Winterborn watched the visual feed in horror as Rosa and the Ven collapsed to the ground. Time seemed to slow; her blood ran cold, and she felt as though the world had been brought down on her shoulders. She managed to collect just enough of her wits to order a medical team to the shuttle bay, "We have an officer down, neck injury, report to shuttle bay three." It pained her, but she had to be careful, "Wait for security personnel to verify that the intruder is incapacitated before entering—we can't risk further casualties."
The Quin'tel Captain stepped forward, and seemed to be about to speak, before Winterborn raised a hand and said, "I'm sorry, I need to check on my...my officer. Please wait here, I'll be back to meet with you soon."
Winterborn hurried out of the conference room, nearly running for the shuttle bay. She arrived, nearly breathless from the emotional storm which raged inside her. She saw medical staff crowded around the large, steel-grey door. She could see her own concern mirrored on their faces. She walked up to the Lieutenant on duty, wringing her hands unconsciously.
"Lieutenant Johanna, do everything you can to keep Rosa alive. I don't care if you have to wrestle the Devil himself. You got me?"
The Lieutenant looked to be no older than twenty, but there was steel in her amber eyes. "Yes, Sir. He'll not take her away from her duty on this ship."
Winterborn nodded, her spirits bolstered slightly by the confidence of the woman. The door slid open, heavily-armed security officers flanking the door. The medical team rushed into the room, medical scanners in hand.
Winterborn watched in a state of rigid calm which her training told her was shock. The medical staff scanned Rosa's twisted neck, ascertaining the severity of her injury. Time slowed to a standstill as she waited for the diagnosis—to find out whether or not Rosa would survive.
"She's suffered a break in her C3 and C4 vertebrae, breathing has stopped. Apply a N.U.R.S.E. to assist with breathing and maintaining other vitals." They pulled a jacket-like item from their medical kit, first placing a support brace around Rosa's neck to keep the neck from moving, then securing her into the device. Winterborn recalled that the N.U.R.S.E. worked by manually stimulating the lungs and using electrical impulses to ensure the heart continued to function.
Winterborn hissed out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding as they announced that Rosa was still alive, and that there was a chance she would make it out of this situation.
"Let's get her to med bay—she seems stable for now, but we need more advanced facilities to keep her that way," the Lieutenant organized her team like a seasoned officer of double her years. Winterborn decided to keep her in mind for the new position which had just opened up.
Winterborn walked up to Fallborn as she was loaded into a medical gurney, and grabbed her hand. She followed along with the medical team, nearly jogging to keep up. "I'm not going to let you go, Rosa. I love you. You aren't going to die."
Shortly, they arrived in the medical bay. Rosa was set on the medical table, the N.U.R.S.E. still pumping away, keeping the spark of life alive like a bellows to the flame. Lieutenant Johanna grabbed her shoulder in a comforting grip. "We'll take it from here, Captain. We're going to need the med bay clear for surgery. I'm sorry."
Winterborn thought about arguing, but dismissed the idea. They would be able to better care for Rosa without her present. She nodded to the Lieutenant, giving Rosa one lingering glance before stepping away. She walked back to the shuttle bay they'd just come from in a daze. Who was responsible for this? It couldn't be Ren'brus and the others, they had been attacked by that monster just as surely as Rosa had. She couldn't think of anyone who had a direct motive to do all of this, to orchestrate everything which had happened. She knew one thing, however—when she found the culprit, they would pay dearly for what they'd caused.
She entered the shuttle bay and stared at the body of the Ven. It still looked exactly like the Julia Springborn she had known, or thought she knew. She now wondered if there had ever actually been a Julia at all? Was this officer who served with distinction ever anything but a traitorous monster? If so, what had happened to the original? Was she floating around in space somewhere? Winterborn shook her head slowly, trying to clear her rapid flood of thoughts.
Someone placed their hand on her shoulder, she turned her head to see Commander Val standing behind her, a worried look on her face. "I'm sorry this happened, Sir. I know how much Rosa means to you...you should know that the entire officer staff are rooting for her. We all love Lieutenant Fallborn, she's kind of like our collective little sister."
Winterborn nodded slowly, tear now streaming freely down her face. She pulled Val into a hug, a sob escaping despite her best effort. "Thank you, Val. I appreciate every one of you. I have the best crew a Captain could hope for."
Val patted her on the back, holding her in a warm embrace. "Sir, there is something which needs your attention." Winterborn pulled herself out of the embrace and composed herself.
"What is it, Commander?"
"Sir, the Quin'tel would like to meet with you as soon as possible. They say it's urgent that they talk with you. Oh, and I'd like to report that all other officers have been tested by the Quin'tel devices. So at least among the officers, there are no other Ven."
Winterborn patted her on the shoulder, "That's good news, at least. We need all the good news we can get at this point." She wiped her eyes with the cuff of her jacket and snapped off a crisp salute to Val. She turned to walk away, stepping past the medical personal there to collect the body of the Ven. She simply nodded to them, and was off to meet the Quin'tel Captain.
Winterborn stepped into the conference room, which now stood empty of all but Gul'bres—the scarred Quin'tel sat at a chair which had been brought from the Quin'tel vessel. It looked fairly normal, save for a large slit which ran directly down the center of the chair. She walked to the other side of the table, sinking into her chair and letting the weight of the previous twenty minutes fall from her shoulders. She rubbed her face in her hands, and sat up straight in the chair—steeling herself for the conversation ahead.
Gul'bres inclined his head slightly, "Prime," he picked up a glass of water, lapping at its contents in a manner humorously reminiscent of a dog or cat from back on Terra. "We have news from the Empire—the coronation is set to be held within one week. Custom dictates that the Prime be coronated on the day set by the Tertiary Council."
Winterborn nodded slowly, "And what if I don't arrive on time? What are the consequences?"
"You wouldn't be fond of the answer, soon-to-be-Prime," he showed his teeth, "If you are late by so much as a day, your claim to the title of Prime will be forfeit."
"That doesn't sound so-" started Winterborn, but she was cut off by the grizzled Quin'tel, "Also forfeit would be your life."
Winterborn nodded and barked a laugh, "Of course, of course. I should have expected as much. Though," she paused, "next time, you should lead with the threat to life and follow with the loss of position."
Gul'bres chittered a laugh, "I will make a note that your species values life over position. Unfortunately, there is still much we don't know about your people."
Winterborn inclined her head, "Agreed. There is still much we both have to learn about each other. For example," she gestured to the two Quin'tel at the door who stood with their heads inclined, "Why don't you behave like the other Quin'tel? I notice that you hardly act meek or subservient at all."
Again, the Quin'tel laughed. "You're right, I don't behave like the others. I think you have probably met one other of my species who behaves as I do. Am I right?"
Winterborn thought for a moment before saying, "You're just like the previous Prime, Sin'tel."
Gul'bres inclined his head again, "We are of the same family. Our people are famously strong-willed and irreverent. Most of our clan are in leadership positions of some kind as a result."
Winterborn laughed, "Well, I can definitely see the resemblance." She sighed heavily, "I'll ensure that we are there on time. How far away is Quin'tel? Is it possible to travel there using warp drive?"
He shook his head, "No, not practically. The home world is, on average, five-hundred light-years away from here. Unless you have managed to exceed the warp barrier of twenty-five times the speed of light, it would take far too long to travel that far." He stood from the table, walking towards the visual display on the wall, "We can either utilize your jump-drive technology, or we can travel to the Var'eds system and use the wormhole nexus located there."
Winterborn was stunned, "Your people have mastered the science of wormhole dynamics?"
The Quin'tel shook his head, "No, mastered wouldn't be the word. We can only create hubs in limited numbers. We have to build a quantum tunneling station at either end of the proposed wormhole, from there it takes a massive expenditure of resources to tunnel our way through space-time. As a result, there are few nexuses throughout the Empire, and the ones that do exist serve hundreds of thousands of ships annually."
"How long would it take us to reach the nearest nexus?" she asked.
"Around three days if the projected specs of this ship are accurate, 2.4 days if we take the Vol'en'brus."
She steepled her fingers, thinking hard about her next decision, "We'll go through the nexus. Currently we can't trust our jump-drive system. The Ven sabotaged a number of our systems and we are still trying to quantify the damage."
Gul'bres turned to look at her, "You are wise. The Ven are creatures of exquisite cunning and deviousness. I would not be surprised if they left traps and mires all through the ship," he walked over to the table taking a drink of water, "I would suggest scrapping this entire ship. Such is the standard protocol for any Quin'tel ship found to have been infested by a Ven for any length of time."
Winterborn sighed, "Well, I don't think that's currently an option. We have yet to make contact with our government."
Gul'bres bobbed a nod, "in that case, the nexus will work fine. We should leave as soon as we can. As we say on Quin'tel: The Horn'el'ing mates at midnight on the solstice," at Winterborn's laugh, he laughed along. "I think we should avoid idiom for now. By your reaction I doubt my meaning came across well."
Winterborn stood, extending a hand for the scarred Captain to take, "I think I understand Gul'bres. We have a similar idiom on Earth: The early bird catches the worm."
Gul'bres chittered in laughter, "I think we should definitely avoid idiom for now. That was ridiculous." He took Winterborn's hand and gripped it firmly. Again, Winterborn was surprised by the strength in that grip. "What I intended to convey is that we only really have one chance to make this work. I have known many leaders in my time, soon-to-be-Prime, and I think you will make a fine leader for the Empire. I admit to some trepidation before meeting you, but I think you have what it takes," he bowed low at the waist, "You have the support of my faction of the clan. If you need aid during the coming trials, call on the Vreen'bal'ar. We number only a thousand ships in our personal fleet, but they are good and strong crews."
Winterborn was touched, "I appreciate what you are offering. I just hope that I never have to call on you or yours for aid."
"The wise prepare for conflicts they cannot expect and never hope for. Remember that Winterborn," he clapped his claws together, "Now, we will return to our ship when the last of your crew have been tested. From there, we will need to begin our journey to Quin'tel."
Winterborn nodded, "Thank you for all the assistance you have given us, Captain. I will remember this."
She accompanied him to the shuttle bay, waving as he stepped through the airlock with his personal guards. She hoped that he had nothing to do with the events which had occurred over the last couple days. She didn't know what she would do if he had.