Fronds and creeping ferns twined their way up the curved wall of the conference room. Their leaves meshed together in a web of green, sprouted from a band of nutrient substrate that underlined the trellis to which they clung. This flash of nature was one of many pockets of vegetation that ran throughout the Ahwahnee. From Argosian yerlenn vines to the conical cacti of Klevak IV, radiant petals, tubers and all manner of kaleidoscopic fauna found its home within the ship. It was commonly understood by the entire crew that, in addition to their regular duties, they would be responsible for the upkeep of this plant life that extended through the corridors, lounges and meeting rooms. A particular quirk of life aboard the Ahwahnee; this obligation was often met with puzzlement and some doubt from new transfers. For most however, it wasn’t long before they got used to how things were done while serving under Captain Vordenna.
“They remind him of home,” Sreyler’s elbow rested on the table, her chin nestled in her palm. Her back to the starry viewport behind, she stared absent mindedly towards the mat of leaves that climbed the wall.
“What?” Delfino, seated opposite, shot a quizzical glance towards the Efrosian.
“Oh… The plants.” Sreyler blinked, realising she’d spoken out loud, “I guess I never really thought about why the Captain liked them this way. Other than them looking nice.”
Delfino’s attention returned to her PADD, “Always figured it was an Argosian thing.”
Lieutenant Steldon chimed in, “There’s a catalogue of them in the Science computer,” his blue eyes gleamed in earnest, “actually, very few of the Ahwahnee’s plant species originate from Argosia.”
Delfino turned to him, smiling politely, “It’s less about where they’re from. More that the Argosians have deep respect for the natural world throughout the galaxy. They have a symbiotic relationship with several species of flora native to their homeworld.”
“I… Didn’t know that.” Steldon shifted uncomfortably.
“Understandable. There aren’t many of them around, let alone in Starfleet. I wouldn’t have known myself if it wasn’t for the Captain.”
Steldon’s pause for thought was interrupted by the whooshing of the conference room doors. Tursk marched in, followed by Lieutenant Commander Alex Lupulo. All eyes were immediately trained on the latter.
“You’re back early,” Sreyler couldn’t resist the outburst, “environmental controls in your quarters working overtime to cool down that head of yours.”
“Someone’s gotta fix this mess,” Lupulo shot back.
“Enough!” Tursk snarled as he took his seat, “What have we got?”
“We managed to get a big enough window in the ionising radiation to conduct a topographical scan,” Steldon spoke up, “based on the Captain’s current movements we picked up from his tricorder, he’s in some kind of vehicle traveling northwest across this mountain chain.” The blonde haired Chief Science Officer tapped a few commands into the LCARS panel on the table, bringing up a map on the screen behind Tursk.
“What’s that mass he’s heading towards?” asked Lupulo.
Steldon drew in a breath, “That’s our biggest concern. As far as we can tell, it’s a large group of humanoids moving in groups. Like soldiers in formation. We’ve got no idea why he’s moving that way.”
“Gürm?” It was Delfino’s turn to query.
“Negative. Something else. Similar sized but mammalian heat signatures.”
Sreyler couldn’t believe her eyes, “The subspace flux coming out of there is off the charts! These guys are supposed to be pre-warp?”
Steldon rubbed his temple, “We can’t figure that out, either. The closest comparative waveforms we have make it look like a singularity. But the epicenter is moving along with that It…”
“Doesn’t make any sense.” Lupulo finished off the sentence, and the room fell silent.
The extent of Tursk’s exasperation was partially hidden from the others, with his chair tilted towards the screen. It was a wretched feeling. Yet he was proud of the crew, most of them, for executing their duty in good faith and entirely in the dark. The Captain’s report, known only to him, had told of the army. That much Tursk could have dealt with. There was another detail, though, that caused a gaping pit to open up in his stomach as he recalled Vordenna’s hurried message; the transponder was gone.
Tursk turned in his chair, banishing the foreboding from his eyes, “We need a way to get him out, when the time comes.”
Lupulo leapt in, as if on cue, “When the time comes for what? You’re saying there was no plan to get the Captain out before he beamed down?”
“Can you just work with us for one damned minute?” Sreyler’s face darkened and her voice wavered, “You’re fresh out of confinement, and you’re already doing your best to get your ass thrown in the brig. Do you think we’re idiots? We all know there’s something weird going on. It’s top secret, it’s classified. There’s some stuff we don’t know, and there’s some stuff they know.” She pointed at Tursk, then made a sweeping motion with her hands, “Prime Directive, Starfleet regulations, they’re getting thrown out the airlock right now. Fine. Whatever. But this is the Captain, Lup. You think he’s just down there tearing up some pre-warp civilisation because he feels like it? The guy that diverted the ship to get medical attention for an ilex beast?” Sreyler had unconsciously stood, “We all get this, Lup. We just want the Captain back, to get this thing resolved and to get out of here. When are you going to get on the same page and work with us?” She sat down, tucking the hair that had fallen across her face behind her ear.
There was more silence as Lupulo scratched at his stubbled chin. The others merely looked on in dismay.
“Circumstances have changed.” Tursk eventually grumbled, “We need a way to get him back to the ship. What are our options?”
“I could take a shuttlecraft down,” Delfino suggested, “run a scan for the Captain’s biosignature once I’m through the atmosphere.”
Steldon was quick to the counterpoint, “A shuttle’s hull density won’t absorb enough of that ionising radiation. Shields would be disrupted too. You wouldn’t make it through without severe burns.”
Tursk grumbled, “What about the transporters? Can we modify the targeting sensors to compensate for the radiation interference?”
“If we tighten the transporter beam’s resonance frequency we might have a shot at hitting the right coordinates on beam-in,” Sreyler offered.
“Yeah,” Steldon ran with it, “I’ve gotten some positive results from playing around with the sensor palette’s acuity band. A little more time and I might be able to punch through.”
Tursk pushed his chair back from the table, “Alright, you two get on that from the bridge. I’m going to see if I can boost the beam output directly from transporter room one. Dismissed.”
Felrak’s hand shook. The moss and lichens that sprouted near the back of his wrists, normally a blueish green, had faded almost to a dull grey. He frowned and a wave of fatigue swept over him. Two days had passed, yet it had come more quickly than he had anticipated. It could have been the radiation, an undetected toxic compound, an endemic disease; it didn’t matter. He gripped the rail that lined the edge of the airship’s control room, steadying himself.
“You look tired, Wide-eyes,” the Magistrate approached with concern in his voice.
“No reason for concern, M’Lord,” Felrak lied, forcing a smile. The welcoming vines of the orbosh tree flashed through his mind and he longed for their sustenance.
“Here,” the Magistrate ushered him over to a nearby bench, “sit.” He unclipped a canteen from his belt and offered it to Felrak, “Drink.”
The liquid trickling down his throat was thick and sweet. It reminded Felrak of a fruit syrup, exploding with a sour punch from the tip of his tongue to what felt like the base of his brain. He winced and his eyes began to water. A wave of energy coursed through him. He felt his heart begin to thud faster.
“This is… Quite something,” Felrak blinked.
“Hah! Isn’t it?!” the Magistrate enthused, “You’ll need it, Wide-eyes, we’ll be upon them soon.”
“Ah yes. The mammals.”
“Wretched beasts,” the Magistrate’s smile evaporated, “they shall be eradicated in due course.”
“Eradication?” Felrak almost winced at the word, “A simple military victory will not suffice?”
Freyyn sighed, “If only it were simple…” the Magistrate trailed off for a moment, before his eyes suddenly locked onto Felrak’s, “Wide-eyes, I fear a terrible development has taken place.”
The industrial chop and rumble of the airship’s rotors filled both of their ears. It was quite the achievement, Felrak mused, for species that seemed not to have fully embraced the deadly temptation of crude oil. The steam emissions indicated to him the presence of coal, and the helium for the vast balloon above them could only have been refined from natural gas deposits. Argosia had been fortunate enough to avoid the planetary conflict that so often accompanied such innovation. He had studied enough of Earth’s history, however, to know that Gorman III had potentially reached its own bloody inflection point.
“Speak, M’Lord,” Felrek pushed.
The Magistrate turned away, casting a heavy gaze out over the railing and into the swirling clouds. He took a breath, “Not long before your arrival. There were reports from our watchers,” still he struggled to verbalise, “Mountains… Incinerated. Forests in flames. The sea, evaporated. It was said to be them, Wide-eyes, the mammals. If they can wield this kind of power, then truly we are lost. If this is what we are sailing towards, what is to become of us? Sandastrom? My people?”
It was Felrak’s turn to struggle for words. There were some situations, he thought to himself, in which silence was far more desirable. He knew the Magistrate’s fear, and yet there was no way he could bring himself to console an individual who not two minutes ago had advocated genocide. He carefully weighed what he was about to say, then said it, “The galaxy I- we– come from is made up of many different species. We are able to travel between the stars, faster than light itself. We live together in peace, we share in each others’ cultures and we celebrate the diversity that makes each member of our galactic Federation unique. There have always been external threats, of course, but for all the worlds that make up our government, war is a thing of the past. My planet was lucky, M’Lord, but for many it took decades, if not centuries of war before they emerged into new societies. Before they were ready to reach beyond everything they’d ever known. For the unluckiest ones, their wars were over in mere hours. Weapons of colossal destructive power decimated the populations of entire planets. Still, they were able to rebuild. Their philosophies and values became quite different to what had gone before. They harnessed technology to avoid such destruction again and in doing so, they became ready to join the interstellar community.”
Freyyn looked to Felrak again, “A positive future indeed. Alas, it appears I was hatched in less auspicious times. Why then, Wide-eyes, do you choose to concern yourself with an undeveloped word such as this?”
“There is a threat,” Felrak confided, “and I fear it is the same one that concerns you and your people.”
“You seek to destroy it too?”
“This is power beyond what planetary civilisations could hope to wield against each other. It has the potential to annihilate entire regions of space should it destabilise. We have detected it here, and it’s unstable.” Felrak leaned forward on the bench, hands clasped, “In normal circumstances, I would never be here M’Lord. My… People have a guiding principle we hold dear. We are not to interfere in the development of civilisations who do not yet have the ability to travel between stars.”
Freyyn slowly nodded. His forked tongue flicked out, tasting the rarefied air, “But you must stop this weapon. That supersedes your principles.”
“You walk a brave path, Wide-eyes.” Freyyn looked to the platform deck, drawing his fur lined coat up around his scaled neck, “Your equipment, your abilities, to us these seem like the ways of gods. Yet you feel a responsibility towards us lesser beings.”
“We’re not gods,” Felrak said quickly, “we’re just like you. We’re just on another part of the road.”
Freyyn placed a claw on Felrak’s shoulder, “Then if I shall not live to see the stars, I shall at least play my part to see that my ancestors make it further down the road.” Sharp incisors gleamed through the lizard’s lips. Felrak smiled back.
The frantic ringing of a hand bell cut across them, followed by a long bellow, “Hoooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”
The Magistrate jumped up, bounding down the length of the airship’s observation platform towards the forecastle. Felrak followed at a cautiously slower pace. The forward section of the deck was raised, and as he climbed up the steps towards it he spotted Freyyn peering through an ornate spyglass to the ground below. The lookout who had raised the alarm stood next to him, relaying information to the cockpit through what looked like a sort of brass voicepipe, “We’ve sighted the enemy,” he said as Felrak approached.
“Strange…” The Magistrate mused, “It looks like an outrider. Far ahead of the main force. Must be a scout…” He stepped back, lowering the spyglass, “We must deploy ground troops before we’re within range, give the signal.”
The lookout took off back down to the main deck. In seconds, a piercing horn blared out through the air and across the entire formation. One by one, each of the nine airship horns sounded; a wailing war cry that drilled into Felrak’s bones. He felt a shudder, and his stomach lurched out from under him. They were descending fast.
“Take a look at this Wide-eyes,” Freyyn was calm, “the fellow down there, he’s another strange one. Never seen anything like it.”
Felrak’s heart fell out of his chest. He snatched the spyglass from Freyyn and, leaning out over the balustrade, he fixed the tiny dot in his sights. He brought the eyepiece up to his face, focusing first on the massed army on the horizon that kicked dust into the air. He tracked down what must have been fifty kilometres until the figure came into focus.
Mounted on a burden beast, coarse hair billowing behind him as he drove the animal forward, rode Commander Tursk.