Chapter Three

The all-too-familiar sound of the hulking war droid's footsteps sent a cold chill down Ando's spine. The great ship, so recently a source of hope in the ever-bleakening story of the Maquis, now seemed to be imbued with an almost palpable malevolence. And who fired the weapons that destroyed the Cardassian ship and his own? Was it some kind of automated defense system coming on line? Had the murderous android awakened the crew? His dreams of glory and discovery were long forgotten, and his only hope now was to live another five minutes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he hoped his wife and children would be able to get along without him.

His thoughts were interrupted when Lucet shoved him roughly against the metal wall. "Enough lies, human! Tell me what that is!" he snarled. "I know you're lying about the 'accident' your friend suffered. The truth!"

"It's an android." Ando said hurriedly. He knew the time for games was over. "Bipedal humanoid. Heavily armed."

Lucet wasn't sure whether to believe this human, but he'd been expecting something like this. A ship of this size and complexity must surely have automated defense systems, and he almost felt a sense of relief to know what they were and where they were coming from. He turned and barked orders to his men.

"Form a defensive position at the end of that hallway! Kinar and Dumon, watch the prisoner!"

The medic tending to Nitram continued to work on him, but stopped and reluctantly picked up his gun when Lucet glared at him. He quickly joined the others at the bottom of the stairs, readying their weapons and waiting for their attacker. To his horror, Ando realized that Lucet intended to make a stand.

"No, you don't understand!" he shouted, his voice rising in pitch. "It's armour-plated! That thing took a max-power phaser blast right in the head, didn't even slow it down!"

Lucet ran through his options in his mind. Only six of his men carried anything heavier than a handgun, and if this human was to be believed, even those rifles would be useless. He turned to Ando. "What about explosives?"

Ando shook his head, his growing panic almost visible now. "We set a rifle on overload. Went off right underneath it. All it did was give it a limp, and it's not gonna fall for that twice! Are there any other exits out of the bridge? There's gotta be another way out of here!"

"None that we've found." Lucet replied evenly.

Ando looked frantically around the bridge for an escape route. Its layout was clean and simple: an oval observation deck, in which a pair of instrument bays were sunk beneath the deck on both sides of a central walkway. There were alcoves on both sides of the observation deck containing more equipment, and a foyer at the back, in which a short set of stairs led down to the main corridor. The foyer appeared to be a communications area, with consoles and some sort of pod that might have been designed for holographic communications. It was then that he noticed the door set into the side of the foyer.

"What's behind that door?" he asked.

"I don't know. It's locked." Lucet answered, clearly preoccupied with his men. Eight men were setting up in the corridor, four more on the stairs, and the rest in the foyer.

"What?" Ando raised his voice in incredulity. "That could be a turboshaft or an access tunnel for all we know!"

Lucet turned, crossed his arms over his chest and wore one of those infuriatingly smug Cardassian smiles that made Ando want to punch him in the mouth. "Well then, would you be so kind as to open it?"

"Give me a concussion charge."

Lucet snorted. "Do you take me for a fool? I'd rather take my chances in battle than trust you with a weapon. Why should I even believe you?"

Ando couldn't believe this. "I'm not making this up! I'm telling you, that thing will kill all of your men!"

"You two survived." he said simply. "And with all due respect, human, we're not a bunch of Maquis terrorists. We are trained Cardassian soldiers, and we-"

The war droid had just rounded the corner, and Lucet was interrupted in mid-sentence by the chud-chud-chud sound of its heavy auto-blaster. He turned to look toward his men, expecting to see them fighting a pitched battle with the attacker.

What he saw struck him speechless. Thick smoke choked the hallway, and chunks of glowing metal had been blown out of the walls and floor. More than half of his men lay dead already. One man's chest had literally exploded from the heat, spraying blood and viscera all over the walls. Another man's head was cleanly blown free of his body, which now lay crumpled on the floor in a growing pool of blood. For a moment, he felt almost as if he was a passive observer, looking down at one of those horrendous worst-case scenarios they used to run through when he was in training to be an officer. Time seemed to move in slow motion.

Lucet staggered to the side in an effort to get out of the line of fire. The heat and flame triggered a loud alarm klaxon, and a set of blast doors began to close at the top of the stairs. The screams of wounded and dying men seemed to come from far away. He found himself cowering in the foyer, listening to them screaming instructions to each other. Their discipline broken by the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut marching toward them, they retreated in confusion, running past him as if he wasn't there. Nothing in their training had prepared them for an enemy who was immune to their weapons. They seemed panicked and rudderless, their eyes wide with fear.

He seemed paralyzed himself, and could only watch the blast doors close. The limping footsteps of the war droid grew closer, and he could hear it ascending the stairs, but the ponderous blast doors clamped shut with a heavy thump before it could reach the top.

Lucet allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief, and tried to compose himself. He began to walk out of the foyer and into the main bridge to calm his men, but they all froze at a distinct hissing sound behind him.

It was coming from the blast door. He rushed to the door and put his hand near it. He could feel the heat emanating from its surface, and he knew it was only a matter of time. His men stared at the door with looks of pure terror on their faces. Some of them were cowering in corners. He knew he had to do something quickly, and the human's idea about blasting through the locked door seemed as good an idea as any. "Ardum! Blow that side door!" he bellowed.

"Yes sir!" The young man named Ardum stiffened at the order, turned, and ran back to the foyer. With cool precision, he planted a specialized demolition explosive device against the door. The rest of the men looked at Lucet, awaiting his next order. The act of simply giving Ardum something to do seemed to have calmed them, but Lucet knew that they would all be dead soon if they couldn't blast through this door. Or worse yet, if they do blast through it, but it's a supply closet, he thought to himself.

The blast door was beginning to glow red now, the hissing sound becoming louder.

"Fire in the hole!" Ardum shouted, running for cover. The blast filled the foyer with smoke, but Lucet could see a gaping hole through the wreckage. He charged toward it himself, staring inside. It may have been alien, but he knew a turbolift when he saw one.

"Get in!" he shouted. The men needed no encouragement, and Ando followed behind them. The notion of killing the human or forcing him to stay behind flitted across Lucet's mind, but he ignored it and said nothing as Ando climbed through the hole in the door, dragging Nitram with him. The centre of the door was glowing yellow now, and molten metal was seeping to the floor.

Lucet climbed into the turbolift last. "Down." he said loudly. The turbolift did not respond. "Computer!" he barked. Still no response. "Emergency!" he shouted. Still nothing.

He turned to Ando, in the hopes that he would know the alien language. Ando pointed wordlessly at a set of buttons on a control panel at waist height, and Lucet tried to ignore his embarrassment as he began punching buttons. He made no attempt to interpret the alien language, and simply pushed buttons randomly in the hopes that one of them would do the trick.

A terrifyingly loud explosion nearly deafened him and all of the other men, and through the hole in the door, he could see a huge chunk of the blast door flying into the foyer. He's almost here! his mind screamed silently. But at that moment, the turbolift finally began to move. It shot downwards, away from danger, and Lucet's knees almost buckled from the relief.

He tried to compose himself, then he turned to his men in the confined quarters of the turbolift. Their faces betrayed that mix of elation and sadness that came with surviving a terrible defeat, and they were looking to him for confidence. There were only 8 of them left, 3 of whom were bleeding profusely. And my medic is laying in pieces on the bridge! he thought bitterly. But they were not out of danger yet, and he could scarcely afford the time to sentimentalize over their fallen comrades.

He cleared his throat and tried to sound confident. "All right men, we've lost our ship, and we can't count on a rescue. So we need to find some kind of communications gear. The bridge is now held by the enemy, but a ship this size must have more than one communication terminal. So we will search the ship for communications terminals and try to patch into one."

He turned to Ando. "Human, how many of these androids did you encounter?"

"That's the only one. We accidentally reactivated it. The rest are still inactive."

"Then who fired the shots that destroyed our ships? They came from another part of the ship!"

"I don't know." Ando replied flatly.

Lucet looked him in the eye. He felt himself to be a good judge of character, and he was pretty sure this human was telling the truth. "I don't suppose you have any plans for getting out of here, do you?" he asked sardonically.

Ando tried to calm himself and clear his thoughts. He had to make an argument for his own usefulness, or for all he knew, the Cardassian would kill them both right here, right now. "Nitram here is a linguistics expert. He's the only chance we have to figure out how to use any of this alien technology."

Lucet smiled one of those oily, insincere smiles that Ando had come to expect from a Cardassian. "So, it would appear that we're partners, aren't we?"

Ando nodded, but the other Cardassians, bloodied and battered, were staring at him with looks of pure hate. He knew what they were thinking. He had unleashed the android, he was responsible for the deaths of their comrades and perhaps the destruction of their ship. If he could not curry favour with their leader, these men would kill him in a heartbeat. He looked down, tried to avoid eye contact with them.

The turbolift continued to move, with its cargo of uneasy passengers, deeper into the bowels of the ship.

Separator

Star System HR51

On a not-so-distant hidden Maquis colony known only by the cryptic codename "HR51", Natalie brushed her long brown hair aside and stirred a pot of soup. It was homemade chicken noodle soup, the kids' favourite. No replicator could produce the same flavour, and her kids could always tell the difference.

She knew Ando was out there somewhere, searching for a place to hide if things went sour. She still had trouble accepting that this was their life now: contingency plans, secret codes, hidden bases, booby traps. And the children somehow adapted. They would solemnly nod their heads when told that they might have to leave their homes and go to a secret place in the sky to hide from the bad people. This was the only life they knew.

It had all seemed so promising once. The prospect of a new life, away from the Federation. But now, she lay awake at night wishing she could go back in time, reverse the decision, stay on Earth. All of the stifling, suffocating conformity didn't seem quite so bad in retrospect. Not when compared to the fear of what would happen to them now. She looked out the window at the boys playing in the yard. She tried to picture them frolicking on the green fields of Earth, and wiped away a tear welling up in her eye. Ando always seemed so confident that things would turn out for the best, but she had trouble sharing that confidence at times. She couldn't help but wonder if her kids would ever get the chance to grow up.

The jarring sound of the comm console invaded her reverie, and she absent-mindedly turned to look at the console. It was Dalton. He was a heavyset man who was always a favourite with the kids whenever he came by, because he had never entirely seemed to grow up. He was fond of practical jokes and he often wore an infectious smile, but not now. His expression was grim, and her heart instantly sank. This was the face of a man bearing terrible news.

"Rob? What is it?" she asked nervously.

"I don't know how to tell you this, so I'll just come straight out. Ando missed his last check-in."

She felt as if she'd just been kicked in the stomach. "Does that mean he's ... he's ..." she couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.

"We're not writing him off." he said emphatically. "He might have had an engine failure, or a comm system problem. You know how old some of these ships are. We're getting a search team ready now."

She knew he'd say that even if he was certain that they were dead. "Dalton, please tell me the truth. Do you think he's alive?"

His grim expression did not change. "We didn't pick up any distress calls. If he was attacked, he would have gotten a call out. I'm sure they're both fine. Keep your hopes up, and with any luck, we'll bring him back in a few days. Okay?"

She nodded, and tried to look brave as the viewscreen flickered out. She maintained her posture and calmly set the soup to simmer on the stove. She sat down at the kitchen table, and began to cry.

Separator

Dalton turned around to face Wilson, his second in command. Wilson was a tall, lanky former Starfleet officer who was old enough to have seen combat in the first Cardassian war. The two of them were sometimes referred to as "Rob and Rob" because they shared the same first name. "All right, we've got room for twelve. Get Wilkens, Vympel, Typho, Eleas, Coyote, Stravo, Lars, Mackey, Frank, and Sheppard."

"Sheppard, sir?" Wilson asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, Sheppard. I know what you're going to say, but he can shoot straight, which is more than I can say for most of the people we've got. Besides, I don't think he'd let us take any of his heavy weapons without taking him too."

"Sir, I can outshoot him with my eyes closed." Wilson retorted. "He's dangerously unstable and you know it."

"Yes, but there's only one of you, and we've got to work with what we have. Coyote's a damned bounty hunter, for chrissakes! But we're all Maquis here."

"Sir, I'm not turning my back on Shep." Wilson grumbled.

"Then he can walk point. You are taking him and that is the end of the matter. Carry on." Dalton replied.

"OK boss." Wilson saluted and went off to get the men.

Separator

Cardassia Prime

"That's correct, sir. Gul Lucet has gone missing. There's no beacon, no distress call, no response on the transponder."

Legate Dinon shifted in his chair. "Are the Maquis responsible?"

"Unknown, sir. We need to send in a search team to investigate."

Dinon's expression grew irritable. "Then why are you wasting time talking to me? Send in your search team and get back to me when you have something to report!" he slammed his fist down on the console button and cut off the connection.

At the other end of the transmission, Gul Tain leaned back and smiled. Dinon obviously knew nothing about the derelict, which meant that operational security was intact. This could be the opportunity he'd been waiting for. His career up till now was a joke. Like Lucet, he was a once promising officer whose career had been left to wither and die in the pointless defense of worthless, insignificant Cardassian colonies in the demilitarized zone. There was no future here, only the grinding monotony of an endless low-level border dispute.

But if the report sent by Lucet was anything to go on, he'd found something incredible. A mile-long derelict warship built by an advanced civilization! There was nothing like it in any of the historical records, so it was either unspeakably ancient or it had come from a great distance. Either way, his only fear was that Lucet would somehow take this prize and try to claim it for himself, and as the hours had passed without a check-in, he grew more and more certain that this was the case.

He opened a channel to his second in command. "Assemble a team. We're going after Lucet."

Separator

USS Hornet, docked at Deep Space Nine

Captain Sorresso walked briskly into his ready room. Top-priority messages from Starfleet HQ were not common, and he straightened his uniform before opening the channel. The viewscreen flickered on to show the familiar face of Admiral Pablo Sanchez. He wasted no time with pleasantries and got right down to business.

"Damien, you are no doubt aware that we've been discreetly monitoring comm traffic in the Cardassian DMZ for quite some time."

"Yes sir."

"We've recently intercepted some troubling messages. It appears that a Cardassian attack ship has gone missing. I'm sending you their last known co-ordinates now."

"And how does that affect us, sir?"

"Before the ship disappeared, it transmitted an encrypted message to base. The master key was one that we've had possession of for quite some time, and we were able to crack it. They were tracking a Maquis scout and they ran into a derelict ship."

"Again, Admiral, how does that affect us?" Sorresso asked, his brow furrowing.

"It's a sixteen hundred metre long warship. Doesn't fit any known design. Nothing remotely like it in the database or the historical record. The Cardassians seem very interested in its technology. And its hull is impervious to sensors."

Sorresso leaned forward in his chair, already knowing what he would be asked to do. "And you want us to take it before they can, sir?"

"Officially, no. As you know, we can't move warships into the DMZ. But unofficially, if this vessel contains valuable technology and the Cardassians get to it before we can ..." the admiral's voice trailed off.

"Understood, Admiral. Sorresso out."

He swivelled his chair around and tapped his commbadge. "Number One, we're about to suffer a navigational problem."

"Captain?" came the quizzical response.

"We're going into the DMZ."


Continue to Chapter Four



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