by Steve Johnson & Simon Murphy
Annika Hansen gazed out of the lounge window aboard the USS Arecibo. Although she was over sixty years of age, her remaining Borg implants ensured that she looked twenty years younger. One of the few advantages her life as Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct to Unimatrix Zero-One, had provided her, she smiled.
Few advantages. Since returning to the Alpha Quadrant aboard the USS Voyager over a third of a century earlier, Annika had seen both the best of humanity and the worst. What few friends she had were precious to her: Katherine Janeway, Chakotay and the rest of the Voyager crew; newfound friendships with members of the Pathfinder Project, including Admiral Paris, Reg Barclay and a handful of others; but acquaintances outside of Starfleet were almost non-existent. With Janeway promoted to admiral and the crew of Voyager largely reassigned and sent off on new missions, Annika’s life had become somewhat lonely for several long, gruelling years. She was not shunned because of her semi-Borg nature, her external Borg facets were removed barely a year after her arrival on Earth, but she found that people did act differently around her. More cautious. More cold. It had been a hard time. Even reverting to her human name, the one given to her by her parents, had not eased the burden upon her heart.
Then she had proposed what became known as the Gilgamesh Project and her life had been transformed.
Annika had suggested to Starfleet that she could design a transwarp hub, utilising techniques drawn from her Borg days, which could theoretically transport a starship millions of light years to another galaxy, with a transport time of mere minutes. Of course, it took some persuading and countless and endless computer simulations before anybody took her seriously, but eventually her plan was given the green light.
The Gilgamesh Project would ultimately become the single most ambitious endeavour ever seen in the galaxy. It was so ambitious that it would have been impossible without the total commitment of several Alpha Quadrant governments.
In an act of unity never before seen, Federation, Klingon, Romulan and Cardassian scientists and engineers combined their efforts and resources to construct the massive gateway that would whisk a specially-designed vessel across the vast, dark ocean of oblivion that separated the Milky Way from its nearest neighbour, the M31 spiral, also known as the Andromeda Galaxy.
Whilst it was common knowledge that Borg transwarp conduits could fling vessels across great distances much more rapidly than standard warp drive, it was less well-known that with modifications, a transwarp hub could draw on the tremendous energies of The Great Barrier, that boundary of impossible forces that encircles every galaxy, to send a ship or a fleet of ships an almost limitless distance.
It was this gateway that now dominated Annika’s field of vision. It hung in space, almost invisible in the black, almost starless void, a gigantic, oval spider web of tritanium and duranium, an unblinking eye, peering over a precipice of infinity, focussed on a distant haze. Beyond it lay the Barrier. Although invisible to the naked eye, when viewed using a starship’s sensors, the awesome energies broiling and churning staggered the mind. Soon, thrusters aboard the hub would fire, gently pushing it against the Barrier, and those energies would be channelled.
Annika watched her life’s work coming to fruition, and felt a brief surge of emotion quicken her heartbeat. To her right, dwarfing the tugs, the workbees and even the Arecibo, the ship designed to traverse the hub glided into view.
A vessel unlike any other previously built, the Horizon was ten times the length of a Sovereign-class starship. It took the best elements from current design theories from each of the member participants and enhanced them: Romulan warp drive, Klingon durability and defensive systems, Federation communications and sensors, Cardassian elegance and design stability. Indeed, Horizon was constructed at a purpose-built shipyard at Cardassia Prime. For a people that had suffered the most in the aftermath of the Dominion War, the Gilgamesh Project was a welcome boost to their economy and national pride.
The forward section of the ship comprised the command hull and was largely saucer-shaped, but less like the Starfleet preference and more akin to the Cardassian model. Below this was nestled the primary deflector, magnitudes of size larger than any previous design. Immediately behind the primary hull was the cylindrical body of the tertiary hull, which contained hangar bays for a variety of shuttles and runabouts around the outer skin and inside, the area designated as ‘Colony One’, a huge surface area around the inside of the cylinder that contained living quarters for up to a hundred thousand souls and also wooded parks, recreation areas and all the amenities provided by what was essentially a mobile starbase. Its wheel-like form, reminiscent of elegant Cardassian space stations such as Deep Space Nine, but in an elongated form, was supported by eight, thick columns connected to the central core of the ship. Behind this was the engineering hull. Designed and built mostly with Romulan expertise, four immense warp nacelles were powered by the largest quantum singularity ever contained within an artificial construct. These engines could propel the ship at velocities that almost required a new scale to be developed, with warp factor ten pushed further from the decimal point than ever before. Finally, at the most rearward area of the ship, was the main hangar. This section was large enough to house two starships in full dry-dock if necessary, but at the moment it held a much more precious cargo – the sectioned assembly of a transwarp hub that would have to be constructed in the Andromeda galaxy, if the Horizon ever wished to see home again.
Aside from the huge warp nacelles, perhaps Horizon’s most striking feature were the four, slender docking pylons, extending at right-angles from the main body of the ship. Firmly attached to these sturdy structures were the four Starfleet-designed vessels that would accompany the mother ship on its long journey.
This quartet of brand-new Valiant-class ships was the Federation’s major contribution to the project. Each as large as the old Excelsior-class starships, but fitted with the latest Starfleet technology, these ships would act not only as escorts to Horizon, but also undertake explorations of discovery away from their base position. Although Federation in design, the crews of these ships were, like Horizon, drawn, and captained by an officer, from all the participating cultures. Each ship was named accordingly: USS Explorer, USS K’Mpec, USS Gal’Gathong and USS Damar.
Annika quietly marvelled at the scale of the project behind which she had been the driving force. Soon, the Horizon, with a skeleton crew of seven thousand drawn from, but not exclusively so, all the races involved, would make the furthest intentional journey in the history of the Alpha Quadrant. If this brief initial mission was a success and Horizon returned home safely, a full population of colonists and explorers would embark upon a second voyage, a voyage that would last indefinitely.
It was truly a work of its time, a period of unparalleled cooperation between formerly implacable foes. Such a project could not have worked before the Dominion War, when the Alpha Quadrant races joined forces to defeat the Founders and their Jem’Hadar hordes from the Gamma Quadrant. Never before had the great empires of that quarter of the galaxy rallied together in a struggle to drive away an enemy that could have destroyed everything within their separate domains.
Annika’s train of thought was broken by the chime of Arecibo’s intercom. The captain informed her that Horizon was preparing to enter the hub and that she should report to the bridge. She acknowledged, smiling as she left the lounge at the familiar voice and remembering the idealistic young man that had grown to become one of Starfleet’s most decorated officers.
She stepped out of the turbolift and onto the Arecibo’s bustling main bridge. Unsure of where to put herself, she waited until the captain noticed her standing awkwardly by the lift doors.
“Seven, come here,” grinned Captain Harry Kim. “I’ve kept a seat warm for you.”
She smiled at her old friend. Harry was the only one who insisted on calling her by her old, Borg name. He told her it reminded him of ‘the good old days’ on Voyager. She agreed and allowed him, and only him, to refer to her as Seven of Nine.
Annika glided gracefully down to the bridge’s lower command level and lightly shook her head as Harry offered the seat to the left of his captain’s chair.
“If I didn’t know you better, Seven, I’d say you were nervous.”
“I prefer to stand,” she said, purposely affecting her old mannerisms. “My discomfort is irrelevant.” Then she eyed Harry with a sly wink and they grinned at each other before he gave her a huge hug. Their reunion was interrupted by beeping from the communications console behind them.
“Captain, Admiral Norton is hailing.”
“On screen, lieutenant,” said Harry, still smiling.
The rugged, handsome face of Admiral John Norton appeared on the viewscreen. He was in his late fifties, with greying hair and a paternal demeanour that endeared him to his officers, young and old alike. Annika knew him by reputation alone, but his career was the stuff of legend.
During the Dominion War, as the first officer of the USS Invincible, he had assumed command when his captain had been killed and the ship badly damaged. He rallied the crew and destroyed not only two Breen warships, but also several Jem’Hadar vessels, while defending a crippled Romulan warbird. He was awarded not only the Federation’s highest honour, but the Romulan Sotarek Citation, one of the Empire’s highest military decorations.
Promoted to captain, he was given the Invincible and his voyages of exploration helped solidify the alliances of the Alpha Quadrant, while initiating first contact with a dozen new species. He commanded respect throughout the quadrant both for his military skill and his diplomatic expertise. He was the perfect man to lead this dangerous, new mission.
“Captain Kim, it’s good to see you again,” he said, warmly regarding Harry.
“Likewise, admiral.” He gestured towards Annika. “Admiral, this is Sev… Annika Hansen.” He shrugged apologetically as Annika’s eyes betrayed the humour in his faux pas.
“Miss Hansen, I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s an honour to finally meet you. As you can see, we’re all set to ‘boldly go’ once more. As the leading figure behind the project, I would like it if you could give the command.”
“The command?” Annika seemed genuinely puzzled.
“The command for them to embark, Seven,” whispered Harry. “It’s a gesture of respect.”
Annika felt her eyes fill with tears. In all of her years living among humans, despite being human herself, she had always felt a chasm between herself and those around her. She had wanted a degree of the respect that she felt for others to be projected onto her, but that esteem had not been forthcoming, in her opinion, despite protests to the contrary from her closest friends.
Now here was one of the Federation’s most senior officers, a man she had never even met before, showing her the respect that she had sought for so long. She composed herself and nodded to the admiral.
“Admiral Norton, I send my hopes with you and your people.” She glanced at Harry, standing proudly beside her. “We’ll be here when you return.”
“Thank you,” smiled Norton. “Keep a light in the window. Horizon out.”
The viewscreen returned to its former image of the hub and the Horizon parked at its threshold.
As they watched, Annika found herself reaching for Harry’s hand and he took it without question. Thrusters on the hub fired and it gently moved in space, slowly drifting towards the invisible barrier of energy that marked the limit of the Milky Way. Suddenly, a swirling maelstrom of impossible energies erupted in the centre of the massive device. Harry, startled by the brilliant flash of light, instinctively raised a hand to shield his eyes, but Annika simply stood, tears flowing down her slender cheeks and multi-hued patterns playing across her delicate skin and flowing, blonde hair.
The Horizon, with its four escorts securely attached to the docking pylons, initiated its impulse engines and surged forward into the raging eddy. Then it was gone.
The transwarp conduit remained open for several minutes, bizarre fires licking into space and washing the bridge with its eerie kaleidoscope. When it finally deactivated and all was calm once more, Annika wondered if she would see Norton and his crew again.
Personal log, stardate 88157.6. Admiral John K Norton recording:
Although our voyage through the transwarp conduit is brief, I find myself nervously entering this log in written form on a padd.
Five minutes to travel two million light years? It is almost beyond belief. Yet here we are doing just that.
I watch my crew, also sitting nervously, yet steadfastly monitoring their stations with a skill and dedication for which I can feel only admiration.
Gul Rekat, my Number One and a fine officer, gazes at the twisting vortices on the main viewer, her emotions hidden beneath a veneer of Cardassian efficiency.
Lieutenant-Commander T’Saal Rito, chief of security. Half Vulcan, half Betazoid, yet all Starfleet and the first officer I chose to be part of this fine crew.
Lieutenant K’Marg, a typical Klingon, but of the new school. Naturally aggressive, yes, but also intelligent and thoughtful.
I can only imagine what my other senior staff are doing at this moment. I have no doubt that Sub-Commander N’Varr is prowling his engine room, maintaining the Romulan discipline for which he is renowned throughout their empire. A brilliant engineer, but often lacking in the social skills needed on this kind of a mission. I am sure he will adapt.
I hope we will have little need for the services of Doctor Shynar Tiless, our chief medical officer, but if the worst comes to the worst, this Andorian is the best in the business.
I am about to give the order to exit the transwarp conduit and we will enter the Andromeda galaxy.
May the wind be on our backs.
The Andromeda Spiral, listed in Federation databases as M31, shares many similarities with its closest galactic partner, the Milky Way. It is a flattened disc of roughly a half trillion stars, densely-packed towards the central bulge and thinning out in the arms over hundreds of thousands of light years. Those star systems comprise of all the types that make up our home galaxy, from yellow suns to red supergiants and everything in between.
The Federation was aware of several species that had travelled from Andromeda to the Milky Way, most notably the Kelvans, but for all intents and purposes, M31 was unexplored and unknown.
The fabric of space erupted and a vast, whirling cloud of energy appeared. Lightning sparks flashed ferociously and from the centre of this vortex emerged the huge form of the Horizon. The first step into a new frontier had been taken.
Almost as soon as the vessel had cleared the transwarp conduit, it dissipated and Horizon hung alone in a space with very few stars, but the body of Andromeda sprawled below them, its nebulae stretching into infinite midnight, a river of stars awaiting discovery.
The main bridge of Horizon was almost silent, save for the automatic beeps and warbles from its numerous work stations. It was as though the crew had held their breath and now feared to exhale.
Admiral Norton’s executive officer, Gul Rekat, was the first to break the silence.
“Lieutenant K’Marg, status report.”
“All stations reporting in, sir,” he replied, without looking up from his console.
Rekat rose from her chair beside where Norton was sitting and crossed to the Klingon at the Operations station at the front of the bridge. She leaned on the back of his chair, her lithe, grey body concealed beneath layers of Cardassian armour. K’Marg was similarly-adorned in traditional Klingon battle dress. It had been agreed upon that while Starfleet protocols should guide the mission, each race would wear their own uniforms, not in a display of disunity, but as an affirmation of their discrete, cultural evolution.
“All stations report secure, sir,” reported K’Marg eventually, his readouts flashing green across the board.
“Very well. Conn, thrusters at station-keeping. Commander T’Saal, initiate long-range scans.”
Lieutenant-Commander T’Saal keyed commands into her security console with typical Vulcan efficiency. Only her deep, black irises betrayed her Betazoid half. Her olive skin, pointed ears protruding from a neat, black bob and suppressed emotions clearly marked her as Vulcan to anybody who met her. Indeed, she demanded to be referred to as T’Saal and not her full name of T’Saal Rito, inherited from a proud, Betazoid mother.
“Long range sensors can detect no vessels within five light years, sir. No natural anomalies detected.”
“Thank you.” Rekat turned to Norton. “Admiral?”
Norton smiled. Despite being a crew taken from fleets of widely differing procedures and motivations, he was amazed at how quickly they had absorbed the Starfleet practices. A more egotistical officer might have patted himself on the back for the way he had trained the crew, but Norton knew that he had been simply a figurehead. The crew had done the hard work themselves and he was both proud and amazed.
The people beneath him would have argued that point vociferously. He had moulded them into a tight, well-trained group and, while disagreements were still a little more than rare, the chain of command was respected at all times.
“Rekat, inform the starship captains that they have permission to undock.”
Gul Rekat nodded and relayed the order. Outside, atop the long docking pylons, latches banged open and airlock seals hissed free. Slowly the four escort ships of the Horizon manoeuvred away from their base, taking up protective positions on all sides.
When the admiral was satisfied all was proceeding satisfactorily, he addressed the bridge comlink, “Sub-Commander N’Varr, you may proceed with hub assembly.”
“Yes, sir,” came the instantaneous reply from the chief engineer, almost five kilometres behind them in the main hangar bay.
Gigantic motors roared into life and the rear drydock doors crept open, revealing the disassembled sections of the transwarp hub, held in place by numerous workbees and tugs. Once fully-exposed, the engineering crews set to work, gently pulling the huge latticework segments into space. The task would require at least a standard week to complete and during that time, the four starships had work of their own to begin.
Before then, however, Norton had a speech planned. He had been preparing it for years, writing and rewriting it many times. He had decided against a typical Starfleet pep talk and instead opted for a brief confidence-builder that all of his crew could appreciate.
“Attention all stations, this is Admiral Norton.” He paused for a moment, glancing around at his dedicated bridge staff. “We have travelled further than anybody can possibly have imagined. Not only in terms of distance, but also ideologically. We are a crew of many races, but yet we are one. We are the crew of Horizon. I am honoured to serve with each and every one of you.
“Now, as we begin construction of our means of returning home, we are tasked with searching out new life and new civilisations in this unknown expanse of the universe. We are not conquerors. We are not invaders. We are explorers.
Throughout the ship, officers and crew shouted the word in their own languages: Klingon, Romulan, Cardassian, Andorian, Terran, Tellarite and countless others. It could be felt through the deck-plates and bulkheads of the entire vessel, rippling out into space, a shockwave of supreme confidence.
Four hours later, Norton eased his achingly-stiff body down onto the comfortable sofa in his quarters, taking great care not to spill the hot coffee he had just replicated. His pain came from the tension he had felt as his crews had expertly performed their assigned duties. As they busied themselves, he had nothing to do but sit in his command chair and appear to be in charge.
He recalled studying a report by a twenty-third century analyst that declared that starship captains were an unnecessary relic of a bygone age. A vessel could operate, it had said, equally efficiently without a figurehead in the centre seat. The report had been proven to be inaccurate, of course, but the preceding hours had brought home to the admiral just how lonely the command position could be. Aside from acknowledging a few reports, Norton had very little to actually do.
The engineering crews had begun assembling the transwarp hub, slowly and deliberately. The four starship captains had reported in and three of them had warped into unknown space, leaving the USS Explorer to patrol Horizon’s parking sector. They would return in a few days, each with new information and experiences to add to the database. Three powerful starships, each captained by Klingon, Romulan and Cardassian. At one point in his life, Norton would have balked at the idea of having such people commanding exploratory missions, but the world had changed. Aggressive subjugation was no longer an option for the former empires of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Still, Norton had this niggling feeling at the back of his mind that what they were doing here was flag-planting, staking a claim on a place that was probably already occupied.
That was the problem with this kind of exploration. Despite all efforts not to contaminate those worlds and species encountered, a degree of influence was always left behind. In two-hundred and fifty years of expansion, the Federation had been involved in more wars and lost more citizens than its founders could have thought possible. This was despite the guidance of the Prime Directive and its strict orders of non-interference. Sometimes people just wanted to be left alone.
Sipping his coffee, the admiral wondered why he was in such a sombre mood. He was leading perhaps the greatest scientific voyage of discovery in history. He should be filled with hope, his heart soaring with joy for all that lay before them, but he felt that something was wrong.
He hated those feelings because they were usually correct.
“Captain, there is a ship on a bearing towards us, travelling at high warp.”
Gul Nural raised a dark eyebrow and leaned forward in his chair. Barely half a day from port and they were to make their first encounter with the denizens of this new frontier.
“On screen,” he said softly. Nural was far too seasoned an officer to become excited by such things, yet he did feel a degree of anticipation.
The main viewer on the bridge of the USS Damar resolved into an image of a medium-sized vessel with a clunky design that could have come from any number of races from their home galaxy. It was something of a disappointment, to be fair.
“Mister Baron, a full scan if you please.”
The fingers of Damar’s tactical officer played across his console and the required information was quickly forthcoming.
“It appears to be a freighter, sir,” he reported. “I'm reading several cargo bays, limited defensive systems and eighty-four humanoid life forms.”
“Open a channel.”
Lieutenant Pete Baron again deftly worked his controls.
“No response, sir.” A soft beep emanated from his readouts. “Sir, their shields have gone up and their weapons have come online!”
“Red alert.” Nural’s voice never raised in pitch as the bridge lighting dimmed and klaxons blared throughout the ship.
“The ship is angling away,” said Baron. “But its velocity remains constant.”
The unknown vessel veered sharply to the right, quickly vanishing from the viewscreen.
“Do we stay with it, captain?” asked Nural’s first officer, a Vulcan called Sebac.
“No, commander, let it go. I want to find out what it was running from.”
Sebac raised a slanted eyebrow and ordered the helmsman to remain on course as the fleeing cargo ship disappeared from Damar’s sensors.
Updated 11th March 2012