Chapter 9: The Vast Intelligence

With Ea's final word in the chant, a cold breeze brushed against Picard's face. The vibrant blue energy trickled down from the central torch until every stalagmite in the chamber was ignited with a strange blue fire. Suddenly, with the last word, a blast of blue light enveloped everything in the chamber.

At that moment, Picard felt a strange dizzying sensation similar to a transporter beam. When he finally regained his bearings, he found himself inside a cloud of blue energy. The torch and the stalagmites around him seemed to have dissolved into the vapor surrounding him. Ea was gone.

When he turned around for the exit of the cavern, he saw what could only be described as a kaleidoscope of time. Immediately behind him, he saw a small, hazy depiction of Ea having a conversation with Kakua about where Picard had gone. Picard likened the experience to spying on a conversation in another room by peering through a keyhole. Adjacent to that discussion was a similar rendering of the same conversation except Tereshkova and Kakua were having the same conversation with Ea.

As Picard widened his gaze, he saw an infinite number of renditions of the same conversation. Virtually every member of the Destiny crew was featured in at least one version of the fateful conversation. On the periphery of the quantum kaleidoscope, Picard swore he saw a team of Romulans having a discussion with Ea. With every glance, the versions merged together or split into their own distinct account.

Once Picard finished marveling at the ebb and flow of reality behind him, he turned ahead and saw a similar variegated depiction of the future. Immediately before him he saw two events. One depicted the Destiny on fire and jettisoning a small fleet of escape pods, many of which were swatted away by Romulan disruptor fire.

The other immediate future portrayed the Destiny in close orbit to the planet with a portable Ferengi manufacturing module close to its side. The module was a cubical cage outfitted with a myriad of snaking cables and cutting lasers. A series of habitation units were gently descending from the cage like clockwork, each guided to special destinations of the surface by special thrusters on every surface.

As Picard widened his gaze, he saw more possible futures, including some he had personally experienced. He saw the U.S.S. Pasteur penetrating the turbulent white energy of an anti-time anomaly. He saw a small shuttle outfitted with gleaming silver armor being chased by a massive Klingon battlecruiser. He overheard its pilot give a command to open a temporal rift to the Delta Quadrant.

Between these futures, he saw himself dressed in a civilian suit and tie having an angry debate with a journalist concerning the "failure" of the Romulan supernova evacuation. He grimaced as he overheard some of the details his possible future self had divulged concerning Starfleet abandoning its ideals and his resignation in protest. Picard frowned bitterly and silently pledged that he would never let this crisis escalate to that point.

After several moments of observing all time at once, Picard focused his gaze on the turquoise aqueous structure that gave him this new perspective on time. At first, he described the force around him as a cloud but upon closer inspection that definition began to change. As he peered into the blue haze, he saw collections of small luminous strings which branched out in complex networks. At first they resembled a geodesic sphere. Then, more layers seemed to appear, reminding Picard of a brain scan Dr. Crusher had shown him back when he was aboard the Enterprise.

Finally, with his bearings regained, Picard calmly stood in the center of the consciousness that held him and issued a greeting.

The response came back in a thunderous voice. Every synapse in the giant intelligence that surrounded him was illuminated in cadence with every syllable. "Hello, again, Ambassador Picard."

Picard frowned in visible confusion. "Again?"

"Forgive us," the voice replied. "but from our dimensional perspective, we have had this conversation about fourteen billion times already, albeit with different versions of yourself."

Picard smiled and nodded understandingly before he continued. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, you know my name but I do not know how to address you."

The voice replied. "We are the Na'kua, we are a cooperative of extra dimensional beings hailing from every corner of the omniverse."

Picard raised an eyebrow in response. "The omniverse?"

The Na'kua then explained that the omniverse was the complete collection of all possible realities. Whereas human beings and similar forms of "rudimentary intelligent life" are confined to the multiverse due to dimensional restrictions, the omniverse contains vastly complex domains where life by multiverse standards cannot exist because of how elemental forces manifested in those domains during their creation.

Picard nodded. He considered asking a question about their possible kinship with the Q Continuum but he decided a different approach. "If we cannot properly visit your domains, how is it possible for you to visit ours?"

The Na'kua then explained that when all reality was formed during the Big Bang, a special combination of quantum fluctuations created a dimensional gateway. That gateway funneled exotic matter from the Na'kua's numerous domains until enough mass accumulated to form the core for the planet Hokulea 4.

"In all of your realities, the planet you call Hokulea 4 exists." The Nakua intelligence explained. "Through the dimensional gateway in its core, we can observe every point of the domain you call time. We can travel forwards, backwards, and even sideways."

Picard wrinkled his nose inquisitively. "Sideways?"

The Na'kua responded. "Yes, Ambassador, sideways. Allow us to demonstrate."

Suddenly, a figure slowly began to materialize from the shadows. He came from a distant corner of the past. The first thing Picard noticed was the stride with which the man walked. After the figure's third step, Picard realized it wasn't a man at all. A smile erupted on Picard's face as he saw the figure's bleached synthetic skin and the ambassador's chest gave out a chuckle of joy when he saw the figure's golden eyes.

The figure spoke first. "Greetings, Captain. I was not expecting to see you here."

Picard spent a moment to appraise the resurrected Commander Data. But upon closer inspection of Data's uniform, Picard realized that the term "commander" no longer applied. The android was dressed in the silver and black standard issue uniform he wore at the time of his death in Picard's reality but his insignias were dramatically different. Instead of a gold collar, the android donned a crimson red with four golden pips.

After finishing his assessment, Picard finally addressed his long deceased friend. "Captain Data? Well, look at you."

The android tilted his head in response to Picard's jubilant greeting. "I am pleased to see you, Captain. Especially considering twenty years have elapsed since your untimely death."

Picard dropped his jaw in astonishment. "My death?"

Captain Data then explained that he hailed from a reality in which Shinzon of Remus abducted his Captain Picard and successfully completed the transfusion necessary to keep the young Picard clone alive. "I regret to inform you that my Captain Picard did not survive the procedure however the Praetor's prolonged life was -shall we say- short-lived." Data then explained that after the revitalized Shinzon's successful Thalaron attack on Earth and Vulcan, Shinzon was deposed by his own military and executed for crimes against the Empire.

Picard stepped back in shock. After inspecting the unraveling threads of his android friend's uniform, Picard asked about the condition of Starfleet in his friend's universe.

"Shortly before Shinzon's deposement, we conditionally surrendered to the Romulan Star Empire. One of the conditions was that displaced human and vulcan refugees were entitled to their own planet for resettlement. Shinzon's replacement, Praetor Hei'sha, proposed the planet Hokulea 4 as a possible site." Data then turned to survey the walls of energy that surrounded him. "I intend to give the Praetor an empirical report on the possible harm this planet's radiation may have on future human residents."

"That is why you came here, Captain, but we have an offer for you…" The booming Na'kua voice told Data.

The Na'kua explained that they were prepared to send Data back to Hokulea 4 but decades before the moment he visited the cavern. Data would then hail and board a nearby Section 31 vessel mapping the Neutral Zone. Captain Data would then order the vessel to Romulus. During that time Captain Picard and Data's former self would be undercover on the planet while investigating Ambassador Spock's possible defection. The Na'kua explained that Picard's capture on this mission allowed the Romulans to obtain the necessary DNA for making Shinzon of Remus. If Captain Data and his Section 31 compatriots could intercept the DNA before the Romulans could use it, a new reality would be created in which Shinzon of Remus was never born. Consequently, the genocidal campaign which brought the android captain to this moment would never occur.

Captain Data dropped his eyes and inspected the floor in deep contemplation. "If I agreed to your proposal, I would be interfering with the natural course of events and thus violating my oath to uphold the Prime Directive."

"In return, the universe from which you originated will collapse. The brutish and savage reality you and your people have unjustly endured will be erased. They will be free to choose a better future separated from all others in its own dimensional realm."

Captain Data cocked his head. "It is a tempting offer."

"Billions of lives will be saved who need not have been murdered. They will live in freedom while their descendants currently live as slaves." The Na'kua proclaimed.

Picard scowled as Data continued weighing the consequences of his decision. "Data, you can't possibly be considering this."

Data looked squarely at Picard in response. "Captain, while this intelligence does have unorthodox and questionable methods, its goal is correct. To quote the Vulcan maxim, 'the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few.' A single individual violating moral laws to uphold the universal rights of others is acceptable under certain circumstances. For example, the human psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg attributed such actions as…"

Picard smiled and stopped the android's diatribe with the palm of his hand. "Data, I have sorely missed you and your scholarly lectures. The biggest burden of command is to balance a captain's personal convictions with the well-being of those under their care."

Picard soberingly glanced at Captain Data's uniform and traced the path along the quantum kaleidoscope to his origin. "And judging by the uncharacteristically paltry condition of your uniform, I know you are in a desperate situation."

Picard then gave a smile and patted Data on the shoulder. "Give the word, Captain."

Captain Data tilted his head in bewildered confusion. "Sir, I am puzzled. Which word should I give?"

Picard stifled a nostalgic laugh. "Make the decision and I'll support you either way."

Captain Data struggled for the next few moments in figuring out an appropriate way to address the vast intelligence that surrounded him. Finally, after simper and a shrug, Data addressed the left wall. "I accept your proposal,"

Suddenly a gust of air churned the blue wall of energy behind Data into a tunnel with a tendril that reached backwards into the undulating waves of past events. "Pass through here and accomplish your goal." The Na'kua declared.

Captain Data turned to face the tunnel. Before he took his first step into the passageway, he stopped himself to take his leave of his former Captain. "It has been very pleasant to see you again, Captain."

Picard smiled and shook the android's hand. "The pleasure is all mine, Data. I hope to see you again soon… in some form."

As Data began walking into the maw of the time tunnel, he stopped himself one final time. Looking over his shoulder, Data gave one final pleasantry to his captain. "I hope you have much better luck with my brother, B-4, in your universe than we had in mine."

Picard nodded reverently. "We are doing our best, Data. Adieu, mon ami."

The instant Data's body completely entered the passageway, the aperture instantly closed. In a brilliant flash of light Data was catapulted across the frontier of time to his destination in the distant past.

Picard spared a few moments to trace the path traveled by his deceased friend before speaking. "It was a noble gesture you offered him."

The Na'kua spoke. "We have dedicated ourselves to tending to your multiverse the way a gardener tends to their flowers. The 'pleasing' ones which promote cooperation and intelligence are encouraged to grow. The frightfully grotesque realities are pruned to the best of our abilities."

Picard raised an eyebrow. "So you're not omnipotent?"

"Hailing from higher domains has both its advantages and disadvantages. We cannot traverse your reality with their impunity, like our neighbors in the Q Continuum do." The Na'kua then explained that since the Q Continuum was adjacent to the multiverse, its inhabitants had the requisite dimensional qualities to exercise their seemingly omnipotent powers. "Since we hail from exceedingly higher dimensions, we do not have the necessary qualities to traverse your realities in the same way. It would be like a human trying to actively communicate with the characters in an ancient comic strip. "

Picard nodded his understanding before the Na'kua continued. "Our powers are vast but painfully limited. We can control the very foundation of reality on this planet's surface but if you left orbit, you wouldn't even know we existed."

Picard stroked his chin pensively as he calculated his next question. "So you need the inhabitants of our reality to carry out your wishes?"

The Na'kua responded with a booming yes. "Your visit was an undertaking 6 billion years in the making." The Na'kua explained that the Wakai civilization was the seventh draft of a species the Na'kua had attempted to design for their planet. "The first six were ghastly in their brutality." The Na'kua explained. "We had no qualms with reducing them to amino acids when they started fighting each other."

They created the Wakai but encouraged them to stay on the planet by providing them with everything they could ever want. "We are rather fond of the Wakai but they are painfully delicate lifeforms." The Na'kua matter of factly explained. "If they leave the planet, they would not enjoy the powers we bestow upon them and would suffer immensely." Picard almost commented on the fact that the Na'kua spoke of the Wakai the way a human may speak of a beloved pet.

Therefore, the Wakai were planetbound for their six billion year existence. The unfortunate drawback of that decision was the Na'kua's foreknowledge that the Federation would not be able to visit the Wakai due to their limitations as a pre-warp civilizations.

However, the Na'kua had a plan. When a Ferengi freighter entered the star system for possible luxury items, the Na'kua lured them to Hokulea 4 with a blast of metaphasic radiation. The Ferengi's contact with the Wakai provided the necessary loophole for the Federation to visit the planet thirty years afterwards in the wake of the Hobus Supernova.

"We rewarded the Ferengi for their troubles by restoring their youth to them but we chose not to reveal the future to them. That kind of knowledge in their hands could be disastrous." The Na'kua explained. "But we decided your Federation possessed both the means and the discipline to properly apply the knowledge of the future. Then, when your Away Team visited us, we revealed that knowledge to you."

A voice then spoke at Picard's feet. "However, we do apologize that your physical bodies were changed in the process. We always try to exercise extreme care when using our powers in your reality. There was a one in a billion chance your bodies would be altered by the radiation. Your universe happened to be the unfortunate one."

Picard tilted his head downwards in confusion. "So, why did you give that knowledge to Cadet Nguyen? My Romulan aide, Edala, has a much longer lifespan. That poor cadet is in critical condition from infirmities shouldn't even have."

"We are restricted by the variables of your reality. A being in your parochial universe cannot see the future of a life that is not theirs." The Na'kua explained. "The young human was chosen because he is the only one of you who will live to see the final destruction of your galaxy. You and Edala are not long for your universe." A tendril of light flashed out from the cloud and highlighted a vague area in front of Picard's version of the past. Picard wondered if this gesture symbolized the date of his and Edala's death but he decided not to ask.

"The details of your death and the unfortunate demise of your universe are exceedingly frustrating for us because they all could have easily been avoided with the proper foreknowledge." The Na'kua's lights churned as it spoke with undaunted conviction. "Therefore we gave it to you."

Picard nodded as thoughtfully as he could before turning to address the cloudy wall in front of him. "As much as we appreciate the gesture, we cannot accept the information you have given us. It violates our most sacred laws."

A discordant chatter of voices erupted from every synapse in the vast intelligence. Picard even overheard one voice say, "Oh bah! He said 'sacred laws,' this is like the Mirror Universe all over again."

As the chorus of voices slowly ebbed, Picard elaborated on his position. "Our laws prohibit us from interfering in the natural order of events because our society is built on discovering new phenomena and understanding how they operate."

The Na'kua delivered their rebuttal with a single voice to Picard's left. "Your colleague hailed from the same society and yet he accepted our offer."

Picard nodded politely before responding. "Captain Data came from a universe in which our society had long since collapsed. Given what I know about his reality, I respect his decision."

The Na'kua responded with a single voice which reverberated through the cloud on all sides. "An even bigger calamity is destined for your reality, Picard. If you had the ability to prevent billions of deaths from happening, including your own, surely as a member of a sentient species you'd accept it."

Picard sullenly frowned before speaking. "I would be lying if I said I wouldn't consider it. Who would not want to avoid pain and suffering if they were already prepared for it?"

Picard resolutely paced around the walls of the vast intelligence that contained him. "However, in the case of my reality, I must refuse your generous offer. That calamity may still happen but from my perspective it has not yet. You must trust that our people have the capacity to learn on their own and collaborate to solve the galaxy's biggest problems."

The Na'kua erupted in a chorus of voices. One phrase that Picard heard above the others was, "These humans can learn a thing or two from the Wakai we protect."

Picard decisively raised his hand to address the Na'kua. "Concerning the Wakai, yes, we have much to learn from them. Although we have had a minor encounter with them to date, we are fascinated by their culture and we want to learn more." He turned to the voices behind him. "But you should not conflate Wakai culture with the human condition. Your stewardship of the Wakai benefits them greatly but such actions for humans destroys their spirit."

"Explain." The collective Na'kua voices boomed.

"The challenge of the unknown is the last vestige of the human spirit." Picard outlined his argument. "When we made contact with beings other than ourselves, the urge for conquest was transformed into curiosity. When we eradicated money, people diverted their urges to acquire material wealth towards acquiring knowledge for the benefit of all. Now you offer to reveal the final mystery of the human condition: the future. Eradicating the unknown may seem appealing but it condemns a species like mine to cultural suicide."

He turned to the multitude of past events behind him. "We would only mimic what was told to us with neither imagination nor passion. We would no longer live, we would simply exist."

Picard turned to the futures in front of him. "But we can still do your bidding without your interference." He indicated the future where the U.S.S. Pasteur journeyed into the anti-time anomaly to save humanity. "You say you celebrate realities which champion intelligence, cooperation and freedom. We have averted the destruction of humanity by a cosmic anomaly. We've liberated it from enslavement at the hands of the Borg. We can avert the crisis you speak of as well using our own ingenuity. We have the same goals, we simply have different means of accomplishing them."

Picard concluded his speech with as much appreciation his exhausted body could give. "We appreciate your gift of foresight but it is inappropriate for us to wield such forbidden knowledge." He asked for the radiation signatures necessary to restore Nguyen and Edala.

Another discordant chatter of voices erupted from every synapse in the vast intelligence. In those painstaking moments, Picard heard the phrase "that human fool" interlaced with references to a "contingency plan," "true sentience" and what to do with the Wakai.

Finally with a collective burst of light, the vast intelligence came to an agreement. "Very well, Picard, we accept your proposal, on one condition."

Picard steadfastly stared into the cloud in front of him. "Name it,"

"Some members of the Wakai on the planet have expressed unhappiness with our care." The Na'kua explained. "Although we have treated their every need, they feel unfulfilled. Much like you humans, this new generation of Wakai has become restless and wants to journey elsewhere."

Picard frowned. "Wouldn't that mean those individuals no longer receive your protection? They would age. Their lifespans might be shorter."

The Na'kua answered with an exhausted "yes." "The younger generations want to explore the universe just like you humans do."

A voice piped up from behind Picard. "You needn't worry about cultural contamination. This quality existed in the Wakai people millennia before you humans even learned to walk upright. We just managed to quelch it with our care."

The Na'kua then spoke in one unanimous voice. "It appears that true sentience requires the same kind of curiosity you humans possess."

Picard nodded in agreement.

"Some wanted to journey with the Ferengi but we forbad it. Your Federation seems to have the wisdom to guide this new generation of Wakai and the means of protecting them."

Picard nodded. "Consider it done." Picard then qualified his statement. "However, given the fact that my vessel is currently surrounded by a squadron of hostile warships, I cannot guarantee their safety if they board the Destiny."

"We have a plan to resolve that problem should you agree to take our more adventurous Wakai as passengers. Do we have an agreement?"

Picard puzzled himself with the Na'kua's cryptic response before slowly nodding. The Na'kua signalled their agreement by having every synapse in the vast intelligence glow with ruby red light. "The radiation signatures will be available upon your return to your reality."

Picard raised an eyebrow. "In what form?"

"You'll see…" The Na'kua responded. "I thought the defining characteristic of your species was its curiosity for the unknown."

"Touche," Picard replied before giving his thanks with a gracious bow.

"Do not thank us yet, Picard." The Nakua responded. "You may find that the consequences of your choice may give you more than you bargained for. The challenges will be daunting; the biggest you have ever faced in your career."

Picard nodded understandingly. "Then I suppose I will have an opportunity to live up to my fullest potential."

"We shall see." The Nakua responded as the cloud around Picard started to whip in a massive vortex. "In any case, we'll be watching you." With Picard's face bathed in a glow of swirling violet and white light, Picard peered at the opening before him and passed through it into darkness.
U.S.S. Destiny NCC-4172020

The mood aboard the Destiny's bridge was frantic in the final moments before the deadline. Whenever Ukweli was not issuing rapid-fire orders to her bridge crew, she was reading status reports from the rest of the ship on the armrest of her command chair. Al-Muzud feverishly programmed every possible vector from his Picard maneuver algorithm into his console.

Once she was satisfied with the engineering reports, Ukweli hailed sickbay where Dr. Kakua busied himself with his nursing staff in installing microsurgical kits to the side of every biobed in sickbay. Tereshkova was found right next to him evaluating telemetry from the devices on the planet. In the quarantine compartment, Edala busied herself with attaching braces on each of Nguyen's limbs. If they needed to evacuate, the robotic hydraulics would help her carry her newfound friend to safety.

Kakua responded to Ukweli's inquiry with brazen frustration. "Honestly, things could be better. This is an exploratory vessel, not a warship. We don't have the foundation to treat the whole crew when half of the ship is blowing up."

Kakua then loaded a hypospray with a caffeine like solution and injected it into his neck. "Plus. I've been running for twenty-seven hours without rest. I just might have to activate an Emergency Medical Hologram or two to pick up some slack."

"Do what you can, Doctor." Ukweli replied. "It will be enough."

Kakua rolled his eyes doubtfully. "We'll see."

Ukweli then addressed Tereshkova for her final report regarding a possible cure.

Tereshkova sadly shook her head. "Progress is faster than earlier, but we're still at least several hours before we can isolate a candidate."

Ukweli's voice was calming. "Continue your work. Your station will be prioritized if we experience power loss during combat. I don't have to remind you Commander that the cure is of paramount importance."

Tereshkova despondently nodded. "Understood, Captain,"

Back on the bridge, Ukweli looked at the chronometer on her armrest with a heavy sigh. On cue, Al-Muzud announced that Admiral I'ban's flagship the Si'ad was hailing them.

Ukweli tightened her jaw as she turned to the viewscreen. "On screen,"

The holographic likeness of Admiral I'ban and the bridge of his ship superimposed itself on the Destiny's transparent aluminium windshield.

"Captain Ukweli, it is my duty to inform you that 24 hours have elapsed since our arrival to this planet." I'ban's eyes glared at Ukweli with hawkish aggression. "Per our agreement, you must give my vessels permission to land."

"Admiral I'ban, in the interest of protecting the well-being of yourself, your crews, and the civilians under your care, I have no choice but to deny your request to disembark onto the planet." Ukweli stood up from her chair to look I'ban squarely in the eye. "The cosmic phenomenon below is too dangerous. Many if not all of your fellow Romulans will die if you step foot on the planet."

"I have 24 warbirds targeting your ship's vital systems." I'ban countered. "If you deny our request, many if not all of your crew will be dead within the hour. Are you prepared to live with that?"

"If standing in your way will keep your fellow Romulans safe and healthy, History will honor our sacrifice." Ukweli replied.

I'ban snarled. "Then die as the martyrs you aspire to be."

A siren wailed on Al-Muzud's console. "Captain, they are charging disruptor banks."

Ukweli cut the channel and made her way back to her chair. "Red alert, shields to maximum. Al-Muzud, you know what to do."

Al-Muzud nodded. "Loading evasive maneuver, Picard/Muzud Alpha."

The Destiny's engines audibly revved up in preparation for warp speed. But before they could construct their warp signature, a palpable rumble rocked through the ship.

Ukweli turned to Al-Muzud. "What happened? Were he hit?"

Al-Muzud shook his head. "Something is wrong with the engines. We can't create a warp signature."

Before Ukweli could hail engineering, Sanchez came over her comlink. "Oye, Captain, there's something wrong with the space around us. Somehow the laws of physics just went out the window."

The red alert klaxons began to signal in earnest as Al-Muzud reported. "The Si'ad is firing forward disruptor cannons. Impact in two seconds."

Ukweli fastened herself in her command chair. "Brace for impact."

As the bridge crew fastened themselves into their chairs in dreaded anticipation of the disruptor blast, nothing happened. As the green blade of light approached the Destiny's hull, the hazardous particles began to disintegrate. Only a wave of harmless light struck the Destiny's stardrive.

Ukweli turned to Al-Muzud in surprise. "Was that the doing of your metaphasic shielding?" Al-Muzud shook his head.

Before Ukweli could give a command, her attention was consumed by the two dozen green photon torpedo blasts making their way to the ship. With the push of a button on her command chair, she hailed all decks and ordered them to brace for impact.

As the torpedoes crossed into the space surrounding the Destiny, the warheads suddenly became inert. The twenty four glowing spheres of destructive energy suddenly flared out. Their canisters faintly collided with the ship before tumbling into deep space.

Ukweli turned to Al-Muzud in astonishment. "It appears that the laws of physics have gone out the window." Al-Muzud nodded his agreement.

In that moment, a torrent of energy manifested itself outside the bridge's portside turbolift. In the blink of an eye, Picard emerged from a spontaneous hole in the fabric of spacetime which then winked itself out of existence.

The freshly materialized ambassador patted himself in disorientation as he spared a moment to get his bearings. Once he realized where he was, Picard promptly marched towards Ukweli at the center of the bridge and asked for a status report.

"The deadline has expired." Ukweli reported. "The Romulans are attempting to make good on their threats to fire on us but their weapons appear to be malfunctioning."

Picard allowed himself a chuckle as his mind processed the report. "No, they're not malfunctioning. We have friends from a higher dimension intervening on our behalf."

Picard turned to Al-Muzud and asked to hail the Si'ad.

I'ban's frustrated face plastered the transparent viewscreen.

Contrasting his frustration with level-headed calm, Picard stepped forward. "Admiral I'ban, it has been 24 hours, I hope you are well."

I'ban responded with an eruption of rage. "To hell with your diplomatic platitudes, Picard! We had an agreement that we would land within 24 hours of our arrival at this planet and you have defaulted."

Picard turned to Ukweli before responding to the Romulan. "Yes, I'm sure you were informed that there is a strange cosmic phenomenon down on the planet. If I were to guess, it might have something to do with why your weapons appear to be malfunctioning."

At this point, the Si'ad's science officer approached I'ban with a padd. "Admiral, there appears to be some kind of cosmic radiation which has caused our photon torpedoes to decay into electrons and positrons before hitting their target."

Picard nonchalantly responded. "If that kind of radiation can cause something as simple as photons to disintegrate, can you imagine what it can do to Romulan biological matter?"

In response to Picard's question, I'ban threw the padd to the side and snarled. "What are your terms?"

Picard turned to Ukweli with an impish wink. When he returned to confront I'ban, the seasoned envoy issued his terms. "We are closing in on an antidote for the radiation. We ask for you to patiently remain in orbit while that task is completed. In the meantime, if your vessels require engineering support or your passengers have any medical needs, we'd be happy to accommodate you in both regards."

I'ban bit his lip until small beads of green blood bubbled down his chin. Finally, in one final explosive gesture, I'ban threw his hands in the air. "So be it, Picard, we agree to your terms. If you do not mind, some of our civilian freighters require some repairs to their environmental systems if they are to stay in orbit."

Picard tightened his lips to suppress an ironic grin. "We will send engineering crews post haste. We'll make sure they only focus on the environmental systems and none of the more sensitive portions of the ship."

"Thank you, Picard," I'ban reluctantly replied as he picked up the padd he threw.

Picard nodded before adding. "If I may give you some constructive criticism, Admiral: learn to control your anger. I'm quite sure what I just saw qualifies as conduct unbecoming an officer."

He glanced at Ukweli before turning back to I'ban. "And if I'm not mistaken, the penalty for that kind of crime on a Romulan ship is sixty lashes."

"You are correct, Picard. Thank you for your suggestion. I will remember that for our next encounter." I'ban sneered as the image dematerialized.

As the stress on the Destiny's bridge melted with every pixel on the dissolving viewscreen, Picard turned to Ukweli. "We only got out of that firefight because of a deal I made with the Nakua. They give us the cure and protection from the Romulans and in return we take on some of the more curious Wakai as passengers. Do you think we can arrange lodging for them?"

Ukweli gave a playful scoff at Picard's request. "After what just happened, I'll gladly give them my quarters for a month if they want it."

Picard smiled and nodded. "I don't think that's necessary but I know what you mean."

The bridge crew shared a chuckle before Ukweli's combadge was activated with a message from sickbay. "Sickbay to Bridge." Tereshkova's voice was beaming with triumph. "My devices on the planet have picked up a radiation signature which appears to restore all aspects of Romulan tissue back to its original form. I think we got an antidote for the Romulans."

Kakua's voice chimed on. "My algorithm has also isolated a possible cure that can rehabilitate Nguyen."

Picard congratulated the two scientists as Ukweli ordered that manufacturing of the vaccine be produced post haste.

After closing the channel, Picard turned to Al-Muzud. "Lieutenant, at your earliest convenience, please open a communique to the Veritas-1 colony in the Elas system. I wish to speak with Daimon Yashe. Tell him I have another contract I'd like to offer him."

As he made his way to the turbolift, Picard turned to his crew. "I usually don't do this but I've been feeling more gregarious over the past 24 hours than any time since my Academy days. So, if anyone would like to toast the end of this painfully unusual away mission, I am offering a Happy Hour in my quarters at 2100. My drink of choice will be a Tzartak Aperitif. For some reason, I've developed a strange craving for that drink lately."

Picard then stepped into the turbolift and descended to his quarters.