"Orions?" scoffed Kaktu. "No! Has to be Romulans!"
"You're probably right, Kaktu, but we can't afford to make assumptions," said Winter evenly. "We need to be prepared for all possibilities. Continue, Jiang. What are our assets in this area?"
"The nearest Star Fleet ship is the frigate Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are six hours behind us at maximum warp. The heavy cruiser Potemkin and the scout Hermes have broken off their joint gravitational studies of the Relana Star Cluster, but won't be here for 29 hours. The Star Fleet corvette Christian Fleetwood and the police cutter Eve Dallas will rendezvous in three hours and move together to reinforce Outpost Six, ETA six hours. The heavy cruiser Enterprise was patrolling the southern section of the line and is heading to support Outpost Four. They should arrive there about the same time we reach Outpost Eight. The light cruiser Macedonia is backing up the Enterprise, although I don't have an ETA on when they will rendezvous. The cruisers Lexington, Intrepid, and three frigates are getting underway from Starbase Ten but won't be here for at least 60 hours."
"The Free Trader Nagano Maru just dropped off supplies at Outpost Five. They are vacating the area at best possible speed. There are a couple of small freighters in the vicinity, but they are beating tail. All colonies have been placed on alert status."
"So until the Roosevelt arrives, we are pretty much on our own," said Lieutenant Koshansky, the weapons officer.
"Yes," said Winter. "My command orders on this subject give me wide leeway in tactical matters, with one exception. Under no circumstances are we allowed to violate the Romulan Neutral Zone. We can do anything else necessary to defend Federation personnel, ships, colonies, and installations, and ourselves of course, but without direct orders from higher authority, the Neutral Zone cannot be violated, even if it means the loss of our ship ... or anything else."
"Getting within transporter range of the listening post will severely limit our tactical options," said Kleist. "We only have 160 degrees of maneuverability there.
"Yes, it could," said Winter, "if we are caught in the wrong position, but bigger issues are at stake. We can't afford to be baited across the border and ignite what might be an isolated incident into a larger war. Assuming, of course, that the Romulans are even responsible for this, which they may not be."
"Frankly, I'd prefer Orions," commented Koshansky. "We know almost nothing about the Romulans. Everything we do know is a hundred years old. We don't even know what their ships look like at this point."
"And if we find one, it will be your job to kill it, Koshansky. Weapons status?"
"Phasers will be energized and capacitors fully charged by the time we arrive, Sir," responded Koshansky. "We're prepared to divert warp power for the photons at your command."
"The armory is prepped. Weapons, personal armor, and protective gear at the ready," responded Kleist firmly. "We're all set for quick deployment: internal security or offensive boarding parties, whatever you need."
"Engineering status, Mr. Kaktu?" continued Winter.
"My technicians are completing the final repairs and systems checks now. The ship will be ready for anything you ask."
"I'd never doubt it, Kaktu. Sickbay?"
"We're ready for any casualties you send us," said Catek dourly. Winter didn't like the tone in the doctor's voice, but then he never did.
Winter nodded. "Jiang, Kleist, Catek, I want a landing party in the transporter room, ready to beam down as soon as we arrive. They'll need to assess the situation. I want three Marines, a medic, a science specialist, and you can put Lieutenant Makarov in charge." As a heavy cruiser, Alfred rated an actual Prime Team, but hadn't carried one in a decade, as all were busy somewhere. Makarov was a command-track lieutenant Winter recognized as a natural leader of great potential. He'd led landing parties into dangerous situations before with good results, and was a good choice to lead a mission like this.
"I also want a regular Marine boarding party, and a medical/scientific landing party, prepared as backups, to help deal with whatever the first team finds."
"Aye, Sir," the three officers responded in unison.
The intercom whistled. "Bridge to Captain." It was Makarov, who had the conn while the senior staff was off the bridge.
"Outpost Eight now 15 minutes away, Sir."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. We'll be on the bridge momentarily. Prepare yourself for a briefing from Commander Jiang." Winter glanced around the room. "Get back to your departments, everyone. Brief your people, and let's do our jobs."
Damage Control, Engineering Section, USS Alfred the Great
Dante Mirungi stood next to CPO Castro, Crewman Johnston, and Crewman Tonek, the sole Fralli on board. The quartet was assigned to Damage Control Team Three, awaiting their final pre-battle briefing. Mirungi and Tonek came from very different cultures and had little in common except loneliness, but they'd found enough to talk about over the last few months to become something approaching friends.
"There you are, Tonek." Mirungi heard the female voice and his heart skipped a beat. He turned to see the goddess in blue approaching. Why was she here?
"Hello, Nurse Beatrice Tyson," said Tonek. "This is engineering, not sickbay."
"I've got something for you," she said, looking the Fralli in the eye and avoiding Dante's gaze. She took out a hypospray. "Doctor Catek wants you to have this now, not wait until tomorrow."
"My weekly forshtha supplement, Nurse Beatrice Tyson?" said the Fralli, using his native term for the word sulfur.
"Yes." She injected his arm. "There you go." She paused, seeming to consider something. "I'm posted at the first aid station in the chapel. I don't want to see either of you there for any reason." She paused again, then smiled. "Either of you, not for a health reason, anyway." She finally looked at Dante, her brown eyes sparkling with life, as they always did.
"I will see you in a few moments, Midshipman Dante Mirungi." Tonek took a few steps away and found something to do. Some things were common across human and Fralli cultures.
They looked at each other in love and pain. "Bee," Dante began. "I don't. . ."
She shook her head ever so slightly. "There's nothing to say. If you could just stop being afraid and accept. . ."
"I try, I just don't know how. . .you said you would be back to Saturn next spring."
"That's the plan anyway. My enlistment is almost expired, but with Anthony back home, I just . . . you've already had enough trouble coping with that. Besides, by then you'll have graduated."
"I could request assignment in the Sol System."
"Oh, please. Even if you got it, you couldn't stay there for long, not without scotching your career. I won't let you do that, not for me. And with Anthony. . ."
"Bee. . ."
"This isn't the place. I have to go." She touched his shoulder, enough contact to send a shiver through him, as she always did. "Stay safe." She moved past him toward the exit.
Dante watched her leave, then turned away. Tonek returned to his side.
"Midshipman Dante Mirungi," his friend began. "On my planet we have a saying ŒShe is not the one for you. She has someone else.'"
"That's a saying? Not very pithy."
"Perhaps it loses something in translation. Perhaps this one is better: ŒStop torturing yourself.'"
Dante harrumphed. Tonek was always giving him pieces of clichéd advice in the form of so-called Fralli sayings.
"Attention!" The Orion-accented voice of Lieutenant Orek brought Mirungi back into focus. He shoved his emotions aside. "We will be arriving at the outpost in 15 minutes. Commander Kaktu wants everyone to. . ."
Biology Lab, USS Alfred the Great
Dr. Catek was sick to his stomach. The results from the sputum test were complete, but were not at all what he expected. The cause of the infection suffered by the colonists was not the suspected bacterium at all. Whether due to an accident, lack of proper equipment, or incompetence, the colony's doctor had been wrong, totally and completely wrong, about the cause of the illness.
He couldn't be sure without more tests, but it looked like the real culprit was a virus of some kind, and a virus would take more time to isolate. He didn't know if any of the Alfred's crew had contracted the bug while planetside, and even if they had, the transporter biofilters had most likely caught it. But perhaps not: the filter was extremely efficient, but unknown xenoviruses had been known to slip through on occasion. The infection isn't a serious one, he told himself, the colonists are fine, it is just a cough, but the timing couldn't have been worse, he had to get on top of the problem, and battle or not, he had to tell the captain.
Catek swallowed hard. His first impulse was to head to the bridge and explain himself in person, but time was short. He tapped the nearest intercom stud.
"Doctor Catek to Captain Winter." His voice sounded tinny in his own ears.
"Winter here. I'm rather busy, Doctor, what do you need?"
"Captain, I have to report a medical, um, situation. I've run some tests which indicate that the colonists on Delta Hydra are not infected with a bacterium after all, but most probably a virus of some kind."
There was a cold pause as Winter considered this data.
"Any risk to my ship?"
"I don't know, Sir. It is unlikely. The biofilter. . ."
"But it isn't impossible?"
Catek could only imagine the fury on Winter's face.
"No, Sir, it isn't. I need to run more tests. The sickness itself is very mild. The only symptom is a slight cough. There is nothing to worry about in the short run, but after. . . "
"Doctor!" Winter's rage seemed to be surging tangibly over the intercom. "Find out if this bug is on board, and I want a full report, after we deal with whatever the hell it is we are about to deal with at the outpost. Winter out!
Bridge, USS Alfred the Great
Winter allowed himself five seconds of blistering anger. He had always been impressed with Catek's medical skills, even if he didn't like the Rigellian on a personal level. Had the doctor made some sort of grievous error? He couldn't judge at this point. Winter remembered that none of the colonists had been seriously ill. It was likely nothing to worry about, but as the captain, it was his job to worry. He had also noticed a tickle in his throat since returning from the planet. Could he have picked the bug up? He pushed his anger aside and concentrated on the greater threat at hand.
"Outpost Eight now five minutes away, Sir."
"Steady as we go, Helm. Communications, any answer to our hails?"
"Keep trying." Winter coughed. "Anything on the sensors, Jiang?"
"Negative, Sir. I'm reading the outpost on long-range scan, but I'm not picking up any ships. I can't tell more until we warp down to tactical velocity."
Which we need to do now, Winter thought to himself. "Helm, reduce to warp three. Bring us in on standard approach vector to the outpost."
"Weapons status, Mr. Koshansky?"
"All phasers energized, Sir. Photons ready with standard charges." Winter considered ordering overloads, but without more tactical data he didn't know if he'd get close enough to any potential enemy to use them.
Quiet seconds passed; for a moment, no one spoke. The pinging of the ship's sensors and the sound of electronic equipment filled the bridge.
"Anything on the sensors?"
"Negative. Just the asteroid. I should be reading energy emissions from the outpost by now, but I'm hardly picking up anything."
"Slow to warp two. Is Makarov's team ready?"
"Approaching transporter range, Sir."
"Slow to warp one. Bring us to within 10,000 kilometers of the base." Winter coughed. Goshdarn doctors.