Written By: Sanek
Lieutenant Jacobs dragged himself along the floor. Desperate, he knew he had to reach the console soon. He had only moments. His labored breathing wheezed, and he coughed. Fluid burst up from his lungs, spattering the arms of his uniform. The skin of his hands, already mottled and turning gray, showed blistering that grew worse with each moment. The wet, tearing cough wracked through his body again as he reached the engineering station, pulling himself up to lean against it. The light-headed, dizzy sensation kept getting worse. He had to hurry. His vision kept blurring as he reached for the panel.
“Come on… come on,” he gasped, his desperate fingers punching buttons.
Screams and groans of agony came from the corridor. He could hear his crew mates in their final death throes, their hoarse, tearing coughs cutting off the wails of pain.
The computer beeped.
“Distress signal queried,” its female voice stated. “Begin message.”
“This is…” he coughed again, hard. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he continued. “This is Lieutenant Jacobs of the Federation ship Artifice.” He had little strength left. It was all he could do to force the breath from his lungs to speak, his voice a grating, soggy rasp. “Please help us. We’re…” he coughed again, doubling over in agony. Behind him the distant moans and shrieks continued. “We’re dying… some kind of-”
Jacobs turned. Ensign Tobias was sprawled against the bulkhead by the door, his face oozing blood from punctured blisters. He held a phaser in his quaking hand.
Pointed straight at Jacobs.
“What,” began the Lieutenant. He doubled over with coughs again, the dizziness worse. Soon, he thought.
Tobias took a step toward Jacobs. His knees buckled and he fell hard, groaning in agony. His hand still held the phaser, his implacable, bloodshot eyes fixed on Jacob’s finger hovering over the transmission panel.
Still looking at his crew mate on the floor, Jacobs wiped the fluid dripping from his mouth with his other hand. He shook his head and continued his dictation.
“Please, you have to-”
The phaser shot went wide, striking the wall. The explosion showered sparks over Jacobs, momentarily drowning out the moans and shrieks outside the room. Jacob’s duck was involuntary. He nearly fell, grabbing the console to try to keep his balance. Pulling himself toward the computer panel with the last of his strength, his greasy fingers slipped on the polished surface.
“Computer, send transmis-”
The second phaser shot interrupted Jacobs, striking him full in the chest. Thrown against the wall, he slid like a rag doll to the floor. His lifeless eyes stared at Tobias as his executioner coughed his last gasping breath.
Ignorant of the scene below, the computer’s voice responded to Jacob’s last order.
“Transmission sent. Awaiting acknowledgment.”
Captain Calynn McKendrik sighed as she reached for the PADD and glanced at the display. It was as she thought. In typical Starfleet prose the reports detailed the daily operations of the ship. All sections were running at peak efficiency. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary listed. McKendrik slid each page past the screen with her finger, giving each a cursory reading before she digitally signed the report and handed it back to the yeoman.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Ma’am,” the yeoman nodded, and stepped back toward the turbolift.
In truth, she couldn’t complain. The mundane reports were due to the professionalism of her crew and their devotion to their work. She was just restless. So was the rest of the crew. This assignment to oversee shipping through the Argelius sector was tedious. The week they’d spent here had been monotonous with little to break up the daily routine. It had become obvious the restless crew needed some form of activity that broke them away from the daily repetition. She’d even heard reports of bickering between enlisted personnel, and had noted idleness that hadn’t been prevalent in the team before now. The doctor had told her during lunch yesterday that some recreational activity needed to be scheduled to combat the boredom.
A beep from the communication console interrupted her reverie. Lieutenant Pirsys Khatta pushed her earpiece deeper into her ear for a moment, and then turned to the captain.
“Ma’am, I’m receiving a distress call from the Federation ship Artifice,” she said.
“What’s their situation?”
“It’s,” Pirsys began, and then hesitated, listening. “I’m not sure. The transmission is weak. Whoever sent it sounded like they were injured.” Her eyes widened. “I can hear phaser fire.”
McKendrik’s eyebrows shot up. Several of the bridge crew turned to watch, more than curious.
“Put it on speaker,” the captain ordered.
“Yes ma’am.” The Deltan complied, her fingers tapping several buttons.
A moment later the garbled transmission came through the speakers. They all listened. It was obvious the man who identified himself as Lieutenant Jacobs was in distress. His constant coughs interrupted the message and made it difficult to understand. As unsettling as the message was, the sudden interruption was a surprise – the shouts, the hurried finale… the phaser fire.
“What the hell happened?” Lieutenant Tholyl mused.
“The U.S.S. Artifice,” thought McKendrik. She turned to T’Saien. “Scan the database for information on that vessel.”
Already bending to her console and tapping keys, the Science Officer complied.
“Querying now, Captain,” T’Saien said.
While she waited for the computer’s query, McKendrik turned back to Pirsys.
“Hail the Artifice. Try emergency frequency Omega-seven first.”
“Aye ma’am.” She bent to her console. After opening the channel, she started broadcasting. “U.S.S. Artifice, this is Federation ship Circinus, please respond.” When she received no response she continued her message, rotating frequencies with each attempt.
T’Saien turned and raised her eyebrow.
“Captain, the query is complete.”
“There was little to find in the database,” T’Saien said. “I find the lack of information curious. However, the vessel is a Shikhar class light cruiser. Registration number NCC-92353. The vessel was commissioned on Stardate 71727.31 at Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards. The database lists the current crew compliment as one hundred seventy-nine, with one hundred forty-two enlisted and thirty-seven officers.”
In the background, Lieutenant Pirsys continued her attempts to hail the Artifice.
“The computer lists the vessel’s current captain as one Captain Arthur Thompsen,” T’Saien finished.
McKendrik pulled at her chin in thought. “That’s all?”
“Correct, captain,” T’Saien said. “With the exception of the crew manifest of course.”
“Does it list a Lieutenant Jacobs?”
T’Saien turned back to her station and tapped a couple keys, gazing at the results. Moments later she found what she sought.
“Yes captain,” she stated. “The manifest does include a Lieutenant David Victor Jacobs.”
Pirsys stopped her hail attempts and turned back to face McKendrik.
“Captain, I’m not receiving any acknowledgment from the Artifice.”
“On any channel?”
“Very well,” McKendrik said. “Hail Starfleet and inform them that we’ve received a distress signal from the U.S.S. Artifice. Note the registration number of the ship, and attach the distress signal audio.”
As Pirsys started her message to Starfleet Command, McKendrik stood and stepped to the Science console. She glanced at the display, which still showed the Artifice’s crew manifest, and then looked at T’Saien.
“Can you pinpoint the point of origin of the distress signal?” she asked.
“I have analyzed the signal,” the Vulcan began. “It is weak, and contains distortions that appear to be from the source location. However, I should be able to isolate the point of origin to within several light-years.”
“Well, that’s better than nothing,” McKendrik said. “Get to it. Let me know when you’ve finished.”
T’Saien began her scans, her fingers flying over the console to the accompanying sounds of tapped keys. McKendrik watched her for a moment, once again thankful that T’Saien was available when she’d needed a Science Officer. Her first cadet voyage was proof to her just how valuable a Vulcan was in that position aboard a ship. She turned and walked to her chair. As she sat, Xoetheeda cleared his throat.
“Captain, your thoughts?”
McKendrik looked at her First Officer. The Rigelian had taken some getting used to when they’d first met. His manner was abrupt, but he always spoke with a deep respect. She’d come to rely on him and his judgment over the last two years. She shrugged.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “There’s too many possibilities to draw any conclusion.”
“I agree,” Xoetheeda said in his deep voice.
Tilting her head, her eyebrows creased in thought, McKendrik considered the distress signal.
“All Jacobs said was ‘we’re dying…’.”
“And a reference to ‘some kind of,’” Xoetheeda mused.
“Some kind of what? Lifeform? Energy or radiation? Contagion?” Frustrated, she leaned back in her seat. “If he could have only provided more information.”
“It appears as if someone didn’t want him to provide it.”
Glancing at Xoetheeda, she frowned.
“Conceded. But without any further information, anything we consider is pure speculation.”
“That is correct, of course.”
“Captain, I have completed my scans,” T’Saien called.
“Further analysis has provided data that suggests the transmission was dampened at the source, as I suspected,” T’Saien said. “What dampened the signal is unknown, but it caused oscillations in the subspace signal that made the transmission deteriorate exponentially. We are located at the fringe of the signal’s reception.”
The captain and first officer shared a look.
“Scans have placed the signal’s origin somewhere within the Mylasa sector of Psi Velorum space.”
“That’s a big area,” McKendrik said.
“And it’s past the Romulan Neutral Zone, in Romulan Space,” Xoetheeda pointed out.
The captain pursed her lips, about to comment when communications interrupted her.
“Captain, I have a response from Starfleet Command,” Pirsys said.
A moment later the main view screen displayed an aged Starfleet Admiral McKendrik had never met. He was balding, wearing a dress uniform that didn’t disguise a moderate paunch his belt did little to contain. Rain streaked down the window behind him.
“Captain McKendrik.” The Admiral’s voice was low and gravelly.
“That is correct, Admiral,” she said. She stood and took a couple steps closer to the view screen.
“I am Rear Admiral Williams,” the Admiral said. “Your current assignment has changed. I have new orders for you and your crew.”
“Very well, sir.”
“We have received your message and analyzed the distress call.” Williams cleared his throat. “Since you are the only vessel that received the transmission, and the only vessel in the immediate area, you are to proceed into Psi Velorum space and attempt to find the U.S.S. Artifice. Once you have located her, ascertain the vessel and crew’s status. You are to inform Starfleet immediately once you’ve established this information.”
“Acknowledged, Admiral,” McKendrik said.
“Attempt to avoid contact with Romulan forces, and avoid any armed confrontation.” He pointed at the screen for emphasis.
“Do you have any questions?”
“I do, sir,” McKendrik said. “Can you provide us with some more detailed information on the Artifice? What was its mission? Is there a last known location?”
“The Artifice was assigned to collect data on several anomalies within the Afheirr Nebula. She left Sol five days ago.” The Admiral picked up a PADD and glanced at the display as he continued. “Her last known whereabouts, which coincide with the last report we received from her, placed her approximately three light years coreward of the Khellian system.”
“When was that last report received?”
McKendrik turned to T’Saien, who raised her eyebrow.
“Precisely four hours, twenty-three minutes before we received the distress signal,” she stated.
The captain nodded, and turned to the view screen again.
“Unless there is any other data Starfleet has on the Artifice and her mission, we’ll proceed at once.” She clasped her hands behind her back.
“As unfortunate as it is, there isn’t much else I can provide,” Williams said with a shrug. “If we discover any new information, I will send it to you immediately.”
“Excellent sir,” McKendrik said.
“Alright then, good luck. Keep Starfleet informed of your progress, and be careful.”
“We will sir.”
“Williams out.” The view screen went blank.
McKendrik turned to the helmsman, Lieutenant Hans Marcks.
“Set a course for the Mylasa sector by way of the Khellian system.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hans tapped in the course with practiced ease. “Course laid in.”
Stepping to her chair, she sat and pushed the ship intercom button.
“All hands, this is the captain speaking,” she began. “We’ve received new orders. Stand down your current activities and prepare for transit. Further details will be provided on the ship’s bulletin boards. That is all.”
“Finally,” said Tholyl. “Some excitement.” His Andorian antennae twitched.
Xoetheeda looked at him, his gaze calculating.
“Careful what you wish for, Lieutenant,” he said.
Smirking, McKendrik shook her head.
“I think, in this case, I have to agree with Tholyl,” she said. Leaning back into her chair, she looked at Hans and gestured with her hand. “Proceed on course, mister. Warp eight.”
Outside, the sleek Excelsior class vessel banked, coming about on its new heading. As the ship aligned toward its distant destination, the nacelles began to glow brightly. Then, with a flash, the ship was gone as if she’d never been there.