"Captain Picard," Jorus C'baoth acknowledged the man who had just entered the room with a slight nod.
"Master C'baoth," Picard replied in a similar tone. "Are you looking forward to returning to your own galaxy?"
C'baoth turned to the simulated view of space that filled one wall of the conference room. It was almost enough to give one a sense of vertigo, if one were sensitive to that sort of thing. "I will not be returning yet," he said softly. "Master Dellen will go in my stead. Once our colony is fully self-sufficient, then I may consider returning. Which reminds me, has a suitable planet been located yet?"
As he sat down at the table, Picard pulled out a PADD. "We have identified five uninhabited planets that met your criteria. The Council was hoping that you would be able to make your selection before tomorrow's session."
C'baoth took the PADD and began paging through it. "This one--Quadra Sigma III--it says here that there was a Federation colony on it ten years ago. What happened?"
Picard paused in recollection. "It was a mining colony," he replied. "There was an explosion in the mine which severely injured a number of colonists some ten years ago. The Enterprise was sent to pick up the survivors."
"Is the world geologically unstable?" C'baoth asked. "Of these planets, it is the closest to a standard atmosphere."
"I do not believe so," the Captain replied. "The Federation simply determined that the risk of continuing mining operations was not worth the reward and shut it down."
C'baoth slid the PADD back across the table and folded his hands. "Well," he said with a hint of a smile, "I suppose I cannot fault your government for offering us unwanted planets. Our request must have seemed like a convenient way of disposing of them without losing territory to one of your neighbors."
Picard shifted in his chair. "Bureaucrats think alike," he ventured.
"Indeed they do." The Jedi Master straightened himself. "Well, it seems that a trip to Quadra Sigma III is in order. I hope Master Fernas has finished making the adjustments for our systems to use your starmaps."
Picard nodded. "In that case, I will let the Council know your decision."
"What you will let the Council know," C'baoth shook his head, "is that before we decide on a planet, I will visit it myself. This one appears to be the most appealing of the choices they have presented, so it will simply be the first one we evaluate."
"It would--" Picard was interrupted by a loud thump outside the room. Several of the assistant diplomats entered and began to set up their own seats at the table. "It would appear I misunderstood," he continued. "You have my apologies."
There was some shuffling noises and muttered curses as one of the diplomats struggled to sort through a stack of PADDs he had brought in.
"Yes, Mr... Anderson?" Master C'baoth addressed the man. "How may I help you?"
Anderson triumphantly grabbed at one of the PADDs. "Master C'baoth, during salvage operations we recovered information from Voyager's computer core that suggested the system crash was no random fluke. In fact, it appears that some members of your crew may have deliberately acted to breach Voyager's computer systems, leading to the cascading system failure that was responsible for the complete loss of Voyager."
C'baoth folded his hands and cleared his throat. "Mr. Anderson, over the past several days you have managed to jump to quite a few incorrect conclusions. Do you have any proof to substantiate these latest claims, or are you simply trying to undermine the last month's worth of work purely out of spite?"
Anderson made a gesture with his arm. "Lieutenant, please enter."
A short, dark-haired man with Asian features stepped into the conference room, fidgeting visibly when he saw Picard.
"Your name, rank and position?" Anderson asked.
"Lieutenant Matt Huang, data forensics, Daystrom Institute."
He handed the Lieutenant one of the PADDs. "Have you seen this before?"
Huang glanced over the PADD for a few moments before nodding. "Yes, this is a summary of the report I prepared during Voyager's salvage."
Anderson's grin widened. "So, Lieutenant, would you like to tell us in your own words what you found?"
"Well," Huang glanced around the room, "Utopia Planitia's salvage foreman called my team in to analyze the events leading up to the failure of Voyager's warp core. Since the computer core was still intact, we began examining the data and process logs. One hour prior to arrival, a number of background subroutines began displaying anomalous behavior. There was a whole string of privilege violations and segmentation faults, which caused all sorts of routines such as waste flow management and fuel level monitoring to shut down. When the computer attempted to restart the subroutines, it threw exceptions because they had been deleted. By the time Lieutenant Torres attempted to reset the computer, over half of the subroutines were missing. The warp core intermix system came back online but was unable to monitor the injector ratio. The injectors continued dumping fuel into the warp core, which was then detected as a core overload by the failsafe processes."
Anderson nodded. "So what then, in your opinion, was the cause?"
"Well... ah... it could have been anything, really. We've seen faults like this arise because of foreign programming; there are a number of documented cases of Starfleet ships coming under attack from data entities. However, I doubt that was the case here. Voyager had been operating continuously for over five years and was three years past its scheduled maintenance review. The bio-neural gelpacks were designed to be replaced at two-year intervals, and when we examined the remaining packs we found severe neural degradation. We suspect that was the cause of the data corruption."
The diplomat's mouth moved several times but no sounds came out. "But you said that foreign programming could be the cause. At the time of the failure, Voyager shared a datalink with the Republican ship. Isn't it possible for a data virus to be transmitted over such a link?"
"Possible, yes," Huang admitted. "Is it probable? No. The data link was strictly related to communications and telemetry. The likelihood of a data virus being transmitted over the link is slim, particularly when documents provided by Outbound Flight engineers indicate their systems operate on a different mathematical basis. As I said, we observed severe neural degradation in the gelpacks. That alone would be sufficient to cause the problems observed."
With a sigh, Captain Picard came to his feet. "Lieutenant, thank you for the explanation. You are dismissed." Then he turned to the diplomat. "Mr. Anderson, you have been an embarrassment to Starfleet. Wild generalizations, baseless accusations, and the like are not the way to promote healthy relations between two governments. While I do not have the authority to remove you myself, I am requesting that you resign your position and return to the Peace Corps."
Anderson shook his head. "I know they did this! Just give me another week to review the data with Lieutenant Huang and we'll get the proof."
"You did not understand me," Picard said firmly. "If you do not resign, today, I will make sure that you are removed by any means necessary. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"
"Y-Yes," Anderson stammered. "Sir."
. . .
First Maje Culluh was arguably the most successful Maje in the Nistrim sect of Kazon civilization. He had personally led the capture of over three dozen starships (not including Voyager) thereby enhancing the fighting strength of the Nistrim. His goal had long been to make the Nistrim more powerful than any other Kazon sect and bring the others under his control.
However, all of his past experiences and ambitions had not prepared him for awakening in a small cell with smooth metal walls and a thick grated floor. Oh, he had taken hundreds of prisoners during the years he had been First Maje. But he had never actually experienced being a prisoner before.
He quickly decided that he didn't like it.
First, the bench in his cell was hard and cold. There was a small piece of foam at one end that he could just barely rest his head on, but that was the only concession made in the entire cell. Opposite the bench was a smaller, boxy bench with a hole in the middle that he could only assume was some sort of human waste device. He hadn't even tried to figure out how it worked yet, but if human physiology was as close to Kazon physiology as his doctors suspected, then it probably worked in a similar manner.
And that was it. The light above was harsh and the light panels themselves were protected by another heavy piece of grate. The metal door of the cell had no obvious handles or other features, so he decided that it must be mounted on tracks. Other than that, the cell was entirely featureless.
On top of it all, he really had no idea how much time had passed. Well, he wasn't dehydrated yet so it couldn't have been more than a day.
The stillness was finally interrupted by two of the white-clad troopers who came in, roughly grabbed him and slapped binders on his wrists, then escorted him out of the cell. The next few minutes were spent walking along seemingly endless corridors that all looked alike: polished metal deck plates, unremarkable gray walls, evenly spaced lighting panels. By the time they reached a doorway that looked like all the others except for the strange lettering on it, Culluh was quite throughly confused about where they had taken him. After the eighth turn, he'd lost count of where they went left and right. Not to mention when they had hopped on a turbolift and come out somewhere else on the ship.
Once inside, the troopers walked him toward another door, which had a darkened window next to it. Then the door slid open and they pushed him into the room. He blinked in the darkness, trying to clear his vision, and then the lights came on full to reveal a simple black table and three chairs, two on one side and one on the side closest to him. Seated in one of the chairs was a human clad in a bland gray uniform that matched the rest of the gray on the ship. Standing next to him, in stark contrast, was a silver-colored, metallic humanoid form.
Are they going to try putting me in that suit? he wondered.
Then the human began speaking in a strange language, and the humanoid form moved its head slightly as its "eyes" lit up.
"I don't believe we have met," the thing translated. "Let us abandon any pretexts. I am Captain Thanan Yates, and this ship that you so foolishly attacked is the Imperial Strike Cruiser Diversion."
Culluh frowned, but said nothing. Apparently the thing was a translator, not a torture device. But if these were humans like Voyager, didn't they have some sort of miniaturized implant? Why would they even need a translator?
"Well. That got a reaction. Now, Mister Culluh, I'm told that you are the First Maje of the Kazon-Nistrim. Is that correct?"
Culluh glared first at the translation unit, then at Captain Yates. "Why should I tell you anything?"
Yates shrugged. "Well, it doesn't really matter. We already know who you are, what planet your family lives on, and that your little fleet of ships was decimated."
"Then why do you bother asking?"
"Because it's incredibly rare for someone to lead his troops into combat from the front, and I wanted to meet the commander."
Ah, Culluh thought. So he sees me as an equal.
"I also wanted to tell him that leading from the front is an incredibly stupid and careless thing for any competent commander to do, which, incidentally, is the reason you are in here. Count yourself lucky that my troops didn't simply blast you on sight."
So much for being equals.
"So, I ask you again, Mister Culluh. Are you not the First Maje of the Kazon-Nistrim?"
"I am," Culluh finally said.
Yates smiled. "There, that wasn't so hard. We're already off to a good start. Now, why did you attack us?"
Culluh paused for a moment to consider the question. "Two reasons. One, you were trespassing on Kazon-Nistrim territory. Two, I had reasons to believe that you might have new information on Voyager."
"So you attacked us?"
"Intending to capture your ship, yes," Culluh admitted.
"I see," Yates said, steepling his fingers. "Now, why do you suppose that plan didn't exactly work out for you?"
"You set up an ambush for us," Culluh spat out.
Yates's expression twisted in amusement. "Did you even consider that was a possibility?"
"No," he finally said. "Voyager was a tough opponent, but they do not know war. They sit inside of their ship, protected by their shields, and fire weapons that they have no connection with. But up close, they are soft. They do not know what it really means to fight and kill."
"So we came as a surprise to you?"
Culluh nodded. "I thought all humans were weak and stupid, as they were. I will admit that was wrong. But your troops fight like machines. There is no emotion, nothing to suggest they enjoy what they do. How do you maintain that? Do they not crack eventually?"
"I will ask the questions here," Yates said firmly. "This is not a meeting of peers, rather this is an interrogation, in case you missed the distinction. You are my prisoner, and while I will treat you with the degree of respect that is accorded to prisoners, I will not freely give you information."
Culluh forced himself to nod, although he had to admit that he felt more than a little insulted by the remark.
"Let me ask you something different. How do you think your ships performed in combat?"
The Kazon looked at the ceiling. "I am still here, so I can only assume that you were able to evade them."
"The first wise assumption you have made so far," Yates said with a nod. "Although I am puzzled at your choice of words, notably how you think we evaded your ships. Actually, it was quite the opposite. We destroyed your force with the exception of two ships that surrendered to us."
Culluh's expression turned to one of disbelief. "Who are you?" he asked.
"We are human," Yates said simply. "But I thought you already knew that."
"You said this ship was an Imperial ship," Culluh continued. "I know of no human Empire."
The captain simply stared evenly across the table at Culluh, which made him feel quite uncomfortable. "Yes, although most of us are human, we are from an Empire of many races," he said, "which is obviously unheard-of in these parts."
Culluh leaned back in the uncomfortable chair. He had a feeling that he now knew less than he thought he'd known about these people when he had attacked. "How can I be so sure that you are not lying about destroying my ships?"
"Well," Yates said, "for one, think about the implications of that, and what it means for the other Kazon worlds. From what we've heard about Kazon society, it seems that the other Kazon sects would be chomping at the bit, so to speak, for a chance to absorb your territory now that you've been weakened."
"This force is but a small fraction of what I can bring to bear," Culluh said in a desperate attempt at bluster.
"And how do you think the rest would fare against us?" Yates asked, his expression completely unreadable. "No, don't bother answering that. We both know how it would end. I will, however, make you an offer that will end this matter."
"I'm listening," Culluh said with a frown.
"The same gracious terms that you offered us," Yates said, "I will offer to you. We will leave most of your surviving crews on a barren planet of our own choosing. Then we will send the ships to crash into that same planet so they will not be of use to you or anyone else."
Although he couldn't see it, the blood had drained out of Culluh's face. "Surely there is another option?"
"You did not give us any other choice. Why should we be so gracious?"
Culluh had to admit that the captain had a point. "You mentioned the other sects. Would you leave my people leaderless in the face of that?"
"Why not? I always thought leaders were supposed to do the right thing for their people." The human paused for a moment, then continued. "Although... that Maje we encountered first seemed to have some wits about him. What was his name?"
"Zerin," Culluh spat.
"Ah, yes, that's right. Maje Zerin. I think he'll make a good First Maje. What do you think?"
"You can't be serious."
The human smiled. "Oh, I quite think I am. Trooper, allow our guest to enter." The door hissed open and Zerin stepped into the small room. "We've offered him your position as leader of the Nistrim."
"But how will you guarantee that the other Majes won't just kill him? After all, succession is usually decided from the end of a gun."
"That's true," the human answered, turning to Zerin and offering him a small pistol. "He will, of course, have our assistance in making sure that his leadership is unquestioned. Which is why we'll let him decide your fate."
As Captain Yates walked back to the turbolift, he heard the muffled blaster shot ring out. One less problem he had to deal with in this galaxy, and they now had a potential ally here. Potential being the operative word, since he wasn't completely sure yet of how trustworthy these aliens were. But that could be dealt with later.
Which just left him with the still unanswered question of what happened to Outbound Flight. He had to admit that the information they had about Voyager was making less and less sense. It was a ship powered by the same sort of subspace distortion drive that was so common in this galaxy. The humans aboard it were obviously not military, but Outbound Flight had Republic Navy crews and Jedi aboard in addition to the colonists. Both were very disciplined, where Voyager was obviously not.
Then there was the matter of capabilities. His ship hadn't even batted an eye at the firepower that eight fully operational Kazon warships had thrown at him. From Culluh's remarks about Voyager, it had been stronger than a single Kazon cruiser, but couldn't compare to an entire squadron of them and had been overpowered quickly.
Which brought him back to the wormhole they had used to enter. Had Outbound Flight really been the first human-crewed ship to enter this galaxy, as he had earlier assumed? He was starting to doubt it. Which meant that an earlier ship must have traveled through the wormhole... but how long ago? Hyperdrives had been in use for tens of thousands of years. Did the strange wormhole predate the hyperdrive? And if so, how was it possible to use it given that it seemed to require the use of a hyperdrive?
Yates rubbed his temples. He'd have time to think about this later. Right now, he needed to prepare to jump to the Ocampa system, now that they finally had its coordinates. Hopefully they would find the rest of the answers there.