Captain Ezri Dax stood on the bow of the Columbia and made a silent wish that returning to the wreck wouldn't prove to be a mistake, at a time when Starfleet couldn't afford any.
Engineers and science specialists from her crew swarmed over the derelict Warp 5 vessel. Its husk was half interred by the tireless shifting of the desert, much as she had remembered it from her last visit, as Jadzia Dax, more than seven years earlier. The afternoon suns beat down with an almost palpable force, and shimmering waves of heat distortion rippled above the wreck's sand-scoured hull, which coruscated with reflected light. Dax's hands, normally cold like those of other joined Trill, were warm and slick with perspiration.
Lieutenant Gruhn Helkara, Dax's senior science officer on the Starship Aventine, ascended the ramp through the rent in the hull and approached her with a smile. It was an expression not often seen on the skinny Zakdorn's droop-ridged face.
"Good news, Captain," he said as soon as he was within polite conversational distance. "The converter's working. Leishman's powering up the Columbia's computer now. I thought you might want to come down and have a look."
"No thanks, Gruhn," Dax said. "I'd prefer to stay topside."
One of the advantages of being a captain was that Ezri no longer had to explain herself to her shipmates if she didn't want to. It spared her the potential embarrassment of admitting that her walk-through of the Columbia earlier that day had left her profoundly creeped out. While touring D Deck, she'd been all but certain that she saw the same spectral blue flashes that had lurked along the edges of her vision seven years earlier.
To her silent chagrin, multiple sensor sweeps and tricorder checks had detected nothing out of the ordinary on the Columbia. Maybe it had been just her imagination or a trick of the light, but she'd felt the same galvanic tingle on her skin that Kira had described, and she'd been overcome by a desire to get out of the wreck's stygian corridors as quickly as possible.
She'd doubled the security detail on the planet but had said nothing about thinking the ship might be haunted. One of the drawbacks of being a captain was the constant need to maintain a semblance of rationality, and seeing ghosts didn't fit the bill -- not one bit.
Helkara squinted at the scorched-white sky and palmed a sheen of sweat from his high forehead, up through his thatch of black hair. "By the gods," he said, breaking their long, awkward silence, "did it actually get hotter out here?"
"Yes," Dax said, "it did." She nodded toward the bulge of the ship's bridge module. "Walk with me." The duo strolled up the gentle slope of the Columbia's hull as she continued. "Where are you with the metallurgical analysis?"
"Almost done, sir. You were -- " He caught himself. "Sorry. Jadzia Dax was right. We've detected molecular distortion in the spaceframe consistent with intense subspatial stress."
Dax was anxious for details. "What was the cause?"
"Hard to be sure," Helkara said.
She frowned. "In other words, you don't know."
"Well, I'm not prepared to make that admission yet. I may not have enough data to form a hypothesis, but my tests have ruled out several obvious answers."
"Extreme warp velocities," Helkara said as they detoured around a large crevasse where two adjacent hull plates had buckled violently inward. "Wormholes. Quantum slipstream vortices. Iconian gateways. Time travel. Oh, and the Q."
She sighed. "Doesn't leave us much to go on."
"No, it doesn't," he said. "But I love a challenge."
Dax could tell that he was struggling not to outpace her. His legs were longer than hers, and he tended to walk briskly. She quickened her step. "Keep at it, Gruhn," she said as they reached the top of the saucer. "Something moved this ship clear across the galaxy. I need to know what it was, and I need to know soon."
"Understood, Captain." Helkara continued aft, toward a gaggle of engineers who were assembling a bulky assortment of machinery that would conduct a more thorough analysis of the Columbia's bizarrely distressed subatomic structures.
Memories drifted through Ezri's thoughts like sand devils over the dunes. Jadzia had detailed the profound oddities that the Defiant's sensors had found in the Columbia's hull, and she had informed Starfleet of her theory that the readings might be a clue to a new kind of subspatial phenomenon. Admiral Howe at Starfleet Research and Development had assured her that her report would be investigated, but when the Dominion War erupted less than two months later, her call for the salvage of the Columbia had been sidelined -- relegated to a virtual dustbin of defunct projects at Starfleet Command.
And it stayed there, forgotten for almost eight years, until Ezri Dax gave Starfleet a reason to remember it. The salvage of the Columbia had just become a priority for the same reason that it had been scuttled: there was a war on. Seven years ago the enemy had been the Dominion. This time it was the Borg.
Five weeks earlier the attacks had begun, bypassing all of the Federation's elaborate perimeter defenses and early warning networks. Without any sign of transwarp activity, wormholes, or gateways, Borg cubes had appeared in the heart of Federation space and launched surprise attacks on several worlds. The Aventine had found itself in its first-ever battle, defending the Acamar system from eradication by the Borg. When the fighting was over, more than a third of the ship's crew -- including its captain and first officer -- had perished, leaving second officer Lieutenant Commander Ezri Dax in command.
One week and three Borg attacks later, Starfleet made Ezri captain of the Aventine. By then she'd remembered Jadzia's hypothesis about the Columbia, and she reminded Starfleet of her seven-year-old report that a Warp 5 ship had, in the roughly ten years after it had disappeared, somehow journeyed more than seventy-five thousand light-years -- a distance that it would have taken the Columbia more than three hundred fifty years to traverse under its own power.
Ezri had assured Starfleet Command that solving the mystery of how the Columbia had crossed the galaxy without using any of the known propulsion methods could shed some light on how the Borg had begun doing the same thing. It had been a bit of an exaggeration on her part. She couldn't promise that her crew would be able to make a conclusive determination of how the Columbia had found its way to this remote, desolate resting place, or that there would be any link whatsoever to the latest series of Borg incursions of Federation space. It had apparently taken the Columbia years to get here, while the Borg seemed to be making nearly instantaneous transits from their home territory in the Delta Quadrant. The connection was tenuous at best.
All Dax had was a hunch, and she was following it. If she was right, it would be a brilliant beginning for her first command. If she was wrong, this would probably be her last command.
Her moment of introspection was broken by a soft vibration and a melodious double tone from her combadge. "Aventine to Captain Dax," said her first officer, Commander Sam Bowers.
"Go ahead, Sam," she said.
He sounded tired. "We just got another priority message from Starfleet Command," he said. "I think you might want to take this one. It's Admiral Nechayev, and she wants a reply."
And the axe falls, Dax brooded. "All right, Sam, beam me up. I'll take it in my ready room."
"Aye, sir. Stand by for transport."
Dax turned back to face the bow of the Columbia and suppressed the dread she felt at hearing of Nechayev's message. It could be anything: a tactical briefing, new information from Starfleet Research and Development about the Columbia, updated specifications for the Aventine's experimental slipstream drive...but Dax knew better than to expect good news.
As she felt herself enfolded by the transporter beam, she feared that once again she would have to abandon the Columbia before making its secrets her own.
Commander Sam Bowers hadn't been aboard the Aventine long enough to know the names of more than a handful of its more than seven hundred fifty personnel, so he was grateful that Ezri had recruited a number of its senior officers from among her former crewmates on Deep Space 9. He had already accepted Dax's invitation to serve as her first officer when he'd learned that Dr. Simon Tarses would be coming aboard with him, as the ship's new chief medical officer, and that Lieutenant Mikaela Leishman would be transferring from Defiant to become the Aventine's new chief engineer.
He tried not to dwell on the fact that their predecessors had all recently been killed in fierce battles with the Borg. Better to focus, he decided, on the remarkable opportunity this transfer represented.
The Aventine was one of seven new, experimental Vesta-class starships. It had been designed as a multimission explorer, and its state-of-the-art weaponry made it one of the few ships in the fleet able to mount even a moderate defense against the Borg. Its sister ships were defending the Federation's core systems -- Sol, Vulcan, Andor, and Tellar -- while the Aventine made its jaunt through the Bajoran wormhole to this uninhabited world in the Gamma Quadrant, for what Bowers couldn't help but think of as a desperate long shot of a mission.
He turned a corner, expecting to find a turbolift, only to arrive at a dead end. It's not just the crew you don't know, he chided himself as he turned back and continued looking for the nearest turbolift junction. Three weeks aboard and you're still getting turned around on the lower decks. Snap out of it, man.
The sound of muted conversation led Bowers farther ...