Admiral Dornez stood beside a man wearing commander's pips, officially a member of Starfleet Intelligence; unofficially, his rank as a commander was simply a convenience that allowed him to order around Starfleet personnel, and his real job was working for Section 31. Dornez was one of the few people in on that little secret, but he never acknowledged it on the few instances he encountered the man.
"Doctor Bashir is still examining the prisoner, so I thought I'd show you what we took off of him first."
"First, weapons. His rifle is very similar to the one we obtained previously, but in what used to called a 'bullpup' configuration."
"Bullpup?" Dornez asked, puzzled; it wasn't a term he'd ever heard.
"It refers to a rifle with the primary operating mechanism and ammunition magazine located behind the trigger, resulting in a more compact weapon while still allowing for a longer barrel that provides superior range and accuracy compared to a conventional rifle with a shortened barrel. The origin of the term 'bullpup' is... lost to time, I suppose."
"The bullpup design has the advantages of being more compact and having a longer barrel than a similarly-sized conventional rifle, but it does have disadvantages: the magazine placement, for example, can make reloading awkward, and the internal components can be difficult to reach if they need cleaning or replacement. This rifle seems to have solved the latter issue by disassembling into modular components. We also surmise that the other rifle we obtained had a more conventional placement of the magazine and firing mechanism because the bulky powered armor worn by Ascension troopers would make reloading a bullpup rifle more difficult. Despite the different configurations, the two rifles have a 60% parts commonality, primarily in the trigger group and bolt system. The operating mechanism is very similar; a soldier familiar with one rifle would be able to use and maintain the other with little difficulty. This rifle also uses different ammunition; the ammunition itself is slightly smaller, with less propellant, and although the bullet is the same 6.5mm design, it's slightly lighter. I theorize this is to make recoil more manageable for a soldier without powered armor, but the ammunition used is still powerful enough that you and I would consider recoil to be excessive; clearly the Ascension are stronger than us."
"Clearly. Is this the same sight as on the other rifle?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, it's also damaged, but we have bigger pieces this time and can confirm our theories about its operation. You can look through it, like so, and see a targeting reticle projected wherever you're aiming, and it can also transmit an image of whatever you're aiming at to the user's helmet, allowing the gun to be fired around corners or over barriers without exposing the user to return fire."
"Handy feature. Maybe we should incorporate that into our phasers."
"It would involve wearing an eye piece of some sort, but it would be a handy feature. Oh, and we've confirmed that the magazine does indeed hold 50 rounds of ammunition. His sidearm takes a different approach; while the rifle seems focused on penetrating armor or barriers someone might hide behind, the pistol is intended to do as much damage as possible to soft tissue and bone, but would perform poorly against most barriers or armor. It holds 12 rounds of ammunition, plus one in the chamber, uses telescoped ammunition with polymer cases instead of caseless ammunition, and fires a heavy 12mm bullet. We found magazines loaded with two types of ammunition; the first is a nylon-jacketed osmium-iridium bullet designed to fragment upon impact, producing devastating wounds. The other is a nylon-jacketed steel bullet that is hollow and has been pre-scored on the inside to fragment more evenly; there's a tiny firing pin inside which slams forward upon impact and detonates a small tetryl explosive charge, and the rest of the bullet is filled with white phosphorous. The result is an explosive bullet that detonates inside the torso, causing horrific wounds. It's also incendiary, and we have reports of several small fires started by these projectiles in San Francisco; nothing serious, but if these bullets struck a hydrogen cell or plasma coil it could detonate them. Similar projectiles were used on Earth in the 20th and 21st century, and were capable of igniting fuel tanks loaded with gasoline quite easily."
"Not much use against modern technology, but against personnel without body armor, quite nasty. I assume this would cause minimal damage to the body armor we're looking at issuing to our people?"
"Oh, absolutely. These bullets don't get very good penetration; you could hide behind a wooden table and be perfectly safe from them."
"All right. I see he brought a couple of knives along; what's this pistol here?"
"It's a single-shot holdout pistol, probably intended as a last resort. It's loaded with a single 12mm round, but it's also capable of firing an assortment of signal flares we found in the same pouch. It's likely a multi-purpose signal and survival tool that doubles as a weapon. Or maybe a suicide gun; the Ascension seem fond of killing themselves to avoid capture."
"Yes, well, it didn't work so well this time," Dornez commented grimly. "And these here, they're grenades?"
"Yes, sir. These two are identical to what we surmised from the evidence at the site of other attacks; octonitrocubane with small amounts of heptanitrocubane for the explosive, with about 3,000 tungsten ball bearings providing shrapnel. These three smaller grenades are the same basic concept, but about the size of a golf ball; less powerful, fewer projectiles, but smaller and lighter, so you can carry three of these for the same weight as a single full-sized grenade. There's also a pair of smoke grenades, they project an aerosol that blocks visibility and infrared scanners, not so much for tricorder scans. This one seems to be an incendiary grenade, loaded with what they used to call Thermate TH3; a fairly standard incendiary mixture, common to many worlds. We quit using it some time in the 22nd century."
"Let's look at his body suit."
"Yes, sir. The suit is fully enclosed, and a very ingenius design, actually. The boots and gloves attach just like on a space suit, and the collar attaches to the helmet, forming a fully enclosed suit. The materials used are a blend of artificial fibers, similar to Kevlar, Gore-Tex, and graphene, and the fibers used in our uniforms; it's a one-way membrane that allows sweat to wick away from the wearer, but keeps chemical weapons and biological material and fluids from getting in. Honestly, we should think of adopting this design for ourselves, it's incredibly clever. The enclosed suit would even protect the wearer from a vacuum for a short period."
"How short a period?"
"A minute or two? The breathable membrane would depressurize the suit eventually, but if someone wearing one of these suits was in a ship and got exposed to vacuum, he'd be protected long enough to get to a safe area. It's obviously not intended to double as a space suit, but it would help. It's also fireproof and provides ballistic protection; not a lot, but some. Probably enough to stop shrapnel. The body armor fits over it, covering most of the torso, as well as the upper arms and thighs, and consists of artificial fibers, ceramic, and titanium. We have reports that these troops could shrug off a direct hit from a kill setting, but multiple phaser hits or higher settings took them down. It's too bad we couldn't recover the body of one that got shot; I'd love to study how the armor was affected. I don't want to damage the only example we have by shooting it."
"The helmet," he continued, lifting it to show the admiral, "is fully-enclosed and features a cooling system and air filtration system, with a very small oxygen supply, only enough for a couple of minutes. Exposed to an environment with chemical or biological weapons or just nasty air, it filters everything out and provides clean air; in an environment with an oxygen shortage it provides supplemental oxygen to the wear, and even in a vacuum it would give the wearer enough time to get somewhere safe. There's a built-in comm link, infrared-enhanced vision that would enable them to see in the dark, auditory enhancement so they can hear things our ears aren't sensitive enough to pick up and on a wider range of frequencies, and a few other features we haven't worked out yet. We haven't studied the helmet too closely because of what happened with the PADD."
"Yes. Previously, we'd seen the Ascension use PADD's manufactured by the Ferengi, but this one appears to be made by the Ascension themselves. It has wireless information transfer capability like ours, but it also has a number of sockets for plugging in cables."
"Bulky. Not as heavy as it looks though."
"Indeed. It seems to be overbuilt specifically to survive hostile environments; logical, for something carried by a soldier. The outer layer is a rubberized material to protect it from impacts, and the display is both slightly flexible and self-healing to keep it from cracking. The internals are bulkier than ours, they don't seem to have quite mastered miniaturizing electronic components as well as we have, but this PADD holds nearly five times as much data as one of ours."
"I'm not," he said, taking the PADD from Dornez and waving it for emphasis. "It's bulkier than our PADD's, but they seem to be better at data storage than we are, both in terms of hardware and software, especially in terms of data compression. Speaking of software, it was utterly incompatible with anything we've encountered before. We couldn't even read the language displayed on the screen when we turned it on. We think it's based on a ternary system, but it was heavily encrypted. Unfortunately, when we tried to access it, we were unable to break the encryption and the PADD erased itself and overwrote its system with random gibberish so we couldn't recover any of the data. Then it ignited a small thermite charge inside the case and melted the hardware. This thing is a brick."
"You didn't notice an incendiary device inside it?"
"Oh no, we did. But we didn't do anything about it because it was designed to prevent someone from opening up the PADD and tampering with its internal components; we should have guessed it would activate in the event of any tampering. That's why we haven't done much with the helmet; we don't want the software or hardware destroying itself until we have a better idea of what we're doing."
"Good thinking," Dornez nodded.
"The rest of the soldier's gear seems to consist of an old-fashioned magnetic compass, illuminated with radioactive tritium, the two knives you see here, a canteen that rides on his back and plugs into the helmet so the wearer can take a drink at any time; that holds a little over 3 liters, by the way. A first aid kit, rather primitive by our standards; things like bandages, a powdered blood clotting agent, and the like. And a handful of ration bars and a self-heating drink pouch that contains some sort of soup. We can't read the text they're labeled with; not yet. But the translator is hard at work, and since we know what they contain, that gives us something to work with on guessing what the text says."
"No, that's it."
"Fine. Let's see the prisoner then."
"So you can see here," Bashir said, pointing to the display, "how his bones and musculature have been reinforced. The artificial muscle enhancing his real muscle actually increases support for the skeletal system; the bones may be the next best thing to unbreakable, but if he lifted the sheer amount of weight his muscles can lift, it wouldn't do his joints any favors. The artificial musculature adds more support, allowing him to use his full strength without damaging his own body in the process. If he wanted to, he could lift you, me, the commander here, and this table with one hand and hold us out at arm's length as long as he wanted without strain or fatigue."
"So he's a super-soldier."
"Indeed," Bashir said, agreeing with the admiral. "His eyesight is far better than ours, and he can see better in the dark too; not in color, but where we would only see vague silhouettes he would be able to see actual detail. His hearing is better, his sense of smell is slightly more sensitive, but not by much, and his immune system is simply insane. I know of only a handful of diseases that should even affect him; the Numerian Plague would cause total organ failure in you or I, but to him it'd barely give him the sniffles before his autoimmune system wiped it out."
"So we can't just wipe out the Ascension with a virus then."
Bashir stared at Admiral Dornez for a long moment, then said, "No, we couldn't. I don't believe we could engineer one either, if that was an option."
"Relax, doctor. I'm just thinking out loud; biological weapons aren't even a consideration."
"Mmm. Anyway, his lung capacity is greater than ours, and the oxygen exchange is more efficient; he could climb Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen. His heart is more efficient, and so is his metabolism; a body like his should take a lot of calories to fuel, but he gets more nutrition out of his food than we do. His liver and kidneys are also more efficient, and there appears to be a small, artificial addition to each that improves their filtration qualities; he's far more resistant to toxins than we are too."
"And," he continued, switching images on the display again, "he should be very intelligent. Cranial capacity is slightly larger, and the makeup of his brain suggests someone who is highly intelligent."
"I couldn't even begin to guess, but I have one of the highest IQ's of any human in Starfleet and he should at least be a match for me. That's, actually... what led me to my next point. When I scanned his brain, which was a tad difficult because of the ceramic reinforcing his skull, I noticed that it all looked very familiar, and that's when I realized it was because his brain structure is very similar to mine."
Dornez fixed Bashir with a steady look, his eyes narrowing, and slowly commented, "Doctor, your intelligence and hand-eye coordination are the result of illegal genetic engineering. Are you saying...?"
Taking a deep breath, Bashir nodded. "His biological enhancements are genetically engineered. In fact, when I checked our database to see if there records of similar engineering, I found an almost identical match."
Bashir tapped the display, bringing up additional information, and Dornez felt the color drain from his face and a curious sensation, like a sudden fall, fluttered in his gut.
Smiling grimly, Bashir nodded his agreement with that assessment.
"He's human. More specifically, he has nearly all the same genetic markers as the Augments of the late 20th, early 21st century. This man," he said, gesturing to the man lying on the biobed nearby, "is a descendant of the same people who brought us Khan Noonien Singh and Alexander Rheinhardt. The differences in genetic structure can be accounted for by some minor genetic tweaking since then, or perhaps just the passage of several centuries. And, of course, the artificial augmentation is new. But this does explain how the Valakian pilot we captured had his own genetic structure altered to correct the genetic defect that was killing them, as well as enhancing their physiology slightly. Not to the extent of this man, but still an improvement."
Dornez could feel his brain struggling to cope with all the implications this revelation brought with it. While he processed this new information, his Section 31 compatriot spoke up, asking, "So is the Ascension made of Augments, or did the Ascension just get their hands on the genetic material for them and produce their own supersoldiers? It seems to me that a man this strong and durable wouldn't really need powered armor like the majority of the Ascension we've seen."
"Good questioned," Bashir quipped. "Unfortunately, it's above my pay grade. I'm just a doctor; you'll have to ask him if you want any answers."
Dornez walked over to look at the man, covered in a blanket and restrained by a forcefield, and looked closely. Tall, powerfully muscled, his pale skin and close-cropped sandy-brown hair gave him a Nordic appearance, though he supposed the pale skin could just be from habitually wearing a full-body suit.
"How long until he regains consciousness?"
"Oh, er, he's been conscious for well over an hour. Almost immediately after we finished treating his concussion, in fact. He's very good at pretending though; if I wasn't monitoring his brain activity, I'd have never known."
Dornez looked alarmed for a moment, then jumped when the man's eyes snapped open, pupils constricting to adjust to the light level in the room immediately, and fixed him with a cold, steel-gray glare.
"Well then. What's your name, soldier?"
The man stared in silence.
"You've been listening to our conversation, so you know a lot of what we know. Who is the Ascension? Are they Augments, like you, or are you a client race like the Valakians? How did your people end up in Ascension space?"
"At least tell me your name. Interstellar law requires a prisoner of war to identify himself."
The man gave Dornez one last, contemptuous, glare, looked around the room, and then closed his eyes again.
"Well, no matter," said the man in a commander's uniform with a thin smile. "He'll talk eventually."
"Thank you, doctor. You've done fine work. I don't have to tell you that everything you've seen and done here today is classified?"
"Of course not," Bashir said, slightly nervous.
"Good. If we need your services again, we'll let you know. For now, I believe there are people who need your help."
"Glad to be of service, admiral. You know where to find me."
"Evasive maneuver Picard Gamma!"
The Enterprise banked down and to the left, narrowly avoiding a volley of missiles, but still failing to shake the Ascension fighters swarming them. Nearby, another starship exploded, but he had no idea which one.
His fleet had received more reinforcements from across the sector, and then the second fleet, the one that had responded to the attack on Earth, had also arrived just in the nick of time: the massive Ascension fleet that had gathered at the secret starbase he'd raided had launched its counterattack. This time the target seemed to be Starfleet itself, and not a starbase or space station, because they'd come right after Picard.
The Ascension had ships that could punch above their weight due to the sheer number of missiles they fired, and now they heavily outnumbered the Federation ships present in the system. It wasn't the most one-sided battle since Wolf 359, but it was certainly one of the grimmest, including the various engagements of the Dominion War.
The Enterprise's shields flared again as several more bomb-pumped x-ray lasers slashed at his ship. The only saving grace for the Federation was their superior maneuverability and their shields; while Ascension ships just had to suffer damage to their armor and the magnetic field and 'plasma window' they used to disperse the effects of phaser and torpedo fire somewhat, a Federation ship that took too much damage could fall back for a while and let their shields recover before entering the fray again. The Ascension fleet also seemed to lack any of the new ships they'd attacked Earth with, now officially known as Warlocks, so that was another saving grace.
Still, he thought grimly, the battle wasn't going especially well. Too few ships had point defense systems, and the Ascension were largely concentrating their fire on the biggest and most powerful ships; given the amount of firepower they could unleash, that meant the biggest and most powerful starships he had weren't long for the world, and they were being destroyed or crippled one by one.
"All ships, continue to close! We've got to get close enough that they don't dare use their missiles!"
The fleet charged into the fray, closing to what was effectively knife range in hopes of negating the Ascension's biggest advantage in space combat, and the killing and dying began in earnest.
Riker and Deanna looked up as the door to their cell snapped open and a pair of armored troopers leveled their weapons at them.
"YOU WILL COME WITH US IMMEDIATELY."
"I'm not going anywhere until I know where and why. I'm done play-"
It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't actually dying, it just felt like it; the touch of the shock baton that had extended from the soldier's arm had felt like getting punched and set on fire at the same time. He could breathe and look around, but that was about all; his control over his body was gone.
An Ascension soldier lifted him up with one hand like he was a doll and rumbled, "YOUR COMPLIANCE IS NOT A REQUIREMENT."
By the time they reached the security station, Riker could move again and was allowed to walk on his own, though the armored juggernaut kept one massive hand on his shoulder to steady him as he wobbled on shaky legs that didn't want to cooperate. As they passed through the security station, the armored troopers there seemed on high alert, weapon stations manned and every soldier holding his rifle at the ready, while red lights and a quiet alarm tone set a tense atmosphere.
Clearly something was happening, but Riker didn't know what. They reached the turbolift, still manned by a soldier standing at attention with his rifle at the low-ready, and the lift moved so quickly that Riker and Deanna almost lost their footing, then halted just as quickly. They were hustled down a short corridor to another turbolift, the doors flanked by a pair of guards and a third inside the lift itself, went on an equally abrupt journey, exited, and passed through another security station, this time with twice as many weapon emplacements and all aimed at the turbolift. Passing through an airlock with thick doors, they entered what Riker realized must be the bridge.
It was his first time getting a good look at the bridge of an Ascension ship; the only other time he'd seen one was on the viewscreen, and he'd barely been able to see anything because of the extreme closeup on the ship's captain in his black armor.
He'd expected something dimly lit and brooding, like a Klingon ship, but more... industrial, in appearance. He was half right. The bridge was brightly lit and everything was painted either bright white or a battleship grey color. The bridge was cramped, with just enough space to move around to all the different stations. Each station had consoles that looked to be armored, and the seats the crewmen sat in were heavily reinforced and had crash frames and harnesses built in. None of the crew had the heavy powered armor of the soldiers escorting him and Deanna, but each wore a black spacesuit with armor and padding, and except for the pair of soldiers flanking the only entrance to the bridge, every member of the bridge crew was secure in his seat and console almost like a separate capsule; it wouldn't have surprised him to discover that each bridge station actually doubled as an escape pod or life support capsule. Everything the Ascension made seemed to be overbuilt and as tough as possible, so that certainly seemed plausible. He also noted that every crew member had a sidearm of some sort in a hip, thigh, or shoulder holster; if every member of the crew was armed at all times, it just made escape that much harder. The only sounds were a faint whisper of airflow from vents in the ceiling and the quiet chirp-hiss-click of crewmen talking to each other.
"YOU WILL STAND HERE. YOU WILL NOT MOVE, AND YOU WILL NOT SPEAK. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL BE PUNISHED SEVERELY."
"Sure, I understand," Riker said, shuffling to stand where indicated.
"YOU WILL NOT SPEAK." The baton extended again and crackled once menacingly. This time, Riker simply nodded his understanding and the Ascension soldier leaned back, retracting the baton in apparent satisfaction. Deanna remained silent and kept her eyes downcast, but Riker noticed her looking surreptitiously around the bridge.
Riker looked over the captain's shoulder, difficult to do with the heavy crash frame the man was nestled in, and looked at the small display in front of him; there was no main viewscreen like on a Federation vessel. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as he saw a Galaxy-class starship, flanked by a pair of Defiant-class ships, on the screen. Then the display changed to reveal the bridge of the Galaxy-class ship.
"I'm Captain Osmond Steele of the Federation starship Andromeda. Your transport ship is outnumbered and outgunned; surrender immediately."
"WE PREFER DEATH TO SURRENDER. YOU WILL ALSO NOTE THAT WE ARE TRANSPORTING PRISONERS OF WAR. WE WILL NOT SURRENDER AND WE WILL NOT ALLOW OURSELVES TO BE CAPTURED. STAND DOWN AND ALLOW US TO PROCEED ON COURSE OR WE WILL EXECUTE THE PRISONERS AND FIGHT TO THE DEATH."
Deanna dropped like a puppet with its strings cut as a shock baton was pressed to the small of her back, and the soldier stunning her kept her from falling to the deck with one hand. Riker tensed up, but felt the tip of another baton pressing against him, ready to discharge, and simply grit his teeth in anger. There was literally nothing he could do to fight back against the armored giants.
On the small screen, Captain Steele considered for a moment, discussing the situation with his officers while the audio was muted. Finally, after about a minute of obviously heated discussion, Steele turned to the viewscreen again, glaring at it with obvious hatred.
"We'll let you go... this time. But y-"
"A WISE DECISION."
The comm channel was cut and Riker and Deanna were hustled from the bridge again and led back to their cells.
"Are you ok?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Are you?"
"I'm fine. It hurts like hell when they zap you, but only for a moment."
"He was bluffing. The Ascension captain."
"Of course he was. We're the only prisoners on the whole ship."
"No; he was bluffing about killing us. They have no intent to harm us, at least not for now. I'm not sure if it's because of their orders or simply because they don't believe in harming prisoners, but while they were perfectly willing to fight to the death and destroy themselves, they would not have killed us."
"They sure have a funny way of 'not harming' us," he commented dryly, touching the spot where he'd been stunned. It felt a little tender there, like a mild sunburn, but there didn't seem to be any other damage.
"You know what I mean."
"So why us? Why are we so important?"
"I'm not sure why they want me along, but you're the captain of a Federation starship, and you have a long, distinguished service record. You're also probably the highest ranking Starfleet officer they've captured so far. If they really want us to help them establish a line of dialogue with the Federation and negotiate for peace, then we're the logical choice."
Grimacing, Riker slumped onto the bed and leaned his head against the wall. How the hell long was this trip going to take, anyway?
Two days later, he found out.
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