Jack McCall smiled at the small patch of light centered in their warp speed tunnel of stars. It beckoned them to its secrets like a street lamp to a moth.
Jack had pushed for this mission the moment he'd seen it on Starfleet's roster. He'd grown tired of the political and military duties which seemed to consume starship life like a ravenous Venus flytrap the last decade. It was time they got back to what Starfleet was all about--- exploring the unknown.
This nebula, nearly two hundred light years distant, was as unknown as they came. When he'd seen the mission profile Jack knew this was the one for his crew.
Most starships couldn't sustain the warp nine velocity they had for the last forty-five days. So while it took some convincing to bring the Chief of Operations Office over to the idea of sending Chamberlain, Jack had had the ship's speed in his quiver of arrows.
And now that they were so near, he was glad he'd fought for it.
Jack grinned as he continued to stare at their destination. They would be the first to see this natural wonder.
The door chime to his ready room sounded. “Come in,” Jack called out.
He heard the door open and the light padding of steps coming up the stairs. Jack smiled when he saw it was his wife, Melissa. But she didn't reciprocate.
Her stoic demeanor hadn't changed the last two months.
“Here's Kadan's personnel report,” she said, handing him a PADD.
Jack set it on his desk, keeping his eyes focused on his wife.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“We needed to talk two months ago,” Melissa said, turning away.
“I don't want to go over that again,” Jack said, sitting on the edge of his desk.
Melissa shook her head. “You violated the Prime Directive.”
“I followed its spirit rather than its letter as defined by Starfleet,” Jack said. He knew where this was headed.
She spun about to face him like a Kansas tornado. “Do you realize how you're tearing me apart?!”
“What do you want from me?” he demanded, tired of this dance.
“Come with me to see Talfa,” she said, her eyes pleading.
“As your husband or your captain?”
“Are you afraid to see a counselor?”
Jack thought a moment whether to press on with his previous question, but thought it better to address hers.
“I have no problem seeing our new counselor,” he said. “But only as your husband. The counselor can't mediate a problem between a captain and one of his officers on a matter of the Prime Directive.”
She stood silently for almost a minute. “Why are you being so damn difficult about this?”
“I'm pointing out how things have to be.”
“According to who?” she asked.
Jack could see the fierceness in her eyes strengthen, a fire burning in her that wanted to lash out.
“It's a chain of command issue.”
Melissa let out a muffled half laugh. “This has nothing to do with the chain of command!”
“It has everything to do with it,” he said, remaining calm. “If you have a dispute with your captain, you take it to him, or his superior, but not to someone under his command other than the executive officer.”
“But you and I are married!”
“That doesn't change that I am your commanding officer.”
Melissa turned away. “And if I have to choose between the two?”
“As your captain, I would
suggest you settle your personal problems in a way that doesn't interfere with
the operation of this ship.”
Melissa gazed down at the floor, her face twisted as if she'd been punched in the gut.
“I don't know if I can do that when it involves you,” she murmured.
Jack watched Melissa leave. He wanted to throw something through the bulkhead out of frustration.
His eyes landed on the PADD Melissa had brought in.
He grabbed it, and started to wind his arm up, but he closed his eyes a moment.
“That won't help anything,” he whispered to himself.
He began to read the report.
Ten seconds later, his eyes widened.
“No... can't be.”
He dropped the PADD on the desk and flew down the stairs.
It's been ten years, he thought.
His finger punched the button at the side of the door. A moment later, the doors parted and a stunning brunette stood in the doorway.
“I wondered how long it would take you to darken my doorstep,” she said with a smile.
“Hi, Liz,” Jack barely got out.
“Hi, yourself... Captain.”
Elizabeth DeCarlo had a few more lines in her face, a bit more life lived in her eyes, but she was still the same incredibly beautiful woman.
How the hell did I ever let things get screwed up with her? he thought, remembering back fifteen years.
“Come in,” she said, stepping back from the door.
Jack entered her quarters, the doors closing behind him.
“I guess the captain of this ship doesn't read his personnel roster very often,” Elizabeth said with a grin, leaning back against a chair.
Jack frowned. “You could have come to see me when you got aboard.”
“I didn't think that would be a very good idea,” she said, now sitting on the back of the chair. “You're married. What if you wife met me at the door?”
“I'd have told her you were an old friend.”
“Does she know about
Jack thought a moment. “Not the details, no.”
She nodded. “At least I rated a mention.”
Jack shook his head. “How have you been?”
“Good,” she said, smiling. “And you seem to be doing well. How long have you been married?”
“About a year,” he said. “This is my second.”
“I'd have never figured you to get married once.” She turned to the replicator. “Something to drink?”
“Sure.” Jack followed Elizabeth.
She pointed to the couch at the center of the living room. He took the drink she offered, then sat.
“The roster said you're my new chief xenolinguist.”
She gave a nod as she sat down next to him, a glass of her own in hand. “I've held that position on three ships now.”
“I'm glad your career has been successful,” he said, taking a sip of his scotch.
Elizabeth looked into her glass. “How many were there after me?”
“Just the two I've married,” he said, not looking at her.
She took a long breath. “I wasn't sure if taking this assignment was a good idea. That's why I didn't come to see you.”
“I know things didn't end especially well with us, but we were able to talk.”
She turned to him and smiled. “It's not you, Jack. I just think it better if we kept this as professional as possible.”
He finally turned to her, meeting her eyes. “We don't have to...” He looked away. “I'm sorry.”
“I'm not going to be a shoulder to cry on again.”
“I've heard things aren't going so well between you and your wife,” Liz said.
“Where the hell have you heard that?!”
She shook her head. “Gossip about the captain is one of the major pastimes of every starship crew. You should know that by now.”
Jack looked down. “It's not...”
“If it weren't true, would you have come here to my quarters?”
After several seconds, “Okay, I believe you,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “I'm not here to make your life more difficult.”
“I didn't say you were,” Jack said.
“But Jack, I'm forty-two. I don't have time for short term anything any longer.” She turned to look at him. “If you decide you're interested, don't play games. Just tell me.”
Jack stood and finished his drink. “I'm married, Liz. What I said earlier, or started to say... that was a mistake.”
Jack set the now empty glass in the replicator alcove. “We should have lunch sometime.”
“I'd like that.”
Jack forced a smile. “Glad to have you aboard.”
Elizabeth rose from the couch and offered her hand. “Thank you... Captain.”
Two days later, Jack sat on the Chamberlain bridge, his crew efficient as usual.
“We have secured from warp,” Zaylie Burton announced from the conn station.
“Full magnification on view screen,” Jack ordered.
The bright smudge they'd all gotten used to filled the display with a glowing and swirling mix of green, blue, and orange clouds. Shafts of intense light shot out through breaks in the dust.
“Amazing,” Kadan Loftus whispered in the seat next to Jack.
He nodded with a smile then turned to their science officer.
“Mr. Hoffman, your department may begin its survey.”
Hoffman touched several controls at his station. “Aye, Captain.”
Jack strolled toward the front of the bridge and glanced down at Zaylie Burton. “Still have a low opinion of nebula surveys?”
“No, sir,” she said, her eyes wide and taking in the view before them. “The universe always seems to kick our complacency in the ass, doesn't it?”
Jack looked up toward Melissa standing at the OPS station. She refused to meet his gaze.
Thirty-six hours later, Jack sat in his quarters, reading over an engineering report. Kristy Bishop had all the bases covered as usual, plus more.
This is a damn fine crew, Jack thought.
He set the PADD down. Jack stood and walked over to the display he'd left on. Nearly everyone on the ship had the same feed running with the results of the science survey of the nebula.
What was the name Burton had given it?
Shekinah... the divine presence.
Many on the ship had remarked how it seemed they were indeed in the midst of something great, though Jack doubted the nebula contained any sort of advanced lifeform.
After Zaylie Burton had given it that title, the rest of the crew seemed to adopt it. New things always needed a name, and it seemed this one would stick.
The main door opened, and Melissa walked into their quarters. She stopped next to Jack to watch the latest about the nebula.
“Fantastic, isn't it?” she murmured.
Jack turned to her, happy she wore a smile.
“Yes, it is,” Jack said.
Melissa headed off toward the bedroom. “How about you whip up something for us while I get out of this uniform?”
“Anything in particular?”
“You choose something.”
Ten minutes later, Jack sat across from Melissa. A roast and a bowl of potatoes, as well as corn, rolls, and a white wine were spread out before them.
“Nice,” she said.
“Glad to hear I can still impress you,” he replied, smiling.
“That's never been a problem, Mr. McCall.”
Jack placed several pieces of roast on her plate, and returned it to her. He then carved some for himself while Melissa spooned potatoes onto her plate.
“I was impressed the first time I met you,” she said, looking at him with an intensity he hadn't seen in forever.
“I had the same reaction to you,” he said, stopping to look at her.
Melissa smiled and pointed to the wine.
Jack took the bottle and poured a glass for each of them.
After several more minutes, Melissa took a sip of her wine and looked over to Jack.
“You seem happy tonight,” she said.
“I am.” He smiled. “And you seem...”
“Something about being here with this nebula,” she said, setting her wine glass on the table. “It gives me hope.”
“Sorting out a relationship on board a starship isn't easy,” Jack said.
“I know,” she murmured.
“But I want our marriage to work.”
“I do too,” Melissa said, doing her best to retain her smile. “But I can't have you using our marriage as a means to shut me up.”
“And I can't have you using the threat of a report against me to coerce me into not acting as I see fit.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What would you have done with a commanding officer who violated the Prime Directive?”
“Zaylie Burton and I had a discussion while we were down on the planet.”
Melissa shook her head. “I can't believe you allowed yourself only the counsel of an ensign in a situation like that. Of course Burton's going to want to help the people in front of her!”
“That's called compassion.”
“You interfered with the society of another planet!”
Jack held back what he wanted to say. He pushed his plate forward. “Melissa, I am finished with second guessing myself. I've done that all my life!” Jack bellowed. “No more.”
Melissa sat, watching him, but remaining silent.
“Before I can ask anyone else to believe in me, I have to believe in myself,” Jack said. “Without that, I can't be captain of this vessel.”
“I want you to believe in yourself.” Melissa closed her eyes. “But what you did on that planet...”
“I fed starving people,” Jack said. “I didn't interfere with their choices. I gave them the ability to make a choice.”
“But for fifty years, Starfleet has interpreted the...” Melissa began to plead.
“I don't care what Starfleet thinks!”
“You can't mean that,” she said, opening her eyes wide.
“I have to live by my own conscience, not playing it safe by following some damn rule book,” Jack said, lowering his voice. “I acted out of compassion, not dogma. And if Starfleet wants to throw that rule book at me, then they're welcome to. But I'll damn well have my say before they do.”
“And my report?” she asked, nearly crying.
“If you feel you need to file that report, then do so.”
She shook her head.
Jack reached across the table to take Melissa's hand. “I mean that not in a vindictive way. That is my advice as your commanding officer. If you truly believe what I did was wrong, then march forward with that conviction. Doing anything less is a betrayal of yourself.”
“You're asking too much of me, Jack,” she began to cry.
“That's been the problem all along.”
She looked at him with wide eyes. “What?”
“My begging you to not file the report was your cover. It allowed you to take the easy path, blaming me for your inaction.” His face turned stern. “And now I've taken that from you. I am sorry for that. I was wrong to come between you and what you think is right. But you have to make your own choice now.”
Melissa stood. “You're
being such a son of a bitch.”
“I'm being the captain you should have had all along,” Jack said.
Melissa walked toward the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
A part of Jack wanted to run after her, hold her and tell her he was sorry. But her captain couldn't do that.
This choice belonged to Melissa Vargas... Commander, Starfleet.
Three days later, Jack rode the turbolift, heading to his ready room. He hoped to read through the formal reports Hoffman's science department had put together so far on the nebula.
The schedule at this point was to continue surveying the nebula another week, then if the scans showed it was safe, take the ship in to begin mapping the interior. They would have to maintain yellow alert status for the duration, but it was the only way to truly unlock the secrets of this ten light year diameter seething mass of dust and gas.
The intercom chimed.
“McCall,” he said.
Over the speaker, Zaylie Burton's voice spoke with urgency. “Captain, two vessels have just emerged on this side of the nebula.”
“Any aggressive activity from them?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “They are slowing as they approach our position.”
“I'll be on the bridge within two minutes,” Jack said. “Standby on shields, Zaylie.”
Jack entered the bridge where everyone stood vigilant at their post, the jovial tone of the last several days had evaporated.
“Anything yet?” Jack asked as he took his command chair.
“They have slowed to a stop five kilometers directly ahead,” Kadan Loftus said. “No aggressive actions of any kind.”
“Mr. Nokano,” Jack began, turning to Chamberlain's tactical officer. “Any sense of their weaponry?”
“We haven't done any deep scans per first contact protocols,” Nakano said. “But looking at their ships, I can't make out anything which appears to be a weapon.”
“Are you saying they're unarmed vessels?”
Nakano grinned. “No, just that I can't recognize any weapons.”
“That's not very helpful,” Jack said with a frown.
“I didn't expect it would be,” Nakano replied.
Jack turned to face the view screen. He waited a full minute to see what the ships would do.
“Standard hailing frequencies,” Jack called over his shoulder to Melissa.
“Channel open, Captain,” she replied.
Jack stood and walked over to Ensign Burton's station. He saw she was watching him closely just as he had his first commanding officer years ago during a first contact situation.
“This is Captain Jack McCall of the Federation Starship Chamberlain,” he began. “We are on a peaceful mission of exploration. We would like the opportunity to learn about you and your culture.”
Everyone on the bridge waited in silence for a reply.
But none came over the ship's speakers.
Jack frowned, and turned to Melissa. “Anything at all?”
She touched various controls at her OPS station. “Nothing that... wait.” Melissa activated several other controls. “Something in a narrow band around 200 gigahertz.”
“Coming from the ships?” Jack asked.
“It's weak, but yes,” Melissa replied with a smile.
“Ask a xenolinguist to come to the bridge, Commander Kadan.”
“Aye, Captain,” Kadan replied as she returned to her chair.
“I'm having trouble making any sense of these signals,” Melissa said, working the controls at the OPS station. Her eyes narrowed. “But I think there's some...” She smiled. “I've got audio.”
Soft tapping and what sounded like staggered breathing whispered out of the bridge speakers.
“Is that them speaking?” Jack asked.
“It may be,” Melissa said. “The xenolinguist should be able to tell for sure.”
Jack heard the bridge doors open and close, and just as he was about to turn to the new arrival, he heard...
“That's amazing!” a female voice said.
Jack turned and saw
Elizabeth DeCarlo standing at the back of the bridge. Liz moved to the OPS
station to stand next to Melissa.
Melissa looked at the woman.
“This is from those ships?” Liz asked.
Melissa nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you recognize the language?” Jack asked.
“Never heard anything like it,” Liz said with a wide smile. “Can you raise the high frequencies just a bit, Commander?”
Melissa made some adjustments to her controls. High pitched chirping prattled on under the earlier sounds.
“This is incredible,” Liz murmured. “Any idea what they look like?”
“So far, we haven't received any visual communications from them,” Kadan said.
Liz looked toward Jack. “I'd like to get back to my department to get them working on this, sir.”
An hour later, Melissa stood in front of Jack's ready room desk.
“I seem to remember you mentioning someone named Liz.”
Jack looked down a moment, knowing he had to be careful.
“I could tell by the way you looked at her there was some history there,” Melissa said.
“You jealous?” Jack asked.
“No,” she said with an odd grin. She invited him to follow her to the couch across the room from his desk.
Jack gave a quick nod, not sure where Melissa was headed with this.
“After things fell apart with Fariha, Liz and I became involved,” Jack said, keeping his eyes from looking at Melissa as she sat on the couch. “It didn't last long, and... things didn't end well.”
“She doesn't seem to be holding a grudge,” Melissa said. “She was quite friendly toward you on the bridge.”
“We worked through it several months later,” Jack said, sitting next to Melissa on the couch. “Over subspace communication.”
Melissa frowned. “And if you had been on the same ship?”
“I was in love with her,” Jack said. “I wanted us to get back together.”
Melissa sat silently for nearly a minute. “Marriage shouldn't be a prison, Jack.” Melissa looked at him. “If you want an arrangement like your mother and father had...”
“You can't mean that.” Jack felt the room was spinning like a top.
“You're not my possession, and I'm not yours,” Melissa said. “Sometimes the lives we lead require us to make adjustments.”
“We don't need to make any adjustments.”
“I already do,” Melissa said. “I share you with this ship, this crew. What's a little more sharing on top of that?”
“Melissa, you knew I was a starship captain.”
“I'm not blaming you,” she said, turning to him. “What everyone says about captains being married to their ships is true. I understand I'm your second wife, and I don't mean Mei.” Melissa's gaze wandered. “If Mei had been a different person, and you as well, we could probably have had a marriage between the three of us. I loved her enough to...” Melissa let her words trail off. “Damn her... I still do.”
“I couldn't have done that.”
“I know, Jack. You are the man you are.” Her smile returned. “If you could step away from Starfleet long enough to look at Earth's society you'd learn the rest of humanity has gotten past not just the idea of material possessions, but of possessing people too.”
Jack turned away from her. He didn't at all like the way this conversation had progressed. “Do you think I possess people?”
“Ask yourself this... as I suggested the idea of you sleeping with another woman, were you more concerned about it bothering me, or were you thinking I was covertly asking for permission to sleep with other men?”
Jack closed his eyes. He hated how she had such an excellent read on him. At any other time he would be happy as hell his wife knew him this well.
But not at this moment.
Melissa continued, “Yes, you do try to possess people. And it's one of the things wrong with our marriage. This attitude of yours is something out of the nineteenth century... like so much of your mindset.”
“I lived there for five years, remember?” Jack said, finally turning back to face her. “That might have something to do with it.”
“You lived there long before you physically went back in time.” She inched away from him. “Have you ever noticed how most people in Starfleet are rooted in that same mindset? It's why the Federation Council has so much difficulty dealing with Starfleet, why they nearly had to send Federation Security out to arrest starship captains during the last Baku crisis. Why Lak Negev almost led a mutiny against you. Too many Starfleet officers think they're the only ones who can save the universe.” She hesitated a moment. “It's why you felt you were the one to save the people of that planet from their own government.”
Jack didn't want to spar with his wife any longer. “What do you want from me?”
“We can't keep going on autopilot,” Melissa said. “There's too much nineteenth century baggage in both our heads, and unless we talk about it, we'll end up auto-piloting ourselves into a divorce.” She gripped his hand. “We have to decide for ourselves if being together is what we want and how we'll do that. We can't let outdated social norms tell us how it will work.”
“Why can't we just...” Jack began.
“One day I'm going to be offered a command of my own,” Melissa said. “And I won't turn it down. We have to work this out before that happens.”
Jack had tried not to think about this inevitability. They'd only been married for a year. He wanted more time with Melissa.
“I'm right where I want to be.”
Melissa smiled briefly. “So am I... for now. But...”
The intercom chimed.
“McCall here,” Jack answered.
Kadan Loftus' voice came over the speaker. “Captain, the xenolinguistic department would like to meet with the command staff in fifteen minutes.”
“Have them come to the main conference room,” Jack said.
The intercom switched off.
Jack looked at Melissa. “We need to go.”
“I know,” she said with a sharp edge of frustration.
Four members of Chamberlain's Xenolinguistic Department stood behind Elizabeth DeCarlo as she addressed the ship's senior staff in the main conference room.
Jack sat listening at the far end as Elizabeth activated the holographic display in the center of the table.
“The sound patterns you see are what we believe to be their language.” She touched another control and the chirping and odd breathing sounds played over the speaker. “What at first seemed separate sounds are actually a complex utterance they produce from some part of their bodies.”
“But that sounds like...” Todd Nakano began.
“I know,” Liz said with a smile. “The sounds are being made within a liquid environment at least as dense as water.”
Several of the officers in the room turned to Nakano as he grinned. “I've been diving since I was a kid. You get used to the way sound acts in water.”
“We don't know what the liquid is yet, nor do we know anything about their anatomy, but we have determined this is being broadcast from their ships.”
Kadan nodded. “Their form of a universal greeting?”
“We're hoping so,” Liz replied. “So far, the universal translator hasn't produced any useful results. So we're going back to older methods.”
“Should we begin transmitting?” Jack asked.
“I'm reluctant to make this conversation more complex at this point, sir. However, if we don't get something out of their message soon, I would suggest using the standard linguacode messages since we have the most experience with them.”
“How much time do you want on their message?” Jack asked.
“Another four hours,” Liz replied. “If we don't get somewhere in that time, we're not likely to anytime soon.”
Jack nodded, and said, “We'll all meet on the bridge in four and a half hours.”
“We think we're on to the roots of their language, but it's going to take considerable time to get anything close to a translation matrix,” Liz told all on the bridge.
Jack nodded. He had hoped for more, but considering they knew nothing about the species in the ships out there, he wasn't too surprised.
“The Biology department has been begging to get a look at them,” Kyle Hoffman said from his science station.
“The problem with that is if we try to get an interior visual off their signal, it requires tracing back through their comm system,” Melissa said.
“Meaning they can then do the same to us,” Nakano finished.
“We have no idea how they might interpret our daily activity,” Melissa said. “Something like a hand gesture we think nothing of could be offensive to them. It's better to control our communications with them as tightly as possible this early into a first contact situation.”
Liz shook her head. “I think you're being too careful.”
“We came out here to investigate the nebula,” Melissa said. “Aside from that, the safety of this crew is my primary concern.” She stopped and turned to Jack. “We are in an uncharted area of the Galaxy. This species does not respond to any of our standard hails or friendship messages. I recommend we slowly reverse course, letting them know we mean them no harm, and then send a special team in a much smaller ship to resume first contact procedures.”
“First contact is one of the reasons we're out here,” Elizabeth said, looking to Melissa. “Turning tail and running isn't part of the job description.”
For a moment, it seemed as if Melissa was going to howl back a reply, but she held it to herself. Jack could see something unsaid had passed between the two women.
Liz turned to Jack. “Captain, if we open ourselves to them, they might do the same for us. The whole point of this is to communicate.”
Jack knew the rest of the bridge crew were looking to him to decide this issue.
No more second guessing. No more playing it safe.
“I think it's worth the risk,” Jack said. “Transmit linguacode messages. Use their signal to get us a visual.” He turned to Melissa. “But monitor our systems. Let me know the moment they establish a visual link to us.”
Melissa took a long breath. “Aye, Captain.” She began touching the controls on her panel.
Liz walked over to a display next to Hoffman's science station and began watching for any response to their linguacode.
For the next several minutes, there was no reply.
“Captain,” Melissa said as she watched a display on her panel light up. “We are now receiving a message from the lead ship... in linguacode.”
Liz smiled wide. “Excellent. They understood the base language structure in our message.”
“And I have a visual,” Melissa said.
On the main viewscreen, an image stabilized of what appeared to be light scattering within a fluid. Something blocked the view for a moment, then backed away.
“That's different,” Hoffman murmured.
A creature turned toward the view. It had the look of being a cross between a squid and a crab, but with the wings of a bat. Two spindly appendages on what appeared to be its head had glowing bulbs at their ends.
“Can you increase the brightness of the image?” Liz asked, her eyes fixed on the viewscreen.
“I believe so,” Melissa said.
A moment later, the brightness increased, allowing them to make out details on the surface of the creature.
The display next to Liz chimed.
“I'm getting a translation,” she said. “It will only be an approximation until we can further analyze it.”
“Put the text over the view screen display,” Jack ordered.
Text appeared on the screen:
WE GREET YOU. WE PRAISE YOUR OPENNESS AND WILLINGNESS TO FIND US.
“Well, that seems friendly,” Kadan said with a grin. “I think.”
WE ARE THE AWAKENED HYANTA. THOSE WHO SLEPT, BUT NOW COME TO SEE WHAT REMAINS.
Jack glanced over at Liz. “Any idea what that means?”
Liz shook her head. “There may be some cultural idioms getting in the way of a clear meaning.”
The text continued:
MANY WERE LOST. BUT SO MUCH TIME HAS PASSED. WE WELCOME YOU AS FELLOW SURVIVORS OF THE DARKNESS WHICH OVERTOOK US ALL.
“This doesn't sound good,” Melissa said. “They think we're survivors of some great catastrophe?”
“Probably something in their history,” Liz said. “It's not uncommon in first contact situations for a species to put themselves at the center of the universe and claim whatever ill they've endured was suffered by everyone else. It's takes centuries for cultures to get past that.”
“They're backtracking our visual feed,” Melissa said in response to a flashing light on her panel.
“Everyone smile,” Nakano joked.
Several others on the bridge chuckled.
“Send them the following,” Jack said.
Melissa stood ready at the Ops station.
“This is Captain Jack McCall of the Federation Starship, Chamberlain,” Jack said. “We come in...”
Jack's words trailed off as the screen displayed more text:
YOU ARE THE ENEMY.
“What?” Jack asked to no one in particular. He turned to Liz. “What's going on?”
Liz went to the Ops station, looking at the displays.
“I hadn't sent your message yet,” Melissa said. “So it wasn't that.”
YOU ARE THE ENEMY.
“I'm not sure what...” Liz began.
The screen continued:
NOW HEAR THE CRIES OF YOUR VICTIMS. THE BILLIONS AND BILLIONS OF SCREAMS YOU CAUSED THROUGHOUT THE ALL. HEAR US AS WE BRING JUSTICE TO YOU AND YOUR KIND.
“Raise shields,” Jack orderd.
Todd Nakano's finger instantly hit the control for the ship's shields.
A moment later, the Chamberlain shook violently.
“Shields down fifteen percent,” Nakano reported.
“The weapon uses some sort of temporal displacement effect which puts our shields a few milliseconds in the past,” Kyle Hoffman said at the science station. “Amazing technology.”
“We can admire their ingenuity from a distance,” Jack said as he took the command chair again. “Get us out of here, but not on a course for home.”
Zaylie Burton's fingers danced over the conn panel.
The Chamberlain began to turn about as the ship once again shuddered.
“We should avoid getting hit again,” Melissa said. “The next one may get through the shields.”
“Warp speed, aye,” Zaylie said.
On the view screen the stars began their familiar streaking.
“They are pursuing,” Nakano said. “They are matching our warp six velocity.”
“Ensign, warp eight,” Jack said to Zaylie.
“Warp eight, aye,” the conn officer answered.
“They have just gone to warp seven point five,” Nakano said.
“Then we're faster,” Kadan said from her station next to Jack. She smiled. “That would seem to be...”
The deck rolled underneath them and the bridge fell into darkness.
“Get those lights back on!” Jack howled, crawling back into his command chair. “Nakano, what the hell...”
“Some new weapon,” Nakano said, as the lights came back on. He was holding onto his tactical panel with all he had.
“Hoffman,” Jack said.
“A warp field disruptor of some sort,” Hoffman said. “I'm still analyzing.”
“We are at sublight,” Melissa stated.
Jack punched the intercom button on his chair. “Engineering!”
Christy Bishop's strained voice came over the intercom. “Bishop here... what are you doing to my engines?”
Jack frowned. “Can you get us back to warp?”
“Twenty seconds,” she said.
“I want warp nine or better when we get back on our feet,” Jack said.
“You'll have it,” Bishop said and the intercom switched off.
“The other ships?” Jack asked.
“They passed us at warp and are coming about, dropping to sublight,” Nakano said.
“We have warp speed!” Zaylie said, touching her controls.
“Warp nine!” Jack barked.
Again the Chamberlain went to warp, but there was a slight vibration they hadn't felt before.
Down in Engineering, Christy Bishop turned to Robin Nelson. “Bring all eight reactors online.”
“In thirty seconds,” Nelson said, standing at the main engineering console.
Jack turned to Melissa. “Damage report.”
Melissa shook her head. “Somehow our shields are down seventy percent, and I'm having trouble getting more power to them.”
Kyle Hoffman chimed in, “That weapon not only sends something into the past, but also into the future using its temporal disruption.”
“How is that possible?” Kadan asked.
“I've never seen anything like this,” Hoffman said. “It may take considerable time for us to analyze how it works.”
“Engineering reports we can make warp nine point five,” Melissa said.
Jack turned to Zaylie. “Nine point five.”
“Aye, captain,” Zaylie said with a smile.
Jack nodded and turned to Nakano. “Are they still pursuing?”
“Yes, but they haven't gotten past warp seven point five,” Nakano said. “We are continuing to widen the distance from them.” He smiled. “They will drop out of our sensor range within thirty minutes.”
“An hour after that, bring us about to 238 mark 6, Ensign,” Jack said.
“Aye, sir,” Zaylie Burton said.
“You want to take the long way home?” Kadan asked.
“I want to make sure they don't find out where home is,” Jack said. “We'll continue on that course for a week, then head back to Federation space.”
Jack sat in his ready room, looking out the windows. He and his crew had gone over every detail of their interactions with the other ships, and so far, they couldn't find anything which stood out as the cause for the failure of first contact with this new species.
The door chime sounded.
“Come in,” Jack said, thankful for the interruption.
Liz walked up to him with a PADD. “My report, sir.”
Jack turned to her and smiled. “Sir? Since when have you...”
“Please, Captain.” She shook her head. “I'd like to keep things as professional as possible between us.”
“I don't insist on a lot of formality between myself and my officers.”
“I know what you're going to do, Jack,” Liz said and frowned.
“And what is that?” he asked with his trademark grin.
“You'll try to make me feel better about what happened.”
“I was the one who gave the order for visual contact,” he said.
“I'm the chief xenolinguist. This disaster falls to me,” she said. “Your wife was right.” She handed him the PADD. “My report concludes we should have proceeded more cautiously rather than engaging in the communication we did.”
“I disagree,” Jack said, putting the PADD on his desk without reading it. “You were right in telling Melissa we're out here to make first contact with other species.”
“But the anger they had. There was something we... I must have done to get the Hyanta that enraged. Something in the linguacode, or...”
“It could have been some cultural thing, the order of our words, even a simple sound. We may never know.”
“But instead of new friends, we have an enemy.”
“Perhaps.” Jack took another step toward her. “Our story with this species isn't finished yet.”
“Jack, I...” She looked into his eyes. “Thank you for trying to make me feel better about this mess. I really do appreciate it.”
“You're a member of my crew.”
“But we failed,” Liz said.
“We learn from it, and do better next time,” Jack said. “Sometimes it's the getting up from a failure which allows us to succeed in ways we could never imagine.”
He thought a moment, then grinned. The first day at the Academy...
“It's what Starfleet is all about,” Jack told her. “We learn from our mistakes. We don't give up because of them.”
She took a step back from him. “Thank you, Captain.”
Liz turned to go, but stopped, a smile on her face. “The beard...”
“What about it?” he asked, rubbing the hair on his chin.
“It doesn't work for you... as captain, that is.”
“Really? I thought it gave me a more serious look.”
She turned and walked down the stairs. “You don't have to look like a gruff old man to command this ship. Just be yourself... that man you've always imagined you'd be. The one who works without a net.”
Jack looked at his face's reflection in the window. “Hmmm....”
Jack entered his quarters and found Melissa sitting on the couch, reading a PADD with four others scattered around her.
“Are you busy?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I'm done.”
“That sounds a little ominous,” Jack replied as he went over to the couch.
“I sent my report about what you did on Nyadran II.”
Jack tried not to show any reaction. But still inside, despite him not wanting to feel it, a little part of him died.
“If you think that's the right course, then... good.”
Melissa stood and walked to him. “If I had been more forceful today about the first contact situation, maybe we could have avoided what happened.”
“There are no guarantees,” Jack said, shaking his head. “Not in space. Not in life. We did what we're out here to do.”
“But if I had made my case more strongly...”
“I would have still chosen to make contact,” Jack said.
Melissa looked into his eyes. “I'd like to think there might be a few guarantees in life, at least in some parts of it,” she said.
“Anyone who promises that is lying to you.”
“I need something to be able to hold onto, Jack. It doesn't have to be much. But I do need it.”
Jack put his hands on her shoulders and gently pulled her nearer. “I think I can give you that.”
Melissa tilted her head slightly and grinned.
“I made an appointment with Counselor, Talfa,” Jack said.
“Jack...” Melissa said, smiling. She put her arms around him. “Thank you.”
Jack gently lifted her chin. Their lips touched, and Jack put his arms around his wife.
“You ready?” Jack said, pointing to the door.
Melissa nodded and they walked out together into the corridor.
* * *
Dark Horizon Story and Characters Copyright ©2016 Michael Gray
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