Jefferies Tube 5-A, USS Alfred the Great

        Time was a blur for Midshipman Dante Mirungi. The ship was rushing towards the Romulan Neutral Zone and Mirungi was suddenly nervous. An hour ago, he had been unloading supplies on a quiet Federation colony, enjoying the fresh air and open skies. They weren't quite like the Terran skies he'd known as a child, living just outside the city of Meru in Kenya, United States of Africa, on his uncle's coffee farm. Even so, it was still relaxing to get off the ship, even if unloading a supply pallet was dull labor.
        He wasn't relaxed now. Mirungi was almost finished with his senior year tour and was supposed to be returning to Earth and Star Fleet Academy after the ship docked at Starbase 10 next month. He'd performed well, he thought, taking lessons learned at the Academy and applying them in real life, practical training for his coming career as a Star Fleet officer. Initially disappointed that his assignment was the quirky Alfred, one of the odd-balls in the fleet, he had grown to like the posting. He'd served time in the communications, fire control, and science departments and was now assigned to the engineering section. For personal reasons, he had mixed feelings about leaving the ship: he'd fallen in love with one of the nurses on the medical staff. What had begun as a casual fling had morphed into something much more special or so he thought anyway. Her feelings were unclear. Perhaps he was foolish. Returning to the Academy was inevitable and necessary for his career, but his heart ached over it.
        Mirungi was in a Jefferies tube outside main engineering, accompanying Senior Chief Petty Officer Castro. They were working on the last-second maintenance list as the ship headed towards possible combat. Mirungi held a spare parts kit while the older man examined an access panel. Castro had opened up one of the GNDN relays that crisscrossed the ship like spider webs. The ancient joke in engineering classes was that GNDN stood for "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing." In reality, it stood for General Node-Duotronic. This particular node was GNDN-H27B, which linked bridge helm control with the engineering computers in the bowels of the ship. This was actually a backup line, part of a triple-redundant system. It had been giving anomalous readings lately, and checking the line had been on the maintenance schedule for later in the week. But with the ship possibly heading into combat, the chief engineer wanted it fixed now.
        Castro shut down his scanner. "Found the problem. Hand me a 5565-DN. This one is bad."
        Mirungi began rummaging through the parts kit. He coughed. His mind froze for a moment; he suddenly couldn't remember what a 5565-DN looked like.
        "Dammit, it's right there," Castro said irritably, reaching into the kit and grabbing one himself. Mirungi wasn't an officer yet, and had quickly learned to respect the experienced enlisted men, especially the old salts like Castro.
        "Sorry, Chief."
        "You have to stay alert in a situation like this." Castro turned and plugged the new 5565-DN into the appropriate slot, then handed the old, burned-out component to Mirungi. He consulted his scanner again. "All right, the readings are nominal now. Mark this component for disposal. It is too fried to recondition." He buttoned the node back up. "What's the next job?"
Mirungi consulted the list. "System G-99C. Data transfer rate is 3 to 5% below normal range."
        "OK, that's just down the line. Let's move."

Bridge, RIS Imperial Truth

        Commander Moras Clavius Orsini closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He visualized the Ground in his mind, then the bubbles of the manifest Universes floating on that Ground. He focused on one bubble, then zoomed in and beheld the trillions of physical galaxies floating in that void. He zoomed in further on the Milky Way. He focused on this arm of the galaxy, then zoomed in further on a small red dwarf star, then a single asteroid orbiting that star.
        He considered the position in which he found himself. Like most members of House Orsini (at least those who had some say in the matter), Clavius supported the Praetor and was in favor of war with the Federation, but even the more aggressive elements of the government were aware that intelligence regarding this enemy was vague. The military professionals argued that a preliminary assault was necessary, to test Federation defenses and gather information about their tactics and technology. Clavius was honored that his ship was chosen to participate in the destruction of Federation listening posts along the border.
        Two task forces were involved, each consisting of six ships. His squadron, the "Northern Battle Force," consisted of his Kingbird command ship, a Warbird first-class cruiser, a Hawk second-class cruiser, and three Snipe frigates. Further "south" along the outpost line, his old friend from House Antreidies commanded another six-ship squadron, the "Southern Battle Force." The orders given both squadrons were simple: annihilate Federation outposts, destroy any ships responding to the attack, and gather as much information about Star Fleet tactics and equipment as possible. Because the enemy strength was unknown, the two commanders had been given authority to withdraw without fear of criticism whenever they felt they had accomplished the mission.
        The outpost had proven exceedingly simple to obliterate, overwhelmed by the plasma torpedoes of his ship and the Warbird, without the smaller ships even having a chance to fire. Each squadron commander was given wide latitude in planning and executing his attack.
        What should I do next? Clavius thought to himself.
        There were several options. He could simply go home and claim a victory with the destruction of the outpost. He quickly discarded this option. The triumph had been too easy, and in his opinion they had not gathered enough information about Star Fleet capabilities. He could move on to attack other outposts, perhaps splitting his ships into two different groups and destroying two posts simultaneously. This would be the more aggressive option, but splitting his units was also quite risky if they were caught in an isolated position and destroyed in detail. Another idea was for the entire squadron to wait here in ambush. Information purchased from the Orions indicated that there should be at least one and perhaps two Star Fleet cruisers able to respond quickly to a border incursion. However, Orion information was notoriously unreliable, and even the Orions could not predict if the responding ships would arrive one at a time or would gather a larger force and all arrive at once.
        Which path is the right one?
        Clavius Orsini was in the State of Clarity now. Thanks to years of practicing the Path of Self-Order, the meditative process had taken just a few seconds. He opened his eyes and examined the position indicators marked on the tactical display. The answer came to him: the squadron would stick together and wait.
        "Inform all ships to execute Ambush Deployment Five."
        "At once, Commander," replied the communications officer.
        The first officer spoke next.  "Helm, tack us around to starboard, positioning the ship as indicated on the tactical display."
        "At once, Sir!"
The first officer observed the helmsman at work. Satisfied that all was well, he returned to his commander's side and ventured a question.
        "You are certain of this plan?" he said quietly.
        "Yes. We have discussed this possibility."
        "In general terms, yes." The XO pointed at the icons on the display. "By deploying the squadron here, you are gambling that any Federation ships responding to the destruction of the outpost will approach the asteroid in this way." He traced an arc with his finger around the asteroid icon.
        "True, but note that the ruins of the listening post are located on the side nearest us. Any ship scanning for survivors will likely position itself here. If we time this properly . . . "
        The XO smiled grimly. He could now see exactly what the commander had planned.
        "We are now in position, Sir," the helmsman called out.
        "Activate cloak," said the XO. "All decks, minimize power consumption. Set the Rule of Silence throughout the ship. Any further orders, Sir?"
        "We wait," Clavius said.

Sickbay, USS Alfred the Great

        Dr. Catek glanced at the chronometer. He had five minutes to get to the briefing room. He looked at the Alfred's medical staff gathered around him: three doctors, four physician's assistants, six nurses, four Marine combat medics, and a dozen crewmen from other departments cross-trained as emergency medics. Together, they were responsible for the 429 lives aboard the ship: 372 Earth Humans and Alpha-Centaurians, 14 Rigellians (including himself), 11 Andorians, eight Arcturians, seven Orions, five Prellarians, five Antareans, four Tellarites, one Bis'en, one Fralli, and one Vulcan.
        He finished his instructions to the staff. "We have to be prepared for casualties, any we may find at the outpost as well as our own. I want the chapel set up as an emergency triage area. Everything else, standard pre-combat procedures. One other thing: Nurse Tyson, Crewman Tonek in engineering will need his weekly sulfur supplement. He's not due until tomorrow morning, but let's just get that detail taken care of right now. We don't need him getting sick on the job if we are too busy to give him the supplement the next few days, and it is one less thing to worry about if there is trouble." Tonek was the sole Fralli on board, and like all members of that unusual species, he needed a weekly sulfur supplement to ensure proper health.
        "Of course, Doctor. I'll deliver it myself."
        "I have to go. Let's move, people."
        Catek left the sickbay and ducked into the biolab momentarily to grab a PADD. Inset in the wall was a small biohazard-testing chamber, where he'd placed a sputum sample from one of the Delta Hydra colonists. It was being tested to find an antibiotic or other countermeasure that would work against the bacteria infecting the colonists. The chamber was fully sealed, with a triple-redundant forcefield. It drew power from the ship's systems, but had its own power cell as a backup if something happened to the regular supply.
        It wouldn't take more than 15 minutes to complete the test, at which time he'd send a narrow-beam (difficult to intercept) message back to Dr. Ramberg at the colony with the data results. Although this seemed like a low-priority item with the ship heading into danger, Catek felt it was his duty as a physician to follow up with the colonists. Since the test was automated and would be finished before the ship reached the combat zone, there was no danger to their current mission involved.
        He double-checked the chamber and made sure the test was set up to run properly, then left the lab, sprinting down the hall towards the turbolift and the briefing room two levels above.