julian postulated. “Besides, I’ve known a few with their kind of attitude… most of them were hiding something. Do you suppose they could be spies or informants?”

“If they were, wouldn’t they just have reported your genetically enhanced status to the Federation Council or someone and been done with you?” Kira wondered. “Seems to me that they really need our help… this isn’t just a game.” She sighed. “All the same, though, I don’t like it… you’re definitely right about them hiding something.”

“Quite,” Julian agreed. “Keep an eye on them in Sisko’s… one false move…” He pointed to the phaser Kira customarily carried on her hip. She nodded.

Ahead of the colonel and the doctor, Jack leaned into Miranda Lawson. “Figures… how did I know that you would be able to find the one person in this galaxy just as genetically perfect as you are?” she said derisively. “It’s like you’re a goddamn magnet…”

Miranda shook her head, but didn’t rise to her companion’s taunting. “What did you turn up?” she asked quietly, hoping not to arouse their new companions’ attention.

“Nothing,” Jack answered. “They aren’t here. Just like I thought they wouldn’t be. This whole goddamn trip has been completely fucking pointless. How the hell you convinced me to follow you in the first place—“

“Cerberus is after us both, Jack,” Miranda reminded her. “You wanted to get away for a while… where better than another galaxy?”

Jack looked directly into Miranda’s eyes, her gaze daggers. “If you’re telling me you fucking manipulated me into coming here, I will kill you.”

“Not at all,” Miranda continued. “I really thought there might be some clue here that would lead us to my father… the revelation of this new galaxy seems far too perfect to be coincidence. And I thought that maybe if we found my father, we would find Ori…”

“Oh, I get it now,” Jack said, her voice rising as her hands glowed with biotic power. “This was all about you, your daddy issues, and your perfect sister. You never gave a shit about me or my kids, did you?”

“Jack. That’s not fair,” Miranda replied, trying to urge her associate down from her rage. “I thought that maybe if my father were trying to turn Oriana into his ideal daughter, then they might be trying to do the same with your students. They kept them alive for a reason… and even if not, my father may have a discreet way to access the Illusive Man’s records, now that I’m locked out… then we could find your students, wherever they were.” She sighed. “It appears my hunch about this other galaxy was mistaken… only the Reapers have come through so far. I’m sorry.”

Jack blinked, taken aback as the glow in her hands subsided. “Um… wow. I didn’t expect that.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “That’s… not the first time you’ve apologized, is it? ‘Cause if it is, that was actually pretty good, and that might just piss me off.”

Miranda chuckled humorlessly. “Oh, I’ve apologized before… not for as many things as I probably should have, but you can’t change the past.”

“Maybe… but you can sure blow it the hell up,” Jack replied, a small laugh escaping her throat.

“Well, we can’t all get that sort of closure,” Miranda agreed, a small, yet sad, smile coming to her lips as she thought of Jack’s own quest to destroy the facility on Pragia that had turned her into a super-biotic. “At least we can get off this planet soon… I don’t know about you, but seeing this version of Earth makes me… uneasy.”  

“Never been to our Earth, actually… though the vids sure don’t look like this,” Jack said. “You think things went differently here?”

“Naturally,” Miranda answered. “You’re familiar with the multiverse theory? Infinite combinations of infinite universes? Obviously, this one developed along a very different path from the one we know… yet, there is still an Earth, and there are still humans, yet we’ve found no trace of any other race from where we come from… don’t you find that a bit odd?”

“Yeah… now that you mention it,” Jack agreed, taking a brief peek back to Kira and Bashir. “What, you think Cerberus won?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Miranda shook her head. “I don’t even think there was a Cerberus… nor Protheans, Reapers, the Citadel, or even mass relays.”

“Doesn’t seem like they know a ton about any of the shit we take for granted,” Jack said. “But hey, looks like they’ve still got decent enough firepower… you think we could use ‘em?”

“Well, I obviously can’t make any recommendations to the Alliance, thanks to my… history,” Miranda replied. “However, there are a few people I know who could help… and if those fall through, there’s always Shepard.”

“Oh, hell yeah. Shepard would jump at this,” Jack agreed, as they reached the door to Sisko’s. “So… whose ship are we grabbing?”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Miranda answered as she and Jack were joined by Kira and Bashir. “This is the restaurant you recommended?”

“This is the one,” Julian replied, opening the door. “Shall we discuss business over dinner, then?”

“Just make sure whatever we order has plenty of spice,” Jack said, pushing past Julian to enter first. “I’m getting tired of eating Alliance rations.”

As Miranda followed her associate into the restaurant, Kira, a quizzical look on her face, turned to Julian. “What do you think she’s talking about?” she asked him. “I’ve never heard of any Alliance… except for that Klingon-Cardassian Alliance from that other universe. But they’re human, so they would know the roles we played in helping the resistance…”

“Yes… this is all very peculiar…” Julian responded, stroking his chin with his index finger. “We can’t allow them to get offworld without knowing more about them. They could very well be using Starfleet to infiltrate the Federation… they might even be in league with these ‘Reapers’, if that’s what these invaders really are.”

“Right. Well, let’s hope that we can—“

Kira was interrupted by a beep from her commbadge. “ Defiant to Colonel Kira,” came Lieutenant Koron’s voice.

“Go ahead,” she answered.

“We’re receiving a subspace communique on a Dominion frequency… it’s pretty garbled, but from what we can make out, they’re insisting that it’s for your ears only,” Koron said. “I can try to patch it down to you through your badge… or if there’s an accessible comm unit nearby, that would do too.”

“I’ll see what I can find, Lieutenant… if not, the badge will do fine,” Kira answered. “Do what you can… I’ll see what comes through. Kira out.” She tapped her badge again, and her head turned back to her human friend. “Sorry, Julian… you might have to see if you can distract them alone. This sounds important, especially if it’s a Dominion transmission.”

“Not a problem,” he assured her, a flippant smile appearing on his face. “I’m nothing if not the perfect distraction.”

“On that, we agree,” Kira replied with a smile of her own. “Good luck. I’ll be back soon.”

Turning again toward the door to the restaurant, Julian found himself taking in a sharp breath. No matter how many times he came here, he couldn’t help but feel bad for Jake, Kasidy, and Joseph… the way Captain Sisko had disappeared, taken by the Prophets to who knew where, had been an inglorious disservice. The last person to see him had been Kasidy, who hadn’t known when, if at all, he was to return. Just like the Prophets, she claimed he now lived a non-corporeal, non-linear existence, so hypothetically, he could come back at any time. So the question was, why hadn’t he? Julian had been to see Kasidy and Jake on and off since he had returned to Earth, but neither of them had heard from the captain since the end of the war… Kasidy had claimed the Prophets were altering him, training him for something to come… but what that could be, she had no idea. Now, these mysterious invaders—these ‘Reapers’, to use Lawson’s term—and two strange women looking for transport offworld in exchange for information? Julian had always believed that he lived in strange times, but they were becoming stranger by the moment.

Entering Sisko’s, Julian found his two transient companions sitting on a bench inside, near to the owner’s host station… evidently, it was a busy night. Peering inside, the doctor could see most of the tables filled, now with Starfleet personnel, though also the occasional civilian diner. Then, exiting the kitchen, he noticed a young man dressed in a vest and chatting up the customers, a jovial smile on his face. It was at that moment that Julian realized just how long it had really been since the first time he had seen Jake Sisko, and how much he didn’t know about where his life was right now… the captain had told him that the boy had been looking at reapplying to the Pennington School in New Zealand in an effort to further his blossoming writing career, but the fact that he was still working at his grandfather’s restaurant in New Orleans suggested that that had not yet come to pass. It seemed likely that he had wanted to assist his stepmother with his new baby sister, thinking that everything else could be put on hold until such a point that Kasidy could handle it on her own… Jake was nothing if not a kind lad, something Julian had always liked about him.

Julian waved a hand in the air and caught Jake’s attention, a grin coming to the boy’s face as he did so. He excused himself from his conversation, and made his way to where Julian was standing. “Dr. Bashir!” he said, moving behind the host station. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here tonight… where’s Chief O’Brien?”

“I’m afraid Miles didn’t accompany me this evening, Jake… Kira did, and she should be along any moment now,” Julian explained. He sauntered toward Lawson and Jack. “These two lovely ladies will also be joining us tonight.”

Jake laughed. “Well, that sounds like a great evening. I’ll get you guys set up with a table and let Grandpa and Kas know you’re here. Be right back!” He beelined back to the direction of the kitchen, leaving Julian to sit down next to his company.

Lawson turned toward him with an annoyed expression on her face. “Are we really just here to chat with your friends, Doctor, or do you actually plan to do what you promised?” she asked.

“Have no fear, Miss Lawson,” Julian answered charmingly. “I can assure you that if anyone would be willing to help you get off Earth, they’re to be found here.”

Just then, Kira came through the door, a troubled look on her face. “Julian,” she said, “we have a problem.”

“What’s wrong?” the doctor replied, coming to his feet quickly.

“That Dominion transmission? It was from Odo,” she explained. “The Reapers have invaded the Gamma Quadrant and attacked the Great Link… so far as he knows, he’s the only Founder left. He’s limping toward the wormhole with Weyoun in a damaged Jem’Hadar cruiser… he says he should be there in a few days, and wants a Starfleet escort, if we can arrange one. That stealing the Defiant option is just starting to look better and better…”

“Now, hang on, Nerys, let’s not get carried away here…” Julian said, trying to place a calming hand on her shoulder. “This isn’t the best solution for the problem at hand… let’s just take a deep breath, and—“

Suddenly, an enormous rumble was heard outside, unlike anything Julian had ever heard before. A look of abject horror appeared on Kira’s face. “By the Prophets, no…” she whispered. “Not here… not now…”

Lawson and Jack appeared equally mortified, as Lawson placed her hand on Julian’s shoulder. “Doctor, we need to leave here. Now .”

“Look, would somebody just tell me what’s—“ Before Julian could finish his sentence, the rumble became a boom, and the ground shook beneath his feet. He rushed to the door, his comrades at his heels, and through the corner of his eye he saw Kira drawing her phaser.

Throwing the door open, a terrifying sight met his eyes. There it was, just as Kira had described: those massive machines, kilometers high, raining devastation down upon the city. “My God…” he whispered. “Nerys… how are we supposed to fight that thing?”

“Not here, and not now, that’s how,” Lawson said succinctly, pulling her own weapon from a holster on her belt. It was then that Julian noticed a blue glow coming to Jack’s hands, a low growl coming from her throat. “I thought this version of Earth would be safe from the Reapers… it appears I was wrong about that,” Lawson continued. “Colonel, if you have any ideas about ships, now is the time.”

“I don’t—“ Kira began, before a chime from her comm unit interrupted her. She tapped it to respond as Lawson fired a burst of some sort into a creature of combined flesh and circuitry. “Kira here!” the Bajoran yelled as she vaporized one of the creatures as well.

“Colonel! This is Admiral Nechayev!” a strained voice called from the other end. “Are you in San Francisco? Starfleet Command is under attack by these monstrosities!”

“I would say I told you so, Admiral, but now seems an inappropriate time!” Kira answered. Behind her, Jack thrust an arm out, creating a shockwave that blew some of these creatures, now joined by ones distinctly more alien looking, off their feet. “I’m in New Orleans, and they’ve landed here too! What did you want?”

“Colonel Kira, in light of… new developments…” Nechayev paused as Kira heard a phaser blast in the background, “by the authority vested in me by Starfleet Command and Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chekov, I would like to formally ,” she said forcefully, a thud heard as she finished, “instate you and any other remaining Bajoran Militia personnel into Starfleet, and restore your command of the USS Defiant . Congratulations, Captain Kira. You want help for Bajor? You’ve got it… but I think that we’ll all need that help before long.”

“Consider the promotion graciously accepted, Admiral!” Kira answered, firing her phaser again. “Do you need an evacuation? I can have the Defiant there in minutes!”

“Negative, Captain,” Nechayev replied. “I’m working on evacuating the Federation Council at the moment… fall back to the rendezvous point over Vulcan! We’ll meet there with as many Starfleet vessels as we can, and plan our next move! Nechayev out!”

“Congratulations on the ship!” Jack yelled as Kira closed the channel, her strange powers throwing more of the monsters into the air. “Now can we get the fuck out of here?! I wasn’t really looking to get killed in a damn Reaper invasion today!”

“We’ve got to help get the civilians out of here!” Julian cried over the din. “I realize the Defiant is a utilitarian vessel, but there has to be room aboard for a few!”

“Sometimes, people have to be sacrificed for the greater good, Doctor,” Lawson said, catching her breath. “The sooner you accept this, the happier you’ll be.”

“You sound just like a friend of mine…” Kira heard Julian mutter, a difficult proposition all in itself… the screams of the injured and dying echoed from the streets, a percussion of phaser bursts complementing the chaos. It was Bajor all over again… but this time, it was the capital of the Federation itself. The Reapers had penetrated the heart of the Alpha Quadrant in a fraction of the time it had taken the Klingons, the Borg, or even the Dominion. This could be a galaxy-wide event… how could they fight anything of this magnitude? Lawson and Jack seemed to know more… she just hoped they had an answer to winning this war.

KIRA! ” she suddenly heard a voice in her head screaming. “ KASIDY! JAKE! MY FATHER AND DAUGHTER! SAVE THEM!

“Captain Sisko?” Kira whispered. She shook her head, and the voice was gone. That was impossible… Benjamin Sisko had disappeared a year ago, and according to Kasidy, he had been abducted by the Prophets in final preparation for his true destiny as their Emissary. There was no way that she could be hearing his voice in the middle of a war zone… but its message… “Julian!” she yelled to her friend. “Get inside the restaurant! Get the Siskos out of there! We’ll see if we can get them out with us on the Defiant !”

“Gladly, Colo—oh, sorry, Captain!” Julian replied, sprinting to the restaurant as fast as his feet could carry him.

“Is this absolutely necessary, Captain Kira?” Lawson asked derisively. “Surely there are more strategic assets to save than a Creole restaurateur…”

“Listen!” Kira said, whirling on the other woman. “I don’t know what kind of hole you crawled out of, but I’m not in the habit of letting friends die, especially when those friends are also the family of a man I admire more than anyone in the galaxy! So if you want a ride out on my ship, I would suggest you not make a habit out of criticizing my command decisions. Am I understood?”

Lawson scowled, and a blue glow began to center around her palms too, but Jack reached over and grabbed her arm. “Cheerleader,” she said quietly. “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but… pick the battles. Right time, right place.”

Lawson turned back to Kira for a moment, the glow not subsiding… however, a blast over the Bajoran’s shoulder, causing her to yelp and fall to the ground, showed why, as another one of the monsters dropped to the ground. “Very well… Captain Kira,” Lawson said, allowing the glow to fade. “We’ll play it your way. I just hope we don’t all regret it.”

Julian threw the doors of the restaurant open, closely followed by the Siskos: Ben’s father, Joseph, moving as quickly as his heart would allow him; Jake, propping his grandfather up and watching behind; and Kasidy, holding the bundle of little Jadzia in her arms and warily glancing from side to side. “I’ve got them, Colo-- Captain !” Julian yelled, a slight self-scolding tone in his voice as he reminded himself yet again of Kira’s change in rank.

Kira sighed with relief. “Thanks, Julian,” she said as she came closer. She saw that Jake had a small cut on his arm, and that everyone was covered with dust, but otherwise, the Siskos were no worse for wear. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“We’re fine, Nerys,” Kasidy answered, checking on the bundle wrapped in her arms as Jadzia fussed. “What the hell is that thing? I’ve tried to ping my crew, but nobody’s answering.”

“I’m afraid that might be because there’s nobody there to answer,” Kira responded grimly. “These things don’t really seem to be showing restraint.”

“Nor will they,” Lawson chimed in. “As I said, these things are devoted to nothing less than complete extermination of organic life. No quarter will be shown, so none should be given.”

Before Kasidy or Jake could ask about their new companions, Julian interrupted: “Have you managed to get in touch with the Defiant ?”

“Trying now,” Kira replied as she tapped her commbadge. “Kira to Defiant . Koron, are you up there? Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear… well, as much as possible,” Koron’s voice piped from the badge, though garbled and somewhat concealed by static. “They hit Spacedock first… Admiral Nechayev’s order to scramble the fleets came in just in the nick of time. But I’m just barely holding her together, Colonel… we need to leave. Are you safe for a beam out?”

“We are, Lieutenant… and it’s Captain Kira now, by the way,” she said. “I’ll explain everything once we’re out of the crisis zone… we’ve got eight to beam up.”

“Eight?” Koron asked in confusion. “We’re only picking up two commbadges in your immediate vicinity.”

“We’re evacuating civilians too,” Kira explained. “We need to pull out everyone here if we can.”

“Wait!” Julian yelled. “We need to find the O’Briens! Miles and his family are still in San Francisco! They were planning on picking him up today after his classes! If the Reapers are as heavy there as the admiral said, we need to save them!”

“Out of the question,” Lawson said, stepping into Julian’s face. “There’s no time for detours. Either we leave now, or we all die, not just your friends.”

“What are we talking here?” Jack asked. “Kids?” Through the corner of her eye, Kira spotted Lawson rolling her eyes. “Send me in there,” Jack continued. “Just tell me who I’m looking for and I’ll make it happen.”

“I should have bloody known…” Lawson muttered as she covered her face with her palms. “Fine. If we’re really going to insist on rescuing our little lost lambs, let’s get the hell on with it.”

Kira nodded, and as Julian started to explain just who Jack would be looking for, she tapped her badge again. “Lieutenant, small change of plan… beam up seven of us, and then one separately. Redirect that transporter signal to San Francisco, and be ready for her signal for a beam out. I’m not leaving without getting as many civilians as I can.”

“Understood, Captain… ready to beam up,” Koron responded.

“Stand by,” Kira answered, and turned toward her tattooed comrade. “Jack, was it? Thank you for doing this… but be careful. I don’t want anyone else to die today, especially not if you can help us further.”

“No promises,” Jack scoffed. “Just make sure you don’t leave without me… or I’ll know why and come after her ,” she continued, jabbing a thumb in Lawson’s direction.

Kira chuckled humorlessly. “I’ll hold you to that,” she agreed, and then tapped her badge again. “Lieutenant… energize.” The beam manifested around them, and Kira found herself and her passengers in a transporter room aboard the Defiant , where Koron was waiting for them.

“You never get tired of me pulling you out of the fire, do you, Captain?” Koron said.

“Watch it, Lieutenant, or when we get our new Starfleet uniforms, I’ll make sure yours is replicated two sizes too small,” Kira replied. “You still have the bridge for now… I want to keep an eye on the situation here. Keep these invaders off us until I give the order.” Koron saluted and made his way out of the room escorting the Siskos, giving Kira a chance to look to Lawson. “You know her better than we do… how long do you think your friend will take?”

“Unless she becomes distracted by rage or her skewed perception of a situation, she can typically be quite reliable,” Lawson answered, somewhat coldly for someone who was supposedly such a close comrade. “I can’t, however, guarantee that there might not be collateral damage… hopefully more to the Reapers than humans, though.”

“She seems hard… but she’s got a soft spot for children, I suspect?” Julian asked.

“More accurately, Doctor, I believe she has a soft spot for anything weak and lost,” Lawson clarified. “I heard before we left that she was in the market to adopt an abandoned biotic varren from a shelter on the Citadel…”

Julian looked puzzled. “What’s a--”

“Never mind,” Lawson sighed, eyeing the transporter pad instead. “The point is, Jack’s psychological profile and my personal experience with her has suggested that her determination when it comes to putting her mind to something is boundless and single-minded. She’ll get your friend out if she can, I assure you.”

“Well, let’s just hope that she--”

Kira was interrupted by Lawson raising her finger as she put her other hand to the comm device in her ear. She nodded and said, “All right, I’ll let them know.” She put her hands back down on her hips. “Well, Captain, she’s found them. Four to… beam up, was it?”

“Four? Is Jack staying behind?” Kira asked, but Lawson didn’t answer. Shaking her head, Kira turned to the transporter chief. “Lock on and energize,” she said.

The chief acknowledged, and a moment later, Jack materialized on the pad, supporting Keiko over her shoulder, and carrying Molly and Kirayoshi… but Miles was nowhere to be seen. “No…” Kira heard Julian whisper behind her, and he made his way in front of her to check on them, thanking Jack as he did so. “Are you all right?” he asked, scanning Keiko with a medical tricorder.

“My ankle’s broken, I think… but I’m fine,” Keiko O’Brien replied. “We lost Miles in the attack… he was buried… she… she threw the rubble with some kind of force… but we couldn’t find him. Oh… oh, God, Julian, what if…” She sank into Julian, tears coming to her eyes.

Kira could tell Julian was having difficulty holding together as well, but he was a Starfleet officer, and a doctor at that. He knew there was a right time and a right place, and right now, he needed to be of service to his best friend’s family. “Come on,” he said, taking Keiko’s weight onto his shoulders and picking up the crying Kirayoshi, with Molly holding his hand as well. “Let’s get to sickbay and get you all checked out.” He led the O’Briens out of the transporter room, a telling glance to Kira on his way out revealing his grief.

Jack cracked her neck as she stepped down off the pad. “Well… don’t everybody thank me at once or anything…” she said sulkily.

Kira sighed. “Thank you,” she said, causing Jack to turn in surprise. Clearly, this was something to which she was unaccustomed. “The O’Briens mean a great deal to both of us… it means a great deal that you were willing to go back into a war zone just to help us out.”

Jack rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah, well… no big deal. I just don’t like to see kids put in a bad place, you know?” She sighed. “I’m sorry about your friend. Losing someone like that always sucks.”

Kira nodded, but didn’t answer Jack, instead merely turning to her companion. “My apologies, Ms. Lawson… we’re a bit overextended right now, but I’ll see if we can find you and your friend some quarters. They won’t be pretty or luxurious, but they’ll get the job done. Will you be ready to report on the Reapers to Starfleet Command when we reach our destination?”

“Actually, I think it would be preferable if we gave you the information and then went our separate ways,” Lawson replied. “As I mentioned, we’re on the run from some very powerful and dangerous individuals, and the longer we linger in one place, the greater the chance that we’ll be found. Rest assured, however, that you will have access to any knowledge we can give you, admittedly limited though it may be.”

“Understood,” Kira replied. “I’ll see if we can spare a shuttle and a pilot to get you where you want to go whenever we get to Vulcan. Meantime, I need to get up to the bridge and coordinate the evacuation… I’ll make sure you have a security escort.” She gestured to a Bajoran security officer in the corner of the room, who made his way to them and gave an acknowledging nod. “I’ll get back to you when we’re safe.” Kira, Lawson, and Jack exited the room, the Bajoran officer leading them toward the direction of quarters as Kira made her way in the direction of a bridge turbolift.

Miranda leaned into Jack and whispered, “Did you turn anything else up?”

“Yeah,” Jack answered, and held up an emblem from a uniform. “Cerberus was down there too… somebody got sloppy. You might have been onto something, cheerleader.”

Miranda nodded. “It’s just as I suspected,” she said. “I knew that if we knew about the portal, the Illusive Man had to… and with his obsession with controlling the Reapers, I knew that it would only be a matter of time before he came through too. It would seem our timetable is advanced.”

Jack nodded, but before continuing, she noticed they had arrived at their destination. The security officer keyed a code into the door, and turned to the two women. “These will be your quarters for the duration of your stay. If you should wish to go anywhere, please alert security, and we’ll have an escort take you there. Will there be anything else?”

“No, thank you,” Miranda answered, the syrupy-sweet tone in her voice making Jack almost gag. “We'll manage.” The door slid shut, and Miranda sighed and sat in a chair near the door. “Bloody idiot…”

“So… what’s the plan?” Jack asked, sitting in a chair of her own.

“Just what I said,” Miranda answered. “We give them what we know--as much as we care to give , of course--and then leave.”

“Going home?” Jack asked.

“No,” Miranda replied. “Not just yet. If Cerberus is here, that could still mean, just as I had originally suspected, they may use this galaxy to hide some of their more illicit research… or some very valuable prisoners. Even if he isn’t with them, my father could possibly come to the same conclusions… we should stay.”

Jack scoffed. “Still thinking about your goddamn sister… of fucking course."

“Jack, tell me, is it really possible that you are this myopic, or are you just more self-deluded than I had thought?” A glare from Jack and a flare of blue in her hands caused Miranda to exhale a sigh. “I’m sorry… I don’t mean to keep doing that. I know you’re worried about your students too. I haven’t forgotten them, Jack, I promise. But you know as well as I do that there are too many pieces to this puzzle to just focus on a small area… and besides, I may have a solution to some of those problems.”

“Yeah? And why didn’t you mention this before?” Jack demanded.

 “I’ve just learned it,” Miranda answered. “I had planned to tell you after our meeting… when I used my omni-tool to access Starfleet’s records on our new friends, I found everything… and I do mean everything.” She pulled up her omni-tool and keyed a few strokes across it, pulling up images of humans clothed in black leather uniforms. “They weren’t prepared to have their systems accessed through our technology… I imagine this will soon be corrected, so I took what I could now… and I discovered something only a select few in this galaxy know about.” She indicated the images. “Say hello to Section 31… as I understand it, they are a covert operation outside the jurisdiction of Starfleet, devoted to preserving their Federation by any means necessary.”

“So… Cerberus,” Jack extrapolated.

“Perhaps not yet… but it seems very likely that Section 31 is an organization that Cerberus would possibly support or use to their own ends,” Miranda explained. “Therefore, I propose an infiltration… we get inside 31, we can get to Cerberus.”

“Yeah, nice plan… except for one thing…” Jack pointed out. “If Section 31 is so secret that most people here don’t even know about it, then how the hell are we supposed to get in?”

“That’s why I chose this ship,” Miranda revealed. “As it turns out, one of the officers serving aboard this ship was not only contacted by 31 to join them at one point, but actually went on a few operations on their behalf… and even with the damage he’s supposedly done to them over the years, he is evidently still a target for recruitment. He’ll be our ticket in.”

“Yeah? So who the hell is he?” Jack asked.

“Dr. Julian Bashir,” Miranda replied. “If we can get the good doctor onboard, we get into 31. We get into 31, we get to Cerberus… and when we get to Cerberus, that’s when we can find our people.”

Jack’s lips pursed and she nodded in agreement. “Not a bad plan, I gotta say,” she acknowledged. “So… where do we stuff him?”

“I’m still working out the precise details, Jack… but rest assured, Bashir will be mysteriously disappearing sometime after we reach Vulcan… and by the time they realize what’s happened, we’ll be long gone,” Miranda said. “In the meantime, I think we have some preparations to make… it’s time we let some old friends into the loop…”

 

 

“It is called a mass relay,” Seven of Nine declared to the assembled throng in the briefing room aboard the USS Voyager . The entire command staff, minus Mr. Neelix, had gathered around the table after Seven had made her proclamation, wondering how such a thing as getting home via the artifact could have been possible. It appeared that all was now to be revealed… “From what I could glean from my admittedly limited renewed connection to the Collective, with the addition to a vessel’s warp core of something called ‘element zero’, it can be utilized to jump vast distances across space. Evidently, the Borg have allied with a race that possesses these capabilities… they call them ‘the Old Machines’.”

“Allied? Not assimilated?” Chakotay asked, bringing a hand to his chin.

“That is correct, Commander,” Seven agreed, bringing a holographic display up above the table. A massive ship, looking something like a giant squid, Janeway thought, hung above them, menacing and dark against the lighted backdrop. “It appears that assimilation was attempted, but these beings, whatever they are, already have a techno-organic structure. Therefore, they are immune to assimilation.”

“Is it possible that this could be one of the species we’ve already encountered with the  same abilities of assimilation resistance? Species 8472, for example,” Janeway pointed out.

“Possible, I suppose, Captain,” Seven answered. “But these beings bear no resemblance to the members of Species 8472 we have previously encountered. Additionally, with how violently Species 8472 fought against the Collective, to ally with them now, regardless of circumstances, would be illogical.”

“Look, I don’t see why it matters what the hell these ‘Old Machines’ are,” interjected Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres, her hands stretched in an irritated gesture. “Let’s get back to the fact that their tech can send us home… what do you know about this element zero?”

“Very little,” Seven admitted. “It seems to be a natural material of some sort, but as far as I can tell, all the samples the Collective has acquired were given to them by the Old Machines, rather than obtained in nature. And if what I have learned is accurate,” Seven hesitated, almost as though she didn’t believe it herself, “it is possible that element zero may not occur naturally in our galaxy. Which means, the possibility exists that these Old Machines may in fact not be native to our galaxy either.”

Silence reigned for a moment as the gravity of that news sunk in. “And you’re certain that they aren’t 8472, or any other race from fluidic space?” Janeway asked.

“Affirmative,” Seven replied. “These beings are like none ever encountered by the Collective before. Their technology, their history, their capabilities… all of it is like nothing the Borg have ever seen, or even conceived of by any of the assimilated races.”

“So if element zero is only available via the Old Machines, then how the hell are we supposed to get any?” Lieutenant Paris inquired. “I mean, it’s not like if they ally with anyone like the Borg, they’ll be willing to give us any if we just ask.”

“No, Mr. Paris. If, as I believe, the mission of these Old Machines is in fact the conversion of all organic life, they would likely be unwilling to help us,” Seven acknowledged. “However, as we require element zero to use the mass relay and return to the Alpha Quadrant, we will still need to obtain it… and that means alternate sources.”

“The Borg,” Janeway finished.

“Precisely, Captain,” Seven confirmed.

Paris stifled a laugh. “Okay. Great!” he said. “So now, instead of asking an unknown hostile group for their technology, we’re gonna try asking the Borg, who we know want to turn us all into mindless drones, for some of their fancy new toys. Am I the only one thinking how crazy this is?”

“For once, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Paris,” the Doctor chimed in. “Important as this material may be, based on previous encounters, negotiating again with the Borg could be an unnecessary and incalculable risk. The chances of assimilation are certain to be increased, at minimum…”

And that assumes that element zero is even compatible with our warp core!” B’Elanna added. “We’re not looking for another repeat of the quantum slipstream fiasco or when we tried to break the Warp 10 barrier.”

“This will not be like that,” Seven explained. “I believe that from what I know about element zero, I will be able to convert it to function with our engineering. The Collective has accomplished it; therefore, it is certainly possible. And I am not proposing to ask the Collective for element zero…” Seven hesitated before she continued. “I am, in fact, proposing that we… acquire some from them.”

“You’re saying steal it,” Chakotay extrapolated.

“Indeed, Commander,” Seven agreed.

 “So… if I understand what you’re suggesting,” B’Elanna asked somewhat incredulously, “your proposal is that we infiltrate one of the Borg vessels coming through this system, acquire a sample of element zero from their engineering deck, bring it back to Voyager, and then integrate it into our own systems so we can use the mass relay to return home, something that isn’t even guaranteed to work since we know absolutely nothing about this material. Does that about cover it?”

“Precisely,” Seven agreed.

B’Elanna scoffed again. “You’re not seriously considering this, are you, Captain?” she asked, leaning into Janeway and thrusting out a hand toward Seven.

Janeway was silent, considering her options. “Tuvok,” she said finally, “we’ve been aboard Borg Cubes before. If a boarding party could be suitably prepared for the encounter, do you think you could get in and out before the Borg attempt to assimilate you and your squad?”

“There is never certainty where the Borg are concerned, Captain,” Tuvok replied. “However, this element zero could mean the difference between days and decades in our journey. Therefore, it is only logical that we attempt to obtain it. Whatever must be done, Captain, I will see to it.”

Janeway leaned back in her chair and sighed. “Well. I suppose that it’s settled, then,” she said. “Commander Tuvok will lead an away team onto the next Borg Cube arriving in this system, make his way to the Engineering deck, obtain a sample of element zero, just enough so that our replicators might be able to manufacture it, and transport back aboard, hopefully before the Borg onboard judge you as a threat or are able to raise their shields.” B’Elanna’s mouth hung open briefly, but she chose to stay silent. A wise decision, Janeway thought… there was no way this was going to be argued.

The Doctor cleared his throat across the table. “Captain… I would like to request permission to accompany the away team,” he said. “As a hologram, my chances of assimilation are extremely unlikely, and should the rest of the team suffer this fate, this would increase the chance that at least one of us could get out with the element zero.”

“Not so crazy of a plan now, huh, Doc?” Harry chuckled.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Mr. Kim… I still think it’s insanity,” the EMH responded. “But Seven’s right… this is Voyager ’s best chance to return home. What kind of a crewmate would I be if I didn’t do the best I could to see that dream become a reality?”

“Well said, Doctor,” Janeway smiled. “Permission granted. Seven, you should go as well… you know the layouts of Borg vessels better than any of us.”

“I had not realized that my presence on the away team had been in doubt, Captain,” Seven said, eliciting another smile from Janeway. Terrified as she knew Seven could sometimes be about losing her newfound individuality through renewed assimilation, Seven was an incredibly brave and devoted woman. Difficult as it had been for her to adjust to life on Voyager , now that she was here, she had something to fight for… Janeway was proud of her, and of the Doctor as well. She had long called her crew a family… she loved to see them all come together in times of great need.

“I won’t lie to you,” she said, leaning back into the table. “Every single one of you knows what’s at stake here, and it’s quite possible this may be the most dangerous thing any of you will ever be asked to do. But we’re so close to home, I can almost taste it. All we need is this one last resource, and you can all sleep in your own beds back on Earth… or on Vulcan, in the case of Mr. Tuvok.” The crew laughed before Janeway continued. “The Alpha Quadrant is within our grasp. I know you’ll all make me proud. Tuvok and Seven, work together to plan an infiltration, and have the operation report on my desk by 1100 hours. Then… then you wait for the go ahead.” Janeway took a moment to allow her words to sink in, then stood up. “B’Elanna… keep the warp core primed. We need to be ready to figure out how to integrate the element zero into our systems as soon as possible… or to run, if need be.” B’Elanna nodded, and Janeway returned her focus to the entire room. “All right, everyone… see you on the other side. Dismissed.”

The senior staff rose to their feet and began to exit the room, Janeway sitting back in her chair as she did so. Tuvok noticed this, and assured the rest of the crew onward as he reentered and stood next to his commanding officer. “Captain?” he asked. “Are you well?”

“Hmm?” she said, looking back up at her tactical officer. “Oh… of course, Tuvok… I’m fine.” She sighed. “Just tired, that’s all… tired of being awake, tired of sending crew members into life or death situations on the slim chance of a shortcut home… just tired.”

Tuvok nodded. “Permission to speak freely, Captain?” he asked again.

“Always,” Janeway answered.

Tuvok nodded his assent before he spoke. “Captain, these past few years have not been easy for you, I know. I do not believe ease has been the case for any of us. But if I may say so, one of the major reasons why we have gotten this far is your leadership. I firmly believe, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that it will be under your leadership that we go the complete distance.”

 Janeway chuckled. “Is that your logical assessment, Mr. Tuvok?” she asked.

 “If you wish to consider it as such, I will agree with the point, Captain,” Tuvok replied. “I have reached these conclusions from a logical analysis of this ship’s journey through this quadrant.”

 Janeway exhaled a chuckle again, though this time it was decidedly with less mirth. “I wish I could say that I shared your assessment,” she said, leaning her arms on the table and looking off into the distance. “But every time someone congratulates me for getting us this far, I just think about all the people we’ve lost along the way. All those names... all those families I have to explain to about why we came home and they didn’t.” She sighed. “I’ve written so many letters, Tuvok… one for every crew member we’ve lost, Starfleet or Maquis, along the way. I don’t know why I started doing it, knowing full well that their families would probably never see them… but I don’t know. At least for me, it felt like their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.” She looked back up to her Vulcan friend. “I even wrote one to your wife once… during the period when you were merged with Mr. Neelix. I had to explain why her husband wouldn’t be coming home to her… or at least, not in the form in which he left.”

 “And if I may ask, Captain, do you truly believe that those people would have been any better off if you had not been in command?” Tuvok asked, his demeanor calming.

 Janeway sighed again. “There’s no way of knowing for sure,” she replied quietly. “And it’s the same way with this… I’m sending people, you included this time, into harm’s way, just for the slim chance that this magic material will be able to send us all the way back home. I swore that I would see this through as long as it was in my power to do so… but the last time we dealt with the Borg, I very nearly got Voyager assimilated. Do you consider this a calculated risk?”

 “I do,” Tuvok answered with a nod of assent. “You have always strived to do your best for this crew, and this is no exception. And… there is an old Vulcan philosophy which states that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…”

 “Or the one,” Janeway finished. “I’ve heard it before.”

 “I imagined you had,” Tuvok continued. “I thought it appropriate to cite this quote, as it is something of which a leader must always be conscious. Neither I, nor any members of the security team I will be bringing aboard the Borg vessel, will hesitate or shrink from our duty to this ship and its crew. The willingness of the Doctor and Seven of Nine in joining us wholeheartedly show that they understand this as well… logically, this gives us far greater odds of success. In the history of most races in the galaxy, there is precedent that beings will fight harder for something in which they believe… and if you will pardon the expression, I believe in Voyager, Captain. We will not fail you.”

 A moment of silence ended as Janeway smiled while she stood up from the conference table. “Thank you, my friend. I think… I think I may have needed to hear that.”

 “Indeed,” Tuvok replied. “Perhaps if you require any more of such insight, I could lend you my copy of The Philosophies of Surak. It remains on the shelf of my home on Vulcan, but I imagine I shall soon be able to give it to you.”

“I’ll enjoy reading it sometime,” Janeway agreed. “Now, I suppose you’d better plan your infiltration. I look forward to reading your report, Mr. Tuvok. Dismissed.” Tuvok nodded acknowledgement, and exited through the door. Janeway sighed again. As early as next week, they could be home… she just hoped that before that happened, she wouldn’t have any more letters to draft...

Chapter Text

Counselor Ezri Dax stood inside one of the Enterprise’s turbolifts, on her way up to the bridge from one of the lower transporter rooms. As Captain Picard had promised, she had been beamed up with minimal fuss, and a security escort had even been on hand to take her to the captain’s ready room. She had, however, declined, preferring to explore the new Sovereign-class vessel on her own, remembering the schematics from a cursory look as Jadzia during the war. Thanks to Tobin’s engineering experience, she had to admit a certain degree of impressiveness to the ship’s scale and firepower, as well as the efficiency of its warp. She fervently hoped that it might be enough to help defeat this new force.

Despite the danger this enemy presented, evidently to the entirety of the galaxy, Ezri had to admit that they had done one good thing: they’d gotten her off Trill. Since the Symbiosis Commission had recalled her from Deep Space 9, demanding that, unlike Jadzia, she undertake the zhian’tara as soon as possible, her life had been a fairly endless cycle of meditations, questions about how her personality had integrated with those within the symbiont, and oddly enough, a great deal of time spent by the symbiont pools. Aside from her communications with Julian and her family, she had had little to no contact with anyone outside the Commission… so when Starfleet ordered her recalled to Earth along with the other DS9 survivors (far fewer than she had initially hoped, for certain), she had searched for the first opportunity to get offworld, elated at something different from the monotony. The Symbiosis Commission may have been incensed by the recall, as once again she had yet to perform the ritual, but if one were to ask Ezri, they could take a little disappointment… though she also wondered if that might have just been the sarcastic influence of Jadzia coming to the surface.

However, just as Jadzia before her, there was a reason she had yet to undergo the zhian’tara, not for lack of trying by the Symbiosis Commission. Each of Dax’s lives had been notable, not just among Trill society, but for many of them in the wider galactic community. From a famed politician to an Olympic gymnast to one of the Federation’s greatest negotiators, and even an infamous murderer, Ezri had a prestigious legacy to live up to. She wasn’t sure how being a ship’s counselor could possibly compare… though Julian assured her that she was coming into her own. Still… the nerves could not be easily abated, and so she preferred putting off meeting the previous hosts until she had something to tell them. Sure, she’d bore witness to the ending of the Dominion War, but her role in the actual conflict had been negligible at best… unlike Jadzia. How could she face Jadzia and tell her that she hadn’t taken up a phaser and fought in her stead for her? And who could she even ask to embody Jadzia? By and large, the majority of the people she had thought of enlisting for her ritual had known Jadzia, and even taken part in her own zhian’tara several years ago. It was a difficult proposition at best.

Just then, her thoughts were interrupted by the sliding open of the turbolift doors, and Ezri nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw who was standing on the other side. “Worf!” she said, probably a little louder than she had intended. A whirl of feelings--Jadzia’s feelings, she reminded herself--rushed to her as she looked at the tall Klingon, in whom she noticed a small flicker of something upon seeing her… trepidation, maybe? “Um… hi! It’s… good to see you.”

“...Likewise, Counselor,” Worf replied, regaining his composure and stepping onto the turbolift. “Captain Picard informed me that you would be joining us on our return to Earth. I presume you are on your way to the bridge?”

“Um… yes. Yes I am,” Ezri answered, hoping her bizarre discomfort wasn’t obvious. “I was hoping to meet with Captain Picard, actually… you spoke highly of him. To Jadzia, I mean.”

“I… recall,” Worf said carefully. Ezri once again felt a swirl of pity. She could imagine the kind of pain Worf went through every time he saw her, knowing all the things she did about him, and knowing that she wasn’t actually his wife. That tension had never really left their relationship, though it had been improving prior to Worf’s ambassadorial posting. To have all of that rushing back now… well, it wasn’t the greatest experience either of them had ever had, to say the least.

“I’m, um, surprised that you’re coming back to Earth with us,” Ezri continued. “Captain Picard seemed to indicate that this was a temporary mission on behalf of Chancellor Martok… I’d have thought you’d want to get back to Qo’noS.”

 “Perhaps,” Worf replied. “But with these Reapers--”

“Reapers?” Ezri asked. “Is that what we’re calling the race that destroyed DS9?”

“Yes,” Worf answered before continuing. “As I was saying, I do not believe my skills are best used in the Empire any longer, particularly not as a diplomat. I intend to request to officially return to Starfleet… preferably aboard the Enterprise, if I am able.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” Ezri answered, smiling now. This was easier than she had thought… “I’ve got to admit, I never thought the ambassadorial post was quite right for you… Alexander, maybe, but not you.”

“Yes,” Worf agreed. “I have never been… entirely comfortable with the arrangement.”

“Ha. Yeah. I thought not.” Ezri was sweating again… could this turbolift move any slower? “So, um… how have you been?”

“I am… well,” Worf answered succinctly. “And yourself? Are you and Dr. Bashir well?”

“Yeah! We’re great!” Ezri replied. “I mean, it’s been tough, with DS9 and me being stuck on Trill and all, but yeah. I think it’s all pretty much okay.”

“That is… good to hear,” Worf said. Silence reigned again.

“Um… Worf…” Ezri said, mostly just to break the tension, but also… “Um… I know that Jadzia told you about the zhian’tara before, and you know what an important experience that was for her. Well, um, the Symbiosis Commission is getting a little impatient for me to go through mine, so I need friends to help embody my former hosts, and, um, I think that I might want you to… um… be one. A host, I mean.”

Worf’s face betrayed nothing of his thoughts. “...Perhaps,” he answered finally. “Who did you intend to have me embody?”

“Well, um… that’s the thing…” Ezri said. Here it comes… “I was hoping that you might be willing to be Jadzia. See, most of the others I was going to enlist have been through it before, so I was maybe going to suggest they embody the ones they embodied the last time… you know, Julian, Nerys, Quark, Miles… Odo, if I could get him away from the Dominion? But… Jadzia needs a host. I thought it would be an honor for you…”

Worf was silent again. Even his microexpressions seemed restrained, though what he was trying to restrain, anger or grief or some mixture in between, Ezri wasn’t sure. “You are correct,” Worf replied after some time. “It would be a great honor… however, it is not one that I believe it is within my ability to perform at this time. If I intend to return to Starfleet, I do not believe it would be a good measure to take time off as my first action. I… apologize, Counselor.”  

“Oh. Um. Of course. No problem. That’s fine.” Damn it. What was I thinking? Stupid stupid stupid… “I’m, um, I’m sure that I’ll be able to find someone else.” Don’t you get it, you coward? It’s closure, Worf! It’s a chance to say all the things you didn’t get a chance to say to her! Don’t be an ass, Worf! Take the damn chance! “Thanks for considering.”

Worf didn’t answer. The rest of the turbolift ride was just as silent, but now twice as uncomfortable. It was therefore a relief when the doors slid open again, revealing the bridge. Worf gave a small nod, and made his way to the tactical console, relieving a lieutenant on duty. Ezri tried not to make eye contact with him again as she stepped around to the fore of the room, where Commander Riker was seated in the captain’s chair. He smiled upon seeing the small Trill. “Counselor Dax,” he said, rising and stretching out his hand, which Ezri took. “Welcome aboard the Enterprise. I’m Commander William Riker, first officer. How are you finding our vessel?”

“It’s impressive, Commander,” she answered. “This is my first time aboard a Sovereign-class ship… I’m not exactly used to the space.”

“That’s right… you served aboard DS9, didn’t you?” Riker realized. “I guess the Defiant has a pretty different scale to her. Fine ship, though… we managed to get up and personal with her once during the second Borg invasion.”

“Actually, sir, that was a different ship,” Ezri replied. “We lost the old one over Chin’toka during the last days of the war… the new one used to be the USS Sao Paulo, but Captain Sisko received special dispensation to rechristen it Defiant, since the Defiant-class was really based on his design. So that might be the confusion. Sir.”

Riker blinked. “Ah. My mistake,” he said, regaining his composure and his smile quickly. Ezri had heard that he too had once been host to a Trill symbiont... he may know something of her experience, however brief it may have been. “If I recall correctly, Captain Picard mentioned he wanted to see you when you came aboard. His ready room’s just through there.” He pointed to a door on the far left of the room. “If you like, I’d be happy to escort you to your quarters after that… perhaps some dinner in Ten Forward?”

Ezri smiled a bit as she noticed Worf’s withering glance from the tactical console. Jadzia had always found it amusing how much of a shameless flirt he had described his old crewmate as being, but aside from an encounter with his transporter ‘twin’ Thomas, she had never seen it in action… sometimes, Ezri loved being the new Dax. “That would be nice, Commander,” she answered. “However, our approximate ETA to Earth isn’t long enough for that, is it?”

“I guess we’ll see,” Riker laughed. “Enjoy your chat with the captain, Counselor.”

Ezri nodded, and made her way to the door, sounding the chime upon her arrival. An assent from the captain’s baritone voice within allowed her entry, and she found the captain seated at his desk, perusing a PADD. He looked up when she entered. “Counselor Dax,” he said, placing it back down on the desktop and standing. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Can I get you anything? The replicator has a variety of beverages programmed.”

“No, that’ll be fine, Captain,” Ezri answered, taking the seat he beckoned with his hand. “My tastes are still a bit… confusing. Sometimes I’ll still order a raktajino and then spit it out after I remember it was Jadzia who liked them… the same with Klingon bloodwine, because there I have both Curzon and Jadzia telling me I like it. Quark sometimes never has any idea what my next drink order will be.”

Picard chuckled before he restored himself to his own seat. “Yes, I can see how that would be a bit… confusing,” he agreed. “I underwent a mind meld with Sarek of Vulcan once before his death… just afterward, his voice and mine became jumbled, confused. Even now, I can still feel his influence, just there in the back of my mind. To add to that sevenfold… it’s a testament to your ability, Counselor.”

“Thank you, sir… I’d always thought so,” Ezri replied. “And if I might say so, it’s good to see you again.”

“Again?” Picard asked. “I don’t recall us ever meeting.”

“Oh, well, we haven’t,” Ezri clarified. “Just after you lost the Stargazer, Curzon was at your court martial… he thought it was unfair how the prosecution grilled you like that, with your victory over the Ferengi and the invention of the Picard Maneuver and all. He was very happy to hear that you received command of the Enterprise a few years later.”

“Ah, I see…” Picard replied, leaning back in his chair. “I followed Curzon’s career with great interest, actually, particularly his negotiations with the Klingons. In fact, along with Sarek, he was one of my greatest role models for diplomacy. I’m sorry I never got the chance to meet him… or Jadzia, for that matter. They sound like remarkable individuals.”

“They… certainly were,” Ezri agreed. “I just hope I can live up to their legacy.”

“I have no doubt of that,” Picard answered, smiling again. “At any rate, we’re happy to have you aboard. I understand Mr. Worf just went on duty, so if you’d like to spend some time on the bridge to catch up…”

“That’ll be all right, sir,” Ezri said, probably too quickly. “I actually ran into him in the turbolift… I’m, um… not sure we have all that much to say to one another. Or, well, I guess we do, but you know Worf… getting him to open up and talk to you is like pulling teeth.”

“That’s certainly true,” Picard said. “Well, actually, another old acquaintance of yours has transferred aboard… Lieutenant Nog is on duty in Engineering. I’m sure Commander La Forge would be able to spare him, if you would like to spend some time together.”

“Nog?” Ezri remarked, perking up. “I’d heard that he was being transferred off station, but I didn’t know he was coming to the Enterprise! Good for him!”

“Yes, he’s certainly been highly recommended,” Picard laughed. “I can inform Mr. La Forge that you’re on your way down.”

“Actually, um, before I go, sir…” Ezri interjected, “I was wondering if I could ask you something.”

“Go on, Counselor,” Picard replied.

“Well, um… you see, sir, when I received the news about Deep Space 9, I was informed that the station had been destroyed by an unknown assailant… and then, when the Enterprise arrived over Trill, it was to effect repairs after an engagement of some kind, and then there was another ship with you of unknown design. So, um… I guess what I was wondering is if that unknown ship had anything to do with the force that destroyed DS9? If it isn’t classified, I mean… Worf told me they were called Reapers, so I figured--”

“No. It’s not officially classified… in fact, I suspect that a good deal of the information we’ve obtained recently may very soon be common knowledge…” Picard said, evidently pondering. “Though, I would prefer to make our report to Starfleet Command before…” He sighed, and then continued. “No, no… you have a personal stake in this. I suppose there’s no harm…” He leaned forward in his seat again. “To put it bluntly… the Federation is being invaded by forces from another galaxy. Possibly even another universe.”

Ezri blinked in surprise. “...Another universe?” she asked. “You mean like the mirror universe? I thought that place had comparable technology to us, and to destroy something as big as DS9 without being noticed would take a huge fleet… wouldn’t it?”

“Normally, I would agree… but having seen these forces with my own eyes, I find that the impossible has become reality.” Picard straightened his uniform. “These Reapers are devoted to the extermination of all advanced life in the galaxy—well, in two galaxies now, I suppose. There is a new portal in the Denorios Belt which leads to their home galaxy, wherein there are forces battling them for their very survival. It’s a place where there is another Earth and another human race, but other than that, it’s utterly dissimilar from our own galaxy. Your race doesn’t exist there, Counselor, nor do any of the races of our galaxy other than humanity.”

“That… that’s impossible, isn’t it?” Ezri asked in disbelief.

“I would have believed so myself… but I have never heard of the Turians, Asari, Salarians, or any of the other races from this place either,” Picard explained. “The ship of unknown configuration was a human vessel called the Normandy, a spearhead in their galaxy’s war against the Reapers. We’re on our way to Earth now so that I can recommend opening diplomatic relations with this place. Since the portal opened, we too face the same danger of annihilation as they do… we can use all the help we can get.”

“You think they can be trusted?” Ezri questioned. “Seems like a lot to risk to me… I mean, you barely know anything about these people.”

“We know enough, I think,” Picard said. “And while I don’t relish rushing into a situation without knowing all the facts possible, whatever else we do or do not know, the Reapers are here, and they are very real.” The captain rose from his chair and made his way to a viewport next to his fish tank. “Where were you during the last Borg invasion, Counselor?”

“Um… the one three years ago?” Ezri clarified. “I was finishing up my time at the Academy… the whole place was under lockdown, pending Borg landing on the planet.”

“I see,” Picard said, not turning around. “For me, it was not long after I’d taken command of the Enterprise-E… despite the fact that we were the crew most experienced in dealing with the Borg, due to my own assimilation six years before, Starfleet Command had ordered that we patrol the Neutral Zone. They wanted us to ensure that the Romulans didn’t take advantage of our vulnerability.”

“The Romulans?” Ezri asked incredulously.

“Yes. Facing utter annihilation, and I was asked to keep an eye on the Romulans! Even they wouldn’t be bold enough to invade the Federation while the Borg were on the loose,” Picard replied. “You know what happened then, I presume… Earth’s defense fleet was slaughtered by a single Borg Cube. We disobeyed our orders so that we could go assist the fleet, and our unique knowledge of the Borg allowed us to turn the tide of the invasion. That was obviously useful in and of itself… but do you know what our first action was upon arrival to the battle?”

“You saved the Defiant and her crew… with Worf in command,” Ezri answered.

“Indeed,” Picard agreed. “Had we chosen to play it safe and follow our orders, Counselor, Earth and everyone on it, yourself and Worf included, would have been killed or assimilated that day, and very likely the rest of the Federation would have followed suit. What I learned that day was that any advantage can be used to save lives during a battle, and one is foolish to waste one’s resources.” Picard turned around now and faced Ezri. “That is why I trust this other galaxy’s forces. In the eyes of its defenders, I saw that same drive and desperation that led me and my crew to disobey our orders that day… and remember, the Borg sent only one Cube to assimilate the entire Federation. The Reapers are here in force, and if we are to have any hope of stopping them, we will require the expertise of our extragalactic counterparts. If they are willing to help us, we would be fools not to accept.”

“That’s very pragmatic of you, sir,” Ezri agreed, sitting forward in her own chair. “And absolutely unbelievable… to think, being able to access and travel to a parallel universe… if it weren’t bringing such chaos through from the other side, I’d be almost impressed.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Picard smiled. Just then, his commbadge chimed, Riker’s voice coming from it. “Picard here,” Picard answered.

“Captain, we’re entering the Sol system… but something’s not right… we could use you on the bridge,” Riker answered, an uneasy tone to his voice.

“On my way,” Picard replied, tapping the badge again. “Well, Counselor Dax, if you would care to accompany us, perhaps we can see what all the fuss is about…”

“Happy to, sir,” Ezri said, smiling as she came to her feet… though she wondered if Picard could see the artificiality of the expression. She was happy to be useful if she could, of course, but what worried her was that something was odd in the Sol system, especially with the news of these Reapers… she fervently hoped that her theory was wrong.

As the two entered the bridge, Riker stood up from the captain’s chair and took his place at the right hand, while Picard took his own seat back. “Status, Number One,” he said as he sat.

“We were trying to ping the subspace comm buoys to inform Starfleet of our imminent arrival, but the signals aren’t going through,” Riker explained. “At first we thought it was a buoy failure, so we tried a signal closer to us… but it seems that none of the buoys in the entire system are functional. We can’t reach any bases, not even Earth. With what we’ve learned from the Normandy, I’m worried about the possibilities.”

“You’ve tried Command?” Picard asked.

“Yes, sir. In fact, when we were unable to reach the buoy beyond Pluto, that was the first thing we tried,” Data added. “We cannot reach anyone on Earth, Mars, or any of the other Federation colonies here.”

“What about ships?” Picard demanded. “Surely, you tried some ships you knew to be based on Earth?”

“We weren’t sure what ships to try to contact,” Riker explained. “And without access to Starfleet, we can’t determine who might be present there.”

“What about the Defiant?” asked Ezri, prompting the Enterprise crew to turn toward her voice. “Um… I mean… after what happened with DS9, the Defiant was recalled to Earth… Colonel Kira was briefing them on the situation there and on Bajor. Or at least, that’s what I was informed by Julian… um, Dr. Bashir, I mean.”

Picard considered for a moment and nodded. “Excellent suggestion, Counselor,” he agreed. “Make it so, Mr. Worf… I’m sure you know the Defiant’s comm signature better than any of us.”

“Aye, sir,” Worf acknowledged, and opened a comm channel. “Enterprise to Defiant. Is anyone aboard?” There was no answer… only static met their ears. “Enterprise to Defiant. Please respond,” he repeated. “There is no re--”

Suddenly, a grainy voice was heard coming back over the comm. “Defiant to Enterprise! This is Captain Kira Nerys! Is that you, Worf?”

“It is... Captain Kira,” Worf answered slowly, a sigh of relief coming from Ezri at the same time. “What is happening? We are unable to reach anyone on Earth.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a good reason for that,” Kira’s staticky voice replied. “Earth’s comm buoys are gone… the planet’s under attack, Enterprise. We’re being invaded by those same monstrosities that have attacked Bajor. Starfleet is trying to conduct a full evacuation of the planet, but we’re taking heavy losses… we’re going to need to pull out.”

“Kira, are you all right?” Ezri asked, forgetting her decorum and coming in close to Worf’s console.

“Ezri?” Kira asked, confusion apparent in her voice. She regained her composure quickly, however, before she continued. “Yes, we’re fine. I’ve got Dr. Bashir and Captain Sisko’s family aboard with me… we tried to pull out Chief O’Brien too, but we only found Keiko and the kids. Admiral Chekov and the rest of the surviving admiralty are about to sound a full retreat.” Ezri breathed another sigh of relief… she’d remembered that Julian was still on Earth awaiting reassignment, but how the hell did they pull out Benjamin’s family before the O’Briens? Obviously, the answer would have to wait until they reached some form of rendezvous…

“Can nothing be done to help the evacuation efforts?” Picard asked, and Worf relayed the question to Kira.

“I’m sorry, Enterprise. There’s nothing we can do,” Kira answered, sounding resigned. “Earth’s sky is too full of these damn things. The only thing to do is leave and fight another day. I came from Bajor before this… believe me, it was just as bad there. I know how you feel.” Another voice was heard behind Kira, faint, and Kira returned. “Damn it!” she yelled. “We just lost the Zhukov… that ship was filled to the brim with refugees. Enterprise, I think you should just turn around right now, before--”

Just then, another comm signal began to chime, interrupting Kira. “Captain, we are receiving a priority alert from… Admiral Chekov,” Worf explained, a surprised tone creeping into his voice.

“Put it through,” Picard ordered.

A voice, strongly Russian accented, was heard booming through the bridge. “Attention all Starfleet wessels. This is Admiral Pavel Chekov,” it began. “It is my unfortunate duty as Commander-in-Chief to inform you that Earth has been invaded… we cannot yet determine who is responsible for this invasion, but what we do know is that this force is both hostile and uninterested in negotiation. Their first strike was a simultaneous assault on Starfleet Command and Academy in San Francisco, and on the capital in Paris… the president is dead. I repeat, President Min Zife has been killed by the invaders. As of now, Earth has been evacuated, and any Starfleet wessels in range hearing this message must immediately proceed to Wulcan. There, we can plan a strike to take back the planet, or to ensure the continuity of the Federation. I repeat, any Starfleet wessels making their way to Earth are ordered to change course to Wulcan to recoup and recover. We will count and mourn the dead upon our arrival… but we will also survive. We will reorganize, we will plan. And we will take back Earth. On that, you have my word. Admiral Chekov out.”

Silence reigned on the bridge, as it was clear in each of the faces of the officers the gravity of that statement. “Captain?” Riker finally said. “Orders?”

“...Helm. Change course to Vulcan. Maximum warp,” Picard said, a grave tone to his voice. “Number One… do we have any means by which we can contact the Normandy?”

“Not if they’ve gone back through the portal,” Riker replied. “Intergalactic comms have sadly not yet been established.”

“Commander Shepard said that so long as the Reapers were here, they’d be back. Keep a channel open for them, just in case we pick them up,” Picard ordered. “As soon as they make contact, give them the coordinates of Vulcan… if that is to be the Federation’s new capital for the time being, we’ll want them to know where it is.” He turned to the tactical console. “Mr. Worf, make contact with Chancellor Martok and inform him of the situation… then, as we discussed, consider yourself field commissioned. I need a man I trust at tactical, and I can think of no finer person for the job. Congratulations, and welcome back to Starfleet, Lieutenant Commander.”

Worf nodded his assent. “Aye, sir. Thank you,” he said.

Picard whirled again, facing his first officer. “Commander, I must apologize… for the time being, it seems your career advancement is on standby.”

“Under these circumstances, I wouldn’t have it any other way, sir,” Riker assured him. “Just put us where you need us.”

“Do we still have a way to get in touch with the Unificationists on Romulus?” Picard asked.

“We have a frequency,” Riker replied.

“Excellent. I’ll be taking that in my ready room,” Picard answered, heading in that direction. “The Federation needs a new leader, Number One… and I think I might know just the man for the job…”

 

 

 

 

Deep in the heart of the Horsehead Nebula, there was a system that not many, not even most Spectres, knew about, known as Anadius. At the center of that system, there was a dying star... a red supergiant, with flares of red and blue alternately along its flaming surface. Orbiting that star was a space station, a long structure, not unlike a floating skyscraper in space. One of the only visible indications of its status as a station was a docking platform jutting out from the main structure, from which many ships, all painted with a color scheme of white and yellow, could be seen arriving or departing on a daily basis. But it wasn’t these features that made Cronos Station remarkable on the galactic stage… rather, it was what the station represented, at least in the minds of those who made the place their home.

To those who had built it--to Cerberus--it was meant to be the last bastion of humanity, the place from which the human race could be rebuilt once the Reapers had finished decimating the Systems Alliance and the other races. From its safety and secure positioning, as few would choose to assault a station orbiting so close to an active sun, humanity’s self-imposed guardians plotted a new future. It was a future from which humankind would lead the way from the ashes of the Reaper War… and to top it all off, they would do so by utilizing the strength of the Reapers themselves. Once a way was found by which the powerful synthetics could be controlled--as in the end, all synthetics could--Cerberus would be unstoppable. Even if the Reapers managed to succeed in the harvesting of all other races before their control was achieved, it would be no matter… Cerberus could easily conquer any primitive races who could then evolve. The men and women of Cerberus would be gods, benevolent rulers in a chaotic galaxy… benevolent, that is, except to their enemies.

It was on those dreams, the eventual, inevitable apotheosis of the human race, that the Illusive Man had built his organization, and with the assistance of like-minded individuals, such as Henry Lawson, those dreams were close at hand. It was on these very fantasies that the Illusive Man now mused, sipping slowly from a glass of bourbon and smoking a cigarette as he gazed at the many monitors in his featureless office, the star flaring outside providing the sole source of light. Plans moved within plans, and it was only he who knew the exact nature of the big picture… and that was the way he preferred to keep it, at least for now.

The crusade had not been without its hardships, naturally… there were those who called Cerberus terrorists, and sought to stop its noble goals. Even Commander Shepard, who was only alive now thanks to the efforts of the Illusive Man and his former protégé Miranda Lawson, had turned from him, destroying the Collector Base against his express wishes, causing Miranda to resign from Cerberus, and turning herself and the Normandy over to the Alliance for trial. Combine that with the Alliance and and Citadel races’ insistence on fighting him, refusing to see the galaxy as he saw it, and it had truly been an uphill climb. Soon, though… soon, all would be revealed, and then, even Shepard would have to admit that he had been right; that all this mission had cost him over the years, all he had done, he had done for the benefit of humanity above all else. When the Illusive Man returned to Earth in triumph, the Reapers bowing to his whims, then even his loudest detractors would fall silent.

And now, in this other galaxy, he would be able to find the tools to do so. Reconnaissance operations by advance Cerberus units had found that not only did Earth still exist there, unlike any of the other planets of his home galaxy, but that humans were there as well, and powerful… a leading force in a government spanning over 150 sentient species. Yet as important a role as they played, humanity was still not supreme in the ‘Federation’, leading him to wonder if there had been people like him there too, organizations similar to Cerberus in intent.

As it had turned out, such a group had existed there several centuries ago, called Terra Prime… but unfortunately, the organization had been woefully shortsighted in its goals. They had merely demanded the removal of all aliens from Earth, with no thoughts in mind as to how such an endeavor would benefit humanity in the long run… the human political party Terra Firma, which the Illusive Man had previously manipulated to his advantage, had similar xenophobic notions in their creed, again focusing only on the removal of aliens such as the piratical batarians and parasitic quarians from human colonization efforts. What they didn’t realize was that though humanity was indeed destined to take its rightful place as the superior race in the galaxy, they could only do so if the aliens were willing to acknowledge that superiority. Aliens had their uses, and during Shepard’s operation to stop the Collector abductions, the squad Cerberus had assembled had included alien faces. They had been a means to an end, as all aliens inevitably would be, and even with the myriad races that made up this other galaxy, the Illusive Man was sure such was still true there.

Behind him, his chair still turned to the monitors, the Illusive Man heard his door open. He chose not to turn immediately, assuming it to be Kai Leng or one of his other underlings delivering a report on some operation or other… perhaps the upcoming assassination attempt on--but his thoughts were interrupted when an unknown feminine voice spoke up. “Good afternoon, Illusive Man,” she said, an English accent present in her melodious voice. He turned to see who had spoken, finding himself face to face with a dark-skinned woman, with dyed red hair and chocolate colored eyes, wearing a black leather jumpsuit similar to the one Miranda had once worn before her defection. It lacked a logo of any sort, so the Illusive Man did not know who could have sent her… but for someone to have penetrated the inner sanctum of Cerberus uninvited in such a way, it was quite the feat.

“Or should I say… Jack Harper?” she continued, making her way further down the room with slow strides of her long legs. Now that got his attention… his real name was a secret he had carefully concealed since he had founded Cerberus, making the Illusive Man identity one of mystique. He even went so far as to only meet face to face with his closest subordinates. Who was this woman who had been able to uncover his most privileged secret?

“I don’t believe that we’ve had the pleasure,” he said, setting his drink down in his cupholder and interlacing his fingers in front of him. “You should know before you proceed any further... if you intend to kill me, you may find it a difficult proposition. No one gets this close to me without some sort of insurance.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than down from the ceiling dropped Kai Leng, his katana in hand and to the intruder’s throat. The Illusive Man smiled. He knew Leng had to be somewhere near here… the cunning assassin had yet to fail him. “How did you get in here?” Leng growled in the woman’s ear. “Talk. Or you may find yourself short some vital bodily structures…”

“My, we are jumpy, aren’t we?” the woman laughed, holding her hands above her chest. “No tricks, Mr. Harper… I’m just here to talk.”

“Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of my associate,” the Illusive Man replied, taking a puff on his cigarette. “Now, what do you want?”

“I can see that you’re a busy man, so I’ll cut straight to the point,” she said. “My name is Harrison. Anne Harrison. I suspect you and your organization are looking to gain a foothold in my home galaxy. I represent a group that I believe could help to further your goals, and have a proposition for you to that end.”

The Illusive Man swirled his bourbon, taking a quick sip before looking back to his guest. “Leng. Release her. But keep your eye out. Anything suspicious, and I expect that you’ll be able to deal with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Kai Leng nodded, swinging his sword away from the woman’s throat and placing it back into a sheath on his back before he stepped away, crossing his arms over his chest.

Harrison ran her neck around before she spoke again. “I can understand your caution. I can’t say that in your position, I wouldn’t be driven to the same.”

“As much as I might enjoy exchanging pleasantries with a strange visitor from another galaxy, as you said, I am a very busy man,” the Illusive Man said curtly. “You mentioned a proposition. Please continue.”

Harrison gave him a small nod. “As I said, Mr. Harper--”

“If you want to start off on the right foot, I would suggest not using that name,” the Illusive Man interrupted, raising a hand. “I haven’t been Jack Harper for a very long time, and I find it highly unlikely that I’ll ever be that man again.”

Harrison smiled. “My apologies… Illusive Man,” she replied. “I represent an organization that I believe could be a great asset to your own in your ambitions. From all I’ve gathered, I believe that Cerberus is a group dedicated to the advancement of humanity, regardless of what measures must be taken to ensure this advancement. Would you consider this a fair assessment?” The Illusive Man gave a small nod of assent, and Harrison continued. “Well, what if I told you that there was a group in my galaxy that was devoted to precisely the same ideal? An organization operating entirely in the shadows, devoted to the protection and advancement of the human government, e.g. the Federation, at all costs?”

“I would tell you that the only way to convince me would be to make a compelling argument,” the Illusive Man answered as he swirled his bourbon again.

“Very well then,” Harrison said, the smile returning to her face. “Allow me to tell you a bit about a group known as Section 31…”

 

 

 

 

There were only a select number of people who had been able to see the inside of the Bajoran wormhole, which to most was merely swirls of blue and lightning strikes. But to those who were allowed to see the true nature, the Celestial Temple of the Prophets was a stunning sight, constantly mutable and shifting, the past melding with the present and future until time no longer meant anything. It could be disconcerting to the uninitiated, as people such as Grand Nagus Zek found when his mind had been altered by the Prophets… but to those who knew the Prophets and could acclimate to their ways, it could be quite impressive. However, being forced to stay here, as Benjamin Sisko was now in his role learning to be the Prophets’ Emissary, one could grow to get tired of it… and of course, this was the situation in which he found himself now.

The scenery shifted around him, becoming the bridge of the Defiant, Kira seated in the captain’s chair. “The Sisko has abused its abilities,” a Prophet said with her voice. “We have told it that it is not allowed to interfere with those who live linear, corporeal lives; not until it has fully embraced its destiny.”

“That’s what I’ve done!” Sisko insisted, throwing his hands out pleadingly. “I’ve come here, as you insisted, so that I may learn to do your will. And I’ve learned so much! I wouldn’t have been able to reach out in such a way if that weren’t the case.”

“The Sisko has learned much,” the Prophet agreed, shifting to Odo in his security office on DS9. “But it still has yet to let go of corporeal concerns. Until it has done that, it is not ready.”

“But you made me your Emissary to represent your interests in the corporeal world!” Sisko argued. “You’ve always had a special interest in Bajor, and Bajor is suffering! The people are dying by the score. The Reapers are destroying Bajor and its culture, and you do nothing! I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let my family suffer and die the same way, not so long as I could help it.”

“The Sisko continues to exist in pain… to exist here…” the Prophet replied as Odo, only to have the scene shift again… revealing the burning wreckage of the Saratoga, Sisko’s wife pinned beneath debris. “It exists here. It must learn to exist elsewhere… to exist everywhere.”

“Of course I exist here, damn it!” Sisko yelled. “But I also exist here!” The environment shifted to become his office on DS9. “And here!” His father’s restaurant. “And here!” The city of B’hala on Bajor. “Don’t you understand? I am a corporeal being, no matter how much you keep trying to change that! That’s not something I can leave behind. As a corporeal being, I have my attachments and experiences that make me unique, that make me who I am. Isn’t that why you chose me as your Emissary?”

“Perhaps,” the Prophet replied, becoming Kira again. “But that is not all it is. It is the Sisko. It is saved for a reason. It has learned much. But it must learn more. It is not ready.”

“Then when will I be ready?” Sisko demanded. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here! I missed my daughter’s birth because of you! I let Deep Space 9 be destroyed because I believed in your teachings. But now the Reapers are crushing everything in their path, and I’m not allowed to do anything to stop it? That’s ludicrous!”

“Ah, the curse of powers beyond your mortal origins, eh, Benny boy?” a voice said, though not one of the Prophets. Sisko whirled around to a jaunty finger wave from Q, standing in a spontaneously grown patch of flowers. “I must say, I really had hoped the Prophets would quell that raging temper of yours… I can see they’ve got their work cut out for them.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk…” Sisko raged, advancing on Q. “You claim superiority and being above it all, yet you can’t help yourself from slumming with supposed ‘lesser beings’. You interfere constantly, Q! How can you expect me to do any different, especially since I began as mortal?”

“You think you know me? You think you can lecture me on noninterference?” Q said, though without any of his trademark mirth… his voice was deadly serious. “You don’t know me, ‘Emissary’. Don’t presume to know what I am, what I sacrificed… or I can make you wish you’d died with that clunky little space station of yours…”

“Enough!” said the Prophet’s echoing voice, as the idyllic Bajoran field changed to a stormy rock face, like the one Sisko had first seen when he entered the wormhole. Behind him, the Prophet advanced, its form changed to Jadzia from that first encounter. “The Q wishes to help the Sisko. It must not be an enemy. The Sisko needs its help if it is to learn.”

“Hear that, Benny boy? We’ve got to be pals,” Q said, the smile appearing back on his face.

Sisko grimaced. “I saw that you spoke to Shepard,” he said. “I hope you didn’t inflict your personality on her so much that you drove her away.”

“I told her what she needed to know,” Q replied evasively. “Obviously, she’s very much in favor of stopping the Reapers… but she still doesn’t know the full story. She wants to destroy them.”

“You still haven’t told me how you know so much about them,” Sisko pointed out. “The Q claim omniscience, but I know there are a few things you don’t know… the workings of other galaxies may perhaps be one of them.”

“Ah ah ah… afraid that’s my little secret, Benny,” Q answered, waving a finger in front of his face. “Suffice it to say that the Q Continuum has… unique insight in this situation.”

“And I suppose that you just expect me to take that at face value,” Sisko said. “Well, sorry, Q, but I’m not buying it.”

“I’ll try to bring myself to care,” Q said mockingly. “Meanwhile, Benny, we’ve got a loooooot of work to do before you’re ready to do anything remotely Emissary-esque, so we’d better get started if we want to save people from the Reapers this century…”

“It is more urgent than that,” another voice said. Sisko and Q turned around again to find they had been joined by two new figures, one an older balding male of a race Sisko had never seen before, wearing a tan jumpsuit, the other a young man with slicked down brown hair, dressed in an older styled Starfleet ensign’s uniform. “Earth has fallen to the Reaper forces. The Federation has been forced back deeper into their territory.”

Q groaned. “How did I know we’d have to enjoy your insufferable presence at some point?” he said, placing a palm over his face.

“Maybe because we’re not in the habit of just messing around with space and time like you are, Q,” the young man replied, before his gaze shifted back to Sisko. “Hello, Captain. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Wesley Crusher. This is the Traveler.”

“Crusher?” Sisko said, a smile coming to his face. “Jack and Beverly’s boy? I met your dad once… he was a guest instructor in a tactics class at the Academy while he was serving on the Stargazer… smart guy. And your mother’s quite the extraordinary woman as well.”

“Yeah. I keep hearing that…” Crusher replied. “As you can see, though, I’m not really following in their footsteps…”

“Indeed. Young Wesley is becoming a most adept Traveler,” the young man’s companion responded, laying a hand on his shoulder. “He is learning, as you are, Captain Sisko. You are both now part of a much larger world than the one you were born into.”

Q blew a raspberry. “Yes, yes, this is all very fascinating, but didn’t you just mention that Earth has been invaded by the Reapers? Your pathetic little mudball can only last so long under synthetic attack, Benny… to say nothing of the people you’ve left at home. What will you do without poor Kasidy, or Jake… your father… your daughter?”

This time, Sisko didn’t allow himself to rise to Q’s taunts. He knew that allowing the being to know he was getting a rise out of him would only delight him more. Instead, he turned back to Wesley and the Traveler. “I guess that you’re here to learn as well,” he said.

“Perhaps,” the Traveler agreed. “To learn, to share, to feel more of what the universe is… it has become difficult to be a Traveler, however. The universe is in flux… since the portal opened, the balance of the worlds, of life itself, has been thrown off. The Reapers were not meant to exist.”

“I’ve felt the same thing,” Crusher agreed, putting his hands on his mentor’s shoulder. “And there’s only so much that we can do to help the people of the galaxy.” He smiled at Sisko. “For what it’s worth, I know the Prophets don’t think that what you did was right… but I think saving your family was a bold thing to do. I’d have done the same thing.”

Sisko nodded. “Maybe… now, though… now it’s time to learn how to do it on a larger scale.” His gaze focused back to the Celestial Temple, the Prophet, now in the form of Kas, giving a slight incline of the head in approval. “I’m ready now… let’s continue the lesson.”

Q exhaled a small chuckle. “Good for you, Benny boy. Come on then. Let’s study hard… we’re all going to need it.”

Chapter Text

“Hmm. Could try artificially manipulating antibodies… no no no. Could cause immune system to overload. Kill patient, destroy cure. Very bad…” Unnerving as it may have been to his krogan bodyguards, Mordin Solus was an auditory learner… it often served him better when he was working on a problem to talk out loud about it. He could understand the krogan’s discomfort, though… he couldn’t say that if he were cavalierly discussing salarian extinction that he would feel entirely at ease. However, if they wanted a cure for the sterility that plagued their race, they would have to put up with some slight discomfiture.

It was of course especially difficult in these cramped surroundings to do anything worthwhile with his efforts, particularly with the limited resources Aria had been able to make available to him… it was a bit like trying to build a drive core out of sticks and leaves. It would be much easier if he could remove Eve from cryo, but unfortunately, such was not able to be a possibility. As long as she was on the Citadel, the whole project was in continual danger… Mordin would not allow the entire future of the krogan to be risked in such a way. He had toyed with the idea of asking Urdnot Wrex for asylum… while the krogan clan chief may have maintained the healthy distrust his entire race held for the salarians for designing the genophage in the first place, he was also a pragmatist who placed the future of his people above all else. He would certainly be willing to protect Mordin while he worked to synthesize the cure from Eve’s DNA... but as he understood it, Wrex was no longer on Tuchanka. Primarch Victus’s summit on Sur’Kesh had called him away; as long as he was on the salarian homeworld, a place from which Mordin happened to be on the run, he couldn’t afford to break his silence, despite the passion that he knew Wrex would have for the project.

All the same, it wouldn’t matter if Shepard didn’t come in time… he needed the advanced facilities that could be found in the Normandy’s medbay if he had any hope of making this cure matter in time to stop the Reapers. The longer he toiled here, the less chance there was of that being a reality. Aria had informed him that she had called Shepard to the Citadel, meaning that she was indeed still alive… not that Mordin had had any doubt on that score. Shepard was too resourceful, too much of a survivor to go down so easily… she wasn’t unlike himself in that regard. He just hoped that she could make it in enough time to make a difference…

“Hmm. Could perhaps try immunosuppressant… no no. Again, death…” he muttered.

“Oh, for the love of Kalros…” one of the bodyguards said. “Could you please stop talking! It’s driving me insane!”

“Not likely. Need to talk. Need to hear myself make ideas,” Mordin explained. “Unless you don’t want cure for genophage? Can stop right now, if that’s the case.”

“And the singing?!” the bodyguard demanded.

“Also helpful. Sets thoughts to a pattern, helps to organize them,” Mordin replied. “Also quite relaxing, especially patter songs.”

The krogan growled. “How the hell did we get stuck with this gig, anyway…” he mumbled angrily. “One minute you’re eating salarian liver for lunch, the next, you’re making sure one’s comfortable…”

“Perhaps I could relieve you of that responsibility, Brok,” said a feminine voice. The krogan stood back at attention as Aria T’Loak entered the room, flanked by Bray and Travius. “I’m sure I could find somewhere else for you to stand and look like an idiot if you don’t want to do it here.” The krogan fell silent, and the asari sneered. “That’s what I thought.” She turned to Mordin. “Good news, Professor… you’ll be on your way soon. I understand the Normandy’s just docked.”

“Ah! Excellent!” Mordin answered. “Good. Good good good… well, must prepare. Lots to do, lots to pack… must make sure Eve’s health is well.”

“You named the krogan female Eve?” Aria asked. “I’ll admit, I don’t quite get the reference.”

“Ah. Yes. From human mythology. Eve was mother of humanity in several sects. Felt it was appropriate,” Mordin explained. “Eve to be mother of new krogan race. Genophage will be cured on human ship with human help. Humans important resource for cure. Humans and krogan intricately tied.”

Aria nodded. “I see,” she replied. “You always did have your little… eccentricities.”

“Yes. Life boring without eccentricities. Makes things more meaningful too,” Mordin said.

“Whatever you say,” Aria said, raising her hands in a carefree gesture. “All I know is that my part of the job is done. So let’s go ahead and get—“

Suddenly, the head of one of the krogan bodyguards exploded, organic material from his head flying and splatting on the ground. The other bodyguard raised his rifle, searching for the source of the shot, but very quickly, he too was dispatched, with his gray matter splattered across the room as well. Moving with extranormal speed, Aria grabbed Mordin and put up a biotic barrier with her right arm, while Bray and Travius leapt to take cover, drawing their assault rifles from their backs. “Damn it!” she yelled. “What the hell is this?”

“Hmm. Shots fired. Assassin. Obviously here to end genophage research,” Mordin reasoned. “But who and why? Hmm. Couldn’t be Reapers. Too straightforward. STG wouldn’t do this on Citadel. Too public. Would Spectres care? Possible, but unlikely. Salarian government would hush up disappearance. Council wouldn’t know, wouldn’t send Spectre. Valern, perhaps, but not much of a spine for it. Maybe… ah. Of course.” He looked straight into Aria’s eyes. “Cerberus.”

“Pyjak shit! Cerberus shouldn’t even know that you’re here!” Aria cried, the krogan curse ringing out as another sniper shot bounced off her barrier.

“Indeed. Confusing to me as well,” Mordin agreed. “But only option.” Mordin eyed the direction of the shots, and pointed with one finger. “There. Up in catwalks. Cerberus sniper. Have seen rifle before. Was a favorite of Shepard’s during our time with them.”

“Goddess...” Aria muttered, taking Mordin aback. He had never thought of Aria as a particularly religious being… but then, he had heard rumors that Cerberus had been involved in the death of an asari operative of Aria’s organization several months ago. Aria’s reaction had led to speculation at the time that the asari had really been one of Aria’s daughters… and since then, Aria had clearly had no love lost for Cerberus. She turned to Bray. “Okay, on my mark, then. We’re going to blow the bastard’s head off…” Her left hand began to glow blue with biotic power, contrasting the purplish hue of her skin, while her batarian associate checked his thermal clip supply as he peered out of the cover.

Mordin looked back up and blinked in surprise. “Hmm. May not be necessary. Someone else up there.”

“Someone else?” Still holding the shield, Aria whirled around again to see what the salarian meant… and there he was. Moving silently behind the Cerberus agent was a black clad figure, masked and clearly trained in stealth operations. Without a word, the figure crept up to the sniper, placed their hands around the assailant’s head, and instantly snapped their neck. The body fell from the catwalk and hit the ground with a sickening thud, and it was only after that that Aria felt safe enough to lower her barrier. Looking back up at the catwalk, the two noticed that their savior was now bent over the railing, breathing heavily. Aria seized him with her biotics, and lowered him slowly to the ground, where he sat on the floor to catch his breath upon arrival. Raising his rifle, Bray trained it on the newcomer, but a gesture from Aria got him to lower it.

Removing the face mask, the defender threw it down on the ground, his green scaled skin revealing him as a drell. But not just any drell… “Krios,” Aria said as she looked over him. “Aren’t you dead yet?”

“Consider yourselves fortunate that… I’m not…” panted Thane Krios, drell assassin and former Normandy crewmate. “Cerberus had… four other snipers trained… on your location. Had I not been here, you would surely have been killed.”

“Hmm. Yes. Most fortunate,” Mordin agreed, searching his omni-tool for something. Upon finding it, he knelt down next to Thane. “Here. Stimulant I developed based upon your physiology. Kept a supply around just in case. Should help deal with pain.” Mordin injected the serum into the drell’s body, and upon its introduction, Thane visibly breathed more easily, though it still sounded strained. He sat up further, and Mordin nodded. “Good. Very good. Not to seem ungrateful, but why are you here, Thane? In late stages of Kepral’s Syndrome. Should be in hospital.”

“Technically… I still am,” Thane replied, coming to his feet and steadying himself. “I did not inform anyone of my departure. But I followed you here just in case of trouble. I figured what you were doing here was probably important, and one can’t be too careful.”

“And just how did you know we were here?” Aria demanded.

“Simple. I saw you,” Thane answered. “You passed by Huerta Memorial on your way to the Wards, and I happened to spy your skycar during my exercises. I followed you, and I’ve been watching the warehouse here every day since, returning to the hospital before I am missed.”

“So how much do you know about this?” asked Aria, as Mordin noticed the small biotic glow returning to her hands.

“Enough to know that it’s important,” Thane replied tactfully as he cracked his knuckles. “I’ve tried not to learn too many specifics… plausible deniability is a powerful weapon in my line of work.”

“Hmm. Indeed. Prudent,” Mordin agreed. “Good to see you, Thane. Wish you could join us. But as doctor, cannot advise not staying in hospital with your condition. Look after yourself. For your sake. For your son’s sake.”

“Don’t worry, Mordin… I’m taking care of myself,” Thane assured him. “Kolyat visits me regularly, I get my exercise, and I listen to my doctors,” He paused. “I realize that it’s a bit odd to say that while disobeying my doctor’s recommendations to stay in the hospital, but these are special circumstances.” He reached out his hand, and Mordin took it. “Good luck, Mordin. Say hello to Shepard for me.” Placing his mask back on his head, Thane took off in a light jog that quickly became a run, climbing up a ladder and disappearing into the shadows of the catwalks.

“And just how the hell did he know that we were going to meet Shepard?” Aria demanded.

“Simple. We know Shepard. Once Normandy crew, always Normandy crew. She takes care of her own,” Mordin paused. “Also… you mentioned Normandy. Obvious conclusion.” Aria rolled her eyes as Mordin continued. “Suspect we’ll see Thane again… too stubborn not to.”

“Assuming he lives that long…” Aria muttered.

“Assuming any of us live that long,” Mordin added. He nodded and turned back to the safehouse. “Right. Lost time on distraction. Need to hurry, pack up research. Need someone to help transport Eve to Normandy. Also need someone to explain to Shepard. Could be same person. Doesn’t matter. Just need to move. Losing time.”

“Right. Bray, Travius, see what you can do about getting the cargo squared away,” Aria ordered. The batarian and turian nodded their assent and rushed off to the cryogenic chamber, and Aria turned back to her salarian ally. “So… just snipers, eh?” she asked incredulously. “No ground forces in case they failed?”

“Hmm. Yes. Odd that they had no reinforcements,” Mordin agreed. “Cerberus likely stretched thin battling Alliance forces. Possible Illusive Man couldn’t spare more resources than that for elimination. Knows my capabilities, likely tried for long range to catch me off guard. Didn’t account for Thane, though… losing tactical ability, not able to account as well for unknowns. Cerberus has changed. Not so sloppy in the past.” Mordin nodded. “May confirm suspicion… Cerberus personnel, perhaps even Illusive Man, indoctrinated.”

“Sure would explain why Cerberus is fighting the Alliance and the other races instead of the Reapers,” Aria reasoned. “In fact, none of the reports I’ve gotten from the merc fleets have mentioned any Cerberus engagements against Reaper forces this whole time. I can understand the Illusive Man wanting to take over the Alliance so they can push their human-centric agenda, but that won’t matter if the Reapers harvest everyone.”

“Yes. Illusive Man obsessed with Reapers. Thought at time merely overzealous to stop Collectors harvesting human colonies. Obviously, larger picture. Reaper influence far reaching, insidious.” Mordin paused, then briefly eyed the fallen body. “Cerberus sniper fell. Could examine, see if theories correct.”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Aria agreed.

The two proceeded to kneel down onto their haunches in front of the body, and Mordin summoned his omni-tool to record the readings. He nodded to Aria, and the asari pulled the mask off. Instantly, Mordin’s theory was confirmed: the face of the Cerberus agent was blue and bloated, glowing with the telltale lattice of Reaper husks. Mordin looked at his scans intently. “Hmm. Interesting… Reaper technology certainly present, but not as far gone as Collectors or other husks.”

“I’ve seen something like this before,” Aria revealed. “Cerberus experimented with implanting Reaper tech in an old agent of theirs… he got loose and rampaged on Omega, but eventually got taken down.”

“Indeed? Hmm. Internal organs and other human physiological aspects mostly unaltered… small cluster of Reaper tech located in brain. Likely how indoctrination achieved,” Mordin continued.

“Just like Grayson,” Aria murmured.

“Illusive Man using tech to influence loyalty to Cerberus, but indoctrinating to Reaper cause instead,” Mordin said. He exhaled a quick breath. “Lucky Shepard surrendered herself to Alliance… had crew stayed with Cerberus, could have faced same fate. Unless alien. Probably would just have been killed outright.”

“So. Cerberus is indoctrinated,” Aria said, rubbing her eyes. “That’s just peachy. As if it wouldn’t have been hard enough to take back Omega with the goddamn Cerberus agents and the Adjutants, now we’ve got to worry about Reapers possibly coming aboard.”

“And possibly more…” Mordin said, pulling something out of a holster on the operative’s belt. It looked like a pistol of some kind, but smaller and more compact, almost like a child’s toy gun rather than a real weapon. “Found this. Doesn’t have structure of any culture on record… not even really sure how it works…” He used his omni-tool again to scan it. “Hmm. Functional weapon. Particle beam design, won’t take thermal clips. Can adjust width and effect on scale here. Compact design… almost salarian in efficiency. Never seen anything like it.” He raised it to Aria. “Here. Have a look.”

Aria took the gun, and ran it through her fingers, examining every facet of it. She shrugged. “Yeah. That sure is a gun,” she said dismissively, tossing it to Mordin, who caught it without looking. “Weird gun, but definitely a gun. You’re right, though… it’s not like anything I’ve seen before either. What are you thinking?”

“Not sure. Too many possibilities,” Mordin admitted. “Could be Reaper designed. Not unknown to use particle weapons. But can’t imagine husk carrying this. More likely new Cerberus design, reverse engineered from Reaper tech.” Mordin closed his omni-tool and turned his gaze back up to Aria. “Either way, could cement Cerberus connection to Reapers, even more so than indoctrination.”

“Sound theory… but still just a theory,” Aria replied with a dismissive gesture. “Why don’t you take that with you? Little something to work on in your spare time." Mordin scoffed. “Implies spare time. Implies won’t be working round the clock to cure genophage, save lives. Time running out for all involved. Can’t afford curiosities right now.”

“Well, even still. I’m sure Shepard could do more with it than I could,” Aria pointed out. She turned around to look back to the safehouse. “Looks like Bray and Travius are nearly packed up back there. Let’s get moving, Professor. The sooner we get you aboard the Normandy, the safer I’ll feel.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Mordin agreed, placing the strange gun in a pocket in his lab coat. Shepard had been on the front lines since the war had begun… if anyone could tell him what this weapon was and where it came from, it would be her. The question remained whether anything he was doing at this point would even make a difference… though, there was one force in the universe that Mordin knew not even the Reapers could stand against, not while the organics still held it: hope.

Yet, even that was starting to be in shorter and shorter supply in the face of overwhelming odds… Mordin would have to see what he could do to shorten those odds.

 

 

 

 

Many centuries ago, during the days when Surak’s philosophies of logic, the principles which governed the Vulcan people to this day, were still being formulated, there was a splinter group of Vulcans who objected to Surak’s teachings. To suppress emotion in favor of pure logic, they believed, was inadvisable, as it was felt to make them lose that for which life was worth living: passion, in all its myriad forms. Those Vulcans soon left their homeworld altogether, eventually settling on the planet Romulus, ensconced deep in the heart of the Beta Quadrant. Whereas the environment on Vulcan had been primarily desert and dry mountains, Romulus was lush and green, putting these neo-Vulcans on a different evolutionary path than their forebears. Taking on the new name of Romulans, the splinter group set about building a great empire, first conquering the other inhabitable planet of their new star system, Remus, and putting the native species under their yoke as slave labor.

Overseen by the watchful eye of the newly formed Senate and through the force of a growing military, the empire expanded exponentially, concerning itself primarily with its own affairs rather than the squabbles of the rest of the galaxy. Today, the Romulan Star Empire was one of the most powerful states in the galaxy, the main rival of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Though Romulus was a beautiful world, due to the isolationist and distrustful nature of the Star Empire, there were very few outsiders who had ever seen it in all its glory… something for which Ambassador Spock thought himself most fortunate.

Ever since he had first arrived on Romulus nine years ago, Spock had been working to repair the severely fractured relations between the Vulcan and Romulan peoples, with the eventual goal being a reunification between the two. He had known at the time that it was a herculean task… and yet, he had made many great strides toward that goal in the intervening years. Starting as an illegal movement, hiding underground from the regime, since the Star Empire had assisted the Federation in winning the Dominion War, a dialogue had been allowed to begin by Praetor Hiren. The Unificationists had become a true political entity, even holding representation in the Senate… much to the disdain of some in both the government and military. The most powerful voice in the anti-Unification camp was Spock’s old enemy, Commander Sela… watching now as she addressed the Senate, the resemblance to her late mother, a time-displaced alternate version of former Enterprise-D tactical officer Tasha Yar, was no less disturbing, even after all this time.

However, he was not without allies… not only had the Praetor given his support to the Unificationists becoming a true faction, but some of the groups within the Senate had declared open support to the movement. The loudest voices in that regard were the Remans, in particular their leader, a mysterious man known as Shinzon. Spock had attempted to research Shinzon, but aside from his origins as a lowly laborer in the dilithium mines of Remus and his service in the Dominion War, which had allowed for his rise to power among the Reman people, he could find nothing. All the same, Shinzon struck him as a charismatic leader, and a force to be reckoned with… though he wondered if the support of such a radical could prove to be more harm than help to the cause.

Causes, Spock was quick to remind himself… while he strongly believed in Unification, his loyalty remained, first and foremost, to the Federation. He had never forgotten that, even if, aside from a very brief trip to say farewell to an old friend, he hadn’t set foot on a Federation world during his entire stay on Romulus. Information packets sent to him from beyond the borders, carefully smuggled by Unification sympathizers, were his only link to his former home, and they were always carefully perused when they arrived. If he were human, Spock would have described the sensation of seeing these packets as wistfulness… if he were more than half human, that is. But even with these sensations, Spock knew that his work here was what was important now… if Romulan society were developing along the lines he seemed to observe here, even if Unification wasn’t in the offing, it could go a long way toward improving relations between the Star Empire and the Federation. Therefore, it was only logical that he remain here until he could no longer aid in that mission.

Though, hearing Sela now, he remembered the kind of opposition that he faced… “Esteemed Senators; honored Praetor,” she said, assessing her audience as she began, “I come to you today to demand that action be taken to quash the oncoming Reman uprising! Shinzon of Remus has been nothing but hostile toward the Empire’s policies, in spite of his service during the war. Need we forget that he at times disobeyed direct orders given by valiant Romulan officers to ensure the preservation of Reman lives, at the expense of Romulan troops against the Jem’Hadar? And even now, Remans in the dilithium mines have been openly defiant to their Romulan overseers, bordering on rebellion. Senators, we are on the precipice of an outright revolt, and if we do not take action now, it may already be too late. Something must be done about this Shinzon, now.”

“The Senate has heard your request, Commander, and we have considered it,” Praetor Hiren replied from his podium at the head of the grand rotunda. “I cannot, however, justify the use of military forces within our own Empire; not if these rumors we have been hearing from beyond the borders are true. Word has it that the Federation and Cardassian Union are being invaded by a force that will not negotiate under any circumstances, and is deadly in its impact.” Spock was taken aback, though the only outward sign of that was a small raise of his eyebrow. He had not received an information packet from his Federation contacts recently… he wondered now if this could be the reason why. “These vessels have been sighted along the borders of Klingon space as well, suggesting that it does not care who it attacks,” Hiren continued. “If such a force should come to Romulus…”

“All the more reason to quell the uprising now!” Sela declared. “If this mysterious enemy should threaten us, would it not be better to face that threat head on, rather than fight on two fronts? And who says the military is required? In the past, an issue such as this would have been handled by the Tal Shiar!”

“Commander, you know that I am not at liberty to discuss the operations of the Tal Shiar in this public forum,” Hiren reminded her, his face stone. “And even if I were, to use the Tal Shiar in such a fashion, particularly with their numbers weakened by the Dominion, could only harm the Empire further.”

“I can assure you, Commander Sela, that such reprisals are unnecessary,” said a voice from an entryway, one which none of them had evidently been expecting judging from their reactions. Spock peered into the wide doorway, and saw a shadowed figure, dressed in the purple and black Reman style, flanked by two others, likely guards or advisors… or both, knowing the harshness of Remus. Fascinating... he thought. It seemed that the time had come to finally meet the mysterious Shinzon… “I do not seek to overthrow the Empire,” the figure continued. “What we Remans are seeking is merely to have a voice within it, something we have been denied since the first Romulans arrived on this fair sphere. Is it not only fair that all voices within the empire should get a fair say in its government?”

“Shinzon of Remus, I presume,” Praetor Hiren said, craning from his podium to see into the darkened doorway. “If you wish to address the Senate, please step in and take your place so that all may see you in the rotunda.”

“You must forgive me, honored Praetor,” Shinzon answered deftly. “Remus is a dark world… my people and I are more comfortable remaining out of the harsh rays of the sun.” Spock looked on with great interest. Shinzon, despite adhering to Reman traditions and wearing Reman clothing, and who clearly had great standing among the Reman people, did not sound like them, nor did his silhouette match those next to him. It was clear that though he felt an affinity for the Remans, he himself was not in fact a Reman… but if such was the case, then what was he? An exiled Romulan, perhaps?

“You’re not welcome to address this esteemed body!” Sela scoffed. “Upstart Remans are not recognized as part of this empire. I demand that you leave at once and surrender the floor that you have so disgracefully--”

“Fear not, Commander… you’ll get your precious pedestal back soon enough,” Shinzon interrupted, raising his right hand in a powerful gesture. “I am here merely to show you that I am not a mere ghost or a symbol concocted for the Remans to rally behind. I assure you, esteemed Senators, I am very real… and I will not be disappearing back into the night, despite what you might prefer. All I ask from the Star Empire is that we have the same rights as all Romulan citizens. Are we not an institution in this imperium? Was this great nation not built upon the backs of Reman labor, its Warbirds powered by the dilithium from our mines? Did we not fight and die defending our great state from the fury of the Dominion? When the bodies of Jem’Hadar soldiers lay at our feet, did we not rejoice and claim victory in the name of the Empire, just as our Romulan brethren did? Have we not earned the right to represent ourselves fairly before you? I ask you to give us that chance. You owe us that much, if not infinitely more.”

“You claim equality, yet evidence, including your service during the war, suggests that you put the Reman people above your Romulan counterparts. May I remind you, Shinzon, that though you claim the Reman way of life, you are not Reman,” Hiren declared, standing from his seat of honor. “You are an abomination, and to suggest that you will be the force by which Remans obtain liberation is ludicrous. You see yourself as a revolutionary? Bah… all you will ever be is a cheap copy of a far more noteworthy man… all you can ever do is live in his shadow. Shinzon of Remus? The name and title you claim are as false as you. Leave this hall at once. I will not ask again.”

Spock heard a small chuckle as Shinzon and his people turned to exit the rotunda. Shinzon’s voice echoed back, however: “You call me abomination… I would remind you, Praetor, of the parentage of the good Commander Sela, and ask… who, then, is the true mongrel?” As Sela struggled to find her words to respond, the tinkling sound and sudden disappearance of Shinzon and his minions suggested that somewhere the Remans had had a transporter signature on them, which, Spock thought, really should have been expected. Shinzon was a would-be revolutionary entering the heart of his enemy’s power base… an evacuation plan was a must. It seemed likely that Shinzon would never reveal himself this publicly again… not now that the extent of his influence was beginning to be revealed.

“Praetor, I must apologize for--” Sela began.

“Clear the room!” Hiren yelled. “The Senate is adjourned.” Spock rose from his seat, beginning to file out with the other senators. It was almost amusing… he had believed that the Unification movement finally being granted a voice in Romulan politics would be the most radical change to occur in the Senate… clearly, he had been mistaken. But then, after millennia of quiet, who could have foreseen that a charismatic figure like Shinzon would rise to champion the Reman cause? It was as unlikely as, say, a celebrated Federation diplomat and historical figure abandoning his previous duties to devote himself fully to an impossible cause… almost unheard of.

He turned toward Joren, his Romulan aide de camp. “Well, I would certainly call that an eventful morning,” he said wryly, noting how his old friend Leonard McCoy would have called that an understatement.

“Yes, Ambassador,” Joren replied quickly. “Forgive me, Ambassador, but you have another meeting scheduled for today… very soon, as a matter of fact. I apologize for not informing you earlier, but he only scheduled this morning, and I thought it would be a meeting you wouldn’t want to miss.”

“Who is this man?” Spock asked, though he was ready to answer his own question.

“Shinzon of Remus,” Joren replied, confirming Spock’s suspicions.

As public faces of some rather radical political movements, it was only a matter of time before they opted to discuss how those movements could possibly coincide, especially as Shinzon had declared his support for Unification. Perhaps he felt that if Romulus and Vulcan reunified, Romulans would be persuaded to return to Vulcan space, thus freeing Remus from the yoke of oppression. Or perhaps he simply intended to inquire about Spock’s remaining connections within the Federation, possibly in an effort to find allies for an upcoming uprising. If such was the case, Spock was afraid that he would have to disappoint the young man… but then again, it could be none of those. He would simply have to see. “I see,” he responded to Joren. “Where is he now?”

“I presumed he would be waiting in your office,” Joren answered. “I believed part of his intentions on Romulus today would be to address the Senate, and then to see you… he has done one, so there is nothing stopping him from doing the latter. Save for you, of course.”

Spock nodded in approval. A logical statement… though Joren was Romulan by birth, his father had been one of Unification’s original sympathizers. Joren had spent a great deal of his life studying Vulcan philosophy, and there was perhaps no finer representation of the potential of reuniting the two races than him. “Very well,” Spock replied. “I shall meet him now.”

“One more thing, Ambassador…” Joren said, pulling a PADD from beneath his own stack. “You’ve received a communique from Federation space… it was obviously encrypted, but I’ve managed to decode it. I suggest perusing it at the earliest possible opportunity… it seemed urgent.”

“Thank you,” Spock replied as he took the PADD. He wondered again if this could possibly be related to the invasion the Praetor had mentioned in the Senate, but he quickly placed these trepidations to the back of his mind. If he was to be meeting with Shinzon, he could not afford to appear distracted. “I will be in my office for the remainder of the day if you require anything else, but otherwise, I believe you may be dismissed.”

“Thank you, Ambassador,” Joren said, giving a small incline of the head as he rushed off in the other direction. Spock wasn’t sure about the decision himself, but what he wanted was to meet Shinzon alone, without anyone to serve as collateral, should the Reman leader’s purposes be hostile. As it stood now, meeting Spock alone was more secure; unless he held an unbelievable trump card of some sort, capturing or killing the ambassador would lose the support of both the Unification movement and the Federation. It was only logical.

Reaching his office and opening the door, he was unsurprised to find a lone figure inside, dressed in the fashions of Remus and standing in the shadows. But what did surprise him was the revelation that met him in the brighter lighting. Shinzon was not in fact Romulan as he had expected. Rather, he was human… and not just any human. Like the uncanny resemblance of Commander Sela to her mother, Shinzon bore a strong—no, almost identical—appearance to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Granted, he was younger, and the nose and jaw were somewhat askew, likely from his harsh life in the mines… but aside from that, he was a dead ringer for the current captain of the Enterprise. Thankfully, due to his Vulcan ancestry and primary adherence to their ways, Spock betrayed none of this. Shinzon smiled. “Ambassador Spock. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance,” he said smoothly (his voice didn’t match Picard’s either, Spock noted). “I apologize for the urgency, but after my little display in the Senate today, I don’t think I’ll be welcome back on Romulus for some time.”

“I had suspected as much as well,” Spock agreed. He indicated a chair across from his desk, but Shinzon remained unmoved. After a moment, the ambassador calmly sat in his own seat. “I take it you would prefer to stay in the shadows,” he reasoned.

“Yes,” Shinzon answered. “Admittedly, I was exaggerating somewhat out on the Senate floor, but this was one thing about which I was entirely truthful. I was raised Reman, and we are… uncomfortable in the sunlight.”

“My sympathies,” Spock answered. “I did not have such an option. Vulcan’s sun is rather harsh.”

Shinzon chuckled. “Sympathies, Ambassador? Not an expression I would have expected to hear from a Vulcan. I had thought your people shunned all emotion… or at the very least, that’s what the Romulan propaganda says about you.”

“I am aware,” Spock replied. “It was merely an expression meant to showcase an understanding of emotion. Your struggle must have been difficult… you must tell me how a human found himself in the Reman mines. Particularly one as… unique as you are.”

Shinzon smiled again. “You noticed that, did you?” He ran a hand along the length of his chin. “It’s not perfect, I know that… but that is a story for another time. I didn’t ask for this meeting solely to discuss personal history… and for all intents and purposes, I am Reman, not human.” He crossed his arms in front of him. “I’ll be frank with you, Ambassador… the Remans deserve freedom. I think you know this as well as I do. We were the first race the Romulans conquered, and we have lived ever since beneath their lash. This empire was built on the backs of Reman labor; we are a significant source of the power behind the imperial throne. Without our dilithium and our people as slaves or cannon fodder, the Star Empire could be severely crippled. I believe this would suit your plans for Unification… a desperate Romulan people would be far more amenable to a reunion with Vulcan. And as for my people… under the Federation, we would be safe, and free to determine our own destinies. Therefore, my request.” He stepped out of the shadows now, his gaze firmly upon Spock. “On behalf of the Reman people, I would like to humbly petition for our world to join the United Federation of Planets.”

Yet another surprise… Spock hadn’t expected a request of this nature. Admittedly, his Unification cause championed the idea of Vulcan, a founding member of the Federation, reuniting with Romulus, the leader of its own government… but the idea that a subject world, the twin planet of Romulus itself, no less, would want to defect? That was improbable, if not completely ludicrous. Yet to all evidence, Shinzon was sincere in his desire to help the Reman people… Spock remained unmoved in his seat. “...I see,” he replied carefully. “I will not say the idea does not have merit… however, you must realize that for that to occur, Remus will need to accept all the requirements for Federation membership, and that in accordance with the Prime Directive, departure from the Star Empire would have to be approved by the Romulan government.”

“You know they’ll never do that,” Shinzon said, a cold tone coming into his voice. “Remus is too important to the imperium’s infrastructure. They’ll never let our planet go willingly.”

“Then… I am sorry, Shinzon. Reman subjugation is, by definition, an internal affair of the Romulan Star Empire,” Spock said. “Yours is a planet owned by another sovereign state. The Prime Directive does not allow the Federation to facilitate your exit.”

“Ambassador, don’t you see what I’m trying to do?” Shinzon implored, stepping in further to the older man’s desk. “If I start a Reman revolution, there will be much bloodshed, both Reman and Romulan. My people have suffered enough… starting a civil war would only compound that suffering. A peaceful exit would be the best way to avoid that, and the best way to accomplish that exit is to allow Remus to join the Federation. Surely you, in your devotion to logic, can see the appeal of my way of thinking. I’m trying to save lives, Ambassador… something that I think you also value greatly.” He turned his gaze directly to Spock’s eyes. “Did you not sacrifice your own life once to save the lives of the many?”

Spock was often… uneasy… when he thought of the circumstances of his death. His final memories were of lying there, dying of radiation exposure… placing his hand against the glass in his people’s salute, reciprocated by Jim… and then awakening on the Genesis Planet, confused and desperate. He wandered in a haze, vague impressions all he knew, until he reawakened to the fullness of consciousness on his homeworld, his katra saved thanks to his mind meld with Dr. McCoy, and his body, now restored to proper age through the planet’s energies, saved by the dogged stubbornness of his captain and friend, Jim Kirk. To be reminded of it, even so many years afterward, was not a pleasant sensation. “...I did,” he answered. “But that is a very different circumstance.”

“Is it?” Shinzon asked. “The way I see it, you gave your life to save the people you cared about who were in immediate danger. That is life on Remus every day, and Romulus forcing us to mine dilithium only makes it that much worse. Despite our lot in life, the Remans are a proud people, and a people who could help the Federation a great deal. Think of the supplies of dilithium now given to the Romulans placed within Starfleet vessels instead… think of the Federation being able to gain supremacy on the galactic stage, with Romulus crippled and the Klingons still rebuilding. Think of a Starfleet that would be able to challenge any who would stand against it… even the Dominion or the Borg.”

“All this might perhaps seem appealing… if, in fact, supremacy was within the Federation’s mandate,” Spock pointed out. “You have lived the entirety of your life here in the Empire… your experience is colored by the ideals you have been taught. The Federation does not seek to dominate. Our ideals are for peaceful coexistence between species, victory through diplomacy, rather than violence. While Starfleet is technically a military organization, it is primarily devoted to exploration and discovery, not conquering others. Thus, your offers of supremacy would not interest us.”

Shinzon scoffed. “You claim the Federation is a benevolent nation, yet you haven’t lifted a finger in all this time to help my people. Even now, when I am asking for your help, you tell me policy prevents that help. One must wonder who truly benefits under the Federation’s ‘benevolence’.” He turned around, crossing his arms as he stepped into the shadows again. “Your preservation of ‘peace’ has caused more suffering than you would care to acknowledge. To achieve ‘peace’ with the Klingons, you preyed upon the suffering caused by the destruction of Praxis. To preserve ‘peace’ with the Cardassians, you granted them colony worlds, which led enraged colonists stripped of their homes to form the Maquis. And to force ‘peace’ with the Dominion, a war we might not have even been in if not for your Benjamin Sisko, Remans suffered and died to clean up your mess!”

Suddenly, he doubled over groaning in pain, blood appearing at the corners of his mouth. Spock rose in concern, but Shinzon thrust out a palm to stop him. Regaining his composure, he continued, “I ask the Senate to make amends and they refuse. I ask the Federation to help us, and I am rebuffed by policy. I have tried everything possible to find a peaceful way to free my people, and once more, I am denied. What comes next, Ambassador, will then be on your head… yet another glorious chapter to add to the Federation ‘legacy’.” Shinzon stood upright, no outward sign of his former weakness. “Farewell, Ambassador. I believe you are a good man, so I will do what I can to preserve your life… but I make no promises. My people must be freed… by any means necessary.” Shinzon vanished again, a transporter signal once more pulling him out to parts unknown. Spock suspected he had a hidden ship somewhere, but that was mere speculation more than anything.

Sela had been right: Shinzon was on the verge of starting a full-on rebellion of the Reman people. The impact to the Star Empire, as Shinzon had indicated, would be absolutely catastrophic, as the Remans had been a vital aspect of labor since its inception. Remans were stronger, more physically adept, and while Romulan mental powers had atrophied from their original Vulcan state from millennia of disuse, the Remans still had powerful mental abilities, often suppressed through drugs forced on them by their masters. If Shinzon could break that, the internal pressure could actually cause the Romulan state to collapse from within. As the Klingons had several years before, the Romulans would be facing civil war… and just as in the Klingon case, the Prime Directive left the Federation helpless to assist.

Spock knew something had to be done to quell this situation… and it seemed likely that the way to do that would be through Shinzon. It would help if they knew anything about him… all he knew was that one day, Shinzon had appeared in the mines, and the next, he was rallying the Remans against the Romulans. Where did he come from? Why was a human placed among the Remans? And the overarching question… why did he look like Jean-Luc Picard?

To Spock’s knowledge, Captain Picard had no children… his closest younger relative had been a nephew, and that nephew had died several years ago in a tragic fire. And besides that, he had been Picard’s brother’s child… such an eerie and uncanny resemblance would have been highly unlikely, if not impossible. There was the possibility of an android duplicate… Spock had certainly seen those before. But that too was implausible… to his knowledge, the Romulans had never seriously dabbled in experimentation with artificial intelligence. Then he realized… the answer that remained was likely the best answer, however illogical it may be.

Shinzon was a clone. Though why the Romulans had a clone of Picard, and why they had thrown it away to Remus, Spock had no idea. But clearly, this was something the Federation had to be made aware of.

At that moment, Spock recalled the Starfleet communique Joren had given him, and he picked the PADD back up from his desk. The information contained within wasn’t much… just a comm frequency, and a request to communicate as soon as he possibly could. Spock was again puzzled. Most of his contacts would have been far more discreet than that… everything he received from Federation space would need to be smuggled, so brevity was of course encouraged, but it was also never this vague. Normally, all the information he required could be easily accessed right there behind some minor encryption… not this time.

Spock wondered what it was that could be so delicate that it had to be discussed via comm channel… the thought again flashed through his mind of the Praetor’s mention of an invaded Federation, and a slight sensation of dread entered into him. Hard as he worked to suppress his emotions to live the Vulcan lifestyle, he often found it difficult to ignore them entirely, particularly when things or people he cared about were at stake. And he cared very deeply for the Federation and its people.

He decided there was only one way to find out… he stood from the chair, locked the door to ensure absolute privacy, and made his way back to the subspace comm unit seated on the desktop. He quickly typed in the frequency he had been given, and the logo of Starfleet appeared on the screen. “Connecting. Please stand by.” said the computerized female voice, different from the harsher Romulan tone.

A moment later, a face appeared on the screen… an older version of the same one he had been speaking to mere moments ago. “Ambassador Spock,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard said from the other end. “Thank you for responding so quickly. I know that it can’t have been easy to get that information to you, and time is rather of the essence.”

“Captain Picard,” Spock acknowledged. “This is a surprise. Aside from assisting me in the burial of Jim Kirk three years ago, we have neither spoken nor corresponded. To what do I owe this rarity?”

“I wish I were calling with a more pleasurable topic, but I’m afraid the news I bring is not good,” Picard replied, looking careworn. “The Federation has been attacked… Earth has been evacuated, and the survivors are currently being taken to Vulcan for safety.”

For the second time today, Spock found himself taken aback, though he was careful not to show it on his face. The slight arch of Picard’s eyebrow, however, showed him that he hadn’t been entirely successful. “What could have caused devastation on such a scale?” he asked, finding himself reminded of the whale probe he had helped stop just after returning to life.

“I wish that I could explain everything to you now, but even on a secured channel, I’m uncomfortable giving privileged Federation information to the Romulans,” Picard answered. Spock’s eyebrow raised now… a typical attitude toward the Romulans, one which would take time to change, even with all his work on Unification. Picard continued: “Suffice it to say that this is not a threat the Federation can take on leaderless. And while Starfleet Command remains intact, the Federation Council was decimated… President Min Zife and his advisors all died in the first assault. After the previous administration’s snafu with dealing with the Founder crisis on Earth, there is less confidence than ever in the office of the president, and with this, now… there must be a strong leader, a leader who inspires confidence.” Picard looked directly into Spock’s eyes. “I believe that leader should be you, Ambassador.”

Had Spock been human, he would have laughed out loud. “Me, Captain Picard?” he said. “I do not believe that to be a plausible solution. I am… a controversial figure, and I always have been. Surely, there are many far more logical possibilities than myself.”

“None I feel as confident in as you, my friend,” Picard answered. “It’s true, many on the Federation Council don’t find you entirely trustworthy, after your sudden defection to Romulus nine years ago. However, many of them also still believe in you… they know who you are and what you’ve done… all the sacrifices that you have made over the years on behalf of the Federation. The support of the people, and of those who respect all that you have done, will be behind you. I think if you tried, you could take the office.”

Spock pondered for a moment before he spoke again. “Captain Picard… my work here on Romulus is at a delicate stage. The Unification movement has been allowed a voice in the Senate, but the Star Empire is on the verge of an all-out revolt by the Remans. All the work I have done these past nine years could be decided in the next few months. I cannot in good conscience leave the planet now.”

Picard sighed, an expression of disappointment appearing on his face. “If that’s your wish, Ambassador, I will of course respect it… but I fear for the future of the Federation if this force is allowed to be victorious. I urge you to at least consider the proposal. You know how to reach me if you change your mind.” Picard’s image vanished from the screen, and Spock sat back in his seat again, now with even more on his mind.

All of his life, Spock had taken pride in his service to the Federation, in whatever form that had taken. Whether it was joining Starfleet in lieu of the Vulcan Science Academy, which his father had wanted, or representing the Federation’s ideals through his ambassadorial work, he had always believed that everything he had done had been in the best interests of others. But even now, even so far from his people, he found himself torn between two worlds.

As always, his loyalty was firmly cemented with the Federation… and yet, he had lived on Romulus long enough now that he had begun to consider it his home, its people his friends and family. Many of the Unificationists were closer to him than anyone in the Federation now… yet, there were those few whose names he still thought of whenever he considered what he had left behind. Leonard McCoy, Pavel Chekov, Nyota Uhura, Montgomery Scott, Jean-Luc Picard, Data. Could he really justify leaving all of them behind for the sake of the Romulan Star Empire? He had always believed that the causes he served were bigger than he was, and he had fought for those causes even at the cost of his life. Yet now, that seemed less important, the concerns of empires smaller in the face of the Armageddon which awaited the Federation.

He had to know. He had to see for himself.

Spock tapped the comm unit on his desk. “Joren,” he said. “Cancel my appointments for the foreseeable future. I will require a ship, and a pilot. I will be traveling.”

“Right away, Ambassador,” Joren acknowledged over the comm. Spock leaned back in his desk, an eyebrow raised in fascination. He’d lived a long life, and experienced what some might call ‘exciting times’ for much of it… it seemed that now, as he was nearing old age, that was not likely to change.

 

 

 

 

The area of the galaxy known as the Perseus Veil was a massive nebula of gas and dust, mostly impenetrable by many modern methods of observation. Exploration made into the nebula by the Citadel Council centuries ago had revealed that a sentient race had in fact evolved there, and actually developed into one of the most technologically advanced societies in the galaxy, something in which they took great pride. Unfortunately, it was that same technological ability and pride which had led to the downfall of the quarian race… an attempt to create a servitor race of AIs known as the geth to do their grunt work had entirely backfired on them. As quarian history told it, the geth gained self-awareness too quickly and too soon; they rebelled against their masters and drove them away from their homeworld. In the wake of this tragedy, the Council denounced the quarians for their carelessness and revoked their embassy on the Citadel… they were left a nomadic society, shunned and forced to wander the stars in a massive Migrant Fleet.

They were unable to colonize any other worlds easily thanks to their incredibly weakened immune systems, adapted to work with the symbiotic microbes of Rannoch, but forcing them to wear environmental suits elsewhere. A single breath of unfiltered air could lead to a fatal infection… even a small kiss could kill. That, above all else, may have been one of the saddest things about the unfortunate quarian existence… and if one were to ask Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, she would likely have agreed with that assessment.

It wasn’t as though Tali was ashamed of her quarian heritage… far from it, in fact. Tali had helped Commander Shepard to stop Saren, destroy Sovereign, and save the galaxy, thus beginning the process to elevate her people above the status of pariah with which they had so unjustly been saddled. Combine that with her race’s expertise in engineering and technology, the emphasis on self-reliance that was obtained through the rite of passage known as the Pilgrimage, and the fact that they arguably had the largest fleet in the galaxy, and there was quite a bit one could be proud of as a quarian. Yet, even with all this, with the fact that no quarian could ever really experience the kind of intimacy any other race could, thanks to their immune systems and exile from their homeworld, Tali couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret. Especially not when she thought of Shepard… or Garrus… or Shepard and Garrus, if she was really being honest.

It struck Tali as somewhat odd that she would be thinking of Shepard now, simply standing aboard the Neema and looking out a viewport at exterior refit jobs that were being done to a few of the Fleet’s ships… but with the events of the last few weeks, maybe it wasn’t so odd after all. With the vacant spot on the Admiralty Board left by the death of her father, Rael’Zorah, the admirals had unanimously agreed that Tali should take the position, thanks to her more recent experience with the geth than any of the rest of them. And with the Admiralty Board back to full capacity, a vote had then been taken on whether or not it was time to go to war with the geth, given the weakened state they had been put in following Sovereign’s botched invasion of the Citadel and the rewriting of the ‘heretics’, as Legion had called them. To Tali’s dismay, with the new perspective she had been given on the geth thanks to her interactions with Legion, the Board had ruled, by a majority of three to two, for the war. Now the entirety of the flotilla, even Admiral Koris’s Civilian Fleet, was being armed to the teeth to have the best chance against the geth forces. Even all of the young quarians on Pilgrimage were being recalled to fight the war. The geth had occupied Rannoch for over three centuries… they’d had plenty of time to convert the planet’s infrastructure for their own uses. If the quarians were to have any hope to destroy the geth, or at least drive them off the planet, they needed all their ships and people… and even then, Tali feared it wouldn’t be enough.

She’d hated the geth once… they had made her people homeless wanderers in space, held together only by their shared flotilla and deep resolve to return home to Rannoch. But then she had met Legion… she had fought alongside it, had her life saved by it, and seen firsthand its conflict about how best to deal with the heretics. In that instant, Tali had seen in it—in a collection of programs—the same spirit and conflict that had driven her for her entire life: a desire to help her people leading every action. It seemed clear now that the geth were no longer the same as they had been when the quarians had fled Rannoch… since then, Tali had wondered whether a war with them was right, or if it would simply be the utter annihilation of a sentient species. That was what had led her to cast her vote against the war, along with Admiral Zaal’Koris vas Qwib-Qwib.

Admirals Han’Gerrel vas Neema and Daro’Xen vas Moreh had pushed for it, though, and in the end, the tie vote was decided by Admiral Shala’Raan vas Tonbay. Her close relationship with Tali’s family had made Tali believe that she might vote her way… unfortunately, such had not been the case. Up until that point, Raan had been neutral on the geth issue… but it appeared that at that moment, the temptation to take back the homeworld had been too great. Tali and the woman she called ‘Auntie Raan’ had barely exchanged two words since then.

Beneath her face mask, Tali grimaced as she watched the Rayya, the ship of her birth, being outfitted with anti-synthetic cannons. How could it have come this far? She shook her head. She was an admiral now... one of the most powerful people in the Migrant Fleet. Yet in spite of that fact, she had never felt so powerless.

Behind her, she heard the door slide open. Soft footfalls accompanied the noise, and in a moment, Admiral Raan was at her side. “Tali’Zorah,” she said. Tali returned her words with a slight shrug. The admiral sighed and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “You know… I have never seen our people united in such a way. We always had a common purpose, but now… now we have a true cause to rally behind. Remarkable, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps,” Tali replied, the doubt plain in her voice. “If so many of our people weren’t likely to die for the sake of that unity.”

Raan brought a hand to Tali’s shoulder. “Tali, please… I know that you opposed the war. But you were away from the Fleet for a long time… you didn’t see the prevailing mood among our people. We are tired, Tali… tired of being packed into these cramped ships, tired of being treated like vagrants… tired of being homeless.” Tali jerked her shoulder, and Raan pulled back. She sighed again. “I supported the war because I too am tired. It’s not right that we should still be paying for our mistake after all this time… it is time the quarian people took back what was ours.”

“The only ones who indicated those feelings were the military, Raan!” Tali yelled, whirling around into Raan’s face. “Gerrel wants someone to fight, and Xen just wants geth subjects for her twisted experiments! Koris and the Civilian Fleet don’t want this war… and until you sided with Gerrel and Xen, I thought the Patrol Fleet agreed.” She turned back to the viewport, trying to hide the choked tone in her voice. “I thought that you made me an admiral for my advice on the geth… maybe it was just because you needed my father. You couldn’t have him, so you settled for me…”

“That’s not true,” Raan protested. “After Rael died, we gave you his spot on the Board not just because you were the one who had had the most experience with the enemy, but also because you showed the galaxy what the quarian race could do. You helped to save us from the Reapers, and showed everyone our worth. You are the galaxy’s most famous quarian, and more than that, you have been the most successful in fighting the geth. In Gerrel and Xen’s minds, the war was a foregone conclusion… they knew your expertise could be an asset. And Koris had read your reports upon returning to the Fleet… he believed your experiences with that geth on the Normandy would make you amenable to his position of leaving the geth alone. You were not expected to be a copy of Rael’Zorah. We all believed you would have your own beliefs, talents, and experiences, and that they would best be served using those attributes on the Admiralty Board. You are an admiral because of who you are, Tali, not who your father was.”

Tali was silent for a moment, facing the viewport. She turned back to Raan. “This war is a mistake,” she insisted yet again. “Even if you didn’t believe Shepard or me before, there is no denying it now… not when Earth, Palaven, Tuchanka, and countless other worlds are seeing Reaper invasion. Maybe instead of focusing on the geth, we could turn our attention back to the Reapers, where it actually belongs.”

Raan sighed again. “Actually, Tali… that was part of what I came to talk about,” she replied, piquing Tali’s interest. “A squadron of fighters from the Patrol Fleet managed to infiltrate geth space, and took some advance scans of the surface of Rannoch… Reaper signatures were detected all across the planet. There were far more there than mere husk deployment and landers could read as… there were thousands of them, millions. A closer inspection has revealed that most of the signatures were not Reapers at all… they were the geth.”

“The geth?” Tali asked, confused. “That makes no sense… Legion told me that the geth that had aligned with Saren and Sovereign weren’t connected with the main geth consensus… it called them heretics. They were against the geth’s philosophy of non-interference with organic races. Why would the geth consensus ally with the Reapers?”

“It’s possible that the Reapers overwhelmed the geth and forcibly turned them to their side… or that the Reaper argument was so convincing that it swayed the geth to their war,” Raan suggested. She hesitated. “Or… perhaps it may be time to admit that that geth—that Legion—may have been lying to you, as all geth have done since they turned against our people.”

“That’s not possible,” Tali argued. “Legion had plenty of opportunities to stab me in the back. It saved my life more times than I can count, in fact… why do all this purely for deception?”

“The geth are cunning and insidious, Tali… you should know this better than most,” Raan pointed out. “And Legion, from what your report said, is the most intelligent of them all. Is it really so inconceivable to think that you may have been deceived?”

“Yes, it is!” Tali said, her voice raising in intensity. “Stop treating me like a child, Raan! You weren’t there. You didn’t interact with Legion. Don’t tell me what I know.” She shook her head. “Here you are, telling me how valuable I am, and how important my contributions to the flotilla are, and yet now you’re telling me that I was taken in by the shifty geth? I hoped you thought better of me than that, Raan.”

Tali stormed out of the room, Raan’s pleas for her to stay falling on deaf ears as she returned to her quarters. This just confirmed what she had suspected all along: she wasn’t respected here… not really. Whether it was her age or the fact that she had spent so much time away from the Migrant Fleet, so much so that her ship name was not even a quarian vessel anymore, it was clear to see that she was an outsider. But to her mind, she had never really left the flotilla… the flotilla had left her.

When she had been put on trial for treason, having supposedly sent active geth components back to the Fleet, she had seen firsthand the division of the quarian people. One half, championed by Admirals Gerrel and Xen, vowed to retake the homeworld, destroy the geth, and reclaim the glories of the quarian past. The other, led by Koris, was of the opinion that the geth had as much right to live as they had, and that the Fleet should seek instead to colonize new worlds rather than bother with Rannoch. Until she had met Legion, Tali had been in the camp seeking to retake the homeworld, both because of her father and his close friend Admiral Gerrel, and the disdain with which Koris had regarded her. Now… now, things were not nearly so black and white.

She didn’t know what insight had convinced Koris so early on that the geth were worthy to live, but whatever it was, she could see the merit. At the same time, though, Raan was right too: the quarian people were tired of being outcasts, tired of ceaselessly wandering the galaxy. Thanks to their unique immune systems, colonization of worlds with non-sterile environments was out of the question, meaning that she could see the value of retaking the homeworld too. Did that, however, give the quarians the right to destroy a sentient race they themselves had created, especially with their unprecedented development? It wasn’t an easy thing to answer… but clearly, the question had already been decided for her.

Entering her quarters, Tali slumped in a chair near the door, giving a groan and throwing her head back as she did so. After her promotion to admiral, she had been granted larger accommodations than most aboard the Migrant Fleet enjoyed… something with which she was personally uncomfortable. The rest of the Board had insisted, however, so here she stayed. She glanced over at her private terminal against the room, debating for probably the hundredth time whether she should apprise Shepard of the new developments in the flotilla. More so than any other outsider, Shepard had made a name for herself to the quarian people with her successful routing of the geth during the Battle of the Citadel and her defense of Tali during her trial… if Shepard argued against the war, they might be persuaded to listen. On the other hand, however, no one outside the Fleet knew about the upcoming war with the geth… to reveal that to a non-quarian could be considered an act of treason, even by an admiral. Tali wasn’t eager to face that trial again…

So once more, she stayed in her chair… until the terminal began to chime all on its own. Puzzled, Tali rose to her feet. She strode toward the terminal, keyed in her personal access code… and to her surprise, found that it was on an encrypted channel. She recognized it… it was the same channel over which Legion had shared with her information about the modern geth, the frequency of which was still stored in her omni-tool. She pulled it up and input the code to the terminal, compensating with anti-hacking programs in case this was some sort of cyber-attack… but to her surprise, and also relief, all that happened was that the single glowing eye of a geth appeared on her monitor—the face of Legion. “Creator Tali’Zorah,” it said, a slight tone of worry in its crisp artificial voice. “We need your help. Please respond.”

“Legion?” she asked, hearing the worry creep into her own voice now. “What happened? Are you all right?”

“We will explain everything, Creator Tali’Zorah,” Legion answered calmly. “We need you to meet us away from your flotilla. It is too dangerous for us there now.”

“Legion, this is more complicated than it used to be,” Tali said, a somewhat exasperated tone creeping in. “I’m an admiral now. I can’t just leave the Fleet anytime I like! People depend on me.”

“If you wish to save the lives of the Creators, Tali’Zorah, you must come,” Legion said. “We have learned many things. The situation has changed on Rannoch. The geth are being altered, and the Old Machines are aligned with an ancient power of which we were previously unaware. We will tell you all we can, Tali’Zorah… but we need you to trust us.”

Tali sighed and covered her mask with her hands. Leave it only to a geth to complicate matters so thoroughly… “All right,” she finally answered. “Being an admiral grants me some privileges… I’ll see if I can requisition a ship. Where should I try to meet you?”

“Come to Rannoch’s moon, Creator Tali’Zorah. There is minimal geth presence there, and we can mask our presence temporarily. We will wait as long as we can,” Legion replied. Its face disappeared from the screen, and Tali leaned back and sighed again.

As if things couldn’t get any more insane… now, in addition to the state of war between the quarians and geth, the only geth with whom Tali had had any positive association was asking for her help, ostensibly in a way that would save both her people and its. Legion was not one to exaggerate… its machine precision made that impossible. If this threat was genuine, it was something Legion felt was grave… and that meant that it had to be investigated.

Reflecting once again on the irony of the friends she had made since her Pilgrimage three years ago, Tali departed her quarters, charging her way forward to the docking bays… if she was going to commit treason, she may as well at least be doing it for a friend…

Chapter Text

Captain Kira Nerys uneasily adjusted the collar of her new Starfleet uniform as she strode down the halls of the Vulcan Science Academy, the new ad hoc headquarters for Starfleet Command. Julian had seen to it that their mysterious guests had received proper accommodations, as well as the adequate privacy that had requested. It had been only days since the fall of Earth, and for Kira, she felt as though she had never really left… and the same, of course, went for her homeworld. She found herself wondering how Shakaar and the resistance were holding up… and how much of Bajor would be left by the time she was finally able to go home.

The Defiant, along with the rest of the Starfleet and civilian refugee vessels fleeing Earth, had made its way in orbit above Vulcan, and each officer was slowly being briefed and given new assignments by the surviving admiralty. A state of war had officially been declared between the United Federation of Planets and the Reapers by Starfleet Command, and representatives were now being tasked to inform allies, such as the Klingon Empire, the Ferengi Alliance, and the remnants of the Cardassian Union. Kira suspected that was why Admiral Chekov had asked to see her now… though she wondered who precisely the admiralty would be tasking her to report to. She knew both Chancellor Martok and Grand Nagus Rom personally… both of them would be willing to provide any aid required, especially with a threat of this magnitude. And as for Castellan Lang… Cardassia had only just begun, as she felt, to truly regain its soul. To let it die now, after she and her people had fought so hard for what they believed, would be an utter tragedy. She and the Cardassians, such as their military and surviving forces were, would be only too willing to fight to take their home back.

Kira almost chuckled to herself to think of it… in the grand scheme of things, it hadn’t been all that long ago that she would have scoffed at the idea that she had anything in common with a Cardassian. But after her experiences with Aamin Marritza, Tekeny Ghemor, Ziyal, and Damar’s rebellion against the Dominion, as well as the fact that both their homeworlds were now on the chopping block, it seemed their common position as beings in a vast galaxy now became that much more prevalent. Kira wished that the young rebel she had been in her days fighting with Shakaar’s resistance could see her now…

She had also been somewhat resisting the urge to say ‘I told you so’ to the admiralty for ignoring her warnings after what had happened on Bajor, but somehow, seeing those giant machines demolish entire city blocks back in New Orleans, as well as the death of Miles O’Brien, had dampened her enjoyment of being right. If only they had listened in the first place, her friend might still be alive now, and Keiko wouldn’t have to explain to Molly and Kirayoshi why Daddy wouldn’t be coming to see them, to kiss them good night and read them a bedtime story. Molly was old enough now to know what had happened, and she seemed to be handling it as well as one could expect… she knew she had to be strong for her little brother, and despite the fact that her heart was shattered, Keiko knew the same. Kira had been doing what she could, but she knew that it could never possibly be enough. She too had lost her father tragically, trying to keep the Cardassians from torching his home and family… she knew exactly what must be running through Molly’s mind right now. But revenge against her father’s killers hadn’t brought him back… in fact, she had missed being there when he died when she joined Shakaar’s strike team against the men who had killed him. Yet, it was the best she could do now for the grieving family: do the best she could to make sure that Miles’s murderers didn’t do the same to so many other families.

She rounded the corner to where the admiral’s temporary office space was located, and was surprised to find that she was not the only one there… evidently, Captain Picard and Commander Riker had also been summoned, and standing with them was another familiar face…

“Ezri!” Kira grinned, and her smile was returned by the petite Trill as the two women embraced one another.

“Look at you!” Ezri laughed as she examined Kira up and down. “A captain in Starfleet… I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Yeah, well, life takes you some strange places… as you well know, Dax.” Ezri smiled before Kira continued. “What are you doing here? I knew you were aboard the Enterprise, but I didn’t realize the admirals wanted you too.”

“Not with you and the Enterprise staff,” Ezri replied. “I’ve been asked to see them about being assigned to the staff opening diplomatic relations with this new galaxy… they believe my experience as an ambassador to the Klingons will prove useful in that regard, and my training as a counselor will allow me to more readily understand interspecies psychology.”

Kira’s grin broadened. “Same old Dax,” she said. “Always trying to get in on the ground floor of anything new and exciting.” She looked back to the other officers and greeted them with a firm handshake. “Captain Picard,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

“Indeed it has,” the captain agreed, returning Kira’s shake. “Congratulations, by the way, Captain Kira… I’ve long wanted to see more Bajorans wearing Starfleet uniforms. I wish that it were under better circumstances.”

“Agreed,” Kira replied. “I’m… sorry about Earth too.”

Picard acknowledged her sympathies with a nod, but didn’t say anything. After all, what was there to say? Both of their home planets were now under the heel of this synthetic enemy… though Kira found herself wondering just how much about this foe Picard and his first officer knew. She asked as much, and the captain responded, “Actually, Captain, we’ve learned a great deal… I imagine that’s what the admirals are summoning us to discuss. Can I assume from your question that you’ve also found something out about the Reapers?”

“Not as much as I’d like, that’s for sure…” Kira grumbled. “Damn it, this has to stop. We can’t play the defensive like this and hope to win this war… I thought we’d learned that with the Dominion.”

“I believe we did,” Picard pointed out. “After all, the Federation believed that diplomacy could win the day… and for a time, it did. The Dominion was willing to play the games, and so were we. With this foe, it’s clear that negotiation will not be on the table… preparing a proper and timely counterstrike is a must.”

“Well, let’s just hope that’s what they want to discuss with—“

Just then, the door swung open, and a young Vulcan lieutenant came out. “The admirals will see you now,” she said, and moved aside to allow entry. Picard and Riker gave her an acknowledging nod as they entered, and Kira followed suit as she fell into step behind them. Ezri gave a small wave as Kira moved in, and the Bajoran found herself more at ease. She may not know precisely what the immediate future would hold, but friends and colleagues like Ezri Dax made that uncertainty a little easier.

The room was more crowded than she had expected, with a conference table set on the far side. Seated at the center was Admiral Pavel Chekov himself, and next to him were Admirals William Ross, Alynna Nechayev, Owen Paris, Leonard James Akaar, and Edward Jellico. Odd… to Kira’s knowledge, most of these admirals had been assigned to disparate departments, with Ross and Nechayev being the only ones she had personally dealt with over issues regarding the Dominion and Cardassians, respectfully. Jellico, she knew very little about, and Paris had recently transferred to being the head of Starfleet Communications, after learning about the fate of Voyager and the fact that his son Tom was still alive. And as for Akaar… the towering, long-haired Capellan had been named for two of Starfleet’s most legendary officers, so it had only been fitting that he had risen meteorically to the admiralty. Kira wasn’t exactly sure what Starfleet organization he headed, but as the only nonhuman officer present here today, and especially with her own fledgling Starfleet career, she felt it would be good to get more acquainted. On the far left sat three Cardassians, one of whom Kira recognized as Natima Lang, former professor and current leader of the Cardassian Union. The others, she assumed, were likely her military advisors. Off the right side of the table, a subspace comm panel had been placed, and projected from it were the images of three Klingons. One of them, Kira recognized with some excitement… the broad form of Chancellor Martok, son of Urthog, leader of the Klingon High Council, his single remaining eye piercing as always. The other two were equally powerfully built… one of them favored an older style among the Klingon military, his head mostly shaved, save for a long tail in the back; the other had a wild mane of black, and a lust in his eyes that Kira could only imagine was for the coming war.

Chekov inclined his balding head to acknowledge the officers’ presence in the room. “Keptins Picard and Kira… Commander Riker,” he said, his thickly accented voice still strong even at his advanced age. “I’m pleased to see you. If you have not met, allow me to introduce our honored guests…” Chekov introduced Lang, Martok, and their respective entourages in turn… the other Cardassians were known as Legates Rulod and Kabel, while the Klingons were Generals L’mpok and Jarol. “The situation on Earth wasn’t anything any of us expected… Starfleet needs its best officers now more than ever.”

“Indeed, sir,” Picard agreed. Riker showed the same deference, and Kira followed suit. She was still a stranger to the uniform… it would be best not to make a bad impression now.

“We’re not going to mince words with you… the situation is collapsing,” Chekov continued. “Since the fall of Earth, we’ve been monitoring communications across the quadrant relating to the Reapers… and with the information both of you have brought to us regarding them and this other galaxy across the portal, we must be forced to conclude that this is the greatest threat the Federation has ever faced.”

“What are we doing to warn the other powers?” Kira asked. “Bajor had no warning before the Reapers struck… we don’t need that to happen anywhere else.”

“We’ve sent subspace transmissions to their governments, in addition to the recalling of their ambassadors after Earth,” Paris explained. “The remnants of the Cardassian fleet,” he indicated the Cardassians on the left side, and Lang gave a slight incline of her head, “have met us here on Vulcan, and Chancellor Martok had already been apprised of the situation, thanks to your Klingon crewmate, Jean-Luc.”

Picard nodded, and Martok himself cut in. “Rest assured that your allies in the Klingon Empire will do all in our power to support your efforts. These Reapers, from all that my brother Worf has told me, seem as bad as the Dominion ever was. It would be dishonorable to stand and wait while you fight for the safety of the quadrant in our stead… and the battle will be glorious.” Martok chuckled and displayed his toothy grin.

“Cardassia feels the same,” Lang chimed in. “We’ve only just regained our dignity… I am not eager to relinquish it in this way.”

“And the other powers?” Picard asked.

“We’re still awaiting reply back from the Romulans and the Ferengi Alliance, and the Breen, Gorn, Tholians, and Tzenkethi just flat out ignored the signal, likely because of their hostility toward the Federation,” Paris replied. “Top that off with downed comm relays and clogged subspace traffic, and we’re finding it hard to get any signals through in a timely manner.”

“What about the Dominion?” Kira demanded. “I know that the wormhole is hard to access right now, but a signal to the Gamma Quadrant could—“

“Funny you should mention the Dominion… we were actually hoping that you might be able to help on that front, Nerys,” Ross said, leaning forward in his seat. “Your report mentioned that you had made contact with Odo just before the invasion of Earth… you weren’t able to return his signal, yes?”

“That’s right,” Kira replied. “In all the chaos, there wasn’t time. But he made it pretty clear that the Reapers are inside the Dominion too… it’s possible he’s the only Founder left. He’s making his way toward the wormhole with a contingent of Jem’Hadar and their Vorta overseers… I can only imagine that the Jem’Hadar they run into along the way will also be joining to protect the Founder.”

“And you think Odo would be willing to support us with these Jem’Hadar?” Nechayev pressed, her impatience clearly growing as Ross gestured her to back down.

“Absolutely,” Kira declared. “Admiral Ross can corroborate me on this.”

“I’ve known Odo for a long time now, Alynna,” Ross added. “I worked with him closely during the war. We can trust him.” Nechayev opened her mouth again as though she had more to say, but a sharp gesture from Chekov got her to back down.

“Then it seems this fits in perfectly with our strategy,” the elder admiral chimed in. “Keptin Kira, as soon as repairs from the battle over Earth are completed, Starfleet Command would like you to take the Defiant, proceed to the wormhole under cloak, enter the Gamma Quadrant, and rendezvous with this Dominion squadron. You will report to Admiral Ross… for reasons only known to him, he has chosen to christen this mission Operation: Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang.” Kira allowed herself a small smile… the name was appropriate, considering Odo’s love of the music of holographic entertainer Vic Fontaine. “Bill believes that the Defiant will be sufficient, thanks to your knowledge of the areas and factions involved, and the unique aspect of your Romulan cloaking device… however, if you should like or require support, I will be happy to spare a wessel or two.”

“I’d offer the services of some of our own cloaked ships as well… but I think I know your preference, Captain Kira,” Martok said, a knowing smile appearing on his grizzled face.

Kira returned the smile. “Chancellor Martok is right, Admiral. Your assistance is appreciated, but unneeded. The Defiant will be more than enough.”

“Excellent,” Chekov said, laying his hands back down on the table. “Now then, onto you, Keptin Picard… as I mentioned to you before, you are to be promoted to admiral for your discovery of this new galaxy. And after reading your report, I have decided that your role in that affair will also lead in to your new assignment. Using the Enterprise, you are to venture through the portal, make contact with this Citadel, and establish a base of operations for Starfleet in the region. Your reputation for diplomacy is well deserved… I believe this assignment will make the fullest use of your talents in that area.”

Picard’s eyes lit up as Chekov finished, which Riker couldn’t help but smile at. The captain had been worried about spending the rest of his career behind a desk… where better to place that desk than on the newest frontier there was? “Of course, sir. And if I might ask a personal favor?” Chekov nodded. “I would like to add Lieutenant Ezri Dax to my personal staff. She mentioned you were looking to tap her for diplomatic duty in the new galaxy… I believe I could give her just the assignments for which she would be most suited.”

“Agreed,” Chekov said, nodding again. “We’ll authorize Counselor Dax’s transfer at once.”

“Excellent,” Picard said. “We’ll make our way to the Bajoran sector straight away.”

“Not just yet,” Chekov stopped him, holding up a hand. “Commander Riker, you will also have a new assignment, which Admiral Jellico will detail for you.”

Riker nearly grimaced. Putting it politely, he and Edward Jellico had a somewhat… antagonistic relationship, stemming from Jellico’s brief tenure as captain of the Enterprise while Captain Picard was undertaking a covert mission in Cardassian space. Though he had kept Riker on in his post, the two hadn’t seen eye to eye, with Jellico feeling that he had been too willful to be a good first officer. For his own part, Riker had felt Jellico was too domineering and micromanaging to be a good captain, but when it came to being part of the admiralty, that may perhaps have been a strength.

Whatever he may have felt regarding Riker now, Jellico kept his face carefully neutral as he stood to speak. “Well, Commander Riker, I understand that Admiral Chekov would like you to replace Jean-Luc as captain of the Enterprise. Despite our… differences… in the past, allow me to offer my congratulations, especially since you’ll be under my direction. I think you’ll make a fine captain.”

“Thank you, sir,” Riker replied, hoping he did so diplomatically.

Jellico nodded before continuing. “Now, your mission, upon escorting Admiral Picard to the Citadel, will be to return to Federation space and report back to me at the Klingon border. The Cairo and I will be in command of the Third Expeditionary Force, patrolling with Chancellor Martok’s forces. I’d like you to be a part of that contingent.”

“I’ve heard of your prowess as a warrior, Riker,” Martok added with a fierce grin. “I look forward to seeing that prowess pitted against our enemies.”

Riker flashed a smile in the direction of the Klingon leader. “Likewise, Chancellor. From all Worf has told me about you, should be one hell of a show.”

“Very good,” Chekov said, slowly rising to his feet and assisted by Admiral Akaar. “There is nothing else that requires our immediate attention… Keptin Kira, you may return to the Defiant to oversee… I want her at warp as soon as can be managed. Dismissed.” Kira nodded her acknowledgement and departed the room at a brisk clip. Chekov turned his focus to the other two officers. “Keptin Picard and Commander Riker, if you both will follow me, I would like to conduct your promotion ceremonies as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.” They nodded, and began to follow the elder admiral out of the room.

Before he could reach the door, Riker found himself blocked by Jellico. “Commander… there is one other matter,” he said quietly, checking to make sure the other admirals had departed. “Admiral Chekov seemed to indicate that once you take command, you intend to promote Lieutenant Commander Data and place him as your first officer. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Riker answered, hoping his voice didn’t betray his suspicions. “Commander Data is an exceptional officer, and he’s been too long without promotion. On top of that, the crew knows him, and they trust him, and he’s the same with them. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the most logical choice.”

“Ordinarily, I would agree with you… I certainly thought so when I was on the Enterprise,” Jellico replied. Now, Riker didn’t allow himself to hide the frown… when Jellico had removed Riker from duty for his questioning of his command decisions, he had installed Data in his place. So why bring this up now? “Unfortunately, circumstances have changed from where they were seven years ago,” the admiral continued. “The Federation finds itself facing an unprecedented threat… a purely mechanical force bent upon our absolute annihilation. I read Mr. Data’s file upwards and downwards after Admiral Chekov gave me this assignment… and you’re right in saying that he’s a model officer. However, the fact remains that though he’s exceptional at what he does, he is, at his base, artificial. Jean-Luc’s records seems to indicate that that nature made him susceptible to outside interference in the past… and according to the reports you brought back with you, the Reapers have bent mechanical beings to their will before on a massive scale. If they could affect even these Geth on a massive scale, who’s to say it wouldn’t be just as easy with a single android? Now, he’s previously been determined as a sentient being, as well as an asset, so I won’t ask for his removal from your crew… but with this type of threat, I would strongly suggest that it would be wiser to pick someone else for your first officer. Mr. Worf, perhaps…”

Riker was flabbergasted. “Excuse me?” he said, allowing the bile in his voice to rise. “You’ve got to be joking. First you tell me you think he’s excellent, and now you tell me to keep him from much deserved advancement because he’s an android?” He hesitated, realizing that his voice was increasing in volume. “Admiral, with all due respect, I believe that to be a baseless recommendation, and will therefore ignore it.”

“Really,” Jellico said, his cold tone indicating it had not been a question. “I assume you recall Stardate 44085.7… Lieutenant Commander Data, acting under an outside signal from Dr. Noonian Soong, locked out all command functions, hijacked the Enterprise, and piloted it to Terlina III, nearly causing the death of a young boy being treated in sickbay for a parasitic infection. Or maybe Stardate 46982.1, when, under the control of his ‘brother’ Lore, he very nearly caused not only a new Borg invasion of the Federation, but also the deaths of Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and Counselor Deanna Troi. And if you need more, perhaps Stardate 47615.2, when a signal from a rogue comet programmed by a dead civilization caused him to begin displaying the personalities of long dead individuals, nearly converting the entire Enterprise into a replica of that same civilization.” Jellico leaned in closer. “I trust I’ve made my point, Commander?”

Riker glared at the smug countenance of the senior officer. “Vividly… sir,” he answered, working to keep the venom from his tone. “But you’re also neglecting all the good Data has done for the Federation. If it weren’t for him, we would all have been assimilated by the Borg twice over, to say nothing of the invaluable scientific research he’s helped to undertake. He’s served Starfleet faithfully for decades now, and I cannot in good conscience allow a good officer to languish for as long as he has. You know, if he wasn’t an android, he’d probably be captaining a ship by now! I’m sorry, Admiral, but I intend to ignore your suggestion.”

Jellico sighed deeply and crossed his arms over his chest. “Then I’m afraid you’ve given me no choice,” he said. “I order you not to promote Lieutenant Commander Data to the position of first officer until the current crisis is over. If you disregard this order, you will be court martialed, you will be stripped of your command, and I will personally see to it that you are drummed out of Starfleet, with no possibility of reinstatement. Do I make myself absolutely clear, Riker?”

In that moment, Riker could have taken a swing at the man… but he knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. Jellico had him over a barrel… if Riker disobeyed his orders, he might just install a captain aboard the Enterprise who would be more pliable to his will, and in this time of strife, it would be better for all involved if the ship’s commanding officer was someone who knew her and her crew inside and out. Silently, Riker apologized to Data as he answered, “Understood… sir.”

“Good,” Jellico replied, thankfully without the self-satisfied tone Riker had been expecting. “Now, we should get on to your promotion ceremony… I’ll need you back in my fleet ASAP.”

The admiral turned and strode from the room, with Riker following behind at a slightly slower pace. Not even technically captain yet, and already he felt the weight of the universe on his shoulders… somehow, this week had gotten worse from a seemingly unstoppable force occupying Earth. Will Riker could only hope that it wouldn’t get much worse from here…       

 

 

 

Commander Shepard stood in the Council Chambers of the Citadel Tower, Liara by her side, as she craned her eyes upward to see the Councilors debate their findings. No sooner had the Normandy docked than the Council had summoned her to the Tower urgently… she hadn’t even had the chance to check on how Ash and Thane were doing yet. Normally, she somewhat resented being at the Council’s beck and call on the click of a heel… but in this case, she needed the time for them to review. If she was to convince them that the Federation could be a reliable ally against the Reapers, they would need to be thoroughly satisfied.

One by one, Councilors Tevos of the Asari Republics, Valern of the Salarian Union, Sparatus of the Turian Hierarchy, and Udina of the Systems Alliance made their way to their respective spaces behind the railing of their balcony, and stood towering above the room. “Commander Shepard. In the past, we have accused your findings of being unfounded,” said Tevos after a clearing of her throat. “We have of course paid the price for that lack of foresight… it would seem foolish of us to do so now as well. However, after reviewing the reports you submitted upon your return to Council space, we have concluded that an alliance with this Federation is simply not feasible at this time.”

Shepard felt her mouth nearly drop open. She realized she really shouldn’t have been surprised… after all, the Council had been slowing her down virtually since she became a Spectre. With Reapers knocking at the Citadel’s door, though, she had really thought that things would be different. Hell, Adrien Victus had become the new primarch of the Turian Hierarchy thanks to some timely advising by Councilor Sparatus… she’d thought the Council was finally going to take a more hands on role. Clearly, she had been wrong. “Excuse me?” she said, fuming as Liara tried to hold her back. “I can’t believe this! You ask me to find allies for this war, and I find the perfect candidate… and now you’re telling me that you just can’t?! You’re insane!”

“Shepard, please…” Liara whispered.

“And what would you have us do, Commander? Send our forces en masse to this new galaxy and protect them over our own worlds?” Sparatus asked. “I sent you to Palaven partially so you could see how this war was affecting us… clearly, that hasn’t sunk in for you yet. If the Reapers are leaving this galaxy to pursue conflict in this other one, why not let them? It’s not our problem, and at least it means our worlds will be safer.”

“Have the Reaper numbers decreased here since they crossed through the portal?” Shepard argued. “Is Earth free? Is Palaven? Are Sur’Kesh or Thessia completely safe from the threat of annihilation? This could be our chance to completely stem their advance. The Federation and their allies have several advanced technological capabilities over our galaxy, and they have offered their assistance. They’re in the same boat we are… we’d be stupid not to pursue this.”

“We are not all of the opinion that pursuing this partnership would be problematic,” Udina chimed in. Shepard almost scoffed. She had never liked Udina much, and seeing this worm as humanity’s representative to the rest of the galaxy, now that Anderson had left the Council to return to the military, she could only speculate how the rest of the galaxy saw the Alliance. “If it were up to me, I would sign an accord immediately. Unfortunately, my colleagues, some of whose worlds are not currently facing the Reapers, find fault with that plan.”

Before Sparatus could rebut, Valern interrupted. “I have spoken with the dalatrasses back home. If you wish to pursue this, I may have a suggestion…” the salarian said. “Our governments are already organizing a summit with humanity, the turians, and ourselves… and as we have all heard, Primarch Victus has requested that the krogan also be in attendance. This is already an historic meeting in and of itself… would it not be wise to perhaps extend an invitation to the groups from this other galaxy? They can meet us, and we can meet them, all in an official capacity.”

“I support this proposal!” Udina declared, a smug smile on his face. “Anything would be better than doing nothing.”

Valern peered back across the aisle to Tevos and Sparatus. “If my esteemed colleagues would be willing, the Citadel Council could extend a united hand and welcome the Federation, and any other willing participants from their galaxy, to our beautiful station… then together, we could work to find a way to defeat the Reapers. Their expertise may go a long way toward helping us with our… side project.”

Shepard had to admit, she’d had her differences with the Council every now and again, but when one of them wanted to get something done, they certainly pursued it with a vengeance. She hadn’t expected Valern to be the one coming to her defense, but it was a welcome sight. When a salarian said the time had come to fight, maybe someone with a more martial sensibility would take notice.

“…I believe we should discuss this matter further in private,” Tevos said. “Commander Shepard, thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. We will contact you soon.”

The Council made their way back to their chambers to deliberate, and Shepard heaved a sigh. “Why is this political stuff never easy?” she griped to Liara.

“You know how the game is played, Shepard,” Liara said. “Everyone thinks of their own interests first, and the greater good second. Government at its finest.” She grinned slyly and continued, “If you’d like, I could always show you some of my feeds on what Councilor Sparatus has been purchasing his asari mistress… it might make you feel better.”

Shepard let loose a small chuckle. “Much obliged, but no,” she replied. “Honestly, all I want right now is to go back to the Normandy, take a long shower, and see if I can get Garrus out of the main battery long enough to get anywhere…”

“Ah. Yes,” Liara said, her pace slowing a bit. “And, um… just how are things between you and Garrus?”

“You mean you haven’t been following the feeds from my quarters? I’m shocked,” Shepard joked. She turned, and her pleased expression quickly turned down as she saw Liara averting her gaze. “Liara? Everything okay?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes! Yes, everything’s fine, Shepard,” Liara answered, somewhat distractedly, Shepard felt.

“You’re not really convincing me here,” Shepard said. “Liara, we’ve known each other a long time… are you really okay with me and Garrus?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Liara asked. “It’s been some time… we’ve all been through a great deal. I’ve changed, you’ve changed… Garrus has changed. What’s important is that you’re happy.” She sighed. “You’re leading a galactic war effort, Shepard… intergalactic now, if we continue to pursue operations in the Federation’s galaxy. If Garrus helps to distract you from that, I wouldn’t want you to be driven from him.”

“Liara… you know I care about you too. I always will,” Shepard reassured her, laying a hand on her shoulder. She smiled roguishly. “Hey… what do say while we wait for the Council, you and I get a drink down in Purgatory? Aria T’Loak wanted to talk to me about something anyway… I don’t know if I need to be entirely sober for that chat. Or want to, really.”

Liara laughed. “A tempting offer, Shepard… but one I’m afraid I may have to decline for now,” she answered. “I have a great deal of work to get done tonight… I’m trying to assimilate an entire galaxy’s worth of information, and I only feel comfortable putting Glyph in charge of so much. I’ll take you up on it another time, though… I promise.”

Shepard’s gaze wandered back to her feet. “Yeah… I get it,” she said quietly. “Well, if you change your mind…”

“I know,” Liara replied. “I’ll keep it in mind, I promise.”

Just then, a gruff voice cleared its throat from behind the commander and Shadow Broker. “You two done jabbering?” it said, causing the two to whirl around. “Not that I would even think about getting in between the two of you,” Urdnot Wrex continued, flanked by two other male krogan. “Liara here would probably throw me over the balcony…”

“Wrex!” Shepard said, beaming broadly. “What are you doing here? I thought you were still on Sur’Kesh waiting out the summit!”

“Yeah, well, until a couple days ago, I was,” Wrex explained, crossing his arms and letting his saurian face spread into a smile. “But somebody mentioned to me that this might be the place to be… and since you’re here too, I figure they were right. Where you go, Shepard, a good fight usually isn’t too far behind,” he chortled. His eyes turned toward Liara. “Unless you’re trying to keep things under wraps to spare the delicate sensibilities of the asari…”

“Blow it out your hump, Wrex,” Liara laughed. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, Liara,” the krogan agreed. “Been too long. Able to fire anything bigger than a pistol these days?”

“When I need to,” Liara replied. “And you’re still lugging around that overcompensating shotgun too, I’ll bet…”

Wrex guffawed as he grabbed Liara’s shoulder and shook. “Love you, T’Soni. Never change!” His expression suddenly turned more serious as he turned back toward Shepard. “Shepard. Look, I’d love to catch up over a couple of ryncols, but we need to talk. Now.”

Shepard nodded and gave a gesture to Liara, who returned the nod and made her way back to the elevator. Wrex similarly grunted at his krogan followers, and the two lumbered off to the side of the room. The huge scarred krogan came in closer, until he was right in Shepard’s face. “There’s something I need you to do for me. It’s important… it could mean my people getting into action against the Reapers a lot more quickly.”

“Whatever you need, Wrex… you know that,” Shepard replied.

Wrex let loose a small chuckle. “Yeah, well, you might take a different tone when you hear what it is… hell, I can’t even believe I’m asking it myself… look, here’s the thing. I know about the females.”

“You know about—“

“Shepard, please. I can’t take this from you too,” Wrex growled. “You know what I’m talking about. The females that the salarians were holding onto. The females of my people who were ripped from Tuchanka and locked up by the Kalros-damned bastards who made the genophage in the first place. Ringing any bells now?”

Shepard blinked. “How’d you find out?” she asked.

“I have somebody feeding me info from inside STG. I’ve known about it for a while,” Wrex replied. “I wasn’t sure you knew about it, though… I was playing a hunch based on something my informant said last time we spoke.”

“Your informant… it’s Mordin, isn’t it?” Shepard guessed.

“You know more than I thought you did,” Wrex said, surprised. “Did he tell you?”

“No. But I was told by our old friend Kirrahe that he had gone rogue from STG… he told me about the females,” Shepard explained.

“Makes sense,” Wrex agreed. “Last conversation I had with Mordin, I mentioned that the only way the krogan would support the war effort on a galactic scale would be if we had a cure for the genophage… he fled Sur’Kesh, and now he’s here. On the Citadel.”

“He’s what?” Shepard said, pulling Wrex closer to conceal her disbelief from the crowd around them. “Wrex, that’s insane! The Citadel is the perfect place to look for him!”

“Maybe it is… but it’s also the perfect place to lose someone,” Wrex argued. “Nobody on the Citadel’s gonna blink an eye at one salarian in a crowd, even one missing a horn… and even if they were, we’ve got him pretty well hidden. Aria T’Loak’s got him.”

Shepard sighed and rubbed her forehead. “So that’s what she called me for…” she muttered. “All right. I’ll grab him… but I swear, if this gets me in hot water with the salarians…”

Wrex scoffed. “Like those skinny lizards’ll be able to do anything against the Reapers…” he said, the disdain clear in his voice. “You get my people onboard for the fight, Shepard, and that’s all you’ll need.” He looked back in her eyes. “Oh… one other thing… what’s this I hear about this little intergalactic trip you made?”

Shepard rolled her eyes. “Long story… I’ll fill you in on all the details later. Stop by the Normandy before we leave with Mordin.”

“You got it,” Wrex agreed. He thrust out a hand and grinned. “Good to see you again, Shepard. I knew my people could count on you.”

Shepard took the offered hand and eagerly pumped it. “You too, Wrex. Stay safe… it’s a hard galaxy out there these days.”

Wrex exhaled a chuckle. “I’m a krogan, Shepard… I’ve never known it any other way,” he replied, and signaled to his entourage.

As the krogan lumbered away, Shepard turned and made her way from the Council atrium to the elevator, where Liara stood waiting. “Let me guess… Mordin and the females?” she said with a smile.

 Shepard stared before letting a laugh loose. “One of these days, your Shadow Broker thing is going to stop being creepy… but not today.”

 “I rather thought you found my enigmatic nature charming,” Liara shot back.

 “You call what you were like when we first met ‘enigmatic’?” Shepard laughed again. “Now who’s—“ Suddenly, she heard her comm chime in her ear. She tapped it. “Shepard here. Go ahead.”

“Cortez here, Commander,” came the shuttle pilot’s voice. “Vega and I are down here in the cargo bay… two people, a turian and a batarian, just arrived here with a salarian and a big cryostasis tube. They were led by an asari… she said you’d want to speak with her. We called Garrus down, since you left him in command… he just laughed, muttered something and ran over to the salarian… mentioned something about being under your command before.”

Shepard shook her head… obviously, Aria hadn’t been inclined to wait, and if she knew Mordin, neither had he. “Don’t worry about it, Steve. Liara and I are on our way back from the Presidium now… we’ll address it when we get there. Shepard out.” She looked back to Liara and sighed. “Evidently, Aria’s dropping off her package… and scared my flight deck officer half to death.”

“How did she maintain control over Omega for all those years wielding such a blunt instrument?” Liara asked, crossing her arms.

“Absolute control gets you used to a certain way of doing things, I guess,” Shepard answered. “She doesn’t have those resources here, but she still maintains a measure of control with a power base. I don’t know that it’s a blunt instrument at all, really, especially with time being of the essence here.”

“Point taken,” Liara said as the elevator doors slid open to the Normandy’s docking level. As usual, it was a busy area, with technicians, military personnel, C-Sec officers, bureaucrats, and civilian refugees from various Reaper besieged worlds milled about with several degrees of desperation. Shepard couldn’t help but feel for these people whenever she saw them… many of them had seen the horror the galaxy faced firsthand, and had come to the Citadel for a safe haven, only to find their leaders unresponsive or uncaring about the scale of the threat. They were still deluding themselves into thinking that the Reapers could be contained, or in some way stopped, before their own races had to deal with it. Councilor Tevos in particular was adamant about the fact that the Reapers had not made their way into asari space, and so seemed downright blasé on the issue. Sparatus, meanwhile, had seen the vids of his homeworld burning, and Valern, coming from a cautious people, was wary himself, especially as rumors abounded of Reaper presences being spotted near Sur’Kesh itself. Overall, the prevailing mood on the space station, at least among the highers-up, remained one of denial, and they couldn’t afford that any longer… hence, why Shepard was sure Mordin and Aria wanted to make their move as quickly as possible.

Shepard and Liara briskly crossed the docking bay, making their way through the crowded throngs as they did so, until they found the entrance to Bay D24. The door slid open, and the pair stepped through the Normandy’s airlock, taking the ship’s elevator down to the cargo bay. Those doors parted to reveal the scene Cortez had described: Aria T’Loak, flanked by two bodyguards, haggling with Vega, while Garrus stood off to the side engaged in a tense discussion with Mordin himself, positioned protectively near to a large cryogenic stasis tube. The door was opaque, one of the newer designs that he been commissioned in the last year or so for some big civilian project that had departed a few months ago… Mordin had been planning this for a long time, it appeared, certainly longer than Kirrahe had claimed.

As Shepard entered, both Aria’s and Mordin’s attentions turned toward her, and the two moved with almost simultaneous momentum to meet her in the center of the room. “It’s about time,” Aria said, crossing her arms. “I was getting tired of standing around a damn cargo bay…”

“Good to see you again too, Aria,” Shepard shot back, which brought a smirk to Aria’s face. She had always enjoyed the interplay with the pirate queen of Omega… “Mordin,” she continued, angling her head in the salarian scientist’s direction, “you do realize you could have just called me, right?”

“With communications being monitored and time being of the essence for Eve’s survival?” Mordin asked. “Didn’t occur to me at the time. Apologies. Focusing too much on the issue… not sleeping well lately. Things… slipping through cracks.”

“Well then, first thing you’re doing after this transfer is approved is sleeping for as long as the salarian metabolism requires,” Shepard ordered. “I’ll defer to Dr. Chakwas’s expertise in this matter.”

“An hour. No more, no less. Speaking of doctor, Shepard, require services of medbay for foreseeable future,” Mordin said, his mouth moving a mile a minute. “Chakwas excellent physician, but will be in the way with work this delicate. I regret forcing her out of workspace, but no time for diplomatic posturing. Krogan need this cure soon… I will see they have it soon.”

“Right. I’ll have someone inform Dr. Chakwas of your intentions,” Shepard agreed. “We’ll have the cryopod transferred up there, and it’ll be ready as soon as she clears you to get down to work. Sound fair?”

“Would prefer to get to work immediately… but, will defer to judgment,” Mordin relented. “Chakwas will require time to acclimate.”

“Right. Better get moving on that.” Shepard turned toward the others in the bay. “Steve, get a crew together to make sure this thing gets up to the medbay… and tell them to be careful. This thing gets damaged, it could cost us the war effort… James, unless required elsewhere, I’m setting you up on guard duty for Mordin. Make sure he remains undisturbed for as long as he needs to complete his project. You’ll be relieved by EDI every twelve hours, no exceptions. Let me know as soon as any breakthroughs are made. Understood?” James nodded in acknowledgement. Shepard returned it, and gestured for him to start moving. Her attention turned to Aria, who crossed her arms in a frustrated manner. “Anything else to discuss?”

“Not on this subject,” Aria replied. “Though I would be curious if you could tell me anything about this other galaxy you visited…”

Shepard glared. “You’re not supposed to know about that,” she said coldly.

Aria smirked. “Please, Shepard. You really think I don’t have some feelers in the Council Chambers?” She raised her hands in a carefree swoop. “You don’t want to tell me anything, that’s just fine. I’m very good at figuring things out on my own. Just remember… you still owe me a favor.”

“Thought we were square after I consolidated the gangs under your control,” Shepard said, her tone indicating her proposed finality.

“A good turn, certainly… but it didn’t get me back on Omega, did it? And besides… now you owe me for this,” Aria replied. “You’re a busy woman, Shepard… I can understand if you don’t have time personally. But I need you to find me a way in, and help with putting Cerberus down. You get me those things, and then we’ll be square.”

Shepard pondered… it was a fair deal. And she may require more help from Aria and her mercs before this whole business was over… “Fine,” she agreed, extending a hand in Aria’s direction.

Aria took the hand and shook, waving her other hand to her two bodyguards as she did so. “I’ll hold you to that, Shepard. We’ll be in touch.” With that, the pirate queen and her henchmen strode for the exit ramp, departing the cargo bay for the docking ring outside.

Shepard sighed as she turned to make her way back to the elevator. As if fighting a war that had recently added another galaxy as a battleground weren’t enough, now she had a new debt to Aria T’Loak, and a squirrelly salarian scientist taking over her medbay so he could develop a cure for an ancient genetic condition that may not even be feasible… she chuckled to herself. Nothing had been simple for her since Eden Prime… and she had the feeling things were going to get worse before they got better.

 

 

 

In the view of much of the rest of the galaxy, the Vulcan people were regarded as having no emotions or feelings of any kind… however, to Lieutenant Commander Tuvok, that had never been the case. Despite having undergone the ritual of Kolinahr, his emotions were not, as was commonly believed outside of his homeworld, purged; he merely found it easier to ignore them, to allow them to simmer below the surface when they would be inappropriate to the task at hand. His focus and mental discipline were the greatest aboard Voyager, save for perhaps the captain… and yet, he could not help but feel a small tingle of trepidation as he and his team prepared for the mission to the Borg Cube.

The security chief and his team made their final weapons check as they stood in one of Voyager’s transporter rooms. Previous encounters with the Borg had shown just how quickly they could adapt to energy weapons… providing the away team with the Infinity Modulators, rifles developed by Tuvok and the new Hazard Team on constantly changing frequencies, would greatly reduce the chance of quick adaptation. Each of the other members of his team, including Seven of Nine, Ensign Kim, Lieutenant Alexander Munro and the Hazard Team, and Lieutenant Carey carried the rifles, and he had even convinced the Doctor to carry a small sidearm as a precaution.

Just a few moments ago, Tuvok had detected a Borg Cube entering the system, and Seven had confirmed that the vessel showed all the modifications that the previous one had. If they were going to have a chance to obtain the element zero, it had to be now. And thus, Captain Janeway had given the order for the Vulcan security chief to mobilize his squad: the best and brightest of his security officers, and those who had volunteered to join them. It had only taken a moment for them all to be assembled in the transporter room and handed their weapons, and now they were only waiting for the Doctor to finish giving his directions to Lieutenant Paris, his temporary replacement during the mission.

The away team had all been fully briefed on the nature of the operation and what was at stake… all of them seemed prepared to take the risk. As he had explained just what they hoped the element zero could do, he noted a small smile appear on the face of Lieutenant Carey… one of the greatest struggles of Voyager’s early days in the Delta Quadrant had been coming to terms with the fact that most of them would likely never see their families again, and even the recent establishment of a subspace comm channel back to the Alpha Quadrant had done little to mitigate that. Carey had been married and had children… knowing that the hope of finally seeing them again existed might help push him on all the farther to complete the mission. Ensign Kim had reacted similarly… he was young yet, and Voyager had been his first assignment. Knowing that it might not be his last must have been quite relieving, Tuvok felt.

At the same time, however, he had seen worry pass over the faces of Seven and the Doctor. Annika Hansen had been assimilated by the Borg at a very young age, becoming Seven of Nine. She was only now developing her individuality again… not only was she concerned about falling back under the Collective’s thrall, but also fearful about the outcome should they manage to reach Earth. Though she would never admit it, Tuvok knew she was only too conscious about what the traditional Federation reaction to the Borg was… the initial hostility she had been greeted with upon her liberation was evidence enough of that.

As for the Doctor… despite the important position he held as Voyager’s chief medical officer, the EMH had never really forgotten that back home, he was just another piece of medical equipment. Holograms were still an item of some debate where their sentience was concerned, at least as far as the news from the Alpha Quadrant had stated… the Doctor had learned that the majority of the EMH Mark Is were now scrubbing down plasma conduits and being utilized for labor deemed too dangerous for humanoids, such as dilithium mining. To paraphrase an old human expression, there, but for the grace of Voyager, went he… however, even with Seven and the Doctor’s trepidations, Tuvok felt he had picked his team well. He knew that every single one of them would not allow themselves to falter, not with so much at stake.

The Doctor turned away from Paris, and gave a determined look to Tuvok as he adjusted his hand phaser. The Vulcan gave a nod and turned to the transporter chief. “If there are no objections, I believe our operation is ready to commence,” he declared.

“I’m afraid I do have one,” the Doctor said, pulling several hyposprays from his supply kit and injecting them at the necks of the team. “I’ve prepared serums to assist in resisting assimilation… it’s a not a catch-all, but it should be enough to stop the process long enough to beam back to Voyager for proper treatment.”

Mr. Vulcan!” came a shout from the door of the transporter room. Tuvok kept himself from grimacing… only one person aboard Voyager called him that… “Mr. Vulcan, I can’t believe that you would depart on this dangerous mission without checking your ration supplies with me first,” Neelix, Voyager’s Talaxian morale officer, chef, and ship’s ambassador bellowed as he entered the room, pulling food rations from his loud multicolored jacket.

“Forgive me, Mr. Neelix, but I had considered time to be of the essence,” Tuvok replied calmly as he accepted the newly replicated field ration pack. “I did not believe we would be aboard the Borg vessel long enough for us to require the rations.”

“Ah, but you never know!” Neelix said, waving a finger. “I’d like to do all I can to make sure this mission is a complete success, and if that means giving you all a good meal before you beam over, that’s what I intend to do.”

Had Tuvok been human, he would have sighed in dismay… however, he merely gave a nod and a small, “Thank you, Mr. Neelix.” Neelix responded with a grin and a clasp of the hands, and turned back to return to the transporter console. “We are ready, Lieutenant,” Tuvok indicated to the officer manning it.

The lieutenant gave a nod as Tuvok’s squad assembled on the transporter pad. The door slid open again to allow the entry of Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay. “Mr. Tuvok,” the captain said as she strode in and stood by the console. “Tom has informed us that your entry window is perfect… the Borg vessel has taken no notice of us. We just wanted to see you off and wish you luck.”

“In my experience, Captain, luck is an arbitrary construct created by sentient species as an excuse for their mistakes,” Tuvok replied dryly. “But all the same, the… sentiment… is appreciated.”

Janeway gave Tuvok a smile… precisely the response he had hoped for. While he had often considered it an illogical development in humanoid social rituals, Tuvok had often found that a sense of humor could be quite comforting to his non-Vulcan colleagues. It was something he found that Captain Janeway in particular had always appreciated, especially before a stressful situation. “Come home, Mr. Tuvok,” she said, looking directly into his eyes. “And then, we can really go home.”

“We will not let you down, Captain,” Tuvok answered, and turned his attention back to the transporter chief. “Energize,” he said.

The lieutenant manipulated the controls on the console, and Tuvok watched as the transporter room vanished around him, becoming the dim hallways of the interior of a Borg Cube. Regeneration alcoves lined the walls, and drones moved to and fro, seemingly not paying any heed to the intruders… which was just what Tuvok had hoped would be the case. He turned around to the Hazard Team, Seven, the Doctor, and Carey, who stood at attention. “It appears they have reverted to their previous methodology of ignoring that which does not pose an immediate threat. We can utilize this advantage. Keep the I-MODs primed, but do not utilize them unless attacked first. Seven, do you believe that the modulations will be sufficient to prevent adaptation?”

“Affirmative,” Seven replied. Tuvok noticed a slight discomfort in her body language being back aboard a Borg vessel, but she kept it under control, just as he knew she would. “I have made the proper modifications to the weapons myself. They will be sufficient.”

Tuvok nodded. “Very good,” he said. “Lieutenant Munro, you will take the lead. Lieutenant Carey, begin scanning for the element zero. Our beam in point is near enough to their engineering section that it should not be difficult to locate. Ensign Kim, watch our flank. The rest of you, be on your guard.” Acknowledgments arose from the away team as Tuvok faced ahead, Munro taking his place in front of him. “Let us proceed.”

Tuvok suppressed the small sensation of dread he felt move up his spine as he and the team moved deeper into the Cube… they were here now, deep in the heart of the enemy. If anything were to go wrong, escape would be nigh impossible… and yet, thus far, they seemed to have been fortunate. The drones milling about were engrossed in their activities… Tuvok suspected that the Collective was consumed with its goal of reaching the mysterious relic floating in space. That was clearly advantageous… Tuvok had wondered if it had been too alarmist to summon his Hazard Team for this operation, but with their previous experience aboard a Borg vessel during the recent Vohrsoth incident, it had been the only logical choice. Munro’s performance in particular had been commendable… he’d had his doubts regarding the brash young officer, but after the near assimilation of the Hazard Team’s previous leader, Lieutenant Foster, he’d stepped up ably, and proven that he could lead the elite squad. Foster was still in recovery per the Doctor’s orders, so Munro continued in his new leadership role… so far, he had yet to disappoint.

Suddenly, Tuvok heard Harry Kim cry out behind him, causing him to whirl around. As far as he could see, nothing had happened… “Ensign Kim?” he said, as the young officer clutched at his chest and breathed. “Is everything all right?”

“Fine, sir… fine,” Kim assured him. “Just… nearly got brushed by a drone, that’s all.”

“You’re quite lucky, Ensign,” Crewman Chell interjected, the Bolian’s easygoing manner at direct odds with the current suspense. “After all, direct contact may have been considered an assault… you could have gotten us all assimilated.” His words sent a somewhat uneasy chuckle through the Hazard Team, and Lieutenant Carey reciprocated.

“This idle discussion is inefficient,” Seven said, exactly reflecting Tuvok’s own thoughts on the matter. “We must stay vigilant. We are nearing our objective.”

“Right. Cut the chatter, Hazard Team. I-MODs on standby,” Munro ordered, raising his own rifle in example. The rest of the team followed suit, and the uneasy journey went on.

Seven began trailing to the back, holding her hand over the implant that still partially covered her left eye. A pained expression came to her face, and the Doctor placed a hand on her shoulder. “Seven… are you all right?” he asked, his concern evident.

“No,” she replied succinctly. “Ever since I made renewed contact with the Collective, there has been… a dull voice in the back of my mind. The Collective, quietly trying to assert their control once more… and yet now, all of a sudden, it has ceased.”

“Odd,” the Doctor agreed. “I would have thought that being onboard a Borg vessel, the sensations would grow more powerful, not less…”

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Seven said, her tone of concern becoming outright worry. “But… I am concerned they may be leading us into a trap.”

“Perhaps we… shouldn’t jump to conclusions, Seven,” the Doctor replied, though even he didn’t seem like he believed that. “It could be a simple anomaly.”

Seven didn’t answer, but the Doctor could see that she didn’t accept his flimsy explanation either. “Do you think we should tell the others?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

“No,” Seven replied. “I… don’t wish to do anything that might cause the Collective to retaliate. I shall attempt to make preparations, but I don’t know how much I can do.”

“Do what you can, Seven. We won’t need any more than that,” the EMH said, laying a hand on her shoulder and tightening his grasp. “I believe in you. You won’t fail us.”

Tuvok was becoming somewhat suspicious himself… the last time they had infiltrated a Borg vessel, the Collective’s attention had been distracted by the Queen trying to talk Seven into returning. Now, such distraction did not exist… Ensign Kim’s alarm alone might have been enough to attract attention to their presence. He had no doubt that the Borg knew they were here… but perhaps their mission was more important than a few interlopers.

Just then, a bloodcurdling screech echoed down the halls, and the away team whirled in the direction of the sound. “Analysis,” Tuvok said to Seven.

“Unknown,” she answered, visibly confused. “It is not any sound the Borg have been known to produce… perhaps it is a newly assimilated—“

She was interrupted by another, even louder screech, prompting the team to raise their weapons and take defensive stances. Tuvok noticed that Crewman Murphy had pulled her sniper rifle, given the same modifications as the I-MODs, while Crewman Chang was prepping a grenade assortment. Tuvok hoped that whatever was coming their way now, the weapons would be enough… plans, he had found, often did not last long when interference from others was in play.

And then, Tuvok saw them… shambling humanoid figures, glowing blue with technological wiring throughout their entire body, lurching at them down the cavernous hallway. While they seemed to bear the appearance of a techno-organic lifeform, like the Borg, they were unlike any drone he had ever seen, and judging by the apparent revulsion of Seven of Nine, which he saw now through the corner of his eye, she was also unfamiliar with them. This revelation, combined with the knowledge of their new propulsion technology, could only lead to one inescapable conclusion: the Borg were evolving, with the help of whoever these ‘Old Machines’ were. They needed to stop them, here and now… and when Tuvok gave the order to fire, none of his team hesitated in mowing them down with their weapons.

However, the tide was only momentarily stemmed, as down the hallway poured more and more of the monsters, some appearing to be of nonhumanoid races altogether, as well as the first drones he had seen. Tuvok realized too late that the phaser fire had officially made them a threat; the entire Cube would be on alert now. He then began to suspect that perhaps these creatures were not Borg after all… to his knowledge, the Collective had never assimilated nonhumanoids before. They would have deemed them too primitive, unworthy of addition to the hive… had that changed?

He heard a shortened grunt, and a fall to the ground. Lieutenant Carey had been killed… Crewman Murphy had also been hit, and the Doctor began tending to her shoulder wound as Chell covered them with his own fire. They were relentless… “There are too many of them!” Munro yelled as he pulled off yet another shot with his rifle. “Orders, Commander?”

“Continue on, Lieutenant,” Tuvok replied, firing a shot from his phaser as he did so. “We must complete the mission.” He turned toward Seven. “Do you know of another route to the engineering section?”

“Perhaps,” Seven answered. “I may be able to utilize my nanoprobes to open another passageway that could get us there more quickly, but it’s risky. The Collective will know I am attempting it, and may try to cut off our possible escape avenues.”

“If it can be done, Seven, do it,” Tuvok urged. “I have confidence that you will be successful.”

Seven didn’t respond, but came to her feet. “I will require cover fire,” she said, and Tuvok gave the nod to Crewmen Chang and Ensign Kim to do as she had asked. Tuvok turned his attention back to the advancing horde, and evaluated the situation. Thankfully, the Borg had not yet adapted to the I-MODs, which also seemed to be useful against these unknown creatures… but the numbers seemed to be growing. He turned back to Seven, who had extended her assimilation tubules into the wall next to her and was concentrating on the effort. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open as a portal simultaneously opened in the wall, leading down a luminescent offshoot chamber.

“Now!” she yelled, and the team collectively rose and rushed down the passage, Seven sealing it behind them as they went. A collective pounding noise was heard as their assailants attempted to break their way in, but found that it was to no avail.

Once they had gone a good distance down the passage, Tuvok called a halt, and the away team stopped to catch their breath, the Doctor now finishing his patch of Crewman Murphy. “Location,” Tuvok ordered, looking back to Seven.

“We are now approximately 956.2 meters from our destination in Engineering, traveling in a straight path,” Seven replied. “However, with the Collective aware of our presence and actively attempting to locate us, I would suggest taking a more divergent route.”

“What if the Borg detect our presence as you affect the paths?” Ensign Kim asked as he checked his weapon. “I don’t know about you, but I’d really rather try to avoid getting attacked by those monsters anymore if we can help it.”

“Use of the nanoprobes will be detected, that is true,” Seven acknowledged. “But those creatures… whatever they were, they were not Borg. It is possible that at least in their case, we may be able to avoid attracting attention if we are discreet.”

“Can you lead us?” Tuvok asked.

“I will comply,” Seven replied confidently, though Tuvok had begun to see the uncertainty that had passed across the young woman’s face as she had discussed the plan. She knew of the Borg’s capabilities better than anyone… and now, to know that there were beings aboard the Cube that were not part of the Collective, but were seemingly assisting them? There was obviously more going on with these ‘Old Machines’ than they had been previously led to believe…

Tuvok nodded to the Doctor, who returned it with his own; the injured parties were as ready as they would ever be to move out. Tuvok glanced to Seven, and she in turn began to lead the party down the narrow crossing. It was a cautious expedition… each of them was now much more wary than they had been when they began, and Tuvok could tell that the loss of Lieutenant Carey was beginning to weigh on them. More than once, he noticed a member of the Hazard Team look back and find themselves surprised that he wasn’t there alongside them… Captain Janeway had often spoken of how she thought of the crew of Voyager as a family, and though it had happened on several instances during their journey through the Delta Quadrant, it was never easy to lose a part of that family.

About midway down the tunnel, Seven called for a halt, and above them, the team heard the pounding of footsteps, and those screeches they had heard just before the creatures had attacked. The team primed their weapons, pointing toward what they believed was the sound’s source… but as it began to fade above their heads, they breathed sighs of relief. Seven urged them onward once more, and the quickened pace of her stride made Tuvok start to believe that they may be nearing their destination.

He was proven right when Seven stopped once more, just before what looked to be a closed portal of some sort. “The engineering section will be through here,” she said. “I would suggest preparing weapons thoroughly. The Collective will not allow us a second chance.”

Tuvok acknowledged Seven’s suggestion, and he looked back again to watch as his squad prepared themselves. I-MODs were quickly armed, faces scrunched in determination, and even the Doctor made a check of his own mobile emitter, likely concerned about his ability to stay cohesive should it be struck. “Ensign Kim,” Tuvok said, turning to the young officer, “are you prepared to collect the element zero as expediently as possible?”

“Aye sir,” Kim replied. “I won’t let you down… I owe that much to Carey.” The rest of the team seemed to second Kim’s resolve, drawing their weapons ahead of them in readiness.

Finally, Tuvok thrust his hand forth, and Seven unleashed her assimilation tubules on the door. It parted, and the away team rushed through… only to find no one was present. No Borg, no creatures, no species being readied for assimilation… no one. Just the eerie greenish glow of the warp core, surrounded by the instruments responsible for its upkeep… and a single blue glow, located next to one of the plasma conduits, seemingly hooked into the tech. Instantly, Tuvok realized what had happened… and naturally, Seven had as well. “We must return to the entrance… now,” she said, an urgency previously unheard overarching in her tone.

But it was already too late. The portal through which they had come slammed shut behind them, and they heard a voice echoing through the vast chamber: “7 of 9, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01… we knew you would return to us one day. You are small now, weak… we are ready to return you to the whole, to the strength of our Collective.” A humanoid torso, feminine in appearance, rose from an opening in the floor, and from the ceiling dropped a head and shoulders, bald, ghastly pale, and covered with inhuman wiring… her spinal column attached itself to the bodily unit, and the two halves became one. She stepped out, smiling. “We are the Borg… and resistance is futile,” said the Borg Queen, outstretching her arms in a mocking embrace.

Munro ordered the Hazard Team to raise their weapons, and all of their I-MODs were instantly pointed directly at the Queen, but she merely laughed at their aggressive gesture. “You are all such limited beings… you cannot think beyond the two-dimensional logic before you,” she said, taking a step closer to the team. “You and others have destroyed this physical form many times before… and yet, the Borg live on, and always shall. We are so much more than you can comprehend… save for you, 7 of 9.” The Queen turned her attention to the young woman, and her smile grew softer, almost seductive. “You have seen our totality, been part of us… and now, you resist us. Why?”

“Because the very concept of the Collective is flawed,” Seven answered with a snarl. “Perfection at the cost of freedom and individuality is not perfection… it is destruction. You destroy that which is unique… and it seems that these Old Machines do the same.”

The Queen laughed again, and she spoke as if trying to convince a wayward child. “You have been away from us too long, 7 of 9… you have allowed these small minds to cloud your judgment, to lure you from the greater whole. That shall be corrected… for all of you,” she said, turning her gaze toward the larger group. “The Old Machines are a path to a greater future than even we had conceived. They will help us to bring our perfection to countless worlds, countless beings… at long last, the Borg will be complete. You will be assimilated… and you will see what we have begun.” She raised her arms again, and a series of huge tubules emerged from her form, snaking and lancing into the various technologies around the room. Pathways opened around her, and through them poured drone after drone, as well as the other techno-organic creatures they had encountered before. “As we have said many times before… resistance is futile.”

“Ensign Kim! Retrieve the objective, now!” Tuvok ordered, raising his weapon. “Hazard Team, hold them off! We must stand our ground!” As their opponents lunged forward, surrounding the little group, Kim broke off, sprinting for the blue glow they had noticed earlier, carrying Lieutenant Carey’s sample containment vessel. Crewman Chang threw a plasma grenade into Kim’s previous position, sending the drones pursuing him flying. A barrage of I-MOD shots also helped to thin their numbers… but only to thin them. It seemed that there truly was no end to the horde that the Queen had unleashed… Tuvok began a silent apology to his crewmates, his captain and friend… his wife and children. He had failed them all… and his failure may have doomed the galaxy as well.

Suddenly, Kim’s triumphant laughter broke the din of the skirmish, and Tuvok turned to see that he was carrying the containment vessel, which now gave off a small blue glow of its own. He had achieved the objective… and now, it was time. “Doctor! Now!” Tuvok yelled, and the Doctor immediately tapped on his mobile emitter. Tuvok had anticipated being outnumbered and surrounded as a possibility… that was a danger whenever one went against the Borg. Hence, why he and the Doctor had discussed this contingency: outfitting the EMH’s mobile emitter to act as a pattern enhancer, one which Voyager’s transporters would instantly recognize and lock onto, as well as the patterns of the away team survivors. He gave the order to form up, in preparation for an easier beam out… until he suddenly felt twin needle pricks into his neck. He gasped, turning his head to get a look at his assailant… a drone, likely Hirogen in origin, jamming its assimilation tubules into him.

“Resistance is futile,” he heard the Queen say again, as the Cube began to disappear around him… and found himself inside the transporter room on Voyager, surrounded now by familiar faces… faces that changed from relief to horror as they noticed the unaccustomed disquiet on Tuvok’s face. He could feel it now… the nanoprobes deep beneath his skin, moving through his bloodstream…

Do not struggle, he heard too many voices to count whispering in his head. You are perfection… you will spread that perfection to all life… you are Borg. 

“Doc—tor…” he managed to choke out, and collapsed onto the deck.

“Damn!” he heard the EMH yell as he ran toward him, tricorder in hand, Seven of Nine by his side. Seven looked just as horrified, and Tuvok could see in her a more personal revulsion… she knew what was to come, and she knew what the Doctor would say…

Assimilate them. Add their biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile. You know this.

“It’s too late,” the Doctor said, sounding a million lightyears away. “The nanoprobes have penetrated the brain stem and the bloodstream… they’re being spread throughout the body. There’s nothing I can do.”

“Sev—en…” Tuvok choked out again, running Surak’s philosophies in his head to drown out the voices. “Please… you… you know what—you must do.”

Seven nodded and leaned in closer, placing her hands around his head. “I… will comply,” she said, but Tuvok noticed a subtle shake in her voice he had never heard there before…

Resistance is futile.

He placed his hand on her forehead, and said, “Re—mem—ber…” Seven’s eyes opened wider, and she gasped as well, staggering back slightly. Tuvok broke the connection… time enough had passed for what he had needed to do.

Assimilate them. Bring them to us.

Recovering quickly, Seven placed her hands back upon his head. Tuvok gasped again and weakly held up a hand, spreading his fingers out at the center in his people’s traditional salute. “Live… live long and… and…”

You. Are. Bor—

Seven’s hands jerked, and all in the transporter room heard a sickening crack… Tuvok’s head lolled to the side, and his body became limp. She laid it down gently on the transporter pad and came to her feet… the Doctor’s mouth was agape as she stood.

She looked behind her to find similar shocked expressions on the faces of others in the room… Ensign Kim, the Hazard Team, Neelix… and standing close to the door of the room, Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay. “Seven…” she heard Neelix whisper. “What have you done?”

Seven didn’t answer her Talaxian crewmate… instead, she simply descended the platform, made her way toward Captain Janeway, and stood straight as she spoke. “Captain. Our mission was… successful. I would recommend Lieutenant Paris take us out of the system, in case the Borg choose to retaliate. Ensign Kim holds the element zero.”

Janeway nodded slowly. “…I see,” she said quietly. “Mr. Paris has already begun evasive maneuvers, and we’ll be at warp in minutes. Until I investigate fully what happened on that vessel, Seven, you are confined to the brig, pending questioning regarding this incident. Chakotay, escort her there. Harry, get down to Engineering. I need you and B’Elanna to figure out how the element zero works and how we can get it to function with our warp as soon as possible. Doctor… remove Mr. Tuvok to Sickbay.” She sighed and slowly turned toward the door. “As for me… I think I have some letters to write.”

The door closed behind Janeway, and it was only then that Seven began to feel the hot tears flow down her cheek…