UA7: musubi

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Chapter 56 -undertone

There was a long silent moment between them before Dr. Myrix finally said, "I hate to have to be the one to break it to you, but Proto-matter is purely theoretical. You could try thinking of it like a mathematical placeholder, like 'x'. While it is productive to speculate about the properties of what such a thing would be like if it did exist, in reality, it's just a concept."

"That's really funny since I was part of the team that discovered a naturally occurring field of proto-matter, collected samples of it and sent those samples back to the Federation for study." Vincent said challengingly.

"No. It couldn't be. I mean, that's simply not possible..." Dr. Myrix began to explain, but was interrupted.

"I collected the samples in containment jars modulated at a frequency of 108.11. The shuttle we used to gather the samples was sent back to Earth with the samples still aboard, so as few people as possible would have access to them. Lieutenant Walking-Bear of the USS Yorktown volunteered to personally protect the samples all the way back to Earth."

"I'm not saying that you're lying about your experience, I'm simply explaining that what you're telling me can't be so... Although, I suppose that it might make sense that if you really are from an alternate incarnation of reality that a so-called 'origin particle' might exist in one universe and not another."

Vincent looked over his panel for a moment to be sure that everything was in order as he pondered Dr. Myrix's words.

When he finally looked away from his console he quietly said, "If there aren't any origin particles here, then that might mean that this universe isn't prime. This might be a branch... or even a twig. It could be one of the nearly infinite instances of 'what if' universes that wink into existence every day."

"And wink out." Dr. Myrix added regretfully.

"How likely is it to be true?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Who's to say?" Dr. Myrix said quietly, then continued more strongly, "Although, I can't really see how it makes a difference in our current circumstance."

"From everything that I've ever studied about it, branches are usually the 'what ifs' that don't end up going anywhere and eventually fail. So if this is a branch, we need to figure out how to get back to the prime before this reality collapses or merges or... just stops being." Vincent said anxiously.

"While that is certainly a laudable goal, I'm interested to know what you think we can do to make even the slightest difference." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

For an instant, the look in Vincent's eyes very nearly gave Dr. Myrix hope. Determination and ingenuity seemed to be coalescing into a plan of action.

When the spark of hope in Vincent's eyes began to fade, Dr. Myrix wanted to protest. He was ready to fight to bring it back.

"Okay. I know this is a long shot, but if I'm right about this, there may actually be one thing that we can do." Vincent said slowly, apparently still figuring it out.

"What's that?" Dr. Myrix asked with genuine interest.

"The thing we were brought here for. The thing we can do that no one else can." Vincent said slowly.

"What is that?" Dr. Myrix demanded to know.

"I don't know. We still need to figure that part out, but it shouldn't take us too long."

"Why do you say that?" Dr. Myrix asked cautiously.

"Because I have the feeling that we're running out of time. We'll either figure it out before time runs out or we'll fail." Before Dr. Myrix could think of a response, Vincent quietly continued, "And if we fail, I get the feeling that it will be something that won't be able to be fixed. We get one chance..."

"This has to have something to do with the Tark'Ashi. From what you've said, there's no other reason for you and your people to be in this place and time. That's the only major difference between the universes, isn't it?" Dr. Myrix said slowly.

"It's the biggest one, yeah. But even I've heard of 'the butterfly effect'. The biggest thing isn't automatically the most important." Vincent said frankly.

"Hey! I thought I was the temporal expert here. Shouldn't I be the one telling you not to assume that the most obvious answer is the right one?" Dr. Myrix asked with a smile.

"Either way, what are we supposed to do about it?" Vincent asked frankly.

"That's actually a very good question. As far as I can see, you, personally, aren't likely to have direct contact with the Tark'Ashi nor will you play any role in the plans being made regarding them." Dr. Myrix said thoughtfully.

"No. But you might." Vincent said quietly.

"What was that?" Dr. Myrix asked curiously.

Vincent gave his console a quick 'once-over' before responding, "Maybe the reason we're here... the reason I'm here is to let you know how important all of this is. What if the decisions made today open up a future that didn't seem possible before?"

"Even if that were true, it hardly seems like a reason for the 'powers that be' to dislodge a band of voyagers from their proper timeline." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

"What if doing nothing would condemn this universe to a future where all biological life is eliminated?" Vincent asked speculatively.

"There's no reason for us to believe that to be the case." Dr. Myrix said firmly.

"If I'm right, because my home universe had proto-matter, that means that it's a 'prime' universe, from which alternates can be spawned." Vincent said very precisely.

"Although a bit simplistic, the premise seems worthy of consideration." Dr. Myrix conceded.

"Good. Then what difference would it make if someone from the prime universe went to an alternate? What could they do that no one else could?"

"Nothing." Dr. Myrix said simply, then explained, "Based on both theoretical studies and my own observations, I believe it's safe to say that physically, there would be no difference between a person from your universe and mine. There's no reason to believe that they might have any special abilities. The only possible difference I could imagine might be some specific knowledge or awareness that developed in one universe and not the other."

"That and we'd have different quantum resonance frequencies, but I don't think that's a problem right now." Vincent said thoughtfully.

"Then what do you think it is?" Dr. Myrix gently asked.

"I think you're right, that it must have something to do with the Tark'Ashi. The only thing I can think is that we were sent here to warn you about how serious this really is. Instead of facing a choice that might or might not have some kind of an impact, you'll know that what you're doing might end up being something really amazing... or it might be the last decision that you're ever going to make." Vincent said passionately.

"Or, it's also possible that this might all be to show you and your companions the consequences of failure." Dr. Myrix said quietly.

"I suppose it could be. Are things really that bad here?" Vincent asked with concern.

"Not according to the official press releases. But between us, the concept of bad has been redefined a little more every time we encounter the Tark'Ashi. The situation we're in now would have been inconceivable a dozen years ago."

"What situation are we in? It sounds like it's a lot worse than we've been told."

"The Breen have already lost their homeworld. It has been widely accepted that we're going to lose Earth later this year and Vulcan soon after that. The Federation has already relocated their essential services to offices on Andoria but even so, unless we can develop a more effective strategy for dealing with the Tark'Ashi, the Federation will be completely overrun within two years." Dr. Myrix said regretfully.

"What about the Klingons and the Romulans?" Vincent asked anxiously.

"If you listen to their 'official' broadcasts, you'd almost believe that they expect to be victorious. In reality, I'd be surprised if they made it a full two years after the Federation falls."

"What about the Gorn and the Soleen-Avalla? Have you called on them for help?" Vincent quietly asked.

"The Gorn are making their own arrangements. Given the way things are, I can't really fault them for that, I can only wish them well. As far as the Soleen-Avalla, we currently have four of their ships serving on the front line defending us. When we're deployed, it might possibly be to relieve one of them."

"Even after meeting them, I never thought about there ever being a time or place where I would fight alongside them." Vincent said honestly.

"While they're amazing fighters and have contributed some much-needed technology to the cause, it's their trans-warp that's been of most benefit to us. The rest of their fleet is working to evacuate as many civilians as possible to the outskirts of Federation space where we can stage a further evacuation." Dr. Myrix finished tiredly.

"Is it already too late to stop the Tark'Ashi?" Vincent asked quietly.

"For us to stop them... maybe. For them to be stopped, no. I think I can say with some level of certainty that they will eventually be stopped, as in, completely destroyed."

"How?"

"Nothing lasts forever. The center doesn't hold. The universe, by its very nature, devolves into chaos. Entropy exists and regardless of what anyone says or does, it will eventually have its way. If history teaches us anything, it's that they'll most likely end up destroying themselves." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

"So even though you can't think of a way for us to survive, it doesn't matter as much when you realize that they won't survive either?" Vincent asked slowly.

"We may still find a way to combat them or find a nice convenient wormhole that leads to somewhere safe. It's even possible that we might be able to outrun them." Dr. Myrix said in his defense.

"I don't think 'bad' is the only word that's changed. It sounds like 'winning' has been redefined to mean 'surviving'." Vincent said simply.

"Only among the higher ups and strategists. The common man isn't aware of just how dire the situation actually is."

"Do you think that regular people couldn't handle the truth?" Vincent asked curiously.

"That's part of it, but I think the most compelling reason for keeping up the charade is that there's no benefit to having an entire population facing their mortality at the same time. For the moment, I think we're going to do our best to keep people on task, focusing on their evacuation. We'll have time for hopelessness later... or maybe we won't. It's hard to say at this point."

"Captain, Admiral Kincaid has sent our orders." Lieutenant Patterson said loudly and clearly.

After a moment to look at his chair console, Captain Byrne stood and said, "Colonel Plagg, you have my every confidence. The Yorktown is now under your command. She and her crew won't let you down."

"Thank you Captain Byrne. I promise you and your crew that I will do my utmost to put this vessel to the best possible use to achieve our collective goals." Colonel Plagg said formally, then turned slightly as he said, "Navigation, plot the coordinates given us by Admiral Kincaid. Helm, prepare to engage engines on my command."

Lieutenants Clark and Heinrick simultaneously answered, "Yes sir."

When Vincent looked to his other side he noticed that Dr. Myrix had withdrawn during the distraction and had rejoined Lieutenant Simms at the security station.

* * * * *

A change in the sound and feel of the engine output drew Vincent back into his duty.

He glanced at the main viewscreen in time to see another, much larger, starship break away and drop immediately into high warp. No sooner had the ship fled than the Yorktown began firing phasers at a small, oddly shaped ship, or perhaps it was an armored and weaponized asteroid.

Regardless, the enemy installation seemed to be taking the phaser bombardment without reaction.

"Communications, signal the fighter battalion to ready themselves for launch." Colonel Plagg said firmly.

"Yes sir." Lieutenant Patterson said professionally.*

"Lieutenant Simms, prepare to discontinue phasers during launch."

"Aye sir."

"Fighter wing signals ready." Debbie quickly announced.

"Dispatch all fighters." Colonel Plagg responded.

"Fighters away." Lieutenant Simms confirmed.

"Captain? With the pause in phaser bombardment, now might be a good time for those scans you were asking me about earlier." Colonel Plagg quietly suggested, as though he were making casual conversation.

"Yes. Commander M'Butu, you may initiate the first battery of scans." Captain Byrne said seriously.

"Aye sir." Commander M'Butu responded smartly.

Vincent made another sweep of his systems and noticed that the shield output seemed to be a bit off.

A few key presses revealed some fairly straightforward shield enhancements that had been designed to wring every last bit of performance out of the deflector control systems.

Vincent glanced toward the security station and noticed that Dr. Myrix had apparently left the bridge.

* * * * *

While Vincent somehow expected to become used to the sound of the nearly continuous phaser bombardment, he never really did.

All he could claim was an escalating sense of anxiety as he fought to maintain his focus on his duties.

"Colonel, we're detecting a non-standard reaction in the target area. you might want to see this." Lieutenant Simms said firmly.

"On screen." Colonel Plagg said as he turned his attention forward..

After a moment of staring, Colonel Plagg slowly said, "Sciences, see if you can confirm what we're seeing here. Are they using transporter technology to somehow reconstruct their base in the midst of battle?"

There was another moment of silence before Commander M'Butu slowly responded, "The technology appears to be similar to transporters, but also very much like protein processors. If I had to describe it, I suppose the most accurate descriptor might be a crude... 'replicator'."

"While I'm sure that every culture has debated the societal impact of having immediate wish fulfillment with replicators, I don't think anyone has contemplated the practical horror of a replicator being used to instantaneously repair damage during a battle." Colonel Plagg said grimly.

"Not just repairing, they're actually expanding their base, increasing its mass. They're creating faster than we can destroy." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"Where are they getting the building material?" Lieutenant Heinrick asked in confusion.

"I assume it's standard energy to matter conversion, just like the transporters. It would seem that the Tark'Ashi have solved the problem that has kept the rest of us from developing replicator technology. The amount of power needed to create complex matter that's stable makes it prohibitive. The Tark'Ashi have circumvented the problem by only creating simple elements: insulators, conductors and semiconductors. In essence they're creating an ever expanding, dynamically growing supercomputer." Commander M'Butu explained.

"In the middle of a battle?" Lieutenant Heinrick asked to confirm his understanding.

"It appears that one is having no effect on the other." Commander M'Butu said frankly.

"Well, that's a little intimidating." Lieutenant Heinrick declared.

"Perhaps we should come up with a strategy to draw their attention." Colonel Plagg suggested.

"Yes sir. Sorry sir." Lieutenant Heinrick said repentantly.

"Communications, get me Major Torek." Colonel Plagg commanded.

"Yes sir." Lieutenant Patterson said immediately.

After a long quiet moment, Lieutenant Patterson finally said, "Major Torek on speaker."

"Major Torek here sir. The fighter wing is in position and ready to fire at your command." A voice firmly stated from overhead.

"I'm going to send you coordinates. Have all fighters focus on this one location. Fire at will." Colonel Plagg said firmly.

"Yes sir. Understood." Major Torek immediately responded.

Vincent had to fight to maintain the majority of his focus on his deflector control panel.

Once he was reasonably assured that he could look away for a moment, it was in time to see one of the single man fighters dematerialize in a transporter-like blur.

"All fighters, discontinue your attack. Withdraw." Colonel Plagg called sternly.

"Don't pull us out Colonel. We can keep going. Let's do this!" Another of the fighter pilots pleaded.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm, but your weapons are having no discernible effect. All fighters return to the ship immediately!" Colonel Plagg called urgently.

"Yes sir." The pilot reluctantly agreed.

As the fighters simultaneously turned in a sharp arc, another dissolved into nothingness.

"That's worse than being phasered." Lieutenant Clark whispered in horror at the sight.

Although Vincent remained silent, he couldn't help but agree with the sentiment.

"Lieutenant Simms, target your bombardment on the area displayed on screen. We need to visually witness if our weapons are having any effect at all."

"Yes sir." Lieutenant Simms smartly responded.

Vincent glanced at his console for an instant before looking back at the main viewscreen.

* * * * *

As he watched, the focused blasts of the ship's phasers obscured all else.

When the phasers finally stopped, they revealed a plane of destruction, stretched out in front of them, devoid of any identifying features.

Before anyone could react to the scene of absolute devastation, the blur of transporter beams began, slowly at first, dotting the hellish horizon.

Sections of the devastation were being transported away, ostensibly being converted into energy for the replicator pool. Other sections were alight with the bluish glow of creation as pristine new electro-mechanical equipment was formed out of the nothingness of the technological ether.

"Can't we just find their transporter and destroy it?" One of the security officers, Ensign Minh, asked despairingly.

"If I'm interpreting these readings correctly, their design is so decentralized that you would have to destroy over two thirds of their base to disrupt their ability to replicate." Commander M'Butu explained.

"How are you doing, Champ?" A voice quietly asked from behind Vincent, causing him to startle.

After a moment to collect himself, Vincent finally responded, "Everything's fine. I don't think the Tark'Ashi have even noticed that we're firing at them."

"I'm not going to complain about that." Joe said honestly.

"I thought you were going to watch over things from Deflector Control. What are you doing here?" Vincent asked curiously.

"What? Aren't you happy to see me?" Joe asked teasingly.

"Yeah. Of course I am. But I also know that you wouldn't come up here for no reason. What's up?"

"Admiral Kincaid asked that I find someone to relieve you so that you can join Dr. Myrix in conference room one. Apparently they feel that you have a valuable point of view about things... I don't know, maybe it has something to do with the time you spent on the Vulcan ship."

"If the admiral's waiting, I'd better hurry." Vincent said quickly.

"Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Joe gently offered.

"Yeah. Kid time. Lots of it. Just as soon as I get back. You might want to do some stretches or something."

"I'll keep that in mind." Joe said with a chuckle under his words as he watched Vincent leave.

* * * * *

Vincent walked into the conference room to find Dr. Myrix standing in front of a split screen video conference. Although he immediately recognized Admiral Kincaid, he only had a passing familiarity with Fleet Admiral ni'Uva. Of course, they had never met before, but Vincent had seen his face a few times in Federation News broadcasts.

The two streaming video windows were displayed on either side of the large viewscreen while a tactical map of the local space was displayed between them.

"I still don't see what you intend to do with this boy here, but go ahead. You've got my attention." Fleet Admiral ni'Uva said sternly.

"He's from the other dimension and I believe that he may hold a significant clue of how to deal with the Tark'Ashi threat." Dr. Myrix said seriously.

Vincent had to admit, if only to himself, that his admiration for Dr. Myrix had gone up a notch, by virtue of his displaying such calm and confidence in front of two such powerful people.

"Well, what do you have to say for yourself, young man?" Fleet Admiral ni'Uva asked firmly.

"Have you seen what they're doing with replicators?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Yes. And that's not all they're doing." Dr. Myrix responded as he pressed a few buttons on the table he was standing beside.

A new window opened on the screen which revealed a damaged enemy installation seemingly magically repairing itself. Unlike the bluish glow of the 'replicator', these repairs appeared to be 'growing' the Tark'Ashi electromechanical structure out of nothing.

"What am I looking at here?" Vincent asked quietly.

"Nano-technology. All this time we've been worried about all the bigger, more powerful weapons used by the Tark'Ashi, but we never considered that they might decide to simultaneously attack us on a cellular level." Dr. Myrix said darkly.

"What does this mean for the war?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"The Tark'Ashi are single-minded and determined. Technologically, they surpass us in every discernable way. If Dr. Myrix is right, the newly replicated computer may very well be intended for use as a massive master control center for the emerging nano-tech." Admiral ni'Uva carefully explained.

"Single-minded?" Vincent asked slowly.

"What was that?" Admiral ni'Uva asked cautiously.

"You said 'single minded'... I've heard that said about them before.. What can you tell me about it?" Vincent asked thoughtfully.

"I think the admiral was just talking about the unrelenting focus that the Tark'Ashi seem to demonstrate. But I get the sense that that's not what you're asking about." Dr. Myrix said cautiously.

"What have you been able to come up with regarding the way they think? Do they think? Are they aware of time? Do they have any concept of self?" Vincent asked curiously.

"That's difficult to answer with any certainty. From what little we've been able to deduce from their actions, it seems that they are all connected to some degree. Past the point of the mass mind, each cell has autonomy to act, but are united in their desire to achieve for the benefit of the whole."

"But they're connected? All of them?" Vincent asked slowly to confirm his understanding.

"Yes. They cease functioning if they lose the ability to communicate with the... mass mind, for lack of a better term."

"But you haven't been able to jam them?" Vincent asked to confirm.

"No. And before you ask, isolation fields won't work either. Someone must have attacked them with that before because they already had defences in place to circumvent it."

"What about their communication? I've heard that they refuse to talk to us, but to me it sounds like they're always listening. If they ever stop listening, they'll stop working... they'll just die."

"If you're talking about introducing some kind of a virus to disrupt their communications, we haven't had any success along those lines."

"What do you know about androids?" Vincent asked simply.

"Not as much as I probably should. My pursuits tend to be a little more on the'galactic' scale." Dr. Myrix admitted.

"It's not really about them anyway, just about the neural interface that's been used to download the consciousness of a human into an android body."

"I've heard about what you're talking about, although I have no idea if it's even true or not. That goes all the way back to the days of the very first androids. Record-keeping had a tendency to be a little more... creative back then." Dr. Myrix admitted.

"I don't know how much good it would do... maybe it wouldn't do anything at all. But if the Tark'Ashi are about to blend nano-tech with replicators, I think it might be time for us to think outside the box a little." Vincent said seriously.

"Just what are you suggesting, Major Winters?" Fleet Admiral ni'Uva asked slowly.

"Get me one of those machines, hook me up, then patch me into the Tark'Ashi network." Vincent said simply.

"What possible good do you think that could do?" Admiral ni'Uva asked cautiously.

"You know who I am and some of the things that I've gone through. If I can transmit some of my experiences into the Tark'Ashi network, then maybe some little spark of who and what I am will awaken somewhere inside them."

"Again, I ask, what possible good do you think that could do?" Admiral ni'Uva asked calmly.

"I don't know, okay? It may not do anything at all." Vincent admitted, then continued, "But what if by seeing what I've seen and feeling what I've felt, the Tark'Ashi get to experience, even for a microsecond, what it's like to be 'alive'?"

"Dr. Myrix, do you think that you would be able to construct such a machine out of what's available to us here, on the front line?" Admiral ni'Uva asked cautiously.

"I honestly don't know enough about the subject to venture a guess. But I'm certain that it wouldn't take me long to find out." Dr. Myrix promised.

"Do that." Fleet Admiral ni'Uva said firmly, then turned his attention toward Vincent and continued, "I don't know if this is going to work or not, but I agree that if you try, it shouldn't make our situation any worse. I'm going to give your project priority and pull your ship off the front line until you're ready to make an attempt at contact."

"Thank you sir." Vincent said respectfully.

"I'm needed for another conference. I'll leave this to you." Fleet Admiral ni'Uva said before his window on the screen closed.

"Dr. Myrix, I'm trusting that you're aware of the severity of our situation." Admiral Kincaid said gravely into the silence that followed.

"Yes sir. I'll let you know immediately if we encounter any insurmountable obstacles." Dr. Myrix assured him.

"As to the matter of dimensions, I'm interested to know if either of you contemplate this situation having anything to do with that." Admiral Kincaid said frankly.

"No. Not that I can see." Dr. Myrix admitted.

"It looks to me like we were brought to this exact time and place to do a certain thing. I can't tell you for sure if this is it, but I can't really think of anything else that we can do to make a difference." Vincent said honestly.

"The Enterprise is currently... investigating other avenues." Admiral Kincaid said haltingly.

"Yeah. I have an idea of where they are and what they're doing. It seems like 'forever' since I've been there." Vincent finished with a smile.

"Ah, yes... well then. If all goes to plan, I'll ask the Enterprise crew not to take any action until you've had an opportunity to make your attempt." Admiral Kincaid said calmly.

"I hadn't thought about that. It's possible that they could pull us out of here before we've had a chance to do anything about your problem." Vincent said as worry furrowed his brow.

"We'll see to it that that doesn't happen." Admiral Kincaid assured him, then thought to ask, "Do you and I speak often in your universe?"

"No. Not very. Seeing me growing up so fast makes him feel old." Vincent said frankly.

Admiral Kincaid let out a long laugh, then said, "Oh what I wouldn't give to have such trivial problems!"

Vincent couldn't help but smile at the reaction.

"Both of you, keep in mind that what you're proposing may be the only possible course of action that could theoretically result in anything resembling a happy ending for us. Please give it everything you've got. I'll do whatever I can to back you up." Admiral Kincaid said as he revealed a flicker of the anxiety he was harboring.

"We'll do our best." Vincent responded for both of them.

Admiral Kincaid nodded slightly in his direction, then discontinued the video conference.

* * * * *

It took a moment for Vincent to register the absence of constant phaser fire.

A change in the sound of the engines alerted Vincent to the fact that they were being moved away from the front line.

The silence that followed was a bit unnerving and Vincent finally asked, "Is there anything I should be doing while you're searching for blueprints and equipment?"

"Just stay close. There's no telling when I might need for you to clarify something for me or to help me brainstorm past some type of obstacle." Dr. Myrix muttered absently as he searched one screen after another for the information that he wanted.

"If you tell me what you're looking for, I can help you search for it." Vincent said frankly.

"If I don't find what I'm looking for in the next few minutes, then I'll give you a list of needed supplies and we can go on a Federation-wide scavenger hunt."

"What are you looking for?" Vincent asked curiously.

"Any other kid would have jumped on the idea of a scavenger hunt." Dr. Myrix chuckled without turning his gaze away from his viewscreen.

"What are you looking for?" Vincent asked again.

"The neural processing unit that you described." Dr. Myrix said simply.

"I doubt that there are any android creators out here on the front line, and even if there were, I don't think they'd bring their neural processor things with them." Vincent said slowly.

"You're probably right, but I'm operating under the theory that there might be more than one use for such a piece of technology. It won't take but a couple minutes to check it out and there's a remote possibility that we won't have to build..." Dr. Myrix trailed off as he turned his full attention to the screen in front of him.

"Did you find something?" Vincent cautiously asked.

"Possibly. If I'm reading this right, one of the civilian support vessels in the next sector, the Musubi, appears to have multiple neural processing units aboard." Dr. Myrix said slowly.

"Why would they have those all the way out here?" Vincent asked confusedly.

"This doesn't give me any clues about that but would you like to find out?" Dr. Myrix asked as he flashed Vincent a quick smile.

"Yeah. I guess." Vincent answered cautiously.

"Let's go talk to Captain Byrne and Colonel Plagg and see if they'll be willing to take us to the Musubi." Dr. Myrix said as he started toward the door.

"Right now?" Vincent asked as he hurried to follow.

"Yes. Time does not appear to be on our side." Dr. Myrix said as he boarded the turbolift.

* * * * *

"Admiral Kincaid said that you two were working on a high priority project for the Federation and that we are to aid you as needed." Colonel Plagg said firmly as he watched Dr. Myrix and Vincent walk onto the bridge.

"Yes sir. To that end, we've come to ask that you take us to the Belsisian cargo vessel Musubi. According to Starfleet records, they appear to be carrying a piece of equipment that we're going to need for our project." Dr. Myrix stated clearly.

"I think it's time for me to get back to the fighter wing for a debrief. Captain Byrne, may I leave this in your hands?" Colonel Plagg asked professionally.

"Yes sir. I have command." Captain Byrne easily responded.

"Thank you." Dr. Myrix told both men sincerely.

A courteous nod from Colonel Plagg was his only response before purposely walking off the bridge.

"Lieutenant Patterson, please attempt to contact the Belsisian ship Musubi. We're going to have a request to make of them." Captain Byrne said frankly.

"Yes sir." Lieutenant Patterson said smartly, then turned her attention to her console.

* * * * *

Vincent motioned for Dr. Myrix to walk with him to one of the unused auxiliary consoles before cautiously asking, "Are we going to bring the thing here or are we going to use it on their ship?"

"I suppose that depends on the situation that we find ourselves in. If it's practical to do so, we'll take it with us. But if the units are dedicated to another purpose... I suppose we'll do what we have to do." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

"I was just asking because if we end up having to stay with their ship, I'm going to need for T'Lani to go with us." Vincent said seriously.

"While I can respect that you don't want to leave your wife..."

"She has the mental training to help me do what I'm going to try to do. I'm going to be counting on her to back me up." Vincent interrupted.

"Oh. Yes. I can see how helpful that might be." Dr. Myrix stammered with surprise, then continued more casually, "If we end up having to stay on the Musubi, I'll make sure that your wife is with us."

"Captain, I have the Musubi for you." Lieutenant Patterson announced.

"Doctor? Would you care to make the inquiry?" Captain Byrne asked as he indicated the communications console.

"Yes sir." Dr. Myrix said as he moved to the other side of the bridge.

Vincent followed a step behind.

"Starship Musubi, I am Dr. Davessar Myrix, on assignment with the Federation, currently on the USS Yorktown. It appears that we have need of a piece of equipment that you are listed as carrying. Would you be amenable to discussing the matter with me?" Dr. Myrix asked hopefully.

One of the screens at the Communications console came alive, revealing a golden-yellow skinned woman with long straight silver hair.

"I am Commander Fen-Tang, captain of the Belsisian vessel Musubi. We are a cargo ship working to support the troops on the front line. Our stores of equipment are vast, although unremarkable for the most part. If there is anything we carry that can be of help to aid our people, we will gladly offer it to you."

Vincent was surprised by the low even tone of the woman's voice. If he didn't know better, he would almost believe that the image he was seeing was completely computer generated.

"How soon can we be at their location?" Dr. Myrix asked as he looked toward Commander M'Butu's station.

"Less than five minutes." Commander M'Butu responded confidently.

"We'll be at your location in five minutes." Dr. Myrix relayed.

"What is the equipment that you will be needing? If possible we will have it ready to transport aboard your ship upon your arrival." Commander Fen-Tang said professionally.

"It would be better not to tempt fate by discussing the matter on an open frequency. We'll be to your location shortly and I'll tell you in person." Dr. Myrix said simply.

"That won't be necessary. Our systems have the capacity for high-level encryption. If possible, we would prefer for you to tell us of your needs in advance so that we can provide you with what you need without delay." Commander Fen-Tang said a bit more firmly.

"If you are denying us permission to board your ship, of course we'll accede to your wishes and make other arrangements." Dr. Myrix said emotionlessly.

"No. There's no need for that. We'll be awaiting your arrival." Commander Fen-Tang said quickly.

"Agreed. Yorktown out." Dr. Myrix said firmly, then waited until he had seen Lieutenant Patterson discontinue the call before turning to look at the officers on the bridge.

"Is there any particular reason that you wanted to go aboard that ship?" Captain Byrne asked cautiously.

"Mostly because I got the sense that she really didn't want me to. I don't have any idea of what's going on there, but I've learned to trust my instincts about such things." Dr. Myrix said seriously.

"Captain? Would it be possible for T'Lani to go with us? I'm afraid if we go onto their ship that one ship or the other is going to be called away all of a sudden. I'm going to need T'Lani's help with what we're planning to do." Vincent carefully explained.

"Yes. Of course. You should get her now. It will only be a matter of minutes before we arrive." Captain Byrne suggested.

"Yes sir." Vincent immediately responded.

"If you wouldn't object, I'd like to send one of my security officers with you, just to be safe." Lieutenant Simms quickly interjected.

"Thank you Wayland. Given the way I pressured them into inviting us aboard, that's probably a good idea." Dr. Myrix said appreciatively.

"Can Ensign Barnhill go with us? She's really good." Vincent asked hopefully.

"Yes. I'll have her meet you in transporter room three." Lieutenant Simms said with an approving smile at the request.

* * * * *

"Deck G." Dr. Myrix said to the ceiling of the lift, then thought to ask, "Do you have any other stops that you need to make before we go to the transporter room?"

"I'll hit the head while I'm in sickbay. I should be fine for everything else." Vincent said frankly.

"Thanks for sharing." Dr. Myrix said with a grin.

"You asked." Vincent said with a shrug as the turbolift doors opened.

"I'll meet you in the transporter room." Dr. Myrix said before turning the opposite way from Vincent.

* * * * *

"T'Lani, I'm sorry I didn't let you know what was going on before now, but things were going so fast that I kinda forgot." Vincent said in a rush as he walked into the sickbay.

"Calm yourself, Husband. Share with me that which concerns you." T'Lani said calmly.

Vincent took a moment to condense his memories, thoughts and explanations into a coherent order, then telepathically transferred the synopsis to her in one convenient mental package.

After a moment to analyze what he had given her, T'Lani slowly said, "I see."

"Dr. Perry, is it okay if T'Lani goes on an away mission with me? I mean, Captain Byrne already said that she could, but I don't want to take her away from you if you really need her to be here for something." Vincent asked hopefully.

"T'Lani?" Dr. Perry asked cautiously.

"It seems that my husband has developed a strategy for dealing with the threat posed by the Tark'Ashi. He requires my assistance to enact his plan." T'Lani said simply.

Dr. Perry slowly nodded, then quietly said, "I've just received word that two of the pilots that I examined just this morning no longer exist. If what you're planning has any possibility of preventing that from happening again, then you'll have my whole-hearted support."

"Thank you Dr. Perry. I'll do my best to make it so no one else will have to die like that." Vincent swore as a vow.

"If you will allow me a moment, I will close the reports I was working on before your arrival." T'Lani said as she went back to her computer.

"I can take care of that if you need to go." Dr. Perry assured her.

"It's okay. Go ahead and do what you need to do. I'll be back in a minute." Vincent said before hurrying to the back exit to the room.

"T'Lani, maybe you can tell me, people like Vincent, is it bravery or stupidity that compels them to go against all odds to attempt outlandish things?" Dr. Perry asked curiously.

"I see 'bravery' as being an example of a glass half full and 'stupidity' as being the glass half empty. As to what compels him... to my knowledge that remains unquantifiable." T'Lani carefully intoned.

"Is this plan of his going to be dangerous for you?" Dr. Perry asked with concern.

"No. This reality that we've found ourselves in is dangerous for us. What my husband proposes might possibly make it less so." T'Lani said evenly.

"Dr. Perry, you don't happen to have any couplers around here anywhere, do you?" Vincent asked as he walked back into the main sickbay.

"I think I may have some in my office. What do you need them for?" Dr. Perry asked as she started walking toward her office.

Vincent and T'Lani followed as Vincent explained, "I'm used to carrying them for luck. When I went to the bathroom, I realized that I didn't have any couplers with me. When I'm about to do something that has a one in a billion trillion chance of working the last thing I want to do is jinx it."

Dr. Perry opened her desk drawer and found three couplers in the tray where several styluses were kept.

As she placed the couplers in Vincent's open palm, she quietly said, "Here you go, for luck. Also know that my hopes and best wishes go with you."

"Thanks." Vincent said with a grin, then looked to T'Lani and quietly said, "Let's go."

* * * * *

"Something's not right." Dr. Myrix said as Vincent and T'Lani walked into transporter room three.

"What is it?" Vincent asked with concern.

"From what I'm seeing here, it looks like they're creating a pocket of breathable air so that we will be able to transport aboard their ship without environmental suits." Dr. Myrix said as he carefully watched the scanner on the transporter console.

"I thought Belsisians were regular humans who look a little funny because their star and atmosphere make them kind of fluorescent." Vincent said frankly.

"Yes. And seeing as they are away from their homeworld, they should appear to be perfectly normal humans. However, that doesn't negate the fact that this ship appears to be running without any atmospheric accommodations for biological beings." Dr. Myrix said frankly.

"The Musubi is signalling ready for transport." Ensign Bergman said slowly.

"Do you think it's safe?" Vincent asked Dr. Myrix with concern.

The door opening forestalled his answer as Ensign Barnhill asked, "Are you waiting for me?"

"No. They just signalled ready for transport. You're right on time." Vincent said as he took the lead and went to his customary transport position.

"Just so you know, I'm not detecting anyone there to meet you. If you lose communications, fire your phaser three times and I'll beam you out of there immediately." Ensign Bergman said seriously.

As Ensign Barnhill got into her transport position she said, "Thank you. I'll do that."

Ensign Bergman seemed to be pleased that Ensign Barnhill approved of his precaution.

"Energize." Dr. Myrix said firmly, not sounding altogether comfortable with their situation.

* * * * *

As soon as the sparkle of the transporter cleared, the team found themselves in darkness.

"Hello?" Vincent called into the dark void that surrounded them.

"Welcome aboard the Musubi." Commander Fen-Tang's image said from a nearby viewscreen.

"What is the meaning of this?" Dr. Myrix asked warily.

"I can see why you might think this was some kind of trap, but I assure you it's nothing like that." Commander Fen-Tang finished with a slight reassuring smile.

"Then what is it like?" Vincent demanded to know.

"You're the first ambulatory people to be welcomed aboard this ship in five years. That's it. That's the big secret. The entire ship's crew are paralized or completely incapacitated in some way. Using the ship's computer and robotics, we conduct our business much the same as any other cargo ship." Commander Fen-Tang said seriously.

"So you don't really look like this, do you?" Vincent asked curiously.

"No. This is my avatar. A harmless little fantasy, I assure you. If you were trying to talk to my actual self, I wouldn't be able to speak to you in a manner that you could understand." Commander Fen-Tang said frankly.

"Thank you. I understand." Dr. Myrix said seriously, then added, "Perhaps, if you have no objection, we could discuss the equipment that we came here about."

"Yes. I'm interested to know what it is. As I said before, our cargo is fairly unremarkable." Commander Fen-Tang finished with a smile.

"According to your manifest, you appear to be carrying several neural processing units." Dr. Myrix said simply.

"No. Those aren't cargo, they're our interface with the ship. They aren't for sale." Commander Fen-Tang said firmly.

"That's okay. We aren't exactly wanting to buy them anyway. If we could just use one of them for about an hour, that should probably take care of everything that we were wanting to do." Vincent hurried to explain.

"But you can't tell me what you're going to be doing?" Commander Fen-Tang guessed.

"No. We really can't." Dr. Myrix confirmed.

"We don't have to tell them every detail, but it wouldn't make any sense not to tell them anything. They'll be able to see what we're doing while we're doing it. It's probably better for them to understand, at least a little, instead of trying to guess at what we're trying to do." Vincent said seriously.

"Go ahead. Let them know what you think they need to know." Dr. Myrix said simply.

"Are you sure?" Ensign Barnhill asked cautiously.

"No. Not entirely. But he makes a valid point. It might actually end up working out that they can contribute something more than a neural processing unit." Dr. Myrix explained.

"Well, it probably won't end up being that big of a deal, but what we're wanting to do is upload a copy of my mind into the Tark'Ashi network." Vincent said frankly.

"What good will that do?" Commander Fen-Tang asked cautiously.

"Maybe none. But I'm hoping that it'll make them see that humans are people too and, you know, be nicer and stuff." Vincent answered honestly, then quickly added, "But if they just stopped trying to kill everyone, that'd be okay too."

"So you just want to hook up, transmit and... that's it?" Commander Fen-Tang slowly asked.

"Yep. I mean, it sounded a lot more impressive when we were coming up with it, but that's really all there is to it." Vincent said frankly.

"We recently suffered a loss amongst our crew. I don't think anyone would object if you used Pymma's chamber during your short stay with us." Commander Fen-Tang said softly.

"Time appears to be something of an issue. Where do we need to go?" Dr. Myrix asked anxiously.

"It will take a few minutes to pressurize the hallways leading there. Since we're confined to our chambers, there's no need for us to keep light, heat and air pressure in the open areas of the ship. It's actually quite a bit cheaper not having to bother with it, which makes it possible for us to offer competitive pricing for our services." Commander Fen-Tang quietly explained.

"If it's going to take a minute, perhaps you would like to introduce us to the rest of your crew." Dr. Myrix suggested.

"Yes. I think that's a good idea. We don't get to meet new people very often, so I don't get a chance to use my manners very much. Of course, I am Commander Teel Fen-Tang, the captain of the Musubi. It is my honor to introduce my second in command, Tylea Gauss and our loadmaster, Fel Tryver." Commander Fen-Tang said formally.

As she announced their names, the other two appeared in separate windows on the same screen.

The girl's skin was fluorescent green, which contrasted her bright pink, nearly magenta, eyes. While her facial features were certainly pleasant, there was no trace of eye lashes, eyebrows or any hair whatsoever.

The boy, on the other hand, sported a mop of white hair which reflected blue in their black light environment. His hair seemed to be styled to stand taller than one would think possible. From Vincent's point of view it was difficult to tell if Fel's eyes were deeply blue or if they were white, reflecting blue. Regardless, Fel's hair, eyes and teeth glowed brightly while the rest of him was barely visible in the strange lighting.

As with Commander Fen-Tang, both Tylea and Fel appeared to be completely computer generated.

"Thank you Commander. It's nice to meet all of you." Dr. Myrix said formally, then continued, "I am Dr. Davessar Myrix and I'm afraid that I have to admit that I don't know my companions formal names, so I'll allow them to introduce themselves."

Vincent looked first at T'Lani, then at Ensign Barnhill to see if either of them wanted to be next.

"You're the ranking officer." Ensign Barnhill reminded him.

"Right." Vincent huffed, then turned to the monitor and said, "I'm Major Vincent Winters from the USS Yorktown, with me is my wife, Doctor T'Lani Winters and our security escort, Ensign Barnhill... I don't know her first name."

"Ensign will be fine." Ensign Barnhill said flatly.

"Are you the Hero of Kimber?" Fel asked cautiously.

"Yeah. I've been called that." Vincent reluctantly admitted.

"That's incredible! I mean, you were there, you saved hundreds of lives..." Fel's image seemed to freeze.

"I did what I could..." Vincent trailed off, not really knowing what to say, or if the person behind the frozen image could even hear him.

Fel's image suddenly became animated again as he asked, "That's what you're doing here now, isn't it?"

"What?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Like what you did at Kimber, you're right here, right now, so that you can save hundreds of peoples lives." Fel said in amazement.

"Well... yeah. I guess. Would you like to help me?" Vincent asked with a smile.

"Really!? What can I do?" Fel asked in amazement.

"I was thinking that since I've never used one of these neural processing things before that it might be good if someone who knew what they were doing could help me get hooked up and use it right." Vincent said frankly.

"Yeah. We'll have to get you plugged in first... Since you won't be moving in, you won't have to get the most uncomfortable things seated. But I can help you make sure that all your contacts are connecting right and talk you through the startup." Fel assured him.

"If you would like to go down the hallway to your left, the corridor has been pressurized and lighted. The door to Pymma's compartment is open for you." Commander Fen-Tang said seriously.

"Okay. I guess it's time to do this. Fel? Are you with me?" Vincent asked into the air as he started walking.

"Yes, Hero. Even if you can't see me, I'll be with you. If you need anything just say the word."

"Thanks Fel. That makes me feel a lot better." Vincent said as he followed the hallway to its end.

He was about to ask where he was supposed to go next when he saw the open compartment close to the ground.

"Someone claustrophobic wouldn't last two minutes in there." Vincent declared as he got down on his hands and knees.

"Is that going to be a problem for you?" Dr. Myrix asked with concern.

"No. The conduit shaft under Kimber was a lot worse than this. At least here I'm warm and dry." Vincent said as he scooted onto the thickly cushioned bed.

"Is there anything that you need for the rest of us to be doing?" Dr. Myrix asked cautiously.

"If I need something, T'Lani will know it. Just listen to her." Vincent said seriously.

"If anything goes wrong, I will get you out of there." Ensign Barnhill said firmly.

"Then I won't even worry about it." Vincent said with a smile at her before disappearing fully into the compartment.

* * * * *

"Okay Fel. Talk me through it." Vincent said into the air.

"Get comfortable and let me know as soon as you're ready." Fel responded.

"Ready for what?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Ready to lose control of your body. Once you're sure that nothing's going to be pinched or cramped, we'll turn on the neural processor and let it take over the operation of your body. While it's doing that, your mind can learn how to access the controls so that you can upload yourself, if that's still what you're intending to do." Fel said seriously.

"Yeah. Unless you have a better suggestion." Vincent said honestly.

"I would say 'Run', but look at where I am and what I'm doing. I'm here doing what little I can to help out, even though the universe is going to hell."

"I think I'm comfortable enough. What do I do next?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Since this isn't going to be a new way of life for you, there's no reason you should have to learn all the controls. I'll get you hooked in and then I'll see that you understand how to use just the controls that you'll need."

"Okay."

Vincent couldn't begin to describe the sensation of his body fading away like a distant memory.

"That's good. I took a chance and set you up with a standard interface. You shouldn't have to learn as much to use that."

"Thanks." Vincent said and was surprised by the sound of his own voice.

"You're not talking using your vocal cords now, but the way you speak is basically the same. We can modulate your voice to be higher or lower, male or female or even a cartoon character. Anything you want."

"No offense, but I'll stick with the default. Can you show me how I upload myself with this thing?"

"You've made the primary connection. That's good. Now we just have to make a few more physical contacts so that we can establish the full neural connection. Once that's done, everything will be in place... I hope you know what you're going to do next because I think that's as much as the machine's designed for." Fel finished uncertainly.

"We probably should've thought that out a little better. Oh well, too late now. Um, give me a second. I'm going to telepathically talk to my wife about getting Dr. Myrix to work out the next phase of our plan. I mean, if I can get me all uploadable, the only thing he should have to do is plug me into the Tark'Ashi network. That shouldn't be too bad." Vincent finished uncertainly.

"If he doesn't already have a plan, he might do good to talk to Tylea about it. That sounds like something right up her alley."

"I'll suggest that to him."

"Let me know when you're ready and I'll start making new connections." Fel said quietly.

"I'm ready. T'Lani relayed my question and Dr. Myrix is working on it."

"So are Tylea and Teel."

"When I'm fully connected, what's it going to be like?" Vincent asked curiously.

"A lot like it is now, I guess. You're not turning yourself into a central processing unit for a cargo ship, you're just copying some information. In other words, almost all output, very little input. Can you see a little red light to your right?"

"Yes."

"Can you touch it?"

"I think so. Do you want me to try?"

"Yeah. Go ahead."

Even though Vincent wasn't aware of having anything remotely resembling an arm or a hand to reach with, he nonetheless reached out and touched the floating red dot hanging in the nothingness to his right.

"That's perfect. I think it took me a day and a half to do that the first time. You're really good at this." Fel said encouragingly.

"I touched a dot."

"You turned on a switch. That means that you can just as easily turn off a switch. Just one or two more of those and you'll be ready to start your download." Fel said frankly.

"It's that easy?" Vincent asked in astonishment.

"For what you're planning to do, yeah. I'm betting that you'd need at least a month of training before you could do my job." Fel said firmly.

"What is your job?"

"I'm the loadmaster. I make sure that everything is properly stored and stowed before departure and that the load is properly balanced in case we have to do a planetary landing." Fel said proudly.

"How many times have you had to do that?" Vincent asked curiously.

"Well, to be honest, never. But if we ever did have to land on a planet's surface, it'd be really important that the load was balanced and secured correctly." Fel said passionately.

"Yeah. I can see that." Vincent easily conceded.

"I also help with loading and unloading." Fel quietly added.

"Considering what you guys do for a living, that's a pretty important thing to do." Vincent said honestly.

"I enjoy it. The repetition of it is kind of soothing."

"As long as you enjoy it, you should keep on doing it." Vincent said simply.

"There. Can you see three blips of light?"

"Yes. Like a stoplight."

"A what?"

"Sorry. It's an Earth thing. I see red, yellow and green lights."

"Good. Deactivate the yellow one."

Vincent once again reached without reaching with an appendage that had no name.

"Excellent. Now see if you can activate the yellow one again."

"Should I just do the opposite of turning it off?" Vincent asked cautiously.

"Yes. Give that a try and see what happens."

Vincent moved without moving, reached without reaching and turned the yellow light back on.

"That's it. Brace yourself for a second. You're about to get a control panel."

"A wha..." Vincent started to say, but was startled by the complex computer generated control panel enveloping his entire being.

"Find the screen with the big yellow 'H' on it. Once you've found it, reorient yourself so that you're facing it... rightside up."

"How..." Vincent began to ask, but couldn't think of how to form the question.

"Just like how you turned off the yellow light. It all works the same way. The more you think about it, the harder it gets. Just kind of want it, then let it happen."

Although there were a few starts and stops, Vincent was finally able to turn and rotate himself until he was in the correct position.

"Okay. I did that. What's next?"

"The panel to your right controls your neural interface. Using the settings there, you can open yourself up and transmit everything that you're thinking and feeling. To tell you the truth, I've never had any reason to use this feature of the interface, so you're going to need to figure this out for yourself, but from what I've seen of it, the controls seem to be fairly straightforward."

When Vincent turned his attention to each of the controls, he received a simple explanation of their functions.

* * * * *

As Vincent was finishing his review, he received a telepathic message from T'Lani.

"It sounds like Dr. Myrix and T'Lani have figured out how to connect my neural output to the Tark'Ashi network." Vincent said in his computerized voice.

"Tylea and Teel have been working with them too." Fel said informatively.

"Be sure to thank them for me. I really appreciate that they're willing to help us." Vincent said sincerely.

"You're trying to help everyone we have ever known and ever loved. Whether it works or not, we're honored to be able to help you in some small way." Fel said passionately.

"T'Lani said something about us needing to get aligned or in position or something, so it might be a minute before we're ready to try this." Vincent explained.

"They're taking us closer to the Tark'Ashi encroachment zone. Dr. Myrix feels that we'll have the best chance for success if we can feed them a strong signal that they can't possibly disrupt."

"Good. I have a feeling that we're only going to get one chance at this, so we'd better make it count." Vincent said seriously.

"Vincent, are you scared?" Fel asked quietly.

"Yeah. But there's nothing wrong with that."

"There's not?"

"No. There are tons of things that you should be afraid of. As long as you're afraid of the right things, you're doing it right."

"What do you think we should be afraid of right now?"

"I don't know what you have to be afraid of, but if I were going to guess, I'd say that you should be afraid of losing your nerve. It's something that's real, that could happen, and that you have complete control over. When it's something like that, you have to own it."

"Yeah. It took a lot of courage for me to say that I'd help run cargo for the Federation fleet on the front line. It's probably the bravest thing that I've ever done. Even if I never do another brave thing in my entire life, I can always look back on this and say 'I did that'."

"Just think about how many people go through their entire lives without ever feeling that even once. You've already outdone each and every one of them. You've proven that you can be brave."

"What about you Vincent? I know that your situation is a lot different from mine. What are you afraid of?"

"Not doing enough."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

It's nice to see Vincent and crew again.

As with all of MM's stories, we will always find things interesting, to put it mildly.

We now find ourselves hanging right on the edge of that proverbial cliff.

Let's just say that I find myself really wanting another chapter as quickly as possible.

Of course, I always want that, don't I?

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher