An advanced and scientiÞc people who have made great strides with nanotechnology, the Chiar expanded internally rather than externally. Every inch of their planet is crawling with the tiniest bits and pieces of artiÞcial intelligence imaginable, working in concert as the new lifeblood of this mechanical world. The people themselves are inseparable from their nanites, which layer their skin and provide extra limbs or senses as required.
Caught up in a bitter civil conþict, some Chiar will try to take advantage of their meeting with the crew of Starship Voyager. They imagine that their homegrown nanites can harness the incredible power of the deadly Borg, and instead set in motion an experiment that goes devastatingly out of control.
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Captain Kathryn Janeway clung grimly to the arms of her captain's chair as the ship bucked and shuddered beneath her.
"How much longer?" she bellowed over the noise.
"About ten minutes!" Ensign Harry Kim yelled back from the science station. The bridge lights were dimmed, indicating an ongoing emergency.
"Shields at fifty-two percent," Tuvok reported from tactical. A nearby sensor panel exploded in a noisy shower of white sparks. The lieutenant commander's calm Vulcan features didn't even twitch. Janeway, however, had to work at keeping her own face schooled into a calm she didn't feel -- this ion storm was one for the record books. Even Tom Paris's boyish face was grim as he bent over the navigation board in a desperate attempt to keep the ship at least halfway steady. To Janeway's left, First Officer Chakotay's fingers stabbed madly at his own boards. Though Janeway suspected he was doing nothing but monitor data, at least he could do something. All Janeway could do was watch and issue orders.
Janeway's chair dropped several centimeters as another barrage hit the ship and her morning coffee sloshed around her stomach.
"Janeway to engineering," she said. "B'Elanna, can we go to warp yet?"
"I wouldn't, Captain," came B'Elanna's voice over the intercom. "We'd do some serious damage to the plasma manifolds, and the injectors are already misaligned. I'm trying to route more power to the inertial dampers, but it's a losing battle."
"Shields at forty-six percent," Tuvok said.
Janeway clamped her teeth together.
The stars on the viewscreen leaped and squiggled into white worms as another ion onslaught hit the ship. Janeway was about to tell Tom to blank the screen when something flicked past. An alarm buzzed at Tuvok's station.
"What the hell was that?" Janeway demanded. The ship shook again.
"A ship," Chakotay interjected before Tuvok could reply. "It dropped out of warp and coasted past us."
"It is emitting a distress call," Tuvok said. "The ship is damaged. I am detecting only minimal shields."
"Mr. Paris, match course and trajectory," Janeway ordered. "Tuvok, can we extend our own shields around it?"
"Extending the shields would lower them to less than thirty percent," Tuvok replied. "An inadvisable move at this juncture."
Another panel sparked, and a small cloud of acrid smoke exploded upward. The ensign staffing it jumped back with a yelp. Automatic fire-suppression units kicked in, filling the bridge with the chemical smell of extinguisher compound.
"I'm reading one life sign on the ship," Harry Kim said. He was operating the board with his left hand. His right was currently clutching the top of his console for balance. "It's a small ship, barely big enough for a -- " His eyes widened. "Captain, the ion storm is eroding the shields around that ship's warp core. Breach in one minute."
"Extend those shields, Mr. Tuvok," Janeway snapped. "Lieutenant Torres, all power to the shields."
Tuvok's long fingers moved swiftly but unhurriedly over his panel. "Shields extended. They are now at twenty-eight percent."
Janeway shot a glance at the viewscreen. The ship was indeed small. It looked like a needle with an octagonal disk fastened to the back. Small protrusions stuck out from each corner of the disk, and Janeway, once a science officer, made an educated guess that they were either warp nacelles, thrusters, or both.
"The other ship's warp core is stabilizing," Harry said with genuine relief. At this range a warp core breach from even so small a ship would do far more damage than any ion storm. "The life sign is also remaining steady."
Voyager shook again. Janeway's knuckles were white on the arms of her chair. The darkened bridge was lit solely by the red-alert emergency lights, and she could still smell fire-suppression compound.
And then it stopped. The floor settled down, and the chaos simply ended. Janeway's ears rang in the sudden silence on the bridge.
"We have passed through the storm," Tuvok reported.
Janeway stood up, wincing at the cramps in her fingers. She hadn't realized how tightly she'd been gripping her chair until she let go. "Stand down red alert," she said. "All stations, I want full damage reports. Open a hailing frequency."
The computer chimed once. "Open," Tuvok reported.
"Attention alien vessel," Janeway said. "This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager. Can you respond?"
A static-strangled voice gargled from the speakers, and the viewscreen showed a fuzzy image. Tuvok's fingers danced over his panel. Voice and picture cleared a bit. The screen showed a creature approximately the size of a large St. Bernard. It had four legs and a long segmented neck with a flattened head perched atop it. The mouth was wide, the eyes spaced far apart. A pair of arms jutted from the place where the neck met the body and ended in six-fingered hands. Janeway blinked as Tuvok's ministrations brought the creature into clearer focus. Its body was covered in some sort of coating that shifted and scintillated like strings of tiny rainbow beads caught in a breeze. Janeway's mind tried to find a pattern to the movement and failed. It was simultaneously beautiful and unnerving.
The creature was working in a cloud of smoke. Wires and bits of equipment dangled from panels that gaped like open sores. Janeway winced in sympathy. Another wash of static distorted the image for a moment.
"...your help," the creature said, voice still slightly garbled. "I would otherwise have been destroyed."
"Is your ship heavily damaged?" Janeway rose and walked closer to the viewscreen.
"Yes. Many of my systems are nonoperational. Who are you? I was unable to understand the first part of your broadcast."
Janeway repeated the information.
"Federation starship?" The creature ducked its head in what looked to Janeway like confused curiosity. "You are a part of an intergalactic federation? Have you then been watching us?"
"We are a member of a galactic federation, yes," Janeway said. "But we haven't been observing your civilization. Our presence here is coincidence. We were stranded in this quadrant several years ago, and we're trying to make our way home. The ion storm caught us just as it did you," she concluded. "My name is Captain Kathryn Janeway."
"And my name is Zedrel Vu of the planet Chi." Zedrel's head leaned forward, as if to get a better look at Janeway and her crew. "I...that is, perhaps it would be...I mean, I should say..." Zedrel smacked broad lips in a sound Janeway took for exasperation or uncertainty, though she had nothing but instinct to base this on. "I beg your pardon, Captain Kathryn Janeway. I am the first -- " More static. " -- travel outside our own solar system and I was unaware that I would meet another species so -- " Static. " -- not trained as a diplomat."
Uh-oh, Janeway thought. Sounds like first contact. She raised an eyebrow at Chakotay.
"His ship does have warp drive," the first officer reminded her, adding. "Or it did until a few minutes ago."
Janeway nodded. Her thoughts were running the same way. Starfleet's Prime Directive forbade contact with any species that was not already capa
ble of warp travel, but the Chi had just barely passed that threshold. This was, however, still a first-contact situation, and such were always delicate. There was no way to know exactly how a given species would react to the new knowledge that other forms of life populated the galaxy. First-contact situations therefore made Janeway a little edgy.
"Do I understand, correctly, that this is your people's first warp ship?" Janeway asked carefully.
"It is," Zedrel replied. "I -- " Static. " -- and built it myself. With the government's aid, of course. People already call it the Zedrel Drive."
Janeway couldn't decide whether the remark was meant to be self-deprecating, boastful, or merely matter-of-fact, so she ignored it. "Do you need further assistance?" she said instead.
"I haven't fully assessed the damage yet," Zedrel admitted.
"The vessel's 'Zedrel Drive,'" Tuvok said with, possibly, a note of irony in his voice, "has been rendered inoperative by the ion storm, as have its thrusters. The ship appears to have spent only a fraction of a second at warp before the drive went off-line, and it is uncertain whether the problem arose from the ion storm or faults in the engine design. Life support is functional. Communications are functional but starting to fail. The ship is completely unarmed."
"An excellent damage report, Mr. Tuvok," Janeway said. "Do you suppose you could also assemble one for my ship?"
"Of course, Captain," Tuvok replied, not seeming to notice the sarcasm.
Janeway turned back to the viewscreen. "Captain Zedrel -- "
"I'm not really a captain," Zedrel interrupted, and a spurt of static disrupted the image. " -- an engineer."
"Engineer Zedrel, then," Janeway continued, nonplussed. "Our ship has also been damaged by the storm. Once we've assessed the extent of it, may I contact you again and see what we can accomplish? Perhaps together we can ensure our mutual safety."
"A fine idea, Captain."
Janeway nodded. Was Zedrel staring at her? Perhaps that was the custom of his people. Unplanned first contacts were always complicated. With no background data there was no way to tell if you -- or they -- were being polite or abrupt, helpful or offensive. A word or phrase could lead to war, peace, or the accidental betrothal of your firstborn child. The best you could hope for was that everyone would understand you were trying to be polite. In this case, it looked as if Voyager was in some position of power, but there could be factors Janeway knew nothing about.
Zedrel's wide-spaced eyes continued to fix on Janeway, and the odd body covering glimmered and shifted.
r"Good luck to you, then," she said. "We'll contact you soon. Voyager out."
The screen went blank, and Kathryn Janeway heaved a small sigh of relief.
"I can't give you more than warp one, and then only for short bursts," reported B'Elanna Torres. The bar on the collar of her uniform gleamed softly in the subdued light of the conference room. Although Torres was Janeway's chief engineer, the bar indicated her status as a provisional officer. A few tiny braids had been artfully woven into her shoulder-length brown hair.
Torres's husband, Lieutenant Tom Paris, sandy-haired and blue-eyed, sat to her left. Harry Kim kept his hands folded on the table next to Tuvok. Seven of Nine stood against one bulkhead like a statue, hands behind her back, features even more impassive than Tuvok's. Her severely styled blond hair and blue-gray eyes combined with the Borg implant over her left eye to make her expression seem even stonier. The Doctor drummed his fingers with a hint of holographic impatience.
"The impulse engines and life-support systems weren't even touched," Torres continued. "But the plasma injectors are a mess, and the -- "
"Bottom line, B'Elanna," Janeway interrupted. "How long are we talking for repairs?"
"Without a shipyard or a station? Ten days if we're lucky. I'm betting on twelve. We also lost almost half our stock of dilithium."
"What?" Janeway said, still trying to take in the idea of spending ten days on repairs. "How?"
"When we extended the shields to protect the 'Zedrel Drive,' " Tuvok said, "enough ionic radiation penetrated cargo hold seven to irradiate the dilithium stored there. It has been rendered useless."
"We can continue recrystalizing what we have," Torres put in. "But having such a small stockpile makes me nervous."
Janeway puffed out her cheeks. "What else?"
"Sickbay is running perfectly," the Doctor said smugly. "I've successfully treated five cases of mild radiation poisoning and a dozen minor injuries related to the turbulence. Nothing serious."
"Long-range sensors were hit pretty hard," Harry said. "Short-range seem to be all right. There's still a lot of leftover radiation washing this sector, though, so I wouldn't count on using the transporters until it clears up."
"Not unless you want to arrive looking like one of Neelix's soufflés," Tom interjected wryly.
"The astrometrics lab has taken minor damage and requires repair," Seven said. "I assume, however, that you would prefer I assist in engineering."
Janeway got up to stand behind her chair. "You assume rightly. B'Elanna, how long would repairs take if we had the facilities of a shipyard or space station?"
Torres shrugged. "It would depend on the facilities. A full-blown shipyard could have us up and running in a few hours. A decent space station? I'd guess a couple of days, maybe three."
"Well, then, I think it's time we had another talk with Engineer Zedrel." Janeway headed for the door as the crew scrambled to their feet behind her.
Back on the bridge Chakotay looked up from his panel as the bridge crew relieved their substitutes and took their places. Torres and Seven both headed for the turbolift to engineering.
"How bad is it?" Chakotay asked. Without sitting down, Janeway gave a quick explanation, and he grimaced. "Could be worse."
"Could be better," Janeway said. "Mr. Tuvok, open a hailing frequency."
"Engineer Zedrel, this is Captain Janeway."
Static crackled across the main screen again, and a distorted Zedrel shuddered into view. The odd body coating continued to shimmer and shift, though it had settled into varying shades of blue instead of the rainbow riot Janeway had seen earlier. "Captain. I have just now completed my damage survey."
"As have we." Judiciously, she explained their situation. "What's your status?"
"The ion storm destroyed most of my tool and repair programs," Zedrel reported. "I am unable -- " Static. " -- than the most rudimentary work. The only systems that seem to be operational are life support and communication." The picture fuzzed out for a moment, then came back into focus like a candle that would soon gutter out. "...will probably fail soon as well. I will be stranded."
Janeway raised her voice. "We can tow you back to your planet if you send us the coordinates."
"Gratitude, Captain. I am sure my people would also -- " The screen fuzzed again. "...gratitude. Perhaps we -- " More static. " -- your repairs at our orbiting station."
"That would be most kind," Janeway said, mentally filling in the gaps. "Perhaps you should send us the coordinates before your communications system fails completely."
"Got 'em," said Tom Paris at the helm just as Zedrel's image vanished entirely from the screen.
"Engineer Zedrel's communication system has gone off-line," Tuvok reported.
"We're about four hours away by impulse," Paris added. "B'Elanna will be happy -- we don't even have to think about going to warp."
"Set a course, Mr. Paris," Chakotay ordered. "Tuvok, put a tractor beam on Zedrel's ship and let's get moving." He turned to Janeway. "What did Zedrel mean by 'tool and repair programs'? Do you think his ship is automated?"
"I was wondering the same thing." Janeway took her seat. "Zedrel is the only one on board. Doesn't that seem strange to you? You'd think these Chiar would send more than one person out to test something as important as their first warp drive."
On the viewscreen a green beam of light flashed out and caught Zedrel's needle-like ship. Chakotay shrugged. "Maybe they wanted to minimize the risk. Something goes wrong, only one person is in trouble instead of an entire crew."
"But if something goes seriously wrong -- as it certainly did -- you'd want to have at least one more person to help with repairs, don't you think?"
"Perhaps," Chakotay said philosophically. "We can ask when we get to Chi."
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