Doctor Aurellan Markalis had been called into sickbay. Andorian engineer Shinar sh’Aqba was putting the finishing touches on the upgraded Emergency Medical Hologram. The lieutenant assured the doctor that the Mark Three was superior to the Mark Two. Markalis still was not expecting too much after the Mark Two was supposed to have a better “bedside manner” than the Mark One, but was just as snide and condescending as its predecessor, modeled after the balding and curmudgeonly project creator Lewis Zimmerman. At least this hologram couldn’t be any worse than the overbearing Mark Two she had put up with over the last year.
“Computer,” sh’Aqba eagerly said, “activate updated emergency medical holographic program.”
A middle-aged human male dressed in a Starfleet medical officer’s uniform fizzled into existence. Unlike the hair styling of previous EMH’s, this one’s dark blond hair was unkempt and his chin was covered in what was known, in Earth slang, as a five o’clock shadow. “Welcome to sickbay,” he stated jovially, but unenthusiastically. “How may I help you?”
“A more personable greeting,” sh’Aqba remarked to Markalis.
Markalis’s eyes widened disbelief. Yes, the greeting was more personable, but the hologram still lacked a friendly personality.
“Well, where are the patients?” the new EMH demanded.
“No patients,” sh’Aqba replied. “I wanted to introduce you to the chief medical officer.”
Looking at the human woman, he scoffed. “Aren’t you a little young to be a chief medical anything, my dear?” he asked, walking towards the main diagnostic console with a limp in his right leg.
“I got into medical school when I was nineteen,” Markalis replied, “and I completed my surgical residency one year, five months, sixteen days ago… “
“Ah, a child prodigy. I bet you’re a lot of fun at parties. So if no one’s dying, computer, deactivate EMH.”
Good bye and good riddance, Markalis wanted to say as the hologram disappeared. She sighed in disappointment while glaring at sh’Aqba. “How can I rely on a holographic doctor that limps,” she huffed.
“It could be a problem with the projectors,” sh’Aqba suggested. “I’ll look into it. But as long as it does not impair his responsibilities as a medical doctor, it may be low on the repair priority list.”
The comm chimed. Commander Charles Logan hailed from engineering. “Logan to sh’Aqba, report to engineering.”
“On my way, sir,” sh’Aqba answered, tapping her combadge. She then downloaded specifications on the EMH-Mark III to a padd. “Have fun,” she teased, handing the padd to Markalis.
Mandel Morrison fell back hard on a dark blue rubber mat. The woman who had upended him then gently placed a thin wooden stick on his chest. He and Military Assault Command Operations commander Lisa Neeley were teaching a self-defense class to various officers in an empty cargo bay. The sticks the two officers used were meant to represent Jem’Hadar kartokins.
Morrison stood up looking at Neeley up and down. He was not entirely amenable to the idea of the MACO’s teaching their skills to the rest of the crew, especially when her predecessor suggested it during more surgical missions. But with the Lambda Paz heading into more dangerous combat missions, the security chief felt a refresher course for the Starfleet crew would do some good. Besides, he could never say no to a beautiful woman. Neeley had the look of a military woman; tall, hair tied in a tight ponytail, and muscular upper arms.
“On many occasions,” Neeley told the class, which consisted of Lieutenant Erhlich Tarlazzi, and Lieutenants junior grade Sara Carson and Willis Huckaby, and Ensign Rebecca Sullivan, “the Jem’Hadar will attack from behind while unshrouding. You will want to listen for a high-pitched rippling sound and look for a sudden shadow in front of you. Computer, run program.”
A holographic Jem’Hadar soldier materialized in the same manner a real Jem’Hadar unshrouded charging at Neeley with a kartokin. Neeley swung around to her left and deflected the sword with her stick. She then kicked the holographic soldier in the stomach sending him to the deck. Once the hologram disappeared, Neeley then turned to face the class.
“Now try these moves with your own holographic sparring partners,” she said. “Computer, begin combat simulation Alpha-2.”
Jem’Hadar came at the students from all directions. Drawing on what Neeley had just shown them, they deflected their opponents’ swords with their sticks. Sullivan’s stick fell out of her hands and her opponent jammed the sword into her chest. It was only a holographic sword, so it was harmless and the Jem’Hadar quickly disappeared.
Tarlazzi and Huckaby were charged at by Jem’Hadar with plasma rifles. They both dodged their opponents’ swings, and then lunged at the soldiers sending them to the deck. Huckaby managed to kick away his opponent’s rifle while Tarlazzi took a holographic plasma charge in his right hip.
Morrison and Neeley practiced a few choreographed fighting moves causing Carson to become distracted. She and Mandel started dating when they were first assigned to Lambda Paz, though it never got beyond playful flirting and nights of passion. She saw Neeley put Morrison in a headlock and shoot him a triumphant grin.
Carson’s stick, meanwhile, broke in half and the Jem’Hadar then “impaled” her through her right shoulder. After the hologram disappeared, another Jem’Hadar came at her from behind. She was slow to turn around when she saw Neeley slap Morrison on his posterior. When Carson was face-to-face with the Jem’Hadar, she was punched in her left jaw.
When class was over, Sullivan smirked at Carson. “Good thing those were holographic kartokins,” Rebecca remarked, “or you’d be dead several times over.”
“Of course,” Sara answered with an embarrassed sigh.
“Morrison and Neeley are getting chummy.”
Carson looked over at those two to see those two exchanging giggles. She wasn’t certain if she was feeling jealousy, or just an annoying reminder of his rapport with women.
“You’re sexy when you’re jealous,” Rebecca observed aloud.
What? Sara wanted to answer, but she couldn’t think of the words. Rebecca walked away with a teasing smile.
The Lambda Paz streaked at high warp towards a Starfleet listening post that had gone dark three days earlier. The post was on a moon barely able to support humanoid life, which orbited a completely lifeless planet resembling Earth’s moon. In all likelihood, the Dominion attacked the listening post while attempting to strengthen its position in the Kalandra sector, the jumping off point for the invasion of Betazed and the threat to the Federation’s core systems.
The ship was at Red Alert. Captain Limis Vircona sat in the command chair tightly gripping both arms. That nervous habit left fraying on the rubber upholstery. All bridge officers silently observed their posts. Mandel Morrison kept a close eye on his sensors at the tactical station in case the enemy took the ship by surprise. Sara Carson was ready to take the ship out of warp. Chaz Logan occupied an auxiliary engineering station on the port side ready to reverse engines at a moment’s notice.
“Approaching the Epsilon Trianguli system,” Carson reported.
“Take us out of warp,” Limis replied. “Take us to full impulse.”
First officer Ronnie Kozar stepped off the port side turbolift and took a seat in the chair on Limis’s left. It was at that moment Limis was reminded of fleet commander Edward Jellico’s order not to engage the enemy alone. “We’ll see about that,” Limis coldly replied, having survived being outnumbered by the Jem’Hadar in lesser-armed ships while in the Maquis.
“Any other ships in the vicinity?” Kozar asked Morrison.
“Sensors detect no vessels in a 500 million kilometer radius,” Morrison humbly reported. “No indications of enemy weapons fire either.”
“Even so,” Limis added, looking to Morrison, then Carson, “let’s not have any surprises.”
Carson nodded in acknowledgement while trying to avoid Morrison with her eyes. “In visual range of the moon, Captain,” she said when she got a glance of her navigational monitor.
“On screen,” Kozar commanded.
A moon with a tan surface orbiting a gray crater filled planet appeared on the screen. Limis leaned forward in her seat to get a better look. She saw nothing too unusual, though she was no expert in astronomical phenomena. “Any signs of life?” she asked Lieutenant Huckaby, who was manning the operations station.
“No, sir,” Huckaby answered. “However, the atmospheric disturbances are causing havoc on the sensors.”
“Captain,” said Logan, “based on my analysis of these disturbances, I’d recommend against beaming down.”
“Those same conditions may overwhelm the engines of shuttle as well,” Kozar added.
Limis nodded in agreement while ascending from her seat. “Mister Huckaby,” she said, “how many Argo-type shuttles do we have?”
“Two, sir,” Huckaby eagerly replied.
“I’ll take them,” Limis proclaimed. She shot a grin at the young lieutenant saying, “You’ll have a chance to try one of them, Lieutenant. Kozar, you’ll lead Team One to search for survivors. Logan, you’ll lead Team Two to try to salvage the station’s logs.”
“Captain, I wouldn’t recommend using both when the engines haven’t been tested,” Kozar insisted.
“We need to know what happened down there,” Limis replied. “Now’s as a good a time as any to test those engines. Have your teams in the shuttlebay in ten minutes.”
Two shuttles launched from the aft of the secondary hull. They quickly descended towards the moon. Given the intensity of the turbulences in the atmosphere, the shuttles had to land almost a kilometer away from the station.
After the hour-long jaunt through the blinding dust storms, Kozar and Morrison were anxious to remove the helmets on their environmental suits. “I wouldn’t advise that,” Markalis interjected. “My tricorder reads minimal life support, so not enough oxygen to go around.”
“I’m still finding it hard to breathe with these on,” Morrison retorted.
“You’ll live,” Kozar half-sarcastically insisted. “Logan, get your team to the computer core. Alpha team, pan out. Start looking for survivors.”
Kozar and Morrison wandered slowly through one dark corridor. They had to stop in their tracks upon seeing three dead bodies sprawled across the metal grated floor. Two were human—one male, one female. From the vertical forehead ridge, the third was Bolian, but his skin was manila just like the human corpses. Their eyes were open with their mouths seemingly agape in horror.
“From these readings,” Morrison said, showing Kozar his tricorder. “I’d say they experienced total blood loss.”
“Maybe we should’ve brought a vampire slayer,” Kozar quipped.
A loud masculine-sounding scream suddenly caught their attention. A young blond-haired man in a blue technician’s jumpsuit down the corridor was shouting and firing a hand phaser. “No!” he cried out. “Make it stop!”
Kozar and Morrison pinned themselves against the wall on their left to dodge the phaser fire. “I’m Commander Ronnie Kozar of the starship Lambda Paz!” the first officer called out. “We’re here to help!”
“No! Make it stop!” the technician kept screaming. Then all of a sudden, he began gasping for air before collapsing to the floor.”
Morrison crouched down and felt for a pulse on the young man’s neck. “He’s alive,” he reported to Kozar. Morrison then removed a hypospray from his left wrist pouch and injected the unconscious human with a sub-dermal transport enhancer.
“Morrison to Carson,” he called, tapping the communicator on the front of his helmet. “We have a survivor. Lock on and beam him aboard.”
“Aye, sir,” Carson responded.
The human then dematerialized.
Upon returning to the ship, Markalis had the listening post’s lone survivor resting in the sickbay’s primary intensive care unit. The EMH and a human female nurse attended to him while Markalis briefed Limis, Kozar, and Morrison at the entryway to her office. “This one was in a state of severe hypoxia,” she explained. “He was most likely hallucinating before he lost consciousness.”
“Everyone else was dead,” Morrison added.
“Any clue about how they died?” Limis inquired.
“Preliminary scans showed their hemoglobin dissolved,” the doctor replied. “Their blood turned into some kind of liquid polymer.”
“Good thing you stopped us from taking off our helmets,” Kozar teased. “But why wasn’t he affected.”
“We’re still trying to find that out.
“We could be dealing with a biological weapon the Dominion is experimenting with,” Limis suggested to Kozar and Morrison. “Access all available data on the subject.” After those officers left, she told Markalis, “And I want complete autopsies on the others.”
“Autopsies?” Markalis repeated with a feeling of queasiness.
“Not your comfort zone I take it?” Limis asked.
Markalis’s wincing said it all.
“As Starfleet officers, we don’t always have the luxury of staying in our comfort zones.”
Hours later, Markalis was in a deep sleep. A padd she was reading containing the Federation News Service's latest reports on the war was still in her right hand. She barely got through the first page of reports since working an eighteen-hour day put her to sleep the second she left the sickbay for her quarters. She was suddenly woken up when the dog Milady whined.
"What is it, girl?" Markalis asked.
Someone was in the room with her. The Russell terrier growled and barked at a humanoid figure, which was sitting in the chair facing her bed.
"Computer, lights," she called out.
The lights came on. Upon seeing a tall human male in a black leather jumpsuit sitting in the chair, Markalis pulled the bedspread up to her shoulders and activated the comm panel on the nightstand. "Security to CMO's quarters," she gasped.