The Palanquin’s bridge shook as panels sparked and instruments exploded, tossing her crew like ragdolls. The vorta First Officer, Adiss 5, had run the bridge efficiently and with a mastery of motivating the Jem’Hadar crew, but the Hur’q attacks had sent the ship listing hard to port, and Adiss went along with it. She would command this crew with her last breath, but, given her injuries, that didn’t seem all that far away.
The Founder called Nuno entered the bridge with purpose, flanked by Jem’Hadar marines and with Adiss 6 in tow. By virtue of being a Founder, Nuno was afforded unquestioned command of the Palanquin, but he had come to think of his crew as a family over the long years of exploring together. He gave Adiss 6 a nod, and the vorta clone ran to her predecessor’s side and helped her up, brushed her off, and began to assist her to the medical bay. Nuno lifted his hands, formed them into large, flat shapes, and smothered two of the small fires that were consuming the navigation and security consoles.
“The Swarmers are too fast,” growled the Jem’Hadar called Irit’Ikan, the First among the ship’s complement of soldiers. “We are not equipped to outmaneuver them,” he added, doing what he could to make sense of the wild melee swirling around them. The Hur’q attack on the Dominion settlement on Noloss 4 was relentless, with each Dominion starship assaulted by enough Swarmers that loss by attrition was inevitable.
“Leave me,” Adiss 5 said to her clone. Adiss 6 nodded and sat her predecessor gently on the floor before turning to assess the situation. She stepped into a nearby security console and, with a few expert motions of her delicate fingers, accessed a report of the tactical situation.
“Founder,” she said, with a glance behind her at her dying predecessor, “There’s something strange going on out there. Some of the Hur’q are off course.”
Nuno moved to look over Adiss 6’s shoulder, extending his arm so that he could continue to operate the console where he previously stood. There. He could see it. Two Hur’q cruisers, one heading toward the distant world of Noloss 9, and one already in orbit. “Noloss 9 is a training colony, isn’t that correct?” he asked his new first officer.
“That’s correct, Founder,” Adiss 6 said. Nuno would see the pain in her eyes as she glanced at the corpse that was once her predecessor. “Not even a large one, at that. I can’t see any strategic benefit to attacking Noloss 9.”
Nuno glanced around the bridge and then looked back at the report. “There’s something there that they want.” He sighed, an affectation he had picked up from dearly departed Ariss 5. “We’re going to find out what.”
The Palanquin was an exploration vessel, among the first commissioned by the Dominion specifically for that purpose. She had extra supplies, top-notch scanners, and even a vorta clone facility. The ship was not equipped for battle, but for long-range operation, survival, and speed. One of the things she was granted, however, was a Cardassian cloaking device. Nearby Dominion ships would later report that they detected the Palanquin in the battle over Noloss 4, surrounded by Swarmers and only moments from being destroyed, and then, seconds later, she disappeared.
Nuno ordered his chief engineer Orin’Makla to burn all engines to capacity, and the cloaked Palanquin rocketed toward Noloss 9. Adiss 6 detected the Hur’q ships, now both in orbit around the planet, and she detected life signs on the planet’s surface, in the vicinity of the Jem’Hadar training colony.
“What are they doing down there?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” replied Nuno. “Though I promise you that every young Jem’Hadar down there is dead.”
The ship made orbit just out of visual range of the Hur’q ships while Nuno prepared an away team. Irit’Ikan assembled his finest marines, one of which had once trained at Noloss 9 himself. Adiss 6 grabbed a polaron rifle and prepared to beam down with the group. Nuno knew better than to try to stop her; Adiss 5 had ordered several of her clones activated to replace losses in battle, and Adiss 7 had already been briefed to take command of the ship. Nuno knew Adiss 6 was ready to die at his side.
As was custom on Palanquin away missions, Nuno himself joined the team. There was no protest, and all involved felt much more confident with their Founder among them.
The Palanquin’s transporter room dissolved, and the Noloss 9 training colony took shape around them. Hur’q and Jem’Hadar bodies littered the training yard, where young cadets had engaged in their final bout of target practice. Nuno and his team stepped among the corpses and entered the facility itself.
It was clear that the majority of the battle was over. Adiss 6 scanned the facility and found life signs nearby, all Hur’q. The distinctive screeching hiss resounded through the halls, raising the hairs on Adiss’ neck but spurring Irit’Ikan’s warriors forward. Nuno hardened his skin and molded his fists into wrecking balls as they approached the unsuspecting Hur’q.
When they found the Hur’q warriors, they were huddled around the wreckage of a large tank, a storage vessel that once held ketracel-white. Small creatures scrabbled over the tank’s interior, as if sniffing for whatever residue remained in the tank. Nuno could see that the tank’s failsafe explosives, set as a deterrence for overly impulsive Jem’Hadar cadets, were intact; the tank had been ripped open by powerful claws.
Was it possible that they were after the ketracel?
Irit’Ikan unloaded with his polaron rifle, while two members of his squad shrouded themselves and moved to flank the enemy. Adiss 6 fired upon the Attendants, shredding the small creatures in seconds. Nuno seemed to grow scales on his flesh and bone spurs from his elbows as he charged the large Hur’q, surprising even Adiss as he matched the Hur’q’s savagery in melee combat.
Adiss 6 turned her rifle to protect her Founder. She blasted away a couple more Attendants and barked orders and warnings at Irit’Ikan’s squad. Irit’Ikan turned toward her, aimed his rifle, and shouted a warning. All sound seemed muffled, suddenly, and Irit’Ikan’s rifle blurted out a polaron beam that fired over her shoulder, disintegrating an aggressive Hur’q behind her. She looked down and noticed the spiked Hur’q appendage that had stabbed its way through her gut from behind, and the last thing she heard was her Founder’s shout in alarm.
Nuno watched his sixth First Officer crumple, and he flew into a rage. He reached across the room to grab the massive polaron cannon carried by Irit’Ikan’s now-dead heavy weapons specialist, and he surrounded it with his flesh as if it were part of him. He formed spikes on his feet, stomped them into the floor for leverage, and filled the room with polaron fire. Irit’Ikan rushed out and grabbed a wounded Jem’Hadar, shrouding them both, as Hur’q exploded all around them.
As the last one fell, Nuno returned to his humanoid form and looked around. He still had three Jem’Hadar, but Adiss 6 was gone. He called up to the Palanquin to report their losses, only to hear Adiss 7’s own report:
“There are more Hur’q in the colony.”
Nuno seemed to swell, to grow, as he often did when he was angry. Irit’Ikan crouched over Adiss 6’s body and took the small vials of ketracel from her belt, handing one over to each of the surviving Jem’Hadar. Nuno crouched over Adiss 6’s body and took a small device from her pocket. As he stood, the Jem’Hadar looked to their Founder, not asking the question but expecting an answer.
Nuno gave them one: “Victory is life.”
At that, the remaining squad injected their ketracel and searched the bodies for useful salvage. Adiss 7 sent down coordinates for another small pocket of Hur’q, a few levels below them in the facility. Nuno nodded at his warriors and motioned to a door across the hall.
They traveled silently toward the Hur’q Adiss 7 had detected. Nuno remembered the Jem’Hadar mantra: They were now dead, but in victory, they will live again. He was exhausted, longing for regeneration, and a long, leisurely trip back to the Link, but he had to learn what the Hur’q were doing here. They’d lost too much to turn back now.
Irit’Ikan led the squad toward the coordinates. He ordered one of his soldiers to check the room, another storage area with multiple ketracel tanks and a small number of large Hur’q. It was a small group than they faced before, but easily enough to prevail over Nuno’s depleted squad. Nuno approached the storage room and noticed something strange: These Hur’q weren’t smashing or destroying or ravaging. They seemed to be… conversing?
The Hur’q screech seemed tempered, lowered, and deliberate. They made a sound similar to the purposeful buzzing of machines. They responded to each other, and to the noises made by the largest among them as it stood by the tanks. Irit’Ikan’s vanguard made a move to enter the room, but Nuno stopped him. He followed a hunch and listened, letting his translator and his own Founder talent for xenolinguistics do their work.
“They’re talking to each other,” he said. Irit’Ikan seemed confused by this. Nuno motioned to the squad to lower their rifles, stand, and walk into the room behind him. The Jem’Hadar obeyed the will of their Founder.
When the squad entered, the large Hur’q turned toward them and emitted several loud, sharp grunts. The smaller Hur’q at its sides took a couple of steps forward, but Nuno lifted his arms and spoke.
“I am the Founder called Nuno. You’re trespassing in Dominion territory, among the corpses of the Dominion subjects your people murdered. We are within our rights to destroy you.”
The Hur’q tilted its head, twitching unnaturally as it did so. “No fight with you,” it said, as best Nuno could translate. “Need want must have solution.” It lifted its massive arm and motioned toward the tanks of ketracel behind it. It continued: “Will kill for solution. Rather not.”
Nuno examined the Hur’q standing before him. It seemed… different, as did the others on its flanks. Their color seemed strange. They carried themselves with more caution and less mindless rage. And their leader had a strange residue on its claws, like dried-up—
“You opened the tank upstairs,” Nuno said. “You came into contact with the ketracel inside.”
The large Hur’q took a step back, toward the tanks. “We found solution. Used it before others came. No solution for them.”
“And you left them behind, and searched for more.”
The Hur’q lifted a claw. “We take solution. Leave here. All leave. All live.”
Nuno glanced at the tanks. They were completely intact, full of enough ketracel to supply the Jem’Hadar who trained here for years. But now there are no Jem’Hadar here to supply.
Nuno crossed his arms, his thumb passing over the small device he took from Adiss 6. “I can let you have a small amount, if you’ll leave here now, take your ship, and go.”
The Hur’q’s neck craned, and it seemed to growl, a wild, grinding sound that Nuno’s translator struggled to understand. “No. Take all. Need all.”
Nuno sighed. He looked at his squad: Three Jem’Hadar, all wounded, all ready to die here, now. He thought back on Adiss 5, dead in the battles above, and Adiss 6, dead fighting Hur’q over ketracel, in much the same situation as the one he was in now.
But it wasn’t the same, was it? Nuno’s squad was too small to prevail over a Hur’q force this strong. But here we have Hur’q talking… negotiating… all but begging for ketracel-white.
Nuno wasn’t about to give it to them.
“You’ll take some, or get none,” Nuno said. The Hur’q leader hissed and backed toward the tanks as if to protect them, and the creatures on its flanks took steps toward Nuno’s squad, threatening to begin the fight that would inevitably kill the Founder.
Nuno frowned just a little bit and shook his head. “If my assumption is correct, we need this stuff more now than ever.”
The Hur’q hissed, small wings twitching, and it leaned forward to attack. Nuno felt Irit’Ikan tense up at his side. Victory is life, but to fight these Hur’q would mean death. He sighed—Adiss 5 would be proud—and thumbed the device he took from her successor’s corpse. A voice rose from the device: “Command confirmed,” and a series of purple lights sparked into view from small devices placed strategically all around the ketracel tanks.
The Hur’q leader looked at the tanks, glanced at the now-active devices, and then looked back to Nuno. “No. Found solution. Need all.”
Irit’Ikan raised his rifle for battle, but Nuno placed his hand on the rifle’s barrel and motioned for the Jem’Hadar to run. The devices on the tanks began to hum, then whine, then scream, and as Nuno and his squad fled the room, the tanks exploded in a brilliant display of violet flames and blazing white sparks, taking the Hur’q with them.
Nuno called for transport and was surprisingly relieved when he heard Adiss 7’s voice over the comm. When they arrived on the Palanquin, Nuno moved quickly to the bridge and took command of his ship.
“Plot course home,” he said, and Adiss 7 complied. Nuno turned to his seventh First Officer. “We’ve been looking for a way to end this war, and I think I’ve found a solution.”
The Palanquin cloaked and left orbit, leaving Noloss 9 behind. He now had vital information on the Hur’q, and he had to get it to the Link at all costs.