2410, Special Issue: Baptism of Fire

posted in: Peacemakers, Stories | 0

This story was originally written in 2018 as both a follow up to my Foundry mission “The Hundredth”, and a prequel to STO’s Victory Is Life expansion. It is also an introduction to First Aran’tikar, who will be a regular character in STO Peacemakers from 2411 onward. As such, it will eventually fit into the Peacemakers storyline, late in 2410.


En route to the Neghezi system, Gamma Quadrant
2410
Between STO Foundry mission “The Hundredth”
and Cryptic mission “Scylla and Charybdis”

When the door chime for her quarters sounded, Irla was resting in the funnel-shaped basin that served as the Changeling equivalent of a bed. It had been a brief, though well-deserved rest, or so she thought anyway. She’d managed to make it through her first day as a full-fledged god without getting any of her worshipers killed, which she figured had to count for something – especially considering the nature of the mission she was overseeing, her first field assignment for the Dominion.

On the surface, their objective was simple and straightforward enough: To investigate unusual long-range sensor readings originating from the sixth planet of the Neghezi system. Of the binary system’s fourteen planets, Neghezi VI was the only one which hosted indigenous lifeforms. No sentient species, though, let alone any technologically advanced ones – which is what made those sensor readings so unusual: Gradually rising levels of radiant energy, of types not naturally occurring anywhere in that system, suggesting that someone had set up camp there. The most recent data dump from the array had added another wrinkle to the mystery: Widespread, low-level seismic activity across the planet. That, it seemed, had been the last straw; the Founders had demanded to know just what was going on there, and far be it from Eraun or the thousands of Jem’Hadar soldiers in his charge not to oblige.

That they were given a specially modified dreadnought carrier with a full complement of fighter craft for such a seemingly routine assignment didn’t seem to faze Eraun, and certainly not the Jem’Hadar. He and they, after all, had been genetically designed to serve the Founders unquestioningly, no matter how… unorthodox… the mission parameters. But Irla was a Founder – albeit one who, until quite recently, had no idea what that meant – and, as such, had more latitude for skepticism. Surely the Dominion had kept a long-range sensor array trained upon Neghezi VI in the first place for a reason, and sending a heavily armed capital ship to take a closer look suggested that reason was far from mere curiosity or fascination. But exactly what that reason was, to her surprise, even her fellow Founders in the Great Link had withheld from her; whether intentionally or simply a case of time having dulled their collective memory, she couldn’t be certain.

She rose from her basin, re-shaping herself into the vaguely humanoid form shared by most “solids” in order to properly receive her guest. “Enter.”

The door slid open to reveal Jikar’iklan, First among the Jem’Hadar soldiers aboard the dreadnought. Just months ago, he had led the team of soldiers who had helped to free her from Borg captivity in the distant Delta Quadrant. Now, he took two steps into her quarters and then dropped to one knee.

“Founder,” he said with bowed head, “we approach our destination.”


“Founder on the command deck.”

At the First’s announcement, everyone else on the bridge – the Vorta supervisor Eraun at the center console, Ter’atan at Tactical, Manar’anax at Operations, Aran’tikar at the pilot’s station (this, as she understood, was also his first mission), and a Karemma scientist named Unetha at an auxiliary station reconfigured for science near the front – dropped to a knee in reverence as Jikar’iklan had done.

Having spent virtually all of her life up until a few months ago as either somebody’s captive or somebody’s prey, Irla doubted she would ever get used to being treated as a living deity – nor did it seem appropriate to her under the circumstances. “Dispense with the pleasantries,” she told her charges. “The sooner we can complete our mission, the better.” She turned to face Eraun. “Are our fighter craft ready?”

“Yes, Founder,” the Vorta replied softly. “Both hangars are standing by.”

“Launch the first fighter groups,” Irla said in response. “Escort protocol – have them keep close formation for the time being.”

“You heard the Founder, Second.” Indeed Ter’atan had heard Irla, for he had already relayed her order to the flight deck before Eraun had even finished speaking. With that, Jikar’iklan relieved Eraun at the center station, while Irla turned her attention to the auxiliary station and the large makeshift viewscreen installed next to it. “Unetha,” she asked its occupant, “is our enhanced sensor array online?”

“Yes, Founder, it is.” Jem’Hadar bridges typically had no main viewscreen, no dedicated science station, and no Karemma serving within them, but this one was different on all three counts. Unetha was a seismology specialist recruited for this mission, apparently on little more than the knowledge that she could someday tell her grandchildren that she had once been in the presence of a god. She turned back toward the viewer, trying to make sense of the data coming in from the enhanced sensors. “Though I’m not certain it is working properly.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because what it’s showing is like no seismic event I’ve ever seen or even heard of before,” Unetha replied. “I’ve tracked groundquakes on thirty-two Dominion planets. Even the strongest ones were localized events, with distinct epicenters and limited ranges of effect.” She turned to fully face Irla (raising Eraun’s eyebrows in the process). “If the data we’re receiving from Neghezi VI is accurate, there is no discernable epicenter to this event – and there isn’t a single point on the planet’s surface that isn’t being shaken by it.”

“Can we get a visual of the surface?”

“I think so.” Unetha called up a live image from a visual sensor on the dreadnought’s lower starboard hull. As the image came into focus on the main viewer, Eraun removed his HUD eyepiece to get an unobstructed view. Soon he, Irla and Unetha all stood captivated by the terrible spectacle that greeted them.

Before their eyes, the entire surface of Neghezi VI was being torn apart from below.

From the dreadnought’s orbital vantage point, surface features usually thought of as permanent – mountain ranges, rivers and their valleys, vast plains, forests and jungles – appeared more like shifting sands on the slopes of countless mounds of pulverized rock, slowly rising all over the planet like giant anthills. Great cracks and fissures appeared across the surface as well, and some mountains near coastlines exploded in sudden volcanic eruptions; evidently whatever was rising from underground was powerful enough to catastrophically strain the planet’s tectonic plates and fault lines. Even the oceans could be seen rippling and churning violently, as though desperately laboring to hold back the awesome, yet-unseen force pushing out from beneath it.

After a few more minutes, that force finally won the struggle. Angry streaks of blinding light began blasting upward from the mounds and the oceans like missiles into space. Dozens of them… then hundreds… thousands… millions. Within another minute, the viewscreen was filled with them. For a few moments everyone on the bridge, even the usually unflappable Jem’Hadar, were transfixed by the destruction.

Those few moments abruptly ended when the collision alarms began sounding.

Quickly replacing his eyepiece, Eraun called up a tactical display and immediately saw them: At least thirty of those… things… had originated directly beneath the dreadnought’s position in orbit – and were now streaking straight towards it. The fighter escorts were moving to intercept, but were too few – and too slow – to destroy them all in time.

“EVASIVE -“

Too late.

The command deck shuddered and then abruptly pitched forward, spilling everyone onto the floor – everyone, that is, except for Irla, who simply let the shockwave ripple through her fluid form. But before she could see to the others, another bone-rattling impact rocked the deck… and another, and another, and another. They seemed to be striking the lower decks, as the command deck itself had yet to take any direct damage, but the eighth impact knocked out primary power to the command deck, plunging it into near-total darkness and rendering most of its stations inoperable. That strike was accompanied by a dull roar and a few distant, blood-curdling screams; evidently it had blown out a plasma conduit in the deck below, taking some unfortunate Jem’Hadar out with it.

Irla had lost count of how many hits the dreadnought had taken by the time they’d finally stopped.

Jikar’iklan slowly regained his balance and managed to restore power to the command deck; evidently the ship’s secondary generators had been spared. He then attempted to contact the lower decks for status reports, but got no response. Eraun was also back on his feet, but had lost his eyepiece in the first impact, so for the moment he too was cut off from the rest of the crew. It was Unetha who, despite being dazed from the attack, finally managed to shed light on the situation, transferring the main display’s visual feed from the external view of Neghezi VI’s now utterly ruined surface to the Operations station, in effect turning the large screen into a master situation monitor, which Manar’anax studied while the other Jem’Hadar consulted their own stations.

“Primary power is offline,” Manar’anax reported, “as are all weapons, ventral shield emitters and sensors. Hull integrity down to sixteen percent.”

“Both warp and impulse propulsion are also offline,” added the pilot Aran’tikar. “Our orbit is decaying; on our present trajectory and speed we will enter the planet’s atmosphere in one hour and twenty-three minutes. Only maneuvering thrusters are available, and they are not powerful enough for us to regain a stable orbit.”

“Nineteen enemy vessels have penetrated our hull,” Ter’atan followed. “Multiple unrecognized lifesigns detected in the sections where the vessels are lodged. We’ve been boarded.”

“What about our fighter escorts?” Eraun asked.

“We have lost contact with all deployed craft.” Clutching his battle rifle, Ter’atan began to leave his station.

“Wait,” ordered First Jikar’iklan. “Where are you going?”

“To protect the Founder,” Ter’atan replied. “Those creatures threaten her life. We must eradicate them!”

“The Founder is here,” the First reminded him sternly. “As is your place.”

“We can’t stay here,” Irla interjected. “The dreadnought’s crippled; if we remain, we’ll burn up in the atmosphere – if those boarding parties don’t get to us first. There’s a light transport craft in the auxiliary hangar, three decks below us.” She turned to face Aran’tikar. “Third, can you fly such a small craft?”

“Yes, Founder. I have been engineered, trained and approved to pilot any type of Dominion vessel.”

“Good.” Turning toward Unetha again, she could see that the Karemma was still not quite fully recovered. “Unetha, can you move under your own power?”

“Yes, I think so, Founder.”

“Even better.” With that, Irla moved to the back of the bridge and opened a hatch in its rear wall, revealing a shaft with a ladder leading to the lower decks. Jikar’iklan entered first, followed by Ter’atan, Eraun, Unetha, and Irla, with Aran’tikar and Manar’anax bringing up the rear. “Stay close together, everyone,” Irla said as they began their descent. “If there’s one thing I learned in the Delta Quadrant, it’s that ‘Victory Is Life’ can have more than one meaning. At times like this, it means we win just by staying alive.”


Ten minutes later

First Jikar’iklan opened the service access hatch leading to the auxiliary hangar deck, and immediately found himself staring down the business-end of Aran’tikar’s battle rifle.

Very good, Jikar’iklan thought to himself of his eight-day-old Third. Maintains calm vigilance during threat assessment. Flawless shooting stance. Slow breathing. Steady aim. If he pulls his rifle trigger now, I will be dead before my body hits the deck. Aran’tikar has been designed and trained well indeed.

Aran’tikar, recognizing his First, immediately lowered his rifle and helped Jikar’iklan pull himself into the corridor. He then did the same for Fourth Manar’anax, who had followed the First through the service tunnel. While Aran’tikar had followed Ter’atan, Eraun, Unetha, and Irla directly to the auxiliary hangar deck, Jikar’iklan and Manar’anax had diverted to one of the ship’s armories on the deck above in order to obtain additional weapons for the team: Replacement power cells for their rifles, a pair of kar’takin polearms for the First and Second, handblades for combat in close quarters, and a set of subspace anti-personnel mines, which Manar’anax began to prepare for deployment.

Now the team was reunited at the service hatch, near a corridor junction fifty meters away from the hangar entrance. With the critically damaged dreadnought running on secondary power, the corridors were almost as dark as the tunnels. This, of course, was not a problem for the Jem’Hadar, whom the Founders had endowed with superior nocturnal vision, but neither Unetha nor Eraun had been so blessed. For them, the only light was that from Eraun’s tablet, which he was now using to obtain status updates via a data port near the junction.

“This isn’t good.”

Hearing Eraun’s sudden exclamation, Jikar’iklan immediately moved toward the Vorta. “What is it?”

“If the internal sensors are still working, the alien creatures have now infested every deck – including this one,” Eraun answered. “The Jem’Hadar are responding, of course, but they’re being overrun. We’ll have to hurry in order to make it to the hangar.”

“Any more damages we should know about?” asked Irla.

Eraun studied his tablet for a few more seconds. “Even with the secondary generators, thirty-nine percent of this ship is without power – including the hangar. Even if we make it to the shuttle, opening the hangar doors to allow us to leave could be a problem.” He turned to face Jikar’iklan. “One more thing… I regret to inform you that there was a direct hit on the ship’s stores of Ketracel-White. Our entire supply… is gone.”

“We are due for our next dose in less than two hours,” the First told Eraun evenly. “Without it -“

“I’m well aware of the ramifications,” Eraun replied. “Once we get off this ship, I’m afraid you will have to… remain strong, for as long as you can. Or, until help arrives.”

“Very well,” was all the First said in reply as he began distributing the weapons from the armory.

“How shall we proceed?” Ter’atan asked.

Jikar’iklan pointed down one of the corridors, which was blocked by what appeared to be one of the alien vessels lodged in the deck plating. “That is the most direct route to the hangar. Two other corridors run parallel to it. We shall take the one to the right – except for you.” Now he pointed to Manar’anax, and then down the cross-corridor to the left. “You will shroud yourself and proceed down the corridor to the left. Do not engage the enemy. Remain shrouded, fall back five meters and begin deploying the mines, one every five meters until you return to this junction.”

“Yes, First.” With that, Manar’anax promptly started down the left-side corridor with the mines and vanished.

Insurance against an ambush. Aran’tikar recognized the tactic immediately: If the enemy attempts to outflank us, the mine detonations will thin their ranks even as they alert us to their approach. Glancing down the partially blocked corridor, he could see a shimmering, serpentine form slithering through the narrow opening between the alien vessel and the corridor wall. Irla. Scouting ahead – in a form the enemy may not recognize or even notice. Magnificent… and cunning. She is indeed a god.

Manar’anax returned several minutes later, having deployed all but three of the mines down the left corridor. Less than a minute after that, a series of quick, distant explosions, followed by a dull, screeching roar – the aliens had hit the first of the mines. Immediately, Ter’atan and Manar’anax turned back to face the left-side corridor and crouched, rifles at the ready – but the ambush they had anticipated never came. Instead, a faint shuffling sound seemed to indicate that the aliens had regrouped and reversed course.

Sure enough, the shuffling sound around the bend of the right-side corridor began to grow louder. Quickly Jikar’iklan motioned to his soldiers to take new positions. Ter’atan and Aran’tikar joined the First at the front of the group, while Manar’anax remained at the back to guard their flank, with Eraun and Unetha crouched between them.

Without warning, a flurry of movement appeared in the corridor ahead. Aran’tikar immediately raised his rifle and began to take aim.

“Wait!”

Ter’atan had recognized that whatever was approaching them was not one of the aliens – it was not making the shuffling sound, but silently flying toward them as a large bird. Irla. But the shuffling grew ever louder and louder as the invaders drew ever closer, and as the Founder-bird sailed above the group, she finally broke her silence:

“They’re coming!”

Manar’anax didn’t hesitate. He pressed a switch on one of the remaining mines to arm it like a grenade, then hurled it over the others’ heads in the direction Irla had just come from. It reached the corridor bend at the same time the first of the aliens did – and exploded. In the brief flash of light from the blast, he and the others laid eyes upon their mysterious enemy for the first time.

Most of the dark greenish-gray creatures resembled a species of scorpion that Irla had once encountered in the deserts of an unnamed planet in the Delta Quadrant – only much larger, and apparently just as easily provoked. With a screeching cry, the scorpions that weren’t maimed in the grenade blast, along with several larger creatures whose appearances defied simple description, scuttled toward the Jem’Hadar in front; within moments, the corridor’s near-total darkness was shattered by a fusillade of polaron bolts from the soldiers’ rifles.

Within seconds, the corridor was filled with the indescribable stench of ionized air combined with the creatures’ charred flesh and… blood?… as more and more of them fell – but still more kept coming, crawling over the corpses of their fallen brethren in their relentless advance. Finally one of the larger creatures broke through and charged the front line, but Aran’tikar had anticipated this and was ready. Dropping his rifle, he extracted a handblade from its holster on his left hip, drove it deep into what passed for the creature’s chest, and jerked downward; soon the blade, and the arm that held it, were covered in the greenish-black vital fluids now spewing from the mortally wounded alien as it dropped.

That seemed to confuse or distract the creatures, for they halted their advance and tried to regroup – which gave the Jem’Hadar the break they needed. Jikar’iklan and Ter’atan charged forward and began to slash at the larger creatures with their kar’takin, while Aran’tikar sheathed his dagger and crawled backward to retrieve his rifle, and Manar’anax moved from behind the group to take Ter’atan’s former position on the left, firing over Eraun’s and Unetha’s heads at the remaining scorpions as he went. By the time Manar’anax reached the front line, Aran’tikar had joined him in providing cover fire for the First and Second, but ready to use the dagger again if any of the creatures got too close.

More and more of the creatures fell to the Jem’Hadar’s rifles and blades. Some of the scorpions exploded when hit with a polaron blast, coating the soldiers and the corridor with their thick, dark viscera. Once the last of them fell, Aran’tikar and Manar’anax crawled forward to get better shots at the remaining larger creatures – just in time to witness the largest one, an enormous beast with massive claws and what appeared to be vestigial wings on its back, use one of those claws to pierce Ter’atan’s chest and crush his heart within, and then toss his broken corpse aside like a rag doll.

At the sight of this, Aran’tikar and Manar’anax roared in rage and charged, only to be stopped dead in their tracks as the creature projected some sort of restraining field toward them. This only fed their anger even more, an emotion Aran’tikar had never experienced this intensely before – and he silently chastised himself for it. Like all Jem’Hadar, he had been designed and trained to focus at all times on the task at hand; emotions only got in the way of that. Why is my discipline failing now, he wondered as the alien kept him in its its invisible grip, precisely when it is needed most?

The White, he remembered. Though Aran’tikar knew he could continue to function for days without its dense cocktail of nutrients and stimulants, its key component was an enzyme critical to Jem’Hadar neurochemistry. His and Manar’anax’s flash of anger, and their nearly giving in to it, were surely the first symptoms of withdrawal; until they received another dose of the White, he knew they would continue to slowly lose their mental faculties until ultimately going completely mad – if that addled state didn’t get them killed first.

Refocus, he ordered himself. Use whatever little of that enzyme remains in your veins as it was meant to be used – to ensure the Founder’s survival. Her life is our victory.

The towering creature finally dropped its restraining field – intentionally or not, Aran’tikar neither knew nor cared – and was immediately rushed by Manar’anax, his rifle raised as a melee weapon. A foolish move, made purely from blind rage and likely to get the Fourth killed as well, but it also kept the creature occupied, unable to either attack Aran’tikar or join the others still fighting Jikar’iklan. Seizing the opportunity, Aran’tikar slowly crept in closer until he reached Ter’atan’s corpse and picked up the Second’s kar’takin from the floor next to it. Manar’anax, despite his rage, did seem to notice what his comrade was doing and shifted to his left, forcing the huge creature to also turn – leaving its right flank fully exposed.

Though unable to shroud himself for lack of the White, Aran’tikar took advantage of the distraction Manar’anax was providing. Aiming the tip of his kar’takin just beneath the creature’s arm, he charged at full speed, using all his strength to drive the blade deep into the alien monstrosity, then all his weight to pull the blade down, ripping its body wide open. It fell hard to the deck, spweing its dark blood and spilling its entrails out into the corridor until Manar’anax reset his rifle to full power and fired, vaporizing and finally putting the wretched pile of flesh out of its misery.

Meanwhile Jikar’iklan, having already dispatched two of the remaining creatures, had also gained the upper hand over the third and final one. Aran’tikar and Manar’anax aimed their rifles to finish the creature off, but that proved unnecessary – a flash of the First’s handblade across what passed for the creature’s neck and it, too, fell dead. The battle, for the moment at least, was over.

“Where is the Founder?”

Eraun’s sudden, panicked cry came from several meters behind the battlezone, where he and Unetha had remained crouched against the corridor wall. This was not cowardice on his part; like most Vorta, Eraun was not bred for combat as the Jem’Hadar were, and knew as well as they did that he would only have been a liability to them, and to the Founder in their charge, had he tried to fight at their side. Only with Eraun’s question did it occur to Aran’tikar that Irla had not taken part in the battle, and now neither she nor any Changeling remains were anywhere to be –

“Here!” Irla’s voice came from the other direction, farther down the corridor. Eraun, Unetha and the Jem’Hadar turned to see her as she finished transforming from avian form back into humanoid.

“Founder!” Eraun cried. “I am so glad you’re safe.”

“Our path to the hangar is clear. Well, clear of anything living, anyway.” Turning toward Eraun and Unetha, she added for their benefit, “Though you may want to close your eyes and hold your breath.”

As the party made their way to the hangar, it soon became clear what Irla had meant: The corridor was littered with more of the aliens’ mangled corpses and coated with their dark blood, producing a sickening stench that nearly overcame the Karemma scientist. Glancing at the bodies as they passed, Aran’tikar noticed that they all had gaping wounds from been pierced, in some cases multiple times, by some sort of projectile. Or by a being capable of becoming a projectile.

The Founder’s magnificence knows no limit.

“Th-thank you,” Unetha said weakly, to Irla herself as much as the Jem’Hadar. “Thank you for protecting me.”

“You are a loyal servant of the Dominion and a distinguished scientist, Unetha,” Irla replied. “Not to mention, a vulnerable sentient being. I won’t lie to you; there are some Founders who would consider you to be expendable in times like this. I’m not one of them. Before I rejoined the Great Link – before I even knew what the Link was – I had to survive on my own for years in the Delta Quadrant. I know what it is to be scared and vulnerable. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.”

At last, they reached the entrance to the auxiliary hangar. Jikar’iklan and Manar’anax moved in first, rifles at the ready, doing a visual sweep as they entered. None of the aliens in sight, they motioned for the others to follow. Eraun and Unetha went in next, followed by Irla, with Aran’tikar bringing up the rear. A few seconds later, they found it: A transport shuttle, slightly smaller than a Federation runabout, lightly armed but warp-capable. A cursory scan by Eraun showed it to be undamaged and spaceworthy, so he opened its main hatch and motioned for the First to enter.

“No, Eraun,” Jikar’iklan replied. “I cannot go with you. Surely you understand why not.”

I don’t understand,” said Aran’tikar. “We must see the Founder to safety.”

“We must also ensure that the enemy cannot use our own weapons and devices against us. To that end, one more duty remains here. I command the dreadnought and its soldiers. Therefore that final duty falls to me.”

“Very well.” Though he wasn’t sure how, now Aran’tikar did understand exactly what his First meant. “Do you have any final orders?”

“The Founder and the Karemma scientist are now your charges. Get them off the ship and away from this system. Signal me once the shuttle is a safe distance away, then set a course for Empersa. I will not act until I have received your signal.”

“Understood, First. Until the Founder is out of danger, I am dead.”

“Indeed,” said Jikar’iklan as he turned toward Irla, dropping to a knee once more. “Founder,” he said, “It has been a great honor to serve you. May your passage homeward be safe and swift – and may Aran’tikar continue to serve you capably in my stead.”

“I’m sure he will,” replied Irla. “I’ll… miss you, Jikar’iklan.”

With that, Jikar’iklan rose, turned around and left the hangar, bound for his final duty.

“Loyal and dutiful, to the last,” remarked Eraun as he turned to enter the shuttle. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get ou-“

A thick, clawed hand shot out from inside the shuttle, and in a single motion, tore Eraun’s head right off his shoulders.

As the Vorta’s headless body slumped to the deck, spewing blood all over the shuttle’s hull, Manar’anax rushed the open hatch, firing into it as he went, but to no avail – the moment he reached the hatch, the claw ripped into his chest and crushed his heart just like Ter’atan’s.

“Stand back!” Aran’tikar shouted to Irla and Unetha as the shuttle’s occupant tossed the Fourth’s mangled body away, then crawled sideways out of the craft before rising to its full height. Another of the towering, winged aliens now stood between the survivors and their only means of escape – and where there had been four Jem’Hadar protecting Irla and Unetha, there was now only one – one who was sinking deeper into White withdrawal by the minute.

The creature reared its head, let loose a terrible shriek, and charged.

Aran’tikar rushed to meet it, his kar’takin aimed at its upper chest, where he assumed it kept its heart. But unlike the similar creature he had gutted in the corridor, this one was ready for him. Effortlessly it dodged his charge, seized the polearm with one claw and Aran’tikar with the other, and tossed both across the hangar.

He hit the deck hard. His head began to pound as he picked himself up; he wasn’t sure if he’d landed on his head or if this was another symptom of White withdrawal. What he could be sure of was that the beast was bearing down upon him again. It reached down, picked up Aran’tikar’s dropped kar’takin and snapped it in two, tossing the pieces aside as it continued its advance.

Aran’tikar knew the odds were against him. But he also knew who, and what, he was: A soldier of the Founders, tasked with protecting one particular Founder, the one named Irla. At her insistence, that task also entailed protecting Unetha, who now hid with the Founder behind a stack of cargo containers. And so, for as long as he had any spark of life left in him, he would protect them both, though he was badly outmatched by the creature, and without his brothers in arms he had no one to distract it.

Indeed, now it was his turn to be the distraction.

“Get to the shuttle,” he shouted toward the cargo containers. “Seal the hatch once inside. Go!

The creature twisted its frame in the direction Aran’tikar had shouted, buying him just enough time to get to his feet and pull his rifle from his backpack. He had no way of knowing whether Irla or Unetha had heard him, nor could he see from his position whether they would make it into the shuttle’s open hatch if they had. All he could do now was fight. Fight until either the beast was dead, or he was.

He fired, and fired again. And again, and again. But the polaron bolts from his rifle, which had blown the scorpions apart with just one or two shots, seemed to barely slow the hulking creature’s advance, much less penetrate its armored hide. Within seconds, he was within its deadly reach again. It shot out a claw, forcing him to roll to one side to evade it. He briefly thought of looking around for the broken kar’takin – its blade still intact, he knew it could still be quite lethal – but a bone-rattling body blow suddenly jolted that thought from his mind. The next thing he knew, he was sprawled on the deck again – without his rifle, which now lay useless where he had been thrown from, several meters away. He hadn’t even risen to his feet when the creature was on top of him yet again; before he could respond, it lifted him up again and slammed him against the shuttle’s hull.

Aran’tikar slumped to the deck. His brain simultaneously screaming for the White and dazed from the brutal beating he had absorbed, he was no longer in any condition to keep fighting the creature, which now closed in on him once more. All that was left for it to do was tear out his heart as it had done to Manar’anax, as its brother had done to Ter’atan.

Forgive me, Founder, was his last coherent thought. I have failed you.

The creature raised its claw, poised to deliver the killing blow – but then suddenly reared back with a strangled cry. As Aran’tikar looked on (though in his mental state unsure of what he was seeing), it struggled to keep its balance, as though it were in the grip of an even larger, but invisible foe. And then, its already enormous figure began to swell from head to toe. For several seconds the creature appeared to inflate like a giant balloon – until it finally burst.

Seconds later, Aran’tikar felt a gentle touch on his left shoulder… and suddenly the pounding pain in his skull subsided, and he began to regain his focus. He looked up to see Irla standing before him.

“Founder,” he said weakly. “You live.”

“Yes, I do,” Irla replied. “But as you can see, not without making quite a mess of this place.”

Only then did Aran’tikar notice that he was now coated in a thick sludge of ichor and pulverized organ tissue from the once-mighty alien beast – as were the shuttle, Eraun’s decapitated corpse, the cargo containers, and large portions of the hangar bay deck and walls. Behind Irla, he could see the creature’s broken skeleton, still holding shreds of some of its internal organs, lying face-down on the deck. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened: Irla had somehow entered its body and then transformed into an expanding gas, exploding the creature from the inside out.

As Aran’tikar rose to his feet, Irla wrapped herself around him, head to toe, for a few seconds to slough off the sludge from his body; though some of it remained caked onto his skin and uniform, at least now it wouldn’t make for an unbearable smell inside the shuttle’s cramped cabin. She then found Eraun’s severed head, which had landed a few meters from his body, and reached into it to remove an implanted device.

“His memories,” she explained. “Once we’ve made it home, they will be transferred to the next Eraun clone… though perhaps it would be kind to delete the last few moments first.”

“We must leave now, Founder, before the dreadnought falls into the planet’s atmosphere. Where is Unetha?”

“Resting in the rear cabin. I saw to that while the creature was preoccupied with you. Obviously, I also found the shuttle’s emergency White rations cabinet. It’s a good thing I’m here; that cabinet’s designed to be unlocked only by a Founder.”

Aran’tikar followed Irla into the shuttle, closed the hatch, took the pilot’s station, brought the engines and main power online, and then sent a remote command to open the hangar bay door. But the door only opened part of the way; evidently it had either jammed or lacked enough power to open completely, as Eraun had warned. In either case, the bay was now quickly depressurizing as its atmosphere vented into space – and began dragging the shuttle along with it, straight toward the half-closed bay door. With just seconds before collision, Aran’tikar recognized that his options were limited, so he quickly aimed the craft’s single polaron cannon for one of the door’s edges and fired.

With a dull roar, the sundered bay door tore away from the hull and was blown into space – with the shuttle right behind it. Once the craft was finally clear of the hangar, Aran’tikar engaged its sublight engines and left the doomed dreadnought behind.


By the time he received Aran’tikar’s signal, Jikar’iklan had lost count of how many of the scorpions he had dispatched since leaving him, Irla and the others on the hangar deck. He would have preferred to descend to the engine deck shrouded, but without the White that was no longer possible. For the same reason, it had taken an increasingly great mental effort just to stay focused on his final task. Soon, he had reminded himself with every step, this will be done – and then I will never need the White again.

The corridor outside the main engine compartment was clear, but the entrance door was jammed shut. Jikar’iklan knew there was a manual release next to the door – and that once it was open, he wouldn’t even have to enter in order to get a clear shot at his target. He replaced the nearly depleted power pack on his sniper rifle with one of the fresh ones he’d taken from the armory, then increased the weapon’s power setting to maximum. This would allow him no more than four shots, but one was all he would really need. Locating the manual release, he forced the door open, dropped to one knee, raised his rifle and surveyed the scene.

The engine compartment was crawling with the aliens – both the scorpions and the larger creatures, including another of the enormous winged beasts he and his men had encountered on the hangar deck. Turning at the sound of the opening door, it saw him and let out a terrible screech. At once, the scorpions began to close in on the First, their razor-sharp pincers clicking malevolently.

Jikar’iklan ignored the advancing creatures, just as he ignored the pounding pain building in his temples, and focused on his target at the far end of the room: The warp core’s main reaction chamber. By the time the scorpions reached him and began to rip away at his armor, he had taken aim. Before they could pull him down, he pulled the trigger, bellowing his final words as the searing polaron blast tore into the dreadnought’s very heart.

“VICTORY IS LI-“


The dreadnought – along with all aboard, alien and Jem’Hadar alike – disappeared in a sudden flash of white light whose brilliance briefly surpassed even that of the Neghezi sun. The blast also took out several hundred of the alien vessels still ascending from the planet’s destroyed surface, too close to the dreadnought at the moment Jikar’iklan’s shot had penetrated the core.

Aran’tikar and his passengers saw none of this. Their shuttle was streaking away from the thoroughly ravaged planet the dreadnought had been slowly falling toward, offering no rear view of the destruction; only the shock wave from the blast provided any immediate evidence of Jikar’iklan’s final act. This was just as well, for Aran’tikar now faced a much bigger problem than losing his First: Having escaped Neghezi VI, the millions of hostile alien vessels had begun to coalesce into gigantic swarms – one of which now sat directly in the shuttle’s path out of the system. The shuttle’s sensors showed additional smaller swarms nearby, rendering futile any attempt to evade the aliens by simply flying around them.

To put his doubts aside and re-focus his mind on the task, he closed his eyes and recited the mantra he had known ever since being extracted from his breeding chamber.

“I am Aran’tikar,” he began, “and I am dead -“

I am dead.

Without a word, he shut down the shuttle’s engines and cut power to all other systems except external sensors and life support, which he reduced to minimal levels. He then applied random bursts to the maneuvering and attitude control thrusters. Within seconds, the craft was still moving straight toward the largest swarm, but was now tumbling aimlessly into it.

Dead.

Minutes passed… then hours. Aran’tikar’s gambit appeared to be working, evidenced by the fact that he, Irla and Unetha were all still alive. Without any detectable power signature to give them away, the shuttle was being ignored by the swarming aliens, as though it were just another chunk of debris ejected from the planet’s shredded surface, or from the now-destroyed dreadnought.

“You’ve done well, Aran’tikar,” Irla told him. “According to the sensors, the swarms have begun to move away from this system. Once the last of them have gone, bring all systems back online and set a course for Empersa, at maximum cruising speed.”

“Yes, Founder.” He watched the remaining swarms on the sensor display; once the last of them disappeared, he restored the shuttle to full power, halted its tumbling motion, and plotted a course for the Homeworld.

“We have endured much more on this mission than we’d expected,” Irla declared, “but we have endured. It’s as I said earlier: We’ve won this day simply by surviving it. Today, victory really is life.”

Far be it from Aran’tikar to argue with a Founder.

“Victory is life.”


Empersa
Five days later

As she tended to do while communing with the other Founders, Irla had lost track of the time she had spent in their immersive, though not exactly warm, embrace. Emerging from the Great Link as a swimmer from an ocean, she took her humanoid form and stepped onto the rocky shore of a small island, completely surrounded by the gently undulating, amber-colored form of her species in its natural state.

Until the day, still not so long ago, that Eraun and his friend from the Alliance had rescued her from deep within the Delta Quadrant, she would never have believed she came from a world, or a species, such as this. Even today, having lived among the Founders for months, and now having overseen a mission for them, she still found them to be quite the enigma – except, that is, for one particular Founder. The one who had recognized her apprehension about rejoining a people she’d known nothing about. The one who had Linked with her and shown her the whole, unvarnished truth about the Founders and the Dominion. The one who had helped her to overcome her fear and accept who, and what, she was.

The one who was now standing before her on that rocky shoreline.

“Odo,” she called out to him. “How did you know I was here?”

“Once I learned there was a shuttle en route from the Neghezi incident, I knew you had to be on board.” Odo held out his hands, which flowed together with Irla’s as she took them. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

“I just delivered my after-action report to the others,” said Irla. “Their reaction was… peculiar. It was as though they’ve been expecting something like this to happen for a very long time – and yet, now that it finally has -“

“They’re in denial about it?”

Irla nodded, confirming to Odo that he had finished her thought.

“If you’d been with the Link as long as I have, you’d know their… peculiar attitude toward these aliens is nothing new,” Odo explained. “The Founders have indeed known about that species for centuries – but that’s almost all the information they’ve seen fit to reveal about them, even to me. Fortunately, I’ve been able to learn more about them on my own.”

“Tell me,” said Irla. “Please.”

“The Klingons call them the Hur’q,” Odo began. “A germanium-based insectoid species. Worf once told me about how they invaded Qo’noS over a thousand years ago, but it wasn’t until after the War for the Alpha Quadrant ended that I learned these Hur’q were the same species that had the Founders worried – and for good reason.” He pulled himself closer to Irla. “What you witnessed on Neghezi VI was just a small taste of the havoc they’ve begun to wreak all across the Gamma Quadrant – destroying planet surfaces as they emerge from hibernation, and then traveling in immense swarms, overwhelming even the Dominion’s sizable armada, ravaging entire star systems, forcing their inhabitants to flee for their lives. There are even reports of Hur’q activity in the Alpha Quadrant now. Their predecessors must have laid eggs there around the same time they were ravaging Qo’noS.”

“If the Jem’Hadar can’t defeat the Hur’q and even the Founders are afraid of them, then the Dominion itself is in jeopardy,” Irla realized. “As are all its member worlds and peoples. Is there anything we can do to stop them?”

“Our last, best hope may be in the Alpha Quadrant,” Odo replied. “That’s where I’ll be going next – to appeal to the Federation, the Klingon Empire and their allies to join us in putting an end to the Hur’q rampage. I have several old friends and former colleagues from Deep Space Nine – and even an old enemy or two – who have considerable pull with their respective governments. As, if I’m not mistaken, does the Alliance captain who helped rescue you from the Delta Quadrant.”

“Old enemies?”

“That’s right – you’ve never met Garak or Quark. Consider yourself fortunate on both counts.”

“What about our own forces?”

“Honored Elder Dukan’Rex is assembling a task force to fight the Hur’q, in both Gamma and Alpha Quadrants if necessary. I’m told your friend Aran’tikar has been assigned to the task force, and he’s even a candidate for promotion to First.”

“He certainly proved himself at Neghezi VI,” said Irla. “Aran’tikar saved my life, and Unetha’s. He sets a great example for those he’ll command.”

“I certainly hope so. To get out of this crisis in one piece, we’ll need all the capable leaders we can get.” Odo separated his arms from Irla’s and stepped back. “Even with my influence, appealing to the Alliance won’t be easy. No doubt, many in Alpha and Beta Quadrants still think of the Dominion as the enemy – but if those reports are accurate they’ve also seen, firsthand, what the Hur’q can do when left unchecked. And the Klingons in particular may welcome the opportunity to settle a thousand-year-old score.”

“If anyone can convince them, it’s you,” Irla told him. “Good luck.”

“Luck,” Odo replied as he signaled for beamout. “We’ll need plenty of that too.”

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