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Call of the Elder Gods by Drew Z.

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"Captain, Commander Lukan reports that he will have the medical relief supplies distributed within three hours."

Rebecca Gangies, recently promoted to captain of the U.S.S. Armstrong, sat a little straighter in her chair. "Good. Mr. Jovi, please tell Commander Lukan that we are on his time table." On the viewscreen in front of her, the Cardassian planet of Kelvas slowly turned. Even from orbit, Rebecca could see deep black gouges cut into the planet's surface. "The Dominion did quite a job, didn't they?" she asked no one in particular.

"Sorry?" Kyle Jovi asked from his helm console.

Gangies waved towards the viewscreen. "At the end of the war...when the Cardassians turned on the Dominion...the Dominion took its vengeance. Every planet with any Jem'Hadar on it was laid to waste; eight hundred million dead on Cardassia Prime alone. The Cardassians are a crippled species."

"If that's true," Jovi said, "then why are we spending all this time shuttling medical aid and resources from Deep Space Nine all across Cardassian space?" He turned and looked at Gangies, waiting for her relentlessly optimistic retort.

He was not disappointed. "Because we have hope, Jovi. On Earth, after the Second World War the German nation was almost entirely destroyed. But the Allies, those who had fought them so viciously before, helped them to rebuild. Inside of fifty years Germany was once again a major world power--and a better nation for it," Gangies said. She waited for some sort of sarcastic reply, but Kyle just shook his head and turned away.

"I hope you're right, Captain." He sighed. "It'd be a shame if we were just wasting our time out here."

When he had first arrived, Storik had found it easy to ignore the pleading looks of the Cardassians. He simply passed out the rations and directed the placement of the industrial replicators that would hopefully allow the colony to become at least somewhat self-sufficient again. The more time he spent among them, though, the more time he had to see their faces. That they all had sunken eyes and gray skin was really no surprise; as a race, the Cardassians had gray, cold skin and bony protrusions on their faces that shadowed their eyes. But under those shadows were emotions that Storik was not able to understand or relate to.

The glaring sun caused Storik no problem, but Lukan required frequent breaks. He sat in the shade of a decimated home, gazing absentmindedly at the horizon. His blue skin had a sheen of wetness. "Bolians," he said at length, "were not intended for this sort of heat."

"I believe that the Cardassians here feel the discomfort as acutely as yourself," Storik replied indifferently, his gaze drawn to the replicators. Clusters of Cardassians had gathered, each one hungry. Soon they would begin to fight; it had stopped being a surprise when it happened. Captain Gangies had offered to post security squads around the replicators, but Lukan had turned her offer down; soon enough, the Armstrong would be moving on to another blasted world and they simply did not have enough officers to make sure that the replicators were used fairly. They had to leave it to the local authorities.

Storik saw the first rock fly and knew that on this world, like all of the worlds they had visited across the former Cardassian Union, there were no local authorities.

The fabric of Cardassian society had been held very firmly by the military. The military hadn't lead for the betterment of the people, but rather its own fulfillment. Because of that, when the Dominion had offered a chance to join its awesome empire, the Cardassian military had joined with little more than a thought. They had wished to be strong and there were none stronger than the Dominion. Flush with their power, the Cardassians and the Dominion had launched a war against the entire quadrant, the single longest and bloodiest war waged in its history. But the situation was not what the leaders of the military had dreamed; the Founders of the Dominion had thought no more of the Cardassians than of their expendable Jem'Hadar soldiers. In the eleventh hour, when the Federation and its allies pressed on Cardassia Prime itself, the military turned on the Dominion, screaming cries of defiance and freedom against their Dominion oppressors.

In response to the betrayal, the Founders ordered the Cardassian people be annihilated. In the brief time before that order was rescinded, billions of Cardassians all across their space were murdered by the Jem'Hadar. Now there were no authorities beyond Starfleet and they simply didn't have the strength to make it right.

Lukan looked at the horizon, at the one standing structure remaining. It was a Jem'Hadar outpost, its imposing silhouette casting harsh shadows across the landscape. No Cardassian would take shelter in its darkness.

"Come on," Lukan said. "We've done what we can here." He stood up and dusted off the black pants of his uniform. "Lukan to Armstrong. Two to beam up."

When Rebecca returned to her quarters after her shift, she found Jamie waiting for her. The younger woman pulled her into an embrace. "How was your shift?" Jamie asked, leading Rebecca by the arm to the table.

Rebecca sat and shrugged off her duty jacket. "More of the same routine," she said as Jamie disappeared into the small kitchen nook. "We're running ahead of schedule, but I can't imagine that the people of Omekla will complain."

"I don't think they will," Jamie agreed as she carried a tray back into the room and placed it before Rebecca. "Everybody likes being given food."

"You...cooked," Rebecca said slowly. "I didn't know you could cook."

Jamie shrugged self-consciously, but a sly smile snaked across her face. "I can cook for special having been with someone for three months."

Rebecca's dark face glowed. "Oh, Jamie."

Another planet, another disaster zone. As Jovi pulled the Armstrong into orbit he could see the blackened streaks of orbital weapons fire, this time accompanied by mile-long furrows dug by warships falling from space. "Looks like the Cardassians put up a fight here," he said. "A bunch of those downed ships are Jem'Hadar."

Gangies stood from her center chair and walked up for a closer view of the viewscreen. "Tell Lukan to begin beaming down his supplies and relief workers."

"Got it," Jovi said. He frowned at his board for a moment, then said, "Captain...there's another ship arriving in-system. It's a Federation starship, Steamrunner-class. The U.S.S. Himalaya. Captain ch'Shain commanding. They're hailing us."

Gangies returned to her chair and said, "Put them on." The screen blinked and on it appeared a white-haired Andorian. His blue skin clashed with the command red of his collar. "Captain Gangies," he whispered quietly, as Andorians were wont to do. "I am so glad that we have found you. We carry something for you."

"Oh? What's that?" Gangies asked.

"A new first officer for your ship," ch'Shain replied. "We shall transport her over to you as soon as we achieve orbit and then stay on-station to complete our other assignment, the analysis of the Dominion technology planetside."

"I look forward to your arrival," Gangies said. "Armstrong out."

On this world, the Cardassians had taken to finding refuge in the shadows of the very Jem'Hadar warships that had destroyed their homes. When Storik had asked why no one had taken shelter inside the ships, to reduce exposure to the elements, the only answer he'd received had been paranoid and fearful glances towards the behemoths.

"Try not to take it personally," a voice said behind him. "I don't think these people will ever trust anything of the Dominion's again. It's a bloody miracle that they trust us." Storik turned to find two officers, a Bajoran in a blue medical uniform and a human in security gold. They each carried a case of scanner equipment.

"I am Vulcan," Storik said. "I do not take offence."

The human and the Bajoran traded a look before the human said, "Of course not." He stuck out his hand. "My name's Z. J. Waterson. This is Narsec Les. We're from the Himalaya, to see if the Dominion left us any toys to play with."

The Vulcan nodded and introduced himself. "I am Storik. My duties here are fulfilled. Do you require assistance in your task?"

Waterson shrugged. "Couldn't hurt any." The trio began to make their way toward the looming warship, through the crowds of fearful Cardassians. "Ever been inside a Jem'Hadar warship before?"

"I have not," Storik responded as they reached the hull. Waterson pointed out a breach eight meters wide and they climbed inside. "My understanding is that they are...Spartan."

"That's one way of putting it," Narsec said. "The Jem'Hadar do not eat, or sleep, or make any effort at providing medical service to themselves. As such, their ships do not have sickbays, mess halls or quarters as we think of them." The deck they walked on was slanted about ten degrees and Storik had to make an effort to keep his balance. "They have barracks, training rooms, and combat stations." She pulled out a tricorder and scanned through the walls and bulkheads. "That one," she muttered and Waterson moved to force the door. "When the Dominion pulled out, they left a lot of people scared. Starfleet reassigned us to the Himalaya to try to gather as much information about their technology as possible now that they're gone."

The large doors slid aside under Waterson's ministrations and Storik's voice echoed loudly in the chamber as they walked inside. "Our hostilities with the Dominion have ended. Is it logical to continue preparing for a war that has been over for almost a year now?"

The other two officers walked across the room, scanning as they went. "There are a lot of people," Waterson said quietly, "who don't believe that the Dominion will honor the peace treaty and stay on its side of the wormhole at DS9. We try to be prepared."

"This is it," Narsec said, motioning towards the flat pad in the center of the room with a single control console and several weapons racks around it. "A Dominion transporter. Can be used through Romulan, Klingon and Starfleet shields. Looks intact, too." She turned to Waterson. "We should get a tech crew down here to disassemble this thing so we can bring it back to Starbase Three Seventy-Five."

"Yeah. I'll call up to the ship." Waterson turned to Storik. "Very nice meeting you, Mr. Storik. If you're ever around the Himalaya, feel free to drop by."

"Thank you," Storik said. "I shall."

Rebecca Gangies had been expecting many things of her first officer: someone who was calm, confident, and perhaps a little bit threatening to Rebecca in her new command that she had yet to fully grow into. She was ready for those. This woman was indeed all of those things, yet wholly unexpected as well.

"Commander Nani Ti'Fiano, reporting for duty," she said. "Sir."

"Indeed," Gangies said. Ti'Fiano stood at absolute attention, staring intently at the wall over Rebecca's head. Her cropped hair and eyebrows were frosted white, adding to her frozen appearance. "At ease, Commander. Take a seat." The other woman sat stiffly and Gangies struggled for something to say. "So, what was your previous posting?"

Ti'Fiano seemed to relax a little and looked directly at Gangies. Her icy blue eyes were piercing. "During the Dominion War, I served in Starfleet ground forces. We fought in Chin'toka and helped the Romulans liberate Betazed. Since the end of the war, I've been assisting in mopping up operations."

Gangies fumbled for a line of conversational gambits to inspire the commander to speak in something other than clipped military tones. Nothing came to mind. "Well, I'm glad to have you aboard. We've been with out a proper first officer since I was promoted." She stood up and offered her hand to Ti'Fiano. "I'd like to introduce you to the bridge crew. It shouldn't take long, as it's a small bridge."

They stepped onto the bridge and Gangies motioned towards the Ops console. "That will be your station." She turned, continuing, "This charming individual is Kyle Jovi, our helm and tactical officer."

"Hello there, Commander," Jovi said, rising from his seat. Ti'Fiano clasped his hand for an uncomfortable minute. "So... Did you see much action during the war? I was on the Venture. Let me tell you, a great ship if I ever saw one..."

"I served with the 483rd Starfleet ground forces and special operations team," she responded icily.

Jovi startled. "The 483rd...didn't they...?"

"Have the highest kill count against Jem'Hadar in single combat? Yes." Ti'Fiano smiled thinly. "I accounted for twenty-six Jem'Hadar on my own." She turned back to Gangies. "Captain. With your permission, I'd appreciate some downtime. It has been a long haul out from Starbase Three Seventy-Five."

"Of course," Gangies said. "Shift starts at 0800 hours tomorrow morning."

"Sir," Ti'Fiano said, and departed in the turbo lift.

"I don't mind saying," Jovi said when he was sure she was gone, "that woman scares the hell out of me."

Gangies pursed her lips and said nothing.

Jamie Cordiou liked to think that she was specially aware of her surroundings. Not psychically; she had been tested as a child and shown then to have negligible ability. It was more because she was in Engineering, her one sacred place on the ship. So, when she heard a voice directly behind her without any of the usual preceding footsteps, she very nearly gagged herself on the stylus in her mouth.

"You are Lieutenant Cordiou, yes?" The woman stood uncomfortably close, her body held in a loose stance that could have been friendly or could have been prepared for defense.

Stylus carefully in hand, Cordiou said, "Yeah...yes, that's me."

"I am Commander Ti'Fiano. I understand that this ship has no holodeck or athletic center?"

Jamie found her back against the wall and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear in an attempt to look casual. "Um, yeah. Armstrong is only eleven decks so we really don't have room--"

Ti'Fiano asked, "Would it be possible for me to use a cargo bay for the space? I will supply my own equipment."

Her hair was getting in the way again. "I think cargo bay one is empty until we resupply. I don't see why you couldn't use that."

A smile crossed the commander's face. "Thank you very much," she said, turned, and walked out.

Cordiou deflated against the wall.

For once, there was something to do.

While Armstrong loitered over the latest war-torn planet in a long succession, Bryma II, Patrick Hovin took the time to make detailed observations of the surrounding territory. Before the war, Starfleet had no opportunity to explore the area out of respect for Cardassian privacy, but now with the war come and gone, the Cardassian military in ruins and Federation ships roaming through their space, the Cardassians simply had no privacy left.

Hovin chuckled out loud at the thought of lost time. Had any one else been in the room with him, they would have been very surprised as Hovin did not usually make any sort of extraneous noise to be heard by others. He wouldn't have noticed or cared what they thought. He was looking at the scanner controls under his fingers, sensors that he could use to easily pick out a single life form on a planet far distant.

The console under his fingers chirped unexpectedly. Hovin looked at it in surprise and checked the read out. An energy pulse, weak and fragmented, emerging from the Hugora Nebula.

Hovin tapped his communicator and called for Captain Gangies.

"Don't be ridiculous. Nobody can kill twenty-six Jem'Hadar. Not even a Klingon." Jamie put her elbows on the table, looked down, and checked herself. "I mean, maybe with a phaser rifle. But hand to hand?" She looked to Lukan in askance. "You tell 'em."

The Bolian medical officer sighed. Across the table, Jovi's anxious attention contrasted against Storik's calm demeanor. "Look, I'm a doctor, not a tactical specialist. Her record confirms what she said. She was in the 483rd and during individual actions there are twenty-six instances where she and a Jem'Hadar walked into a fight and only she walked out." He glared at his fellow officers and his blue eyes flashed. "And her performance during the war doesn't matter; she's the first officer of this ship and our superior. She gets the same respect we give Captain Gangies."

Cordiou looked to say something, but thought better of it.

Jovi shuffled a mug between his hands. "It can't be done. We did holodeck simulations on the Venture, to prepare for the chance of being boarded by the Jem'Hadar. Even armed, I only killed one once every three simulations or so. And I always ended up dead." He looked uncertainly at his audience, as if worried that they might think less of him for it. "They can turn invisible!"

"And fortunately, they aren't our problem these days," Rebecca Gangies said behind him. Jovi jolted and turned to see her and Commander Ti'Fiano. Gangies smiled at the table and continued, "The unknown is and it is calling to us. Lieutenant Storik, pack your bags. You'll be joining me on an away mission."

The others at the table looked surprised, but Storik simply rose and asked, "Duration?"

"Plan for a week. Hovin found some sort of energy signature coming from a nebula and he wants to check it out. I don't see why not to oblige him. We'll be taking one of the shuttlecraft."

"You'll need a pilot--" Jovi said, standing to follow Storik.

Gangies stopped him. "That will be my job. It's been too long since I've been able to stretch my legs."

"You'll need an engineer, in case something breaks down…" Cordiou began.

"That's what Storik will be along for," Gangies said abruptly. Looks of surprise and then hurt appeared in quick succession on Jamie's face, but she controlled them. "We're leaving in two hours when Armstrong passes the Hugora Nebula on the way to Starbase One Twenty-Nine for resupply. We'll get picked up when the ship makes its return trip to Cardassian space. Commander, until then the ship is yours."

"Excuse me, I need to go run a systems check on the library computer system or...or something," Cordiou said and pushed off from the table.

Ti'Fiano turned Cordiou's chair around and straddled it. "So," she said, running a hand through her short, spiked hair, "what were you all talking about?"

Gangies didn't hear the uncomfortable responses, distracted by watching Cordiou stomp out of the room, and murmured, "Excuse me," before following her out. In the hall she caught the irate engineer by the arm. "Jamie, wait."

"Why aren't you taking me?" Cordiou demanded. "This could be a fun little trip. Hovin wouldn't say anything!"

Gangies decided that the cramped hall was too populated for this conversation and pulled the impatiently-watching Cordiou into a turbolift. "Everything can't be about you and me, Jamie," she said when the doors closed. "And I can't have you along on this mission. What if you got hurt? What if I did? Then one of us would be hurt and the other one would be too wrapped up in trying to help to do her job. Then it'd just be Hovin on his own and he can't fly or repair any damage."

Jamie's eyes were two slits as she nodded slowly. "I understand," she said. She fitted her body against Rebecca's and whispered, "I'm sorry," into her chest.

"It's all right," Rebecca said, stroking her hair. She looked up toward the ceiling and said, "Shuttlebay." The lift moved on.

Armstrong's shuttlebay was cramped. There was no other word for it. On the deck was one of the ship's two type-ten shuttlecraft and around it bustled technicians. Storik and Hovin had finished stowing the supplies when Gangies arrived. Cordiou joined the techs in readying the shuttle.

"Are we ready?" Gangies asked.

Hovin nodded and Storik said, "The shuttle is prepared. We have fuel to last the trip, the enhanced sensor modules, and emergency supplies. A type-ten shuttle is not ideal for the mission…"

"I know," Gangies said. "I'd rather take a runabout or the Armstrong herself, but we don't have any runabouts and the ship needs to stay on schedule to pick up the relief supplies." She looked at both of her officers. "This mission cannot go on for more than a week, understood? We're working on Armstrong's timetable."

Cordiou walked up. "Captain. Shuttle's ready and Commander Ti'Fiano passed on the bridge's authorization to launch."

Gangies smiled and motioned towards the back hatch. Hovin and Storik obediently boarded. Rebecca looked around quickly and kissed Jamie's cheek. "I'll be back in a week," she said and closed the hatch. She walked to the front of the shuttle and took the pilot's seat. "Bay doors are open," she muttered to herself. "Launch deck is clear of personnel. Firing thrusters...and we are away." There was an audible buzz as the shuttle passed through the bay's atmospheric forcefield, then nothing but the vibration of the engines.

Gangies pulled the shuttle around to see the Armstrong. The ship gracefully flew by and, with a flash from its nacelles, disappeared into warp. The view through the front window turned to a huge cloud of blue and purple gas as Gangies put them back on course.

"Unknown, here we come."

The only sound on the bridge was that of Jovi sweating.

He'd gotten used to turning around and seeing Gangies there, preoccupied with some report or another. She'd look up and smile when she saw his attention, perhaps offer some bit of conversation, which he would reciprocate.

Jovi turned slightly in his chair to peek at Ti'Fiano. She stared straight ahead into the viewscreen, her hands resting on the arms of her chair. Kyle looked back to his panel and checked it nervously. She looked exactly like he'd heard the Jem'Hadar did between missions: sitting, waiting in utter silence for their next objective. He shook his head and decided that he had to say something, do something to break the image.

"So I hear Starfleet ground forces is a lot different than life on a starship," he said casually. The ensign covering Ops jolted to attention at the sound of his voice.

"I think that officers on starships talk more," Ti'Fiano said.

"Oh," Jovi said.

Jovi sweated a lot that shift.

The front of the shuttle's cabin belonged to Gangies. She'd had the computer play some music when it became apparent that Hovin and Storik weren't going to be much company. The lyrics floated around her as she stared out idlely at the smear of nebula before her.

Storik padded over to her chair; she turned to him with an attentive smile.

"This is an Earth style of music?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.

Gangies nodded. "It was popular during the late twentieth century; it's called 'classic rock.'"

The Vulcan's face grew thoughtful and one ear perked up. "Ah," he said finally. "Beethoven."


Storik shrugged. "Captain, may I ask you a series of questions of a personal nature?"

Gangies blinked in surprise, but said, "Well...sure. Here, sit down."

Storik sat and seemed to gather his thoughts. "I wish to understand the nature of your relation with Lieutenant Cordiou."

"Friends," Gangies replied immediately.

Storik raised an eyebrow.

"Good friends," she ammended.

The eyebrow quivered.

"Well," Rebecca hedged, dipping her head, "she's a brilliant engineer, a fine officer, and from what I hear from the ship's theater troupe, an aspiring thespian."

"I am confused. I have noticed that, in each other's company, you and Lieutenant Cordiou engage in human courtship behavior. You endeavor to gain and keep the other's attention. Also, of late I believe I have noticed Lieutenant Cordiou wearing cosmetics that would be more suited to a darker skin type such as your own than to hers. You are engaging in sexual congress, are you not?"

"Ah...congress, that's...does everyone know about this?"

Heedless, Storik continued. "You are female. Lieutenant Cordiou is female. If your relation cannot result in reproduction, then your relation is not logical."

"Relationships aren't always about creating offspring, Storik." Gangies said gamely. "They're about finding comfort in another person, and if you're lucky, giving it."

Storik shook his head. "Highly illogical," he commented at last.

"Relationships aren't about logic."

Storik nodded. "I see."

Gangies nodded in return before focusing once more on piloting the shuttle. She did not think that he saw at all.

When Kyle Jovi opened the doors to cargo bay one, the first thing that he heard was a resounding crash. Crewmembers in the hall looked over in surprise and Kyle slunk inside. The door closed behind him and another crash battered him from inside the bay before its echo slammed him from behind. He navigated a brief maze of cargo containers, which opened up to the open floor of the bay.

Barrels and containers were strewn across the floor. From the ceiling, a single container hung from a chain. Each of the containers was deeply dented and scored. Between them, Nani Ti'Fiano moved like a thing out of hell. She was dressed not in a standard Starfleet uniform, but rather one of pure black, lacking the distinctive shoulder pads and department colors. Kyle realized that even when looking right at her, he couldn't track her movements with any certainty. She danced around the barrels, striking at marked portions of her targets.

"Far too easy," she said. At first Jovi thought she was speaking to herself, but her clear blue eyes pierced him. "However, it is the best training this ship seems capable of."

"The ship does have," Kyle said.

He only noticed the weapon she held when she placed it upon one of the fallen containers. It was an ax made from material as black as her uniform. "Why are you here, Lieutenant?" Ti'Fiano asked.

"You asked to be told when we reached Starbase One Twenty-Nine. We've been given clearance and will dock within a half-hour." Kyle found his eyes drawn to the ebony weapon. "Commander, is that a...a..."

Ti'Fiano glanced down at it. "It is a Jem'Hadar weapon. A kar'takin."

"Oh," Jovi said, still somewhat at a loss for words.

"I will shower and change, and be on the bridge in twenty minutes. Thank you for the notification." She walked past him and Jovi took a moment to realize that the cargo containers should have been able to withstand the damage that any human could mete out.

Storik had been relieved to rest and Hovin had come to take his place in the cockpit. He sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at the controls. Gangies took fleeting glances of him, trying to size him up for conversation. "So the crew knows?" she finally asked.

Hovin turned to her in surprise. "Yes."

"And there's no objection?" Gangies pressed.

"The crew trusts you not to show favoritism."

"Oh." Gangies digested that for a while. "Well, that's kind of a relief. I know that it's not entirely proper, a captain dating one of her crew, but--"

"Console," Hovin interrupted.


He pointed. "Your console. It is triggering an alarm."

She leaned closer, examining the nature of the emergency. "Oh, that isn't good... Storik! Wake up!" She began to try to alter the shuttle's course, but to no avail.

"Yes, Captain?" the Vulcan asked from behind her.

"I think we've found an interesting property of this nebula," she said. "Our impulse drives have been damaged; we're at sixty percent efficiency and dropping. I'm having trouble maneuvering. Can you clear the engines out?"

Storik studied a display of the damage and shook his head. "Not in space, Captain. Not in this environment."

Hovin opened a new screen. "We're not that far out from the original source of the transmissions. Sensors are reading a planetoid at those coordinates, M-class. We ought to be able to set down there and make repairs."

"Great," Gangies said. The ship began to shudder as the engines continued to break down. "I'm setting a course. Both of you strap in, this is going to be a very bumpy ride."

The shuttle hurtled through the nebula, leaving twisting streamers of gasses trailing behind. Ahead, a planet came into view. From space it seemed to be a rough ball of black rock floating in space, covered in vegetation as sinister as the planet itself. The planet grew bigger and bigger in the front window. "Oh, this is going to be fun," Gangies commented as the view ahead was seared orange with flames of reentry. "Everybody hang on."

"You know what the problem with our moneyless economy is?" Jamie Cordiou asked. "Shopping can be such a pain."

Kyle Jovi picked through a rack of designer tunics, cut in the newest fashion and made from Tholian silk. "The problem is that you don't shop in stores that buy into the Federation's utopian economy." He eyed the gaudy statue that Jamie held. "That and you refuse to decorate your room with anything that can be replicated."

Jamie paused her examination to sniff disdainfully. "Anything that can be stored in a pattern buffer and created at a whim doesn't have real value. Besides, it'd be easier if the Starfleet just paid us for our work."

"I think you're missing the point," Jovi said. None of the tunics appealed to him and he lead Jamie away from her statue and out of the store. "In the Federation, everyone has a home. Everyone has enough to eat and all the creature comforts they need. All this is provided by the government."

"Right. Because people like us work to provide them."

"All of this works because we are willing to work to maintain those rights for ourselves and for all of the things you can replicate," Jovi added with a smirk.

"I don't want replicated things. How am I supposed to get anything else if we don't get money?" Jamie pouted.

Kyle threw up his hands. "Offer your services as an engineer. Tell them you'll fix things. Just what do you want to buy, anyway?"

"Oh," Jamie said, "it's just a thing."

"Maybe a thing for Captain Gangies?" Kyle asked mildly.

Jamie shook her head. "No, it's a thing for someone else."

A trace of resentment in her voice took Kyle aback and he swerved away from the topic. "Want to get food? I see a replimat over there."

"Great. The same food we could have gotten on the Armstrong," Jamie spat.

Sighing, Kyle said, "Fine! Look, a Trill bistro. I'm sure they'll have real food." They took seats on the outside patio and gave their orders to the waiter. Kyle watched as Jamie carefully examined him until he was out of sight, then asked, "What's got you in such a mood, anyway?"

"Mm? Nothing." Jamie smiled as the waiter came into view again and leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially, "I've always wondered about Trills. I mean, those they really go all the way down?"

"I can honestly say that it never occurred to me," Kyle said guilelessly.

"Mmm…" Jamie pursed her lips distractedly. "Kyle, m'boy, we need to get out more."

Kyle, wisely, said nothing.

If you didn't look at the eight-mile furrow that they had left, the shuttle's landing might not have seemed that bad.

"Personally, I'm just happy I landed the damn thing right side up," Gangies said. "Besides, the shields took most of the impact. You know. With the ground."

Storik was examining the nacelle on the left side intently. "The damage could have been much worse. As it is, the damage done by the nebula is significant enough."

"It can be repaired though, correct?" Hovin asked.

"Yes," Storik said. "But I will need time."

Gangies stood apart from the others, looking out into the deadened forest around them. The trees grew directly out of the rock that made up the ground, without any intervening soil. There was something to it, something...

"Captain?" Storik asked.

Gangies shook her head. "Yeah. All right, here's what we're going to do. Storik, get to work on the shuttle. I want us ready for lift-off as fast as possible. Until then, Hovin and I are going to scout the surroundings." She stalked back to the shuttle and removed two survival packs. Hovin took his and shrugged it onto his back. "We won't be long, Storik. Keep in contact."

They walked into the dark. The darkness, aided by absolute silence, seemed to enfold them in a thick grasp. Hovin examined a tree, which stood no higher than two meters off the ground and, for all the life that it possessed, could have been made of the same rock as the ground and the outcroppings.

They walked on for a few miles in a circular trail around the shuttle. About half way around they came upon a rise in the terrain, which allowed them a view of the forest they had crashed into. The ground was covered in the stone-like trees, their color indistinguishable from the rock. Overhead, the clouds closed ranks oppressively against the sun.

"I wouldn't want to be stuck here," Gangies said. "It's so...desolate."

Hovin stared at the sky and whispered, "Let's not get stranded here."

"I think that's a very good idea," Gangies said. They began to descend the slope and for a moment Gangies thought she heard the scrabbling of feet against the hard rock above her. "Did you...?" she asked.

"Captain?" Hovin responded, glancing around.

Shaking her head, Gangies said, "Never mind. Must be nothing."

The sound did not repeat itself, but the chill remained in her spine.

With a quick sign-off, the Armstrong pulled away from Starbase One Twenty-Nine and disappeared at warp speed. On the bridge, the same silence that had reigned ever since Ti'Fiano had taken command hovered like an old friend. Once the ship was at warp, Jovi began to think of some sort of conversation starter that he might use on the commander. He wasn't used to this complete lack of interaction; there was a give and take that helped strengthen a crew.

He twisted his chair around. "So, I never heard, Commander. How'd you end up jumping from ground forces to starship command?" His heart stopped for a moment as Ti'Fiano's eyes fixed on him, but her voice seemed to give him back control of himself.

"The ground forces no longer need the numbers that we maintained during the war, so many units were disbanded. We were given the option of taking an early retirement or accepting positions somewhere else in Starfleet." Her voice was so even, so calm that he had to remind himself that he had seen her dent reinforced cargo containers.

It seemed to be going well, so he pressed on. Even Lieutenant Kalb at the Ops console seemed impressed. "Wouldn't it have been an easier switch to Security than to Command? I mean, they require more or less the same set of skills..."

Ti'Fiano was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then she sighed. "It was decided that, given my own history, it would probably be best for all involved if I did not take another position that consistently involved direct combat."

Something in her tone struck Jovi as odd. "You were assigned here on the Armstrong as a punishment?"

"Lieutenant," Ti'Fiano said coldly. "Starfleet does not punish its heroes. It promotes them."

Her tone ended the conversation.

Jovi sighed as he turned back to his console. It had, he supposed, been worth the effort. He spent the next few hours watching his console do absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Ti'Fiano didn't move.

Finally, Kalb spoke up. "Commander? We're five minutes out from the Rakal system." Ti'Fiano nodded her head.

Jovi slid the Armstrong out of warp and glided into orbit over Rakal. Unlike the other planets they had visited so far, this had been an established member of the Cardassian Union rather than just a colony. Its orbit was cluttered with shipyards and pleasure homes, as well as several other ships.

"We're being hailed by a Cardassian vessel," Kalb said, surprised.

Ti'Fiano stood. "Which one?" she asked.

"Um..." Kalb swallowed and the viewscreen shifted. "That one."

Jovi glanced at up and saw a nose-on view of a Cardassian Galor-class warship. The ships were inferior to their Starfleet counterparts, but still far larger and more powerful than the Armstrong. It was close enough, Kyle realized, to see individual weapons banks.

"Put them on screen," Ti'Fiano said, unperturbed.

The screen shimmered and then displayed a Cardassian woman. Her scowl deepened when she saw to whom she was speaking. "I am Gul Ocett, commanding the Cardassian military in this system. We stand ready to accept your donations."

Ti'Fiano's snowy eyebrows pulled together. "That's very gracious of you, Gul. However, I'm afraid that our orders are rather explicit. We will be transporting our supplies to the surface and aiding in their distribution as best we can. If you wish to 'accept' them, then I expect that you will get in line there."

The Cardassian's face darkened and she hissed, "Do you know to whom you speak? Who are you to treat me with such disrespect, human?"

"I am Nani Ti'Fiano, commanding the Federation starship Armstrong." Ti'Fiano stood, and her head cocked to one side and a faint smile grew on her face. "I would remind the Gul that the military exists to serve the populace and as such it could be looked upon poorly if you were to requisition food intended for them."

"You will transport the supplies to us or we will destroy you." Ocett smiled, not in a pleasant way.

Ti'Fiano thought for a moment. Then she shrugged, turned, and sat in her command chair. "That's an option. It seems that you certainly have the firepower available. But, before you do, I'd like you to consider these two things." She leaned forward. "First, there are dozens of Federation starships still patrolling Cardassian space. It wouldn't take one or several of them much time to figure out that we were missing and come here looking for us. From there it would be a matter of minutes before the events that transpired were worked out and you found yourself arrested." A wicked grin cut across her face. "Secondly, how long do you think that you will live after the general populace finds out that you have been keeping their food from them?"

Ocett started, then sneered at Ti'Fiano. The channel cut, showing only a picture of the Galor pulling out of orbit.

"That's what I thought," Ti'Fiano said. "She values her own life too much to actually make a gamble." She stood and it seemed to Jovi that her entire frame was shaking, very subtly. "Jovi, you have the bridge. Begin the beam-down of the supplies. Alert me if Gul Ocett"--she spat the name--"decides to return." Then she was gone.

The bridge was silent for a moment; then Kalb said, "I'm honestly scared of that woman."

Jovi just snorted and took the center chair.

Rebecca Gangies awoke several mornings later to rain outside the shuttle.

Flashes of memory drifted across her mind's eye: seeing her first Antican rainrise; watching fat drops splatting themselves against her dorm window at the Academy; pounding against the roof of her room at home--

Angrily, Rebecca swung her feet from the bunk and shook out her hair, grimacing with irritation at allowing her mind to drift back that far. Her irritation lasted only as long as it took her to lay eyes on Storik and Hovin. Both sat tensely in the shuttle cockpit, slowly casting their tricorders to the deadened forest beyond.

"What's wrong?" she asked, surprising them both.

Storik spoke up first. "Hovin thought he observed motion outside. We have subsequently been attempting to ascertain the validity of the observation."

"But?" Gangies asked.

"We've having some problem. Whatever they are, they're defying our tricorders' scans." Hovin altered his tricorder's scan parameters, his face twisted in a grimace. "We can tell there are things out there...sometimes...but we can't figure out just what they are."

Gangies peeked out the shuttle window, squinting through the rain. "Could it be interference from the storm?" she asked.

Storik shook his head. "Unlikely. I have compensated for the atmospheric disturbances. Whatever is blocking our scans is innate to the creatures themselves."

Lightening flashed and just for a moment Gangies thought she saw a humanoid figure. Watching her. When the lightening vanished, so did the figure. Hovin and Storik looked at each other over their tricorders. "The signals have disappeared."

Gangies sat down in the pilot's seat and gazed out the window. "Theories? What could they have been?"

"There is too little information at the present to develop a hypothesis," Storik said.

"Could they..." Hovin hesitated, then asked, "Could they be Jem'Hadar? They can disrupt sensors like that..."

"No," Gangies said.

Hovin expanded on his theory. "A division of them could have been trapped here, they might not know the war is over--"

Storik interrupted. "They are not Jem'Hadar. If they were, I doubt that they would have let us see them before we were dead."

The shuttle was quiet for a moment, except for the rain.

"Right," Gangies said quietly. "So they aren't Jem'Hadar." The rain continued to rumble against the shuttle's top. "Figure out what they are."

The cargo bay was filled with supplies, so Nani had destroyed the furniture in her quarters instead. Stuffing covered the floor of the small cabin and her overturned table held her kar'takin deeply in itself. Ti'Fiano stood in the middle of the room, not panting or sweating from the exertion but shaking from the rage leaving her body.

Her communicator, forgotten on the mostly-unmolested bed, chirped. Nani stared at it for a moment; its noise seemed strangely foreign. She stalked over to it and tapped it into the bed.

"Ti'Fiano here."

Kalb's voice rose from her sheets. "Commander? We're received a message from Lieutenant Cordiou on the surface. She said it's urgent that you come down immediately; they have some sort of situation."

"Fine. Inform the lieutenant that I'm on my way now." She stabbed at the comm badge to cut the connection and went in search of her uniform top. Once she had that and the badge affixed, she began to feel a bit more human.

The transporter officer pointed her to the away kits, containing a tricorder, phaser, and some water, as well as a location beacon additional to the one built into her communicator. She accepted them silently and stepped onto the pad. Eight seconds later, she was somewhere else entirely.

It was a city plaza of some sort. Tall buildings arched over her and all around a throng of Cardassians pressed against Ti'Fiano as soon as the transporter beam released her. The raw smell of their unwashed bodies staggered her.

"Commander! Commander!" Cordiou shouted, drawing Ti'Fiano's attention to a gaggle of Starfleet officers clustered around a particularly ugly statue of Gul Dukat. Ti'Fiano suppressed her revulsion and pushed her way through the crowd to join them.

"Report, Cordiou," she said curtly, nodding to each of the officers in greeting.

Jamie Cordiou had a haggard look to her and it seemed that, wherever it was, her hair irritated her. "We beamed down to begin distributing the supplies. We were setting up the industrial replicatiors in the old government building over there"--she motioned behind her--"and when we got back, there was a Cardassian on top of the supply containers, waving a disruptor at a hostage he'd dragged up with him. The crowd formed around him and we can't get close enough to talk to him."

Ti'Fiano looked across the plaza. The scene was indeed as Cordiou described it. The Cardassian was clearly scaring his audience with his antics, but he also captivated their attention. "What is he saying?" she asked.

Uneasy looks passed between Cordiou and the others. "We couldn't hear."

"Of course," Ti'Fiano murmured. She thought for a minute, then ordered, "Stay here." She turned away from them and muscled her way through the group towards the hostage-taker. She received several irritated and angry looks, but they subsided at the sight of her face. Within moments she reached the limit of the crowd's courage, where none would dare stand closer to the hostage-taker. It was a perfect view.

"…are a proud people, we Cardassians!" the man was yelling. "And strong! We have withstood war against the galaxy, occupation by the Dominion! But this is too much!" Ti'Fiano noted that he kept one hand firmly on his disrupter pistol, while the other forced his hostage, a younger Cardassian male, to kneel on top of the supply containers. "How are we to eat? To care for our wounded? These supplies I stand on now will be gone with in the next week, not through our own use, but made to maliciously disappear!"

Ti'Fiano took a calming breath and stepped forward. "My name is Nani Ti'Fiano. I command the ship that brought you these supplies. Perhaps if you and I were to discuss the nature of your grievances, we might be able to resolve them without violence."

The Cardassian looked down at her. "Thank you, Master, but I think that the Cardassian people have had enough of your help." The crowd began to rumble in dangerous agreement. "We will track down these thieves who would steal from our very mouths. And when we do, we will remind them why Cardassian justice is the most feared in the galax--"

"Cardassian 'justice' is mocked throughout the civilized galaxy because it is based on sham trials to appease the populace rather than any real attempt to find the true culprits. Much, I suspect, like this child here." Ti'Fiano's voice took on steel. "Release him. Now."

"No!" The Cardassian's eyes flared with fire. "He will serve as an example to his fellow conspirators, tha--"

Ti'Fiano shot him in the head, killing him instantly.

His body fell with a mild thump behind the barrels. The crowd that could still see him pulled back in horrified disgust. Ti'Fiano lowered her weapon arm and slid her phaser back into its holster. Demurely, she cleared her throat and spoke up. "I give you my word that we will discover who has been misappropriating your supplies. In the meantime, please try to restrain yourselves. That is all." The mob parted well before her as she walked back to Cordiou.

"Continue distributing the supplies," Ti'Fiano said. "Hail the ship if you need any sort of security."

Jamie sputtered. "You killed him!"

Confused that the fact was in dispute, Ti'Fiano glanced back. "Yes?" she asked.

"You--you can't just kill him for demonstrating! I mean, he had a legitimate point!" Cordiou cried.

"He did indeed have a legitimate point, which is why I will request that Starfleet dispatch a ship to investigate as soon as possible," Ti'Fiano replied evenly. "And as to killing him, of course I could. He was threatening his hostage and refused to listen to reason."

The engineer was stepping dangerously close, her face almost against her commander's. "Why didn't you just stun him?"

Ti'Fiano took another calming breath. "Because."

"Because isn't an answer!" Cordiou fairly screamed.

"The hell it isn't!" Ti'Fiano bellowed. Cordiou stumbled back as if shoved, her eyes wide. Ti'Fiano pierced her with a gaze of frozen rage for one long, long moment and then tapped her comm badge. "Armstrong. Get me out of here."

Silver mist took her and Cordiou spat on the ground where she had stood.

Vulcans are renowned for their excellent hearing. As such, when Storik realized that someone was standing directly behind him, he was disconcerted. Not much, as Vulcans are not prone to being disconcerted. He took a minute to study the man: humanoid, with tattered clothing and patchy hair. His eyes examined Storik carefully before he spoke.

"You're Starfleet," he said simply.

From those two words, Storik began to understand the man. He spoke English easily, which presupposed that he was human, not just humanoid. He recognized Storik as a Starfleet officer and was not threatened by him.

"Peace and long life. I am Storik." The human nodded briefly and Storik continued, "My fellow officers and I are on an away mission to investigate the nature of series of subspace pulses that our vessel detected."

"Ah," the human said. "You've detected the interplexing beacon. We weren't sure that it was detectible with Federation scanning equipment." There was the sound of faint clicking and Storik noticed the man's left hand was a metallic prosthetic.

Storik raised an eyebrow. "'We.' You imply that there are others on this planet?"

The human nodded serenely and gestured with his metallic hand. "Yes. Quite a few of us, actually. Would you care to see the village we keep?"

"I believe that would interest my captain. Please wait here a moment." Storik walked around to the rear entrance to the shuttle. Inside, Gangies and Hovin sat calibrating and recalibrating the scanners. "Captain," Storik said. "I have made contact with a native. He has invited us to join him and his fellows at his village."

"And you sound so casual about it, too." Gangies leaned over the console to get a look at the man outside. "He's human."

"I noticed that as well." Storik said.

"Hovin, stay with the shuttle. Storik and I will go meet the locals." Gangies stood and frowned. "Do you think that these people are responsible for the signal Hovin picked up?" She pulled on her survival pack and followed the Vulcan outside.

"He did claim ownership of an 'interplexing beacon.' I presumed that was the device that we detected." They came around the side of the shuttle and the man turned to face them.

"Welcome," he said. "I am Lieutenant Commander Joshua Davia of the starship Kyushu. It's been awhile since we've seen any new faces."

Gangies strode forward and took his hand. "Rebecca Gangies, Armstrong. Do your people need any sort of aid? Was your ship marooned here?"

Davia smiled. "So many questions, Captain. No, we do not need aid. Everyone here is here by their own volition. It's a very good life we have here. Come. It's not often that we have guests and my wife would be delighted for the chance to entertain."

They set off into the desolate forest. They walked in silence, as was seemingly demanded by the oppressive environment. After a long while, Gangies could see a clearing in the trees, filled with low, understated buildings. Methodically, people filed out into the open. Each of them seemed to have some sort of implant or prosthetic somewhere on their bodies. A woman rushed out and drew Davia into a fierce hug. "Joshua, when you said that you were going to check on the meteorite, you never said you would bring home guests!" She turned to Gangies and Storik, surprising them with the glistening implant embedded into the side of her face. "I'm Cassandra. You're just in time for the evening meal; please join us. I think we might be able to make some plomeek soup, if you'd like."

They were led into the largest building and offered seats around the table that dominated the main room. Food was brought out and methodically measured onto each plate. Gangies watched her hosts begin to eat and, when she didn't notice any particular customs, followed suit.

"The captain must be curious," Davia said from across the table. "I know I would be."

Gangies smiled. "It is something of a mystery; I don't recall hearing about any ships lost in this region of Cardassian space and you certainly don't seem to be in distress. Why are you here?"

Cassandra leaned in over her bowl. "Religious reasons, Captain. This planet has been our sanctuary for many years now. Our particular sect is one that enjoys contemplation in seclusion."

"I understand and I do apologize for our interruption. We picked up your beacon and...well, we wanted to know more about it."

"I am curious," Storik said. "What religious significance does the interplexing beacon hold for your sect?"

Joshua smiled. "It is perhaps the most significant part of our religion. It allows us to communicate with the Elder Gods."

Storik raised a suspicious eyebrow. "You speak with your gods?" he asked.

"Well. Joshua overstates the matter," Cassandra said. "The beacon lets the gods know that we are here and ready to join with them. We seek Unity with the Gods and in so doing become closer to perfection."

Joshua cleared his throat. "We hope, one day, that they'll answer."

Gangies nodded. "We all do."

The meal concluded peacefully and Gangies and Storik took their leave of Davia.

"Please, come back before you leave," he entreated. "We've been out of touch with the Federation for many years and we'd appreciate the chance to catch up."

"We'll come back tomorrow," Gangies promised. "Good night to you all."

The two officers walked in silence towards the shuttle.

"They seem like pleasant people," Gangies said after a bit. "It's a shame they feel they have to ostracize themselves from the rest of society for their religion. The Federation is a very tolerant place." She kicked a stone idlely along her way. "Imagine it, using technology to talk to god, like gods are just things one can chat with. Isn't modern religion a wonderful thing?"

"I must admit, I have some reservations," Storik said. "Classically, those who have sought to isolate themselves and their beliefs from mainstream society have been somewhat...zealous."

"Well, personally I'm satisfied." Gangies spun in step. "We found the source of the beacon and a whole new group of people. That covers exploring new worlds and seeking out new peoples. Well done for a day's work."

"Jamie? Are you all right?"

Jamie Cordiou looked through bleary eyes at the shape framed by her doorway, then wiped the tears away. Weakly, she stood up and made motions to invite her guest in. "Kuni, you came."

"You did ask me to..." he said, confused. "And you seemed pretty upset. Hell, you seem upset now." He guided her to her couch, the only piece of furniture in her living room aside from the table. "Let me get something. Do you drink tea?"

Jamie nodded and took strength from his concern. "With cream, please."

Kuni sat on the edge of the table across from Jamie and handed her the mug. "Want to tell me what's wrong?"

Jamie clasped her hands around the mug and her face went through a series of expressions. "It's just...Commander Ti'Fiano, she..."

"I heard," Kuni said softly. "The whole ship's heard."

Jamie stood up, almost forgetting the mug in her hand. "I don't understand how she could just kill him like that! There was no possible way to justify that!" She sat back down. "She scares me, Kuni. And it scares me that there are people like her in Starfleet at all."

"Hey," Kuni said. "I understand. It's a scary galaxy. I--" His voice faltered as Jamie folded herself into his lap.

"Hold me," she whispered.

"Incredible. You mean that the Federation has been at war for the last three years and we missed it entirely." Joshua shook his head. "If only we had Unity, this conflict never would have happened."

"We've only just finished the war and now Starfleet is in the process of bringing relief supplies to the Cardassian people," Rebecca explained. "It's been busy; the Dominion made sure to cause as much damage possible before they surrendered." She shifted to watch Storik examine the interplexing beacon. "But it's good work. Helping people--it's what Starfleet is supposed to do."

"Every individual should do their best to improve the quality of life for others." Joshua also watched Storik, but with an amused look in his eye. "Your engineer seems quiet taken with the beacon."

"It's an interesting piece of equipment." Gangies shrugged. "Plus, he seems to have patched up the worst of the damage to the shuttlecraft, so there's not much else for us to do out here until Armstrong returns."

"Well, if you'll excuse me," Joshua said. "I need to prepare for evening services." Rebecca watched him leave then wandered over to Storik.

"Unraveling the secrets of the universe, Storik?" she asked.

Storik's attention was immersed in his tricorder. "Based on the specifications of the beacon, I am attempting to ascertain the location of the Elder Gods."

"Heaven?" Gangies asked lightly.

"The Delta Quadrant," Storik answered.

Rebecca's smile faltered. "I...I'm sorry?"

"The interplexing beacon is directed towards the Delta Quadrant."

Gangies backed away from the beacon, eyeing it suspiciously. "Storik...I was under the impression that they were trying to talk to gods. Gods don't live in the Delta Quadrant, they live in heaven."

"That could be more of a cultural misconception on your part than theirs." Storik indicated the device. "The beacon is emitting signals to a location between fifty and sixty thousand light years distant in the Delta Quadrant. It would seem that the people here believe that they are in communication with someone."

"I don't like this," Gangies muttered.

Storik raised an eyebrow. "With respect, Captain, you had no difficulty enjoying the situation before."

"That was before I realized that they're serious," Gangies said. "On Earth during the twentieth century, most of the populace worshiped a deity of some sort or another, but few of them thought they were actually talking to them." She looked at Storik. "Don't the Vulcans have gods?"

Stoic as he was, Storik seemed affronted. "That would be redundant. Religion serves the purpose of explaining the world to those who do not understand it. For that, we have logic."

"Maybe it's time we asked Joshua about some of the core tenets of his religion." Gangies motioned to the Vulcan to follow her. "Come on."

Cassandra approached Gangies and Storik as they entered the main hall. "Captain, is there anything I can get for you?"

Gangies glanced at her and said, "Actually, we were hoping to learn more about your religion. Do you think...?"

Cassandra smiled broadly and touched the implant in the side of her face. "We're always willing to discuss our beliefs, Captain. It's just so rare that we find someone willing... I'll get Joshua. He'll be so pleased. You two just stay here. Make yourselves comfortable."

Gangies and Storik sat on one side of the table. A group had begun to form around them, drawn by Gangies' curiosity. They we making her nervous.

"Rebecca?" Joshua strode into the hall, exuding excitement tangibly. "Cassandra said you and your comrade wanted to hear...?"

Gangies remembered the chilling sensations she'd felt when they first arrived on the planet. Silently, she shoved them aside and forced a pleasant smile on her face. "Storik noticed that your beacon was directed to a specific location; I admit I hadn't believed that you were actually in communication with your deities."

"You mean you thought that the Elder Gods didn't exist," Joshua said. "It's all right, we're used to it." He sat down opposite of her. "That's what people say about all religions. Fortunately, our religion is different than almost any other in existence."

"Many claim so," Storik said.

Joshua smiled. "That's true. What makes ours different is that the Elder Gods exist. We have proof. Starfleet has proof."

That got Gangies' attention. "Starfleet has proof?"

"Oh, yes." Joshua's face took a contemplative look and he stood. "You'll have to forgive me, but I tend to ramble when I get on the subject of religion." Gangies folded her hands and waited patiently for him to continue. "We don't claim that the Elder Gods created the universe. That happened long before they existed, though they are very old. But sometime after the beginning they did exist. When they gained their consciousness, they took stock of the galaxy around them. It wasn't all it could be. So random, so scattered. So inefficient. On a single planet, one could find great poverty beside great wealth. Is that right?" He paused, but it was more for breath then to wait for a response. "So the Elder Gods chose to act. They decided they would bind the galaxy together, to truly Unify it. That way, there could be no want, no war."

"They sound like very noble beings," Gangies said evenly.

"They only sought to bring everything in the galaxy to perfection." Something about the way he said that made Rebecca squirm. "Unfortunately, as I said the galaxy is full of inefficiency. There were many who fought the Elder Gods because they didn't agree with the concept of Unity; because they were afraid of losing themselves in the whole."

"And your gods killed all who opposed them, correct?" Storik's voice sounded icy and Gangies wondered if he chastised himself for the slight loss of control.

"Only when necessary," Joshua said frankly. "A good portion of the time, the peoples could be convinced to Unify." He began to pace across the table from the two officers. "I admit that when I first heard of them, I despised them. It seemed they wanted to take away my way of life. But my thinking was small. Yes, they would take my life, but replace it with so much more. Mine would be a life mingled with those in Unity!" He stopped and put his metallic hand to his face. "I'm ashamed to say that I fought them. I could claim that I was simply acting under orders, but that wasn't true. I wanted to hurt the Elder Gods." The others in the room made comforting noises.

"We all made mistakes, Joshua," said Cassandra. "We come from a society not ready for Unification."

Joshua nodded. "That's true. That's true. And I know the Elder Gods will realize it." He looked back to Gangies. "We fought them. A fleet of us. I was on board the Kyushu at the time. It seemed that they were unstoppable, and they were. How could something as small as Starfleet possibly match the might of a ship created out of Unity? I realized it then, crammed in the escape pod as the Kyushu was destroyed. I realized the Elder Gods' intentions." He gestured out to indicate the others in the room. "I began searching for other people who had realized the truth as I had. We found more after the Elder Gods' most recent attempt to bring the Federation to Unity."

The chill was beginning to creep up Gangies' spine again and her mouth dried. "When exactly was this last attempt?" she managed.

"Just before we found our haven here," Joshua said. "A little before what you describe as the beginning of the Dominion War. Four years ago."

The chill reached all the way up her spine and found her voice. "Four years ago," she said, "was the last invasion by the Borg."

"Yes, Captain," Joshua said. "It was." He leaned over the table to her. "I saw the Elder Gods--the Borg--in all of their glory with the destruction of the fleet at Wolf 359. How can anyone ignore their drive for perfection?"

"The only thing the Borg drive for is--is..." Gangies' words stopped as she realized Joshua's meaning. "Is to assimilate everything into the god..."

Joshua smiled. "Exactly."

Paled, Gangies slumped in her chair. Heedless, Joshua continued, "We knew that the majority of the Federation would not accept our religion, so we sought to find a place that could be our own, where we could wait for the Elder Gods to come and take us into Unity. The Cardassians never noticed this planet; we've been entirely without contact until you came here."

Storik spoke up. "The beacon is a location finder, so that the Borg may more easily find you."

"That's correct," Cassandra said. "We have gathered all of the information that we could from Starfleet in the eleven years since Joshua began bringing us together. The Elder Gods constructed an interplexing beacon on the Enterprise-E to contact their counterparts during the most recent encounter. We were fortunate to be able to recreate it."

"That 'encounter' left several thousand people dead," Storik noted.

Joshua nodded sadly. "It's a sorrowful thing that they couldn't see the Elder Gods' glory. That they chose to fight them."

Gangies stood up, more sharply then she had intended and not caring. "Well. Thank you very much for your time, but I think we should be going."

"We've frightened you. I apologize, I had hoped that you would be able to accept our religion." Joshua stood as well and offered his hand to Gangies. "I hope that you go without harsh feelings."

Warily, Gangies took his hand. "Good luck with your...Unity."


The small mechanical voice behind them surprised Gangies; she startled and turned. Before her stood a young girl, no more than thirteen. She was utterly bald and her body was a mismatch of implants. In her throat was a cybernetic voice box and her right eye had been replaced with a scanner.

"Can I help calibrate the beacon tonight?" she asked.

Rebecca Gangies stared at the girl, at each of the implants. "What...happened to her?"

Joshua came around the table and put a loving arm around the girl. "Of all of us, Tonya is the closest to Unity. It's our hope that in making her closer to the form of the Elder Gods, she herself will be closer to perfection." The girl's one living eye looked up at her father adoringly.

"You did this to her?" Gangies asked, massaging her wrists. "You...mutilated her body out of obsession with your monstrous religion?"

"Rebecca, I'd thank you not to take that tone in front of my daughter," Joshua said. "I'm very proud of Tonya, we all are. She's my light. She is a perfect little girl."

The last words reached Rebecca's ears and she staggered. She stared at the girl's mutilated body. "I'll kill you, Father," she whispered.

"I'm sorry?" Joshua asked.

The only reply was a wordless bellow as Gangies launched herself at Joshua. He shoved his daughter behind him protectively, but before the Captain could do any damage Storik lifted her off of him. She struggled, landing several punishing blows on the Vulcan and anything else in reach, but undeterred he carried her outside, away from the compound.

For several minutes after she left, Joshua could still hear her screams: "Never again, Father! I'll die first! I'll never let you touch me again!"

The shuttlecraft touched down and Rebecca Gangies turned away from the controls. Storik watched her carefully, but she ignored him stoically. Hovin seemed too involved in unpacking his equipment to pay her much notice. The aft door opened and Gangies marched down it with all the dignity that she could manage. On the deck, Nani Ti'Fiano waited at attention for her.

"Captain, I submit command of the Armstrong to you. Welcome home."

Gangies waved her to ease. "Report, Commander. Anything of note happen?" Gangies shouldered her bag and Ti'Fiano fell into step with her as she left the shuttlebay.

"Yes, sir. We received our supplies on schedule from Starbase One Twenty-Nine. During our drop-off in the Rakal system, there was an incident in which a Cardassian was killed. My report is in your ready room."

They reached the turbolift and Gangies stepped inside. "Thank you, Commander. I'll read it over tomorrow." The doors shut and Rebecca let herself sag for a moment, then called for the lift to take her to her quarters. She summoned a blank face when the lift reached her deck and braved the crewmen between her and her room. Once there, she keyed open the door and stepped in. Instantly, she realized someone was there, but she didn't care enough to turn and look.


The voice jolted her and she dropped her bag. "Jamie," she breathed. "Oh, Jamie, this has been such a bad week, I--"

"Rebecca." The voice was harder, to stop her from speaking. Rebecca turned and saw Jamie sitting on her bed in the next room, looking levelly at her. "I wanted to tell you this now, before you heard it around the ship. I've started dating Kuni Acots from Security."

Rebecca slumped to the floor next to her bag and stared dumbly at the other woman. "Jamie...what...?"

Jamie stood to crouch next to Rebecca. "I needed you here, Rebecca...and you weren't. I'm not trying to sound selfish, but I need someone who can be there for me and you're too preoccupied with your job. Every person you date is going to tell you the same thing." She stood up and walked to the door. It slid obligingly before her; she said, "I'm sorry," and disappeared.

Rebecca Gangies sat on the floor for a while. It could have been a few minutes, it could have been several hours. Eventually, she stood, walked to her bed and fell down again.

She stayed there for a very long time.



Star Trek belongs to Paramount, however undeserving.


Last modified: 10 Apr 2012