So far, the patrol had been uneventful, however the atmosphere on the bridge and elsewhere had an edge to it. Everyone knew that something wasn’t right, but aside from a few strange preparations there was nothing tangible that could explain the feeling.
They were progressing along the Federation side of the border at low warp. It was slower than usual, to allow time for the thorough sensor scans that Captain MacLeod had ordered.
The Captain was back in the command chair after having locked himself in his ready room for hours. Was he projecting his own tension onto everyone else, having studied the classified Omega archives? He decided that it was more likely to be his secrecy causing the tension in the others. He hated working like this, but his orders were strict.
A few taps and gestures towards the slim console built into the arm of his chair brought up reports on the modifications he had ordered. The multiphasic shielding was in place around the warp core and tests were being run on it. A protest had been lodged against his order to implement the shielding without testing beforehand. He noted it on the Chief Engineer’s record. It wasn’t a bad thing – he would have protested such a demand too – and it reaffirmed that he’d made a good choice for the position. One of the runabouts, the USS Carron, was in the process of being modified also. Its hull had been reinforced significantly and it had been fitted with gravimetric torpedoes. A team was currently working on shielding its warp core in the same manner as Sutherland’s own core. Tactical had completed the gravimetric conversions of the photon torpedoes that he’d ordered. Most were ready to load into the Sutherland’s launchers but they’d taken care to make them available to the runabouts too.
Lt. Redik’s voice broke the silence. “Captain, I’m receiving a distress call.”
The image that appeared was of a Romulan woman and her clothing suggested that she was a civilian. Stress and frustration were evident on her face.
“This is Captain Struan MacLeod of the Federation starship Sutherland. How can we be of assistance?”
“Captain,” the woman responded, frustration giving way to relief. “Thank you for responding. I’m Captain Vahrel of the freighter Arrenhe. We are carrying supplies destined for the colony at Mol’Ecurai, but we were hit by some kind of shockwave. Our warp core destabilized and we had to eject it. Half of my systems are offline and I have injured crew here. I believe our comm system is working, but you’re the only ship I’ve been able to reach.”
“Sit tight, Captain,” Struan answered. “We’ll be with you shortly.”
Captain Vahrel nodded and terminated the communication.
“Captain?” Commander Zh’tora seemed uncomfortable.
“We just got our invite into Romulan space Commander,” Struan grinned, forgetting that she didn’t know why he’d want to go poking around there.
“Helm, set an intercept course for the freighter. Maximum warp.”
“Course laid in, Sir,” came the reply from Ensign Stannard.
“Execute.” Struan ordered. “I want the detailed scanning to continue whilst we render assistance. No sense passing up the extended range.”
Commander Zh’tora looked at him, clearly desperate to ask what they were looking for, but stayed silent.
In the intervening minutes, teams had been assembled to assist the ailing freighter, medical to aid the crew, engineering to repair the systems and security in case it was all some sort of ruse.
“We’re dropping out of warp,” Ensign Stannard reported with an alarmed tone. “It wasn’t me.”
“It’s alright, Ensign,” Struan reassured him as he walked over and placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Can you get us underway again?” He looked at the helm controls himself as Ensign Stannard tried to take them back to warp. Despite his best efforts, the warp field wouldn’t stabilize and collapsed time and again.
“Lieutenant Redik, scan subspace around our present location,” Struan ordered, looking to the Ops officer.
“It’s…” There was a pause as she tried to find the words to describe her readings. “Damaged.”
“What’s the extent of the damage?” Struan asked.
Her fingers danced over the console as she took control of the sensors and directed them at the subspace layers in the area. “It’s a small streak of damage here. We should be clear of it in twenty minutes at full impulse.”
Struan nodded to Ensign Stannard who engaged the impulse engines, relieved that it hadn’t been his fault but a little spooked by the experience.
“The damage increases in concentration towards..” Lt. Redik was distracted by her console going dark, then a blue Omega graphic appeared in place of her controls. “Captain,” she began, but he’d already seen what was on her console.
Alarmed and confused eyes were looking at him from all around, except for Lt. K’tarr who was desperately trying to figure out where the attack was originating from.
“Stand down Lieutenant,” Struan directed towards him. “We’re not under attack.”
“What is happening then?” Commander Zh’tora interjected on behalf of the bridge crew.
“That’s classified,” Struan responded in a calm tone.
“We cannot work under these circumstances,” she protested, unable to hide the frustration and anger she was feeling. “This is affecting us now, affecting our ship, and we don’t know what we are dealing with.”
“I understand Commander.” Struan’s tone was stern and he hoped it would be enough to persuade her to back down. “But my orders are clear.”
She was clearly unhappy with the answer, but said nothing further.
Struan walked back to his chair console and entered some codes causing the bridge consoles to unlock and return to their previous state. He turned to address all of the officers present on the bridge.
“From the moment that we dropped out of warp, you are to consider the events of this mission classified and are under orders not to discuss them with anyone outside of these bulkheads. Lieutenant Redik, continue those scans. I want a map of the subspace damage in this area. Use whatever sensors are required – all of them if you need to – this is top priority.”
A tense quiet fell over the bridge as she performed the scans, their progress at sub-light speeds barely perceptible in the stars on the viewscreen. Commander Zh’tora was the one to fidget in her chair now. He didn’t need any telepathic abilities to know what she was thinking. ‘Did a weapon do this? Do the Romulans have that kind of capability?’ He looked at her and gave his head a slight shake.
“Bridge to Shuttlebay One, what’s the status of the Carron?” Struan queried.
“We’re just completing the modifications to her now, Sir. Just give us half an hour to finish up.” He didn’t know the Engineering officer who responded, but it seemed like they were on top of things.
“Acknowledged. Do anything you can to expedite it.” he replied before closing the line.
“Commander, join me in my ready room.”
As soon as the ready room doors closed behind her, Zh’tora spoke up. “Going somewhere Captain?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” he replied. Before she could say anything else he added “ and yes, it’s classified.”
Her face looked like thunder. She took a moment to force it to dissipate before speaking again. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to take command of the Sutherland and render aid to the freighter. Tow her all the way to Mol’Ecurai if necessary.”
“You’re going wherever it is by yourself?” She was clearly preparing to protest.
“If this were happening in Federation space, we’d be calling it in and securing the area. As it is, we have no jurisdiction here. I have to take care of this and taking the Sutherland would draw too much attention. I’m setting a rendezvous point back in Federation space. If I don’t make it, inform Captain Dex immediately and continue with the patrol that we were originally assigned.”
“This is starting to sound like a suicide mission.” It was clear that taking over command temporarily hadn’t swayed her opinion.
“It’s not, but a lot can go wrong,” he conceded. “You’ve witnessed how this phenomenon has affected us here. I must do whatever I can to prevent any worsening of the situation.”
She nodded, but bristled at not being able to ask for further detail or justification.
“And Commander, remember that whatever you discover, even how the freighter has been affected, is classified. Do your best to prevent speculation, or any kind of discussion amongst the crew about the cause of this. Submit any reports for the attention of Captain Dex only.”
“Yes, Sir.” She knew that being part of this was the only way she was going to find out anything about what was going on. It felt like a small scratch for a huge itch.
“I’ll be preparing in Shuttlebay One. Have the map sent to the Carron when Lt. Redik completes her scans.” Struan finished with a smile. “And take care of my ship!”
“I will. Good luck, Captain.” She responded, now wearing a more determined look on her face.
Struan thanked her before following her out of the ready room and heading for the turbolift. He saw her sit confidently in the command chair as the doors closed him into the lift.
The USS Carron still being fussed over by some crewmen, but the modifications appeared to be complete and she had a somewhat bulkier appearance than the other runabouts given the extra armour added to the hull. An Ensign approached and informed him that she was ready to go. He checked that she had been fitted with gravimetric torpedoes and found that there was a supply of gravimetric charges stored on board also. He liked the forethought someone had, but it did come dangerously close to speculating about what he was doing.
Before departing, he sealed the doors and composed an encrypted message for Captain Dex to inform her of their findings and his expedition to find and destroy the cause. He waited for the comms system to confirm that the message had been delivered before requesting clearance to depart.
The sight of the Sutherland growing smaller in his viewscreen gave him a twinge of anxiety with a touch of sadness. Commander Zh’tora was more than capable of looking after the ship and crew but he couldn’t help feeling that he was abandoning them before they’d even gotten to know him.