On The Trail
Location: Inconnu Expanse
It had been a tense few hours after Katya's ship had departed from Carnwennan Station. Katya remained stoically on the Bridge with Mauricio by her side, as they sailed alone into the Expanse. Their secret mission to return to the Expanse, find the Pandora, and deliver two new crew members to the Starfleet vessel, had started off without a hitch. Katya and Qaraq's ships had left separately from Carnwennan Station and taken different routes to a pre-determined rendezvous point, hoping to avoid any suspicion from passing Federation or Alrakis Pact ships. They had to travel through the very narrow corridor between the Talarian and Tzenkethi borders, staying constantly on watch for any patrols. If the Alrakis Pact had found them, there would be questions about where they were going and why. And the Pact would be very keen to find a reason to prevent Katya from returning to Paradise. If the Federation caught up to them, there would be questions about the hasty exit from Carnwennan Station, not to mention Admiral Milne had warned Katya that she couldn't trust anyone in Starfleet right now.
Using a complicated pathway of gingerbread crumbs, Katya and Mauricio's route saw them ducking through nebulas and the long way around a gas giant, then going dark as they approached a Tzenkethi border marker. Finally, they were able to make it out of the Corridor and into the Expanse proper, thankfully with no one tailing them. Then, it was another two hour journey at their highest speed to make it to the rendezvous point to meet with Qaraq, Briya, and Aenardha.
"All stop," Mauricio announced as they arrived at the location. The pilots powered down the craft's engines and it slowed to a gentle drift.
Katya looked out the view screen and just saw the empty black space in front of them. "They're not here," she complained.
"Qaraq will be here soon," Mauricio replied, not sure whether he believed it or not himself. He too was staring out at the black, hoping they would see a ship approaching any minute now.
"We shouldn't have split up," Katya sighed heavily. "It was a mistake."
"We had to take separate paths so we didn't draw too much attention," Mauricio answered right away. "Their route was always going to take a little longer. Be patient, my Queen."
Katya folded her arms over her chest sullenly. "I don't like this," she declared.
== Qaraq's Ship ==
"I'm sorry, Mr. Qaraq, I didn't realize it was you," said the voice at the other end of the hail.
"Next time, hail someone before you fire a warning shot!" Qaraq yelled. He severed the connection and uttered a small curse at the Breen scout that had stopped them. "He shouldn't even be out here anyway," he muttered.
The ship jumped to warp again and they continued their new route to the rendezvous point. Qaraq's new course delayed their meeting another two hours, with a total of four hours of traveling time left. Aside from the Breen scout, they had not directly encountered another ship since their departure. There had been a few flybys, but they too were mostly cargo ships or small transports. Qaraq decided to check on his "cargo," who had been out of their containers for a while now.
Aenardha was in her assigned room. It was not really a room meant for accommodations, but was doing the job well. She did have worse accommodations, however, during her time at the Academy during the POSSE. Given the situation and the risk however, she wanted to get to work and help Qaraq as much as she could. In the event they crossed paths with a curious party, she did not want to scream Starfleet, so Aenardha dressed casually. Her fashion sense lacked color as she wore loose fitting black pants and a black shirt. Constrasting her albino complexion, she again looked as though she had stepped out of a black and white holonovel. She grabbed her PADD, specially adapted with a braille-enabled screen, and went to the hatchway. She wanted to check in on Briya but, opening the door, she found a menacingly large Qaraq just about to knock. Tapping into his public vision, she saw herself coming up only to his chest. Aenardha looked up at herself through his eyes. "Mr. Qaraq," was all she said.
"Oh! Hello... Anurda?" Qaraq said, trying to pronounce her name. "Is that right?"
It did not happen incredibly often, but Aenardha smiled. Qaraq had no idea and would probably live his life without ever knowing the amount of joy his mispronunciation of that name brought to her. "Yes. That is right."
"Ah," Qaraq replied with a nod and he repeated the name again. Qaraq continued, "I've had to change our direction to take us the long way around to our destination. It seems your enemies in the Expanse have multiplied their patrols and checkpoints. We are currently traveling at warp six. Any faster and more people may get suspicious. And even I don't have enough connections to get us through all of them unharmed."
"I see. Thank you again, Mr Qaraq for ferrying us."
Qaraq stepped to the side to allow Aenardha her exit. They walked slowly side by side carrying on their conversation.
"If you will grant me access to your ship's computer, I could download to my PADD all the current intel of the area and the peoples. In the event of an encounter, I may have an idea to ease aggression, make us appear friendly to their cause, and get us through safely." They stopped a moment and Aenardha looked up at him. "That way, if any suspecting eyes peruse our signature, they may see that someone else has already cleared us as friendly. They will leave us alone."
"Hmmm," Qaraq said, tweaking one of the horns on the side of his forehead. "Is Starfleet technology advanced enough to do that? This ship is merely a civilian freighter, not one of your fancy starships. Its capabilities are more limited." Then he grinned. "Any assistance you may offer would be much appreciated. And I will see you are compensated for your efforts. Any enemy of the Alrakis Pact is a friend to me!" he added in his loud baritone voice.
"Compensation is not required," she said. "You getting us to our rendezvous is worth whatever effort we put forward. In fact, we should be compensating you."
Qaraq erupted into a jolly laugh. "I suppose you are correct! I only require your assurance that the Pandora and my friends aboard her survive their trip home! That is compensation enough."
"Since their survival will also mean my survival, you can rest assured I will give it my all." As they continued along, she felt a sense of safety and security, honesty and integrity from Qaraq. Despite a menacing appearance, he was quite friendly, though she did get a sense of a protective nature about him; the kind of nature where anyone who hurt his friends would live the rest of the days looking over their shoulders. "The idea I have in mind will not require torpedoes or phasers; no amount of speed or cloak or shields. Just persuasion and some good acting." Though she still hoped it would never come to that. "We should go check in on our diplomat."
The temporary accommodations set aside for the diplomat’s use were arranged identically to those of Aenardha’s. The furnishings and decor were - basic. The Diplomat’s, however, were found to be empty and did not look to have been used at all. Because after Briya had climbed out of the medical cargo crate in which she’d begun her smuggled sojourn, the last thing she wanted was to confine herself in another box, albeit a slightly larger box. So she’d gone for a walk to stretch her legs and in doing, see what she could see. She had been assured by Admiral Milne that Katya & Qaraq could be trusted and for the most part that was sufficient for Briya, but it was always a good idea to unravel one’s own judgement into a singular awareness that more perfectly matched one’s own perception. And so Briya had walked, though she quickly learned that the cargo ship was not particularly large. It was small enough, in fact, to turn her walking into pacing. There simply wasn’t enough flooring to chew up in walking before the confines of the ship required her to turn around and tread back along the same path. Briya was not a fan of pacing; it felt like the ultimate act of futility, so she popped her head into the dining room, messhall, chow line or whatever it was called on this ship by Qaraq’s people. It was empty, as had been most of the ship. Briya did not wish to be alone; it reminded her of being in a crate. Assuming that a ship this size of so few sections would logically have even fewer areas to which she was not permitted to roam, she made her way to the ‘bridge’ or command center. At any rate, it was where the pilot did the flying. She found there another Broot - by no means a derogatory term - who turned out to be a wealth of information, though not tactical intel by any means. It had not taken Briya long to make a friendly acquaintance with this scaly square-jawed native of the Delavi System - the only other member of the crew that her scouting had revealed - and she was fast in conversation with the Broot when Aenardha and Qaraq arrived.
“I’m not upset...” Briya was saying to the alien as she massaged the base of his horns. She was standing on a chair positioned behind the towering alien, using the additional height of the chair to bring her - just barely - to a suitable angle for a proper rubbing. Her hands continued their kneading with a practiced skill and the effect, given the nature and shape of the horn, would have been scandalous two hundred years ago. But for a Risian recognized by the Hedony as a model Masseuse, this was just a cultured exchange of relaxation and pleasure. “...I’m just not accustomed to being referred to in those words. Where I’m from, I am not considered by any to be short. You would be laughed at for using such an obviously inaccurate characterization. Though I’m sure you receive plenty of laughs all on your own, funny man.” Briya gave the Broot’s horn a playful knock with her knuckles. She looked up and noticed Aenardha and Qaraq’s entrance.
“Mister Qaraq; Aenardha,” Briya called out as she climbed down from the chair. The tall diplomat (nevermind the Broot’s opinion) looked as put together at 1700 hours as she did when she took her first step into the day, and her days started early. “Would you mind if I were to join you?” There was an undertone to her request, almost that of a bored child imploring not to be left alone one moment longer.
Qaraq grinned. "I see you've met my son, Rognerek! I hope he has behaved himself..."
“Your son?!” Briya thumped Rognerek’s arm genially. “He neglected to mention any such relation. Though, now, I think I see the resemblance. And a few of his stories make more sense now that I know it was you he was referring to; Dad.”
The small talk of family got Aenardha to thinking about her own familial life back on Andor. The thoughts were short-lived. She used telepathic vision to look between them all. "It seems we are moving along rather peacefully. Mr. Qaraq," she turned to the beast. "May I access your ship's computer? I would like to get to work and learn the terrain of this region."
"Of course," Qaraq replied. "Right this way."
Aenardha followed Qaraq as he lead the way to the bridge of his vessel. All the while, she brought her PADD out from standby and set it to interface with his ship's computer. Without borrowing Qaraq's vision to see what she was doing, the braille-enabled screen produced the little raised dots over the GUI. Her hand danced across the screen as she signed in and prepared it to interface.
[Some time later]
Mauricio was pleased to see a blip on his sensors as Qaraq's ship finally approached, and he relayed this news immediately to Katya. The Paradise Queen became immediately giddy with joy, pleased that they had not only escaped from the Federation starbase, but they had also evaded any Alrakis Pact attention so far. Secret plans were easy to make but they were even easier to ruin - something she had felt all too recently.
"Some phaser damage," Mauricio reported as he surveyed the ship, "But all occupants present and accounted for, my Queen."
"Excellent!" Katya beamed, "Let's get over there."
The two ships sidled up to each other and Mauricio maneuvered the docking bridge between them, carefully ensuring the vessels were joined as Katya impatiently waited. It wasn't long before docking was complete and Katya immediately crossed over to Qaraq's ship, with Mauricio following close behind.
Upon seeing him, Aenardha, through a simple muscle reaction, took a step forward toward Mauricio, but stopped herself. He intention, though unintentional at the moment, was to run up to him and wrap her arms around him. Aenardha reminder herself that they had been engaged in the deepest telepathic link she had ever attempted with him, and for an extended time. Whatever feelings she had were only residual side-effects that would wane with time and meditation.
"You made it!" Katya exclaimed as she saw the assembled team, though her gaze was more fixed to her friend Qaraq. "I got worried there for a time."
"We were a little delayed," said Qaraq, "...but it was nothing serious. I hope you were not waiting too long."
"No," Katya replied with a small shrug, causing Mauricio to raise his eyebrows. Looking around the group, Katya quickly continued, "So, how do we find the Pandora? We could try going to Paradise and waiting?"
"Uh we have some information that will help." Mauricio stepped forward, glancing to Aenardha. "Before we left the station, Aenardha reached out through my mind to see if we could connect with Captain Temple. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a dead end, but we did manage to find an Ensign on the Pandora's Bridge, which gave us rough coordinates of their last known position."
"It will be an easy matter," Qaraq boomed. "We must head in the direction of the Hesiod system, since Pandora's departure begins there. Aenardha here has access to Starfleet intelligence reports that could help us discern the paths of various patrols. Using the available data, we should be able to estimate the path Pandora is taking. Her presence at Hesiod was no secret. Several obstacles will surely be in her way, and such obstacles will be easy to find."
"And, should we find any of these obstacles," Aenardha spoke up. "if we meet with any resistance, I believe I can feign alliance to their cause. That hurdle alone could remove the rest. If but one adversary tags this ship as friendly, the rest may go out of their way to leave us alone.
Katya nodded, "Then should we proceed? I suggest we maintain some distance from each other so that we do not draw too much attention."
"I agree," Qaraq replied. He turned to Briya and Aenardha. "Do you wish to continue the journey on my ship? I brought some excellent delicacies from my own restaurant on Delavi, and Rognerek is a very skilled cook. And he seems quite taken with you, Ms. Valriya."
"And I will remain as well," said Aenardha. It was not going to help matters if she remained in close proximity to Mauricio. Time, distance, meditation, and keeping herself busy with her work was the only way to rid her of the effects of their telepathic adventure. "I will of course relay the coordinates we found."
"Then it's a plan." Mauricio said with a smile. He was a little hurt that Aenardha chose to stay with Qaraq's vessel, but he knew the mission had to come first. Turning to Katya, he held out his arm, "My Queen, shall we?"
Katya nodded and she looked to the others. "Once again we must say a brief goodbye. Let us hope this part of the journey is a little smoother."
With that, the Paradise Queen and her companion departed from Qaraq's ship. It wasn't long before both ships had detached from one another and manoeuvred into position. Qaraq's vessel departed first - it was the heavier class of the two after all. Katya's ship soon followed afterwards, both parties now on the trail to the Pandora.