The following takes place shortly after the events depicted in Star Trek: Destiny, in which the Federation is invaded by the Borg. Although the Federation prevailed, liberating billions of Borg drones in the process, they suffered huge casualties and are now faced with the difficulties of rebuilding.
2381 — U.S.S. Aventine
Standing on holodeck 4, you’d never know that the warm sunshine was nothing but a trick of the light. Captain Ezri Dax wriggled her toes in the short-cut grass below. Manicured gardens, rich with red and white foliage, surrounded the neatly mowed lawn in which she and six others now waited. At the front of the pack stood Sam Bowers, her XO and friend. He grinned with expectation.
“Welcome to the Aventine’s first-ever handstand class.” A soft murmur rose from the six people gathered before her. She continued, “Handstands have many benefits. They’re great for improving balance and building upper body strength. They keep you agile and get your blood pumping. But most importantly of all, they’re just plain fun to do.”
Bowers chuckled and said, “What made you want to share your secret superpower with us mere mortals?”
“We’ve had a tough run of it lately,” Dax said. “I need this crew to be at its best. That means keeping fit, staying healthy, and occasionally having a little fun.” The diminutive Trill woman stepped into the small crowd before her, splitting them sideways. “Everyone take a big step back and watch me.”
Dax leaned in and tipped herself over, performing a textbook handstand. She could smell the grass, her nose just inches away from the plush green ground, as she performed the handstand.
Righting herself, she straightened her Starfleet uniform and dusted her hands. “Easy as that.”
The crowd chuckled. Sam said, “Easy for you does not mean easy for us.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll break it down for you all.”
Dax demonstrated her technique one step at a time. All eyes were locked on her as she ran them through how to stand initially, the movement of tipping over onto stretched-out arms and how to balance. “It’s a smooth motion, not a lunge,” she said. “Keep your arms straight as you approach the ground. Let the momentum carry you, and then straighten your legs and aim them towards the big blue up there.”
Gymnastics was a part of Ezri Dax. As a joined Trill, she had all the memories and life experiences of all her former hosts. In previous incarnations, Ezri Dax had lived as a scientist, a diplomat, a musical composer and a politician. But right now, it was Emony who quelled from deep within. Emony was a gymnast, so performing a handstand was no big deal.
Presently, Dax walked around the circle and helped everyone, one by one. Lieutenant Naomi Darrow nearly headbutted the ground on her first attempt, but Dax helped her work through the movements. The portly Bolian Lieutenant Tharp seemed unable to commit to the full range of motion and required some encouragement to overcome his hesitation. The young Erin Constantino was not short on enthusiasm, deciding that constant repetition was an excellent way to learn something rather than focusing on form. Dax gently encouraged Constantino to slow down and concentrate on what her body was doing. The ensign nodded and grinned, evidently enjoying herself.
So far, the only person who’d managed to make their handstand stick was Commander Sam Bowers. She’d known him since her days on Deep Space Nine, and her heart was warmed by the fact he’d made the effort to come along, even though it probably wasn’t typically his idea of a good time. Plus, he was already pretty good at handstands.
As she approached Bowers, he performed a near-perfect handstand, walking around on his hands while his feet reached for the sky. He said, “If my legs give out, I can always get about like this.”
“Impressive,” Dax said with a smile, feeling a bead of sweat drip from her brow. “If you ever retire from Starfleet, gymnastics could be your next gig.”
Bowers tumbled over and landed on his rump. A cheeky grin covered his handsome, ebony face. He said, “I was thinking something more like a circus performer. I’m sure there is a circus troop making their way around the deep space stations, delighting the locals.”
“You would make an excellent clown.”
A gentle breeze tickled the side of Dax’s face as she moved away from Sam, ensuring others got their share of her attention. She didn’t want to look like she favoured the more senior crew.
Slowly, one by one, everyone except Tharp could perform something resembling a handstand. Dax stood in front of him and said, “Step forward and lean into it. I’ll catch your legs.”
“Really?” he asked, a little breathless.
“Just try not to kick your commanding officer in the face.”
Everyone turned to look at the pair. Dax cringed. She hadn’t meant to draw attention to the one person who was struggling. A warm sensation worked its way up into her cheeks. She swallowed and said, “There is no harm in trying.”
The lieutenant rubbed the nape of his neck. “My mind is willing, but I can’t guarantee my body will follow.” He stepped forward, leaned into it, stretched out his arms and kicked with his legs. Two flailing ankles shot towards her.
Dax felt her hands naturally move to intercept Tharp’s ankles — grabbing just above his boots. She held him in the air, and a moment later, everyone was clapping. The portly Bolian was upside down and doing a handstand… with a bit of help. While she held him by the ankles, her combadge chirruped. Instinctively, she let go, tapped her badge and said, “Dax here.”
Tharp tumbled over. Wump!
“Captain, you have an incoming transmission from Starfleet HQ.” The voice belonged to ops manager Gaff chim Nak, who was currently on the bridge.
Dax crouched down to check Tharp was okay. The Bolian smiled, and she mouthed to word sorry. Aloud, she said, “Pipe it through to me here, Lieutenant.”
Gaff chim Nak’s husky voice responded, “I believe Starfleet admirals prefer to keep their conversations private, rather than piped through the speakers of a holodeck for everyone to hear.”
Dax felt her heart skip a beat. “Right. Send it through to my ready room. And maybe beam me straight there. And replicate a cool towel.”
“Would you consider taking over my handstand class?”
A few moments later, Dax found herself surrounded by shimmering particles of light, and then she was in her ready room. A white towel waited for her on her desk. It was pleasantly cool to the touch when she gave herself a quick wipe down before tapping her console and bringing the Admiral online.
The face that appeared on the screen was instantly recognisable — Admiral Akaar. Famous for his tall body and a short fuse, Akaar was not known to mince words. He gave her a cold smile and said, “Am I interrupting something?”
Dax composed herself. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Admiral. I was putting the old Earth adage ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ into practice.”
The imposing Capellan admiral raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll need to put your fitness plans on hold for the moment. We have an urgent mission for you.”
Nodding, Dax said, “No problem, Admiral. What are the details?”
“During the Borg invasion, a lot of our ships fell off the map. People scattered. We’ve been doing our best to find survivors — any survivors. Starfleet just intercepted a weak subspace distress call from the U.S.S. Sequeira. Heard of it?”
With a frown, Dax said, “It doesn’t ring any particular bell for me.”
“I’d be surprised if it did. The Sequeira started off life as a small science vessel but was hastily refitted as a warship during the invasion. All the crew were soft-headed boffins, some of them civilians. Like so many others, they had to pick up a pitchfork and march to the frontlines during the war. Anyway, they’re badly damaged and trapped in a subspace distortion anomaly — probably the result of the collapsed transwarp conduits the Borg were so fond of.”
“It sounds like their time is running out,” Dax said, “and you need slipstream velocities to reach them.”
“Correct,” Akaar said. “We have ships closer than yours, but even so, you can get there the fastest.”
Ezri’s ship, the U.S.S. Aventine, was one of only a handful of ships equipped with a quantum slipstream drive. This latest and greatest form of propulsion was still considered experimental, although no doubt soon enough, it would be standard issue across the fleet, replacing the older style warp engines.
“I’m sending you the coordinates now. A word of warning, though. They’re trapped right on the edge of Federation space. Many salvagers and junk traders have been hovering around the edges of our territory, picking at the bones of war, hoping to find a little meat. Right now, the Federation does not need any new enemies. We need diplomats, not cowboys with their hands hovering by their phasers.”
“Understood,” Dax said. Her mouth was slowly going dry. She eyed a glass of water on her table and took a small sip before continuing. “We’ll do our best to keep our torpedo bays locked, and our phasers powered down.”
“One other thing,” Akaar said. The big man cleared his throat. “What the Federation also needs, right now, is a few good news stories. Spirits are low, and we’re worried that some may lose faith in our ways. Bring these men and women home, Captain Dax. That’s an order.”
Dax licked her dry lips. “Sounds like we better get moving.”
Akaar gave a curt nod on the video screen. “Akaar out.”
Stealing a precious moment for herself, Dax leaned back into her chair and let out a long breath. She’d had a few admirals barking orders at her during the war, but when an armada of cubes filled to the brim with dead-eyed drones was heading your way — well, a grumpy admiral or two didn’t seem so bad. But now, in peacetime, a call from a Starfleet admiral was a little intimidating.
Her mind turned to the mission she’d been given. I steered this ship through the invasion, she thought. I can handle a simple rescue mission.
Dax stood and marched through the sliding doors and onto the bridge. She heard the soft murmur of bridge chatter fall into silence. To her right, the turbolift doors opened. Commander Bowers stepped onto the bridge and gave her a subtle nod as he headed for his chair. She also noted Tharp had returned from the holodeck. He sat at the navigational console, a sleek shimmer of sweat still on his blue skin.
“We have a mission,” Dax said to the room. “There is a vessel stranded on the edge of Federation space, and our spiffy little ship can reach them first. Mister Tharp, please calculate a course for these coordinates.” She transferred the numbers Akaar had given her to Tharp’s navigational controls. “And don’t forget to carry the one — we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Aye,” he said.
Next, Dax tapped her commbadge. “Bridge to engineering.”
“Leishman here,” came the response. Mikaela Leishman, like Bowers, was another carry-over from Deep Space Nine.
“Chief, I need our best possible speed and then a little more if you can manage it. We’re on a rescue mission, and I don’t intend to be the bearer of bad news to any of their families any time soon.”
“Understood,” Leishman said. “I’ll unleash my hoard of highly trained tribbles into the slipstream now. They’ll keep it running smoothly.”
“Whatever it takes, Mikaela. Dax out.”
Taking a seat in the captain’s chair, she stared at the viewscreen — nothing much to see, other than a blanket of stars winking softly. Tharp turned to her and said, “Course calculated and plotted, and we have the thumbs up from engineering.”
The voice of Lonnoc Kedair came from behind. “These coordinates are the edge of Federation space. The very outer edge, at that.” The tough Tarkaran woman breathed through her nose. “There could be some trouble lurking in these waters.”
“Let’s keep our weapons holstered for the moment, Lieutenant. But we should be prepared for the fact that not everyone may welcome our visit.”
“Very well,” Lonnoc said.
Dax checked the ship’s vitals on her chair’s side panel. A series of green lights flashed across a diagram of the Aventine. All systems looked good.
“Let’s do this,” Dax said. “Engage.”
The U.S.S. Aventine engaged its engines and shot into the slipstream corridor, riding a wave of quantum fluctuations as it zipped towards its destination coordinates. From the soft hum that filled the bridge, Dax sensed that the slipstream drive was performing nicely.
“Mr Tharp,” Dax said, “what’s our ETA to the Federation’s fence line?”
“Three hours and fourteen minutes, Captain.”
Dax leaned over the edge of her chair and spoke to Sam in a hushed voice. “Join me in my ready room.”
The door to her ready room hushed open, and she made straight for the food replicator. “Raktajino, hot.” The rich, intense smell of the Klingon raktajino filled her nostrils. It evoked a deep sense of place and memory.
“Feeling tired?” Sam asked, standing beside a high-backed chair. She motioned for him to take a seat.
“It never hurts to be a little more alert,” Ezri said, cupping the hot drink in her hands. “I think Jadzia was a fan of these, along with half the crew of Deep Space Nine. Have you tried one?”
“Not a big fan of caffeine,” Sam said. “I like to keep things natural.”
“The old me was a bit that way. The joined me…” Dax shrugged.
Sam crossed his legs. “Anything on your mind, Cap?”
Dax placed the mug on the desk. “Was the handstand class a silly idea?”
Her XO laughed. “Not at all. Everyone was grateful for the change of pace. The invasion is over — we came first, and the Borg came second. We can’t just sit around licking our sores.”
With a nod, Dax said, “I was hoping a few more people might have shown up. And I feel a bit bad about Tharp’s tumble.”
“Bad timing,” Sam said and shrugged.
Taking another sip of the raktajino, Dax felt the hot liquid slip down her throat. She said, “Every time I see a Starfleet admiral pop up on my video screen, I’m certain they’re calling to tell me that a real Starfleet captain is en route to take over the Aventine.” She paused and stared into her drink. “Some people spend their entire life trying to make captain. I somehow got there almost by accident and on a ship with a slipstream drive!”
Sam chided her gently. “You earned your rank during the Borg invasion. We all earned our ranks. I’ll tell you the one thing this ship doesn’t deserve — and that’s a Captain who let’s imposter syndrome and her self doubts get in the way.”
Dax felt her mouth dry out. “That’s harsh but fair.”
“I didn’t mean you can’t talk to me about those things. That’s at least ten per cent of my job. But when you’re on the bridge, you’ve always handled yourself with grace and style. Whatever’s bubbling underneath, you’re cool and calm under pressure. You have lifetimes of experience under your belt. Trust me, you got this.”
A smile warmed Dax’s face. “Thanks, Sam. Since you offered to be my listening post, my other major insecurity is that the only reason Starfleet haven’t stripped my field commission is a positive bias in favour of joined Trills. With so many past lives living inside of me, perhaps they’ve mistaken life experience for command experience.”
Running a hand over his short crop of tight curls, Sam said, “It’s not a bad thing to identify your insecurities. Self-awareness is important, as long as you balance it. Positive and negative.”
She finished off her raktajino. “Sounds like the handstand classes might continue then.”
“I’ll be there.”
Dax glanced at the door that led to the bridge. “Keep an eye on things out there, will you?”
“Aye.” Sam stood and took his leave.
When the doors were closed, Dax placed her Starfleet issue boots on the desk. Sam Bowers was a fine XO, and she was lucky to have him. They’d worked together, on and off, for a few years. Memories stirred inside of her. The voice of the irrepressible Curzon Dax, a former Dax host, echoed in her mind: Being a leader is easy, he said, it simply takes honesty, integrity, humility and focus.
You were known to spin a web of lies now and then, Dax thought back. And humility isn’t the first word one might use to describe you.
Curzon snorted — a strange sound to hear in one’s own head. Those who can’t do, teach.
As Curzon’s voice faded from her mind, Ezri Dax squared her shoulders and said aloud, “Honesty, integrity, humility and focus. I think I can manage that.”
“Captain to the bridge.”
Lonnoc Kedair’s husky voice snapped Dax from her reverie. Buried in Starfleet reports, duty rosters and preparatory intel for this region of space, Dax gladly put down her padd and tapped her combadge. “On my way.”
As Dax stepped onto the bridge, Lonnoc Kedair approached. Deep cranial ridges lined the Takaran woman’s forehead, brow and upper cheekbones, casting slanted shadows across her green skin. “Captain, we will arrive at our coordinates shortly.”
Dax acknowledged her Chief of Security with a curt nod. “We made good time.” She turned to her second officer. “Mr Helkara, scan the area. Let’s find our friends.”
“Aye,” Helkara responded and tapped several commands into his console. “Nothing yet. Significant subspace distortions are interfering with our scans.”
“Can you clean it up?” Bowers asked.
“Once we’re out of the slipstream corridor, yes. For now, all I’m reading is sensor garble.”
Tharp chimed in. “Good news then, we’re slowing to impulse now.”
Dax gave Bowers a wry smile. “If we want to get the lay of the land, we can always do it the old fashioned way and look out the window.”
Sam smiled back and said, “On screen.”
Against the pitch-black night, a small starship — the Sequeira — came into view. Segments of its hull were scalded and black, with hunks of metal wrenched away from their supports. Limp and lifeless, the Sequeira drifted aimlessly around a subspace eddy.
“Lifesigns?” Dax asked.
Kedair’s reply was cut short by another vessel moving to intercept. The Aventine rocked as the ship careened past. The thing was an ugly clump of green and grey metallic alloys, heavily armoured with a thick, reinforced hull. Its single nacelle burned a dirty red flame as it flew by.
“Someone is busting in on our rescue mission!” Sam said.
“That ship missed us by a coat of paint,” Dax said. “Who are they?”
Kedair wrangled with her tactical console before replying, “The other ship appears to be of Sidager design.”
“Sidager…” Dax said, tasting the word in her mouth, feeling for familiarity. No memories stirred. “Why are they crashing our party?”
Kedair scowled. “The Sidager are poor junk traders with hacked together ships. Technologically speaking, they’re not exactly setting the trends. But they’re aggressive and unafraid to use force.”
“Hail the Sidager vessel.”
Before she had time to take a breath, the Aventine’s viewscreen was flooded with an imposing alien visage — a Sidager woman. Her skin, encased in an array of brilliant white crescent-shaped scales, lined her neck, chin and cheeks — while two deeply-socketed silver eyes glared outwards. She spoke, and her deep, guttural voice filled the bridge. “Unidentified vessel, this salvage is ours.”
Dax spoke quickly. “I’m Captain Dax of the Federation starship Aventine. That ship out there is a Federation vessel stuck in —”
The screen went blank.
“Captain,” Bowers said, “Two more Sidager vessels now coming into range.”
“All ships are roughly of the same design,” Kedair noted, “One on one, we’re clear winners. One against three, and I wouldn’t be so eager to start a shooting match.”
Bower’s tapped the console mounted on his chair. “The other two ships aren’t as heavily armed as the lead ship. Sensor readings are a little weird — I think the subspace distortion isn’t helping. In any case, I don’t think they’re here for a playdate.”
Kedair said, “The lead ship is coming about, and it’s charging phasers. They’re targeting the Sequeira.”
Dax felt her hands grip tightly on her chair’s armrests. “Pursue the lead vessel, and put us between them and the Sequeira. Full impulse.”
The Aventine rocked as Tharp made a quick course change, moving to put the Aventine in the line of fire.
“Why would they fire on the Sequeira if they plan to salvage her?” Bowers asked.
The question remained rhetorical as Dax stepped up and stood beside Lieutenant Commander Helkara. She studied the ops console. “Looks like they’re targeting life support with a tight beam phaser.” She placed a hand on Helkara’s arm and asked him directly, “Can we just beam the survivors out?”
“All this subspace distortion means we’ll probably end up with nothing but humanoid soup on the transporter pads. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Dax winced at the soup analogy but appreciated the point. Transporters were out. She said, “Hail them again.”
“No response,” Kedair grunted.
Tharp wriggled in his chair. “Three seconds until we crash the party. Their phasers are at full charge.”
“They’re firing!” Kedair called out.
Grabbing hold of a nearby support railing, Dax felt the cold metal in her palm as she steadied herself. The Aventine shook, its shields absorbing the phaser’s beam. “Status?”
“We took one for the team,” Kedair said. “The Sequeira crew may yet live to fight another day. Our shields are holding at 96 per cent.”
“Hail them again,” Dax said.
A moment later, the same fierce, feminine face filled the screen. “I admire your courage,” she said, “but we outnumber you and outgun you. This is your last warning. We claim this salvage.”
“Wait,” Dax said, mentally uttering a quick, silent prayer that the viewscreen wouldn’t go blank. “We aren’t here to claim salvage. The people on that ship — the one you’re firing on — they are our friends. We’re the rescue team.”
The Sidager woman looked like she’d just bitten a raw Syto bean. “You are a Federation vessel?”
“Yes,” Dax said. “As I said —“
“The Federation border is about six ki’mi in that direction,” she motioned with what looked like a secondary opposable thumb. “I suggest you skulk back there.”
Again, the screen went blank. Dax said, “Mr Tharp, keep us between them and the Sequeira. We protect that vessel at all costs. Understood?”
“Aye,” Tharp said.
Bowers clicked his tongue. “The other two ships are arming their torpedo bays, and the lead ship is powering up for a serious light show. I don’t know if we can take hits from three different directions. Our shields aren’t that good.”
“Target the weapons on the lead ship,” Dax said. “Fire!”
The viewscreen showed a thick bolt of red light shooting towards the Sidager ship. A small eruption exploded on its port side. “Direct hit!” Kedair said.
“The other two ships will be in range in about twenty seconds,” Bowers said.
Dax stood and snapped out an order. “Bring all three ships up on the main view screen. I want visuals.”
Helkara tapped her console, and the viewscreen split into thirds. On each, a different Sidager ship was displayed. Bowers gave a low whistle and said, “They don’t look like much. But according to these scans, they sure pack a punch.”
Chewing the inside of her lip, Dax asked, “Is it possible they’re using the subspace distortions to hide a projection of false sensor readings?”
Gaff chim Nak answered from the science station. “The integrity of our scanning data is highly questionable. The other two ships could be nothing but unarmed freighters, projecting a few sensor shadows and pretending to be a whole lot scarier than they really are.”
“Conjecture will get us nowhere,” Kedair said. “We can’t confidently protect the Sequeira from three ships coming in from three different angles.”
“Lieutenant Tharp,” Dax said, “launch two sensor probes, targeted at each incoming Sidager vessel.”
Tharp hesitated for a brief moment before answering, “Yes, ma’am. Sensor probes away.”
“The ships are now within firing range,” Kedair called out. “Can I at least fire a warning shot?”
Dax gave a curt nod. “Three warning shots — simultaneously across the bow of each vessel.”
The Aventine rumbled as its phasers burst into action. Each shot skidded past the hull of the incoming ships.
There was a short silence, which Bowers interrupted. “The sensor probes are returning data.”
“And?” Dax asked.
Bowers snorted. “We called their bluff. These ships could barely beat me up for my lunch money, let alone take on the Aventine. Their so-called weapons are nothing but thoron fields and duranium shadows. They’re clever, but it turns out that they’re not well armed.”
“Hail them one more time. I think they might be ready to talk.”
The ops console chimed. Dax crossed her legs and suppressed a smile. The ops console chimed again. The bridge had grown quiet. All three Sidager ships were maintaining their current position.
“Captain… should we respond to their hails?” Helkara asked.
“Put them through.”
The Aventine’s viewscreen shifted from a split view of the three ships to the same face they’d seen earlier. The dazzling scales that formed the alien’s skin flushed a deep pink colour. “Federation vessel, you do not give up easily.”
Standing, Dax took three steps towards the screen, taking her time in responding. “All we want to do is talk. Can we introduce ourselves? My name is Captain Ezri Dax of the U.S.S. Aventine. We belong to a peaceful coalition of planets called the Federation.”
“I am aware of your Federation.”
“Since we’re next-door neighbours, I thought you might have.”
“Our people embrace a different set of ideals. I don’t need to hear a sermon on the virtues of your system.”
Dax blinked a couple of times. “I’ll put away my soapbox then.”
The alien flashed a set of jagged, yellow teeth. “I am Dominelle Ninsol Lisnon. My people are the Sidager. We claim this stranded ship as legitimate salvage.”
One-track mind, these people. “I didn’t fly all this way to argue with you over scrap metal. There are twelve lives on that ship. I’m not sure if you counted before you pointed your ship’s phaser at their life support systems.”
Ninsol Lisnon snarled. “We gave your people one pæya to evacuate into their escape pods. They refused.”
Placing her hands on her hips, Dax said, “Their escape pods are damaged. Along with half the ship.”
“So they claim.”
Kedair’s voice broke into the conversation. “Captain, the Sequeira’s hull integrity is at 43 per cent and falling.”
Dax spoke to the viewscreen. “We’ve scanned your two other ships, and they’re packing fireworks, not firepower. We might be outnumbered but not outgunned, and we need to get our people off that ship. They’re trapped in a subspace distortion field, and their hull integrity is failing. Let us send over a shuttle and evacuate the crew. Meanwhile, you can beam over, and we’ll negotiate the rest.”
Linsol scowled. “The moment your people are safe, you’ll scuttle the stranded vessel. It’s worth nothing to us if it’s in a million pieces.”
Dax clenched her fists. Ninsol Lisnon was correct — she would normally torpedo the ship to ensure Starfleet secrets didn’t find themselves on the black market. “I won’t scuttle the ship, you have my word.”
For several moments, the Sidager woman stared at Dax. Finally, she said, “Evacuate your friends.”
“Thank you. Once they’re safely on board, we’ll contact you to beam over and begin negotiations.”
“Make no mistake, Federation vessel. We may not be fully armed, but that doesn’t mean we’ll back down from a fight.”
The screen reverted to a view of all three Sidager ships.
After letting out a long breath, Dax said, “Sam, get in the shuttlecraft Meuse and get our people safely back here.”
With a nod, Bowers said, “Helkara, you’re with me. We’ll pick up Doctor Tarses on the way.” The two officers marched to the turbolift and headed out.
Lonnoc Kedair approached Dax, and she didn’t look happy. “The Aventine has sufficient weaponry to disable all three ships,” the Chief of Security said, “and we could outrun them without even firing up the slipstream drive. Yet, you agree to hand over Starfleet property to a bunch of garbage collectors?”
Feeling her shoulders arch back, Dax said, “The Federation isn’t looking to make any more enemies. I’ve lived enough lifetimes to tell you that things are a lot nicer when you leave the shooting as an absolute last resort.”
Kedair turned her head. “I’m not suggesting we destroy them. Just give them something to chew on.”
“What if we anger them, and they ram the shuttle when it’s on its rescue mission? Or target the subspace distortions with a tachyon burst? Even without photon torpedoes, they can do damage.”
Dax took a moment to sit down in the captain’s chair and motioned for Kedair to sit in Sam’s usual spot. The Takaran said, “The Sidager vessel was prepared to kill twelve innocent people just for towing rights.”
“Maybe so, but why not lead by example?”
“This could make us look weak. And as your chief of security, I have to remind you that we should scuttle the Sequeira.”
It’s time to scuttle this conversation, Dax thought. “Noted. For now, please work with Tharp and Ensign Riordan on analysing the sensor readings from our two probes. These people slip through sensors like shadows in the night. If nothing else, I want to bulk out Starfleet’s intel on the Sidager. Trust me, the Sidager dossier is a quick read.”
“Understood,” Kedair said and rose from the XO’s seat.
Settling into her chair, Dax said, “Let’s get a look at the Sequeira.” The screen shifted to a view of the stranded starship, and revealed the shuttle Meuse heading out on its rescue mission. Dax pictured Sam onboard the small shuttlecraft, piloting it with Helkara, while Doctor Tarses prepped his medical tricorder. Saving twelve souls would make today a good day. Twelve lives otherwise thought lost.
Twelves lives now just minutes away from rescue.
Commander Sam Bowers sat comfortably in the pilot’s chair, even when the shuttle rocked and jerked. Doctor Tarses, however, was almost thrown from his seat as they narrowly avoid a subspace eddy. Sam made quick adjustments to the computer’s projected pitch and yaw, compensating for the subspace anomalies.
“Not the smoothest flight of my life,” the doctor said.
Sam chuckled. “I think the inertial dampers need some tweaking.”
Helkara chimed in. “This region of space is a checkerboard of eddies and subspace microfractures. Some turbulence is expected.”
Bowers piloted the craft, aligning it with Sequeira’s docking port. “Nice and easy…” Sam muttered as he nudged the Meuse through a rough patch. “Extending docking clamps.”
The Meuse rocked slightly as a satisfying snap-click echoed through the small ship.
“Nicely done,” Helkara said. “Docking complete.”
Doctor Tarses rose from his seat, ducking below a bulkhead. “Let’s get the sick and injured on first. Hopefully, no one is so badly hurt that they can’t be moved.”
The airlock cycled, then swung open. Sam stepped through and onto the Sequeira. Suffocating clouds of smoke billowed out from the battered lower bulkheads, while exposed wires and cracked plasma conduits sent sparks flying in all directions. Through the hazey blanket caused by the ship’s damaged environmental systems, Sam saw three people rushing around the corner to greet them.
“They’re Starfleet!” shouted a tall man with cracked lips and a short, scruffy beard. He jogged towards them, favouring his right leg. He extended a hand. “Please tell me I’m not hallucinating.”
“I’m flesh and blood,” Sam replied.
The man patted down his uniform. “I’m Captain Madison Short. And you are aboard what’s left of the Sequeira.” The Captain gestured to the two others that had followed him. “This is lieutenants Walker and Si’aqa.”
Bowers let go of the long handshake. The two lieutenants nodded their hellos. Bowers said, “We have a small shuttlecraft docked and everyone is welcome. You can all fit if you don’t mind rubbing shoulders.”
“To say we’re grateful would be an understatement,” the captain said. He turned to his two subordinates. “Go round up the others.”
Doctor Tarses inserted himself into the conversation. “Does anyone require urgent medical treatment?”
Captain Short nodded. “Ensign Juanne has a collapsed lung. Our EMH is offline, along with just about every other system.”
Tarses and Helkara followed Walker and Si’aqa in search of Ensign Juanne. As they walked around the corner and disappeared from view, Captain Short said, “Most of our sensors are down, but we did detect your vessel. And three Sidager ships. I hope you didn’t suffer any casualties.”
Bowers rubbed the nape of his neck. “Captain Dax negotiated with the Sidager. They shouldn’t pose any immediate danger.”
Captain Short’s eyes narrowed. “This ship is beyond saving, but those junkers out there will tear it apart and sell it off, piece by piece. We can’t let it fall into their hands. I should set a self-destruct once my crew are clear.”
“Not necessary,” Bowers said. “In the interests of peace, Captain Dax has tentatively agreed this vessel will be handed over. Call it a gesture of goodwill.”
The Captain’s mouth gaped. “This was a science vessel, retrofitted as a ship of war. Our databanks contain Starfleet tactical data. Our warp engine is unique and not commercially available outside the Federation. We also have a cache of photon torpedoes, although we’re too banged up to launch them. I don’t want to see Starfleet intel being auctioned at an Orion Syndicate dinner party.”
Bowers nodded. “I understand. I’m sure Captain Dax will secure all sensitive data and equipment. But for now, my orders are to get you and your crew off this ship and onto the Aventine, and maybe we can throw in a hot meal and a sonic shower too.”
The first group of surviving crew members came around the corner and formed behind Captain Short. Bowers counted seven. Three more came in shortly after, followed by Tarses and Helkara helping a young Ensign — his gangly arms hooked around their shoulders. The young Ensign looked like he wasn’t even old enough to shave.
Captain Short took a step to the side and gestured. “Get my crew to safety.”
“All aboard,” Bowers said. “This is one train you don’t want to miss.”
One by one, the crew stepped through the airlock and onto the shuttle. They limped along on unsteady feet, and each cast a tired yet hopeful glance in Bower’s direction as they walked by. Only one person remained.
“Time to say goodbye to your old ship,” Bowers said.
Captain Short squared his shoulders and said, “No. I’m staying put.”
“You’re doing what?” Dax asked, feeling her face grow flush with heat.
Dax was seated at her ready room desk. On the screen was another Starfleet captain — her counterpart Madison Short of the U.S.S. Sequeira. The man’s eyes were bloodshot and never seemed to blink. He said through the video com, “I have to stay on. If the Sidager are to have this ship, they’ll have a buffet of priceless Starfleet intel at their fingertips.”
“Captain Short, unless your ship is the clothesline on which Starfleet airs all its dirty laundry, I think we can handle it. The Sidager Dominelle Ninsol Lisnon is beaming here as we speak. I will work something out.”
“I don’t think you understand. Were you on the front lines during the invasion?” Short asked.
“Trust me, we were there. Every scrap of metal with a warp core was deployed when the Borg paid us a very unwelcome visit. But the war has been and gone. It’s time to put the paranoia back in the box and bring out some of that old fashioned Starfleet.”
The Captain sneered, then suddenly changed tact. “I’m grateful for the rescue. Are all my crew safe? Will Ensign Juanne live? A console exploded in the poor kid’s face. Twice.”
“Yes and yes. The young Ensign is a fighter, and our chief medical officer expects he’ll be crawling the Jeffries tubes again in no time. But Captain —”
Dax’s mouth fell open as the video screen switched back to the Starfleet insignia. He hung up. Shaking her head, Dax resisted the urge to bash her desk with a fist. Then she did it anyway. A jolt of pain coursed through her arm and into her shoulder. The Sidager Dominelle was due to beam over any minute now. Dax collected herself and tried to calm her mind in preparation for the negotiation ahead.
On one side of the table sat Security Chief Lonnoc Kedair. On the other side, about five meters away, sat the Sidager Dominelle Ninsol Lisnon. The two women stared at each other from across the table, their eyes locked in some kind of silent battle.
Dax said, “Welcome to the Aventine.”
The Sidager woman’s eyes moved to the room’s viewscreen window. Endless black night swam with a sea of distant stars. Ninsol Lisnon said, “I can’t remember the last time I looked out a window and counted the lights.”
“How many are there?” Dax asked.
“Too many to ever feel safe.” Ninsol Lisnon paused. “That’s about as philosophical as you’ll hear me get. We need to talk business.”
Hovering by the seat next to Ninsol’s, Dax hesitated. Something about this room — the long desk reflecting the ceiling lights, the angled beige walls and grey bulkheads — it just didn’t feel right. Dax pondered: had Ninsol just shown her a glimpse of her true self, behind all the bravado and threats?
“How about a tour?” Dax asked. “We can stare at the stars any time.”
Kedair snapped to attention. “Captain, if I might suggest from a security perspective we —”
Holding up a hand, Dax smiled and said, “It’s quite okay Chief. I promise we won’t get lost.”
The Security Chief crossed her arms and huffed. “May I join you?”
“Of course,” Dax said. “The more, the merrier. Ninsol, I’m a big fan of walking and talking. Would you join me for a brief tour?”
Ninsol cast a wary gaze at Dax. “I don’t see the harm.”
Ushering them out into the corridor, Dax started to walk with Ninsol by her side. Kedair lurked a meter or so behind. “The Aventine is a vesta-class, multi-mission ship. That’s Starfleet jargon for ‘it goes fast and can travel a long way’.”
With a slight chuckle, Ninsol said, “Impressive. Our scans indicated you don’t use a traditional warp engine. Correct?”
“It’s called a quantum slipstream drive. We stole it from the Borg. Sort of.”
Ninsol was silent for a moment. “Your Federation certainly paid a price for it. I hope it was worth it.”
Lowering her gaze, Dax said, “The Borg invasion was devastating. But we’re rebuilding. Hope is back. The people of the Federation are eternal optimists.”
They continued to walk down the corridor. Ensign Englehorn walked by them, giving Dax a nod before hurrying on. Ninsol said, “The Borg did not spare the Sidager. That ship that we are trying to salvage could give my people the food and medical care they need.”
“How much does a pre-loved Starfleet vessel sell these days?” Dax asked.
“Not as much as it should, once the Sidager Exchange takes its 60 per cent. Not to mention the various donations we need to give to the Bounty Stewards in this area.”
The trio turned a corner and entered the main bridge. The crew snapped to attention. “At ease,” Dax said. “We’re just passing through.”
Ninsol paused, taking in the Aventine’s bridge with a wide-eyed stare. “Something tells me you just wanted to show off.”
“Maybe a little,” Dax said with a smile. “We have dedicated science, operations, communications and engineering sections. And navigation, of course.” Dax pointed to the captain’s chair. “I get the best seat in the house.”
They continued through the turbolift, Kedair still with them. “Deck sixteen,” Dax commanded. The lift whirred to life.
“I’m curious,” Ninsol said, “why didn’t you simply transport your stranded crew off the Sequeira?”
“We couldn’t get a solid lock through all the subspace interference.”
With a cock of her head, Ninsol offered a small smile. “We developed a way to compensate by modifying the transport buffer relay to use a series of external nodes mounted to our hull.”
“Is that so?”
“Perhaps we’re not quite so far down the technological food chain as you first thought?”
Dax clasped her hands behind her back. “I’m curious, since you’re obviously well adapted to this region of space — did something prevent you from helping the Sequeira crew instead of shooting at their life support system?”
In the tight confines of the turbolift, she watched Kedair from the corner of her eye. The Security Chief’s hand lowered to her phaser.
“We aren’t slave traders,” Ninsol said. “Nor are we people smugglers. We would have at least allowed them to die with their dignity intact.”
The turbolift doors hissed open and the trio walked on towards the mess hall. Dax said, “In any case, now we have the crew safely off the Sequeira, here is my offer: we can tractor the ship to a safe location, away from the subspace distortions. We will purge the databanks and strip the bio-neural gel packs. The warp engine, the warp core and the dilithium tanks are coming with us too. That also means the dilithium incubator, regulator, and sequencer are not part of the package.”
Ninsol scoffed. “There won’t be a ship left by the time you remove all that.”
“There will still be plenty there to pick over.”
They came to a small, round table in the mess hall. Dax took a seat, and Ninsol followed suit. Kedair stood with her arms crossed and mumbled, “I’ll replicate us some drinks.”
The two Starfleet officers looked at Ninsol. The Sidager said, “Water.”
Dax drummed the table with her fingers. “I’ll have water as well. Sparkling. With a wedge of lime and lots of ice.”
“Bitters and vodka too?” Kedair asked.
“Maybe once these negotiations are settled.”
Kedair went to get the drinks. Ninsol leaned back away from the table and said, “Your terms are unacceptable. We will be taking the warp core at the very least. And the dilithium stores are worth more than all the alloys in the hull of ten ships.”
Dax mentally ran through her list of no-go items versus what she could give up. “I can let you keep half the dilithium. But if I give away the warp core, I will have to give away my Starfleet commission while I’m at it.”
The drinks arrived, and Kedair joined the table. Ninsol scowled, baring her yellow teeth. “Every dilithium storage tank will remain on board.”
“But no warp core,” Dax said and took a sip of the bubbly water. The cool drink absorbed into her hot, dry mouth.
“Fine. You can keep the dilithium processing units if you throw in one of your sensor probes.”
After glancing at Kedair, who gave her a microscopic shrug, Dax said, “As long as we can purge the memory buffers.”
“Agreed.” Ninsol took a gulp of water. “We get the keep the cache of photon torpedoes as well.”
Dax winced, and she noticed Kedair’s posture grow rigid. “You aren’t slave traders, and we aren’t arms dealers.”
“Unacceptable,” Ninsol growled. “We need those torpedoes to defend ourselves.”
“We can compensate for it with food and medical supplies.”
An unfamiliar ringing sound echoed through the mess hall. Ninsol took a communications device from her tunic pocket and pressed a button. A voice chimed through. “Dominelle, we have a problem.”
“A human has remained on board the Sequeira. They’ve set a self destruct sequence. It’s going to blow in less than five piyia.”
Bolting upright in her seat, Dax tapped her combadge and said, “Dax to bridge. Scan the Sequeira and tell me nothing is counting down.”
There was a moment of silence, followed by Helkara’s voice. “A self destruct has been initialised.”
“On whose authorisation?” Dax asked.
“Captain Madison Short.”
Swearing under her breath, Dax quickly sought to bring the situation under control. “We had no idea he’d do that.”
Ninsol stood, her chair tumbling sideways to the floor. It landed with a clang. “You knew the human named Short had remained on the ship?”
“He refused to leave,” Dax said, stammering a little. “He said he wanted to purge some of the data banks. It’s not like I outrank him.”
Ninsol sent her water glass flying across the room. Liquid sloshed everywhere. “You’ve done an excellent job stalling for time.”
“That wasn’t —”
The imposing Sidager woman interrupted, speaking into her handheld communicator. “Beam me back to the Gena Uanna.”
Dax watched as a swirl of blue light enveloped Ninsol Lisnon until all that stood before her was a puddle of spilled water and an upturned chair.
Straightening her uniform, Dax reached deep into her memories. What was it that Curzon had said? Being a leader is easy. It simply takes honesty, integrity, humility and focus…
Curzon always had been an arrogant bastard.
Only the pale luminescence of emergency lighting lit the bridge now. The putrid smell of melting plastics and stale ozone filled the air. Captain Madison Short knelt on one knee and reached under the ops console. His hand touched something hot. Taking a rag from his pocket, he wrapped it around his dirty hand and tried again. This time, the data nodule came loose.
Who’s uniform had this rag come from? From which lifeless body had he taken it? Ensign Nunez? Lieutenant Shaw? Or that one crewman they’d had on the Sequeira… They teased her because she’d flunked probability mechanics at the academy. At the time, the teasing seemed good-natured. Now he realised they were being mean.
The crewman’s name… what was it?
“Five minutes and thirty seconds until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
Captain Madison Short thought back to when he’d accepted this commission; a small science vessel studying gamma-ray radiation spikes from neutron stars — specifically their periods of intense hypersonic vibrations. In theory, these vibrations could speed up subspace communications due to how they interacted with gravitational waves. It was cutting edge science.
Those had been good days.
Just months later, the Borg had slain half of his crew. Gaping holes had been wrenched in the Sequeira’s hull — replicators broken and shields beyond repair. Catastrophic cascade failures had engulfed the entire ship, with life support hanging by a thread.
Short felt his hands forming into fists. Under his command, two dozen scientists had been forced to take up arms and join the war effort. Starfleet had hastily retrofitted two torpedo bays onto their ship. Before they knew it, a Borg armada came screaming into their region of space. It was like an ant fighting a herd of elephants.
“Five minutes until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
He fired up the plasma torch and set it on the data nodule. The burst of concentrated heat burned through the casing until the insides of the nodule sizzled and popped. A thin plume of smoke eased out. It smelled toxic. An involuntary cough escaped his lips. Another data nodule wiped clean, just in case anything survived the forthcoming explosion.
“Dax to Short. Captain, our sensors indicate you’ve lit the fuse on the Sequeira. You have to stop it. Lives are at stake.”
Short wiped his face with a dirty sleeve. The air around him thinned. He muttered a curse. “My people are safe on your ship… Captain Ezri Dax of the Aventine…”
The Captain spoke only to himself. He’d never activated his com.
A loud crack burst through from the aft section of the ship. The Sequeira was only small and not built for fighting. The two dozen men and women had lived in close quarters with each other. Some had triple bunked. They had been out there for science, not looking for a fight.
Presently, Short glanced up at the viewscreen, which hadn’t worked for 26 days. Out there was an intricate maze of subspace distortions and microscopic space-time fissures. It would appear to Starfleet that the collapsed Borg transwarp hubs were the cause of this maze of spatial anomalies.
Would his crew keep his secret? Probably not.
“Captain Short, come in. Please.”
Over now to the next console. The data banks needed purging. Nothing could be left to chance.
Captain Short had never seen a starship self destruct.
The Aventine was at yellow alert. Dax paced the floor while Sam sat in the XO’s chair. The bridge oozed a sense of quiet panic, even though Dax could see every officer remaining calm. Goosebumps formed on her arms.
“Mr Nak,” Dax said. “Estimate of the blast radius?” The words felt thick in her throat.
The Tellarite stroked his beard and said, “With a ship of that size, anything within 500 000 kilometres would be either destroyed or in for a very bad day.”
“Five minutes until it self destructs,” Kedair announced.
She tapped her combadge. “Dax to Short. Captain, our sensors indicate you’ve lit the fuse on the Sequeira. You have to stop it. Lives are at stake.”
Swearing under her breath, she heard a nearby console chime. Kedair said, “The Sidager ships are moving in.”
Even now, with the entire ship set to blow, they’d attempt to save their quarry. Desperate people. Drastic measures.
Looking up at the viewscreen, Dax saw the three Sidager ships each set a tractor beam on the Sequeira.
Bowers said, “They’re attempting to contain the blast with their tractor beams. Minimise the damage and salvage what they can.”
Dax tapped her combadge and tried again. “Captain Short, come in. Please.”
“No response,” Helkara said.
“Four and a half minutes until it self destructs.”
Time is running out. Dax took a breath and tried to slow her beating heart. The Sidager ships didn’t stand a chance if the Sequeira detonated. She turned to Helkara at ops and said, “I need two feet firmly planted inside the Sequeira. Can you get me there?”
The Zakdorn grimaced. “Our transporters just won’t work with all this subspace distortion. I might be able to get your feet there, but I can’t guarantee the rest of your body will follow.”
She looked at Bowers and said, “I know someone who can transport me.”
The Aventine’s XO shook his head. “Oh no. No way. It’s too risky.”
“I gave the Sidager my word we wouldn’t scuttle the Sequeira. We could have used this encounter as a starting point to build a better relationship with one of our neighbours. Instead, this will drive a wedge between us.”
“Send me instead,” Bowers said.
“I made some inroads with Ninsol Lisnon, and we built something of a rapport. I might be able to get her to see reason.”
Bowers nodded gravely.
“Get the Sidager on the line.”
The ops console chimed twice. “I have them,” Helkara said. “Audio only.”
Dax spoke to the room. “Ninsol Lisnon, this is Captain Ezri Dax. I need you to transport me to the Sequeira.”
The voice on the other line gave a bitter laugh. “So you can help your Starfleet man escape?”
“I might be able to deactivate the self destruct. Or I can talk him around.”
“We have done enough talking.”
“No, actually, we haven’t.” Dax cast her eyes at the viewscreen. It showed three cones of blue light streaming from the Sidager ships — they were using triangulated tractor beams in the hopes of containing the explosion. She continued, “We’ve hardly talked at all. Talking is free. It doesn’t cost resources. Or lives. It doesn’t charge a tax. Talking is the beginning of peaceful trade. Talking is how friendships form. I want to keep talking with you. With the Sidager. I’m asking you to help me make this right.”
A brief pause. Then, “Lower your shields.”
Giving the nod to Kedair, the shields powered down. Time stood still as blue particles of light surrounded her and then faded. Once on the Sequiera, she gasped. The bridge was shadowed in thick, hazy smoke, and she gagged on the acrid air as she covered her mouth with her sleeve. An intense heat bathed her skin, forcing her body into slow, careful movements. Her eyes scanned the room and found the captain sitting in his chair surrounded by slagged data nodules and a plasma torch.
“Captain!” she yelled. “Madison!”
Blank, distant eyes cast in her direction as the chair slowly turned. His mouth was slightly agape. He said nothing.
“Computer, cancel self destruct. Authorisation Captain Ezri Dax Echo Six Zero Six.”
“Unable to comply.”
Dax grimaced. “Computer, engage self destruct override timer. Two hours. Authorisation Captain Ezri Dax Echo Six Zero Six.”
“Unable to comply.”
Stumbling, Dax approached Captain Short. The man looked merely a shadow of a Starfleet officer. A console exploded nearby, letting out a hideous snap and sending sparks flying. Closer now, Dax said, “Order this ship to abort its self destruct.”
The man just stared over her shoulder.
She crouched down and forced their eyes to meet . A glimmer of life was still there, perhaps. Softly, Dax said, “Captain, if this ship self destructs, you’re going to kill at least forty Sidager people. Don’t make murder your swan song.”
He mumbled, “We… were just scientists.”
“Two minutes and thirty seconds until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
The ship’s computerised voice warbled. She refocused on the captain. “Yes, you were just scientists. But you were also Starfleet officers. Duty calls and we answer. You answered. The entire crew here showed bravery and courage —”
“We hid!” Short shouted. “The subspace distortions here aren’t the result of collapsed Borg transwarp tunnels. They’re naturally occurring, and we used them to hide.” Tears streamed down his dirty cheeks. “We hid while the others perished. And then we got stuck.”
“Two minutes until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
The captain continued, his words pouring out. “The Borg fired one shot at us. One solitary shot, and we were finished — shields down, cascading system failures, near-total destruction. We had to reroute emergency power to sustain life support. Holes dotted our hull. Bodies went flying as the atmosphere vented into space. It was like watching pure chaos in slow motion. Terrifying.”
“One minute and thirty seconds until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
Dax took him by the shoulders. “Your ship was damaged beyond repair. You saved eleven lives, plus your own, by hiding here.”
“Cowards!” he yelled. “How could I look my son in the eye? Every other starship within sensor range suffered. People were assimilated while we hid in the corner of the room and played dead.”
“You did your best.”
Captain Short gurgled something unintelligible. Spittle formed in the corner of his lips. The man was so entirely overcome by survivors guilt that he was merely a husk.
I’m running out of time, Dax thought. And I’m getting nowhere. I need him to override the self destruct. The computer won’t accept my commands.
The voice of Curzon echoed in her mind: Honesty, integrity, humility and focus…
Dax stood up straight, body rigid — her voice her own but infused with Curzon’s powerful articulation. “Stand up, Captain. On your feet.”
Despite his disdainful stare, he pushed himself out of the chair.
Blood pounded in Dax’s temples. She said, “You made a decision. You hid your crew. It was neither a triumphant hallmark of bravery nor an act of cowardice. It was a decision, and you made it. As Starfleet captains, we own our decisions. Right or wrong. I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve had eight lifetimes worth of mistakes, and I’ll tell you that sometimes I wake up in the night, covered in sweat.”
“One minute until self destruct. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
She continued, “But all that is done. Right now, I need you to accept your mistakes just as I have accepted mine. Focus on me. Focus on the good in us both. Focus on the fact that we can save lives. People are alive now. We can save them.”
Short’s eyes widened as he wiped wet tears from his cheeks. “A captain… should go down…”
“No,” She interrupted. “Disengage the self destruct. Then go visit your son.”
“Thirty seconds until self destruct. There will be no further warnings.”
“They tell me my son is alive…” He choked, recovered, and then finally said, “Computer. Deactivate self destruct. Authorisation…” A blank look passed across his face.
Dax mouthed the words, “Captain Madison Short.”
He nodded. “Authorisation Captain Madison Short zero three alpha.”
“Self destruct aborted.”
For a moment, Dax thought her body might crumple into a heap. But to her mild surprise, she remained standing — as a flash of hot, burning anger coursed through her. This man had nearly killed himself, her, and forty Sidager! But when she looked at him square on, her anger cooled into empathy.
Dax embraced Short. It was almost comical, as he stood at least a head taller than her. But he leaned into it like it was the first act of human compassion he’d ever encountered. His body felt warm, limp and bony. She wondered about the last time he’d eaten. Or had any water, for that matter.
With a gentle nudge, she separated herself from him and tapped her combadge. “Aventine, come in. What’s your status?”
The voice of Sam Bowers piped through. “We detected the aborted self destruct. Well done. But you better get off that ship sooner rather than later; it’s looking in pretty rough shape. The Sidager have remained in place.”
“Can you ask Ninsol Lisnon to beam us both directly to the Aventine?”
The interior of Aventine’s sickbay faded into view. Doctor Tarses rushed over with a young orderly and caught hold of Short’s body as he sagged helplessly. The orderly manoeuvred Short over to a bed while Tarses remained with Dax. He asked, “Everything okay?”
“That depends on what exactly happens next,” Dax said.
Doctor Tarses issued a hypospray to counter the toxic fumes that Dax had inhaled while on the Sequiera. She promised that she’d return for a complete medical exam just as soon as the immediate crisis was over.
Right now, she was needed on the bridge.
“Situation report,” Dax ordered.
Seated in the XO’s chair, Bowers gave her a sly smile. “Do you want the good news or the good news?”
“Give it to me in the reverse of whatever order you’d originally intended.”
“Umm. Right. In that case… we’ve agreed with the Sidager that the Aventine will tractor the Sequeira to a safe location. Its hull is badly damaged, but it should be stable enough once it’s free of all these subspace anomalies. They’ve also agreed to our terms regarding the removal of sensitive Starfleet material.”
“Even the warp core?”
He grinned. “Even the warp core.”
“Wow,” Dax said, rubbing the nape of her neck. She looked around; everyone on the bridge was beaming smiles in her direction. “Did I miss something? Don’t tell me we convinced the Sidager to join the Federation too?”
Bowers gave a small chuckle. “The news isn’t that good. But everything is set. You just need to give the word.”
Eyeing him with deep suspicion, Dax asked, “The Sidager didn’t even haggle? Or perhaps threaten to blow us up? Something tells me this all happened a bit too easily.”
“A bit too easily!” Kedair said, marching down from her security station to join the conversation. “You were seconds away from being blown up.”
Narrowing her eyes, she focused on Sam Bowers. He hesitated before responding. “We broadcast your com signal to the Sidager ships. They heard the radio drama that took place between you and poor Captain Short.”
Dax felt her fists clench. “You broadcast a private conversation between two Starfleet captains?”
Bowers took half a step back. “How else could we convince them that our motives were pure? I must say, Captain, you give a hell of a speech.”
“Commander, that was a brilliant idea.”
Relief sagged the lines of his face. “Thank you.”
“They didn’t trust us,” Dax said. “That was always the issue. Yes, they made some unappealing choices and fired on the Sequeira with people still wandering its halls. But today, we might have just built a little trust. And that can go a long way.”
Bowers breathed. “Permission to proceed as planned?”
Dax nodded. “Tractor the old girl to safety and begin stripping her of our dirty little secrets. Then we can hand her over with a clean conscience.”
The bridge hummed with action. Helkara communicated with the Sidager ships and coordinated the tractor beam handover to the Aventine. Kedair assembled a team to board the ship once it was stabilised. Doctor Tarses and his team continued to help the casualties — in particular Captain Short, who was badly malnourished and dehydrated.
Dax just had one thing left to do.
Ezri stepped into her ready room. She’d just been on the holodeck, working out with Lonnoc Kedair. They had been trying out a peculiar human exercise style called aerobics. It’d been fun, if a little strange.
Presently, the console on her desk blinked with a dot of pale orange light. Taking a moment to collect herself, she noticed the towel, neatly folded, waiting for her on her desk. Gaff chim Nak was on the bridge today, and she knew he’d replicated the towel for her, anticipating her post-workout needs. It was pleasantly cool to the touch, and her skin tingled as she dabbed it on her flush face.
Why do Starfleet generals always call when I’m exercising?
Seated, she blew a little air on her face by flapping her hand. It didn’t help much. She pressed the button on the table, and Admiral Akaar’s big head filled the screen, replacing the Starfleet insignia.
“Admiral, it’s good to see you again.”
“And you, Captain.” The Capellan man’s baritone voice boomed through the screen’s tiny speakers. “Congratulations on your successful mission. Twelve lucky people are now breathing free air and reconnecting with those who also survived the invasion.”
Dax smiled. “It was quite a rescue mission, but I’m grateful it turned out okay.”
“I heard you came across a few Sidager junk traders?”
“Nothing the crew and I couldn’t handle.”
Akaar leaned back from the screen. “Good, good. Speaking of the Sidager, an interesting report came across my desk today.”
“Oh?” Dax felt her eyebrows raise.
“It would seem the same people you had a run-in with found yet another stranded Starfleet vessel, out near the Argelius Sector. These Sidager have a good nose for valuable salvage.”
Dax scrunched up her face. “Is this a happy ending type story?”
The big admiral laughed. “Indeed it is, Captain Dax. Instead of shooting or making threats, they offered them food, water and medical supplies. It would seem they had plenty to spare.”
Dax swallowed down a lump in her throat. “Is that so?”
After the Sidager had accepted her terms (thanks in part to Sam’s quick thinking in broadcasting her emotional appeal to Captain Short) the crew had stripped the Sequeira of its warp engine and warp core, replacing it with barrels of triptacederine, chloromydride, stenophyl, cortical analeptics, analeptic compounds, general use medkits, Bajoran wheat, Kohlanese barley, corn (from Earth), and raw algae suitable for the Sidager protein resequencers. Enough food and medical supplies to keep them going for quite a while.
“I’ve known a few generous Starfleet captains in my time. But after surviving a devastating Borg invasion, did you consider the Federation citizens who could have benefitted from those food and medical supplies?”
Lifting her chin, Dax said, “It would seem that some Federation citizens did benefit from those supplies. Sir.”
Admiral Akaar’s eyes narrowed, and then he let out a hearty guffaw. “I suppose they did. You’ll have your new mission briefing within the day. Akaar out.”
The round face and ruddy cheeks that belonged to the Admiral faded from the screen, replaced by the Starfleet insignia. Dax placed the cool towel around her shoulders and smiled.