The Arcturus had to crawl along at impulse speeds for several hours until it could find a sufficiently stable pocket of subspace to re-engage warp drive. They had enough data to successfully plot a return course, assuming the damage to subspace had already reached its maximum extent. Still, they were in real danger of never being able to go back to warp again. Lancaster didn’t relish the thought of spending a year at sublight speeds to rendezvous with the saucer section, but they were through the looking glass now.
“ETA, Lieutenant Tellora?” Lancaster asked as he assumed the command seat in the center of the battle bridge.
“Approximately twenty minutes, Captain, barring any other unforeseen navigational challenges,” the Klingon replied, her speech descending to a near growl by the end of that statement.
Tellora always seemed agitated about something, but the delay of their arrival was weighing on the entire bridge crew. Lancaster was half-desperate for some order to give or some system to tweak, but he, too, had to just wait for the ship to arrive.
“We have entered the system, Captain,” Tellora announced.
“Drop us to impulse,” Lancaster ordered.
There was a flash as the ship slowed. The computer automatically centered the viewer on the planet, and the damage was evident even from orbit, with smoke staining the amber-colored atmosphere. Thalruatanian ships were oddly asymmetrical and displeasing to Human eyes for their strange lines and their massive size. Built to transport thousands of their people at once on exploratory voyages, they still weren’t enough to effect any significant evacuations.
Lancaster left his seat and went over to the vacant science station to run an initial scan of the planet. The computer was censoring the results, but he knew enough without going somewhere more secure to pinpoint the location of the particles: deep beneath the rubble of a building that once housed millions of people. From the amount of radiation produced, a quick estimate put the total of molecules in the dozens or maybe the low hundreds. Enough to wreck subspace for a dozen lightyears in every direction, but not enough to need a harmonic resonance chamber–other than the fact that there was no way they would be able to target them from orbit with a gravimetric torpedo. They were also too deep to risk a standard transporter beam.
“Put us in synchronous orbit above these coordinates,” Lancaster ordered.
Whatever the answer was, they would need the full power of the ship’s planetary sensor array to get a better picture. The captain returned to his chair, drumming his fingers along the top of the control console for a moment as he considered what to do.
“Incoming transmission from the planet, Captain. It’s Supreme Governor Lesa for you,” Commander Alesser reported from operations.
Lancaster had nearly forgotten about her, in his focus to handle omega itself.
“On screen,” he ordered.
The Thalruatanian head of state was once again transmitting from her secure bunker. Luckily, there were no immediate signs that her position was in danger. Then again, with omega, there weren’t degrees of trouble: if it was generating spontaneously on her word, Supreme Governor Lesa was at risk of instant death at any moment.
“Arcturus, we have begun what evacuations we can, but I’m sure you’re aware that our navy is not large. How soon can you contain the phenomenon?” Lesa asked, cutting straight to the chase.
“My initial readings suggest that the source is deep enough underground that we’ll need to conduct more detailed surveys first. Any geological data from that area would be helpful, Supreme Governor,” Lancaster replied.
The Thalruatanian woman scoffed. “You ask for our research data but are unwilling to provide your own?”
Lancaster pinched the bridge of his nose. “As a show of good faith, I am transmitting the specifications and research on a drug we call arithrazine, which is a powerful anti-radiation treatment for the most severe cases of theta radiation poisoning. It will be useful in treating anyone impacted by the initial blast,” he said, gesturing to a surprised-looking Anjar to send the information.
That left Lesa visibly at a loss on the viewscreen. “You’re… sharing your technology? Does your Prime Directive not forbid that?”
“Luckily for both of us, that particular regulation has been suspended to give me more latitude to deal with this crisis. I am here to help you, Supreme Governor, but the one thing I cannot do is share the details of my mission,” Lancaster replied. “We will also be willing to take aboard your wounded and help you treat them, but I need every scrap of information you have on this ‘accident.’”
The Supreme Governor hesitated, and the sound cut out for a moment as she turned off-screen to consult with advisors. Though their ships were no threat to the Arcturus, this mission would be substantially more straightforward with their cooperation and trust, so Lancaster was willing to start with the carrot rather than the stick.
“We have chosen to trust you, Captain Lancaster.”
“Captain, we have full access to their scientific archives,” Alesser reported.
“Thank you, Supreme Governor. I will update you as best I can. Send us a list of your most critical patients, and we’ll see what can be done for them here. Hopefully, this will conclude quickly,” Lancaster replied. “Arcturus out.”
That was likely the best possible outcome he could hope for. He didn’t like having to stretch their attention to both the humanitarian aspects of the situation and the complex scientific task that was now before him, but if he didn’t have to torpedo diplomatic relations with a new society, all the better.
“Captain! I’m detecting two Kazon carriers on an intercept course. They’re three minutes out. Radiation obscured them on our long-range sensors,” Odea shouted.
Of course. Things were going too well for Kazon not to show up. He’d anticipated some trouble, but if he were a semi-sentient, poorly groomed raider, he would likely have continued to target the outlying stations and facilities at the edge of the system rather than charging right towards the planet. Kazon motivations and strategy were rarely clear to him, though.
“Red alert,” Lancaster said, moving back to his seat. “Keep us between them and the planet.”
Space whirled in the viewscreen as Telorra brought them around. Two large Kazon ships quickly appeared, both of which we bearing straight for them. Lancaster didn’t wait for them to account for their presence before opening a general hailing frequency from his seat. Predator-class ships were not a threat to them unless they’d been upgraded substantially from their basic specifications, but they were an unwanted interference.
“Attention Kazon vessels, this is the Federation starship Arcturus. You are interfering in our relief efforts, and you have one chance to reverse your course before we open fire,” Lancaster said.
“This is Maje Teirdan of the Kazon-Reloramar. You have no right to threaten us, Federation, when our sensors have detected the covert weapons research in progress on this planet!” came the reply from an angry-looking Kazon once Alesser had brought up the visual.
Based on their intelligence from early scouting missions in the quadrant, the Reloramar were a sub-sect of the much more powerful Relora. The two carriers before them were likely a substantial part of their navy, so Lancaster hoped that the threat of losing them would make Maje Teirdan think twice before continuing down this path.
“I say again, turn back. Now,” Lancaster replied.
“We will strip the energy source from this world and harness it to restore the glory—”
Lancaster cut the channel, the second time in a day that he’d hung up on an alien leader.
“I don’t have time for this idiot. Attack Pattern Zulu-One,” Lancaster ordered with a wave of his hand.
“Yes!” Tellora enthused.
The helmswoman brought the ship into a roll at full impulse, letting the Arcturus dive between the two ships and allowing all of their phaser arrays chances to score hits on both targets. Under typical peacetime situations, a starship would be expected to only respond with sufficient power to defend itself, and then only if provoked. While the Kazon didn’t have much experience with Starfleet, the aggressive move still seemed to catch them off guard. They didn’t even have a chance to launch fighters before the Arcturus began to come around for another pass.
The Arcturus rocked from several blasts of energy weapons fire from the Kazon, though their aft quarters were sparsely armed. As with many species, the Kazon relied on heavy forward firepower rather than Starfleet’s comprehensive, medium-powered weapons and shields strategy. The fighters now pouring out of both ships were meant to be the Kazon’s solution to that problem: any ship not pummeled by the carriers’ large weapons would be harassed by a swarm of smaller vessels.
“Shields holding, sir. Those fighters might be a problem if they get too close,” Odea reported.
“Tellora, keep us far enough away from their fighters to give Odea a chance to shoot them down. Course and speed at your discretion, Lieutenant,” Lancaster ordered before swiveling around to Odea. “Ready a spread of quantum torpedoes. Maximum yield, we might be able to catch them as they’re launching.”
Odea arched an eyebrow. ‘Maximum yield’ was the sort of order she might have expected for the Borg or Voth, but not for such a petty target like the Kazon. “As you wish,” she replied. “Torpedoes targetted on the launch apertures.”
“Fire,” Lancaster ordered, turning back to look at the results of his order.
Brilliant blue flashes streaked across the screen, with two groups of torpedoes arcing out from the Arcturus to intercept the fighters. They impacted with enormous force, vaporizing a handful of fighters outright before they could get clear enough to maneuver while also starting a visible plasma fire on one of the carriers where a major EPS line had been ruptured.
“Direct hits on multiple targets. The starboard carrier is beginning to list.”
“Continue to focus fire on the fighters,” Lancaster replied as he stared at the burning carrier.
A ship like that would have a crew of at least two thousand, possibly higher. Their damage control systems were likely much more primitive than the Federation’s, so he’d probably condemned hundreds of beings to their deaths. The battle bridge rocked as a plasma torpedo managed to make contact, forcing Lancaster to grip his chair for support.
“Shields down to 96%,” Alesser reported.
While they were bullies in their own backyard, Kazon technology lagged significantly behind not only the Federation’s but also that of other races closer to the galactic core. They had stolen it from the Trabe long ago and seemed to have limited ability to improve it; numbers let them dominate more than actual, raw power, so it was unsurprising that they couldn’t make much of a dent in the Arcturus’s shields, especially when not given a chance for a first strike.
Lancaster watched as the ship’s phasers picked off fighter after fighter, thanks to Telorra keeping them much too far away to retaliate with their own short-range weapons. He had hoped the display of overwhelming firepower would have been enough to force the Kazon into a retreat, but if anything, it was making them more determined.
Beyond the delay itself, any errant shots or crashing starships could increase the danger from omega: damaged warp cores were unpredictable; it was unclear under what conditions omega might be attracted or destabilized. The only apparent solution was to end the battle as quickly as possible.
“Re-target the damaged carrier, and prepare another torpedo salvo. All phaser arrays to maximum range and automatic targetting,” Lancaster ordered. “We can’t drag this out.”
“Captain, we may be able to disable the carrier with a surgical strike to their computers,” Odea suggested.
“Noted. Carry out your orders, Commander,” Lancaster replied.
The tactical console chirped several times as it began an auto-fire sequence, throwing a shroud of golden energy around the Arcturus as it banked back towards the already-burning carrier. It usually took a lot of prompting before a Starfleet captain would order a full-force order like that. Minor skirmishes drug on for longer than they needed to because the regulations stipulated careful escalations of firepower to do the least amount of harm possible. Within that framework, he would have had to try to find a peaceful solution first, but unburdened from those restrictions by the Omega Directive, he felt slightly queasy at being able to dive straight in guns blazing for the sake of the mission.
“Torpedoes loaded, sir.”
Lancaster tapped the ship-to-ship control again. “Attention, Kazon ships. I advise you to retreat immediately,” he said, giving them one last chance.
“No response, sir,” Alesser replied before the ship rocked again from more weapons fire.
“Do it, Odea.”
Once again, blue torpedoes belted out from the Arcturus’s forward launchers, this time all targeted on the damaged carrier. They impacted with tremendous force, ripping a hole through the side of the hull and exposing its innards for a brief moment before it exploded entirely. For their size, the ships were poorly armed and shielded, their main utility being to transport vast numbers of troops and fighters, but even still, it would be a shock to any Kazon commander to see one of them taken down.
“Target destroyed, Captain,” Odea reported, a certain amount of unease clear on her voice despite typically being quite reserved. “The other ship is retreating.”
“Should I pursue?” Tellora asked.
“No. Take us back to our previous position,” Lancaster replied.
The Kazon would likely be back, but given the speeds of their ships, the instability of subspace in the region, and the position of the system relative to their space, Lancaster was betting he could deal with Omega before they arrived. Destroying the second ship would have been safer, but he doubted the directive stretched far enough for him to justify firing on a ship that was complying with his demands—even if it had taken them that long.
With Anjar needing to oversee any of their token humanitarian efforts, Lancaster left Alesser in command of the battle bridge and ensconced himself in one of the planetary science labs. From here, he could get minute readings down to the nanometer of the planet’s surface. Combined with access to the Thalruatanian’s databases, a plan quickly began to take shape. Between the actual soil and the lowest levels of the planet’s megastructures was about a hundred meters worth of catacombs, warrens, and ancient, collapsed structures. It was the stratum accumulated over thousands of years that the current planet-spanning city had been constructed.
From Lancaster’s readings, the omega was concentrated in a large underground void, which appeared to be a natural formation. If they used the ship’s phasers, they would be able to cut a tunnel into an adjoining network of passages to access it.
“Computer, search the Thalruatanian records for anything on this cavern,” Lancaster noted, as he operated one of the consoles to calculate the exact density of the stone and brick they’d need to cut through.
“Records indicate this chamber was once the city center of a Thal settlement noted for being the locus of an important religious cult, approximately 3,000 years prior to the current date,” the computer reported.
“Is there anything to suggest that the Thal were technologically advanced?”
“Negative. Along with the Rua, the Thal were still an agrarian society during this time period,” the computer replied. “Scans suggest the only technology in the vicinity was added approximately 200 years ago: a series of braces to protect the cavern from collapse.”
“Clarify. Why was it protected?” Lancaster asked.
The Thalruatanians were aggressively forward-thinking. New buildings constantly replaced old ones, even those of historical significance. Their memories were recorded in massive databanks, but physical remains of prior generations were considered just the building blocks for the next, greatest thing.
“An expedition was authorized to this chamber to collect evidence of prior alien contact with this world in its antiquity.”
Now that was interesting. “What were the results of the expedition?”
“Inconclusive. A statue contained within this chamber was found to have been constructed out of materials not found on Thalruatania, but the researchers speculated that it was merely the result of an asteroid impact, not alien contact.”
“Send those files to my ready room for later,” Lancaster replied.
Some sort of alien influence could explain how omega had come to be on this world. Still, the chamber itself wasn’t damaged in the earlier destabilization, which had occurred much further above in the reactor complex of the arcology. It was possible that they were being drawn to whatever was contained in the chamber but interacted with the fusion reactor instead. With the reactor out of the way, so to speak, they were now congregating there.
The why of it all would have to wait, though.
“Lancaster to Bridge. I am sending coordinates and specifications for phaser drilling,” Lancaster said once his analysis of the exact frequency and power levels needed was complete. “Inform the Thalruatanians that we will be cutting down into the catacombs to complete our mission and then activate the drilling pattern.”
“Aye, Captain,” Alesser replied.
“Have the standby crew for the Hokule’a as well as Hazard Teams Alpha and Beta board and prepare for departure. Lancaster out.”
At the lowest possible power setting to cut through the debris of the arcology and the catacombs, it would take at least two hours before Lancaster would be able to lead a team down to place pattern enhancers. Any more power, and they risked either causing further collapses or interacting with the omega particles directly. The Hokule’a’s temporary crew was preparing the ship for departure while the captain gathered two of the ship’s hazard teams in the mess hall for a briefing.
Minus their pilots, who’d gone out with the ship’s small craft to search for other instances of omega, the twelve members of the two teams were all waiting for him in the support ship’s cramped lounge in full gear.
“In approximately two hours, we will be beaming down to the planet’s surface to retrieve a dangerous energy phenomenon for disposal,” Lancaster explained.
Lieutenant Bowens was the senior of the two team leaders, and he couldn’t help but speak up.
Lancaster frowned. “Yes. To be more specific: you will be escorting me while I complete my mission,” he clarified, crossing his arms. “The brief is simple: we need to navigate through a series of underground caverns, catacombs, and ruins to place pattern enhancers in this chamber,” he said, turning around to point on a wall-mounted screen to the map.
“Sir, if this is dangerous enough to need two hazard teams…,” Bowens said, trailing off when the captain whipped back around.
“Luckily, the Arcturus has a few spare captains,” Lancaster quipped. “If we all do our jobs, the risk is minimal. It will just be a matter of not getting lost or hurt while traveling between the beam-in site and the target.”
Bowens nodded. “We’ll get you where you need to go, sir.”
“The Thalruatanians are cooperating with this mission. I have no reason to suspect there will be interference, but I also can’t be assured that their head of state speaks for the entire populace. The pattern buffers will be placed in that chamber, no matter the cost,” Lancaster said, looking around the room.
While well-trained, the hazard teams were made up of junior officers specifically to keep senior officers and department heads out of harm’s way. With a crew the size of the Arcturus’s, there was usually no reason for a dangerous mission to risk them, but Lancaster didn’t have a choice. He didn’t question their skills, but the faces in front of him were apprehensive. Everything about their mission was unusual, but each new group of his crew he brought in at some level needed time to grasp separately with the absurdity of it all.
“I think we all know that I’m not big on affection or human emotion because I trust that your training will allow you to accomplish any task I set to you. This is no different. You’re used to difficult missions, but you’re going to have to trust that any unusual orders I give you today are necessary,” the captain said, earning a few smiles.
“May I make a suggestion, Captain?” Lieutenant Serala, the leader of the second hazard team, asked. She’d been promoted from deputy of the alpha team to leader of the beta team following a very successful mission during the Archanis campaign.
“Given the risk of collapse or cave-in, it would be prudent to bring two sets of pattern enhancers, should one of them become unavailable,” the Vulcan suggested.
“Officer thinking, Lieutenant,” Lancaster replied before glancing back around. “All of you are under strict orders not to get caught in a cave-in, though. Understood?”
“Aye, Captain!” all twelve of them said together, which was enough to make even a cynic like Lancaster briefly proud.
“We will be observing full radiation protocols for this mission. Report to Dr. Sheppard in sickbay for arithrazine inoculations. Ensigns Taom and Gardner, you will also receive a briefing on how to administer it yourselves,” Lancaster ordered. “Dismissed.”
The standard uniform for the hazard teams aboard the Arcturus was a form-fitting bodysuit that offered limited protection against light weapons fire, and bladed weapons, as well as small amounts of radiation, and other atmospheric hazards. The theta radiation possible with omega wouldn’t even blink at a suit like that, but it still made Lancaster feel better not to walk into what was basically a warp core breach in just his duty uniform.
It wasn’t a garment one could just pull on and off, though. While the combination of a duranium mesh core and synthetic rubber outer layers was thin and highly flexible when it had been donned fully, Lancaster found it a little awkward to pull the bottom half of the suit on in the cramped captain’s cabin of the Hokule’a, nearly stumbling as he did so. He just managed to pull his boots on and lock them onto the suit when the chime sounded.
“What?!” he snapped.
“It’s me,” came Sheppard’s voice through the intercom.
As his husband entered the room, Lancaster had just pulled the top of the uniform over his shoulders. Sheppard had a medkit in one hand and a basket in the other. He put both on the tiny desk next to the bed. There were two equally tiny viewports above the bed and desk which would have shown open space, were the docking cradle of the Arcturus not blocking the view.
“I figured you’d want your inoculation in private,” Sheppard noted, as he loaded a hypo. “A nurse and a medic aren’t an appropriate substitute for on-site monitoring by a physician,” he chided, before going over to place the hypo on Lancaster’s neck and inject the drug.
“No, but we won’t be gone long enough for it to be a problem,” Lancaster replied.
“Is that a promise?”
“I didn’t come halfway across the galaxy just to die on some strange world inhabited by centaurs,” Lancaster replied. “I’m coming back, because I know how angry you’d be with me if I didn’t.”
Sheppard offered him a small smile. “I suppose that’s enough. I’ve already talked myself out of wanting you to send Anjar in your place, so we can skip that argument, too.”
“Oh, that’s very efficient, Shep,” Lancaster laughed.
Sheppard grinned at him and then returned the hypo to its place in the medkit. As he turned around, though, Lancaster noticed how intently he was staring at him, which made him blush slightly.
“Why haven’t I ever seen you in that uniform before?” Sheppard asked, before stepping back over to pull the hidden zipper up, concealing Lancaster’s bare chest behind the stretchy, semi-armored material. Once the suit was fully sealed up, Lancaster felt the effects of its compression—not so tight that he couldn’t breathe or move, but it definitely made him stand up even straighter than his already ramrod posture.
“You like it?”
“It’s… accentuating parts of you that I already like,” Sheppard replied, grabbing the utility belt from the bed and helping Lancaster put it around his waist. The belt clicked into place, connecting some internal sensors in the suit for basic life signs and location information to a built-in computer and transceiver that would keep him in contact with the ship.
“Who knew the secret to your heart was a little exoprene,” Lancaster quipped.
“Heart?” Sheppard asked, winking before he planted a kiss on him. “I also brought dinner, because this really shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach,” he said, once they pulled apart.
Sheppard pulled out a picnic blanket from the basket, which he spread over the bed, then produced two grilled cheese sandwiches and a thermos of tomato soup. It was Lancaster’s go-to meal when he was in a hurry, needed cheering up, or both. The site of it made the captain realize how hungry he was, after a day of focusing on the mission.
“Thank you,” he said before the two of them sat on the bed and ate.
The whole time, Lancaster was anxious about some task that he hadn’t completed yet, like one final check of the harmonic resonance chamber, or a calibration on the transporters that could still be done, but he allowed himself to push that aside for a few minutes at least.
“You know I can’t say much, but things are going well so far,” Lancaster noted.
“Of course they are because you’re in charge,” Sheppard said, reaching over to squeeze his hand, which gave Lancaster a jolt of confidence. “I’m almost glad to be left in the dark if you think needing pre-treatment for theta radiation poisoning is this ‘going well.’”
“Believe me… I’d much rather not know either.”
Once the borehole had been completed, Lancaster ordered the Arcturus to move into a higher orbit to keep watch for any additional unexpected guests. The closer the Hokule’a was to the planet’s surface, the easier and safer it would be to transport the molecules into the harmonic resonance chamber sitting in its cargo bay. Beyond the hazard teams, the Hokule’a only had a skeleton crew of a dozen, which should be more than enough for their short voyage.
The bridge of the Hokule’a was tiny, identical to the simple design found on the Defiant-class escort that was her ancestor. Dr. Anjar was at the science station, and Lieutenant Windsor was handling both helm and operations from the forward station, but the rest of the stations remained unmanned.
“All systems online, Captain. Ready for launch on your orders,” Windsor reported.
“Initiate launch sequence, Lieutenant,” Lancaster ordered.
As soon as Windsor disengaged their moorings, the automated launch sequence quickly deployed them from the docking cradle on the Arcturus’s stern. Meant to be used during combat, the whole sequence was complete in less than five seconds. The ship’s articulated nacelles remained in their closed and locked position, as they would be headed straight for the planet’s atmosphere.
“Arcturus, this is the Hokule’a. Maintain your position. If the Kazon come back, don’t give them a chance to attack first,” Lancaster ordered. “All things being equal, we’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Understood, Hokule’a. Good luck,” Captain Okusanya replied.