Picard materialized into a familiar-looking transporter room, its green walls oddly comforting. I miss the old Enterprise.
He stepped off the pad and shook hands with the grinning, bearded man in front of him, then embraced him in a brief, shoulder-slapping hug.
"It's good to see you!"
"It's good to see you too, Commodore. Welcome aboard the Galaxy."
"I have to say, she looks quite a bit... different than when I last saw her."
Grinning even more broadly, Geordi gestured toward the door and led him out into the corridor.
"Oh, it's more than looks! The Galaxy-class is absolutely perfect for this sort of project! The modular nature of the original Galaxy-class starships lets us plug in new mission modules without building a whole new starship. We replaced the arboretum with a hydroponics bay, massive, and the new astrometrics section is top of the line! Even the newest starships fresh off the assembly line don't have one like we do! Leah and I were assigned to design the new warp drive using data recovered from Voyager; the slipstream drive is still a few years off from being stable enough to use safely, but between my familiarity with Galaxy-class ships and Leah having designed the original warp drive, we've been able to modify this old girl and make her the fastest ship in Starfleet. They're actually talking about modifying the warp speed scale to adjust for it."
"What, again?" Picard said wryly as they stepped into a turbolift and headed for the bridge.
"You know it. No more 'warp ten as a theoretical impossibility' the way light speed used to be, now they're talking about a new warp speed scale that goes up to fifteen. And the Galaxy can hit the top of the scale, easy. Cruising speed is going to be restricted to around warp twelve, of course."
"I have to say, for an experimental ship, this vessel seems geared around a long-term voyage. New warp drive? Massive hydroponics bay? Astrometrics? Is there a specific goal in mind?"
The turbolift doors hissed open and they stepped out onto a bridge Picard found achingly familiar, other than the color of the carpeting and the LCARS panels having updated, modern displays. It was only seven years of his life, but he really did miss the old Enterprise.
"You bet. The Galaxy Project is going to renovate all of the old Galaxy-class starships, and maybe some of the newer ones they built for the Dominion War, and they're going to become Starfleet's premier ships once again. Most of them will remain in Federation space, but two each are going to explore each quadrant, roaming farther from home than any other starship, except of course for Voyager. It'll still take years, decades even, but we're going to be charting out new territory and encountering new civilizations in no time. Of course, Starfleet wants the Galaxy Project starships to be able to defend themselves against unknown threats, so they merged the Galaxy Project with a weapons development project intended to fight the Borg; hence, the giant phaser cannon, upgraded phaser banks, additional quantum torpedo launchers, enhanced shields- also developed from technology brought back by Voyager- and a few other surprises. Only half of which are implemented, of course; we're still installing and testing all the new systems, and there's quite a few bugs to work out. Our phaser cannon overheated shortly after we used it, for example. The Galaxy wasn't even scheduled for her shakedown cruise until a year from now."
"I'm surprised Starfleet sent her into battle then."
"Well, she handled herself pretty well, all things considered, and most of what hasn't been installed are things we wouldn't need to take into battle, such as the improved sensors our astrometric section needs or the new deflector dish. But to be honest, I'm kinda surprised myself. They had us drop everything to install the new point defense systems last week, and then today they load quantum torpedoes onto the ship, give me a skeleton crew led by my engineers since they know all the systems, and send us off to reinforce the fleet. Craziest thing I ever heard of; either Starfleet is really desperate, or really stupid. Who knows."
"Mm. I think they were hoping the Galaxy's new weapons might make a psychological impact on the Ascension; or perhaps some admiral on the design board wanted to send her into battle to show off his new ideas outside of a simulation. It wouldn't be the first time someone has done that to advance their career."
"It wouldn't surprise me. In any case, while she didn't do too badly, the Galaxy isn't ready for another battle. Too many things shook loose or overheated or weren't installed in the first place. With Utopia Planitia wrecked, finishing the Galaxy is going to take even longer; we were at the facility near Jupiter, but without Utopia Planitia nearby we won't have the support or logistics we need. We're relocating the rest of the construction to Vulcan."
Picard rested one hand on Geordi's shoulder and smiled, saying quietly, "Well, while I will miss you deeply, I think your talents are best needed with your ship. Good luck, Geordi, and give my best to Leah."
"Oh, I will. You're coming to the wedding, aren't you?"
"If the Ascension give me a choice in the matter, I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Picard looked around the bridge one more time, glanced at the captain's seat fondly, and said, "She's a good ship, Geordi. Take care of her."
"I will. Let me see you off."
"Oh, no, don't trouble yourself. You have work to do and just got here, I wouldn't want to make you leave the bridge again. You'll have to give me the full tour some other time."
Geordi nodded, then walked into his ready room as Picard took one last look at the bridge and stepped into the lift. He was joined by a youthful, but somehow seasoned-looking man wearing lieutenant's pips.
"Transporter room three. And where are you going, Lieutenant...?"
"Kim, sir. Same place. I'm being temporarily assigned to another ship in the fleet; apparently they need my technical expertise."
"Is that so? You wouldn't be the same Kim from Voyager, would you?"
"The very same."
"It must feel good to be home again."
"Oh, it does, sir. In fact, I just got married a month ago. We're already expecting."
"Really? Congratulations! Is it a boy, or a girl?"
"We don't know yet. We're keeping it a surprise."
The doors opened and they walked down the corridor toward the transporter room.
"Well, you seem to be doing well for yourself since getting home."
"That I am, sir. Things are definitely looking up for me." Harry Kim didn't mention that his new-found confidence and self-assertion were partly from how things had turned out since Voyager returned to Earth and partly from extensive therapy sessions to help him deal with his issues stemming from being stranded in the Delta Quadrant. He'd had a lot of repressed stress and trauma from years of horrible things happening to him, and his counselor had helped him realize that part of his emotional dullness was because of Captain Janeway and the way she'd treated him. He still liked the captain, and it wasn't her fault, but he just couldn't deal with her style of command or... eccentric decisions that seemed to constantly put them in danger again and again, anymore. Transferring to an engineering assignment working on the Galaxy Project had been just what he needed to get away from all the stress and the claustrophobic feelings he'd had aboard Voyager, and finally marrying his sweetheart Libby, along with impending fatherhood, had done a lot of good for his psychological wellbeing. He was happy, safe, and felt like he could do anything.
"Well Lieutenant, I wish you the best of luck."
"Thank you, Commodore. You as well."
Picard beamed back to the Enterprise, and Harry turned to the transporter chief to ask, "So, which ship am I being assigned to?"
The chief checked his coordinates while Harry stepped onto the pad, then looked up with a grin.
"Good news, sir; it's the Voyager. You're going home again."
It was all Harry could do not to shriek at the unfairness of the universe as he dissolved in a beam of light and reappeared on a familiar transporter pad.
"Ah, Lieutenant; the Admiral would like to see you on the bridge."
"Yes, Admiral Janeway. I believe you two know each other," the transporter operator said with a wink.
Ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach, Harry nodded woodenly, then stepped out into the corridor and made his way to the turbolift.
Dammit dammit dammit! Why did it have to be Voyager again?! Why Janeway?! He'd tried so hard to escape all the trauma and stress, and now here he was, stressing out, feeling like a helpless child again, like the lowly ensign he'd been during the seven years he was trapped on Voyager. He'd gotten everything he wanted, only to have it snatched away again so he could be stuck aboard Voyager, with Janeway sending them flying straight into danger for no good reason.
"It really is the voyage of the damned," he whispered.
The lift stopped and he stepped out onto the bridge, shoulders hunched.
"Harry! It's good to see you again!"
"Listen Harry, Voyager isn't really supposed to be operational again. I took off from San Francisco with a skeleton crew and some photon torpedoes jerry-rigged from museum displays, and I didn't really feel like sending her back, especially since Starfleet needs every ship they can get. I've got a full crew complement and full torpedo bays for the first time since we left Deep Space Nine, but I could really use someone who understands my style of command and is familiar with Voyager itself. And when I found out you were aboard the Galaxy, I just had to get you back!"
Squeezing Harry in a tight hug he didn't return, partly because of how awkward he suddenly felt, Janeway stepped back, gracing him with another smile, and saying earnestly, "I could really use you at ops. What do you say, Harry?"
"Uh, s-sure. I'd be glad to."
"Good ol' Harry. I knew I could count on you," Janeway said, slapping his arm in approval.
"Uh, Admiral? There's something... crawling on your shoulder."
"Huh?" Janeway looked down, spotted movement, and gently plucked it off her uniform.
"Oh, a garden spider. He must've gotten aboard while Voyager was in San Francisco. They had the shuttle bay doors open, so all kinds of critters got in there; Petty Officer Logan had to beam a trio of pigeons out of the shuttle bay once things calmed down near Earth. Harry, be a dear and deposit him in the airponic room, would you?"
Harry looked down awkwardly as the admiral dropped the spider into his hand and returned to the captain's seat, and he shuffled off the bridge, tossed the spider into a corner of the turbolift and tried not to hyperventilate from a panic attack.
Damn it all to hell.
Riker and Troi seated themselves at the table, which had place settings for three, one of which they assumed was whatever representative the Ascension would have them meet, since it was at the head of the table.
Their guards had flanked either side of the door they entered and now stood at attention, rifles at port arms.
Shortly after seating themselves, the door hissed open and three people entered. Two looked identical to the aide that had shown them their room and escorted them into the dining room (and he may have been one of them, for all they knew), but the third was much shorter, had a more rounded helmet with a visor that took up more of the face, and was the first member of the Ascension they'd encountered who was probably female, judging by the chest and hips 'she' sported. They carried serving trays, quickly and efficiently putting covered platters on the table, placing glasses of ice water in front of their 'guests', and generally preparing the meal. Task complete, the two probably-males retreated from the room while the probably-female took up a station against the wall, staring straight ahead with a cloth hung over one arm.
Riker was beginning to wonder if he should say something, when the door opened again and another figure stepped through. He wore a body suit similar to the ones worn by the aides, but he had a formal suit like the one in Riker's closet over it, and his helmet had a couple of antennae on one side and a bulkier look to it. He seated himself at the head of the table, then removed his gloves and helmet, allowing the aide to hang them on a rack behind him.
Riker didn't know what he'd been expecting, but this certainly wasn't it. The man looked human, with neatly trimmed blonde hair and an immaculately styled Van Dyke that turned up at the tips of his mustache. How the goatee had fit inside the helmet was somewhat confusing.
"You are Captain William Riker and his wife, ship's counselor Deanna Riker?"
"I am Minister Georges Fabio," he said, pronouncing his g's softly in the French way, though his accent was nothing of the sort. "On behalf of the Ascension, I greet you and I apologize for the circumstances of our meeting."
The aide began serving up food, and Riker found his plate heaped with unfamiliar vegetables in some sort of sauce, what looked to be chicken in a similar but darker sauce, and pasta with some sort of stick-like protrusions that were striped white and orange. A mug of what turned out to be excellent coffee was placed next to his water.
"Please, feel free to eat while we talk. I'll start with the Ascension's side of the story. Our contacts amongst the Ferengi and other races inform us that your Federation has learned of our identity, so there's no point in keeping it secret from you. The Ascension is a confederation of half a dozen species, but most of us are... human."
Riker and Deanna looked shocked as they heard this, and he continued.
"Specifically, our founders were refugees who fled Earth in the early 21st century. The Ascension Project began in the late 20th century as a means of benefiting humanity and allowing us to exploit the resources of the solar system; with the construction of the first DY-100 sleeper ships, beginning in the 1990's, we intended to send the first manned missions to nearby stars. But then the Eugenics Wars broke out, and we used those ships to escape Earth and search for a new home."
"I... have several questions," Riker stated tentatively.
"Go ahead. The purpose of this meeting is so we can come to understand one another's perspectives on this conflict and resolve it."
"Why flee Earth? Once the Augments were defeated and the tyrants overthrown, there was no reason to- you anticipated the Third World War, didn't you. You were fleeing before it broke out in the aftermath of the Eugenics Wars."
"Actually," their host said dryly, sipping from his glass of water. "We fled because our side lost."
"You're Augments," Deanna stated, showing much less surprise at this revelation than Riker felt.
"Ok, putting that aside for a moment, if you fled Earth in the early 21st century in slower-than-light sleeper ships, then how did you have war ships all the way out here when we encountered you in the 22nd century? How did you even get here? We encountered Khan in deep space after he'd drifted for centuries, but he didn't make it nearly as far as you did."
"Khan? As in Khan Noonien Singh?"
"Interesting. We didn't know he survived the Eugenics Wars; we haven't gone through all of the records from your ship yet. We didn't manage to take all of the sleeper ships with us when we left Earth, so I suppose it isn't terribly surprising that he commandeered one for himself. As for how we made it all the way here in sleeper ships, it's simple: we didn't. Not all Augments were able to flee Earth, nor did you manage to hunt them all down and kill them," Deanna twitched slightly as he said this. "And when new warp-capable ships were constructed, they commandeered two of them, intercepted our slow ships, and towed them along. Later, we encountered other races along our journey and began a mutually beneficial relationship with them."
"I sense that you feel as if you're the victims of the Eugenics Wars, and that your people had to leave because they were persecuted," Deanna interjected.
"Of course. We were engineered as the next phase of human development, the next step up from Homo Sapiens to Homo Superior. Our creators trained us to be leaders, warriors, diplomats, scientists, engineers, doctors... we were supposed to benefit all mankind and elevate them to be like us. Instead, we were resented by the jealous and the backward, and when the world was descending into chaos with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Eastern Coalition, we had to act. We put a stop to the coming war and established peace, order, and prosperity... and you turned on us. Called us usurpers and tyrants. Turned the entire world against us, and issued orders to have us exterminated; not merely to arrest our leaders and charge them with crimes, but to have us, all of us, exterminated, regardless of innocence or guilt, simply because you felt threatened by our existence. So of course we feel our people were persecuted; we were. We had to run for our lives into deep space, not knowing where we were going or what we would find when we got there; the vastness of the space and the possibility of our very survival were completely unknown, but remaining on Earth was a death sentence. And you proved us right; as soon as you thought we were all dead and gone, you nearly destroyed yourselves with the very war we'd been trying to prevent in the first place."
"So you resent us for that."
"Oh, certainly; but it's been a couple of generations since then, so only the elderly still feel that old wound. Our policy of isolation and avoiding contact with the Federation stems from the Eugenics Wars, but we haven't kept it up all this time solely because of that conflict. No, it's what you've done since then."
"What do you mean?" Riker demanded, feeling defensive at being portrayed as the bad guy in the Eugenics Wars. In his mind, it was rather like being confronted by the descendant of a Nazi soldier and told that the Allies had been in the wrong in World War Two.
"Let's take one of our client races, the Valakians, for example. We encountered them while searching for a new world to claim as our own. They were a dying people, with an ailment that was easily cured by anyone with the technology we had. And we learned from them that they had encountered humans, who had developed that cure... and then refused to give it to them, condemning their species to extinction, and not even having the courtesy to at least tell them why. So we cured them, and in exchange they became our client; we developed new starships, based on the ones we'd brought with us, and the Valakians left with us to colonize what a year later became Ascension space."
"But why would they abandon their own world? And if you were looking to colonize a planet yourselves, why not stay there?"
"Because you were there. If you knew of our existence, you would continue your crusade to exterminate us. Once you realized the Valakians hadn't been condemned to a slow death, you would investigate who cured them and how, and you would find us. Once the Valakians learned of our history and how you sought to exterminate us, and knowing of your attempt to commit genocide against them, they were no longer willing to stay where your more advanced Starfleet could threaten them. So we both left, looking for a new home, and found it together. We acquired our other client races in much the same way; single-world civilizations who encountered your United Earth, and later Federation of Planets, and came out the worst for it. You do realize your Federation has a bit of a bad reputation in this corner of space, don't you? The Breen, the K'zinti, the Gorn, the T'sari, all of them rather resent your high-handedness, your arrogance, and your hypocrisy."
Riker opened his mouth to give Fabio a piece of his mind, but Deanna stopped him by reaching under the table and squeezing his thigh. She interjected, much more diplomatically than he would have.
"Be that as it may, the Federation genuinely wants peace and friendship with all civilizations. We've cured sickness, poverty, violence, and-"
"How many attempted coups has Starfleet had throughout its history? What about Federation colonies like Turkana IV or El Facil? You don't have poverty and violent crime because any world afflicted by them, you simply cast out and claim it's not your problem. Cured sickness? How many plagues do you deal with in any given year? Hate and racism? You went around the quadrant telling everyone not to do business with the Ferengi, who you hadn't even formally met, because they were untrustworthy cannibals who ate their clients! You made it your policy to exterminate human beings simply for being genetically augmented! Even a century after the Eugenics Wars, you made it your mission to destroy Augments! How about when you released weapons on the Maquis, your own people, that rendered an entire world uninhabitable and threatened to do it again? And don't forget, Counselor, I've read your history files and personal logs after we downloaded the contents of your ship's computer. I even know how you, Captain, murdered your own clone on Mariposa!"
Riker's mouth hung open like a gasping fish as Fabio rose from his seat and slammed one fist against the dinner table.
"I also know how your Prime Directive has been used to excuse additional acts of genocide! You were content to use your non-interference clause to let the entire populations of worlds, whole civilizations, go extinct! Boraal II! Drema IV! You actually use your Prime Direction to excuse moral laziness and refuse to help people in need, all while smugly preaching to the universe how you're so enlightened and ethically superior!"
Fabio sat down, looking disgusted.
"And you wouldn't even leave us in peace. Time and again we made it clear we wanted nothing to do with you, but you just kept coming and trying to wheedle your way into opening diplomatic relations with us. Why? We had no technology you wanted, you knew nothing about us, and we kept driving you away, so why persist? Why keep coming out to Ascension space, where we were bothering no one, and trying to make us open up to you? So you could recruit us into your Federation? Oh wait, no, that's right; your ship's logs say you wanted to annex part of our space to fuel your war machine so you could fight the Dominion again. Please, Captain, tell me all about how righteous your utopian Federation is."
Riker sat speechless, fork forgotten in his hand. He was, frankly, stunned. Deanna shifted uncomfortably beside him, then quietly said, "I feel like we've gotten off on the wrong foot. I believe you invited us to dinner for a specific reason?"
Fabio, still scowling, momentarily turned his attention to his neglected plate, shoveling a mouthful of pasta into his mouth. Following it with a drink from his glass, he seemed to have calmed himself somewhat.
"Yes. The Ascension never wanted this war; we'd hoped if we showed ourselves as a threat you had to take seriously, you would back off and avoid another war. Obviously we miscalculated. Now we're both stuck in an increasingly costly conflict neither of us really wants to prolong. Thus, in the interest of peacefully resolving the war, we'd like to create an understanding between our two peoples and end the war."
"That," Deanna said slowly, "sounds like an excellent idea. But I have the feeling it may not be as easy as we hope."
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