When Benjamin Walker finally had a moment to slow down and catch up on his messages, he realized with a surprise that he’d actually returned to his home timeline, and he might actually have the opportunity to see friends and family in person. He made a note to see if he could fit in a visit. At this point he’d seen so many planets in so many stages of history, he really didn’t care if it meant going to Andoria or New Romulus or Qo’noS. He’d been away for too much subjective time and he didn’t want to miss any opportunities to see family… especially since the delicate handling of the Temporal Cold War always meant the possibility of losing someone unexpectedly to a temporal incursion.
His message queue was full, as always, with the usual automatically-generated report notifications. Most of the organizational work was handled by lower level staff members or even by the ship’s computer, and this generated a tremendous amount of clutter. Fortunately, his staff and the computer did an excellent job of sorting that clutter and isolating important messages, allowing him to focus on other matters where his attention was better used.
Leaning forward in his seat, he tapped the interface directing the computer to bring up messages that seemed the most likely to match his personal interests, and screened out work-related alerts. The computer made its usual soft chiming sound—it always sounds like it’s digesting the data, he thought—then provided him with a short list, the first of which was from his first officer.
Since Nereda rarely sent him personal messages unrelated to ship’s business, this did catch his interest. “Play message,” he directed the computer.
Nereda’s languid voice emanated from the ambient sound modulators as her hologram appeared on the message podium. “Ben, I just found out about the human custom of birthdays, so of course I couldn’t let this ridiculous tradition go by without participating. Since we’ve been serving together for a few years of relative time now, you must have had at least a few birthdays. I’ve put together something for you.”
Ben groaned inwardly. While his Cardassian XO was a fine officer, she had a sharp wit and a liking for slightly embarrassing humor, which occasionally left Ben wondering about her double meanings and amused reptilian smiles.
“Anyway, I’ve assembled some files and attached them to this message. They’re very old video and audio files, and it took a bit of work to track them down and clean them up. I know how humans enjoy the… art of 20th and 21st century Earth history, so I found you some old entertainment and documentary footage,” the Cardassian’s voice continued.
Ben glanced over at his computer screen, which, sure enough, pointed to a set of video files.
“Happy birthday, Ben. And many more to come, I hope.”
The computer chirped to signal the end of message.
Ben sighed and keyed the console to extrapolate the first video into a holographic format, wondering how Nereda was teasing him this time.
Walker quickly discovered that Nereda had been very hard at work indeed; one of the documentary pieces focused on a series of cryptid incidents in Walker County, Alabama, Earth. The county, in fact, was named for John Williams Walker, himself a remote ancestor of Ben. He was less than an hour into the collection of clips when his heart suddenly jumped at the scratchy video and muffled audio from one of the conspiratorial investigations.
“Commander Nereda, I need to see you immediately. My quarters,” Walker said after tapping his comm panel.
Nereda’s cool voice came back through almost immediately. “I see you finally got my message. I’ll be right there, Captain.”
Standing amidst the extrapolated holograms, Walker paused the video and pointed. “There. You see him? Not too far from my great, great, great, great… lot of greats… grandfather,” he said to Nereda.
Nereda stepped forward into a shadowy corner of the holographic extrapolation. “Computer, enlarge and enhance grid A3,” she said after a moment.
The paused image, slightly grainy but with the slick hues of computer-adjusted clean-up, leaped up in brightness and clarity as the computer obliged. There, in the background, in the woods of Alabama, in a 21st-century biohazard suit, was the unmistakable face of a Na’kuhl.
Nereda straightened and said, “All right, so it’s one of their historical agents. What do we do about it?”
Walker ran a hand through his dark hair and replied, “We have to stop them, of course. And it’s obvious that they’ve been going further back in history, seeding agents in places that will affect the development of human society. We have to assume that they may be tampering with others in a similar fashion.”
“That’s been their plan all along,” said Nereda. “This isn’t new.”
Walker exhaled and said, “But you assembled this old footage from a collection of clips and documents dating as far back as the 18th century, and you looked for connections to me. This is personal. Whether the Na’kuhl did it purposefully or not, they’re tampering with my ancestral timeline.”
Nereda’s breath hissed inward. “I hadn’t realized. Ben, you’re right. What if they change or remove you?” she said.
Walker responded, “I think they just got lucky this time. Since I’m still part of the timeline, we can assume they haven’t made a connection… yet. But we need to widen our search. Earth has a rich history of monsters and sightings of strange creatures.”
Nereda nodded. “Like your culture hero, Dracula,” she said. “Didn’t your people believe him to have… supernatural abilities? Shapeshifting, mesmerism, animal control? And that he needed to drain the lifeforce of humans to survive?”
Ben looked at her quizzically for a moment, then said, “I suppose from a Cardassian perspective he’s a heroic figure. From a current human perspective he was a brutal war leader. Historically, Dracula was a warlord protecting his lands from invading Turks, by extremely pragmatic and sometimes cruel means. The legends of him as a blood-drinking nocturnal predator came later, as a form of fiction added on to the story. Though, as the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“He knew how to defend a tenuous position and he didn’t take no for an answer,” said Nereda. “That aside, you’re saying that we need to start figuring out if some of the “monsters” seen in those sightings were actually Na’kuhl?”
Walker nodded. “That’s exactly it. Pictures, journals, descriptions of monsters… humanoid creatures with a fearsome countenance, red eyes, gaunt faces. We already know that Captain Archer encountered some of them in Earth’s second world war. Now we need to expand our search, go further back.”
Nereda nodded. “I’ll start getting the historians and A&A department looking.”
“One more thing,” Walker added. “If they succeed in altering the past enough to change my family history… it could cause big changes for us here and now. Nereda, you need to be ready to take command of the Pastak.”
A human officer might’ve reacted with shock, or tried to reassure the captain, but Nereda simply nodded again, more slowly. “I understand. You might never become a captain, or even exist. I’ll set our temporally shielded archives to flag an alert if there’s a change to your biodata or records.”
“It’s also possible that the only reason that I’m a starship captain in our timeline is because of a change they’ve already made. Undoing their tampering could have repercussions as well,” Walker said. “Our mission concerns the whole galaxy. It goes without saying that if this changes or removes me from the timeline, you cannot abort the mission.”
Nereda’s dark eyes blinked slowly, sparkling in the recessed facial ridges, and she said, “Understood. I like you, Ben, which is why I will respect your conviction by being ready to sacrifice you for the good of the galaxy. If it comes to that.”
Walker sighed. “If it comes to that. Oh, and Nereda?”
“Yes, Captain?” she said.
“While the idea of being erased from history by an executive officer who ruthlessly follows orders does leave me a bit queasy, we’ve served together long enough for me to understand you, I think. So… thank you.”
Nereda smiled thinly. “Don’t mention it, Captain.”