Upon opening her eyes, Captain Kelley found herself staring up at the bright ceiling lights, her vision a bit blurry around the edges as she felt herself coming out of a mild stupor.
"I warned you about watching your left flank," spoke the vague outline of a person standing over her and off to one side.
Despite the aching alongside her head, Kelley found herself smiling. "And you told me that you'd tone down your biomechatronic servos."
"I did. And that was my other arm."
Kelley chuckled and sat up on the padded mat, shaking her head of bushy, thick hair. She took in the surrounding gym, where she and Alala were the only two members of the Victory's crew now working out. Neither wore their standard uniforms but sported red monotone workout clothes. "That was your non-enhanced arm? Glad you're on our side."
As Alala's blue hand reached out to pull her up onto her feet, Kelley heard the mechanical gears whirring in her first officer's arm. Members of the Surian race had no qualms about such enhancements, making some flippantly call them cyborgs. But such a term would hardly faze Alala, being a hard-as-nails martial artist.
Captain Kelley held out her brown-skinned hand, clasping the blue arm and allowing herself to be hoisted up. As she came almost face-to-face with Alala—who stood a couple of inches taller—she smiled at the blonde-haired woman's steely gaze, finding herself unable to tell which of Alala's eyes was cybernetic.
"Though if I may be so bold, Captain," Alala said while turning away, grabbing a small hand towel, and tossing it to her, "it would seem your mind wasn't truly focused. My guess is you're still dwelling on the accident with Martinez?"
Catching the towel, Kelley's smile vanished. "You had to remind me?"
"Hardly. You need to forget."
"Easier said than done." As Kelley dried off her sweaty neck and face, her mind drifted back to the incident that had lost her a crewman. She found it hard not to blame herself. In the weeks since then, Dr. Niles Harmon had told her to stop persecuting herself as it had begun to affect her judgment and command reflexes, which she couldn't afford, especially as the ship drew near its latest destination.
Kelley walked to a wall intercom and pressed the button next to the speaker. "Ensign Braxton, what's our ETA to the Jarellian settlement?"
The young, brash, eager man's voice responded. "At current warp, less than an hour. Shall I increase speed, Captain?"
Kelley smirked at Alala, who merely rolled her eyes. The ensign navigator was always asking to increase speed, much to the chagrin of their Chief Engineer, Nora Yates. Even when Braxton strolled down the corridors, he couldn't help but speed walk.
"No," Kelley responded, "that won't be necessary. Captain out." She clicked the button again and turned back to Alala. "Thanks for the workout. One of these days, I'll actually take you out."
"Of course, Captain." Despite the first officer's usually stoic facade, Kelley caught a glimmer of a smile, which wasn't surprising, as they both knew it would never happen with Alala's training and enhancements. Still, Kelley enjoyed their camaraderie and blowing off steam from the day-to-day decisions required of her in running the flagship of the Unified Coalition of Planets.
"I better go clean up in my quarters," Kelley said. "Assume you've had enough?"
As they both entered the corridor, Kelley couldn't help ribbing her friend. "You know, I believe Kyle Braxton has had his eye on you."
Alala scoffed. "On average, the men on my planet are two feet taller than him. I would never even consider such a little boy."
Kelley held her laughter in check. "I've heard the Jarellians are taller than the average human. When we beam down with a contingent crew, you'll have to tell me how they compare as I've never met a Surian male in person."
Without any levity, Alala turned toward her. "This routine mission you volunteered for our ship and crew—picking up orphans from the settlement—it means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
Upon reaching Kelley's quarters, they stopped, and Kelley nodded. "Having been an orphan myself, there's definitely a personal aspect to it."
"It's also a very… safe… mission. Little risk of anything going wrong."
At that, Kelley glared at her best friend, who was acting more like her first officer during their downtime. "Whatever it is you have to say, Commander, just spit it out." Her breathing grew shallow and her eyes narrowed.
She half-expected Alala to give her a mini-lecture about duty and not shirking from dangerous missions. So, she was taken aback when Alala simply gripped her shoulder and said, "Martinez's death wasn't your fault. No one thinks that but you." With that, the tall Surian released her and headed down the corridor.
Turning to her quarters, the door swished open and Kelley entered, where she felt welcomed by the familiar setting of a few abstract paintings and statuettes. She knew her first officer and Dr. Harmon were right; she would tell any crewman the same thing. But still, the Victory and its crew were under her watch, and she had been directly involved with Martinez during that away mission. She found it hard not to wonder that if her decisions had been different, then maybe they wouldn't be awaiting a replacement from UCP Command.
A few minutes later, after a sonic shower, Captain Kelley had changed into her uniform. She studied herself in the tall mirror, noting her two-toned blue suit with yellow highlights, violet boots, and broad eye visor that enabled her to get private computer readouts when necessary. She smirked at her dangling earrings, which certainly weren't standard issue, but as Captain, she didn't enforce such unimaginative restrictions on herself or others.
Suddenly, the ship rocked violently, and the lights flickered. She stumbled, catching herself against the dresser fastened to the wall. Instinctively, all self-doubt from thinking about Martinez vanished as her hand flew up to the communicator near her shoulder. "Bridge, report!"
"Captain!" came the voice of Lexi, the Chief Security Officer. "A preliminary spatial disturbance slammed into us! It emanated from several parsecs away, with more to follow. It dropped us out of warp, which we can't get back online. I've raised shields."
Kelley nodded to herself, grateful she had such a stellar team to respond to the unknown. She ran out of her quarters and down the corridor as Alala exited her room, now also in her Surian uniform of black and blue.
"How many more waves can we expect?" Kelley continued saying into her communicator while grabbing Alala by the arm and pulling her along, though it wasn't necessary as both women were now sprinting. "And will the continuing waves diminish or intensify?"
"Outer scanners," began Lexi, "are a bit hard to decipher as there's something strange about the waves—they don't seem to simply be energy pulses. And it appears they'll grow stronger until we're finally hit with the main burst from which they emanated."
Both Kelley and Alala entered the turbolift, the doors swishing closed behind them. "We'll be there soon, Lexi," Kelley replied. "Sound red alert. And see if you can get Auxiliary Control to boost our shields. And turn us into the waves to decrease the impact."
"Aye, Captain. Lexi out."
Kelley tapped her foot several times, as if she could mentally push the turbolift to move faster. Just as the red alert sirens began blaring, the ship rocked again, even more violently, throwing both her and Alala into the wall. After they both stood, the doors flew open.
Kelley strode out onto the bridge and gripped the handrail that ran around the upper floor. "Report!"
"Shields holding at 68 percent!" Lexi said from her security station to the left.
Lexi was a Fenabri, so rather than hair, she had tentacles coming out from the back side of her head and down to the middle of her back. Her yellowish face had almost fish-like features. Though she was quite short at just under five feet, everyone knew you never messed with a Fenabri or they would… change… making her role as the Head of Security a perfect fit.
"We've dropped to sub-warp," Braxton replied, spinning around in his chair near the front of the bridge. His usually young, eager expression beneath his neatly parted red hair was now a mask of panic as he looked to his captain for instructions.
"Just hold us steady, Mr. Kyle," Kelley said, waving a hand at his console to indicate he should remain focused on it.
"Captain," Alala said, who had relieved an ensign and was back at her station to Kelley's far right. "Next wave's impact is imminent. Twenty seconds."
"On screen," Kelley commanded.
After Braxton tapped a few buttons, the oval blue screen at the front of the room flared to life. For a second, all that could be seen was the vast darkness of space and distant glittering stars. Then suddenly, a white pulsating energy could be seen growing in the distance.
"Reynolds," Kelley said, turning to her immediate right at the bald communications officer, who was of Asian ancestry. "Give me ship-wide communications."
The expert linguistics officer's hands flew across the console. "Channel open."
Kelley gripped the railing in front of her and tensed. "This is the Captain speaking." She could almost hear her own voice echoing throughout the ship. "Brace for impact in…" She paused, looking to Alala, who held up four fingers. "… four seconds."
Planting her feet, Kelley watched as everyone gripped their console. The white energy wave grew impossibly fast and struck them hard; she only barely held onto the railing as the ship reared back, creaking and groaning under the strain.
"Shields holding, but now down to 22 percent!" Lexi shouted as the lights flickered. "Auxiliary Control is trying to give us more for the next wave!"
Kelley strode around the railing and sat in her command chair at the center of room. "Reynolds," she barked, spinning in her chair. "Any ship or personnel damage from the first wave that hit us when shields were down? Or subsequent damage since then?"
"Only shuttlebay reports minor damage to aft bulkhead, but no causalities or injuries."
Sighing a breath of relief, Kelley spun back to face the front. "How many more of these do we have to withstand?"
"Only the last one that created these shockwaves," Alala said in her infuriatingly calm voice. "But it's…" The Surian paused at her station and slowly turned around. "Let's just hope Auxiliary can give us a lot more."
"Lexi?" Kelley asked, turning.
With a somber expression, Lexi merely shook her head. "Sorry, Captain." Kelley had never seen a Fenabri look so defeated; in fact, she wasn't even sure their species had a word for it. "But they've only been able to bump us up to 31 percent."
Kelley slammed a fist onto her console chair as she stared in shock at the massive, white, rippling wave in the distance that was quickly growing larger. "Yates! Unless you can divert all power—including Life Support—into our shields, then we'll have no need for Life Support!"
"Working!" came the exasperated cry from Engineering. After a few seconds, which seemed much longer, Yates finally replied. "That's all I've got for you, Captain. If it's not enough…"
The sentence hung there, remaining unfinished. Kelley turned to Lexi, who merely shook her head. Kelley glanced again at Alala, busy at her controls. As if the Surian could sense Kelley's gaze, Alala turned back around, her face impassive and lacking all hope.
"Braxton," Kelley muttered, panic rising in her voice as she stood and stared over the navigator's shoulder to study his panel for herself. "Is warp drive still offline? No chance of outrunning the wave?"
"Sorry, Captain," Braxton's meager voice stammered. "Warp is completely inoperative from the first wave that hit us when our shields were down."
Without a word, Kelley slowly stepped back and sat in her command chair. "Reynolds," she muttered in almost a whisper, "Ship-wide communications again. Please."
With a wavery voice, Reynolds muttered, "Ready."
"Crew of the Victory…" Kelley began, her voice calm. In those few seconds, a myriad of phrases came to her, but all seemed far too inadequate for their final moments together with all options spent. Instead, she gripped the sides of her command chair, knuckles turning white. As she glared in defiance at the swelling energy wave, she hissed out, "Brace. For. Impact."
As the pulsating wave grew closer, without thinking, Kelley clenched her eyes tight, wondering if she would feel anything or if it would suddenly be over. Before she could wonder any longer, a violent whooshing sound cascaded across the exterior of the ship and then…
After a few seconds, Kelley tentatively opened her eyes and blinked several times. The viewscreen showed nothing but the familiar canvas of blackness, intermixed with stars. She glanced about, as did everyone else who stared back at her with equal confusion. Only then did she realize she'd been holding her breath. She released it and turned toward the science station.
"Uh… yes… working," stuttered the confused Surian, which was not an expression she wore very often.
Kelley glanced at Lexi, whose normally yellowish skin had turned rather pale, but after a few seconds resumed its normal complexion. Braxton turned around, and Kelley not only felt his gaze, but also that of Reynolds from his communications station. They all seemed to be looking to her for answers, but she had none.
Half-shaking at what had just felt like a near-death experience, Kelley focused on the immediate tasks that needed to be done. "Reynolds," she half-whispered, "Is the ship-wide channel still open?"
Reynolds gave a confused nod.
Clearing her throat, Captain Kelley called out, "Again, this is the Captain speaking. Obviously, no impact struck us and we're assessing what happened… or what didn't happen. Captain out." She slid a thumb across her throat toward Reynolds, who nodded and cut the channel.
Kelley pressed a button on her chair console. "Yates, let me know when you've got an estimate on when the warp is back online."
"Um… yes… yes, Captain," came the confused response.
Pressing a different button, Kelley said, "Maintenance crew, head down to the shuttlebay and determine the extent of the aft damage." She switched off the channel and turned back to Reynolds. "No more reports of further damage? And still no casualties?"
"None," Reynolds replied. He pressed his earpiece in tighter. "Only a few reported injuries from several personnel being slammed into—"
As if on cue, the hailing button on Kelley's chair chimed, which she recognized from sickbay. She pressed the receiving button. "Doctor Harmon?"
The older man's voice sounded partially cracked over the intercom as he stammered, "Please, tell me, Captain, if you are quite through rocking this ship!? I've a few patients down here with head and neck trauma, and I'd like to assure them that—"
"As far as I know," Kelley interjected. Usually, she'd be more welcoming of the doctor's half-playful teasing, but not now. "Believe me, we're just as confused as you are, as we had no control over the situation. I'll debrief you later when we know more. Kelley out."
She stood and strode over to the first officer, who was bent over her console.
"Amazing," Alala muttered, almost more to herself.
"Care to elaborate?"
"Sorry, Captain. It's just that…" Alala looked up, her face scrunched in confusion. "It's just that the wave wasn't so much an actual energy blast, but some kind of… I'm not sure even what to call it… like a displacement of time that rippled out."
Kelley frowned. "What does that even mean?"
"I wish I knew. I'll continue to analyze."
"And that's why it didn't destroy us?" Kelley crossed her arms. "Then why did we feel the first two waves?"
"I don't know. All I can see is—"
"Captain!" came Reynold's voice from behind her, full of panic.
Yes?" Kelley asked, whirling around. "Starbase Eleven isn't there."
Kelley merely shrugged, knowing the facility would have handled the first two shock waves far better than her starship. "Then try to raise them on another channel. Most likely they took the brunt of those first waves and their communications may be—"
"No, it's not that I can't hail them." Reynolds looked up, his almond-shaped eyes wide. "I'm saying the Starbase itself… it's not there. Not where it should be."
With a scowl, Kelley hunched over Reynold's console, double-checking that all the channels and scanners seemed to be working properly. "Lexi?" Kelley finally asked. "Can you confirm or deny what we think we're seeing here? Very possibly this panel needs a level one diagnostic after all the excitement. We don't seem to be getting an accurate—"
This time, the tentative voice came from Braxton at the navigation panel.
"Ensign?" Kelley asked, worry creeping into her voice. Nothing was making sense, and she hoped it wasn't about to get worse.
"I was just punching in our flight path to eventually resume our trajectory to Jarellian Four once our warp engines are back online. I did so before—hours ago when I initially laid in a course. At that time, one of our ships, the Sargasso, was in a nearby system we had to pass through, but they aren't there anymore."
Kelley sighed with relief as her crew seemed to be getting rather jumpy. "Ensign," she began in a tone she might use with a young child, "they were most likely able to warp to safety before the waves could—"
"But I checked for residual warp signatures. There are none."
With a sharp intake of breath, Kelley asked, "Did you scan for debris?"
"Yes… and there's none of that either."
"Captain," Lexi began, making Kelley focus on her as the Fenabri tapped repeatedly at her console. "I confirm both Reynold's and Braxton's findings—there is no Starbase Eleven, nor can I find any reason for the Sargasso's disappearance."
"Um… Captain?" Braxton began. "I took the liberty to do a distant scan on Jarellian Four and it's… empty."
Kelley scowled. "Empty? What do you mean? The colonists there have been thriving for over a hundred years, with more than 200,000 people—"
"But I'm getting no humanoid readings. In fact, the planet doesn't even appear to have had any terraforming done on it." He turned from his console to stare at her. "No structures present. Doesn't even appear habitable."
Kelley raised both hands to her temples and began to massage them. Nothing made sense. "Braxton… Reynolds… Lexi… our computers must be malfunctioning. There's simply no other possible reason that an entire Starbase, Starship, and planet can be—"
"There is one."
Kelley turned toward the ominous tone that Alala had used.
Without Kelley having to prompt for more, the Surian continued. "After running more analyses, I found the wave wasn't actually the result of a spatial eruption, but rather, the cause itself, as it ripped through all of space-time and altered it."
Kelley wasn't even sure what questions to ask as the information seemed so surreal. Finally, she simply said, "So… what exactly are you saying, First Officer?"
With a reluctant sigh, Alala glanced once more at her console, then looked back up. She seemed to address the entire bridge rather than only Kelley as she muttered, "Either we've been displaced in space-time, or all of space-time has been displaced around us." When everyone simply continued to stare at her, she added, "Basically, the universe as we once knew, no longer exists."
"That's simply not possible!" Dr. Harmon declared as he stood from his chair in the briefing room.
All around the table, Captain Kelley had assembled her senior staff. For the third time now, Alala had conveyed the same basic message, but in different words. Yet what it always came down to was that somehow, reality had been completely altered.
"Let's assume for the moment, Doctor, that what Alala has said is true." Kelley reached over to grip the older man's hand. Her touch seemed to reach him as the stocky man finally nodded his jet-black, slicked-back head of hair. Kelley cherished the older man's age and wisdom, but astrophysics was clearly outside his talents… as was the case of almost everyone assembled, including herself. "In which case, let's weigh all our options."
She looked to Nora Yates across the table, who was a tall, slender, middle-aged woman with sandy-colored hair. "Warp drive is back online?"
"For the most part," Yates replied. "Though I've got my crew running a few more diagnostics on it before I give the full thumbs up."
Kelley leaned forward in her chair. "Then unless anyone can give me a good reason for us not to continue to Jarellian Four and try to verify what our instruments seem to be saying—"
"Or what our First Officer claims they say!" Dr. Harmon barked, half-glaring at Alala.
There was no love lost between her doctor and First Officer, who came from very different viewpoints on a myriad of subjects, which left them somewhat loathing each other. Though to be fair, it mainly came from the doctor, as Alala typically remained unfazed.
"—at which point," Kelley continued, ignoring the outburst, "we can visually try to determine if any of this… time business… is actually true."
From across the table, Braxton seemed in a daze. Kelley couldn't afford for any of her senior crew to not be in top form by not hearing her orders. "Braxton?" Everyone turned to look at the young man, but when he still didn't respond, Kelley called out, "Kyle!"
Braxton awoke from what appeared to be a stupor and stared back across the table.
"Ensign, I need you to stay with us. We can't—"
"What does it matter?" he vaguely muttered.
Everyone but Kelley leaned back in their seats at the unprofessional and disrespectful response, which was unlike him.
"Excuse me?" Kelley didn't want to be overly hard on him—they had all gone through a lot—but she needed unity within her senior staff if they were to successfully navigate the current chaos. "Kyle, we need to—"
"Need to what!?" Braxton exclaimed, jumping up and glaring around the table. "Don't you all realize what this means!? Nothing matters anymore! There is no UCF! No family waiting for us back home! My parents and kid brother don't even exist anymore. Nothing..." Unable to continue, his head drooped, and he slumped back into his chair.
After a long silence, during which Braxton stared off into the distance, Kelley finally spoke, her voice tender, but full of authority. "If all that has indeed happened, then it means something caused it. And in my book, that means it can be undone."
Braxton's head snapped around. Obviously, he'd never considered that angle before.
Kelley slowly looked around at each of her senior staff. "The rest of the crew is in the dark and I'd like to keep them that way… for now. Until we know for sure. Obviously, we've all family back home, but dwelling on what we have all potential lost will only keep us from determining how we can regain them and set things right."
With a subdued shudder, Braxton nodded. "Of course, Captain. I'm… sorry."
From next to the young man, Lexi reached out and patted the man on the back. It was a strange sight, given that when the Fenabri woman had first come aboard, she had been aloof and very warrior-like, despite her small frame. But over time, she had become less rigid. Kelley strove to create a tight-knit community on her ship, so the scene encouraged her.
"Under the rather… unique… circumstances, it's all right… this time." Kelley glanced at Dr. Harmon. "Though I daresay the good doctor and his staff will have their work cut out for them on psychological profiles if we can't undo what's happened." She turned to Alala. "I'd like a rundown on the first waves. Why did they affect us, but the final wave didn't?"
Alala rested her elbows on the table and steepled her fingers. "Our newer model of shielding—which in some ways, is still experimental—are based on temporal-phasic energy. That protected us from the final wave once our shields had been maximized from Auxillary Control and Engineering."
"But our shields weren't at full strength," Kelley countered.
"Not like that," Reynolds interjected, jumping into the discussion as he had been working closely with Alala since the incident.
Even though Reynolds preferred linguistics, everyone knew the shorter man could have had any science assignment he had wanted throughout the UCF. While a sort of prodigy, he was also shy, and at times had to be coaxed out of his shell. However, a puzzle like this had proven far too alluring for the usually reserved communications officer.
Reynolds continued. "Though the shields themselves weren't at full strength, their temporal-phasic signature, by then, had been maximized. Which means if our shields had been modified from the start, then the first two waves would have also passed right over us." He frowned before continuing. "It's like we were nestled inside a safe cocoon, which protected us from the very alteration of time and space."
Kelley looked across the table at Yates. "You concur?"
The Chief Engineer nodded. "I've been busy getting the warp engines back online, but from what little I discerned right before this meeting, I agree. But I'll keep looking into it." She crossed her arms, appearing rather protective. "I'll oversee shield modifications myself to make sure we can maintain the new temporal signature in case we ever need it again… I don't want my antimatter coils overheating."
Kelley suppressed a smile—no one knew the ship better than Yates, so she trusted the taller woman's judgment.
Suddenly, Kelley's communicator chimed, and she tapped it. "Yes?"
"We're being hailed," said one of the junior officers now operating the bridge.
Kelley frowned. "By whom?"
"No one we've ever met before."
Kelley stood. "Back to your stations."
Everyone quickly exited, and in less than a minute, Kelley, Alala, Reynolds, and Lexi were back on the bridge.
"Status?" Kelley asked.
The junior officer now stepping away from communications replied, "Ship of unknown origin, though scanners can't quite get a visual on it due to their strange energy signatures. He's been hailing us, asking who we are and… how we did it."
Kelley frowned. "How we did what?"
"He won't say."
"Captain," Alala said from her station, "those strange energy signatures from their ship… they somewhat match those of the temporal waves that struck us."
With a heavy intake of breath, Kelley glanced at Reynolds. "Open a channel. On screen."
"Channel open, Captain," Reynolds replied.
The viewscreen changed from an image of space to a rather dark room on some strange alien bridge, where the Captain's chair remained shadowed in darkness. An almost mechanical-sounding voice asked, "What is your designation? And how did you do it?"
"I'm Captain Kelley, in command of the starship Victory, representing the Unified Coalition of Planets." Kelley walked around the upper railing and sat in her command chair. "And you are?"
"How did you do it?" the man asked again.
Kelley frowned and leaned back into her chair. "I generally like to know who I'm talking with before I jump into verbal sparring matches. Call it an odd human quirk… or simply, common courtesy."
"Do not play coy or act naive with me." Within his surrounding darkness, he appeared to cross his arms. "How did you do it?"
Kelley squinted at the dark recesses of the alien command chair, which only vaguely revealed a humanoid outline upon it. She then crossed her legs and stared back, waiting for an answer to her question. She would not play his game, especially when she didn't know the rules. After nearly a minute of silence, she asked, "I repeat. Who are you? What do you represent? And from what region of space have you come?"
Without a word, the man stood and stepped closer, the light of his bridge starting to illuminate his features. Some of Kelley's crew gasped as the figure grew clearer. He was dressed in a full exo-suit of body armor, colored a deep, dark, blood-red. Even his face sat encased within the metal shell, which made it eerie as he now spoke, given there was no mouth to watch his words form.
"I am Colonel Zoltan, a Timeline Responsive Operative, a commanding officer of the Tulmesian military, and the unquestioned leader of this ship." His partially mechanical-like voice rang out with authority. "You are an anomaly in this sector, and it must be determined how you did it." After a brief pause, he cocked his head ever so slightly and added, "Before you are utterly destroyed."
Though it had seemed like the tension on the bridge couldn't have intensified, Captain Kelley now felt it bristling in the air. Regardless, she knew her duties and now slipped into them. "Maybe the universal translator isn't quite working," she said while slowly standing. "Or maybe there's no equivalent phrase in your culture for 'common courtesy,' but under that meaning, we also don't react well to being threatened."
"This is no mere threat," Zoltan mechanical voice droned. "Simply a fact. Tell me how you did it now, or we will board your ship and determine it for ourselves. Either way, the result ends with your annihilation. But I assure you, complying will result in swift deaths, rather than great pain and agony for you and each of your crewmates."
"Very well," Kelley said in a deflated voice as her shoulders slumped. "Give us a couple of minutes to consolidate the data." Rather than wait for Zoltan to approve or disapprove her request, she turned to Reynolds. "Pause transmission."
The moment Reynolds cut off the viewscreen, Kelley erected herself to her full height. "Not sure my acting convinced him that we're intimidated, but it'll buy us a little time. Sound yellow alert."
As the lights and sounds alerted the ship to its new status, Kelley turned to Alala. "This Zoltan slipped up, saying he'd board us if we didn't comply. In my mind, that means he won't outright destroy us… yet… without getting the information he desperately wants. Analysis, First Officer?"
Alala took a deep breath, crossing her arms. "He mentioned he was part of some ' Timeline Responsive Operative.' Given that, and our displacement in space-time, it would appear he's understood what occurred to us—and is even possibly the source of it—and he's now wondering how we didn't fall prey to the effect as did everything else."
"My sentiments exactly," Kelley muttered. "And according to what you, Reynolds, and Yates have determined, our status stemmed more from a fluke of our temporal-phasic shielding, but we can replicate it as we did before?"
Alala cocked her head and frowned. "Yes, but I fail to see how doing so now will help, given there's no similar wave approaching us at this—"
"You said earlier," Kelley interjected, knowing time remained scarce, "that the energy signatures coming from their ship matched the temporal wave. My suspicion is all their systems come from that same energy, in which case, I'm assuming our shields can protect us from their weapons if we make the same modifications."
With an appreciative nod, Alala replied, "That would stand to reason."
"Can you get the modification done now?"
"If I can employ both Reynolds and Yates assistance in—"
"You've got it." As they returned to their consoles and hailed Yates in Engineering, Kelley walked over to Lexi on the other side of the bridge. "Lexi, as our Chief Security Officer, if our shields fail, what's our status if they attempt to board us?"
"Already one step ahead of you, Captain." Lexi continually punched buttons and monitored her displays. "All security crews have been armed and all levels report ready." She looked up with a slight smirk, yet a hint of nervousness. "I don't know how well trained or armed these Tulmesians are, but if they step onto our ship, they'll find—if I may borrow an Earth phrase—that we won't go down without a fight."
She patted the Fenabri on the shoulder. "Well done."
Kelley strode to the front, stopping next to the red-haired Braxton. Of all her senior staff, he was the most inexperienced, but her faith in him held fast. "If I know my Navigator well," she muttered, "then I assume you've got the countdown running from the moment I told the Tulmesian that we'd report back to him in two minutes?"
With a tentative smile, Kyle Braxton pointed to a display on his left. "79 seconds remaining." His expression then turned sheepish. "Captain… as for my outburst in the briefing room… when I questioned orders and said nothing matters anymore… I just want to say—"
"Understood." Kelley gripped his shoulder. "Out here in the vastness of space, when we start to feel overwhelmed, we've all had similar such moments. At such times, our hearts override our minds; we just need to keep them in balance." Though she said the words, part of her couldn't blame Braxton as she had never encountered any anomaly as grandiose as having the entire universe and space-time change, but she wasn't about to remind the younger officer.
Smiling, Braxton nodded. "Thank you, Captain." He looked back to his chronometer. "And by the way… down to 64 seconds now."
Kelley peered up at the empty viewscreen. "I may make Zoltan sweat a bit… or at least gauge how punctual he is. In the meantime, try to compensate for their energy signature and get a fix on their location so we can see their ship. I always like to know what I'm up against; unknown phantoms can create their own type of unique terror, which I'd like to avoid."
"On it, Captain."
"And after that, determine any residual warp signatures from our new acquaintances. Maybe it'll prove useful if we need to retrace their steps and learn where they came from."
Kelley returned to her chair and sat while watching the time tick down on Braxton's station. Moments like this—when she'd given orders and had to let her crew do what they did best—could sometimes be nerve-wracking now as she waited. Regardless, she had no doubt in their abilities. The turbolift doors opened and in walked two red-shirted security officers, each with a hand phaser strapped to one side and carrying a phaser rifle.
"Captain," Braxton called from the front, interrupting her thoughts. "I believe I've got their position pinpointed and we can lock on for a visual."
Kelley assumed everyone now paused in their various assignment to see what it might reveal. When the viewscreen flickered on, she heard a suppressed gasp from someone and had to keep her own shock in check. While she certainly hadn't been expecting anything resembling a freighter or cargo ship, there was no mistaking that this craft was built for battle.
Its sleek, contoured design made it like an ebony beetle, but with two torpedo tubes boldly out in front, as if to declare to any outsiders that aggression was more valued than diplomacy. To the sides and aft stood four energy cannons. The enemy ship stood in stark contrast to her own, ivory vessel, with its phasers and torpedo bays more subdued in order to try and show that exploration and discovery remained their priority.
Not only that, but the ship practically filled the viewscreen. "Well, then," Kelley muttered only to herself as she studied the intimating sight. "Maybe there is something to say for unknown phantoms." She leaned back in her chair and raised her voice. "Braxton, please set to normal magnification."
The young man slowly turned in his chair. "That is normal magnification, Captain."
The sudden silence on the bridge was only interrupted by the gentle hum of the consoles.
"I see," Kelley forced herself to say in a calm voice. "Then it's about three times our size?"
Braxton turned back around and checked his instruments. "Actually, three point two seven times our size, to be exact."
Hiding her own nervousness to maintain the faith and confidence of her crew, Kelley casually added, "Lessen to half magnification so we can better see what we're dealing with." After the screen changed, Kelley swiveled in her chair. "Lexi, try to assess their armaments. Not only the weapon types but see if they likewise depend upon the temporal wave signatures, as Alala suspects."
"Doing so will require a more invasive scan," Lex replied. "Which they may consider hostile."
"Assuming they've scanned us and—given Zoltan's tone—do not view us as a threat, I doubt they'll care. In fact, my experience has been that such militant types—who like to rattle their sabers—may take offense if we don't examine their weaponry."
"Rattle their sabers?" Lexi asked, cocking her head in confusion.
Familiar with the Fenabri equivalent, Kelley replied, "Flaring their tentacles."
As if in response, the tentacles running from the back of Lexi's head extended out to the sides a bit behind her, creating an intimidating sight, not unlike a cobra extending its hood. After a second or two, her tentacles drooped back to their usual state. "Understood," Lexi said, turning to her console.
Kelley turned toward Alala's station. "Report on the shielding, First Officer?"
Alala nodded without looking up from her console as she furiously worked. "Yates reports we have the capability and access to engage the new shield modifications, but I'm afraid we've no way to run an initial test run as it would require us to raise our shields, but that would… as you Terrans say… obviously tip our heel."
Kelley resided the urge to smirk and correct the phrasing to "tip our hand," but the fact that the Surian had attempted a human axiom in a moment of intensity amused her. She glanced at Reynolds with a knowing smirk, which he knowingly reciprocated. "Can you confirm that?" Kelley asked the communications officer. "Would the only way to test it require us to, indeed, tip our heel?"
"Confirmed." Reynolds focused on a different section of his station. "And Captain, we're now eight seconds away from when you told Zoltan we'd be ready."
Kelley nodded, grateful that all her crew was in top form, as their lives depended on it. "As I told Braxton, we may be a tad late to our host's party… it'll give us a better chance to see how he treats his guests." She glanced at the two security guards and then to Lexi. "All security crews standing by on all decks?"
"Affirmative," Lexi replied. "And from what I can gather from a deeper scan, it appears their weapons run on the same temporal energy signatures."
"Which I assume, First Officer," Kelley said, looking to Alala, "is hopeful in assuming our shields will hold against them?"
With a shake of her head, Alala muttered, "Sorry, Captain, but without any testing, I can neither confirm nor deny your hypothesis."
Kelley glanced back at Reynolds, who double-checked his console before offering a sympathetic shrug.
"Well then," Captain Kelley muttered, leaning forward and staring at the enemy ship. "Let's hope we don't need them. Alala, stand by to engage shields on my mark. But first, we'll see if we can't learn more of Mr. Zoltan's motives… though something tells me he'll be less than forthcoming. Reynolds, how long now?"
"We're now six seconds past."
Kelley nodded. "We'll wait another thirty and then hail them. However, if I recall from my academy days, the overtly military types like Zoltan most likely won't give us the luxury of waiting that long, and will probably hail us before—"
As if on cue, a hailing tone chirped from Reynolds' station. The shorter man called out, "The Tulmesian ship is hailing us, Captain."
"Good to know he's not too different from expectations," replied Kelley. "Let's hope it continues and he's not some crazy manic who isn't afraid to talk, but I won't hold my breath." She resumed her previous posture from before by again slumping her shoulders a bit. "On screen."
The sleek black ship disappeared, replaced by Colonel Zoltan. He remained in the same standing position in front of his command chair and bellowed, "Your time is up, starship Victory… which I must say, is a tragically pathetic moniker for a ship of your meager status."
"You may be right," Captain Kelley said, maintaining her fake posture of being impressed and overwhelmed by him. "But before we hand over the data you requested, we'd like know a little bit more about you and your people. What exactly—"
"You're stalling," Zoltan muttered while shaking his head and sighing. "I admit, I'm disappointed, as I won't be goaded into idle pleasantries. While some predators may play with their food before killing it, I take no such delight."
Kelley raised an eyebrow, opting for a different angle. "Oh… so you had nothing to do with the temporal space-time wave that altered the entirety of the universe? We had assumed that since you came and asked about—"
"Nor will flattery dissuade me," Zoltan deadpanned. Almost more to himself, Zoltan muttered, "If you had had direct contact with Chimurro rather than me, he no doubt would have regaled you with his scientific theories and exploits, but you're dealing with me." He glared at her, his volume increasing. "Send the data. Now!"
Without Zoltan possibly realizing it, Kelley was at least glad to get the name "Chimurro," which may be significant later. Was it his commander? Leader of his people? Someone else on his ship? Or possibly tucked safely away on the Tulmesian home planet?
"But you say after we send you the data that you'll destroy us?" Kelley shook her head like a parent rebuking a child's inadequate reasoning. "You don't exactly make it sound appealing that we comply. Why should we—"
Enough of this!" Zoltan barked while waving a hand of dismissal. "You were warned we'd take over your ship by force if you didn't comply! Now let the torture and agony of your crew rest upon your head as you listen to their cries for mercy! This transmission—"
"All right!" Kelley exclaimed, reaching out an arm, again acting as if she were terrified by his threats. Though in reality, she felt disgusted and infuriated by his arrogance in treating them like contemptible creatures not worth his time. "We'll do it your way."
Yet rather than turn toward Alala's station, Kelley swiveled her chair toward Lexi. After serving together for years, Kelley was glad the weapons officer picked up on her signals as the Fenabri calmly raised a finger and gently rested it on the button that would fire the first salvo of torpedoes.
"At your orders, Captain," Lexi calmly said as both women locked eyes, understanding passing between them.
Captain Kelley nodded and turned back to Zoltan as she sat up to her full height, all pretense disappearing. "Send our host exactly what he deserves."
After hearing the click of the button from Lexi’s station, Kelley ordered, "Cut communications! Red alert!"
The bridge lights dimmed as the red alert lights flashed and sirens blared. The viewscreen returned to the image of the sleek black warship. Kelley felt her ship give a slight shudder, telling her the torpedo bays had opened. A split second later, the unmistakable sound of them being fired rang out. Two red projectiles lashed out from the bottom of the screen.
"Shields up!" Kelley barked. A faint shimmer of energy flashed across the viewscreen before dissipating, letting her know her order had been followed. "Evasive maneuvers, Helm."
"Aye, Captain," Braxton replied. As he operated his console, their ship listed and veered off, but not before the two torpedoes could be seen striking the shields of the enemy ship.
"Alala," Kelley said, turning to her right. "Effects of the torpedoes?"
"Direct hit. Their shields are holding, and down by two percent."
Kelley's eyebrows shot up. "Only two percent?"
"I'm running an analysis regarding the ineffectiveness of our weaponry."
"Make it fast, First Officer."
Reynolds swiveled around from his station. "Captain, Colonel Zoltan hailed us on audio only, saying he warned us, and that he takes no delight in what he must now do before he ended the transmission."
Kelley scoffed. "Somehow, I doubt that." She turned to Lexi. "Try phasers. Focus fire to try and punch through their—" The ship rocked violently, nearing throwing Kelley to the floor. "Report!"
Braxton glanced at his console. "Direct hits on shields three and four from torpedo fire. Shields holding, but down to sixty-three percent."
"Hardly a fair fight," Kelley muttered. She watched Lexi press the phaser buttons and then ordered, "Give me a visual on their ship." The screen changed, just in time to see a streak of yellow light fly away from them and impact the enemy's shield.
Lexi shook her head. "Also relatively ineffective. Their shields only dropped by one percent."
"Captain," Alala began, "I've ascertained that with our shields modified by the temporal energy—though it prevents us from being affected by any future time waves—it also makes us more susceptible to temporal energy. The enemy ship is using both its weapons and shields, the latter of which makes our conventional weapons nearly useless."
"Can we switch back to our usual shielding?"
Alala shook her head. "Not without powering down shields and running a full recalibration sequence."
The ship rocked again, spinning Kelley's chair and sending her flying into the handrail along the bridge's upper level. She grabbed the rail just in time to prevent her head from slamming into it.
"Shields seven and eight are hit!" Braxton yelled over the red alert sirens and the chaos now enveloping them. "They're down to forty-one percent! And warp engines are completely offline!"
Kelley turned to Lexi. "Can we modify our weapons to also use temporal energy? So we can at least give them a bloody nose? Otherwise, this battle is going to be over before it begins."
Lexi's hands flew across her console. "Theoretically, but it'll take several minutes before—"
"You have two." Kelley pointed at Alala and signaled for her to join Lexi at her station and assist, which she quickly did. "Braxton, buy them time. How close is the nearest celestial object?"
"There's an asteroid, four kilometers wide, positioned at seven mark three nine. At maximum sub-light speed, we could reach it in fifty seconds, but…" His voice trailed off.
"But what?" Kelley demanded.
"Engineering reports the safety features on our impulse engines have kicked in, preventing their usage. And even if they could work, the enemy ship can easily follow us and—"
"Plot a course for the asteroid," Kelley interrupted, "but maintain evasive maneuvers with thrusters until I give the order to engage impulse." Kelley slammed her fist upon her keypad. "Yates, we're going to need maximum sub-light in about ten seconds, whether impulse engines are ready or not. What's their status?"
The Chief Engineer's voice came back, filled with grave concern. "An enemy torpedo partially buckled the aft section of our starboard impulse engines. Engaging it could make us flare up like a nova."
"But you're not sure?"
"Not without running diagnostics."
"No time," Kelley hissed as another torpedo slammed into her ship, making everyone falter before settling back into their posts. "We'll blow up soon anyway if we can't put some distance between us and that madman."
"Aft shields down to seventeen percent!" Reynolds shouted. "They likely won't hold if we take another hit!"
"Yates!" Kelley shouted. "You need to—"
"On it! Disengaging safety protocols… now!"
Kelley stood. "Braxton, engage impulse engines! Maximum speed!"
The viewscreen showed the enemy ship charging weapons and sending yet another torpedo toward them. Just as the burst of plasma drew close, the field of stars began to fly past. When no impact rocked her ship, Kelley breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they had barely dodged the torpedo.
"Time until reaching the asteroid?" Kelley asked.
"Forty-five seconds," Braxton said, his breathing heavy. "But the enemy ship has already begun to turn and will soon—"
"One step at a time, Mr. Kyle. When we arrive, revert to thrusters and get on the far side of that asteroid. Then play 'pop goes the weasel' around it by keeping the enemy on the opposite side." Kelley strode to Lexi's station, where both the Security Chief and Alala worked. "Status?"
Alala looked up, a sliver of doubt in her gaze. "Tapped reserves prevent us from modifying both torpedoes and phasers; we can only bypass one of them at this time."
"Which will be faster to change, and which will be more effective?"
"Each takes about a minute, but impossible to say which will be stronger against their shields."
Alala's brow scrunched. "Guessing is not in my nature… but if I had to, I'd opt for the phasers."
"Do it." Kelley returned to her command chair and sat. "ETA, Mr. Kyle?"
"Four seconds. Dropping out of impulse in three… two… one… now."
The stars that had been zooming past now moved slower as they approached the underside of a large rock floating in space with multiple craters dotting its surface.
"Distance of enemy ship?"
"About thirty seconds away."
Kelley inhaled deeply and gripped the sides of her chair. She glanced at the two officers working frantically at the weapons console. Asking them for a time estimate would only distract them; she had to simply trust that they'd come through as quickly as possible.
She pressed a button on her chair. "Yates, what's the status on the warp drive?"
"I'm afraid the matter-antimatter coils have overheated from the attack and strain on our systems from using temporal energy. It'll take at least an hour for it to cool before I'd dare risk them. Otherwise, they'll rupture and… well… I don't need to tell you what that would mean."
Kelley sighed, realizing the resultant explosion would easily take out the entire asteroid Braxton had just piloted under and was now locking into place on the far side. "Acknowledged. Captain out."
"We're in position," Braxton said with a heavy sigh, his tension palpable. "Enemy vessel closing in twenty-one seconds. They'll be coming on the left, so I'll mirror them and keep us on the far side."
"Excellent work, Ensign." Kelley stood and walked to the weapons console as both Alala and Lexi work. They muttered to each other about various tech—such as interphasic relay spanners—along with other terms Kelley didn't fully understand.
Once they had reached a bit of a lull in their conversation operating the console, Alala glanced up. "Captain, I believe it'll work, but I can't verify that—"
Kelley raised a hand. "I get it… you can't know until you run diagnostics… but it'll have to do. For now, let's call it our last resort, as we may only get one chance at this." She glanced at Braxton, who remained focused navigating around the asteroid as the enemy tried to reach them.
After Alala went to her station, Kelley returned to her chair. "First Officer, give us a visual on our game of tag with Colonel Zoltan and his crew."
A few seconds later, the image of space became replaced by a schematic of the asteroid and the two ships circling it. The Victory was easily the smallest, at about one-tenth the size of the rock. And even though the enemy was three times larger than the Victory, the asteroid looked quite imposing, dwarfing it by a fair amount.
A chime sounded. "Captain, they're hailing us," Reynolds said.
"Let them sweat a bit," Kelley muttered, watching the two ships journey around the rock. She had to give credit to Braxton as he mirrored them perfectly—whenever they went up, he went down, and if they veered left, he matched them. In fact, he did it so perfectly, that it almost looked like a video game. At this rate, Kelley wondered if they could simply avoid the enemy long enough for warp engines to come back online.
"Alala," Kelley finally said, still ignoring the additional hailing sounds from communications. "Contact Yates and see if you can assist her in cooling down the matter-antimatter coils any faster. But first, can scanners pick up the actual designation of Zoltan's ship?
"Working," Alala said while surveying her smaller viewscreen. "It's called the Vengeance."
Kelley's eyebrows shot up. "Wonder if it's somehow appropriate to whatever they're doing with space-time." Once again, the hailing chime sounded. Kelley waved a hand at the viewscreen. "Go ahead, Reynolds. Let's see what this big bad wolf wants."
"Big bad wolf?" Lexi muttered from her station, which under normal circumstances would have made Kelley chuckle.
Colonel Zoltan appeared on the viewscreen, only now he stood closer, so his face and upper torso filled it—no doubt in an attempt to intimidate them. "Captain Kelley… while I'm not surprised you ran, I'm sorely disappointed at your idiotic game of chase, which will only delay—"
"And I don't like pompous, militant tyrants," Kelley barked as she stood. "You entered our space. Altered all of space-time, and yet have the audacity to talk as if we owe you something!" Kelley slowly approached, knowing her posture would also fill up his viewscreen. If there's one thing she had learned from being raised on an alien planet, it was that usually, the best way to deal with bullies was to stand up to them. "We were on a mission of peace to help out unfortunate inhabitants on Jarellian Four, before you—"
"Enough!" Zoltan fumed. "You're nothing more than an insignificant blight upon the canvas of the stars we've painted, and you'll not hold us up any longer!"
Kelley blinked in surprise. Not because he had interrupted her or was yelling, but because she wondered what his words meant.
But before she could consider them, Zoltan turned to one side and barked, "Torpedoes, target the asteroid!" He then glared back at her. "You'll soon see what the full might of a Tulmesian battleship is truly capable of!"
He disappeared, the image once again replaced with the schematic of the asteroid and the two ships. Except now, there were a series of pulses snaking off from the Vengeance, which pummeled the asteroid, causing chunks of it to break off.
Kelley spun around toward Alala. "Do they really have the firepower to decimate it?" After surveying her instruments, Alala appeared grim. "It would appear so. Estimate they'll punch through in about three minutes."
Shaking her head at realizing her options were running low, Kelley returned to her command chair. She couldn't surrender—no telling what such a ruthless enemy might do to her crew, not to mention stealing their tech. But to do nothing would sign their death warrant.
"Alala, what did you determine with Yates? Can we risk warp drive?"
With a heavy sigh, Alala shook her head. "There's no way to change the physics regarding how the various energies have intermixed."
Kelley rubbed her temple, knowing every eye on the bridge was focused on her. She thought about all the lives of her crewmen, now hanging on her every decision. She turned to Braxton. "Kyle… mere seconds before they punch through that asteroid, pivot the ship and point us at them." She looked across the room. "Lexi, I think we'll only get one phaser shot with the new modification. So hold nothing in reserve—use full intensity. I can't imagine it'll be enough, but it's all we've got."
"Captain," Alala interjected from the other side of the bridge. "I can further modify the phaser to exactly match the harmonic frequency of their shields." From the communications stations, Reynolds gasped. Kelley frowned, seeing both Reynolds and Alala looking at each other with grim understanding.
"What is it?" Kelley asked. "Is that a good or bad thing?"
The Surian gave an uncharacteristic shrug. "As Mr. Reynolds has implied, it's risky."
"Then why do it?"
"Well, because it will either make our phaser entirely ineffective and bounce off their shields… or it may slice right through it, as if it's not even there." Alala almost appeared sheepish. "I normally wouldn't recommend such tactics, but like you said… we only have the one shot."
Kelley smiled. "That's one shot more than we had a few seconds ago. Make the change."
From the front, Braxton said, "The enemy will be through in less than one minute."
"Alala?" Kelley pressed.
The First Officer looked up from her console. "The change is already made. And Captain, I also recommend we drop our shields, so the phaser doesn't have to pass through our compensation fields. It's also risky, but we likely can't survive another hit with them up anyway."
"Do it," Kelley ordered. She heard the shields dissipate around her ship. "Viewscreen forward." After it changed to reveal empty space, Kelley continued, "Lexi, aim for their engines, if possible. They've too many weapons to disable. But if hitting the engines sets them adrift, we'll assess if we can target more of their systems or see if we can outrun them on impulse."
"Captain," Braxton said, his voice rising, "enemy ship now punching through. I'm turning us to face them."
The viewscreen panned to show what remained of the pulverized asteroid, just moments before the enemy battleship shot through the debris.
"Fire!" Kelley shouted.
The phaser lanced out like a beacon of hope, incredibly bright and intense. For a moment, Kelley couldn't make out what was happening, but then saw the beam had cut straight through their shielding and punched a hole not only into their hull, but the raw power and heavy focus had punched through and out the other side.
"Brilliant!" Kelley exclaimed as the enemy ship began to spin and drift to one side. "Today, you all earned your pay!"
"Captain!" Alala shouted in alarm, but it hardly seemed necessary as Kelley now heard the hum of a transporter beam. She spun about, seeing the confusion on Reynolds' face as his body became encased in a bluish, alien glow.
"Reynolds!" Kelley shouted. She bounded out of her command chair and ran toward him, hoping to pull him out as he seemed in shock. But the moment she grabbed him, the communications officer began to dematerialize. With sickening dread, Kelley felt the familiar pull tearing them both away from the bridge of her ship.
Upon rematerializing on the enemy ship, Kelley looked up from the back of Reynolds' head to her surroundings. She fully expected to see Colonel Zoltan glaring down at her—possibly from some elevated platform to give himself a false sense of authority. However, she felt stunned to see someone far more subdued peering at her from across the transporter room.
The individual was dressed in a brown robe with broad white highlights around the collar, seams, and hems. He was older and humanoid, except for some mild bumps around his temples, which had a purplish tinge. His hair must have once been black, but age had peppered it with gray and white.
Behind him, operating the transporter console, stood a younger man in attire more like Zoltan's, except his exo-suit was blue rather than red, and it didn't fully cover his head and face. He had a light blue swatch of hair atop his head with an exposed scalp all around the sides. Like the older man, he had had the same purplish bumps on his temples, revealing they were the same species.
Before anyone could speak, the ship swayed and listed, as if out of control—no doubt the result of their phaser blast, which had lanced not only through the enemy ship's shields, but straight through their hull.
Red alerts sounded throughout the room, and the younger man behind the console appeared half terrified, yet proud as he announced, "I got them, Captain, even though I almost lost their matrix during transit due to the fluctuation in the pattern buffers." As the room pitched some more, he added, "But I'm not sure why our ship is jostling in this—"
"Because our attack against you worked," Kelley deadpanned, erecting herself to her full height. She reached down and offered Reynolds a hand, due to the man having plopped down onto the transporter pad from having been beamed from a seated position.
"Thank you, Captain," Reynolds muttered, accepting her offer and standing alongside her.
"You did!?" the older man exclaimed, staring at Kelley and appearing rather impressed. "Good for you then! And here I thought we'd only get one person, but ended up with two! And you're saying your entire ship and crew are still alive?" He smiled and nodded while surveying her, as if admiring a fine piece of art. "And if I'm to believe your crewmate here, we acquired the actual Captain? What an amazing bonus!"
From her peripheral vision, Kelley caught Reynolds shifting his weight uncomfortably, as if he had ruined everything. But these two aliens would have easily matched her to her transmissions with Zoltan, so it didn't matter. She started to raise her hand to the communicator near her shoulder to signal her ship, when their host raised a finger of warning.
"There's no need to bother trying that," he muttered. "I assure you, our dampening field won't only prevent you from signaling your ship, but your people also won't be able to pinpoint your location and beam you back.
Kelley glared at him. "Then you obviously won't mind if I try?"
With an amused smirk, the man waved a hand of allowance toward her.
She tapped the insignia. "Kelley to Victory, respond." When no return came, she nodded. "Glad to have tested your claim."
At that, the old man chuckled. "I'd expect no less."
"Now then, who are you?" Kelley stepped off the transporter pad with a scowl and clenched fists. "And why have you abducted us?"
From behind the transporter console, the younger man stepped out with some type of phaser. He waved it at her to signal she should stop moving closer before glancing about the room, which continued to signal red alert. "She's lying about them attacking us. Their weapons were ineffective against our shields. We only had to salvage one of them in case their ship was accidentally destroyed, in order to better learn how they got around our—"
"Please, Baitar," the older man interjected. He also glanced about the room as it pitched to one side and they all stumbled a bit. "I'm a scientist, so I appreciate surveying all tangible data… and it would appear our ship has taken grave damage. No doubt, Colonel Zoltan will soon regale us with some speech about rallying and—"
A voice suddenly spoke over the intercoms, filling up the room. "This is Colonel Zoltan speaking. The enemy ship somehow got off a lucky shot and we're partially disabled. Repair crews are—"
"Baitar," the older man said, waving his hand dismissively. "Please cut off that droning. There's only such much of that man's voice I can take in a day, and I met my quota this morning during his ramblings about how we should proceed."
With a nod, Baitar turned back to the transporter console, flipped a switch, and the voice stopped.
"You've not answered my questions," Kelley said as the room seemed to grow a bit more stable; apparently, the ship's internal dampeners were getting back online. "I'd like to know why you've taken hostage two officers of the Unified Coalition of Planets."
"A fair and just question." The older man raised his hands and rubbed them together. "First, allow me to introduce myself. I'm Chimurro, the Tulmesian Chief Science Officer. And as you heard, this is Baitar. While he delves a bit into the sciences and assists me when possible, he's also a representative of the TRO… or as it would make better sense to you, the Timeline Responsive Operative program."
Kelley frowned and stepped closer. Baitar shook his head, his weapon still pointing at her. "That's all well and good," Kelley said, "but you've still not answered—"
"Why to study you, of course!" Chimurro muttered, as if it were obvious. "Not only your culture and anatomy, but to ascertain how you got around my Temporal Displacement Nullifier. In almost 200 years, no one's ever done it, so I'm curious how you managed it."
"How we… what? 200 years?" Kelley shook her head. "We don't know how—"
"Oh, but you do. Or at least, your friend here does. I can read the amazement all over his face, regarding the science I've just stated."
Kelley turned to Reynolds who glanced at her sheepishly. If they ever survived this, Kelley would have to tell the communications officer to never take up poker. "But why?" Kelley turned back around. "Why do you have this… this… temporal… spatial…"
"Temporal Displacement Nullifier," Chimurro said with careful enunciation and a beaming smile. "It's my crowning achievement! The culmination of my entire life's work! With it, we keep ourselves safe and protected from the effects of time while the rest of the universe is continually tweaked until we can find just the right setting."
"Continually?" Captain Kelley gasped. "What do you mean? You can't simply—"
"Oh, yes. We can. And we've done it multiple times." Chimurro turned and began to pace. "The truth is, everything you are is simply the convergence of whatever our previous attempt brought to fruition. And our last attempt should have reset you into something different… or possibly into non-existence. It's impossible to say regarding matters so far beyond the reaches of Tulmesian space, which is outside my concern."
Kelley stared at him, wondering if he was mad. Though what unnerved her even more, was that maybe he was sane and telling the truth. Deciding to merely accept what he said rather than debate its feasibility—much less its ethics—Kelley stammered, "But… why?"
At that, Chimurro stopped pacing, his jovial expression fading. He slowly turned toward her and hissed, "That is of no concern to you."
"Oh, but it is!" Kelley barked, walking toward him. Baitar raised his weapon but Chimurro waved at him to let her proceed. Kelley strode up to the older man and stopped right in front of him. "If you're talking about altering everything at the scale you've just implied, then it concerns everyone! Even so, I'm still not following how you can even—"
"In that case," Chimurro interrupted, walking around her and toward the transporter pad. "Why don't we ask your friend here? His mind seems to be working overtime as he ponders the scope of everything I've just laid out."
Kelley glanced back at Reynolds, who scowled at their host. Knowing Reynolds had a scientific mind, she felt protective. He had helped Alala hours ago, and who knew if these people would try to force him to share his knowledge; possibly through torture.
"Sorry to disappoint you," Kelley muttered, acting nonchalant, "but along with a Captain, you snagged my Communications Officer. Top notch in his field, but no science officer."
Chimurro frowned at her, then glanced back at Reynolds, as if unconvinced.
Kelley opted to change the topic quickly. "You've told us your names, so I suppose it's only fair to say I'm Captain Kelley, and this is my crewmate, Reynolds." She glanced at Baitar, his phaser still pointed at her from across the room. "But don't mistake congeniality with cooperation. Maybe your species is different, but we don't appreciate incarceration against our will."
"Incarceration?" Chimurro chuckled. "While I wouldn't use such a term myself, I suppose it's not entirely inaccurate either. However, I hope you'll at least allow me to accept you as my personal guests in an attempt to… how shall I say it… get to know one another and make amends for the rather unfortunate manner our peoples first met?"
Kelley forced herself to return his smile. Obviously, he wanted them to lower their guard and coax information from them—however, small or insignificant it might be. But she wouldn't play their game. Especially as their enemy no longer held all the cards, with their ship grievously wounded from their phaser attack.
That meant they had some time on their hands, as her own ship needed repairs done as well and couldn't go to warp anytime soon. And if she knew Alala, her First Officer would do everything in her power to get them back. Though Kelley would prefer rescue—more for Reynolds than herself—she also didn't want her entire crew to unnecessarily risk their lives.
Alala stared in shock at the communications station, where only seconds before, both Kelley and Reynolds had been. It seemed almost surreal for the Surian to have witnessed the entire bridge crew rejoice at stopping the enemy vessel's attack, only to lose—mere seconds later—two key personnel. Especially the Captain, whom she would call a friend. How was it possible that only hours ago, the two of them had been sparring and discussing the task of escorting orphans from a colonist planet?
"First Officer?" spoke Braxton from the front.
Shaking her head, Alala slipped into her expectant duties. She strode to the command chair and pushed a button, signaling the entire ship. "As of this moment," her voice echoed to the crew, "I, First Officer Alala, have taken command of the Victory, due to the sudden kidnapping via transporter of both Captain Kelley and Communications Officer Reynolds. Replacements for the aforementioned position and First Officer are to immediately report to the bridge."
She snapped off the channel and strode back to her station and worked her console until the new arrivals came. "Lexi," she said, checking her readouts, "sensors show the phaser went through one of the enemy's warp engines. Do you confirm?"
When no answer came, Alala spun around, seeing both Lexi and Braxton staring at her in shock. With a deep breath she added, "If we're ever to see our comrades again, we need to figure out what's happened. Understood?"
As if coming out of a daze, Lexi glanced at her console. "Uh, yes. I mean, confirmed."
"Well done in carrying out the Captain's last request." Alala looked at the viewscreen showing the enemy ship spinning away. "And judging by them turning on their axis, I'd say you also damaged their navigation system, which hopefully gives us an edge. Braxton, turn us about to mark four six nine, and increase our distance by—"
"But the captain!" Braxton exploded with a shocked expression. "And Reynolds! We can't just leave them behind to—"
"I'm well aware of that, Ensign." Part of her wanted to bark commands and not explain anything, but her time with Captain Kelley had shown her the value in building community and working with others, even below your command. It wasn't the way of the Surian, but she was the only one on board. "I've already scanned for humanoid life signs on the enemy ship, but can't break through their shielding. Therefore, we must—"
"Alala!" Lexi shouted. "I mean… Sir!"
Both Alala and Braxton turned to the viewscreen, where the Security Chief pointed. Though the enemy ship was still spinning a little, one of its forward cannons appeared to be charging.
"Braxton!" Alala bellowed.
"On it!" Deftly moving his fingers across his console, the viewscreen changed as they moved away, and the enemy fired at their previous position. With a sigh, Braxton turned to Alala, his expression apologetic. "Sorry… Sir. I'll try better to simply obey and—"
The bridge doors slid open and in stepped two new crewmen. One was a tall Lakari male with short dark hair who strode toward the First Officer. The other man was a human of medium build with long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.
"Officers Divron and Halloway, reporting for duty, as ordered, Captain," said the Lakari in his stoic cadence and rigid posture; both were typical of Lakari, who typically were lacking in showing emotion. Though that was something Alala could appreciate, she found them hard to read.
"Very good." Alala returned to the command chair. She paused before sitting in it, as it didn't feel right. She had imagined someday commanding a ship, but not under these circumstances.
"What happened?" asked Halloway after he sat where Reynolds had been only minutes before. "How did Captain Kelley and Reynolds get beamed away?"
Alala's eyes widened at suddenly realizing she had recommended they lower their shields to better enable their one phaser shot. But it had never occurred to her that it might result in having crewmates beamed away.
"Shields up, Divron," Alala said to the new First Officer.
Guilt began to creep into her, making her recall the conversation she'd had earlier with Captain Kelley when Alala had said, "Martinez's death wasn't your fault. No one thinks that but you." Yet now she realized how Kelley must have felt. Maybe them beamed away hadn't technically been her fault, but it was one thing to tell someone that, and another to deal with it yourself.
With new resolve, Alala pressed a button on the command chair, once again opening a channel to the entire ship. "I promise you all, crew of the Victory, that while Captain Kelley would not want me to foolishly jeopardize her ship and crew to save her and Reynolds"—she leaned forward in her chair, her gaze angrily locked onto the enemy ship—"rest assured that we will try everything in our power to bring them back."