Mission Archives: Season 1

Episode 5: And They Are Us

Chapter 1: The Forrest for The Trees
Chapter 16: Reaching out from the Grave
Chapter 2: Too Quiet
Chapter 17: New Kids on the Block
Chapter 3: Over The Hill
Chapter 18: Approaching Thunder
Chapter 4: Gorn, but not Forgotten
Chapter 19: Diversions
Chapter 5: Getting Out Of Dodge
Chapter 20: Taking Chances
Chapter 6: Evidence of Things Not Seen
Chapter 21: High-Brass Headaches
Chapter 7: Conflict of Interests
Chapter 22: The Fog of War
Chapter 8: Night Demons
Chapter 23: From The Sidelines
Chapter 9: New Arrivals
Chapter 24: Reins of Command
Chapter 10: The Way of the Serpent
Chapter 25: To the Rescue
Chapter 11: The Heat Is On
Chapter 26: Marching Orders
Chapter 12: Under the Serpent's Moon
Chapter 27: The Death of Lieutenant McClintock
Chapter 13: Death Be Not Proud
Chapter 28: A Deal With the Devil
Chapter 14: Seeds of Vengeance
Chapter 29: On The Warpath
Chapter 15: Gambit of the Doves

 

A low hum of conversation filled the Lounge, the name given to the mess hall of Starbase 23. Groups of officers and enlisted Starfleet personnel gathered and discussed their day, laughter and smiles erupting from the occasional table. Engineers talked shop, Medical personal reviewed patient files, Command officers discussed whatever business was at had.

The doors to the lounge slid open with a familiar hiss and as if on queue the various conversations around the Lounge stopped. Dozens of eyes turned to watch the man who had just entered. He stood just under six feet tall, his brown hair, slightly longer than Regulations would allow. In any normal circumstance this man wouldn't have drawn a glance from most people, but it was hard to notice the black on black uniform of Starfleet Intelligence standing out in stark contrast to the multiple colors of the standard duty outfits. The training of Starfleet quickly eliminated the few looks of disdain for the Lieutenant Commander. Many personnel in Starfleet felt the members of Starfleet Intelligence were nothing more than untrustworthy, dishonorable thugs.

The man quickly scanned the room, his eyes missing nothing, and simply headed to the service counter. The conversations around the room began again but with a subtle lowering of tone. Whispers concerning this new person seeming to predominate. The man soon had a tray of food, and headed towards an unoccupied table. Eyes tried to subtly follow the stranger, which brought a hint of a smile to his lips. The stranger pulled a PADD from his wait and set it and the food tray down. A few quick pushes on the PADD control interface and words began to steadily stream across the viewer.

Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest slowly read the information on the screen, his face blank, something he'd had years to practice.  He slowly enjoyed the food on his plate, a wonderful Kaferian fruit salad, prime rib steak, and baked potato. A definite change from the rokeg blood pie and heart of targ so available while he was involved in the operation with the Klingon High Council. Granted the Klingons knew how to live life, but their cuisine took a strong stomach and sense of adventure, to fully understand.

Forrest was happily surprised to see his next assignment placed him back aboard the USS Republic, his last stay somewhat shortened by the increase in the Kreltan Affair. But `Fleet Intel Operation Division had ordered him back after he had reported the mysterious technology provided by Daniels. Intel's R&D Department, jokingly called the "Toybox", had gone all giddy when they first began looking at the specs provided by Forrest, but Intel Command quickly stamped a CWD-Omega clearance on it.

Forrest knew there would be some difficulty from certain officers on the Republic, many of them still sat on a moral high-ground that left them unable to accept that `Fleet Intel was an important part of the Federation. Intel officers either learned to ignore the disdain or became cold, callous operatives. Either method was within operational parameters. Forrest was pleased to see that his assignment to the Republic didn't involve any Top Secret details, he was simply assigned to the Republic because he possessed training that would be valuable. It would also be nice to see Shadow again.  The brief message requesting help at Beta Taurii and a quick hello afterwards, was all he had a chance to say "hi" last time they met.

Shadow had always been top notch and Forrest still felt a debt to him ever since a mission on Celtris III went south. `Fleet needed some files in a Cardassian officers computer system. A team had made it's way there and had no problem extracting the files, but something went wrong (like they tend to) and Forrest had taken a nearly fatal disrupter blast. Shadow had been there. For that Forrest would always be grateful.

Forrest quietly finished his meal and slowly sipped the tall glass of orange juice, amazed how the replicator always had the perfect amount of pulp. The Republic would be here to pick him up in less than thirteen hours. Enough time to catch a work out in a holosuite and still get a nice nap. Once more into the breach, dear friends.

 

<Location: U.S.S. Republic, holodeck three>

The off-white, circular chamber walls of the U.S.S. Enterprise bridge made the room a small, cramped place to work.  The black-colored workstations along the walls used old-fashioned manual switches, making their operation a lot less efficient than current control stations.  However, that did not deter the hologram replicas of old-style, maroon-uniformed Starfleet crewman from carrying out their duties.  A handrail encircled the centralized command pit, and a single command chair stood on a raised platform where Doctor Leon Cromwell surveyed the operations around him.

Leon was once again running the simulation of Starfleet’s ancient ‘Kobayashi Maru’ scenario; an ancient military-style training exercise 80 years out of date.  The program was a gift from Commander Carter to help him in his starship-strategy portion of the bridge-officers exam.  Although the doctor had little time to play the scenario given his current holodeck class-schedule from Starfleet, he felt it proper to try it a second time since his disastrous attempt two weeks ago.  At this particular moment, he was at the portion where the ship had just received the distress signal from a passenger ship in the Klingon Neutral Zone.

‘We know the Klingons are out there,’ he thought.  ‘What’s our chances?’

“Mister Spock,” he asked, swiveling around in his chair to face the young, black-haired Vulcan science officer.  “What chance do we have against a Klingon patrol group should we encounter one?”

“Captain,” replied Spock.  “Klingons patrol this sector with individual fleets of no less than three D-7 cruisers.  Chances of us surviving an such attack intact are approximately five-point-two percent, even with shields up.”

“Is there any way to fool their long-range sensors into overlooking us on their scanners?”

“None, sir.”

“So we either chance war and destruction by rescuing the ship, or hold station here and do nothing.”

“Precisely, captain.”

Leon shook his head with pursed lips.  ‘Definitely sounds like winning this scenario is difficult.  I guess one has to be pretty good to beat it.’

“Very well, then,” Leon announced.  “Bring the ship to red alert, raise the shields, and load torpedo bays.  If there is a patrol out there, we’ll try to reason with them, but whatever we do, we’ve got to rescue that ship. Helm, set an intercept course.”

As the alarm beacon sounded throughout the room, the lights bathed everything in a deep red color.  “Aye sir,” replied the Asian helmsman.  “Plotting new course to Kobayashi Maru.  Estimate two minutes to intercept.”

Just then, the communication system of the Republic came to life.

=/\= “Bridge to Doctor Cromwell.  You have a subspace communiqué coming in from Cestus Three.  It’s marked personal.” =/\=

“Computer, freeze program,” Leon announced, and the simulation immediately paused.  Standing up from the command chair, the doctor tapped his combadge.  “I’ll take it down here, bridge.”

=/\= “Aye sir.” =/\=

“Computer, arch.”

The familiar holodeck archway whispered into existence at the far end of the bridge simulator, directly between the two aft turbolifts.  The doctor walked over to it and pressed a button, activating a two-way video monitor.  A middle-aged woman with blond hair appeared on the screen that immediately brought a smile to his face.

“Ann!” Leon said with joviality.  “It’s great to hear from you!”

“Good to see you too, bro,” the woman responded.  “I got your message about being called back to Starfleet.”

“Yeah, well it wasn’t under the greatest circumstances, but I’ve decided to take the bridge officer’s exam.”

“No kidding?  I thought you made a solemn oath never to wear that uniform again.”

“Well, it’s been a while since I made that vow, and things are a little different here on the Republic.  I actually feel like I’m making a difference.”

“That’s great.  Mom will be thrilled.”

“What about dad?” Leon asked with a hint of poison in his voice

The woman’s smile decreased somewhat at the mentioning of Leon’s father.  “Oh, you know HIM.  He’ll find any reason to be unreasonable.  I wouldn’t worry about it.  He’s just going through a phase.”

“For twenty years?” Leon said sourly.

“Leon, I didn’t call about dad,” she said changing the subject.  “I called to ask if you know of anything regarding the Gorn border.”

The doctor suddenly lost his smile.  “The Gorn border?  No, I haven’t heard anything.  Why?”

“Well, there’s been a lot of Starfleet activity around here lately.  Starships in orbit, more boys in uniform, that sort of stuff.”

“What’s so odd about that?  Maybe it’s a new science project or something.  Just because Starfleet shows up with a few ships doesn’t mean anything.”

“They’re not science vessels, Leon.  You don’t call a fleet of Sovereign and Nebula class ships for a gas anomaly.”

Pinpoints of static began to dance across on the screen, with a few wisps of an interfering signal.  The quality of Ann’s message began to worsen steadily.

“I can look into it if you wish, Ann.”

“Leon . . . .  can’t hear you.  You’re pict . . . . .ing up.”

“Ann, can you hear me?” Leon asked in annoyance at the signal loss.  However, the noise became more pronounced over the next few seconds, with Ann’s picture flickering erratically.

“Leon . . . . “  the picture suddenly flipped off with the Federation logo appearing in the center of the screen.  A text message below read ‘SIGNAL LOST.’

The doctor quickly pressed the intercom button.  “Bridge, what’s wrong with the transmission?  Why did we lose the signal?”

=/\= “It appears that the signal was jammed at the source.  I don’t know why, sir.” =/\=

“Can you re-establish the transmission?”

=/\= “Negative, sir.  Starfleet Communication stations report that all subspace signals from Cestus Three have halted . . . . Stand by, sir.” =/\=

Leon waited for over a minute that seemed like eternity.  Unfortunately, the response from the bridge was not directed exclusive to the doctor, and left him wrought with anxiety.

=/\= “Yellow alert.  All decks, yellow alert.  Captain and senior officers to the bridge.  Repeat:  yellow alert.  We are at yellow alert.  Senior officers to the bridge.”  =/\=

<First Officer's Quarters, U.S.S. Republic. 1830 HRS>

John Carter seemed to recall that Admiral Chester "Chesty" Puller once said `a 25 year career in the navy amounts to 24 years, 11 months, and 28 days of boredom punctuated by 2 and a half days of sheer terror.' If that was true, John reflected as he looked at the personnel reports, then he must have spent his two and a half days and a half days all at once.

The light in his cabin was low `Doctor's orders' he mused, but after the trip John had had through time, to say nothing of the different sides of Death he'd been on, he figured that Leon was right to order him to take it easy. Soft piano jazz filtered through the speakers, and Carter looked over the file of Lieutenant Jason McClintock who was slated to fill the long-vacant Chief Tactical position on Republic. "Well THANK YOU!" John said to whichever deity might have been listening at the time. "Now we're getting some place."

The door signal chirped and John rolled his eyes. He stood up, made the requisite Carter family `Old Man Noise and rolled his neck from side to side, praying for a soft "click" that he never heard. Despite the fact that he was off duty, John was still wearing the black pants and command red tunic of his duty uniform, minus. The collar of the tunic was unfastened, and the sleeves were pushed midway up Carter's forearms in a fashion that most fighter pilots called "ready Five". Yet another piece of Terran military tradition that somehow managed to stick for hundreds of years.

John walked calmly to open his cabin door. A quiet "swish" revealed Doctor Shannon Harris, with a beaming smile, a package under one arm, and her scarlet hair draped down her back in a decidedly non-military fashion.

There was an audible gulp as John took it all in. "W...wow," he whispered.

Shannon smiled warmly and stepped into John's cabin. "That may be the first time I've ever caught you speechless John." Shannon walked past Carter (who now knew first hand that it was just as pleasant to watch Shannon Harris leave a room as it was to watch her arrive), and set her package on John's desk. After a short while, Carter regained his composure and cleared his throat. *Ahem* "Is there something I can do for you Counselor?"

Harris turned with an easy grace that John hadn't realized she possessed. "Well, for starters, `Commander'," she said for emphasis, "We're off duty, so you can call me Shannon." Harris turned again and took a seat on the other side of John's work space. "Second," she beamed, looking at the box she'd brought in, "you can say thank you."

"Um...Shannon, it's a nice dress, but..."

Harris giggled in flattery. "Not for that," she said coyly, "but I'm glad you like it." She pushed the box in John's direction. "For this", she said, as John picked the box up. "It's my way of saying thanks for sticking around."

"What do you mean?"

Harris propped her head sideways on her arm, and gave Carter a sour look. "John," she said flatly, "Do you realize that you and Leon are the only members of the command staff who haven't left since this crew went out of port? We've go through two Captains, two Engineers, a Science Officer, a First Officer, and I don't know HOW many people you've tried to put in Tactical."

The last remark punched trough John's amour, and the Martian First Officer cracked a smile. "Don't get me started."

"So, while you were on Betazed," Shannon waved her hand, "and no, I don't want details. In case you haven't noticed, I'm happy not being `one of the guys'".

"Um...yeah. I noticed."

"Anyway, you and the rest of the volunteers did a lot for us when Reg..." Shannon stopped herself from using the name of John's fallen tactical officer. "When the Kreltans took over the saucer. So I got you a little something."

John opened the box and held up a type six duty jacket; soft red suede with black accents on the shoulders. John couldn't help but smile. "Damn but that's pretty. You really shouldn't have."

"It was nothing John."

"No, I mean you probably shouldn't have. I'm pretty sure only ship commanders can wear this."

"Well that's where you're wrong," Shannon said with a self-satisfied smirk. "I did some checking, and it turns out that anyone who's been in command of a starship is within regs to wear it. So, there you go." Shannon stood up and stepped behind John, placing her hands on his shoulders. "There's a shirt that goes with it in the box."

John felt himself relax at Shannon's attention. "Thanks Shannon, a lot."

Harris leaned closer and whispered. "Aren't you going to try it on?"

John leaned back and looked up into Shannon's eyes. "Doctor Harris?

Are you making a pass at me?"

"Why?" she said, blinking, "Is it working?"

On cue, the com system chirped.

=/\= "Yellow alert. All decks, yellow alert. Captain and senior officers to the bridge. Repeat: yellow alert. We are at yellow alert. Senior officers to the bridge." =/\=

"Better make it quick." Carter said with a wry smile as he tapped his comm badge. "Carter to Ops."

=/\= "Sullivan here sir."=/\=

"Sullivan?" John queried, "How can we be at Yellow Alert inside a starbase?"

=/\= "Captain's orders sir, he wants you all in the Observation Lounge in five mics."=/\=

"Roger that, Sullivan," Carter said, lapsing back into `fighter jock speak'. "We'll be there in five. Carter out."

On the bridge, Lieutenant Sullivan wondered just who `WE' were.

 

<location: U.S.S Republic, deck 8, main corridor>

Doctor Cromwell did not take the news lightly.  A cloud of gloom hovered over his head at the sounding of yellow alert, especially after he learned of the reason behind the heightened alert status from Lieutenant Sullivan, the current on-duty operations officer.  Leon was lost among his own thoughts when two individuals, Commander Carter and Lieutenant Commander Harris, came walking up from behind.

“Yellow alert in port.  Got to be the strangest thing, eh doc?” Carter greeted the doctor.

“Hmm?” Leon replied, looking to find the executive officer and counselor tailing him.  Doctor Harris was busy tying her scarlet-colored hair up in a bun, taking care not to get it caught in the hastily zipped collar of her blue duty uniform.  John’s attire, on the other hand, was of a slightly different genre, that being a type six red-velvet duty jacket.  Leon looked it over, nodding approvingly, and looking towards the counselor.

“You’re right, Shannon.  He does wear it well.”

Carter raised an eyebrow at Leon asking, “you knew about this?” referring to his gift from the temporary counselor.

“Who do you think she checked with about the dress-code regulations?” Doctor Cromwell returned, patting his own civilian-grade ivory turtleneck sweater with emphasis.  “Section 9-C of Star Fleet regulation 670-1, paragraph fourteen, states that ‘With the permission of their superior officer, any member of Starfleet, regardless of their rank or position, is entitled to wear the type-six duty jacket while serving aboard a vessel that they have, at any time during their service, served as it’s commanding officer either in a temporary or permanent fashion.’ So, Shannon asked the captain for his permission, and he gave the green light.”

Carter looked slightly disappointed at the news, and looked towards Harris.  “And I thought it was a special gift from you . . .”

“It WAS,” Leon interjected.  “It wasn’t my idea to get you a gift.  You still owe me two bars of latinum from last week’s poker game.”

As the trio walked down the corridor towards the turbolift, a blue-uniformed lieutenant commander with a crop of black balding hair, a beard, and moustache came jogging up from the opposite direction.

“Leon,” Doctor Saal Yezbeck shouted as he strode up.  “Glad I found you before you headed up to the bridge.”  He paused to acknowledge the two other officers.  “Commander, Counselor.”  Turning back to Doctor Cromwell, he continued.  “We just had our replacement personnel report in.  Two medical doctors and a new head nurse.”

“Well that’s good news,” Leon responded.  “I guess the end of the Kreltan Conflict finally freed up some medical personnel.  Go back to sickbay, and get a staff meeting together for when I get out of this command briefing.”

“Aye, sir.” Yezbeck answered, continuing on past the officers before Leon called him back.

“Wait a minute!” the doctor stated with comprehension.  “What’s that?” Leon was pointing to Yezbeck’s collar where the two full pips of his rank insignia were joined by another pip with a blackened center.  Yezbeck comprehended Cromwell’s question with a smile, but Carter spoke up first.

“That’s what you get for missing out on staff parties, doc,” Carter chided.  “Didn’t you get the invitation for drinks at the Hill last night?”

“Yes,” Leon admitted.  “But I had coursework to do on the holodeck.  I didn’t have time for parties.  You could have at least warned me!”

“It was supposed to be a surprise,” the counselor chimed in, “for both Yezbeck AND Fernmore.”

“Sorry, Leon,” Yezbeck apologized while continuing further down the hall.  “You can buy me and Eliza a drink later!”  He finally disappeared around the corner toward the aft turbolift.

With a furrow in his forehead, Doctor Cromwell looked to Carter with dissatisfaction as the trio continued their walk to the mid-deck turbolift shaft.  “Two of my staff get promoted to lieutenant commander and you don’t even warn me!”

“Hey doc,” Carter said defensively.  “You should have known!  After all, you put them in for it three weeks ago!”

With a dissatisfied smirk, Leon turned away from him silently as they all entered the turbolift.

“Bridge,” announced Carter, and the soft hum of the turbolift car came to life.

“I wonder what this is all about?”  Harris broke the silence.  “A ship usually doesn’t go to yellow alert inside a starbase unless there’s a local emergency.”

“Or,” Doctor Cromwell added, “Star Fleet itself has gone to a heightened alert status.”

“You know something about this, doc?” Carter looked at Leon quizzically.

“All I know,” the doctor started forebodingly, stroking his blond moustache with anxiety.  “Is that I was talking to my sister on Cestus Three via subspace when the signal got jammed.  Then the bridge informed me that all subspace transmissions from the planet ceased.  Ann, my sister, was asking me about the Gorn border before her signal was lost.”

Both Carter and Harris looked at Doctor Cromwell in astonishment.

“The Gorn border?” Doctor Harris asked.

“You have a sister?” inquired John, which drew a sour look from Harris.

“Ann sounded nervous,” Leon continued without pause.  “With the arrival of so many Star Fleet vessels at Cestus Three.  With it being so close to the Gorn border, she naturally thought there was something heating up.”

“We haven’t heard anything from the Gorn Hegemony since the Metron Treaty of stardate 3067 where the Federation/Gorn border was established,” Harris added with curiosity.  “I mean, there’s been several minor border incursions from renegade ships involving warring Gorn clans, but nothing official from the government in years.”

“How do you know so much?” Carter looked at the counselor.

“It’s been part of my temporary counselor training, SIR,” she replied with moderate sarcasm in her voice.  She was obviously referring to Commander Carter assigning her additional work duties for brushing up on diplomatic and cultural skills following her temporary assignment as ship’s counselor.

Carter then spoke up.  “All I know about the Gorns is that they’ve never been much of a threat to the Federation since the Cestus Three colony was rebuilt over a hundred years ago.  Since then, only a few cultural historians have gained permission to enter Gorn territory.  They all returned with very little information since the Gorns have such a closed society.”

“One of those historians,” Doctor Cromwell added, “was an old teacher of mine.  Timotheous Clark.  He’s in his golden years now, flirting with 110, but still pretty sharp.  If we are able to re-establish contact with Cestus Three, he’d be a good person to consult about the Gorns.”  Leon shook his head ominously.  “I only hope that losing contact with the colony was just a communications glitch and not an actual attack,” he said with concern.

“Don’t worry, doc,” Carter soothed.  “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“I hope so.”  Leon tried to take comfort in John’s words, but as the turbolift doors opened onto the bridge, the added alert status had gripped the command center, and left the room buzzing with activity.  The doctor could feel a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as Carter and Harris led the way to the observation lounge.

***

As Forrest moved through the Republic's corridor he watched crewmembers heading to stations and even a few of them looked confused. A Starship at Yellow Alert while in station could mean only a few things. Starbase 23 was facing a threat and had gone to red alert, a `Fleet Alert had been issued, or someone wanted the Republic ready ten minutes ago. Knowing the history of the Republic, Forrest felt it safe to bet on all three.

Forrest pressed a small spot on the back of his left hand, and tapped his Comm Badge.

"Relay Forrest-Echo." He spoke to nothing in particular.

Routine communications traffic began, the requests of Starships waiting for docking, engineers giving work crews instructions, nothing out of the ordinary.

"End". Stated Forrest and the stream of traffic faded.

Forrest entered the nearest turbo-lift, still amazed at what the Toybox was doing these days. Just prior to his mission with the Klingons, he'd had a couple of things done. One included a SubComm, a subdermal communicator that allowed `Fleet Ops to communicate without being detected by sensors. Its range was about 100 meters so the application was limited, but could be boosted by standard a standard Comm badge. If the SubComm was linked to a Protocol Emulator there was no communications system that couldn't be tapped into. The men and women at Toybox had saved many lives with their wonderful little "gifts".

"Bridge" spoke the Lieutenant Commander.

The hum of the turbo lift lasted only a few moments before the door opened again and admitted a taller, blond Lieutenant dressed in Operations yellow. Forrest quickly put a name to a face and realized this was Nathan Hawk, the Chief of Helm.

"Lieutenant." Nodded Forrest.

"Hello, Sir", replied the younger officer, his jaw tense with anger, unnoticed by Forrest. "You have any idea what's going on?"

"Well I've got a couple of theories," replied Forrest "But we've had no reports of Romulans nearby and Commander Carter hasn't assumed command. So I'm betting on it being something less dangerous."

Lieutenant Hawk barely contained a smile, as the turbo-lift doors opened onto the Bridge. The two men walked down the ramp and into the Observation lounge. Forrest wondered exactly what trouble `Fleet would need to be bailed out of next.

<location: deck 10, forward, U.S.S. Republic>

The Hill - more commonly known as Ten Forward on other Galaxy-Class vessels - was the center for social interaction and communal gathering aboard the Republic.  It was also recently re-instated Lieutenant Nathan 'Nat' Hawk's favorite place aboard ship - other than in bed with an attractive young woman, that is.  It was also where - since the resurrection of Commander John Carter, the ship's first officer - Nat had spent the bulk of his time aboard ship.  As expected at this (or any other) time of day, seated at what was now known ship-wide as 'his' table - the one in the far starboard corner of the room by one of the windows - was Hawk himself. 

To either side of him where those who had become his closest companions aboard, Lieutenant Sven Buttenhoff and Ensign 'Green' Gren.  Sven and Nat had attended the Academy together, and served along side one another for nearly a year just before and into the Dominion War.  Gren on the other hand was a more recently acquired acquaintance, having had the luxury of being piloted to their transport ship, the Searfoss, by Hawk.  All three men had drinks in their hands, though each at their own level of consumption.  Nat was already on his third whiskey, while Sven was just finishing his first Bourbon, and Gren barely nursing his native tonic water.

Though all three where usually on duty at this time of day, their lay-over at Starbase 23 had been cause enough for Hawk to convince the rest of his trio to take a day off and relax.  Yet so far, they'd done nothing more than what they'd done for the past two weeks every night - sit in The Hill, enjoy a drink or two (or nine in Nat's case), and attempt to pick up any young woman that caught their respective eyes.  Nat of course was the most successful at this, only having been shot down once since coming aboard.  Thus he'd taken to mentoring the other two in the art of flirting, with mixed results.

"I tell ya, boys," Hawk said, taking a mouthful of his drink, "things don't liven up soon 'round here, I'm liable ta fly us inta an asteroid field just fer kicks."

"Oh, please don't," Sven replied with mock-sarcasm in his German-accented voice, "that might mean I'd actually have something to do during my shift except run diagnostics and 'routine maintenance'..." he said with a sigh, and another mouthful of his drink.

"Well, I for one am glad things have been so calm lately." Gren chimed in eagerly.  "I mean, getting here was an intense enough experience to last me for a while!" he exclaimed.

"Gren, Gren, Gren," Nat scolded, "what in the hell's the point'n life if ya ain't gonna live it?"

"Oh, I want to live life.  I just want to live it for a long time, too.  Preferably without any injuries or stressful situations of alien conflicts along the way." Gren remarked, sipping his tonic water as if the thoughts alone had made him anxious.

"It would sure as hell be more fun than this," Sven replied with a sip of his own beverage, his tone of voice devoid of much emotion except for a hint of boredom and irritation.

"Hey," Nat responded defensively, "could be a helluva lot worse.  Ya'll could be at yer posts, twiddlin' yer thumbs." he pointed out.

"Good point." Gren replied, raising his glass before taking a long gulp of the tonic water, then coughing once he'd finished.  Silence descended upon the table for a few moments then before Sven finally broke it with a question.

"So, any word on replacements?" Sven asked of Hawk.

"How the frinx would I know?" Nat answered, honestly.  "Ya think I actually pay attention at staff briefin's er somethin'?"

Sven shrugged, "I just thought you might have heard something."

"I wonder who'll take over as Chief of my department?" Gren thought aloud.

"Prolly some by-the-book prig," Nat answered, taking another mouthful of whiskey.

"I hope not.  I mean, I just hope we get someone more... creative." Gren replied, as he turned the half-empty glass in his hands.

"I know what you mean," Sven remarked.

"I thought ya liked Virtus?" Nat asked, surprised.

"Oh, I do," Sven replied instantly, "I just mean I know what Gren means, about hoping for someone creative.  I had the same hopes when I was assigned to the Republic.  Glad I got my wish." Sven explained.

"Alright, quit yer gushin' already, ain't like I report what ya'll say back ta the Cap'n er somethin'." Nat replied, bringing a small chuckle from both men.  "I tell ya though-" Nat began before he was interrupted.

"Yellow alert. All decks, yellow alert. Captain and senior officers to the bridge. Repeat: yellow alert. We are at yellow alert. Senior officers to the bridge."

"You see what you did?" Sven remarked jovially, "You threaten to take us into an asteroid field if things don't pique up, and look what happens!"

"Phh," Nat remarked, standing up and polishing off the end of his whiskey, "prolly some damn drill er somethin' else just as stupid."

"You think we should report to our stations?" Gren questioned.

"I didn't hear mister-repeats-himself-four-damn-times call general quarters 'er tell all hands ta their stations." Nat replied.  "Si'down, n'joy yer drinks, two strips says I'm back in half-a-hour."

"Two strips it is." Sven replied as Nat made his way to the doors and into the corridor.  After a moment waiting for the lift, the doors opened and revealed a man in a black collar.  Nat cursed inwardly, holding back from doing so vocally until he knew who this particular SI prig was.

"Lieutenant." nodded the Intelligence goon in greeting.

"Hello, sir," Nat replied, the title as meaningless in his mouth as a joke was to a Vulcan.  "You have any idea what's going on?" he asked, testing the SI-waters to see just how informed this one was.

"Well I've got a couple of theories," replied the black-collared Lieutenant Commander. "But we've had no reports of Romulans nearby and Commander Carter hasn't assumed command. So I'm betting on it being something less dangerous."

Nat had to stifle a smile at the apparent ignorance of the SI as they made their way to the Conference Room.  He wondered how much of Nat's file - if any - he'd read, and if he had his own undisclosed assignment pertaining to it. 

 

<location:  Observation Lounge, deck 1, U.S.S. Republic>

The Captain nodded as Victor entered the room.  Victor paused to look over the new individual in Science blue, as well as the new Chief Tact Officer.  He smiled inward at a handful of ancient tactical puns.

"Good day Captain."

"Good day Mister Virtus."

Vic quickly stepped to the right as Doctor Cromwell came in with a slightly uncharacteristic haste.

"Sorry."

"Not at all Leon."

The good doctor moved around to his traditional seat, weaving around the narrow space between the conference table and the port bulkhead.  Victor started to move back across the doorway as it slid open to admit Commander Carter and Counselor Harris.  The nimble engineer pivoted on his left foot and returned to his spot betwixt the door and the right wall, narrowly avoiding the rush.

"Sorry Vic."

"No harm done Commander."

The door slid shut as John took the seat to the right of the Captain, and Shannon the left.  Victor sighed in relief, stepped in front of the door... and stepped back as Nat Hawk barreled in with a smile, and stopped short of plowing into the wiry Malthan.

"Whoa thar'.  Pardin me.  I'din see ya."

"Think nothing of it."

Victor allowed the drawling helmsman by to sit beside the first officer, and gave the door a good long look.  He then counted to 011 in binary, and when Lieutenant Cmdr Forrest walked through the reopened door, Vic blazed past him aft like an Oranian smuggler through a Tellarite blockade, and took his seat between the doctors.  The Intelligence officer had to yaw two hundred seventy degrees to starboard to track the engineer's progress, and ended his pirouette facing astern.

"Welcome back Lieutenant Commander Forrest."

"Thank you Captain.  I see things are fairly normal around here," he replied, taking the seat at the foot of the table.

Across the room, the new helmsman, Lieutenant Nat Hawk, shouted out an explicative.

"What in the hell?" Nat remarked upon laying eyes upon Lieutenant Jace 'Jackhammer' McClintock, "s'like a friggin' reunion a'ma past 'round here!" he exclaimed, much to the confusion of most in the room.  Taking a seat next to Commander Carter, he looked across the table to his one-time semi-colleague. 

"Coulda sworn ya went up with the Honshu back'n '74." he remarked to McClintock.

"It takes more then that to kill a McClintock, you should know that. Most of the meantime, I've been working in the black, or at least the light grey anyway," Jace said with a wink and a grin, "so if you were looking for me, you wouldn't have found much. What have you been up to, still have that 'Death Wish'?"

"Phh," Nat replied, "figures ya'd show up here if ya had somethin' ta do with them." Nat remarked with less than cordial nod of the head towards the present representative of SI, clad in the tell-tale black collar.

"Too much to do with 'them' if you ask me. Unfortunately, I pissed one of their higher ups off. Seems like he'd never had anyone question his decisions before, so of course he ignored me. And lost a whole company of SpecOps Marines. Arrogant Cho'Faqi Prig." The look in Jace's eyes said in no uncertain terms just exactly how he felt about the aforementioned individual. "So, I've 'fallen into disfavor' as it were." Jace looked about as sorry as a large tomcat with a canary in his mouth.

"Yeah, well," Nat replied, noticing a (not so) good amount of attention focused on them and their conversation, "we'll talk later.  Been savin' a bad bottle a'brandy fer just such a pain in the ass s'you." Nat remarked with a devil-may-care grin at his old friend.

Jace pulled quite a face at the thought of flavor of said brandy. "If you are calling a bottle of brandy bad, I don't even want to be in the same room when its open. You'd drink anything," Jace stated with a twinkle in his eye.

"Heh," Nat chuckled, as the Captain stood up from his seat to begin the briefing.

The doors closed as John Carter sat on Marshall's right with Harris sitting on the left side of the Captain.  Marshall then exchanged pleasantries with Lieutenant Commander Forrest before Lieutenant Nathan Hawk arrived and conversed with Lieutenant McClintock.  'Four and a half minutes,' he thought, 'next time I'll have to shorten it.'  Just before the Captain rose to begin he turned to John Carter and said, "By the way John, nice jacket."  James Marshall then rose and cleared his throat.

"Welcome back everyone, I hope you had a nice shore leave.  We've had some recent arrivals on board.  First off, welcome back Lieutenant Commander Forrest.  For those of you who don't know, he will be our liaison to Starfleet Intelligence.  Mister Forrest, I'm sure you'll find Admiral Kostya's war-room suitable for your needs."

Forrest nodded as Marshall continued, "We've had some trouble at the Security/Tactical position, but we now have Lieutenant Jason McClintock at the position.  Lieutenant, I'm sure you remember how to fire quantum torpedoes."

Marshall then said, "and last but certainly not least is Lieutenant Kristen Tyler, our Chief Science Officer.  I am confident she will do well in that position."

=/\= “Bridge to Captain” =/\=

'Next time I order no interruptions' "Go ahead," he said.

=/\= “Sir, there's a communiqué from Admiral Kostya.  It's not eyes only.” =/\=

=/\= “Put it through in here.” =/\=  It had been two weeks since Jim Marshall had watched the Admiral walk out the airlock.  The image of the Admiral filled the viewscreen in the Observation Lounge.

=/\= “Captain, we've got a situation.  There's been a communications disruption on Cestus III. I'm ordering you to investigate.  Ascertain the situation, and only use force if needed.  It is possible that the Gorn maybe up to something, so look sharp.” =/\=

“Understood Admiral.”

=/\= “Good luck Captain.  Kostya out.” =/\=

Marshall then turned back to the crew, "Well, if it is the Gorns we'll be facing, I'd like to know what we're dealing with.  Doctor, what can you tell us about them as a species?"

Leon was transfixed on the scene outside the observation lounge.  The various ships docked at Starbase 23, each nestled into their respective alcoves and sheltered from the cosmic elements within the bases’ enormous docking bay, seemed to be a tranquil sight for the doctor.  Unfortunately, his thoughts were of just the opposite mood.  The fear of what may be happening at Cestus Three gripped Leon’s stomach tightly, and as all the different dreadful scenarios played out in his head, the more worried he became.

“Doctor?” the captain beckoned again.

“Hmm?”

“Doctor . . . the Gorns?”

“Oh . . . yes.”  Doctor Cromwell, whose mind was definitely elsewhere a moment ago, was caught off guard by the request for information.  He quickly accessed his PADD, and scrolled through notes he still kept from various xenobiology symposiums over the past years.  He settled on a seminar about the history of sociological evolution in non-humanoid species by Doctor Timotheous Clark, a fellow native of Leon’s homeworld of Cestus Three.  Since the renowned historian was one of the very few humans to have had access to the Gorns, Doctor Cromwell zeroed in on the seminar’s introductory abstract in where he jotted down notes about the mysterious race known as the Gorns.

“Well, there’s very little to tell about them socially,” Leon started.  “The Gorns are an extremely xenophobic society, especially towards what they call ‘non-saurians.’  However, we can draw some conclusions on their physical makeup.  Basically, the Gorns are a tall, bipedal, reptilian species with standing heights ranging between two and two-and-half meters, and average weights of about 200 kilograms.”  The doctor tapped a few buttons, and downloaded information from his handheld PADD to the observation lounge’s viewscreen.  With a point of his finger, Leon directed everyone’s attention to the monitor where a large, green, and frighteningly fierce-looking reptilian creature stared back.  The head was a miniature version of an extinct Tyrannosaurus Rex from Earth, yet had a serrated crest of vertical spines down the rear of it’s head and back, with cranial extrusions over the eyes giving it the appearance of a vicious predator.  The eyes themselves were large, multi-faceted sensory organs, and below the sloped muzzle, the jaw revealed rows of conical teeth unhidden by lips or maxillary membranes of any sort.  In addition, the powerful-looking frame wielded muscular arms ending in hands with five brawny, clawed fingers.  The entire skin was of an olive green shade, and wore a skirted tunic of a brown and yellow squared pattern.

“As you can see, they resemble a Terran lizard species, and by most accounts, are suspected to have an exothermic metabolism.”

“How do we know that?” asked a curious Lieutenant Tyler, the new chief science officer.

“Well, due to visual accounts, mainly,” Leon continued.  “First contact reported a large, lumbering creature with limited flexibility.  However, later accounts by investigative historians explained them to be highly mobile, with excellent range of movement and very alert reflexes.  The two together do not make much sense until you look at the reported ambient environment of the two different accounts.  First contact occurred on a dry planetoid with temperatures no warmer than 298 Kelvin.  The later investigative reports mentioned the ambient temperatures of the Gorns’ very humid living modules to be a stifling 310 Kelvin.  One can only conclude that environmental temperatures were the cause of the discrepancy.”

“True, but until we have a little more proof, I don’t know if we can come to that conclusion yet,” replied the science chief.

“Agreed,” Leon admitted.  “But then there’s the analysis of their homeworld, Tau Lacertae IX, by long-range senor buoys.  And although I’ll acquiesce to any sort of geologic or astronomic conclusions you may come to on the details, basic telemetry tells us that it’s distance from the red giant sun puts it in the barely habitable range for most humanoid species.  So, the evolutionary equations indicate that any species evolving in such a hot environment would have no need to develop a metabolism that generates it’s own heat.  In fact, the limited post-contact accounts mention that the spines on their head crest seem to change size depending on the surrounding temperature, indicating a heat-dissipating mechanism.”

“My guess,” interjected Tyler, who continued to scrutinize the viewscreen, “would be that their world is bathed in ultraviolet radiation due their eyes.”  The slight change of subject indicated a constant, scientific evaluation of the material by the lieutenant.

“Yes,” Doctor Cromwell agreed without hesitance.  “Their compound eyes indicate to me a spectral sensory range between about 350 to 600 nanometers, so ultraviolet light may form the basis of their visual cortex.”

“How do we kill them?”

Doctor Cromwell and Lieutenant Tyler ceased their verbose scientific exchange at the audacity of the crass question, and a moment of silence ensued where Leon searched the audience for the inquisitor.

‘”Excuse me?” the doctor asked the audience of partially flummoxed officers.

“I said, how do we kill the lizards?” the person asked again, and this time, Leon realized the question was coming from the ship’s new tactical officer, Lieutenant McClintock.

“Um,” replied Doctor Cromwell, who was caught off guard yet again.  “How do you mean?”

“I mean,” McClintock said with impatient emphasis.  “If we have a one-on-one with them, how do we kill them?  With fists or phasers?”

“Well,” the doctor started again.  “I certainly wouldn’t try it with fists.  First contact dealt with a so-called ‘one-on-one’ between a human and a Gorn, and the human reported that he was lucky to get out alive.”

“How’s that?”  McClintock edged on.

“The Gorn’s epidermal layer is seemingly a complex network of micro-scales composed of layered chitin proteins interlaced with a mineralized calcium-iron resin.  Investigative historians were able to sneak away with a few of these shedded scales for analysis.  It’s theorized that the Gorns are long-lived, as these outer scales dated back almost a hundred years.”

A whistle of impressed astonishment came forth from Lieutenant Kristen Tyler.

“A layered kitten-what?” McClintock asked with increasing frustration.

“It means, lieutenant,” Tyler responded.  “That if you tried to punch a Gorn with your fists, you’d be hitting a wall of steel.”

“Exactly,” confirmed Leon.  “In addition, the deep muscular conformities indicate a very powerful body frame, so the return punch would knock you unconscious if it didn’t kill you.”

“Okay, so we use phasers . . .” replied McClintock, hoping to get a clear answer.

“Well, we could,” replied Doctor Cromwell, drawing a wince from the tactical chief.  “But medical estimates are that the epidermal layer is so thick with years of built-up scales, that even your best shot on a heavy stun setting would barely be felt by a Gorn.  Analysis of their scales indicated that Gorns are impervious to many different types of radiation that would otherwise be lethal to humans.”

“These are tough little bastards, lieutenant,” Commander Carter interjected.  “Let’s hope that we don’t have to run up against them in combat.”

“Agreed,” emphasized Captain Marshall.  “Battle will be our last resort.”  The commanding officer then turned to the ship’s counselor, Lieutenant Commander Shannon Harris.  “Counselor, what can you tell us about their mentality?  How are the Gorns likely to perceive us should we encounter them?”

“At the very best, captain” the scarlet-haired counselor replied, “they’d be suspicious.  All accounts are that the Gorns are very territorial, and it was this behavior that led to a very violent first contact where the original Cestus Three colony was completely annihilated.”

Doctor Cromwell shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the fretfulness of the current situation welling within him. 

“Limited historical investigation shows a feudal society,” continued Harris.  “Minor border incursions with the Federation were due to internal strife, where warring clans we vying for either territory within their small collection of star systems, or power within the confederate government known to Starfleet as the Gorn Hegemony.  Contact with them has been limited to simple reporting of fleet movements along the border and nothing else.  I suggest caution when dealing with them, sir.  They’re paranoid of non-Gorn species, aggressive, and likely to attack if provoked.”

“Understood,” the captain replied.  “Thank you, counselor.  Alright then," he continued, "Forrest, what does Intelligence have on the Gorn and the recent activities at Cestus III?"

Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest stood as the doctor took his seat and straightened the black duty jacket he wore. Forrest looked at the officers sitting at the table and began to speak.

"Thank you, Doctor," Forrest began. "Intelligence on the Gorn has always been limited. Over the years we have depended heavily on our Klingon allies to provide us with details. Our other major resource has been long-range sensor relays, dedicated to watching the border of Federation/Gorn space. If you'll refer to the map you'll see that Gorn space is bordered by the Klingon Empire, the Tholian Assembly and the Federation."

Forrest moved around the room, his pace slow and steady, matching his voice. He often used this method when required to recall detailed information, a trick he's learned while in training. 

"During the Dominion War," Forrest continued "'Fleet was concerned that the Gorn would take advantage of our distraction and attempt to move along our border. To this end `Fleet Intelligence placed a manned, covert, early warning outpost on Cestus III. In the last few years it has given us ample information on the Gorn.

"Analysis of gathered information has given us some insight on Gorn society. Initially we thought of them as a military society similar to the Klingon, but we soon learned that they actually follow a rigid caste system. They are divided into three castes each responsible for specific functions in their society. The largest is the Warrior caste. This group deals with defending and expanding Gorn space. They control the ground-based military and fleet-based ships. The next is the Worker caste. This group handles all manufacturing, repair, and maintenance of Gorn society. This also includes their science, medical and research fields. The last group is the Service caste. This group deals with bureaucracy, law and government of the Gorn society."

Forrest waited a few moments to let his fellow officers absorb the information. His orders were to share all knowledge `Fleet Intel had on the Gorn.

"What about their military capabilities?" interjected Lieutenant Jason McClintock.

"According to our resources the standard Gorn battlecruiser is similar in size to our Miranda-class Starships. They use a less refined version of our warp drives, which gives them a top warp of 8.2. Gorn ships are armed with two major weapons systems. The first is a Phased Disruption System. This system places a disrupter beam on a frequency that renders shields less effective. We do know the range on this system is about 30% less then our phasers. They also employ a modified Plasma Torpedo, similar in design to those developed by the Romulans, but with out the need for near total ship shutdown to fire. We believe this is why their warp drives are so under powered. The Gorn ships rely on weaker shields than then our vessels, but their ship hulls seem very resistant to energy weapons. I've sent specs to both Lieutenant Commander Virtus and Lieutenant Tyler. Perhaps they can add more."

Forrest made his way back to his seat as he finished. He regretted not being able to share the rest of the information he had in this open briefing. His superiors had been quite specific. When this briefing was finished he'd talk to Captain Marshall and let him in on the rest.

Lieutenant Commander Virtus nodded and stood, changing the main viewscreen to show a rotating wire frame cube, with little spheres at the vertices, and larger spheres on the faces, and in the center.

"From the little time I've had to study the hull data, I agree with the boys in Intel R&D that it is most likely a molybdenum/niobium alloy in a here-to-for unknown crystalline matrix."

Victor highlighted the smaller spheres, and switched to his 'lecturing' voice.

"Isolation of niobium is complicated. Niobium minerals usually contain both niobium and tantalum. Since they are so similar chemically, it is difficult to separate them. Niobium can be extracted from the ores by first fusing the ore with alkali, and then extracting the resultant mixture into hydrofluoric acid. This could be done with old Terran technology, but not in the quantities necessary to make starship plating.  Current methodology involves the separation of tantalum from these acid solutions using a liquid-liquid extraction technique. In this process tantalum salts are extracted into the keytone MIBK (methyl isobutyl keytone, 4-methyl pentane-2-one). The niobium remains in the HF solution. Acidification of the HF solution followed by further extraction in MIBK gives an organic solution containing niobium."

Victor turned back to the table, and was impressed that no one had a glassy-eyed look, unlike the year he had spent teaching at the Academy.  Apparently, four years of chemistry was still a requirement in civilized space.

"Perhaps you could tell us why that is important Mister Virtus," prompted Marshall.

"I'm very curious about that myself Captain. Lieutenant Tyler, perhaps you have some input on this subject?"

"If I had to hazard a fast guess,” the new science chief started.  “As to what the importance of niobium in the hull material is, I would lean towards the possibility that they're utilizing the superconductive properties of the metal in some way.   The element has superconductive properties; superconductive magnets have been made with Nb-Zr wire, which retains its superconductivity in strong magnetic fields which could provide a direct source for large-scale generation of electric power. The metal also has a low capture cross-section for thermal neutrons and is used in nuclear industries."

Victor listened with 9/10th of an ear to the new Science Department Head as she theorized about the chemical composition of the Gorn hulls.  It was a good theory, and far more plausible than a few of his own.  Vic refrained from glancing at the Black Shirt.  Forrest was playing a dangerous game, and messing with ship to ship communications was a brig-worthy offense if you weren't the part of the 'Fleet that catches internal threats.  No use bringing the matter to the attention of the Captain or XO.  The proof had vanished the moment Victor had found it in the commlogs.  But allowing Lieutenant Tyler to bring the matter up would at least alert the

Spook that an investigation 'could' be made. 

Commander Carter was growing impatient. "The ships are tough, right?"

Simple answers were best when dealing with Command Branch personnel, even the ones you've known for 12 years, 134 days, 17 hours... give or take.

"Right,” replied Vic.

There were times when John Carter knew he was out of his depth, and this was one of them. He couldn't help a smile as he regarded the multi-syllabic conversation between Victor, Leon, and the new Science Chief. Victor Virtus was the smartest man Carter had ever known, and from what he could hear, the new Lieutenant just made it very clear that she could give as good as she got.

John cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt the science fair kids," he said with a smirk, "but can I bottom line this?"

"Please," the Science Chief said.

"Thanks." John said simply. "The ships are tough, right?" he asked looking at Virtus.

"Right." Virtus said.

"And the Gorn themselves are resistant to phaser fire?" he asked, looking at Leon. There was no response.

"Doc!"

Leon heard Carter's voice, and started. "What? Oh...yes, yes, resistant. Absolutely."

"Check," John confirmed. "So what you're saying is, the usual stuff might not work. Am I getting that right?"

The trio of scientists nodded. "Ok then," Carter said. "Tac, you work with Lieutenant Commander Forrest and see if you can't get me a few tricks to play with."

With that, Captain Marshall spoke up. "If no one has anything further," he pushed away from the conference table and gave his duty jacket a quick tug as he stood up, "I'll let you all get to work. We leave port in 90 minutes."

The rest of the officers got up from the table as Marshall exited to the bridge. Waiting by the door, Carter gave the Science Chief a quick look, extending a hand to the new lieutenant. "Welcome aboard Lieutenant," he said with a friendly grin. "Sorry I couldn't greet you when you came on board, but," Carter stifled a yawn, "the yellow alert caught us a little off guard."

John cocked his head and continued. "I understand this assignment caught you off guard too. Anything I can do to help?"

Not missing his yawn, whatever thoughts Kristen might have been having at that point were neatly hidden as she shook his hand in return.  "At the moment Commander, to be honest I haven't been aboard long enough to know what I might feel needs work within the division.  Can I get a rain check on that offer for help until I've had time to review the officer's under my supervision so that I know what I need to do?  As you just pointed out, this assignment was unexpected and I have a great deal of catching up to do."

<Meanwhile, in the Cestus system>

Pack leader G'Meth looked on with pleasure as his tactical display showed the steady progress of the Sss'thak reclamation fleet across the Federation border. A low growl rumbled through the humid Gorn bridge.

 "The prophecy is fulfilled." G'Meth said to a smaller, yellow Gorn lieutenant. "How do you feel? Being here again after so long?"

G'Meth moved slowly, despite the warm environment. A by-product of his own advanced age. "It has been a long time indeed, First Sword. I doubted I would ever look on home again."

The First Sword circled around to his pack leader's side. "All is as it should be, Pack Leader," the First Sword encouraged, "the humans' own short-sightedness and wasteful nature have brought us to this."

The first sword hissed as more sectors of local space turned green, indicating that Gorn assault teams had landed at their assigned places on Cestus II and III. Back at the centre of the ship's bridge, G'Meth shook his head. "We have not won yet, First Sword," he said with a weary look. "The humans are sure to send their best. And they can be quite...resourceful."

G'Meth felt the sting of memory as he remembered the last time he'd been to the Cestus system. For generations, the warm climate of Cestus III proved ideal conditions for the Gorn incubation process. While all births took place on the Gorn homeworld, several planets within Gorn territory proved ideal for spurring on the rather fickle saurian mating cycle.

Almost 100 years ago, G'Meth had led a small colonizing mission to Cestus III for what should have been a routine stop. Instead, the Gorn crew  found their ancestral territory over-run by millions of filthy, foul-smelling hairless apes.

`Apes' G'Meth cursed silently, `With no concept of proper use of the bounties the galaxy provides them. Spreading like weeds to any planet that will support them,' he chuckled as the next thought occurred to him, `and some they CANT'.

`They came to this place, not caring what it meant. And now, they've violated their own agreements, making that damned treaty as worthless now as they always meant it to be.'

G'Meth's memories turned bitter as he recalled the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Metrons...his mind under constant assault from the alien's probing...making it nearly impossible for him to move, and how a lone human, not subject to G'Meth's own anguish was able to craft a primitive weapon to defeat the Gorn Captain.

His mind back at the present, G'Meth hissed again, confidently. "Well, let them come," he said. "I, G'Meth have returned to reclaim this system. If the humans want to stop me again, then their weak and cowardly captain will have to face me again. I will have my revenge!"

 

<location:  Observation Lounge, deck 1, U.S.S. Republic>

As the briefing ended, Nat stood up from the table and kept a scrutinizing gaze fixed on Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest as he vacated the room.  The Commander for his part, either failed to notice the leering eyes upon him, or simply wasn't phased by it.  Once the ship's new resident SI goon had departed, Nat turned his attention to Lieutenant Jason McClintock, one of the few people that Nat considered an actual friend in the galaxy.  For the bulk of his life, Nat had not been keen on the types of complex relationships - whether friendly or romantic - that most other people put so much emphasis on.  This detachment was likely why he felt no hostility at Jace for having seemingly died four years ago.

"So howd'ya get 'signed ta the Republic?" Nat asked as Jace lead the way to the exit.

"Well, from what I understand, this ship has tended to be rather hard on Tactical officers," Jace said with an arrogant smirk. "If the destruction of the Honshu couldn't kill me, Starfleet figured that this ship couldn't. Also, I was looking for a place to stay after the near destruction of the Sweden. They were getting tired of my stories in the medical wing."

"Heh," Nat chuckled in reply as they moved with purpose across the back of the Bridge and into a turbolift.  "Ya still spewin' out yer pop's ole war stories?  Christ man, ya lived through yer own friggin' war.  Ain't ya got some stories folks might believe?" Nat asked as the doors shut.   "Deck 10," he ordered, the lift descending promptly in reply.

"Well, my dads done some unbelievable stuff. I suppose your right though, but unfortunately I cant talk about some of the things I did during the war. And a lot of the rest was pretty boring. Who cares about general staff meetings with officers of Flag Rank?" Jace said with a grimace. "So I can tell you how three out of seven Admirals like their coffee, doesn't make much of a story. So, any ideas come to mind about how to deal with the Gorn?" Jace asked, changing the subject without a trace of subtlety.

"Damned if I know," Nat said as the lift slowed to a stop and admitted them to Deck 10, where Nat took the lead.  "I ain't had no dealin's with them big ole lizards durin' er after Starfleet." he said as they entered The Hill, where he found Junior Lieutenant Sven Buttenhoff and Ensign Gren still seated at the same table.  "Fellas," he said as he and Jace approached the table, "this 'er is Jace 'Jackhammer' McClintock, new Security Chief 'board, ole pal a mine." he said as way of introduction as he retook his seat, his back to the windows.

Jace looked at the only open seat, appeared to think a bit - and then reclined against the window in the corner, continuing the conversation as if nothing was unusual. "One thing I was thinking about was projectile firearms. Nothing penetrates better then a sharpened steel bullet. In the right caliber it would punch a whole in the hull of a runabout." Jace said with a smile. "And I am sure we could come up with a design that could make a Gorn go crying to mother. Excuse me for a moment, I'm gonna go grab a drink. Anyone else want anything?" Jace said while pushing himself up from the window.

Mid-sip with his fourth glass of Whiskey of the morning, Nat stopped just as the amber liquid washed over his lips, and put the drink down.  "Frinx man, yer as paranoid's I remember." he said to Jace.  "Gren, switch on over there will ya?" he said, gesturing at the seat across from him.  Gren did so without much thought on it, opening his former seat which was 'secure' set against a wall.  "There, now si'down.  They got waiters 'board, put 'em to use."

"Of course, used to a nice place on the starbase, no waiters, but a nice place." Jace said gesturing to get a waiter's attention. "I've shown you my projectile firearms holo program right?" As the waiter approached Jace turned to him and said, "Get me a pint of Guinness, and a shot of the closest thing to Russian export vodka you have on the side." The waiter nodded and looked around to see if anyone else wanted anything.

"Might s'well just gimme the whole bottle a whiskey," Nat said as he choked back a mouthful of his fourth glass, waiting till the waiter departed to reply to Jace.

"I'll have a glass of Andorian ale," ordered Gren, surprising both Nat and Sven who exchanged a quick look.

"Gimme another," Sven ordered, gesturing to his own drink.  Bourbon if Nat recalled correctly.

As the waiter moved off, Nat was about to reply when Gren interjected his own question.

"What's all this about the Gorns and projectile firearms?" he questioned, a bit nervously.  Perhaps the motivation for ordering the Andorian ale.

"Headin' down ta the Gorn border, lost touch with Cestus III." Nat replied, polishing off the fourth glass.  "An yeah, Jace, ya done showed it ta me.  The program I mean." he said.

"Well, the Gorn sound nearly impervious to a phaser, we'll need something with a more concentrated punch. For both their ships, and for their people." Jace said with a shit eating grin. "And if there's anything I know, it's personal weapons. And you'd be amazed what a well designed gun will do. As far as their ships go, I am hoping that they can be overcome with different applications of standard weapons. But I am open to suggestions."

"Hey, this ain't the bridge 'er the Academy," Nat said, "lets ditch the shop talk, ok?"

"Sorry," Jace sighed. "Your right. I do have some trouble letting go of an idea once I get started. So run into anything interesting lately?"

"Almost," Nat replied with a devil-may-care grin.  "Comin' here, I got this close," Nat said, a centimeter of space between his index finger and thumb representative, "ta gettin' with the Jenia Olmn." Nat revealed.

"The former Miss Alpha Quadrant?" Gren asked, practically drooling as the waiter deposited their order.

"The vera same." Nat replied.  "This yokel though," he said, gesturing to Sven, "had ta go an call me up 'priority one' ta help him outava jam."

"Your lucky Sven. I would have killed you. Or at least made you wish I had." Jace said with complete seriousness. "So, what was so important to you, that you felt you should take such a wonderful life experience from our friend Nat here?  Heck that kind of thing might have been good enough to take his mind off of crashing into things."

"Hey!" Nat replied defensively to the jab, "I only crash when I wanna." He replied with a smile.

"Hehe," Sven chuckled, "Well, we had this jerk of a Commodore take over the ship, turned out he was an alien imposter, but Commander Carter got hurt.. er.. killed, and, well, long story short we needed help and didn't have many options.  Not like I knew he was with Olmn.  Hell, I think Commander Carter wouldn't have minded staying dead a while longer just to hear the details later." Sven joked.

"I never kiss'n tell," Nat replied, mock-serious, "I do a helluva lot more'n tell!" he replied, busting out with a laugh that flowed through the table.

"And you were complaining about my stories earlier? I am not entirely sure that some of the things you've claimed to have done are anatomically possible, let alone that kinds of things you could get such nice young ladies to participate in." Said Jace laughing. "And, the fact that you only collide with things you intend to isn't very reassuring when I am living inside something you are going to be allowed to pilot. But then, I have every confidence that you wont accidentally run into anything, so it almost evens out." Jace said with a Gaelic twinkle in his eye.

"Hey, ya wanna talk 'bout worry, I'm servin' somewhere yer gonna be head a Security.  Might s'well just surrender now so as not ta get humiliated later." Nat replied.  "As to anatomical possibilities... we'll leave that ta the Science folk, right Gren?" Nat asked of the out-of-his-element Ensign, who just nodded and smiled.  "Speakin' of anatomy..." Nat said, trailing off as he eyes traced the well-curved body of a Junior Lieutenant he'd yet to see in the Hill before.

"Well, I can see that your going to be distracted for a while. When you have some extra free time, I brought some rather exotic liquors with me. Your welcome to sample them. Gentlemen, its been fun, but I have to get back to sorting out my wayward department." Tossing back the last of his vodka, Jason McClintock stood up and headed back into the unknown, stopping only to ask for directions.

Nat barely noticed Jace leave as he moved over to the bar and struck up a conversation with the lovely Lieutenant...

<location: Cestus III colony, Cornucopia settlement, south district>

Wispy clouds of white floated gently across the seemingly calm, blue skies.  But as the sapphire expanse waned towards a fiery orange horizon, sporadic pillars of black smoke rose towards the heavens, and the muffled sound of aerial bombardment echoed in the distance.  The straight, intricately laid-out ivory streets weaved themselves between shiny metal buildings of complex geometric design, and a latticework of transparent mass-transit tubes paralleled the boulevards, held aloft by carefully constructed support columns.  The streets themselves were alive with crowds of panicked citizens, carrying with them parcels of vital survival gear or precious remnants of their domestic lives.  Overcrowded hover-transports and individual grav-sleds attempted to maneuver around the random clusters of frightened colonists, all heading in a steady direction out of the city and bound for the safety of the surrounding wilderness.

Towards the edge of town, the large commercial constructs ended, and a grid of residential avenues separated plots of vermillion-colored plant communities containing small, dome-shaped buildings of various configurations.  The street scene of the city was not present here; void of the scores of terrorized citizens committing themselves to a mass exodus of settled lands.  In fact, these suburbs were ominously vacant, and only a few intermittent stragglers could be seen rushing through the streets, stopping only to check abandoned homes for possible provisions they may need during the dark days ahead.  Occasionally, there was an obviously occupied dwelling, where the owners, in their futile determination to stand their ground, barricaded themselves into their home in hopes to stave off the pending invasion.

One such home was situated on a plot of varied wildflowers, native grasses, palmettos, and oak trees strewn with Spanish moss; the vegetation standing in stark contrast to the rows of sandbags and scanner-dispersive camouflage netting.  The front foyer, constructed quaintly with stones and planters, had a small entry mat with the words “The Cromwells” displayed across the surface.  Inside, a well-furnished and expansive living room invoked large windows overlooking the multitude of outdoor plant species, and an older, amber-eyed woman with well-groomed hair of blond and gray, sat upon a plush white couch.  She wore a plaid button-up shirt and beige trousers; giving the impression that when she dressed this morning, she expected the day to be a quiet one of relaxation.  Unfortunately, her face betrayed just the opposite, and instead of enjoying the natural beauty of the window scene, the occupant of the room was fixated on the corner communications console.

A whispery, almost hissing voice emanated from the appliance, interspersed with grunts and gurgles.  Moments later, the universal translator deciphered the sound, which was being articulated from an image of a saurian-faced Gorn.

“. . .This is Pack Leader G'Meth of the reclamation fleet Sss'thak.  This system exists within the borders of the Gorn Hegemony.  Your illegal presence here is in violation of the Metron Treaty and an act of war.  Your defense perimeter has been destroyed, and as I speak, our valiant troops are taking control of your government centers.  We are invoking our right of ownership for this planet, and reclaim that which is rightfully ours.  You are hereby directed to follow the orders of any and all Gorn soldiers as they arrive in your community.  Any resistance will be dealt with harshly and with overwhelming force.  Repeat: This is Pack Leader G'Meth . . .”

“Janice!  Turn that damned thing off!”

The barking command came from a gruff-faced man with black and gray hair who entered the room from an adjoining hallway.  Like the woman, he wore a button up shirt, but it was covered by a leather jacket bound by an unbuckled utility harness.  Like the harness, the trousers were of utilitarian design too, and adorned with pockets of all sizes.  A slightly out-of-date phaser rifle was slung over the man’s shoulder, and sonic grenades hung from the utility harness next to flaps full of spare phaser cartridges and other various ordinance.

The woman, who stared at the console in shock, did not reply.  Her glazed appearance was that of both disbelief and overwhelming fear as she continued to watch the repeating message, hoping in vain that it was of false design.

“Did you hear me?” shouted the man again.  “I said, turn it off!”

At that moment, a pounding came forth from the front door.  The man immediately brought the phaser rifle to bear, but the muffled voice from outside caused him to lower it.

“Mom!  Dad!  Are you in there?”

Instantly, the man strode over to the door, and pressed the entry switch.  As it slid aside, a frantic young woman with blond hair stood outside.  Like her father, she also wore a leather jacket, but instead of a weapon, she had a backpack slung over her shoulder.  The two embraced tightly, and as they let go, the woman urgently spoke.  “Dad, you and mom have got to come with me.  My flitter is just outside, so get your stuff and let’s go!”

“Forget it, Ann,” the man said, turning away and walking back inside.  “I’m staying.  I’m not giving up this place without a fight.”

Stunned, Ann walked into the house after her father.  “Dad, you’ve got to leave!  The Gorns are approaching from the north, and they’ll be here within the hour!  They’ll kill you!”

“Not if I have anything to say about it!” he retorted.  “Look, take you mom if you can get her to go.  But I’m staying here.”

“Dad, the colony is regrouping at the mountain reserve shelters,” Ann said frantically.  “They’ve got enough facilities and are decentralized so the Gorns won’t be able to find them all.  The surviving defense troops could really use your help, dad!  Come on!  We need you!”

“Forget it!” the man said with spite.  “Those Starfleet bastards are the ones that got us in to this!  I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can throw them!”

“Dad, you’re throwing you life away!” she shouted.

But the stubborn man did not listen.  Instead, he walked over to the catatonic woman on the couch, and picked her up by the arm.

“No!” she protested with incredulous screams, struggling to tear loose from the man’s grip.  “No!  This is propaganda!  Starfleet’s here!  They’re lying!  They can’t do this!”

Janice, the older woman, was obviously in denial as the man grabbed onto both shoulders.  Pulling her off the couch, the struggle knocked several articles off the coffee table.  He shook her once, just long enough to halt her protest.  “Janice, listen to me!  Starfleet’s gone!  Go with Ann!  Get out of here!”

“Arthur, it’s not fair!” she whimpered with tears in her eyes.  “We’ve lived here all our lives!  Our children were born here!  They can’t take it from us!  They can’t!”

“They won’t,” the man said with emphasis.  “I swear it.”  As the woman began to weep, Arthur embraced her in a tight hug.  “You’ll always be my one and true.”

A moment went by as they hugged, interrupted only by a low-flying vessel that rumbled overhead.  The vibrations rattled the shelves, causing more items to fall on the floor.  Arthur looked upward with anxiousness, and handed Janice into Ann’s arms.

“Get her out of here, Ann,” he said with fervor in his voice.  “Take care of her.”

Ann herself began to cry.  “Dad . . .” her lip quivered, as if struggling to voice words she did not often speak.  “. . . I love you!”

Arthur corralled them towards the door, and the three embraced as a second vessel flew overhead.  Urging them to leave, he said, “Go!  Now!”

The two weeping women obediently left the home, leaving Arthur to finish his defense preparations.  He pressed a few buttons on the wall that extinguished the lights, and only the orange glow of the sky radiated through the windows.  As a third vessel flew overhead, Arthur charged his rifle and walked across the littered floor of the living room, and past a family picture of himself, Janice, Ann, and Leon.

 

<location: Sickbay, main ward, U.S.S. Republic>

Yellow alert not only brought the ship to a heightened readiness level, but it also activated an additional duty shift to the current on-duty shift.  Unless modified by the commanding officer, a starship normally ran on three eight-hour shifts.  Alpha shift, or day shift, normally took over duties from 0800 to 1600 hours ship time, and is the most active time where the civilian personnel and family members are awake and go about their daily activities.  Beta shift, or evening shift, is on duty from 1600 to 2400 hours, and is preferred by Starfleet personnel who like a quiet, leisurely morning before reporting to duty.  Gamma shift, or night shift, is also known to some as the “graveyard” shift, since the late-night duty hours (from 2400 to 0800 hours) is a time when the ship’s crew is most dormant, and lights throughout the public areas of the vessel are dimmed by one-half.

In alert situations, the activation of additional duty shifts is prescribed by Starfleet regulation as either (1) the next scheduled duty shift to be brought to duty alongside the current shift (yellow alert), or (2) bringing all of the vessel’s duty shifts to bare for battle-ready situations (red alert).  Normally, red alert is used sparingly and in short time intervals, since having the entire crew awake for extended periods would have everyone sleep-deprived within twenty-four hours.  However, yellow alert allows more flexibility, as all shifts are provided a short eight-hour off-duty period reserved only for sleeping, since each shift will be facing a long, sixteen-hour duty day when they awake.  Still, yellow alert is a good option when a starship needs a heightened readiness level, especially if they expect to be going to red alert in the near future.  This prepares everyone for the eventuality of a battle situation, and almost guarantees they will not be caught off guard.

In sickbay, yellow alert did two things:  first, it doubled the on-duty medical staff from eighteen to thirty-six, and second, activated one of the six-person stand-by emergency teams for duty.  Normally, red alert would have two of these teams ready to go for both internal and off-ship emergencies, but Doctor Cromwell only required one for yellow alert, according to his sickbay standing-operating-procedure (or SOP).  Still, the yellow alert did catch some people by surprise, especially since the ship was still in port, and the fact that is was currently beta shift, bringing the “graveyard” shift to duty prematurely made them a irritable bunch.

Doctor Cromwell, despite his anxious mood, made the most of the heightened alert status by reviewing his new crew, which reported onboard as soon as the ship was taken to yellow alert.  The last cruise, which was in the midst of the Kreltan conflict, sent the Republic into a war zone with a reduced staff; a situation which annoyed the doctor, but made him glad that he had instituted the cross-training program with the life-sciences section.  However, this most recent crew rotation brought his staff back to full capacity, even with Doctor Shannon Harris still assigned as temporary ship’s counselor.

Now, as beta and gamma shift continued to ready sickbay for the possibility of incoming casualties, Leon stood in the main ward reviewing his surgical staff.  Doctors Yezbeck and Fernmoore, the two newly promoted lieutenant commanders, stood nearest to the door, and leaned up against a countertop.    Doctor Ryda and Favuuk, the male Deltan and female Andorian respectively, were each standing next to the four biobeds on the forward-side wall.  Doctor Hudson, the Klingon/Orion/Human female MD, stood by herself against the wall on the other side of the main door, opposite of Yezbeck and Fernmoore; her anti-social behavior still in effect from the B’Rell incident over a month ago.  However, in the center of the main ward, were three new faces:  A dark-skinned human male in a gray ribbed-lined outfit, a blue-eyed human female lieutenant junior-grade of apparently Asian descent in a standard medical-blue uniform, and a short, white-haired and pink-skinned Klingon in the regular, metal-plated uniform of the Klingon Imperial Navy.  Leon, wearing his usual ivory turtleneck sweater, held a PADD in his left hand, and met these newcomers to his staff for the first time.

“Doctor Lawrence Major,” he addressed the dark-skinned male human, who smiled in return.  “Medical doctorate from the University of New Perth, Alpha Centauri.  Is this your first contract with Starfleet, doctor?”

“Yes sir,” replied Doctor Major with a slight Australian accent.  “I graduated three months ago and looked forward to a deep space assignment.”

Leon raised his eyebrow, knowing all too well the long strings attached to a civilian contract with Starfleet.  “Good luck,” he said in a slightly negative tone, causing the doctor to lessen his smile slightly.  “However, I’m happy to have you aboard.”  Leon shook the man’s hand heartily, indicating no malice.

Moving to the next in line, Doctor Cromwell consulted his PADD.  “Lieutenant Alice Copenhagen,” he said to the blue-eye Asian woman.  “Registered Nurse, Starfleet academy, class of ’78.  Coming to us from the U.S.S. T’Pol.  Ever been on a Galaxy Class starship, lieutenant?”

“No sir,” the woman replied. 

“I think you’ll like your assignment here, lieutenant.  We’ve been in need of a head nurse for quite a while.  Welcome aboard.”  Like Doctor Major, Leon shook Nurse Copenhagen’s hand warmly.

“Thank you, sir,” replied the new head nurse.

Moving to the last in line, Leon looked at the PADD before addressing the Klingon.  The doctor looked him over, realizing he was not the usual Klingon warrior that has become famous throughout the galaxy.  This one was shorter than normal, and although he appeared fairly young, his hair was white, and his skin a robust pink.

“Lieutenant Q’Tuir,” started Leon.  “Medical doctor, Klingon Imperial Navy.  Onboard in accordance with the Klingon officer exchange program.”

“Yes sir,” replied the Klingon in a deep, stern voice.

“What part of Q’onos are you from, doctor?”

“The Northern B’hraka province sir,” replied the lieutenant.  “It’s a small remote region of coastal fishing villas.”

“When did you graduate from the warrior academy?” Leon asked plainly.

“I have not been through the academy, sir.”

“No?” Leon asked quizzically.  “I thought all members of the imperial navy had to go through it.”

“You are mistaken, doctor,” Q’Tuir replied calmly.  “The people of B’hraka are not mainstream Klingons.  Our region is so remote that we rarely have contact with others from the main continent.  Although we are not as prone to the batliff as our brothers, mainly because we are of a slightly different genetic variant, all B’hrakans are Klingons nonetheless.

“Of course,” Leon agreed without hesitation.  “What brought you to space?”

“The need to explore,” smiled Q’Tuir.  “That, at least, cannot be erased from our common Klingon blood.”

“Have you ever served with humans before?” Doctor Cromwell asked, changing the subject.

“Of course sir,” Q’Tuir replied.  “I served aboard two Starfleet vessels during the Dominion War, and was promoted to assistant chief medical officer on one of them, the U.S.S. Gorkon.”

“Impressive,” Leon admitted.  “Do you have any problems serving alongside humans?  They are a fragile and sensitive species at times.”

“Not at all, sir,” the lieutenant stated benevolently.  “I’m sworn to the healer code like all Klingon doctors.  Species matters not, and I am honored to mend the flesh of anyone who asks of my skills.”

“You honor us with your presence, Doctor Q’Tuir,” Leon said.  “Welcome aboard.”  The two grasped hands tightly in an enthusiastic handshake.

Turning around to address the collection of surgeons, Leon explained to them their current situations.

“I suppose by now, you’re all wondering why we’re at condition yellow,” he started.  “Starfleet has lost contact with the colony of Cestus Three.”  The black-bearded and balding Doctor Yezbeck perked up slightly, looking at Leon squarely and with a raised eyebrow.  “For that reason,” continued Doctor Cromwell, “the Republic has been assigned to investigate.  Although we hope that it’s just a communications glitch, Starfleet has warned that the Gorns may have performed a pre-emptive strike on the colony.  We have to be prepared for anything, so let’s look sharp.  Doctor Favuuk,” he addressed the Andorian doctor.  “I’m moving Doctor Major into the family medical services coordinator job, so you’ll move back into the ward supervisor position under Doctor Ryda.”  The blue-skinned female nodded with a smile, and twitched an antenna.  “Doctor Hudson,” he beckoned the shy woman in the corner.  “You’re tenure as head nurse is over, and I’d like you back into the ward supervisor’s position under Doctor Fernmoore.”  Hudson smiled, and the crest on her nose rose slightly, but she said nothing.  “Doctor Q’Tuir,” Leon addressed the Klingon newcomer.  “It would honor us very much if you would fill the ward supervisor’s position under Doctor Yezbeck.  I believe your medical skills would compliment his own quite well.”

“Understood,” Q’Tuir replied.

“Nurse Copenhagen, I already explained your new position, and I suggest you meet your nursing staff and disseminate our mission situation.”

“Immediately sir,” the nurse acknowledged, and walked out of the room towards the administrative lobby.

As she left, Leon concluded his meeting. “Well, I guess that’s it.  For our veterans, please welcome our newer staff, and show them around the ship when you get the chance.  Dismissed.”

Without another word, Leon made a direct line to his office, not taking notice of the scrutinizing stare that Doctor Yezbeck gave him.  As the CMO exited the room, Saal looked around at the dispersing gaggle of officers and then proceeded to follow him.

***

“Maruevian Tea,” Leon said to the wall-mounted replicator next to his desk.  “Hot.”  As the drinking vessel whispered into the receiving chamber, the doctor wrapped his hands around the mug and raised it to his lips.  Taking a quiet sip, Leon took a moment to relish the spicy liquid before allowing it to slip down his throat.  Unfortunately, as they often do, this quiet moment was short lived as a soft knocking came from the door.  Doctor Yezbeck stood in the doorway as Leon acknowledged him.

“Something I can do for you, Saal?”

“Oh, not much,” he mysteriously answered, strolling into the office.  “Just wondering if things are okay.”

Leon closed his eyes, slightly annoyed that he was being psychoanalyzed.  “If I want a counselor, I’ll call Shannon.”

“Come on,” Yezbeck continued.  “Don’t tell me it doesn’t bother you.  Cestus Three?  Hits a little close to home, doesn’t it?”

“What do you want me to do?  Break down and cry? Saal, I’m not really in the mood to open the floodgates on my feelings right now.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Yezbeck admitted straightforwardly.  “I just wondered if there’s anything you want to get off your chest.  If it is the Gorns, there’s no telling what’s going on at Cestus.”

Leon, quite unexpectedly, slammed the mug down on his desk.  “If it IS the Gorns,” he yelled, “I want to be the one behind the phasor controls!”

“Well,” Yezbeck said, folding his arms.  “So much for not opening the floodgates.”

“Sorry,” Leon replied, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead.

“Don’t be,” he explained.  “I asked for it.  Why don’t you try and get some sleep.  Alpha shift is supposed to be off duty anyway.”

“Sleep?  You expect me to sleep?”

“Look, either prescribe yourself a tranquilizer, or I will.  You’ll need sleep.  Especially if it’s the Gorns.”

“Fine,” Leon surrendered.  “You have sickbay.  Call me if you need me.”  He picked up the mug of tea, and proceeded to exit the office without another word.

<location: Captain’s Ready Room, deck 1, USS Republic>

A few minutes passed before the chime to his door rang and Lieutenant Kristin Tyler entered. Crossing towards his desk, she came to attention and said "You wished to see me Captain?"

"Yes Lieutenant, have a seat. Don't worry about what happened in the briefing. Now on to the real topic, when I ask for a scientific explanation please explain it to where someone who is not science minded can understand it. My science courses were my lowest scores at the Academy that's why Lieutenant."

From her seat, Lieutenant Tyler just gazed at him calmly. She hadn't planned on worrying about the events in the briefing, nor had she planned to question the Captain's request that she phrase her explanations in more simple terms even though she had actually simplified her statement quite a bit in contrast to Lieutenant Commander Virtus' statements which had been quite detailed on the more technical aspects of things. Therefore, all she said was simply "As you wish Captain."

Marshall didn't like her short answer, and he hoped that Tyler would fit in with this crew. "When we're on the bridge, and this goes for all senior staff, it is all business. Off duty we're pretty relaxed."

What was going on here? Did he think she was a newly graduated kid fresh from the Academy still wet behind the ears? Kris wasn't sure just what she was expected to say in response to a statement like that, all she could come up with was a simple "Understood Captain."

"Look, I'm not trying to treat you like a fresh Academy grad. I know of your record, and you'll do fine here. All I can ask for is your best." The captain rose from his chair and went around the desk and sat on the edge and said, "We haven't been properly introduced, James Marshall," as he held out his hand to her.

Accepting his hand, she shook his hand as she said "Kristen Tyler.." A part of her wondered if the Captain was a telepath since he'd seemed to know what she was just thinking a moment earlier.

I know how to read people, you looked a little uncomfortable. I'm not trying to be intimidating.   Feel free to make yourself at home on the Republic."

Not knowing what else she could say, Kris replied, "Thank you sir."

"You're welcome"

Feeling very uncomfortable and not sure what if anything she was expected to do now Lieutenant Tyler simply waited for the Captain to continue.

Marshall noticed that she was uncomfortable, "Well Lieutenant, I'll let you get back to your duties."

Rising, Kristen said "Aye Captain." And then escaped as quickly as possible. She hadn't quite known what he wanted from her, and felt a little rush of relief once she'd left.

 'Well that went well' thought the Captain, There were times when he hated being the youngest Captain to get a Galaxy-class starship.

=/\= “Bridge to Captain, we're ready to depart.” =/\=

“I'll be right there.”

Marshall walked onto the bridge, and took the center seat.   He noticed that all of the bridge positions were staffed by department heads.  'Everyone's where they should be' thought the Captain.

“Bridge to Engineering.”

=/\= “Virtus here.” =/\=

“How are the engines?”

=/\= Operating at 98 percent efficiency, Captain.  You can take her out at anytime.” =/\=

“Good to hear.  Bridge out.”

Marshall then turned to the helm and ordered, "Mister Hawk, take us out.  One quarter impulse."

"Cap'n?" Hawk questioned, turning his head towards the Commanding Officer.  "Ain't nothin' wrong with the engines, fars I can tell."

Marshall then replied, "Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Virtus just told me that the engines were fine.  You heard the order."

"Yessa, I heard it.  Jus' don't understands it.  I mean, engines r'fine - why ain't we goin' faster 'an molasses?" Nat queried.

 Marshall then said, "If you'll check the sensors they're going to tell you that there is a lot of traffic out there.  I don't want to risk hitting another ship. Not that you would, better to be safe than sorry."  James looked out of the corner of his eye, and saw that even Commander Carter was getting a little irritated with the delay.

Marshall then opened a channel to the starbase.  “Approach control this is Republic.  Request permission to leave dock.”

=/\= “Permission granted.  You may depart when ready.  Bon voyage Republic.” =/\=

“Thank you Starbase 23.  See you next trip.” The channel then closed.

"Cap'n," Nat said, standing from his post and turning to face the elder superior, "I was with the 85th attack squadron all through'n before the war.  Flown circles 'round fleets in heavy combat.  Graduated top a'ma class in flight school.  I could fly a Borg cube through space dock doors w'out scratchin' the paint.  I sure's hell can fly this big ole gal through some local traffic." Hawk said, defensively.  "Now ya ain't confident a'ma abilities, dats one thing.  Ya don't know me well 'nough yet.  That the case though, I'd rather ya just says it 'stead of insultin' me by worryin' 'bout some traffic

 "If I say take us out at one-quarter impulse, I mean take us out at one-quarter impulse.  I did not mean to insult you, but that is the regulation.  Look it up, or I can have Mister McTaggart remove you from my bridge and you can stay here at the Starbase.  Which sounds more exciting to you?" said Marshall

 "Ah, regulation, yessa," Nat replied, sarcasm clear as Jeballian Glass in his voice, "gots ta follow thems ta the letter, now don't we?" he said, sitting down at the Conn.  "Wouldn't wanna thing like independent thought gettin' in the way'a the all mighty rule book, now would we?" he questioned aloud.  "Must'a mistook the whole escapade dat got me here'n helpin' resurrect Commander Lazarus as a breech a'them regulations.  How'd I eva'r get 'n idea like that?" he mused, plotting the course and speed.  "One quarta impulse, aye aye, skipper." he informed.

Marshall didn't appreciate the sentiment as Hawk piloted the ship out of the Starbase.  Once the Republic had cleared the Starbase, and all traffic, Marshall said, "Mister Hawk, lay in a course to Cestus III and engage at Warp 7."

 "Christ," Nat muttered.  "Skipper, confirm that?  Ya say warp seven?  Ain't this a critical, life-er-death, emergency-type situation?  Ya know, the kind they built ships dat go warp nine-point-nine-seven-five fer?" he questioned.

 "Commander Carter, you were a Helmsman.  How long would it take to get from here to Cestus III at Warp 7?" asked Marshall.

"Three and a half hours if I've calculated it right Captain," said Carter

"That's soon enough for me," replied Marshall, "Hawk either follow my orders without question or get off my bridge."

 "Just confirmin' skipper," Nat replied, "long as it's soon 'nough fer ya, alls well.  Hope it's soon 'nough for them colonists though.  Oh an, I'm followin' yer orders sir.  Precious regulations though say when in doubt of an order, askin' fer confirmation's proper procedure.  Wouldn't want me ta break regs, would ya Cap'n?" Hawk asked as he plotted the new course and engaged at Warp 7.

 "No I wouldn't want that."

"Didn't think so," Hawk replied with a devil-may-care grin.  "ETA... three hours, thirty-six minutes, skipper."

The Republic then jumped into warp.  It was good to be in action again.  Marshall then rose from his seat and said, "Commander Carter, you have the bridge.  I'll be in my quarters."

 

<location: Captains Quarters, deck 8, U.S.S. Republic>

Marshall walked in and sat in the chair by the coffee table.  He shut his eyes and thought back to an earlier time.

***

Cadet James R. Marshall walked into the holodeck they were using for training.  It was the dreaded Duck Blind scenario.  He was relieved that Cadet Tylyn Malcome would be in command, and not him.  He had drawn the post of Security/Tactical.  The simulation started, and Marshall headed to his station.

They had approached the ship, a Klingon D-12 Bird of Prey.  They hailed the Klingons but it was no success.  "Cadet Marshall," said Tylyn, "what kind of weaknesses does a Bird of Prey have?"

"None apparent Captain.  However, Starfleet has theorized that they might be susceptible to some kind of ionic pulse."

"Ops, ready the pulse.  Marshall be ready to fire as soon as their shields were down."  Marshall watched his display and fired all torpedoes.  The Klingon ship exploded and the simulation ended.  After the debriefing, James headed back to his quarters.  As he sat down, the door chimed.  "Enter," said James.  He was surprised at who was standing in the doorway, Cadet Tylyn Malcome.  "Tylyn, what brings you here?"  She entered and said, "You.  I wanted to thank you myself for what happened in the simulator."

"It was nothing," said James.

"It's more than that to me," said Tylyn.  She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.  He vowed that he would never forget her eyes with her brown hair cut short covering her ears.  She had an incredible face.

***

Marshall drifted back into reality.  He hadn't thought about Tylyn in a while.

=/\= “Bridge to Captain Marshall.  Sir, there's a small fleet of Corvette size ships on an intercept course.  The lead ship is hailing us.” =/\=

“Slow to impulse. I'm on my way.”

 

<Location: Bridge turbolift, U.S.S. Republic >

U.S.S. Republic was en route to the Cestus system to investigate communications problems. The ship was still ninety minutes out of the system, and while Republic was still at yellow alert, the Alpha shift had ended, and Captain James Marshall had ordered that the Alpha Shift take some down time while they could. Stepping into the bridge turbolift, John Carter had to admit that his captain had a point.

As John entered the lift car, Nat Hawk, Republic's helmsman stepped into the car behind him. Like the rest of the bridge crew, Carter had just heard the helmsman's exchange with Marshall, and a part of him wanted to dress Hawk down like a first-year cadet. Instead, he tired to focus on getting some rest.

`Just calm down Johnny', the XO chided himself silently. `We're all a little jumpy.' Carter turned toward the lift car's audio pick-up.  "Deck 10."

"Thank ya kindly, C'mander." Nat said with a nod, as he stepped off of the Bridge. "Ya headin' fer the hill?" he asked Carter.

The XO cleared his throat, swaying slightly as the car raced toward the forward section of deck 10 that served as the ship's primary recreation area.

"Been damn near livin' there maself." Nat said despite Carter's relative lack of reply.

"I bet." Carter rolled his eyes, trying to hide his annoyance.

"There a problem, C'mader?" Hawk asked, a slice of attitude edged into his voice.

John regarded the helmsman, then cocked his head to speak to the computer. "Hold." The car slid to a stop and Carter gave his companion a steely look. "Yes, Mister Hawk, there is."

"Oh really?" Hawk asked, crossing his arms across his chest, "Ya wanna 'laborate for me?"

Carter turned to face the junior officer. He could feel his temper rising, and had to remind himself to control it. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing up there? That was a starship bridge! Not the Ready Room on a carrier!"

"Yer point?" Hawk replied. "First the Cap'n seemed ta be questionin' ma skills, then he decides ta go at measly warp seven in an emergency, which just seems damn stupid if ya ask me." he said.

"I don't care if he told you to break your own arm!" Carter shot back. "He DID NOT ask for opinions. He gave you an order." Carter leaned back against the car wall, trying to relax. "I've read your file Lieutenant, and so has the Captain. We both know your good, but if your ego needs so much attention, you might want to think about going back to the 85th."

"Heh," Nat replied with a laugh, "ain't got nothin' ta do with ego. Just common sense. He may not a asked fer 'pinions, but that don't mean I ain't gonna give 'um when he gives stupid orders."

"You're a Lieutenant." Carter offered. "You don't get to decide what's stupid and what's not." After a moment, Carter rubbed the back of his neck and continued. "Look. God knows I'm not telling you to blindly follow orders. I'm not always good at that myself, and I haven't agreed with a lot of the Captain's decisions," Carter chuckled. "I'm not even sure I LIKE the man, but I've NEVER questioned an order in front of the crew. Now, in private, well that's a different story."

"Phh," Nat replied, "rank don't matter much ta me. Never did. Just a title when push comes ta shove. Just 'cause I don't get ta decide in the end don't mean I ain't gonna voice my 'pinion in the hopes it'll help somebody make a better choice."

"Griffe! You're not listening to me." Carter straightened back up. "A starship functions on discipline, it's not like flying a fighter or running the triangle trade routes." John put one hand on his hip. "In an engagement, we won't have time for you to question. 'Gee Cap'n sir, shouldn't we oughta fire them torpedoes?' " John was barely aware that he was mocking the affable helmsman. "You do that, we're dead. And I don't want to die because you can't follow an order.”

"Combat's one thing. That's different. Ya gotta trust yer squad - or crew. When somethin ain't right though, and lives ain't at stake, keeping quiets just dumb." Hawk replied. He then shook his head and let out a short sigh, "Computer, resume." he commanded.

"Mister Hawk," the XO questioned, "I see your point. But you're a Department Head. That means that you're part of the command crew, and we have to present a unified front. Clear?"

"If 'unified front' means 'si'down and shut up' then nope, it ain't clear at all." Hawk replied. "Computer, halt" he then commanded. "Listen... I know all you Starfleet types do things one way... but I don't. I'm not here by choice 'er circumstance, I'm here cause I gotta be. Which means you gotta get used ta how I operate, just like the Cap'n - who already seems ta be. Or did ya fail to notice how any other cap'n woulda thrown any other Helmsman off the bridge for being so independent up there?"

"Now that you mention it," Carter commented, "But if you're going to wear that uniform, then you WILL respect fleet procedures." He gave the helmsman a weary look. "I'm all for independent thought, but if you're determined to be a privateer, I can talk to some Orion traders for you." Carter waited for the words to sink in. "Computer, resume."

Nat couldn't think. He could only act. After a few seconds of silence, he did just that. Slamming his right fore-arm against Carter's chest, he used his weight and momentum to push him against the wall of the turbolift, and in another fluid motion brought his fore-arm to bare on the Commander's throat, obstructing part of his oxygen supply and making it clear if he tried to move he was liable to get some broken bones. "Halt turbolift! Lockdown 26-Omega!" Hawk commanded, using one of the few Intelligence codes he had been given by Starfleet, totally isolating the turbolift from the rest of the ship. "What the hell kinda sick maniac are ya?" Nat asked him finally.

It was all Carter could do to keep conscious. Pushing against Hawk's attack...fighting for air. His thoughts were a blur. '26 Omega? What the hell did that mean?'

"I could have you tossed in an SI brig fer a coupla years for threaten' a witness just fer that right there!" Nat shouted.

John worked his fingers under Hawk's forearm, shifting his weight to use Hawk's own momentum to help him slip lose. Carter rubbed his throat and stepped behind Nat. "SI?" Carter coughed again. "Sprock me! You're another damned Black Shirt! Grozit! How many of you guys are there?"

Nat turned on his heel, stepping back to the wall of the lift and keeping himself prone for an attack. "I ain't no friggin black shirt goon!" Hawk shot back. "Only have dealin's with them cause a Faro!" he shouted before realizing what he said.

"Faro?" John wondered, "Kevaan Faro? Damn kid, when you make enemies, you don't fool around, do you? He's bad news. Even the other syndicate members stay away from him."

"Wha?" Nat began, unsure what the hell was going on. "You don't know jack 'bout why I'm really here, do ya?" he asked. "And... you weren't just threatenin' ta sell me other to the Syndicate either..." he stated, realizing.

John swallowed hard. "NOW we're getting somewhere." He tried his best to straighten up, leaning against the wall for support. "I wasn't ALWAYS in 'Fleet Hawk. Everything I learned about sailing I learned from Teddy Peck on the Gilded Lily. Damn it," he coughed again, "This is why I hate secrets."

"Believe me, you an me both." Hawk replied. Letting his guard down, he slumped back against the wall. "Well I s'pose the cat's outta the bag now, ain't it? Alright. Here it is, one time, one time only. Ain't gonna talk 'bout it again outside a secured locale, neither are you." Hawk said. "...Ya obviously know who Faro is. 'Side from a nasty fella, he's also a well feared one even 'mongst his Syndicate brethren. I ain't gonna tell ya the whole story, not even the Cap'n 'er Forrest know that, but jist a things is... I'm sorta like the.. uh, what'd'ya call it? Key... prime... lead witness against 'em." Hawk said. "Ya prolly know he's on the run. So 'till they catch him, Starfleet's the safest place fer me. So here I am."

"Grozit." John cursed. He weighed what Hawk had just told him. As a key witness against a major crime lord, Hawk would be a marked man no matter where he went, so John had to admit that keeping the young man mobile, and where SI could track him, made a certain amount of sense. Knowing now what Hawk had to deal with, Carter offered an easy smile. "Tell you what kid, I'll watch your back if you promise to at least look at the rule book." He looked up again, about to address the computer, then looked back at Hawk. "You um...wanna cut us loose?"

Hawk just stared at Carter for a moment, unsure of him. "Heh," he finally laughed, "I'll look at it, ain't mean I'm gonna follow it." He replied. "Computer, release lockout 26-Omega, code sequence SI-one-one-seven-delta-epsilon." Hawk said. A moment later, the lift resumed and finally deposited them onto Deck 10.

"Tell ya what," he said, stepping out of the lift after Carter. "Lemme buy ya a drink fer, uh, stranglin' ya, an we'll see if we can't reach some sorta arrangement." he said as they moved down the corridor toward the Hill.

 

<location: Deck 10, forward, U.S.S. Republic>

Nearly an hour since he'd come off duty, Nat sat at the bar in the low-lit lounge, nursing a glass of Romulan Ale - his second since the ship's First Officer, John Carter, had left twenty or so minutes earlier.  The incident with the ship's exec had shaken Nat up more than he had realized, or let on.  Having his past stirred up in any fashion was an unpleasant experience that Nat tried to avoid like an Academy Mid-Term.  In the end though, it always caught up with him, no matter how far or fast he ran, or how well he tried to hide from it.  So he drowned his senses and his sorrows in the strongest intoxicant known to the Alpha Quadrant, and hoped to hell it worked well enough to let him forget about things for a while.

Having heard about the ship's lounge, oddly enough called 'The Hill'..  once she got off duty Kris found herself entering both to just check the place out as well as to get a badly needed drink.  Following her rather unhappy interview with the Captain, she was not in a very optimistic frame of mind and the idea of a drink to help calm her nerves was pleasant.

As Nat stared down upon his half-empty beverage, the liquid and illuminated surface of the bar casting a faint blue tint to his features, the doors to the typically buzzing social hall parted to admit one of the many new faces aboard ship.  Normally, a new face - especially a pleasant female one - would pique Nat's attention.  At the moment though, he wasn't interested in playing his sexual-tension laced games. 

Walking to the bar, Kris got the bartender's attention and the ordered a simple glass of white wine.  Her glass in hand, she found a seat at an empty table and then withdrew a PADD containing a novel she'd been reading before she was unceremoniously transferred here.  Finding her place, she sipped her drink as she read.

Polishing off the last remains of his second glass of Romulan Ale, Nat flagged down the barkeep as he returned from supplying a glass of white wine to the new Science Officer.  Pushing his empty glass forward to signal he wanted a refill, he got no response from the barkeep, who simply stood still with an uncomfortable look on his face.

"Lil service'd be nice?" Nat commented.

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but there's a two drink maximum on Romulan Ale." the bartender replied in a hushed tone.

"I look like I give a shit, boy?" Nat replied, his temper getting the better of him.  The barkeep simply stood silent and still.  "Fine, you wanna be a prig, be a prig." Nat said, standing from the bar.  Taking his empty glass, he gave the barkeep a sneer and glanced around the bar.  Drinking alone was never a good thing to do, especially when you where at your limit according to the barkeep.  So Nat moved to the table occupied by the new Science Officer and sat down, removing his antique silver flask and pouring it's contents into the empty glass.  "Mind if I join ya?" he asked as an after thought.

Gazing over the top of her PADD at him, with a slight arch of her eyebrows Kristen nodded slowly.  "Please," she answered while motioning towards the seat he'd already claimed.  "Have a seat."

"Thanks," he replied as he took a mouthful of whiskey.  "...Frinxing regulations.  Who the frell does Starfleet think it is?  They prolly got a regulation 'bout how ta chew," he said, commenting to no one in particular.

She blinked, mildly taken aback by his outburst.  "That's probably why they require everyone to take that oath of service," she said.  "We go where we're told, and do as we're told."

"Well, I crossed ma fingers." Nat replied with a grin.  "What 'bout you?" he asked, scrutinizing her.

"The fact that I'm sitting here instead of continuing my previous work assignment should be answer enough," she told him.  "Being transferred here was not exactly a highlight moment for me.."

"Being anywhere in Starfleet ain't my idea of a good time," Nat replied, sitting back.  "Only option I got at the moment, though." Nat added.  "How 'bout yaself?" he queried.

"If I had my choice, I'd still be back on Neezora IV working aboard the Sea Dancer continuing the research on the life forms which live around the coral reefs.  Working in the sun, and in the ocean.  Not sitting in a bar on some starship .."  She answered.

"Sounds nice," Nat observed.  "Don't s'pose this, er, Sea Dancer needs a pilot?" Nat asked with a grin,

"Can you pilot a 130 foot long ocean research yacht?" Kristen asked in return.

"I can pilot a six-hundred-forty meter starship or twenty-five meter fighter," Nat replied.  "I think I'd manage."

She smiled a little then, "Somehow I think you'd find that a yacht at sea is very different than a starship."

"Heh," he laughed, "maybe.  I've flown just 'bout everthin' in ma time though.  All-terrain, land-based, atmospheric, orbital, interstellar.  Nautical'd be a challenge I'd like." Nat admitted.

Kris smiled again, "It was a posting I was in no hurry to leave for sure.."

"So why did ya?" Nat asked, taking a sip of whiskey.

Her expression darkened just a bit, taking a sip of her drink before she answered Kris at last said, "Because I received orders telling me to report here."

"You ain't got no higher-up pals 'at owe ya a favor ya could called in?" he queried.

She laughed at that, working to hide the actual reasons for her sudden orders to the Republic "No, I can't say that I do."

"Well, if it makes ya feel any better, I'm in the same boat.  Literally an proverbially." he said with a grin.

She shrugged, "Hopefully my tour on this ship won't be as completely miserable as the first day has been.  Otherwise I may end up resigning my commission to escape."

"Pretty drastic fer a Science wizz," Nat remarked.  "Ain't many good chances fer yer type outside'a Starfleet." 

She didn't have an answer to that, just shrugged her shoulders as she sipped from her glass again.  "Yeah well..  I've been assigned to ships before.  Most of them don't require new officers to report immediately to a briefing where they're expected to answer with useful information to a situation which they have no forewarning and no time to prepare. Nor do they then find themselves subjected to a faintly insulting interview with their new Captain.  I'm not even remotely impressed," she finished in a dry tone.

"Could be worse," Nat remarked, pausing for effect.  "Ya could be an exchange-program Science Officer on a Klingon ship."

"At least then I could hit the person who had offended my honor and not have to worry about more than the bruises I'd get in the resulting fist fight," she retorted.

"If it makes ya feel better, ya can hit me.  I ain't particularly inta the kinky stuff, but what the hell." he replied with a broad grin,

She gave him a look, unable to help laughing again.  "Thanks but . . . no. It wouldn't do either of us any good."

"Ain't much a good frinxin' can't fix." Nat replied.  "Anyway, maybe ya should be lookin' at it this way - If it don't work out and ya do resign, you'll sure be hot on the civi science market."

Kris was still trying to decide what to make of that 'frinxin' comment.  She just shook her head a little, "Well hopefully, it won't come to that."

"I don't believe in hope," Nat replied, "hopin is fer people who won't er can't do."

"Well that's . . . somewhat depressing to hear," she answered.  "Hope is what keeps us going each day, its what keeps us trying."

"Nope," Nat replied, unwavering.  "All hope is false.  We keep goin' cause we ain't got no other choice but that 'er dieing."

"That's quite a morbid outlook," she answered softly.

"Least it's honest an likely true." Nat replied, polishing off his glass of whiskey.  "Well, there's a time and a place for a philosophical discussion, an seventeen-hundred hours in a bar just ain't one of um, I'm 'fraid." He said, rising.  "Nice ta meet ya...?" he said, prompting for her name.

Her eyes sparkled a little with amusement, "Kristen.  Kristen Tyler.  And you are?" she prompted in return.

"Some call me Lieutenant, some call me Hawk, some call me Wild Card or Death Wish.  Most call me Nat though.  Nat Hawk." he said with a nod.  "Well, if ya'll excuse me, I gotta get on up ta the bridge an do some drunk drivin'." he said with a devil-may-care grin, as he nodded, turned, and departed.

Watching him leave, she shook her head after a moment before deciding to finish her drink and then left, heading for her own quarters.

<location: Main bridge, U.S.S. Republic>

"Open a channel," said Marshall.

“This is Captain James Marshall of the U.S.S. Republic.  We are on an emergency mission to the Cestus system, and do not have time for delays.  This sector has a travel restriction placed upon by the Federation Trade Commission, and you have no authority to be here.” =/\=

=/\=  ‘Delta Dawn to U.S.S. Republic, I think we do have full authority here. 

You'll understand once you find out why.” =/\=

The voice sounded utterly familiar to Marshall.

“Would you be willing to tell us that story?”

"Captain," said Sullivan, "visual communication is now possible."

"On screen," said Marshall.

Like the voice, the face on the viewscreen was quite familiar.  It was Tylyn Malcome.

=/\= “Hello James.” =/\=

“Miss Malcome, long time no see.  Why don't you beam over, talk about old times?” the captain said with a hint of mockery in his voice.

=/\= “I'd love to stay and chat but we're in a bit of hurry.  See you next trip James.” =/\=

The channel then closed.

"Marshall to Carter.  Are you there commander?"

=/\= "Carter here." =/\= 

"John, could you come up to the bridge?  We have a fleet of civilian corvettes off our bow and I could use your help."

"On my way, sir."

Marshall looked to the viewscreen to see what the ships were doing.  The Delta

Dawn was slowly moving straight at the Republic.  Before the Captain could give an order the two ships shields collided.  The Republic jostled a bit and then Red

Alert automatically sounded.  As soon as the Delta Dawn was clear the entire convoy went to warp.

"The ships are heading towards Romulan space Captain," said Lieutenant Tyler.

"Tell me we're going after them sir," said Nat.

"They'll have to wait.  Cestus III needs us now.  We'll catch up to her someday."

"Captain," said Lieutenant Sullivan, "the Runabout Sagaventirkok is requesting to dock."

Marshall knew what that was all about and ordered, "Have them land in the main shuttlebay.  I'll meet them there.  Commander Carter, you have the bridge.  Lieutenant McClintock, you're with me."  Marshall and the Lieutenant walked into the turbolift and the doors closed.

 

<location: Main Engineering, U.S.S. Republic>

The violent shock took Lieutenant Commander Virtus totally by surprise.  The switch to Red Alert did not.

"Miller.  Check the shield harmonics.  Ran'tira.  Help Randolph with damage control.  Hop to people!"

Victor watched panicking sentients turn into worried but confident members of Starfleet's Engineering Corps.  Running his eyes over the main display, he guessed at the cause of the sudden lurch.  Since the inertial dampeners could only 'absorb' 2.6 kilonewtons per cubic meter per microsecond, it would take a ship-to-ship weapon or fairly large asteroid to rock a Galaxy-class.  As the shield's field had buckled but had not been reduced in efficiency, he ruled out energy weapon attack. 

Victor glanced over the numbers again as information trickled down from the bridge via the tactical officer on duty. 

Vic glanced again and tapped his combadge.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Virtus to all Engineering Personnel.  We are not under attack.  Proceed to your posts and give me damage reports.”

Getting information to the people that needed it was the job of Ops, except in times of extreme emergency, when Tactical got damage control, Sciences took over sensors and communication, and Ops was left with power allocation... unless the XO wanted it, as was correct by the Book.

Surveying the activity around the engine room, Vic was impressed by his people.  The best analogy he could come up with for how information reached his screens was: imagine that a threat to the Republic lay off the port bow.  That information reached Tactical at slightly slower than the speed of light, and was then copied to all the other bridge primary or secondary displays within .257 seconds.  Round to .3 seconds to allow for screen phosphor delay.  Add .12 seconds for the reader's optical equipment to relay to the brain, and an average 1.5 seconds for the brain to assimilate and chose a course of action.

At this point, someone on the bridge will remember that Engineering lives in a dark and twisting cavern in the bowels of the ship, and will order a holographic blonde human boy wearing a short toga and sandals to take down a message with his wooden stylus onto his wax tablet.  In Sanskrit.  The runner will then dive down the turbolift shaft, and hand the wax tablet to an old American Pony Express rider, who will have a continental native translate the Sanskrit into one of the 84 languages native to the terran northwestern continent.  As there was no written equivalent, the rider will have to memorize the message on the first try, as the native reads the message aloud. The rider will race to the cave entrance, and shout the message to the cavern guardians *in a language he does not know*.  The guardians, a Klingon and a Cardassian in this example, will begin fighting over the honor of killing the messenger, and dispatch a Ferengi scout to explore the caves looking for profit or engineering officers.  The Ferengi will eventually find the Engineering Department Head, and barter with him for the information that he barely heard over the shouting of the Klingon and the Cardassian.  The Chief Engineer will promise anything in return for the information so that he may do his job.  The Ferengi will repeat the information, badly accented.  The universal translator with then reconstruct that information as best as possible, and the highest ranking engineer on board will begin issuing orders to his juniors based on that information.

"Sir?"

Virtus shook himself from his flight of fancy, "Yes Ensign?"

"Wolmack has a nasty bump on his head.  He can't focus and has trouble standing."

"Take him to sickbay."

"Aye sir."

Victor chided himself for not concentrating on his job and got back to waiting for the Red Alert to end.  Just like John to ram another ship in the middle of nowhere.

 

<location: Sickbay, U.S.S. Republic>

There were always a few minor injuries every day.  It was human nature.  And Vulcan nature, and Bajoran nature and Tellerite nature, etc.  Klingons didn't consider it a full day unless they had received or inflicted some sort of injury.  (Not true, but it was a common stereotype among 'Fleet brats)

When a starship suddenly jumps 15 centimeters up and to the left, it's astonishing how many people are caught mid-shower, or standing on a footstool dusting a shelf, or goofing off in engineering...

"How did you receive this bruise Ensign?"

"I was ... demonstrating the ability to remain inverted and mobile to another ensign."

The Klingon doctor mulled that over while moving his medical tricorder over the Kri'nesh egg-sized lump on the human male's forehead.

"Very well.  The swelling will diminish with time.  You show no further signs of damage to the brain.  Are you able to stand?"

"Yes Doctor.  Thank you."

"Carry on."

Humans were a strange and interesting species.  He would have to ask one to show him this ability at a later date.

 

<location:  Battle Bridge, U.S.S. Republic>

Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest sat at the auxiliary Tactical Station and continued to view the multitude of files on loan from the Klingons. A cold cup of synth-caf sat nearby, totally violating the rules on drinks at duty stations. In his desire to find anything out from the data, Forrest had long forgot the cup's presence. It was a wonder the cup continued to exist.

“Computer replay file KDF – 1451”

The display before him showed three Klingon B'Rell-class cruisers, the P'Tagh, T'Ghak, and the K'Thah, engaging five smaller Gorn vessels. The Klingon ships used the typical delta attack formation, the three cruisers attacking from a triangular formation, firing their forward weapons as they closed and as they passed, firing their rear plasma torpedoes. This tactic was designed based on the assumption that the targeted vessel would reinforce it's forward shielding, leaving weaker shields in the aft of the ship, which the plasma torpedoes would easily defeat.

But in this instance the Gorn ships did not react or seem effected by this tactic. The Klingon disruptors seemed to have almost no effect on the Gorn ships, the energy weapon dissipated by the Gorn hull. The Gorn ships executed a precise Y-axis roll maneuver while never breaking their formation, which caused the imprecise plasma torpedoes to miss completely. Klingon target systems were known for their lack of accuracy.

The Gorn ships continued their roll and reformed into a wedge formation, and pursued the T'Ghak. Yellow energy weapons fire lanced from the Gorn vessels and remarkably all struck the same area of the Klingon ship. The shields buckled almost instantly and the Gorn weapons tore through the Klingon ship's hull disintegrating the left "wing" section. The T'Ghak lost control and begun to slowly spin out of control. Three bolts of yellow fired from the three Gorn vessels in unison and slammed into the T'Ghak instantly destroying the ship. The other two Klingon vessels immediately disengaged, activated their cloaking devices and vanished.

"Damn", thought Forrest. Klingons usually didn't back down from a fight, but neither were they stupid. Douglas absently took his first sip from his cup, but he didn't seem to even register the fact that it was cold.

“Computer. Replay KDF 3443.”

Once again the display was filled with a tactical display of ships, this time nine Gorn battle ships were shown in a classic three by three wall formation. An effective formation when engaged in multiple ship combat. The nine Gorn ships were dwarfed by the two Klingon Vor'Cha-class ships, the G'Hagk and the B'Nagh. The Vor'Cha class vessels easily overmatched even the Sovereign-class ships, but only by a little.

The two Klingon ships performed a crossing flight pattern that would give both ships maximum firing targets on the nine Gorn cruisers. The powerful Klingons ships opened fire with its devastating disruptors but they seemed to have the expected affect, meaning none. The Gorn hull seemed capable of handling quite a bit of energy. A plasma torpedo spread from the two Klingon heavy battle cruisers lanced out at the Gorn vessels. The Gorn ships, in unified formation, initiated a Z-axis turn and drop and avoided the torpedoes, but just barely. The nine vessels held their formation and turned their attention towards the B'Nagh. The Gorn phasers lanced out at the Klingon ship and battered its shields, but the much larger Klingon vessel seemed in good shape. The Gorn ships fired again and again but the B'Nagh shields withstood the assault.

The B'Nagh continued to maneuver and it became obvious it was drawing the fire of the Gorn ships to allow the G'Hagk to gain a superior firing position. Sure enough the G'Hagk returned on the Gorn ships flank. However before it could set up for the best possible attack, three Gorn vessels broke from the wall and turned to engage the Klingon ship. The three Gorn vessels formed a wedge and yellow energy weapons fire lanced from the Gorn vessels and remarkably all struck the same area of the Klingon ship. It looked as if the shield would hold, but the precision of the Gorn targeting soon became apparent and the Klingon ships shield buckled and finally fell. The Gorn ships continued to pour fire into the G'Hagk, explosions erupting throughout the ship. It was clear the G'Hagk was doomed. Surprisingly, or not depending on how well you understood the Klingon mind set, the G'Hagk used what little maneuvering it could to draw as close to the Gorn vessels as possible. It appeared the Gorn planned to board the G'Hagk.

But those plans were quickly ended when the Klingon vessel detonated.  The ship had not sustained enough damage to cause such an explosion, so obviously the Klingon commander felt his honor was to suicide and hopefully take his enemies with him. The Gorn ships seem unprepared for such an action and were instantly destroyed by the massive explosion.

Meanwhile the B'Nagh was now engaged with only six Gorn vessels that seemed impervious to its weapon fire or almost prescient with its ability to outmaneuver the plasma torpedoes. The Klingon vessel remained evasive determined to avoid the Gorn massed firing which seemed capable damaging shields with ease. The B'Nagh suddenly executed a maneuver very similar to an Immelman, something next to impossible for a Starship to do. Inertial dampeners were designed to prohibit such maneuvers to avoid stressing the warp engines and structural integrity of a ship. It wasn't a pretty maneuver, but it did seem to catch the Gorn ships off guard.

The Klingon ship fired all of its weapons, targeting the lead Gorn ship. Small explosions ripped across the hull of the B'Nagh , the maneuver causing massive stress to the ship. But it seemed worth it, because the Gorn ships made no attempt to maneuver out of the plasma torpedoes. The disruptors proved ineffective but the torpedoes tore through the weak shields of the Gorn vessel and detonated in the forward section of the ship, ripping the vessel in half lengthwise. The B'Nagh engaged the five remaining Gorn ships, two of them flying in an unorganized pattern the other three forming a wedge formation.

“Computer. Freeze image.”

‘Think Doug, think.’ thought Forrest.

One of the tricks they taught you in `Fleet Intelligence was to view everything and let your subconscious mind store the details. It wasn't any easy task but by using field operatives were capable of looking at a document and recalling all the information from it later. It was a learned photographic memory. The Vulcans were able to do this with entire libraries.

Forrest calmed himself and began the La'shas, a ritual breathing exercise he'd learned while on Bajor. He listened to the thrum of the ship, the empty spaces, and the subtle noises and let his mind free. Douglas felt the answer was there or at least a huge clue. His mind, in its relaxed state was now processing the information without his conscious mind getting in the way. The images of the Gorn ships. They attack on the Klingon ships. Almost…

Unsure of his place in the chain of command, Forrest decided to make his way to the bridge, his general knowledge would be bound to assist somewhere. And if they'd encountered the Gorn this soon, he might be able to figure out the puzzle that was eluding him.

On the bridge, Commander Carter sat in the command chair, a young ensign manned the tactical station and Hawk was seated in the Conn Chair, his eyes alertly checking for any side effects of the slight jostle. His fingers flew over the LCARS screen and made a quick .2% adjustment to port attitude control. Hawk was completely engrossed in the task at hand and missed the friendly nod directed at him by Forrest or gave no sign of noticing it. Forrest could sense there was some open hostility from the young Lieutenant but was unsure if it was directed at him or the uniform.

Commander Carter seemed somewhat surprised to see Forrest on the bridge.

"What brings you to my bridge, Lieutenant Commander?" asked the Martian First Officer.

"I need access to the main tactical database, sir," replied Forrest. "I have some theories on the Gorn that I’d like to investigate."

"Very well," stated Carter, "Carry on."

Forrest moved over to the Tactical Station and watched the replay of the encounter with the Corvette leading up to the collision. The small ships formed a decent if somewhat ragged wall of interdiction. The actually collision itself appeared to be the sort of thing done as a jest or insult. What caught Forrest's eye was just before the ships engaged their warp drives. The Corvettes all began to change their formation and formed a loose ragged wedge.

"Damn. Damn. Damn." swore Forrest; drawing looks from the rest of the Bridge personnel.

Forrest moved aside the Tactical Officer and quickly called up the data he'd been reviewing. Forrest watched the section he needed and realized his theory was correct.

"Commander", he spoke. "I have something that might interest you about the Gorn."

"Go ahead," said Carter.

"Well I've been analyzing the data from the Klingons and noticed that the Gorn seem to slip into patterned responses to tactical situations. Their formations show an incredible amount of precision, far better than would be expected. They also respond to standard tactical situations with a uniform pattern. But they seem to have a problem responding to non-standard tactics. They recover in due time, but anytime they are surprised their tactics fall apart.  Considering the Klingon data also states the Gorn are in constant communication during combat, it's entirely possible they rely on tactical computers to handle their ships in a fight. I'm not positive yet, but it's to much of a coincident that they use the same attack and defense patterns so often."

Forrest looked to Carter, knowing he'd planted a seed or two in the XO, tactical thinking mind.

"Sir,” beckoned Lieutenant Sullivan, the operations officer.  “There may also be another possibility.  The high level of communication may also indicate that they are being fed instructions by a single entity hidden from view.  A single strategist governing the combat.  Has that been considered as well?"

Forrest looked over at the Lieutenant and was immediately impressed by the younger officer.

"I hadn't thought about that possibility," replied the Intelligence officer. "We know that they are divided into three castes. It is entirely possible that they may have a fourth caste or a sub-caste of the Warriors devoted to strategic thinking."

Granted Forrest hated when there were two possibilities to an answer, decision-making was always easier with fewer choices. But what he hated worse was when somebody failed to point out the possibility of more possibilities. That got people hurt or worse yet killed.

"Okay, either way we suspect some form of communication between the Gorn ships that give them incredible coordination and response. The simplest answer is to disrupt those communications. But my suspicious mind says that task easier said than done."

Forrest closed his eyes and began thinking again. He wished he'd studied Starship tactics more when he had the chance. His specialty was cognitive problem solving while under extreme duress, not Starship tactics. Sometimes he wished he were still doing undercover fieldwork. Nothing beat those moments when you were surgically altered to look like a Romulan and had to by-pass a Senators personal security measure to get information a new shipyard. That was a piece of the proverbial cake.

Haz'Jat," he swore in Bajoran, using a word that had many meanings but none of them pleasant.  "Anyone seen McClintock? He's the tactical genius”

"Watch yer mouth, C'mander," Hawk replied to the Bajoran expletive.  If there was one thing he could do in an abundance of languages, it was curse.  "There'r ladies present." he said with a wink to the attractive Bajoran at Ops.  "Ta answer yer question, Jace is with the Cap'n down greetin' the new 'rivals."

“Very well,” Carter replied.  “I have a short meeting with Lieutenant McTaggart in the security office regarding our new arrivals.”  He stood up from the command chair and headed towards the turbolift.  “You have the bridge, Mister Sullivan.”

From afar, only a few faint pulses of scarlet light flickered through the veil of darkness.  Upward they floated in a swirling mist, followed by a trail of embers reaching towards the night sky.  With a gust of wind acting like a bellows, the burning sparks surged through a maelstrom of smoke, offering a brief yet ominous glimpse into the raging inferno below.  The fanned flames leapt from their bed of ash, lapping against the burning masonry walls, as if mocking a retreating enemy.  Soon they would succumb, and these proud parapets of shelter, tediously built to withstand the fiercest of nature’s wrath, will fall victim to the conflagration, crumbling to the ground in defeat.

The entire south residential district of Cornucopia settlement was ablaze with sporadic structure fires.  Some were due to surgical strikes at insurgent cells from orbital spacecraft, others were of native origin; plot owners who refused to surrender their abode to the Gorn invasion force and ensured that there was nothing left for them to take.  Unfortunately, with the city infrastructure in tatters, these few incidents of destructive combustion were left unchecked by fire suppression services, and the bountiful vegetation ensured the blaze would have enough fuel to spread.

Arthur Cromwell knew the end was near.  As Gorn soldiers went from house to house, arresting colonists who did not follow orders to leave their homes and report to internment camps, he only had one recourse.  The fires would soon be upon his property, so he ensured via subspace radio that the saurian troops knew where he was, and of his refusal to surrender.  The declaration alone was enough to rain phaser fire down from above, but Arthur gave them a reason to decide on a different course of action:  That he alone knew where the hiding place of the Cestus colony leader was.  In truth, he had no idea on where Governor Clark was, but even the suggestion was enough for the Gorns to send soldiers to investigate.

Watching as the multiple shimmers of transporter energy faded in front of his house, Arthur saw at least two-dozen Gorn commandos take tactical positions in his yard.  After their leader checked his tricorder to confirm Arthur’s presence in the house, the soldiers moved quickly and intently in groups of four, leap-frogging their advance past sandbag walls and towards the barricaded door.  A loud explosion resonated across the neighborhood as Arthur’s carefully placed sonic bomb shattered the auditory canals of the four leading troops.  Hisses of fuming rage emanated from the middle and rear units, their leader shouted orders into his communicator.  The casualties were beamed away, and the trap had the effect Arthur had hoped: reinforcements.  Another dozen troops were transported to the streets in front of the house, some with scanning equipment, others with loudspeakers demanding for his surrender.  He, of course, said nothing and only smiled.

Finally, the Gorns reached the back porch, the inevitability of which Arthur had prepared for.  Although the gathering of troops in the front yard seemed to be the main attack, the repeating phaser cluster sounding from the rear foyer signified the Gorns themselves could be devious if they wanted.  The third contingent of stealth commandos had been advancing from the rear the whole time, and as they recovered from the colorful light show of photon energy, it gave Arthur the time he needed.

Reprocessing antimatter was a job best fit for an engineer; the volatile elements were quite unstable, and a homemade sensor-shielded magnetic storage unit was a precarious piece of equipment to say the least.  Still, it was enough.  He had planned to use the quantum-based fuel to build his own shuttle in the hopes to tour Cestus’ three orbiting moons someday.  The manufacture’s catalog called for two liters of the otherworldly substance to construct the one-man space sled.  Unfortunately, the dreams of self-made lunar expeditions were no longer possible under the current circumstances.  As more pressing matters stood at hand, Arthur had no choice but to utilize the half-liter of starship fuel for other, more ill-omened purposes.

Arthur designed the phaser cluster only as a diversionary apparatus, and the simultaneous crash through both the front and back doors indicated the resumption of the snatch operation.  The Gorns had become bolder at the ineffectiveness of the cluster trap, and as the troops poured through both entrances, it activated the last of Arthur’s delay mechanisms.  The million-watt electric field completely drained the house’s fusion batteries, but it was enough to send bolts of charged energy through each of the soldiers, causing their innards to squirm in resonance with the penetrating voltage.  Some lapsed into unconsciousness, but the rest remained only stunned, and as the commandos shook off their haze, they charged towards the room where sensors had pinpointed Arthur’s life-signatures.  As the door burst open, and in a moment of silence where the lead commando looked around the room, the soldiers focused their attention on a small apparatus the size of a table.  It appeared to be a mechanical device, complete with blinking diodes and computer readouts, one of which contained a numerical countdown. Again, Arthur said nothing and only smiled as shrieks of terror permeated the house.

The searing heat of the raging inferno danced around him, and Arthur rose from his hidden, hastily-built shelter below what was once his home.  The fire danced against the surface of his silvery flame-retardant radiation suit, and as he gathered his insulative pack of survival gear and ordinance, he knew the infrared and gamma radiation emitted from the small antimatter explosion would cloud the sensors of orbiting starships.  His retreat would be well-masked.  Arthur felt that although he had only leveled one block of homes, the forty-some Gorns he sent to the afterlife this evening would not soon be forgotten by their leaders.

While he longed to see his wife and daughter again, hoping that they had arrived safely at their destination, hiding in mountain shelters was not his idea of fighting back.  ‘Starfleet are nothing but bureaucratic cowards,’ thought Arthur as he made his way to the subsurface waste tunnels.  Here, in the trenches of the city, the Gorns were most vulnerable.  Arthur could not wait for Starfleet poltroons to hide and negotiate while his homeworld was being devastated.  Here, he could still make a difference.  Here, he and the others would slowly wage their war of attrition against the invading Gorns, picking them off one-by-one if necessary.  Tonight, the real war would begin. 

 

<location:  U.S.S. Republic, deck 8, chief medical officer’s quarters>

“Computer, lights.”

With bags of sleeplessness hanging below his eyes, Leon sat on his bed with elbows resting on his knees.  He squinted as the room illumination reached normal levels, and a heavy sigh came forth from his lungs.  The doctor sat for a moment in his black undershirt and boxer shorts, scratching the back of his neck and trying unsuccessfully to rid his mind of the worry over his family at the Cestus colony.  Finally, he reached over and pressed a button on his bedside console to illuminate the chronometer.  It read 2200.

“Two hours,” he mumbled softly to himself.  Leon had been sleeping off and on for the past several hours, and his mind was tired of wrestling with conflicting agendas of sleep and anxiety.  "Computer," he announced.  "Start the sonic shower.  Steam mode.  Forty degrees centigrade.”

=/\= “Acknowledged” =/\=

“Might as well get some coursework done,” he said to himself, standing up from the bed.  Alpha shift wasn’t due to be back on duty until 2400, but Leon couldn’t bear the thought of tossing and turning any longer.  The shower lasted about five minutes, ending in the ritualistic application of beard-suppressor to the chin and neck, and purposely missing the sandy-blonde moustache.  After a cup of black coffee and a bagel, the sleepy-eyed doctor was dressed in his usual ivory sweater and enroute to holodeck three.

“Computer, load program Cromwell-five-beta,” Leon called to the console next to the huge, double-doored holodeck entrance. “Basic starship strategy and tactics course, chapter three.”

A negative computer warble sounded.

=/\= “Unable to comply.  Unauthorized access.” =/\=

“What?”  Leon barked with frustration induced by lack of sleep.  “I’ve been doing my bridge officer’ courses here for the past month!  How can you say I’m not authorized?”

=/\= “Holodeck three is now off limits to everyone but the Security Department.” =/\=

“For how long?” the doctor spouted with incredulity.

=/\= “Indefinitely.” =/\=

“Computer!” he shouted with a rising voice.  “How can anyone reserve a holodeck indefinitely?”

=/\= “Holodeck three is now designated as an exclusive training center for the Republic Hazard Team.  All other personnel must utilize other onboard holodeck facilities.” =/\=

“Son of a . . .”

=/\= “Last command not recognized.  Please restate request.”  =/\=

“Never mind!” the vexed doctor replied.  Without another word, Leon retreated to the main corridor.

 

<location:  U.S.S. Republic, deck 10, main corridor>

=/\= "Yellow alert.  All decks, yellow alert" =/\=

The calm voice of the Republic’s computer was programmed to repeat the alert status twice an hour in the public spaces of the ship.  Since there was no associated alert beacon or condition-red tracer lights along the wall during yellow alert, the heightened readiness status needed another conduit for reminding everyone that they needed to be on their toes.  However, even that mode of alerting the crew became monotonous with time, especially if the Republic stayed at yellow alert for an extended period.  John Carter was no exception as he walked through the hallway reading his PADD and paying little attention to the droning computer voice.

“John!” came a voice from further down the hall.  Commander Carter looked up from his information device to see Leon walking towards him.

“Hey doc, how’s it going?”

“Could be better,” Leon replied sourly.  He took position next to Carter, walking alongside him through the corridor.

“Yeah, same here.  I didn’t get much sleep either.”  John took obvious note of the doctor’s sleep-deprived eyes.

“Well,” the doctor started.  “I thought I’d do some bridge officer courses to take my mind off the situation, only I found Holodeck Three out of commission.”

“How’s that?” Carter asked quizzically.

“It’s apparently been commandeered by the security department for training a ‘Hazard Team’,” Leon explained.

“Oh, yeah.  I just came from a meeting with McTaggart about that,” John said with mild comprehension.  “Just use another holodeck, doc.”

“I will, but I’d rather not.  It’s the only holodeck closest to my quarters, and I’m usually pretty tired after my evening course load.  What is a ‘Hazard Team’ anyway?”

“It’s a special operations team from Military Operations Command,” Carter clarified.  “They’re basically marines.  The captain asked for them a week ago, and they’ve just come aboard in a runabout.”

“Marines?”  Leon asked with anger and concern rising in his voice.  “What for?  It can’t be for the Gorn situation if he asked for them a week ago.  Why does the captain want military troops aboard?”  The doctor was clearly disturbed by the revelation.

“Beats me, doc.  Who knows why Captain Marshall does the things he does?”  John was obviously referring to a month ago, when the captain voluntarily gave up command of the Republic only to find out he couldn’t get it back so easily.  Carter was not pleased at all with Marshall about that incident, and has held a quiet grudge ever since.  “I asked him myself, but he apparently wants the security department to have some extra firepower.”  He looked to Leon with a slight smirk and a lowered voice.  “Maybe he’s afraid of a mutiny . . .”

“I thought marines on board exploration vessels are virtually unheard of,” Leon remarked through gritted teeth.  “I suppose I should expect an increase in injuries from bar fights . . .”

Carter chuckled.  “I’m sure we can expect some discipline problems, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  They’ll only be about ten of them, and they’ll be under the command of the security department.  Look, what difference does it make anyway?  Why are you so concerned about this?”

“Two things,” Leon said, bringing the duo to a stop in the hallway.  He gestured with his hands, displaying two fingers at the pronouncement.

“First, this is supposed to be a ship of exploration, and I agreed to take the bridge officers test thinking that I would be serving aboard a ship that didn’t put up with all that military junk.”

For his part, John Carter just rolled his eyes.  He knew now that his friend was again on another one of his self-righteous soapbox speeches.

“Second,” Leon continued, his voice stern, direct, and quite sober.

John Carter’s face suddenly filled with concern at the look the doctor gave him.

“Second . . . They can’t be trusted.”

The exec raised his eyebrows.  “What?  Why do you say that?  They’re Starfleet.”

“Okay, let me be specific . . . *I* don’t trust them.”

“You . . .” John was confused.

“Three words,” the doctor stated.  “Theta Cygni Five.”

The commander thought for a moment.  “That’s near the Cardassian border,” he said with contemplation.  “What’s so special about Theta Cygni Five?”

Leon felt a tightness in his stomach, and the remembrance of a bad memory did not mix well with his current anxiety about Cestus Three.  It took a lot of the doctor’s self-control to not allow the anger of Theta Cygni to overwhelm him.

“I was stationed there during the Dominion War.  It was a small temporary medical facility dispatched out of Starbase 72 so starships returning from the front could off load heavy casualties before returning to base.”

“So?”  John urged him to continue.

“Our base was obliterated by a Jem H’dar attack.” The memory did not please the doctor, and with the infuriated look on Leon’s face, John could only offer sympathy in a conciliatory tone.

“Leon . . . I’m sorry.”

“That wasn’t the worst of it,” he added, his throat swelling with hatred.  “We were supposed to have a battalion of marines protecting us.”  The doctor’s jaw twitched slightly, as if struggling to produce the words.  “They were too drunk and busy hitting on my nurses that their defensive positions were compromised almost immediately.”

John said nothing more.  He only looked at Leon, failing to find any words of comfort.

“My patients were murdered in their beds, and my entire medical staff executed.”  The anger was burning inside Leon’s chest, and in an effort to prevent his friend from being forced to relive the torturous memory with him, the doctor gave John one last look to indicate the conversation was over.  The medical chief walked away, leaving Carter to look after him with concern.

<location: Turboshaft 2, USS Republic>

Captain Marshall and Lieutenant McClintock walked into the turbolift. Marshall said, "Main Shuttlebay." The lift took off. The Captain turned to the Lieutenant and said, "Lieutenant, are you familiar with standard Hazard Team operations?"

"Of course sir. I was on a hazard team on the USS Gettysburg." McClintock reminded the captain. "A hazard team is a really good thing to have around when Murphy sneaks up behind you."

The Captain was well aware of the Lieutenant's service record and replied, "Good. While we were docked at Starbase 23, I had the chance to read Admiral Kostya's report. After talking to several people I thought that it might be an asset to have one on board. I put in the request one week ago. The team was running a bit late, but they are here now. I figured why not get the best." The doors opened and they exited the lift heading for the shuttlebay.

"It will be nice to have a hazard team on board,” Jace continued. “They really do come in handy in a pinch.  There are some times when even a precision orbital bombardment is just not quite as subtle as one would like."

The Captain responded, "It does have its benefits that's why I made the request."

They entered the shuttlebay to six people walk out of the runabout.

Marshall recognized one of the men that was there. "You are Petty Officer Theodore Mendoza?"

"Yes sir," he replied."

"Very well, this is Lieutenant McClintock, the Chief of Security. Lieutenant, why don't why show them to their training holodeck?"

"Yes, sir,” McClintock replied. “If you need me for anything else I will be on the bridge. Gentlemen, if you will come with me..." Jace said while making a quick assessment of the six people. "I know Teddy, but you other five are?"

"My name is Petty Officer Third Class John Abrams, sir," said one of the taller, black-uniformed men. "This is Crewman First Class Kevin Bradley, Petty Officer Second Class Henry Sherman, Crewman Fred Hemet, and Crewman Richard Towe.”

“You can call me Deuce,” Towe interjected.

"Well, as it's been said, I'm Lieutenant Jason McClintock, but unless you’re in a lot of trouble you'd better call me Jace."

As the hazard team and McClintock left, Marshall stood on the shuttle deck as he noticed another speck of a vessel looming out in space outside the shuttlebay’s atmospheric containment field.  He was about to call to the shuttle deck officer to identify the vessel when the loudspeakers came to life.

=/\= “A second runabout is requesting clearance to land, captain.  They’re signaling a level three security communications.  Captain’s eyes only.” =/\=

“I’ll take it here,” the captain replied, walking over to a communications console.  After dialing a few commands, the olive-wreathed Federation logo gave way to a sly, womanly face with long, sandy blonde hair.

“Runabout Helmand to Captain Marshall.  This is Lieutenant Chase of Starfleet Command.  You are hereby ordered to allow us to dock.”

“Absolutely,” Marshall replied.  “Might I inquire into your purpose onboard?”

=/\= “We have need for your chief medical officer . . .” =/\=

 

<location: bridge, USS Republic>

When Carter returned to the bridge, he slipped into the command chair and asked "ETA, Mister Hawk?"

"Well, all depends," Hawk replied, super-imposing his navigational readings over the tactical analysis on the view screen. "I dunno much 'bout Gorn sensors, but they likely ain't as good as ours.  So, they likely ain't picked us up yet, 'specially since they likely ain't gettin' clear long range readin's through the gravity well." Hawk explained, "so if I take us in like this," Hawk said, putting his proposed course up on screen - which took them in a long arc around the second and third moon of Cestus III and brought them up on the far side of the planet.  "We'd get 'bout half'n'hour 'til we face them big ole lizards.  Plus, when we do face 'um, we'll 've been watchin' them for a while and'll come up 'behind' them, givin' us the element a surprise an some first hand intell." Hawk explained.

John Carter weighed his options. The warrior in him wanted to take every possible advantage he could get, and the element of surprise was always key, in his mind, to winning the day, but something told him to hold back.

As John studied the plot, Sean McTaggart called out from the tactical station. "The main shuttlebay reports second runabout on board, sir."

Republic had dropped to impulse 15 minutes ago to receive the ship's newest crew, an elite Hazard Team. John had had some misgivings about bringing the team onboard, but he had to admit that, from a tactical sense, it gave him more tools to solve problems. "Second runabout?"

"Aye sir. She's in now. Shields back in place."

"I guess they brought their toys with 'em." John Carter smiled. Looking at a plot filled with 20 hostile starships, the XO had to admit that he was looking forward to seeing what those toys could do.

"Thanks Tac," Carter said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Give me full active sensors, please Sean."

"Full, but won't that..."

"It'll light us up like a friggin' Christmas tree! Those overgrown frogs're sure to see us comin' from parsecs away." Nat Hawk objected rather colorfully.

"Indeed they will Mister Hawk," Carter said, feeling his confident smirk return. "Last time I looked, we were still on the Federation side of the boarder. We've got nothing to hide." The XO turned and eased back into the center chair. "I'm a big fan of cunning and guile..."

Next to Carter, Forrest rolled his eyes.

"But even * I * Don't want to face down 20 starships."

"No, you'd NEVER do that", Forrest commented with a wink.

“Coming in behind them is just likely to make them jumpy and make us a whole lot less alive. Besides", Carter didn't bother to hide his amusement at the irony of his situation, "This is a diplomatic mission, and somehow I think we've got more intel than we need down there. Take us in, half impulse, bearing zero-niner-zero."

=/\= “Marshall to Carter and Virtus, you might want to come down to the main shuttlebay. I'm afraid the Doctor is leaving us.” =/\=

Carter looked quizzically at the ship’s ubiquitous speakers. “Leaving?” Carter stood up from the center seat and too a few quick steps toward the main turbolift on the bridge. As the doors slid open, the XO looked toward the con. and ops. consoles. “Mister Hawk, keep us on course.” He didn’t wait for the Nat to acknowledge the order. “Ops?” he asked with a wink, “Keep him honest please.” Carter stepped into the lift car. “No body blow anything up until I get back.”

With that, the lift doors closed.

Inside the lift car, John tapped his comm. badge. “Vic, did you get that?”

=/\= “Get it in the sense of received? Yes. In the sense of understanding? Much less so.” =/\=

“Can you leave the warp harmonics for a minute?”

=/\= “Already done. I’ll see you in 8.7 seconds.” =/\=

As the turbolift car shot toward Engineering, Carter couldn’t help but wonder what the Captain’s cryptic remark meant. ‘Leave it to Fleet to decide they need my Doctor right before we face down 20 Gorn ships.’ Carter tilted his head down and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘They sent us here in the first place!’

John barely had time to finish the thought when the lift doors opened. The tall, thin form of Victor Virtus entered the car with his typical disciplined stride.

“Figure it out yet?”

“Yep.”

Carter waited for a moment as the lift car continued back up the neck of U.S.S. Republic toward the saucer section’s main shuttle bay. “You wanna share with the rest of the class?”

Virtus turned his head crisply to address his friend. “Chase is here.”

Carter felt his face flush “Chase Meridian?” John leaned back against the wall of the lift car.

“Unless there’s another I don’t know about.”

“Believe me Vic, one is plenty. Why’s she here?”

“The IFF on Lieutenant Meridian’s shuttle is coded for the diplomatic service.”

“Sprock me”, John cursed.

In common Starfleet parlance, ‘Diplomatic mission’ was short-hand for ‘stuff that even the Black Shirts don’t talk about.’ It was a given that ‘Fleet would ask its officers to do things they couldn’t talk about from time to time. John himself had participated in events on the wrong side of the Romulan Neutral Zone that he couldn’t talk about, and more recently, all of Republic’s command crew had been sworn to secrecy for ‘unauthorized temporal activities’, but he’d known Chase Meridian for too long to trust her. In the first place, Chase Meridian knew WAY to much about ‘Fleet operations to be a mere Lieutenant, and in the second place, she had the most dangerous mentality John had ever experienced. “Chase Meridian only cares about Chase Meridian,” John said to the Chief Engineer next to him.

“Oh, I don’t know John”, Victor quipped, “She seemed quite fond of you on Regulus.”

“That wasn’t my idea!” John shot back, “I didn’t know who she was!”

Victor gave his friend an appraising look. “Did you ask?”

“I was on Shore Leave for griffe’s sake!” Carter began pacing in the back of the car. “Besides, neither of us were in uniform. I had know way of knowing who, or WHAT she was.”

“Didn’t notice the data interface? I’m sure you must have...” Victor cleared his throat to underscore his point, “run across it.”

“Can we drop this please? If she wants the Doc, then I’m damned sure going to know why!”

“It doesn’t seem to bother Captain Marshall any.”

“That’s another thing!” Carter yelled. “We’re sailing toward a hostile armada, God knows what the Gorn have done to Cestus III, and we’re about to lose our best combat medic because some paper-pushing nass-head feels like yanking Leon’s chain?

“We haven’t used paper for 200 years John,” Victor said dryly.

“You KNOW what I mean!” Carter slammed his fist against the lift car’s bulkhead.  “We can’t just let him go!”

“WE don’t have any choice in the matter,” Victor responded, “And it’s very likely that Lieutenant Meridian has Duraniam-clad orders. Odds are that the Captain doesn’t have any options.”

“Bull,” Carter spit bitterly, “there are always options.”

Next to the impassioned Martian XO, Victor rolled his eyes. “I was AFRAID you’d say something like that.”

The lift doors opened, and Carter and Virtus began a brisk walk to Republic’s main shuttle bay. “She’s up to something Vic. I know it.”

As the pair rounded the corner, they passed Captain James Marshall. Republic’s CO gave his officers a quick nod, and it looked very much to Victor that the Captain didn’t envy the situation waiting for the duo in the shuttlebay. Without a word, Marshall continued his deliberate stride to the turbo lift, and back to the bridge.

In the shuttle bay, Leon Cromwell stood defiantly with his arms crossed, daring Lieutenant Meridian to say the wrong thing. “Now see here, LIEUTENANT,” the Doctor said for emphasis, “I have...too much to do to play Starfleet’s games any longer.”

Meridian gave Cromwell a self-satisfied smirk. “Oh, believe me Doctor,” she said almost playfully, “this is no game.”

The tension of the moment was broken by the arrival of Carter and Virtus. “John!” Leon turned to the XO, barely able to keep his temper in check, “Tell me you can do something about this.”

“Hello J.T.” Meridian said with a venomous familiarity.

“Chase,” Carter shot back.

“J.T.?” Questioned Victor.

“Will someone PLEASE tell me what the hell’s gong on”?

Carter crossed the shuttle bay to stand inches from Lieutenant Meridian. “You’re not taking my CMO anywhere...LIEUTENANT.”

“Oh,” Meridian cooed, “you’re so cute when you’re angry.”

With Meridian occupied by Carter’s confrontation, Leon walked over to the Chief Engineer, who was watching the scene unfold with scientific objectivity. “I take it they know each other?”

“Intimately,” Virtus offered.

“Well THAT figures.” There was the barest hint of a laugh in Cromwell’s voice.

“Indeed, Doctor. Indeed.”

Meridian looked approvingly at Carter as she considered what to say next.

“I liked you better in gold, sweetie.”

“Stuff it! What do you want with my Doctor?”

“Well,” Meridian stepped around the XO, to look toward Cromwell and Virtus. “In the first place, J.T. ...”

“Don’t call me that.”

Meridian smiled as she continued, satisfied that she had gotten under Carter’s skin. “He’s not your doctor. He’s Starfleet personnel, and he’s been re-assigned.” Chase gave Leon a wink that seemed to suggest ‘gotcha!’. “And in the second, I’m doing this for his own good.”

“How the hell do you figure THAT?!” Leon questioned from across the bay.

Meridian’s expression changed almost instantly from playful to deadly serious. “Conflict of interest, Doctor.”

“What?”

“You heard me,”

Next to Cromwell, Victor Virtus was counting under his breath. “Three, two...”

“Grozit!” Carter cursed.

“Watch your language honey,” Meridian chided, her tone turning eerily playful again.

Carter was close to losing his temper, but his patience were long past thin to non-existent. He gave Meridian a look that could have melted armor-plast. “Enough games Chase.” Carter looked back toward Leon and Virtus. “My ship needs this man, so tell me what the hell you want him for, or so help me, I’ll make sure you leave this deck without your runabout.”

“Hmm,” Meridian said thoughtfully, “does your Captain know this is ‘your ship’?”

“Just answer my question, Chase. Where’s the conflict of interest for Leon doing his job?”

“I’m disappointed Johnny,” Meridian fairly giggled, “you should have put this together already.”

Next to Virtus, Cromwell leaned in to speak with the Engineer. “Jeez, she’s really getting to him.”

“John’s always had a weakness for a pretty face, Doctor.”

As if on cue, the sound of footsteps on the deck plating marked the arrival of another visitor. Doctor Shannon Harris walked quickly into the shuttle bay, stepping over to Join Cromwell and Virtus. “Leon?,” she placed her hands on Cromwell’s shoulders, “word has it you’ve been reassigned.” Shannon looked around the shuttle bay, regarding the runabout, Commander Carter, and a tall blonde lieutenant that Doctor Harris didn’t recognize. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Who’s that woman with John?”

Across the shuttle bay, Chase Meridian quirked an eyebrow. “Uh-oh”, she whispered, “the other woman.”

Carter looked back at the newly arrived Doctor Harris and sighed, then turned his attention back Chase. “Get...to...the point,” Carter hissed, letting the edge of his ‘command voice’ punctuate the sentence. 

It was not a request.    

“Doctor Cromwell’s continued presence here will place Starfleet in a rather... uncomfortable position,” Meridian offered, “So he’s being transferred, back to Earth”

“Like hell I am!” Leon shouted. “You’re not taking me anywhere! I was BORN on Cestus III for god’s sake!”

“Indeed,” Chase said, as she stepped toward Republic’s three doctors, regarding Shannon Harris with a careful eye. “That’s the problem, Doctor Cromwell.”

Harris felt immediately defensive as Lieutenant Meridian seemed to dissect the red-haired physician with her eyes. Shannon suppressed a shiver as Meridian continued her explanation.

“Your family, Doctor, your father specifically, is causing problems for us.”

“What do you mean ‘for you’, Lieutenant?” Leon asked.

“For Starfleet operations in this system. Your father’s a terrorist, Doctor Cromwell.” Meridian waited as her audience absorbed her words.

“Good for him!” Leon shot back.

There was a soft beep, and the assembled crewmen looked on as Meridian blinked, and nodded once. John Carter remained strangely silent.

“I’ve done enough explaining,” Meridian said flatly. “You’re out of time, Doctor.” Meridian stepped toward her runabout which had remained in the bay with engines hot since her arrival. “Time to go.”

“I’m not going anywhere!”

John Carter turned to face his crew mates, standing face to face with Leon Cromwell.

“Yes you are Doc.”

“Excuse me?” Cromwell asked.

“Excuse me?” Harris and Virtus questioned in unison.

“It makes sense Doc,” Carter began to explain, “you can’t maintain objectivity if you’re worried about your family.”

“But...”

“And Captain Marshall will have his hands full enough trying to defuse this situation without worrying about his CMO doing something...rash and Carter-like.”

“John,” Leon’s eyes were wide, almost pleading, “please. I have to do SOMETHING.”

“And you will”, Carter said, placing his hand on the Doctor’s shoulder. Just not this. Besides,” John offered, “you’ve had questions about why Starfleet drafted you since the day you set foot on this ship.”

Victor Virtus nodded. In truth, he’d wondered how long it would take for John to make the logical conclusion, or even IF he would.

“Go find your answers,” Carter said simply. “I’ll look after your family.”

“John, I can’t...”

“Trust me, Doc. Have I ever let you down?”

“Touching as this is,” Chase Meridian cut in, “Doctor Cromwell and I have a deadline.”

“Just prep the ship, you cyber-jacked witch!” Carter let his temper show again, “and don’t for a minute think I don’t wish you were sucking vacuum.”

“Aww,” Meridian sighed, “you say the sweetest things.” Meridian focused her attention on Shannon Harris. “Doesn’t he, red?”

Across the bay, Shannon Harris clenched her fists.

Leon Cromwell took Carter’s hand. “You still owe me money, you son-of-a-bitch.”

Carter gave Leon an easy smirk, able to put Meridian’s presence out of his mind for a moment. The XO returned the handshake. “Don’t worry Doc,” John offered, “this isn’t over.” Carter looked back in Meridian’s direction. “I always pay my debts.”

For once in her life, Chase Meridian made a graceful exit, ducking into the still-humming runabout. Next to Doctors Harris and Virtus, Leon Cromwell lifted his chin and looked at his colleagues approvingly. “All right then,” Cromwell said with resignation, “I’ll leave you to it.”

Leon looked over at Shannon Harris, who was having difficulty letting the scene unfold.

“Keep an eye on our boy here, eh Doctor Harris?”

Shannon couldn’t help but smile at the Doctor’s kindness. “No worries, Leon.”

Next, Cromwell stepped over to regard Victor Virtus. “Doctor.”

“Doctor.” Virtus replied simply.

With that, Leon Cromwell turned on a heel, executing a perfect, Starfleet about-face, and walked purposefully into the runabout.

27 seconds later, Meridian and Leon Cromwell were racing back toward Earth at hundreds of times the speed of light. John Carter let his guard down and put one arm around Shannon Harris’ shoulder, then tapped his comm badge. “Carter to bridge. The runabout’s away. ”

The silence in the shuttlebay lasted for about a half a minute while Carter, Harris, and Virtus watched through the containment field as the runabout entered warp.

“Glad to see you finally followed orders for once, Commander.”

Looking slightly aghast, John looked around the bay for where the echoing voice came from.  The shuttlebay door was closing as a metal clanking sounded from up above in the control room.  It was Captain Marshall climbing down from the observation platform.  When he arrived at the landing he made a direct line for Carter as Harris and Virtus quietly excused themselves.  John simply watched with disdain as the captain approached him.

For his part, Captain Marshall had gotten used to the cold shoulder from his first officer, paying no mind to the scowl emanating from the commander.

“I read Chase’s orders myself.  They were legitimate, and made perfect sense to me,” Marshall said.

“Just because I followed orders,” John replied coolly.  “Doesn’t mean that I like them.  You of all people should know that.”

The captain ignored the remark.  “Can we please get over the doctor leaving us?  I think we have more pressing issues at the moment.”

“Yes,” sneered Carter.  “Let’s.”

“First off,” Marshall started.  “Mister Forrest tells me that the Gorns are holding station, paying us no mind.  Is that right?”

“Yes sir,” John replied.

“Second of all, according to Chase, we have some terrorist cell working down there stirring up more trouble than we need.  Is that correct?”

This time, Carter only nodded his head in reply.

“Finally, there’s likely to be Starfleet personnel in hiding that could use our help at the moment.  Forrest did mention an intelligence outpost in the mission briefing, did he not?”

“Sir, with all due respect, get to the sprocking point!”

Marshall squinted with annoyance at Carter, making his next sentence more firm.

“Your mission, Commander, is to take our new Hazard Team to the surface in a shuttle and make contact with any human resistance cells or Starfleet assets.”

“. . . .and then?” Carter insistently awaited the final conclusion.

“And then, you’ll contact me and we’ll go from there.”

“That’s it?!  Just contact you?  What about beaming survivors aboard?  What about dealing with the Gorn fleet?”

“I’ll deal with the Gorns,” Marshall returned.  “You have your orders, commander.  I expect you to carry them out.”

“Permission to bring Mister Hawk and Commander Forrest along,” he requested.

“Why Forrest?”

“Because sir,” Carter’s tone was impatient.  “If we need to contact the intelligence outpost, it would be nice to have someone connected to Intelligence Command on the mission, wouldn’t you agree?”

To himself, Carter was amused at turning the tables on the captain, asking him the inane questions for once.

“Fine.  Dismissed, commander.”  Marshall immediately left the shuttlebay enroute to the bridge.

“Carter to bridge,” John tapped his combadge.

=/\= “This is the bridge.  Go ahead.” =/\=

“Have Commander Forrest, Lieutenant Hawk, and the new Hazard Team report to the main shuttle bay.  We lift off in ten mics.”

=/\= “Aye aye, sir.” =/\=

 

<location: Shuttlecraft Onizuka>

 Lieutenant Nathan 'Nat' Hawk felt like a man almost home as he expertly manipulated the controls of the nimble Class-9 Shuttle Onizuka and guided the cramped auxiliary craft from her berth aboard the monstrous Starship Republic.  Pushing the craft forward with an increase in her speed to two-thirds of full thrusters, he adjusted the small craft's pitch and angle with grace, not even bothering to look at the sensor readouts.  He didn't need them in a craft of this size or configuration.  No true pilot did.  A true pilot simply felt where everything was in relation to everything else and acted on instinct, as if the craft was an extension of his own body.  Nat did exactly so, only with a calm sense of anticipation and exhilaration that was lost on most people.

 Most normal Starfleet officers would have aligned the shuttle via sensors with the small distortion formed within the 'bubble' of the ship's shields, but Nat did it by line of sight and intuition instead, sliding the curvaceous craft through the opening like a hand to a glove.  He did so with such precision, such concentration, and yet gave off only the appearance of tranquil competence.  Quite simply this was exactly what he had been born to do.  Nothing else that he was skilled at or did with passion - not sex, not drinking, not playing pool or gambling - was even close to his true calling in life.  Flight was engrained into his being.

 Once through the Republic's shields, they where theoretically exposed to any potential Gorn assault, but Nat had adjusted their vector to conceal their initial decent for a few moments.  Darting his eyes to a blinking control on the divider station between his own and Carter's console, he addressed the Republic's First Officer without taking his eyes from the stars - or rapidly approaching world.

 "Hey C'mander, do me a favor?" he said, his tone in between asking and ordering and on a friendly level, "hit that blinkin' button fer me, will ya?" he said.  Without audible reply or question, Carter stretched out his hand and pressed the indicated control.  Instantly, the ship's comm-system came to life with the sound of an electric guitar.  The volume was far beyond standard, and Nat saw Carter wince at the sudden loud noise.

 "What the hell is this?" Carter shouted.

 "Blitzkrieg Bop," Hawk replied, his own voice raised.  "Called rock'n roll, song my squad used ta play b'fore an durin' our missions sometimes." he explained.

 "It's a little loud," complained Forrest, coming up a step from the aft portion of the cabin.

 "B'hind the line!" Hawk shouted.

 "What?"

 "Yer in ma line a sight," Hawk explained, pointing to the aft portion of the window on the right of the shuttle which Forrest was blocking.  

 "Sorry," Forrest said, stepping back behind the divider of cockpit/passenger cabin once more.  Nat didn't know if he seriously was sorry or not and really didn't care, given that Forrest hadn't really been blocking his line of sight.  He didn't want the blackshirt creep that close to him, especially not when he was trying to concentrate...

<location: bridge, SGV Fierce Claw>

The silhouette of James Marshall appeared on the viewscreen before the before the members of the Gorn bridge crew. The dark, steamy environment was awake with sounds of computers and controls emitting an occasional baritone chirp while the green, scaley figure of M'Geth sat in the center seat, speaking in hisses and clucks that was translated to English.

"Ssso be it, Marrrshall," the pack leader said spitefully. "What was left unfinished on this planet a ssssentury ago will be finished now. I shall face the Kirk-mammal once more and the victor will cede this system. Where issss he?"

"He is dead, and has been for quite sometime now.  In light of that, I am more than willing to take his place in representing the Federation." said the Human, CaptainJamesMarshall of the YwhoEssEss Rep-ublic.  Pack leader G'Meth contemplated the offer for only a moment before realizing how simply he could defeat the puny primate.  'This time,' he thought to himself, 'I will emerge victorious.'

 "Very well, the third moon of this planet is the chosen arena.  We will transmit the coordinates to you.  We will commence in two hoursss.  G'Meth out." said the Pack Leader quickly, the channel closing promptly upon his signal.  "Prepare the new course, First Sword.  I wish to arrive-" he began to order.

 "Leader!" exclaimed the First Sword, interrupting his superior - something intolerable without excuse.  "A ssmall craft iss moving away from the Rep-ublic, towardss our vessels and the planet!"

 "That can not be permitted!" shouted G'Meth.  "Order all sships to fire upon that vessssel.  Desstroy it!"

 "Yess Leader!" replied the First Sword.

 

 <location: Shuttlecraft Onizuka>

 With a grace of movement impossible to obtain in a larger craft, the shuttle Onizuka maneuvered between the first two Gorn vessels and into the fringes of the upper atmosphere of Cestus III.  Their course and speed where designed to keep them in close to each Gorn vessel they passed, to mask their presence as a stray reading amongst so many other ships.  Though Nat knew nothing about Gorn sensors, having totally forgotten anything that might have been mentioned in the briefing, he knew this tactic rarely - if ever - worked for very long.

 "Think ya'll might wanna hold on ta somethin'," Hawk advised preemptively.

 "Why?  Are they charging-?" Forrest began to ask.  Before the words could leave his mouth though, the shuttle pitched hard to port and banked down, a slight shudder passing through the cabin as they did.  

 "Nope, they ain't chargin' nothin'.  They're firin'!" Hawk replied, the Gorn weapon having barely grazed the aft quarter of the starboard nacelle courtesy of his reflexes.

 "Aren't we going to fire back?" asked one of the Hazard Team members, who looked barely old enough to shave.

 "Ain't no frinxin' point, boy," Hawk replied before Forrest or Carter could offer an explanation.  

 Without warning, the Onizuka drove upward at a nearly 40-degree angle as another blast of Gorn weapon fire screamed across her ventral shields.  "Sonuvabitch!" Hawk shouted, his left hand flying to the Inertial Dampener controls and dropping them off by twenty percent, as his right hand pulled the Onizuka into a hard roll to starboard, her pitch still angled upward.  Another surge of Gorn weapon fire struck the agile shuttle's shields, but the Onizuka herself escaped actual damage.

 "Hawk, that last one knocked or shields to 57 percent," Carter said, his tone informative and authorative.  "Whatever your doing, do it better!" he said.

 "Aye Aye!" Hawk replied, slapping the inertial dampeners down another 10 percent in compliance.  The feel of the craft and the impact her movements had upon her occupants was now quite noticeable, and Hawk had a split second to notice a look of concern and perhaps illness on Forrest's face.

 Altering bow bitch back to level and then down by another ten-degrees, Nat threw the Onizuka hard to port and then fell into evasive pattern delta - rocking the sleek craft from port to starboard as she moved with the momentum from side to side by a few meters each time.  Around them, a fury of coordinated energy beams flew across the starscape before, behind, and around them.  His erratic maneuvers where the only thing that prevented the small craft from taking a direct hit by any of them.

 Moving down through the Gorn blockade, and deeper into the upper atmosphere, almost out of the Thermosphere, Nat could feel the pressure of both the planet and the shuttle's gravity thanks to the weakened inertial dampeners.  He could also hear the grunts and moans of his passengers from aft, whom obviously where used to a smoother ride.  Thankfully no one made an audible complaint.

 Entering the Mesopause - the area of the atmosphere between the thermosphere and mesosphere between 90 and 80 thousand miles - the atmospheric resistance began to pick up, causing the shuttle to chafe against the pressure which was barely at 60 millibars and only going to get worse.  Without warning after a brief respite from Gorn fire, a bolt of phased energy slammed into the nimble craft, knocking there aft section back upon impact and altering their pitch for a moment, which only increased their resistance.

 "They're using our atmospheric wake to track us and lock on!" Carter shouted, providing critical information to Hawk.  

 Nat knew the tactic the Gorn where using well, had even used it himself against a few Cardassian Hideki-Class fighters during the war.  He'd also had to find a 'solution' to the same problem from their current point of view - on the receiving end - and had only been able to come up with one option.  One which his Squadron CO had labeled 'excessively reckless' and ordered him never to do again.  Thankfully, he wasn't here right now.

 "Everybody's gonna wanna hold on real tight!" Hawk shouted.  Without a seconds more warning, Nat slammed the Onizuka's bow straight down, at two-hundred-seventy-degrees -- straight down.  "Yeehhaaawwwww!" he shouted as he was slammed and held tightly against the back of his chair thanks to the gravitational forces.

 "Hhhhhaaaaawwwwwkkkkkkk!" shouted someone, though Nat couldn't focus on who, as he continued to alter the shuttle's pitch, moving her to two-sixty.  They where now going down at a more 'upside down' angle instead of straight.  Passing into the Mesosphere, skyrocketed from 60 millibars up towards the eventual 960 millibars.  Hawk continued to adjust her angle, now at two-fifty.  The hull wailed and screamed as the pressure outside fought against the pressure inside as well as the vessel structure of the small craft.  All the while, Hawk continued to adjust the angle of decent so they where further 'upside down' than they had been, now at two-forty.

 "Warning!" shouted the Computer, ending the music, "Structural Integrity at maximum tolerance.  Decrease decent vector and speed." commanded the computer.

 "Aww shudup!" Hawk shouted at the computer, as he took the Onizuka even further and harder, to two-hundred-thirty-degrees pitch.

 "I'm gonna be sick!" shouted someone from the aft, and by the squeak of his voice, likely one of the Hazard Team.

 "Warning!" shouted the Computer, "Structural Integrity at maximum tolerance.  Structural Failure Eminent.  Decrease decent vector and speed." commanded the computer.

 "Hawk!  Maybe you should listen to the Computer!" shouted Carter, a pilot by definition, but one out of practice for quite some time.

 "She'll hold!" was Hawk's only reply as he pushed the Onizuka to two-twenty.  The vessel was now shuddering with the atmospheric turbulence and the atmospheric pressure continued to climb.  At somewhere around 56,000 feet the pressure would hit it's maximum.  That would be the true test.  

 "Warning!" shouted the Computer, "Structural Integrity at maximum tolerance.  Structural Failure in sixty seconds.  Decrease decent vector and speed." commanded the computer.

 "Almost there!" Hawk said, speaking of there decent as he continued to push the Onizuka to beyond her design limits, now to two-ten as she entered the stratopause.

 "The nacelle pylons are starting to buckle!" shouted Carter from the right side of the cabin as he struggled to read the multiple warnings on his screen.  "I'm diverting power from weapons to structural integrity!" he informed.  

 Hawk for his part nodded approvingly as they entered the stratosphere now.  His first impression of the Commander had been casual, but still Starfleet-at-heart.  He'd seen later that the man was even less Starfleet and more an independent person in a uniform later at The Hill.  Now, by his smart thinking and willingness to take risks, he'd moved up to someone Hawk might actually consider a friend - if he had any true friends.  Pushing the Onizuka to two-hundred-degrees pitch as she continued to fall from the sky, entering the tropopause, he couldn't help but be irked by the sight of the rapidly approaching ground 'above' them.

 "Warning!" shouted the Computer, "Structural Integrity at maximum tolerance.  Structural Failure in forty-five seconds.  Decrease decent vector and speed." commanded the computer.

 From the aft cabin, the easily identifiable and unpleasant odor of half-digested stomach contents and bile wafted forward.  Obviously whomever had threatened to get sick had followed through.  Nat couldn't help but smile through it though, wondering how anyone could have such a weak stomach as he pushed the Onizuka to one-ninety.

 "Republic to Onizuka," said the disembodied voice of Captain James Marshall from the comm-system, "is everything alright?  Your vector is-" Marshall said before Hawk cut the communication.  'Talk 'bout bad timing!' he exclaimed to himself as he pushed the Onizuka to one-eighty - now totally 'upside down' - as they reached 1,000 feet from ground level.  

 The small craft continued to fall until Hawk slammed down upon the controls, in one movement ceasing her decent and plowing forward on impulse, and flipping the craft over to starboard until she was level and 'right side up' again.  "Yeah!" he exclaimed in triumph.

 "What the hell is wrong with you?!" Forrest demanded, nearly grabbing Hawk by the throat.

 "Calm down, Commander," Carter said.  "I know exactly what he was doing, and not to stroke your ego Mister Hawk, but it was genius." Carter said as Nat flew the Onizuka at an altitude of a half-dozen feet along the planets desert terrain.  "Insane genius, but genius." Carter added.

 "Well could you clue the non-pilots amongst us in as to why we just did that?" Forrest asked.

 "C'mander, ya care to field that one?  Yer a bit more eloquent than me, an I gotta drive." Hawk said, turning back to face forward.

 "The Gorn where locking onto our atmospheric wake - the turbulence and distortion caused by our entry into the planet's atmosphere," Carter explained, obviously being over-simplified for the sake of the Hazard Team.  "So Hawk... well, it's like skipping a stone along a pond.  You skip a small stone and it makes a few ripples as it goes across the water.  Now imagine that the rocks size, but not weight, gets bigger each time it skips.  The ripples get larger, the water splashes up, and more ripples happen.  After a while, you can't tell which ripple is caused by the actual rock or the other ripples.  Same principle only with air turbulence and distortion.  We where the rock, and our angle increased the friction, increasing the 'ripples'." Carter explained.  "Like I said, insane genius." he added with a grin at Hawk, who returned it.

 "Republic to Onizuka, come in!" shouted Marshall.

 "Onizuka, Hawk 'er.  Sorry 'bout that Cap'n, ya spoke up at a delicate moment."

 "Commander Carter, is everyone alright?  Your decent vector was-" Marshall said, irritation in his voice, likely from being cut off.

 "Everyone's fine, Captain." Carter replied.  "More or less," he added, noting the stench of vomit still in the air.

 "We lost track of you somewhere in the upper mesosphere, we had atmospheric readings all over the place, we thought you'd broken up." Marshall explained.

 "No sir.  Just... skipped across the pond." Carter said with a smile.

 "...I see." Marshall said.  Hawk wasn't sure if he'd understood what Carter had meant or not from his tone, and couldn't figure it out since he didn't know if the Captain himself was a pilot.  "The Gorn have... re-accepted my challenge.  We'll be departing within the hour, you have your orders." Marshall said.

 "Aye sir.  Good luck." Carter replied.

 "Thank you.  Republic out." said the Captain.

<Location: Cestus III, Cornucopia Settlement>

The desert-like terrain of Cestus III had always been harsh. The air temperature could easily reach 35 Celsius.  The burnished red landscape hid an elegant, yet dangerous beauty. Healthy respect for such a place was required.

All this flashed through Security Chief A'nathon's mind as a cruel joke. Andorians weren't overly fond of the heat. Once again he reminded himself to find out who had cut his orders and have a little talk with them.

His assignment was to run a small security force at a remote Starfleet listening post. Seeing as this was a Federation Colony planet, it was obvious this wasn't a typical Military operation. It had that Starfleet Intelligence reek to it. None of his personnel spoke of the matter and tried to stay out of the way of the "technicians" who actually operated the facility.

A'nathon crouched low behind a jagged boulder outcropping and watched the dozen or so Gorn walk through the streets of the Cornucopia Settlement. The image-viewers showed him the scene as it unfolded nearly a kilometer away.

The Gorn were herding the colonists in small groups and placing them in quickly erected detainment pens. Those colonists who showed signs of resisting were easily overpowered and penned as well. The Gorn appeared to be happy with detaining the colonists.

"Definitely a good sign," thought the security officer.

When the facility first report the approach of the Gorn fleet around Cestus III they weren't very concerned. The facility was using a ground based cloaking device and was far enough away from any settlements that it wouldn't draw attention.

Six hours ago A'nathon had suited up with two of his unit, Davis and Bitterstaff, in Anti Detection suits, making them invisible to the Gorn sensors. They could still be seen by direct visual contact, but with some skill and luck that wouldn't happen. Plus the suits provided a nice cooling system that made being on this inferno of a planet worthwhile. Unfortunately luck had been busy, probably shacked up with some damned Starship Captain or Commander while he bluffed his way out of some overly complex tactical situation.

The Andorian shook his head. The heat was starting to get him. He needed to stay focused. His cooling system had been damaged when his patrol had stumbled upon two Gorn troopers. The fight hadn't lasted long. Both Davis and Bitterstaff had been killed; his suit ripped to shreds and one of his antennae was painfully broken. Yes indeed a long, painful, bloody stalk.

In the distance a dozen Gorn appeared surrounded by a nimbus of transporter energy and began making their way towards a home near the end of the settlement. A'nathon wasn't exactly sure what was going on but it appeared that someone was putting up one hell of a fight. Explosions ripped through the yard, hurling Gorn ground troops into the air. Transporters beamed out the fallen Gorn and then beamed in new troops. These managed to make it to the house this time before they were cut apart by a phaser weapon of some sort. A third and fourth group eventually managed to breach the house, only to have it nearly explode in a fireball that turned the entire housing block into an inferno.

The security chief smiled, one of his scary smiles, usually reserved for those people he admired or hated. He wasn't sure how, but someone in Cornucopia had decided to bleed the Gorn. As the block of homes burned he spotted a single figure, dressed in a silvery fire suit, sneaking away. A'nathon longed to open fire with his phaser rifle and do some damage, but his specific order were to not engage the Gorn unless in self-defense.

"Wonderful order," he mused. But nothing said he couldn't render aid to the colonists.

The chief ducked pack out of sight and gathered the field packs he'd taken from Davis and Bitterstaff and shouldered them. They each weighed around twenty kilos and contained food rations, phaser recharge packs, portable shelters and survival gear. In his agitated state the weight was nothing. He quickly jogged along the outcropping and used the terrain to cover his movement. He'd be able to reach a point that would intersect the lone guerrilla's path about twenty minutes before he'd get there.

When A'nathon reached the location he placed the three packs on the ground and disguised their sensor signature as best he could. There was no way the packs could be missed if anyone walked within thirty meters of them. He was due back at Operations in five hours. Plenty of time at a quick jog, he just prayed no one gave him any funny looks or even made a noise, until he cooled down.

***

In the fog of war, mysteries abound.  With his escape plan in progress, Arthur took no time to navigate the streets of the Cornucopia suburbs.  He knew them well, and at the edge of the blast radius, radiation levels were low enough to risk removal of his silvery protective suit.  After a short burst from his phasor carbine, he vaporized the discarded garment and offered a moment of silence where he stole one last glimpse from the field of ash where a beautiful housing block once stood.  Without so much as a tear for his destroyed home, the gruff old man turned away and continued his trek. 

Most Federation colonies utilized localized matter/energy converter systems to breakdown organic wastes into basic deuterium, but 150 years ago, the original Cestus III colony was built without such technology due to lack of equipment availability for the first earth-colony ships.  Although it was conceived that the colony would eventually gain the benefit of converter systems, a network of waste tunnels was first laid down to divert organic waste to a single municipal facility that recycled the compounds into a beneficial growth medium for the initial agricultural fields.  Unfortunately, the Gorns destroyed the original colony before converter systems were ever acquired.  When the new colony was built, the waste tunnels were abandoned as converter systems were incorporated into the second colonial expedition. 

Built from hollowed-out bedrock deep below the colony, Arthur had long considered the tunnels to be more than just a haven for the planet’s large population of Sandwings--the Cestus III version of bats.  Although the main inputs and outputs of the waste network had caved-in long ago, the torrential downpours of the monsoon season caused the tunnels to accumulate rainwater through percolation from the surface.  This not only carved out fissures and crevasses from the walls and ceilings, but sedimentation had laid down a substrate of silt where entire cave-dwelling ecosystems had grown over the decades.  As a long-forgotten relic from the colony’s past, the network of subterranean channels were a perfect place for people seeking seclusion--if they could get to them.

Fortunately for Arthur, the years of top-down erosion had opened up a fracture in the ground that led to a branch of the abandoned tunnel system.  Located among an abstruse rock outcropping, the crevice was situated within the semi-wild parkland at the edge of town where a mix of both native and exotic vegetation was cultivated for a natural windbreak against the dry desert winds.  Although it was irrigated to maintain a constant moisture gradient, the thick grove of trees and brush were allowed to grow uncultured, offering a quiet country stroll for the residents of Cornucopia during better times.  However, on this war-torn evening, it served as further concealment for Arthur during his journey to the underground.

The edge of the wood was marked by a lonely street which paralleled the tree boundary.  As Arthur cautiously approached it from a perpendicular road, he scanned the night air for any signs of watchers or pursuers.  The evening was quiet, and filled only with the sound of chirping insects and the distant roar of aerial craft as he pulled out his aged tricorder.  Unlike the current Starfleet clamshell version, his device was the older, bulky model the size of a hardcover book.  It’s sensor head had a limited range, and it took longer to scan, but it was still quite accurate at deciphering the surrounding area for lifesigns or other anomalous readings.  Confident that there were no pursuers, Arthur closed his scanner, adjusted his backpack, and continued on a direct course to the wood line.  Just short of the boundary, three objects in the center of the road brought the older man to a standstill.  Covered with a custom-cut sheet sensor-scattering camouflage netting were three parcels the size of backpacks.

Paranoid suspicion gripped Arthur.  With wide-eyed wariness, he looked around the immediate area in hopes to identify the owner of the packages, putting aside his confidence in the recent tricorder survey.  The items appeared to have been intentionally placed so a passerby would see them, but would also be shrouded from sensory equipment by the netting.  But who were they for?  To Arthur’s knowledge, there were only a select few who knew of this particular entrance to the nearly-forgotten waste tunnel network.  Even still, how would they have known anyone would be approaching from this direction?  Was it a trap?  Did someone see him coming?

Against his better judgment, Arthur quickly pulled off the sensor netting and again produced his tricorder.  A quick scan revealed the parcels were loaded with survival equipment, energy packs, and food rations, thus deepening the mystery.  Although he first suspected that it was a trick to place a tracking mechanism in the midst of a resistance operative, his fear subsided after the scanner revealed that no communication frequencies were emanating from the packs, and stable isotope ratios indicated the origin of the provisions were from Earth-based replicator systems.  The only mystery to be solved now was who left the backpacks for Arthur to find.  Unfortunately, he needed time to figure that out, and it was in short supply.  If he did not vacate the area soon, Gorn starship sensors would pick him up as a straggling human colonist.  Collecting the mysterious gifts, Arthur grunted over their weight, but resolved to trudge on with the hopes to bring needed supplies to the rest of his comrades waiting somewhere below the surface.

 

<location: deck 10, corridor section 7G, U.S.S. Republic>

"Captain, please listen to me. I know I haven't been Tac Chief very long, but..."

"I've made up my mind McTaggart." James Marshall said to his worried bridge officer. The tall dark-haired Captain weaved his way through the busy corridors of the Republic. Sean McTaggart, clearly upset at what his Captain had decided, was trying to keep up with his commanding officer's determined stride. "I've read the files on the Gorn," Marshall continued, not bothering to make eye contact with his junior officer. "This is the quickest way to legally settle this whole thing."

"Captain," McTaggart shouted, causing all traffic in the corridor to stop, "he'll kill you!"

Marshall spun on his heel, placing his hands on his hips. "He's a hundred and twenty years old, and my ship is staring down twenty hostiles," Marshall said firmly. "Either I take down one ancient Gorn captain, or a whole lot more people will end up dead. Most likely us."

"Even at his advanced age Captain, he's probably faster and I KNOW he's stronger than you." Sean McTaggart tried to keep his temper, knowing full well that while he was exercising his duty as a member of the command crew, he was also dangerously close to insubordination. "When this...G'Meth faced Captain Kirk eighty years ago, he was battling a mental assault from the Metrons." McTaggart took a few cautious steps around his CO. "I've seen the records from the first Enterprise," McTaggart continued. "Even in his altered condition, G'Meth was more than a match for Kirk, and you won't have that edge. I'm telling you Captain, one on one, you can't beat G'Meth. Besides..."

"The hell I can't!" Marshall interjected.

"If the XO had been in a position to stop you, the two of you would be having this discussion right now."

Marshall's expression hardened instantly at the mention of Republic's executive officer. Ever since his ship's initial confrontation with the Kreltan Confederacy, James Marshall had harbored the secret fear that the crew looked up more to Commander Carter than to him. As Marshall reflected on the events that had brought him to this point he could see only second guesses and rushed conclusions. `No,' he thought to himself, `if I back out now it will just be another sign of weakness. I have to stand firm on this, or I'm finished.' "I'm sure Commander Carter would appreciate your speaking up for him."

McTaggart could tell he'd crossed some kind of line, and began to soften his approach. "Please, Captain." McTaggart repeated. "I'm just trying to..."

"I know what you're trying to do, Lieutenant Commander," the captain shot back, "but the decision is mine, and mine alone. This matter is closed. This is one problem I'm going to solve." Marshall turned his back to his Tactical Chief and continued toward the nearest turbolift shaft. His face skewed in annoyance as he heard McTaggart's footsteps behind him, following him into the turbolift. "Transporter room two." Marshall called out to the ship's near-omnipresent computer. The two officers swayed slightly as the lift car shot down the Republic's neck shaft toward the lower deck transporter. As the lights of passing decks swished by, Marshall looked sideways at his companion.

"What are you doing here?"

McTaggart didn't hide the self-satisfied look on his face. "General Order 15," he explained. "No flag officer shall beam down to an unsecured location without armed escort."

"Great." Marshall grumbled as lift doors opened. "You read the book."

 In the transporter room of Fierce Claw, G'Meth looked at his First Sword with a measure of reluctant pride. In the dim red light of the small room, punctuated by the pulsing flash of matter regulators, G'meth watched as the First Sword checked the sharpness of his Line Blade. The blade curved in a fierce arc and flared at the to make the cutting surface that much more effective. The blade itself was a light, highly polished silicate composite that had been refined over the years, taking advantage of the latest in zero-gravity manufacturing techniques. The lightweight of the blade combined with the properties of the silicate to make this latest generation of Gorn "ceremonial" weapons one of the fastest, deadliest weapons in the quadrant.

The hilt of the weapon was a simple, rough hewn stone disk; the same material that made up the handle of the weapon. The stone itself came form the quarries of the Gorn homeworld, as had been the practice for centuries, since before the Gorn made their steps into space. Tradition held that the blade was the outward symbol of a line member's prowess and prestige, but unlike Romulan or Klingon ceremonial weapons, function was more important than form. There was no need for gold inlay or braided tassels that did little more than boost of the wielder's wealth. In Gorn society, simple effectiveness was of more use than an ostentatious trappings.

G'Meth also noted with an approving smile that his First Sword also carried a small glass vile at his waist, containing a viscous green liquid. `Good', G'Meth thought, `he remembers the way of the Serpent.'

 ***

In the days before the first line, before the serpent walked, there were all manner of beasts on the homeworld. The serpents lived in harmony with nature working in the sun, sheltering in the ground, taking only what was necessary from their environment. However the serpents were not alone.

The homeworld also had mammals. Hairy, noisy creatures with wasteful habits who worked to change the natural order. Screaming and cursing through the night when they should have rested. Tearing at the ground with tools, and using fire to take away the night's blissful darkness. The mammals left filth and destruction in their wake. Worse still the mammals knew only fear for the serpents, a fear that lead them to destroy the reptiles who sought only to live as they will.

In the cold of night, when the serpent would sleep, (for how can one move without the warmth of the sun?) The mammal used his twisted tools to kill the serpent, then took his body back to feast on his dead brother in triumph. But, like so many mammals, this one too was short sighted. He did not know that the serpent he killed had already laid the seeds for the Gorn civilization. A clutch of eggs were safely buried in the warmth of the sun baked ground, and when the sun rose that day, as the decadent, mammals dozed to recover from their perverted celebrations, one tiny serpent slipped out of her egg and greeted the sun for the first time.

The young serpent watched her surroundings, and quickly learned how the mammal had killed more of it's kind. Small and weak as it was, the serpent knew that it was no match for the numerous, wasteful mammals. Grateful for the sun's warmth, the serpent turned her unblinking eye to the glowing source of all life and asked that something might be done to avenge the sun's faithful servants.

When the sun set that night, as the serpent slipped back into her earthen bed, the sun whispered to her in a dream. The next morning, when the serpent awoke, she smiled and thanked the sun for light, warmth, and for speed and strength. The serpent also thanked the sun for answering her prayer, for giving the serpent sharp fangs to pierce the mammal's filthy skin, and venom to burn their blood.

The serpent disappeared into the tall grass of the plains to where the mammals slept and used the gifts the sun had given the serpent.

That night, the mammals did not scream. The serpent's venom was swift and deadly.

Since that time, all Gorn knew the `Way of the Serpent'. "Use your speed and strength, and sink your fangs deep, so that in the night, there is silence."

 ***

It had been a long time since G'Meth felt the weight of a Line Blade in his hand, but he did recall that the First Sword had a point. This Terran Captain, Marshall, would insert himself into history, hoping to repeat the humiliation that was visited on G'Meth by the hated Kirk. Marshall had already requested trial by combat to settle the human incursion into Gorn territory on Cestus III, and by the laws of his government, G'Meth could not refuse to meet his opponent. However, the law was also quite clear in the position that Marshall was NOT his opponent. The Kirk was dead, so Marshall was acting as his second. In turn, G'Meth would appoint his First Sword as second, and let the trial decide who was in the right.

=/\= "Bridge to Pack Leader G'Meth"=/\=

 G'Meth looked up in annoyance as his bridge officer's voice rang through the transporter chamber. "Yes?" He hissed, holding the end of the word to convey his displeasure.

=/\= "The Federation ship has slipped into orbit around the moon. They say that Marshall is awaiting your arrival." =/\=

"Is he alone?" G'Meth asked, looking confidently at the First Sword, who was now letting a few drops of green poison drip down the edge of his Line Blade.

=/\= "No, Pack Leader. There are two of them. One is armed." =/\=

"Thank you bridge." G'Meth offered. "We will be on the moon's surface shortly. That will be all." The Pack Leader joined his First Sword on the transporter platform, turning his head to address the younger saurian. "Never trust a mammal, First Sword."

"No, Pack Leader. Such is the way of the Serpent."

G'Meth nodded in approval. "Indeed." He looked ahead to the crewman manning the transporter console. "Activate," he ordered simply, and in a swirl of purple light and faint whispering, G'Meth and the First Sword were gone

 

<Location: Cestus III, McCallum Province>

Silence was the only thing to fill the cabin for the next for moments as the Onizuka moved along the surface of Cestus III.  Finally, someone spoke up.

"So, who puked?" Nat Hawk asked as the runabout's status board turned green. For his part, John Carter gave the pilot next to him a quirky grin, then tapped the controls on his co-pilot station to bring the small craft's inertial dampeners back to 100 percent. In the runabout's crew cabin, Doug Forrest and his squad of Hazard Team troops were assessing their own condition.

"I'll say this for you Hawk," Forrest admonished the southern-born helmsman, "You keep that up and you'll give Carter there a run for `Craziest-son-of-a-bitch in `Fleet."

"Thanks a lot." Carter shot back, undoing his crash harness. "Everyone ok back there?"

One by one the six members of the Hazard Team checked the charge packs in their phaser rifles, the position of their tri-corders and communicators on the black syth-fibre straps and buckles that comprised a Starfleet issues battle harness, and gave Forrest, who had been assigned as Ops. Leader a `thumbs up'. Forrest performed the same check on himself with a light chuckle. "We're all fine XO," he called back, "but Mendoza looks a little green."

"Roger that." Carter answered back, as he walked to the equipment locker just behind the exit port. "Hawk," Carter said with a grin, "you watch Mendoza."

"Thanks a heap." Hawk said, more impatient than happy to be included in the crew's jibes. Nat Hawk hadn't been put on Republic by choice, and had made no secret of his desire to be anywhere BUT on the bridge crew of a Federation starship. He'd been placed in `Fleet `custody' as a form of witness protection, and while he was more than happy to still be alive, the signs that he might actually have been accepted by his ship's crew made him feel even more out of place.

Hawk's inner musings were broken up when John Carter tossed him a hand phaser and a harness with two extra charge packs. Hawk caught the equipment with ease and fixed the weapon in place around his waist.

Carter secured his own battle harness and then keyed the runabout's outer door. The sunlight of Cestus III was blinding, and hot arid wind hit the Starfleet crew like a wall. Instinctively, Carter raised his hands to shield his eyes. He inhaled sharply and squinted, reminded suddenly of just how much he missed his native Mars. "Damn," he hissed as he stepped onto the hard, sun-baked soil. "Now I know why Doc left this place." Carter stepped forward and took in his surroundings. Next to him, Lieutenant Commander

Douglas Forrest pulled his tri-corder free of his equipment harness. The six Hazard Team members formed an arc around the two officers, and Nat Hawk brought up the rear, closing and locking the runabout hatch behind him.

The high-pitched trickling of water resonated off the tunnel walls with an echoic reverberation in the distance.  Smooth granite facades gave way to carbonaceous stalactites, hard water deposits, and other calcified residue.  Jagged boulders laid strewn about the gravelly floor, dislodged after years of erosion had worn through seepage cracks in the ceiling.  Occasionally, this collapsing debris blocked off branch tunnels, entombing them until the patient hands of nature reclaimed them back into the crust.  In other areas, the blockage was not so final, leaving holes in the rubble just large enough to crawl through.  The morning daylight could not penetrate this deep, cavernous underworld, and only the glow from Arthur’s headlamp filtered through the darkness.

Shortly after climbing down the open fissure in the ground, the weight of the three new backpacks plus his own survival bag became unbearable for the sixty-something father of two.  As soon as he reached the branch tunnel, he converted a two-meter length of rolled-up, durable plastic into a makeshift sled.  Using synthetic rope and a survival knife, Arthur securely tied the four heavy parcels to the topside of the plastic, and attached a long loop in the front for use as a tether.  Before long, he was hiking through the cavernous remains of the old waste tunnel system with his heavy cargo in tow.

As the hours wore on, sweat drenched Arthur’s clothing, and after emptying his canteen of drinking water, stopped for a moment to refill it with a portable vapor condenser.  It was a simple, transtator-powered device, no bigger than an apple, and screwed onto the canteen lip in place of the actual cap.  Arthur placed the coupled gadgets on the ground, took a seat on his cargo sled, and as the condenser hummed away, he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.  A few minutes later, the old man, exhausted from his 24-hour ordeal that metamorphosis his humble colonist life into one of a spiteful resistance fighter, dozed off into a light sleep.

However, his slumber was short-lived.  Abruptly thrust out of his nap, Arthur awoke to the stirring of nearby gravel.  Fearful that his unscheduled siesta had compromised his position, he turned his head quickly to catch site of an intruder.  Crawling along the ground, a dark-furred Norway rat skittered from under the sled, past his foot, and into the darkness beyond.  Realizing that there was no cause for alarm, Arthur relaxed somewhat, and reflected upon how this species of Earth vermin seemed to follow the human race wherever they happen to settle.  Rats were probably introduced to Cestus Three during the first colonial expedition as stowaways who fed on crates of quadrotriticale.  As far back as the beginning of human civilization, they were renown for their abilities to kill people by simply living out their lives in a parasitic symbiosis.  They’ve brought humans plague, started deadly fires by gnawing on matches and electrical wiring, and even caused devastating floods by burrowing through earthen dams. Yet, despite the scourge they inflict upon human beings, rats could not survive without them.  As he pondered on how such a relationship developed, invoking possible similarities between humans and Gorns, it dawned on Arthur that the rat’s retreat into the darkness suggested that it might not have been running away from him, but from something else.  The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as his sense of security fled and his stomach tightened.  Again, the gravel behind him stirred, and this time, it was closer and more pronounced, signifying the presence of a much larger creature.

With his heart pounding, the only sound in the quiet cave was of blood pumping past his ears.  His mind raced through the different sized predators that could have possibly made the sound.  Stories from the early colony days about outland farm settlers being dragged off their hover-plows by bear-sized mammals with long sticky tendrils invoked panic down every inch of Arthur’s nervous system.  In a moment where he silently cursed himself for allowing a brief instant of sleep, he slowly reached out for his phasor carbine that was leaned up against the opposite side of the sled.  But he never reached it.  The cold, solid nozzle of an energy weapon pressed against his skull as a deep, raspy voice forced Arthur to freeze in place.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”

Wheels turned in Arthur’s head, analyzing the voice, and he suddenly realized that it wasn’t the croaking and hissing of a bipedal lizard.  He blinked, allowed his mind to clear itself of fear, and the knot in his stomach to release.

“Hello Skip,” Arthur replied.

To his relief, the nozzle was lowered, and the voice, which was cold and determined a split second ago, returned with a quizzical and slightly warmer tone.

“Artie?”

Turning around, Arthur beamed his headlamp into the wrinkled face of a nearly-bald man with a ring of fine white hair around the lower back of his skull.  He wore a dark-blue denim jacket over a gray undershirt, and strapped around his waist was a utility belt loaded with survival equipment and ordinance.  Dropping the phasor rifle to his side, the newcomer shouted at Arthur with a sour voice while covering his eyes from the beam of light.

“Get that damn thing out of my face, you moron!”

Switching his headlamp from beam mode to ambient mode, the focused ray emanating from Arthur’s forehead changed to a diffuse orb of soft light that was easier on the eyes, but did not have the range of the previous mode.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” returned Arthur.  “Couldn’t you tell I wasn’t a damned rex?”  ‘Rex’ was the Cestus Three nickname for a Gorn, born out of their look-alike to Earth’s prehistoric pea-size brained dinosaur.  Any such invocation of the name was meant to be derogatory.

“Sorry, Artie,” offered Skip.  “All I saw was a shadow in the light and some sort of growling.  You set off the perimeter alarm, so I naturally assumed the worst.”

“Growling?” inquired Arthur.

“Yeah, you ding-bat.  You were snoring.”

“I don’t snore!” he returned.

“Like hell you don’t.  Janice has been telling you that for years, but you would never admit it.”

The reminder of his wife brought a moment of silence where a sense of worry washed over Arthur.  Allowing it to pass, he got up from the sled and changed the subject.

“Now that you’re here, you can help me with this.”  Arthur patted the bundled backpacks on the makeshift toboggan. 

“What have you got here?” Skip asked.

“I’m not altogether sure, but it looks like someone dropped off a load of survival gear for me just before I made it to the spider-hole.  I don’t suppose you know anything about it?”

Skip shook his head.  “No idea,” he said.  “Did you check it for creepers?”

Arthur nodded, remembering his quick yet thorough tricorder scan of the backpacks before deciding to bring them along.  “They didn’t register any active tracking devices at all, and the isotope scans indicate they were fabricated on Earth.”

“Earth?” Skip looked at him questioningly.  “What?  Are they Starfleet issue?”

“Didn’t look like it,” Arthur shook his head.  “No Fleet markings at all that I could see.  Suits me just fine though.  I might have left them behind otherwise.”

“Yeah,” scoffed Skip.  “Sure you would’ve.”  It was plain that the man did not believe Arthur’s threat, knowing that any sort of supply prospects in the current situation would not have been turned away.  “Come on, let’s get you to back to base camp.”

“Camp?” inquired Arthur.  “You mean everyone made it to the rally point?”

“No,” Skip answered with a hint of regret.  “Not everyone.”

 

<Location: Cestus III L-2. U.S.S. Republic and IGV Fierce Claw in low-orbit>

"Aw, damnit skipper, it's a set-up. I knew these lizards wouldn't fight fair." Sean McTaggart looked back and forth nervously at both Pack Leader G'Meth, and his younger, larger, yellow-tinted First Sword.

"Belay that, Lieutenant." James Marshall ordered. The captain then turned his attention to G'Meth. "What's the meaning of this change in arrangements, Pack Leader?"

The elder Gorn officer tilted his head, his un-blinking eyes reflecting the bright light of alien stars against the battle-moon's night sky. "I am merely following the terms of the treaty, human," he hissed in reply.

"For which I'm taking the place of Captain Kirk, thus fulfilling our arrangement. I'm willing to fight for our position, but..."

"You did not fully read the material human," G'Meth hissed back. "I am an original signatory. You are not." The Pack leader flexed his large, clawed hand. "However, you are more than welcome to act in The Kirk's place."

Marshall almost winced as he heard the hatred in the saurian's voice for his long-dead adversary. G'Meth continued.

"In return, my First Sword will act in my place."

"But," McTaggart interjected, "that...officer's armed!"

G'Meth nodded as his First Sword looked intently at his honor blade. "Indeed. As are you, human," G'Meth confirmed, “and so you should be." A sound somewhere between a gurgle and an air leak escaped G'Meth's tooth-filled maw. "You didn't think we'd be scampering about, looking for charcoal, did you? This is a battle to the end. Death or submission. Such is the Way of the Serpent."

Thinking fast, Jim Marshall searched the area. He spotted an ornate dagger on G'Meth's hip. The blade was jagged, with five serrated teeth cut into the blade. To a being of Marshall's size, it would be closer to a short sword than a dagger. 'That will do,' Marshall thought. The captain extended his hand, palm-up as he cleared his throat. "Then, in the interest of fairness and honor, Pack-Leader, I beg your indulgence."

G'Meth stepped forward, nodding his head slightly. "Indeed," his voice rumbled. "I admire your courage, human."

Sean McTaggart stepped quickly to interpose himself between G'Meth and Captain Marshall. "Sir," he pleaded, "you can't do this! I've got some decent combat training. Let me. At least then, if I lose, you can think of some..."

Marshall held up his hand and gently pushed the tactical lieutenant aside. "I've made up my mind, Lieutenant. I'm your Captain, and this is MY responsibility."

McTaggart's hand slipped on reflex to the phaser he had on his hip. His fingers curled around the weapon's housing nervously. "We should at least try to contact the XO. Maybe he can..."

Marshall’s face turned from a mask of calm to a picture of fury. "One more word from you mister, and you'll be up on charges! If it weren't for the XO, you wouldn't even BE in this mess right now! Stand down, or I'll have you beamed back aboard here and now! And stow that weapon. There's only one way out of this. That's an order, lieutenant."

McTaggart swallowed his own anger at the rebuke of common sense, and stepped away from his commanding officer.

G'Meth stopped and regarded the scene in front of him. "Problems, Captain?"

"Just give me the damned knife!"

G'Meth slowly and deliberately slipped his dagger from his belt, turning it on his palm, then slowly delivering the weapon, pommel first, to the human captain. "As you wish. I will remember the fire in your blood, human."

"The hell you will!" Marshall shot back.

Sean McTaggart reached for his captain’s shoulder, but stopped short. "He's left handed Skipper," McTaggart advised, "keep your right up."

Marshall nodded. "Thank you, lieutenant."

Across the barren surface of the combat area, the First Sword slipped his weapon free, shifting its weight from one hand to the other, twisting his body in a fluid swaying motion. For his part, James Marshall swallowed hard, and choked his grip on the short bladed weapon he held.

Both G'Meth and McTaggart looked on as the two combatants danced around each other. Both seemed hesitant to make the first attack. Jim Marshall knew that he had speed going for him. While the saurian he faced may have been faster, he was also larger and had to wield a heavier weapon. If he was lucky, then Marshall might be able to get inside his opponent’s reach, and draw first blood. 'That might be enough', Marshall thought. 'All I need is one'. Marshall watched his opponent's eyes, hoping that he could read the Gorn officer's movements, but the lizard's large, un-blinking eyes revealed nothing.

The First Sword tensed his muscles swinging his honor blade in a wide arc across his mid-section. Rather than jump back, Jim Marshall seized on his opponent's over-extension, and ducked under the returning weapon. As the First Sword, brought his hands up and back, he was met with an unexpected sight as Marshall seemed to appear, inches from the Gorn's rippling chest. The First Sword hissed/shrieked as Marshall felt his muscles burn, and pressed all of his weight behind his blade.

Marshall's weapon sank deep into the meaty muscle of the First Sword's left pectoral. Marshall leaned hard on the blade, searching out a vital target beneath his enemy's skin. All the while he kept a death-like grip on his knife's handle. The human screamed in a mix of primal rage and hopeful victory.

For a moment, the First Sword was stunned. Somehow, this inferior, cowardly mammal had seen through the Way of the Serpent. Unbidden by conscious thought, the First Sword cursed himself silently for so foolishly facing a mammal under the dark of night. He should have known better than to abandon the grace of the sun. Still, the First Sword would not be denied.

The First Sword focused his will to act through the pain in his chest. He felt the weight and smelled the stench of the mammal on his flesh. This was an affront he could not allow. With a chilling growl, the First Sword twisted his chest away from the writhing mass of human. He smiled sickly as he heard the blade of his Pack Leader's weapon snap free of its handle.

With his anchor to the First Sword destroyed, James Marshall landed clumsily on the ground in front of his enemy. He watched as a thick, blue rivulet formed on the First Sword's chest, standing out in sharp contrast to the Gorn's yellow skin. 'Heh,' Marshall thought. 'Got my wish.' "I claim first blood!" the human captain yelled out. His eyes went wide in surprise as he saw that his words were not enough to stop the First Sword's blade, as the Gorn second brought the weapon down in a mighty arc.

Jim Marshall screamed as the First Sword's honor blade sank deeply into his shoulder. Then the burning started.

"Jesus Christ!" Sean McTaggart yelled, moving his right hand over his forehead and shoulders in an archaic plea for mercy and forgiveness. "You're butchering him!"

James Marshall lay still as the First Sword pulled his weapon free from the fallen human's shoulder. Marshall's arm hung loosely by a thin layer skin and tendon that had somehow not been cleaved away by the First Sword's honor blade. Obediently, the First Sword sheathed his weapon and turned from the body of his fallen enemy, still wincing in pain as he stepped back to the Pack Leader.

Through a haze of shock, pain, and a curious numbness that he was not prepared for, Jim Marshall coughed. "That's...that's it? Get back here and finish me you damned snake! I'll..." Marshall flayed about with his one remaining arm, clutching at the dust he could now barely feel.

Above the human captain, Pack Leader G'Meth stepped forward. The centurion Gorn bent down slightly bringing his maw just inches from Marshall's sweat covered face. "You'll do nothing but die Captain," G'Meth explained. "By now I imagine it's getting hard to breathe, yes?"

Sean McTaggart scrambled forward, clumsily reaching for his phaser as he lurched for his captain. The weapon clattered to the dirt with a puff of dust. Seeing his Captain ripped apart made McTaggart think that the weapon was now unimportant. He tapped his comm badge. "McTaggart to Republic! Captain down, repeat, Captain down! Get us out of here damn it!"

"Yes, human," G'Meth said approvingly. "Go back to your ship and bury your dead. According to the treaty between our two empires, this system now belongs to us. After all, you would never break a treaty...would you?"

In the next instant, McTaggart, and the barely breathing James Marshall vanished in a flash of transporter energy.

Five years ago, Skip and Arthur attended a Cestus Colony council meeting where security arrangements for the planet’s eight settlement regions were discussed.  Budget cutbacks for the military had concerned some colonists about settlement defenses with Cestus Three being so close to Gorn space.  A plan was in the works where Starfleet was to take over some of the security responsibilities of the colony, but there were those, like Arthur and Skip, who felt that Starfleet had already overextended themselves with the Dominion War.  Their fears were that if Starfleet found itself in need of more troops during the conflict, that they would take away soldiers stationed on Cestus Three to fight elsewhere, leaving the colony with weakened defenses.  Although the meeting was originally intended as a complaint session for colonists to voice their concerns about the plan, the government and Starfleet saw it as a press conference to actually announce the plan’s implementation.  Needless to say, a bitter shouting match ensued where the colonists were told by the colony government, “we’re at war, and you’ll do what we tell you to do.”

Even though the statement silenced most of the colonists, officially putting the subject to rest, others like Skip and Arthur were outraged.  It was this meeting that brought about the formation of Shadowforce; a fancy name for a simple, loosely organized group of colonists who vowed to be Cestus Three’s last line of defense in the event of an invasion.  Committed to a pledge of secrecy to keep government interference at a minimum, these minutemen came from every walk of life, and separated themselves into independent regional cells throughout each settlement.  Each cell, or ‘shadow group’ as they referred to themselves, was comprised of no more than a dozen people, and chose a single rally point to meet should the colony security situation deteriorate.  They met every few months to go over contingency plans, stock their weapons caches with homemade ordinance, and some even went so far as to practice guerilla tactics.  For the most part, they were just groups of friends who conjured up new ways to deal with the unthinkable.

In the beginning, none of them ever really believed that they would have to actually implement their resistance strategy.  In fact, the first few meetings for some of the cells turned into late night poker games or weekend hunting trips.  However, as the months wore on, and the Dominion War came to a close, the colony government never increased funding for planetary security, diverting the new peacetime budget to infrastructure and civic projects instead.  Starfleet soon became the sole military force on the planet, and as predicted by people like Skip and Arthur, they became too comfortable in their postwar defense posture on the Gorn border.  Only when it was discovered that Starfleet had initiated a forward observation program against the Gorns in direct violation of the Metron Treaty did Shadowforce begin to take their role seriously.  Although some in the group tried to confront Starfleet and the colony government on the issue, they denied everything.  It soon became clear that if the Gorns discovered that the Metron Treaty was being dishonored, invasion would follow--and the colony was virtually defenseless.

It was almost uncanny how swiftly the Gorns came.  No one had expected it to happen so quickly.  In less than twelve hours, key facilities in all eight settlements had been captured, and those who did not flee to the outlands were rounded up and placed in internment camps.  Resistance was dealt with harshly, and with extreme prejudice.  As soon as Arthur made it to the underground base camp with Skip, he realized how bad it was.  There were eleven members to the South Cornucopia shadow cell, and only two others made it to the rally point.  They were down to four, and the war had just started.  Attempting to put aside the grim outlook for their group, after Arthur settled in everyone swapped stories of their narrow escape, hoping that talk of past victory would lighten the mood.

“So you actually did it, Artie?  You used your go-juice?”

A plump, rough-shaven man in his fifties was roasting a small ebony chunk of unrecognizable meat over a campfire with the aid of skewer as he asked Arthur the question.  Sporting a black leather jacket, the man’s obese belly spilled out over a thick belt hung by suspenders that were stretched over his massive shoulders.  With a graying patch of red hair, his eyes wielded multiple folds of dark patches, indicating that insomnia had been a close friend of his over the past several days.

“You should have been there Wey,” replied Arthur, who was busily spooning food into his mouth from a foil ration packet.  “After the Petersons fled, I realized that I was the only one left on the block.  So, all I had to do was get on the comlink and tell the rex’s that I knew where Governor Clark was and that I wanted to negotiate a deal.”

Wey chuckled, and his massive gut rippled like jelly.  “Yeah, I’ll bet they wanted to negotiate, too.”

Arthur snickered.  “Four squads,” he reminisced with disbelief.  “They sent four squads after me.  I could even hear them scream when they found the special surprise I had waiting for them.  Let me tell you, antimatter has one hell of a kick even in it’s unrefined form.”  After another generous spoonful of food, Arthur smiled and added, “I hope the Petersons won’t be too upset.”

Skip, on the other hand, had a bottle of whiskey in his hands, and was staring blankly into the fire.  “It took you two years and a fistful of permits to get all that antimatter.  You were pretty much throwing away your space-sled project.  It must have been hard to part with.”

Nodding his head, Arthur lost his smile and scraped a few more mouthfuls from the foil packet.  “The rex’s would have found it if I didn’t use it.  It would have just gone to waste.”

Continuing his blank stare, Skip turned his head slightly towards Arthur.  “So instead, you blew up four squads of Gorn commandos, and stirred up a bloody hornet’s nest in the process.”  Arthur stopped in mid-chew, and looked Skip squarely in the eyes as if checking to see whether his friend disapproved of the heavy-handed tactic.  As a smile crept across Skip’s face, the two broke out in laughter, and the blank stare was replaced by a boisterous expression that held up the whiskey bottle in a toast.  “Here’s to you and your damned hornet’s nest!”

Still amazed at the gall of Arthur’s escape story, Wey joined in the laughter. “So do you really know where Clark is?”

“I haven’t got a clue!” Arthur admitted with joviality.  This brought all three men into a fit of hysterics, forcing Arthur to stop eating to catch his breath.  Skip stood up in mid laugh, stumbling slightly due to the alcohol, and offered a swig of the concoction to Arthur and Wey.

A clattering of objects caught the attention of the boisterous men, and they looked over to Arthur’s makeshift sled where a middle-aged woman with a bun of black hair and a long-sleeved green jersey sat inspecting the contents of the backpacks.

“There’s got to be a fortune in stuff here!” she remarked. “Look at this!  Phaser packs, explosive darts, aerial charges, nitro-blocks.  This is a commando’s dream!  Artie, where did you say you got this stuff?”

Arthur was finishing off a swallow from Skip’s flask as he shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t know.  Someone left them at the end of Creasy Lane just before I entered Windbreak Park.  They threw a sensor shield over it and everything.  It’s like someone WANTED me to find them.”

“Hey Lins,” addressed Wey.  “Why don’t you take a break from that and have a bite to eat.  We’ve all got to keep our strength up.”

The woman stood up with a small grey case in one hand, and a metal cylindrical object in the other.

“Not if I have to eat what you’re eating.  What the heck is that?”  She was referring to the glob of black meat at the end of Wey’s skewer.

“A sandwing,” he retorted defensively.  “I took off the wings and head, skinned the fur, and gutted the giblets.  You want some?”

Lins looked revolted, and winced at the thought of ingesting the singed beast.  “Look . . .” she started.  “Thanks to Artie, we’ve got a ton of rations here.  Why do you have to go and eat a flying skunk?”

“Simple,” Wey replied.  “Those rations will last us a lot longer if we use local sources as a supplement.”  Lins shook her head in disgust, while walking over to take a seat next to Skip.  Wey hovered the skewer of meat in front of Arthur.  “How about you?”

“Thanks, but I had sandwing for lunch . . .” he replied, as Wey shrugged his shoulders and broke a piece of the animal off his skewer and began eating it.  As Lins focused her attention on the two articles she brought over from the sled, Arthur asked, “What have you got there?”

“I’m not sure,” she replied, handing the cylindrical object off to Skip.  Opening the gray case, she examined the contents before exclaiming.  “Hey!  It’s a medical kit!”

“And a well stocked one, at that,” commented Skip who peered over Lins’ shoulder as she pulled out a flip-open medical tricorder.  “Wait a minute!  That’s a TC-560!  A Starfleet issue tricorder!”  Turning to Arthur, Skip continued.  “Maybe it WAS Starfleet who dropped this off for you!”

“Oh great,” Arthur commented with disdain.  “So instead of properly securing this planet and honoring the Metron Treaty, they give us THIS instead.”

Skip didn’t pay Arthur any attention, but instead turned to the device that Lins handed him.  After examining it for a moment, he came to a conclusion.

“Looks like they also included a Starfleet emergency transponder in those supplies.  You don’t suppose they put this in there for us to contact them, do you?”

“How?” asked Wey.  “The only way anyone would receive the signal is if they were in low orbit looking for us or somewhere on the ground.  It’s not a long range transponder.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Skip admitted.  “If we turned that thing on, the Gorns would be on us long before anyone from Starfleet would find us.”

Silence descended upon the group as Skip went back to staring into the fire, Lins continued to examine the contents of the medical kit, and Wey proceeded to finish eating the roasted sandwing.  Arthur, on the other hand, was deep in thought at Skip’s last sentence. ‘The Gorns would be on us long before anyone from Starfleet.’  The words repeated in his mind, as well as his hastily implemented escape plan from the south Cornucopia suburbs.  His eyes shifted back and forth as we muttered the words, “would they fall for it again?”

Lins and Skip stopped what they were doing and looked at Arthur.  However, Wey did not hear Arthur, and continued to relish the sandwing by quietly gnawing on the small bones.

“What its it, Arite?” asked Skip.

It was plain to see that Arthur was in contemplation. He was looking to the ground as if it were a blank chalkboard in his mind, and picturing the minute details of a plan forming in his head.

“Skip?” he finally said.  “You know that subterranean water retention pond on the east side of town?  It’s fairly deep, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, at least twenty meters,” he replied.   “They put a hand railing around the water’s edge a few years back.  It’s too bad to.  We used to have toy boat races down there when I was a kid.  It was great because it stays cool in there during the summer, and also doubles as a water source for the downtown irrigation network.”

“It’s just below the city’s main thermal regulator, right?”

“Of course,” Skip returned.  “The regulator was built on top of it.  At night, when water condenses on the regulator’s radiation grid, it falls into the complex’s rooftop catchments and diverted underground to the pond.  If it wasn’t for the regulator, the pond wouldn’t be there.”

“Lins,” Arthur turned to Skip’s neighbor.  “You worked at the regulation complex for years.  How much liquid sodium is in the east side thermal regulation system?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied  “A lot.  It’s used as a heat exchange medium for the city’s entire cooling network.  Why?”

“Just tell me, how much?”

“I’d say at least six hundred thousand metric tons in the cooling pipe network alone.  That’s not including the recovery grid.  In total, maybe about a million metric tons.  What’s you’re idea?”

Although she seemed insistent on learning of his brainstorm-in-progress before it got too out of hand, Arthur ignored her and continued to ask questions.

“Wey,” he turned to the obese man who was in the middle of his meal.  “Your construction company does structural maintenance on the complex.  The thermal regulator itself uses a refractory metal composite in the carbon-silicate retaining wall, right?”

“Yes,” he answered.  A piece of black, singed crust from the meat was stuck in his beard, and it bobbed up and down as he talked and chewed.  “For heat conduction.”

“That would make the lower level a sensor shadow to an active sensor scan, right?”

“Yes,” Wey replied.  “There are a lot of walls like that throughout the city.  It’s how I made my escape from the Gorns yesterday afternoon.”

 “Artie,” Lins asked tenaciously.  “What are you thinking?”

“If we opened the pipe network,” Arthur continued his train of thought, “and allowed all the liquid sodium to drain into the retaining pond, how long would it take to empty the system?”

“Well,” Lins calculated in her head.  “The system is under extreme pressure, otherwise the sodium wouldn’t be in liquid form.  The exchange pipes are about a half meter in diameter, and there’s one feeder pipe for each city block, so that comes out to about a hundred different branches to the cooling pipe network.  There’s about six thousand cubic meters of liquid sodium in each feeder pipe, so if the maintenance valves for each branch were opened, and the flow was diverted to the rooftop condenser catchments, the flow rate to the pond would be about thirty cubic meters per second.  My guess is that emptying the entire system would take a little over three minutes.  But, why would you want to do that?  The thermal regulator system keeps the whole city cool during the day.  If it wasn’t for the thermal regulator, everyone would be sweating in their offices by high noon.”

“Besides,” added Skip.  “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the retaining pond after dumping all that liquid sodium into it.  It would react violently with the water.  The fumes alone would eat away your lungs, but the pond itself would turn into a sodium hydroxide soup.”

Arthur began to smile, as if Skip’s response was exactly what he was looking for.  Turning back to Wey, he continued his questioning.

“How much concrete resin is between the retention pond and the street level outside the thermal regulation complex?”

“They use the standard trititanium fibers in the resin,” Wey explained.  “Probably no more than a meter.”

“So, if we place localized nitrate charges around the perimeter of the retention pond’s ceiling, could we conceivably cave in the roof?

“Yeah,” Wey spouted with almost sarcastic obviousness.  “As well as the entire lower level of the thermal regulation complex, and the street outside, and the . . . Hey, wait a minute . . .”

“Artie, you’re nuts,” Lins added as Arthur’s plan took hold in everyone’s head.  There was a tense seriousness etched into her voice.  “We’d never pull it off.”

“It’s okay, Lins,” Arthur replied with a devious smile.  “Trust me.”

 

<location:  East-side subterranean retention pond, downtown Cornucopia, Cestus III>

It took the entire morning for the shadow cell to make their way through the waste tunnels into downtown.  Fortunately for them, the network of abandoned channels were less degraded under the city, since surface runoff was diverted away from the streets rather than allowed to percolate through the ground.  Due to this, there were only a few spider holes in the city to emerge from the tunnels.  Two years ago, the group took a weekend expedition to map out the tunnels, and discovered some of the fissures, and all of them seemed to intersect with the storm drainage system.  This was fortunate; because it allowed their journey to the retention pond to be under cover, and they were able to exit the drainage pipes only a block away from the regulator complex.

The aboveground structure itself was a massive network of suspended pipes connected to hundreds of enormous radiator fins.  Although the fins were held aloft by the pipes, which were in turn anchored to the ground about a block in either direction, the regulation complex was a single-level structure below the fins with a series of roof-based catchments for collecting condensed water vapor.  In addition, the structure housed all the machinery and subsystems for the sodium-based heat-exchange network, and was itself, dwarfed by the overhanging radiator fins.  Inside the complex, Lins and Arthur were busy reprogramming the maintenance computer to open all the valves leading to coolant network.

“There are still about a dozen things that can go wrong with this plan,” Lins muttered while typing commands into the computer console.

Arthur grunted his response while reviewing the manifold controls.  “Don’t worry about it.”  Changing the subject, he asked, “Are you sure the liquid sodium will find it’s way to the catchment chutes?  I’d hate to waste all this work we’re doing.”

“Each maintenance valve is meant to have a collection hose attached to them before they’re opened,” she explained.  “Without the tube, the sodium will spill out onto the complex floor, splash against the retaining wall, and be immediately diverted to the floor drains.  Since we bypassed the sensor matrix and programmed the flood control system to think that the complex is filling with water, the drains were automatically diverted to the retention pond instead of the recovery grid.  The hardest part now is getting the computer to believe that there’s a collection hose attached to each maintenance valve.”

“What about the recovery grid?” asked Arthur.  “You said there was about four hundred thousand metric tons in that as well.”

Biting her lip, Lins seemed to be on the edge of exasperation.

“Look,” she hissed.  “I’ve jimmied the grid’s overflow sensor into a perpetual ‘on’ position so when we send power through the control system, the drainage grates will be all open.  Your sodium hydroxide bath is set.  If I were you, I’d be more worried about how the Gorns will respond.”

“What do you mean?”  Arthur’s voice was rising with a defensive overtone.

“What I mean is this,” Lins held up her hand and counted off each major discrepancy she with the operation.  “First, we’re not even sure if they’ll come here with ground forces after we activate the transponder.  They might very well aim starship weapons at this place and blow it away.  Second, if they DO come with ground forces, we have no assurances that they’ll come close enough to the complex before realizing what we’re up to.  Third, if we pull this off we’ll have more than just a hornet’s nest after us.  They’ll very well be after our blood.”

Arthur waited patiently for her to finish, determined to have the last word.  As soon as Lins concluded her statement, he addressed each point.

“Okay,” he started.  “Fair enough.  However let me point out that one, the Gorns will likely want to use Starfleet personnel as bargaining chips before killing them, so they chances they destroy the complex is minimal.  Two, the complex’s retaining wall is composed of sensor-scattering material, and they’ll HAVE to come in close just to investigate.  And three, you agreed long ago that you’d do anything in defense of the colony, and this operation does just that--it hits our enemy where it hurts.”

“Have you given any thought to how our actions will affect colonists that aren’t in Shadowforce?” Lins retorted.

“What?”

“The Gorns will be out for blood, and they may take it out on innocent people.”

“Look,” Arthur said with a more conciliatory tone.  “We’re doing everything within our power to drive the rex’s from the colony.  I’m worried about everyone in the internment camps too, but we can’t let that drive our focus away from our purpose.”

A brief moment of silence gripped the room where Lins thought about what Arthur said.  She crossed her arms, sighed, then nodded her head.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”  She looked at the small control room around her as she explained herself  “It’s just that I’ve worked here for years.  I’ve met a lot of good friends among my coworkers.  I even met my husband here.  I never thought that I’d ever be demolishing this place.  It’s like this is putting finality on my life as I know it.  Everything has changed so quickly, and for the worst.”

“I know,” Arthur sympathized.  “I feel the same way.  But we can’t let those bastards take our homes, can we?  We built this colony into what is today, and we can’t let them get away with taking it all away.”

He paused the let his words sink in.  As she nodded silently, Arthur patted her on the shoulder and said, “Let’s get the show on the road.”

Pulling out a small translucent cube from his pocket, Arthur tapped the top of it in rapid, regular form.  With each touch of the cube, the device sent out a pulse of light, and along with it, a coded message.

***

Belowground, the retention pond spanned the entire perimeter of the regulation complex, and then some.  It was about two hundred meters square in area, and took the team’s entire supply of nitrate charges to line the ceiling perimeter.  Each nitrate block was the size of a sugar cube, soft and adhesive like putty, and contained the explosive power of ten sticks of old-fashioned dynamite.  The shadow team placed a block every meter along where the ceiling met the wall, using the metal catwalks that paralleled the perimeter. A pin-sized remote detonator was inserted in each block, and linked to a single activation device.

Wey held the device in his hand, programming the detonation sequence to activate all of the nitrate blocks simultaneously.  Nearby, Skip was repacking the supply packs and double-checking their contents.

“That’s the last of them,” he explained.  “Are you sure about their placement?  It’s not like any of us are Starfleet special-forces or anything.”

“Skip, I’m a construction worker,” returned Wey, his voice echoing throughout cavern.  “Remember the transit overpass demolition two years ago?  That was me.  I’ve taken enough courses in this stuff to bring down any high-rise you point me at.”

Before Skip could respond, a vibration in his pocket stopped him.  Pulling out a small translucent cube, he watched it as pulsating lights flickered within it.  Skip silently mouthed words under his breath, deciphering the code of on/off pulses.

“Well?”  Wey asked insistently, wanting to know what the others were communicating.

“He says they’re ready, and are wondering about us.”

“We’re good to go.”

Tapping the cube in a rhythmic pattern, Skip returned the message to Arthur and Lins signifying their preparedness to proceed with the operation.  Moments later, a hissing sound filled the cavern, and along the walls, steamy white streams of hot liquid sodium poured out of hundreds of tubes aligned part way between the ceiling and the surface of the pond.  As the molten substance touched the water, explosive flames erupted, giving the pond the appearance of being on fire.

Seconds passed as Skip and Wey observed the phenomena in awe.  Suddenly, the two men winced as the air turned putrid, burning their eyes and lungs.

“We’re out of here!” shouted Wey, as Skip nodded and followed him up the stairs and closed the access door securely behind himself.

***

Across the street from the thermal regulation complex, Skip and Wey laid in waiting at a pre-arranged hiding spot.  An aboveground transit stop for the city’s tubular mass-transit system was an optimal observation location for the shadow cell to view the spectacle they had so carefully prepared.  They would need to watch for the right time to activate the explosives, ensuring that enough Gorn troops had entered the demolition zone.  Wey and Skip still manifested a moderate cough from the hydroxide gas that permeated the air belowground.  Before long, the two men were joined by their comrades in arms as Lins and Arthur crawled up next to them, careful to keep a low profile.

“Did you activate the transponder?” whispered Skip.

Arthur nodded positively.  “It’s blaring away over subspace as we speak.  We should see them coming any second.”

“And then,” Wey smiled, holding the detonator. “It’s bye-bye baby!”

“Don’t you mean,” interjected Skip.  “Lye-lye baby?”

The two men chuckled as Lins gave a disapproving look.

“Will you two be quiet?” she whispered.  “We’ve got to be ready to move out any second.”

“Look!” announced Arthur.  “There’s some already!”

Indeed, as the four looked on, multiple signatures of transporter energy appeared all around the thermal regulation building.  Like the ones that attacked Arthur’s home, they were tall, brawny saurians with black attire and assault harnesses.  They sported short rifle-like weapons, and moved in clear, distinct units of two and four towards the stairway to the control tower.

“Where did you put the transponder, anyway?” Wey asked.

“Between the two central radiator fins above the complex,” replied Arthur.  “I found I could access it via the maintenance catwalk.  The ninety-degree plane of the metal ribbing should deflect an active sensor scan.  They’ll be looking up on the roof somewhere, but they won’t know exactly where.”

“That’ll guarantee they won’t be going downstairs,” Lins commented.  “I shut down the alarm systems, but if they go to the lower level, they’ll see the sodium pouring out of the maintenance valves, so we felt we should have some extra insurance by putting the transponder up somewhere high.”

“There’s some more!” announced Skip.

Still more transporter beams flashed below them, bringing another group of lizard-like troopers.  They moved with such speed and intensity, and the four resistance fighters were concerned about their plan being discovered too soon.  To their relief, all the soldiers seemed focused upward, and their search parties were on the upper level and roof of the complex.  Minutes later, the number of Gorns were uncountable.  As Arthur had hoped, they were falling for it again.  Three hover transports brought two more platoons of warriors to the scene, and each parked within the perimeter of the demolition zone.

“This is going to be great!” said Wey.  “There’s got to be at least a hundred down there now!”

“Uh oh,” said Lins ominously.  Everyone’s stomach tightened as they turned to look at her.

“What?” they all said collectively.

“The vent stack!  Look!”

As all eyes turned away from the conglomerating Gorns and watched as bright white smoke began pouring out of a ventilation stack towards the back of the complex.

“It’s the pond’s air circulation system!” Lins concluded.  “The hydroxide gas level must have triggered the purging fans!”

The Gorns too saw the rising smoke, and many began talking into their communicators.

“Damn!” swore Arthur.  “Hit it, Wey!  Do it now!”

Like a colliding freight train, the crackle of the explosives shook the ground within a ten-block radius.  Nearby windows shattered, and the entire block containing the thermal regulation complex fissured along the edges, and disappeared into a plume of noxious white smoke.  The collapsing street buckled in response to the cataclysm, and as promised by Wey, everything that was above the water retention pond had disappeared into the highly alkaline mixture below.

“How potent do you think that stuff is?” Arthur asked, staring in awe at the smoldering crater.

“I’m guessing at least thirty-molar,” Skip commented, equally entranced by the display of destruction.  “Any way you slice it, it’ll blow the top off the Bronsted-Lowry scale.”

Even from their distant position, the echoic reverberation of the explosion had passed, and all that was left was the screaming and hissing of Gorn troops dissolving in the ultra-caustic lake below.  Minutes later, the horror-filled sound of dying aliens had ceased, and in addition to large chunks of broken concrete protruding through the surface, the frothy gray water of the pond was stained pink with blood.  With silence acting as their dirge, the four members of the South Cornucopia shadow cell walked slowly away from the scene, following the mass-transit track for their path.  Each were deeply affected by the gruesome vision they had just witnessed, but none of them chose to share their feelings.  Although this day proved to be a hard-won victory, the bittersweet taste of their enemy’s death came unexpectedly, and gave them no cause to revel in their triumph. 

<location: Runabout Helmand, 10 hours inbound to sector 000>

Watching starlines streak past the viewport reminded Leon of bright paint strokes drawn intermittently on a black canvas stretching towards infinity.  The doctor had long dismissed any possibility of understanding the motives behind the artist in creating such a chaotically patterned universe, and so, reserved to sit back and enjoy the fleeting moments of beauty presented before him when possible.  After all it was chaos and bureaucracy that brought this fateful departure from the Republic, and it was all Leon could do but endure the effects

The past day was an exceedingly tedious journey from the Gorn border to the center of the Federation.  Intermixed with periods of apprehension where he longed to back behind the poker table with John and Vic, there were incidents of obfuscation and reproach where he was forced to fend off Lieutenant Meriden in her inquisition about John Carter’s current activities.  The doctor found his escort shrewd and tainted with an egocentric agenda, and he had long abandoned any attempt to gain further knowledge about his sudden reassignment, opting instead to focus his efforts in avoiding any conversation with the woman.  Needless to say, it was a difficult task to maintain for such a long period.

“So tell me, doctor,” Meriden asked from across the passenger compartment.  She sat at the center dining table sipping from a drinking vessel while Leon sat in a seat by a side viewport.  “Why did you assign Doctor Harris to the counselor’s position anyway?  Surely you knew that Carter would be distracted from his job?”

“My reasons for assigning departmental personnel to various tasks aboard ship are motivated by mission priorities, current workload, and are absolutely none of your business.”

Leon had been forced to take a harsh approach towards Meriden’s invasive inquiries.  Her steadfast questioning had grown increasingly bold over the past few hours, as she knew the trip would be ending soon.

“You needn’t take offense, doctor,” Lieutenant Meriden edged on.  “I’m actually a fan of your matchmaker approach.  If you’re really good, I’ll put in a word with Admiral Krockover, and maybe you can be stationed in the same department with me.”

Still looking out the window, Leon dismissed the notion with a distinct lack of interest.  “I’m not sure if all my vaccinations are up to date for such a transfer of duty.”

“Come now, doctor,” she purred with a toxic smile, setting aside Leon’s crude remark.  “Surely a man of your stature has heard of my specialized talents.  Hasn’t John ever told you about what happened aboard the Devonshire?”

“No,” conceded the doctor who grew tired of Meriden’s relentless wit and stood up from the chair.  “And if I want to know, I’ll ask Commander Carter.  Not a bantering stool pigeon with the disposition of a Regulan Blood Worm.”  With that, Leon walked towards the sleeping compartments.  “I’m going to retire for the evening, and I don’t plan on awaking until we’re on final approach.  So, unless there’s an emergency, don’t bother knocking on my door.  It’ll be locked.”

“That’s fine,” agreed the sly Lieutenant Meriden.  “I’m sure that an old man like you needs your rest after a long day with me in a runabout.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Leon shot back without turning around to face her.  “If I had known a person like you would be escorting me, I would have either opted for a stasis pod or suicide pill.  Good night, lieutenant.”

The cramped sleeping chamber of a Starfleet runabout was no place to spend a ten-hour period of one’s life, especially if they had insomnia problems.  With only a bunk and a closet that passed for a lavatory, there was very little for Leon to do while he tossed and turned throughout the night.  The worry about his family weighed more on his mind with each passing light year, and the fact that he was no longer aboard the ship assigned to negotiate with the Gorns seemed to exacerbate his anxiety.  He was sure that if there were further developments, John would contact him, so there was no use calling the Republic every hour to find out how it was going.  The only thing Leon could do was wait until he arrived at Earth before deciding his next move.

With bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes, the doctor showed up in the main cabin the next morning with a mug of coffee just in time to see the rusty red pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge gliding past the passenger viewport.  To Leon’s delight, and perhaps due to his early retirement the previous evening, Lieutenant Meriden was in the cockpit too busy to greet the doctor with her usual malicious demeanor.  Instead, her voice over the intercom contained a more professional tone.

=/\= “Five minutes to planetfall.  Prepare yourself for debarkation, doctor.” =/\=

The trip was finally over, and the thought of finally ridding himself of the company of his conniving attaché served to lift Leon’s spirits as he sat down to watch the Terran scenery during landing.  Standing like an untainted monument to human achievement, the white monolithic walls of Starfleet Command Headquarters reached towards the sapphire skies over the sparkling city of San Francisco.  Orange streaks of sunlight burst through the low-hanging clouds over the bay, heralding the daily retreat of fog back towards the sea.  To Leon, this was his first viewing of a Pacific sunrise from above, and its beauty finally answered his long-standing question of why this magnificent city was chosen to be the home of the Federation.  Although he had taken uncountable trips to Earth during his time at the University of Tycho on Luna, he had never witnessed such a spectacle before, and for a moment, everything seemed to stand still as the rising disc of Sol glinted off the viewport window.  Unfortunately, the moment passed as quickly as it came, and before long, the golden delta of the Starfleet insignia splayed before him on the inside wall of the main docking facility.

Leon was without the weight of stowed baggage, thanks in part to the hasty departure from the Republic whose staff promised to forward his belongings at the earliest possible convenience.  With only his coffee mug in hand, he stood at the hatch seconds after the runabout came to a stop and the engines powered down.  As the doors parted, the sound of bustling crowds, shuttle engines in stand-by mode, and loudspeakers blaring arrival and departure times poured into the vessel.  With a deep breath, Doctor Cromwell filled his lungs with the first taste of Terran air for more than five years.

“Your orders are to report to Admiral Krockover’s office at 0900 hours,” said the lieutenant who handed Leon a PADD as she emerged from the cockpit.  “Everything else will be explained to you in due course.”

“Exactly who is Admiral Krockover?”

“The person you have to report to at 0900,” returned the snide comment.  “It’s been a real pleasure Doctor Cromwell.  Perhaps we’ll meet again under just as enjoyable circumstances.”

“Warn me first so I can throw myself in front of a shuttle going warp five.”

Leon could not tell if her expression was more of a sneer than a smirk, but fortunately for him, there was no further conversation as the two parted ways. Before long, the doctor found himself navigating the sprawling complex alone.

***

The importation of exotic plant species to Earth from other star systems is bound by numerous Federation regulations, one of which restricts many specimens to indoor collections only.  Although many photosynthetic organisms can coexist just fine with the planet’s natural vegetation, some can become malignant, and have been known to wipe out entire ecosystems before planetary biomonitoring programs discovered such infestations.  Since the years of first contact with other spacefaring races, horticulture hobbyists have evolved along with these regulations resulting in startlingly beautiful hybrid compilations, especially within contained environments.  In fact, Starfleet headquarters itself hosts some of the best indoor plant arrangements throughout its expansive multiplex.

Given two hours since departing the runabout to roam the hallways, Leon took his time to find the office of the Admiral Krockover, pausing every so often to admire the various floral arrangements.  There were numerous shops and cafes around the area along with the countless administration offices and assembly halls, so the doctor complimented his coffee from the runabout with a slow, quiet breakfast at a small restaurant in the biosciences building.  It was built with a French motif in mind, complete with a host of breads and morning rolls, but the plethora of Starfleet uniforms spoiled the atmosphere for Leon and continually reminded him of where he was while he dined on a plate of croissants and fresh fruit.  Topping off his mug with a fresh filling of flavored coffee, known at this particular cafe as the “Picard blend” with it’s touch of sytheholic chardonnay and bergamot oil, the doctor took a last check of the time before embarking on his final trek to Krockover’s office.

Like many other places throughout the headquarters building, the lobby of Krockover’s office was embellished with plant arrangements of all types, fed by the ambient glow of both windows and overhead lighting.  Leon inspected a few of the planters as he walked into the lobby, both to enjoy them and to keep from looking like he didn’t know where he was going.  Before long, a young lieutenant junior grade with black, shoulder-length hair called out from behind the reception desk.

“May I help you?”

Leon broke away from his inspection of the shrubbery and focused on the young woman in command red.  “Yes.  I’m Leon Cromwell.  I was ordered to report to Admiral Krockover at 0900 hours.”

“Oh, Doctor Cromwell,” the lieutenant said cordially.  “She’s been expecting you.  Please have a seat.  The admiral is in conference with her aide camp, but I’ll let her know you’re here.”

Moments later, a young Vulcan female with ensign rank pips on her crimson collar emerged from a set of doors to the left of the reception desk.  In the stoic demeanor of her planet, the officer looked at Doctor Cromwell with a silent, contemplative gaze.  Leon, who sat in the lobby next to a coffee table, took note of the introspective ensign and watched her as she continued towards him from the office door.

“The admiral will see you now, doctor,” she said in a monotone voice.

Leon nodded his thanks, and proceeded to stand up and walk to the office.  However, he took a second look at the ensign as he walked by, realizing that her eyes were following him.  Like all Vulcans, her look was indecipherable, unwilling to yield any information about what her thoughts were.  Still, the doctor could not shake the feeling that her thoughts were of recognition as much as they were of scrutiny.  Unfortunately, both were unwilling to keep the admiral waiting by engaging in further conversation, so the two broke eye contact as the doors to Admiral Krockover’s office parted, and Leon walked through.

Like the lobby and hallways prior, the spacious office was adorned with cultivated containers of plant life, and a large window overlooking San Francisco Bay was affixed to the far wall.  In front of the window, an executive desk was centered between two, freestanding flagpoles.  The pole on the right held aloft the Starfleet organizational flag, and the pole to the left a United Federation of Planets flag.  Behind the desk, a thatch of gray hair tied up in a bun extended up over the headrest of a leather chair, and Leon could not make out any further details because the occupant was turned away from him and sat gazing out the window.  As the door whispered shut behind the doctor, an uncomfortable moment of silence ensued before the admiral spoke.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” a gravelly female voice asked from the chair.  “No matter how many times I look out over the city, I can’t help but to be overwhelmed about how fast paced and industrious the human race is.  Always moving around from place to place.  Always building or rending.”

Leon shifted slightly as he stood in the center of the office, unsure how to respond.

“I wonder,” the admiral continued.  “How many actually stop to see whether their impact on our culture is beneficial or detrimental.”

“Perhaps most of them simply have no impact whatsoever,” offered Leon.  His willingness to add to the admiral’s ramblings caused her to move her head slightly in his direction without turning completely around to face him.

“Are you sure?” she replied.  “Everyone has to have a goal; some purpose to their activities.  The question is, whether those goals are altruistic or selfish.”

“Usually,” Leon said.  “Most organisms act in their best interests, preferring to do whatever it takes to survive.  So to that end, all goals are inherently selfish.”

“Are you saying that everyone is selfish, and that there are no true acts of altruism?”

“Not at all,” the doctor maintained.  “Altruism is exhibited by higher organisms towards others with genetic similarity.  It’s a natural instinct to maintain your genetic lineage.”

“Ah,” the admiral concluded.  “So you’re saying that we perform selfless acts only when it serves to ensure that our genetic traits remain in the gene pool.”

“Well, I’m talking about natural tendencies.  I don’t think it’s so much a question of altruism or selfishness than it is of the ability to overcome genetic instinct.  If we’re struggling between the need to survive and the moral protocol of serving the greater good, the majority of us will be doing some of both thus resulting no cumulative effect in either direction.”

“You’re starting to sound like Ensign S’kak, my aide camp.  Her Vulcan logic has an interesting twist to our private discussions on morality.”  Slowly, the admiral turned her chair around to face Leon.  Her aged and wrinkled face held a half-smile indicating her amusement, or perhaps agreement, with the doctor’s view of basic motivational behavior.  The soft blue eyes stood in contrast to the silvery gray hair, and her red and white admiral’s uniform was the only icon revealing that she was someone other than a friendly, approachable figure.  “She would probably agree with you.”

For Leon, seeing the admiral’s face stirred a very faint memory that he could not bring to the surface.  She seemed somewhat familiar, but he could not place a finger on why.  His forehead developed a furrow, confused as to how he might possess a memory of a high-ranking Starfleet admiral.

“Have we met?” Leon finally asked.

Maintaining her amused half-smirk, Admiral Krockover replied, “Not for a very, very long time, Leon.”

‘Leon?’ the doctor thought to himself, for he had never been on a first-name basis with any admiral he knew of.

“I’m sorry,” the admiral offered.  “Perhaps I should give you my maiden name, Pamela Maurice.”

Leon raised his eyebrows in surprise.  “Maurice is my mother’s family name,” he stated before returning to his confused appearance.  “I thought all women on my mother’s side kept the family name after marriage?”

“All of them did,” the admiral replied, placing her elbows on the desk and resting her chin on folded hands.  “Except for me.  Jasmine, your maternal grandmother, and myself did not see eye to eye.  We had a rough upbringing, as I took up interests in politics and Starfleet while she became a structural engineer.  Since our father was an engineer at the Benicia commercial shipyards, he naturally had a better relationship with your grandmother.  I became more of a black sheep over the years after running away at age fifteen and joining Starfleet at age seventeen.  It wasn’t until Jasmine contracted sythococcus novae that we started talking again.  On her deathbed, your mother and I blamed my father for not keeping up with your grandmother’s immunizations as child, as it would have saved her life.  After the funeral, we kept sporadic contact with one another, but over the years, your father’s disdain for Starfleet pried us apart.”

“That funeral was thirty years ago,” Leon said with comprehension.  “I don’t remember anyone in a Starfleet uniform attending it.”  He still couldn’t believe he had a long lost great aunt, let alone one that was a Starfleet admiral.

“It was your mother’s idea that I come in civilian clothes to placate your father.  And as it was, I didn’t stay very long.”

Silence returned while Leon mulled over everything that she had said.  Stressed, he rubbed his forehead in thought, trying to remember if his mother ever mentioned an Auntie Pam when he was a child.  Unfortunately, he could not recall any such incidence

“Please Leon,” the admiral offered.  “Have a seat.  I can imagine this must be very awkward.”

Without hesitation, Leon accepted the offer, sliding into a padded armchair near the desk.  Taking another sip of his coffee, he looked at the woman as if searching for an ulterior motive.  “That still doesn’t explain why I’m here,” he said after a moment.

“In a way, it does,” the elderly admiral replied.  “At least partially.  You see, just prior to your grandmother’s death, she and I made amends.  It was only natural, since she would soon pass away.  However, during that last conversation together, she had a dying request of me: to look out for you and your family in the coming years.  As it stood, you were all safe on Cestus Three at the time, and it was only when you left to join Starfleet that I had to keep better track of all of you.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘keeping track’?”  It was clear Leon was suspicious at the idea, which made Admiral Krockover laugh.

“You have your father’s paranoia!” she chuckled.  “I dare say we’ll be alright if we’ve got some of that around here.”  Still amused, she proceeded to answer his question.  “Because your father was adamant about keeping me away from your family, I had to use more clandestine ways to keep you all out of harms way.  Although having the Cromwell family so close to the Gorn border made me a little nervous, there was no perceived threat at the time.  You, on the other hand, turned my hair gray,” a smile crept across her face.

“Me?” Leon tried to look innocent.

“Yes you,” she persisted.  “When you joined Starfleet, you put yourself within millimeters of harm.  Although I was very proud of you as I watched your graduation from basic training, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of dangers lie ahead for you.”

“You watched my graduation?” the doctor looked stunned as the admiral nodded.  “I invited my parents and sister to Earth to watch me graduate, but they never came.  I was so disappointed that no one from my family came to see one of the proudest days of my life.”

“I beamed with pride as I saw you march across that parade field,” Krockover added.  “I even pointed you out to my first officer who came with me at the time.  I never thought anyone in my family would ever be in Starfleet other than me.  It was one of the proudest days of my life as well.”

Leon was shocked.  Learning that his early but brief enlistment in Starfleet meant something to someone other than himself was beyond belief.  He suddenly felt a twinge of guilt at ending his enlistment so early.

“I suppose that you were a bit disappointed when I chose not to reenlist,” he said with hesitation.

“Not really,” she replied to Leon’s surprise.  “I was actually fairly relieved, especially when I learned you were going to medical school.  I figured that the medical field would be one of the safest places for you to be, especially since you were not in Starfleet anymore.”

Suddenly, the admiral lost her smile, and replaced it with a long, sober gaze.  “Little did I know of what would happen next.”

“I didn’t exactly have control of that,” Leon admitted.  “They were short of medical personnel during the Dominion War.”

“I did everything I could to keep you from being drafted,” she said with regret.  “But there are some things even an admiral can’t do.  When we learned that you might have been captured and not killed at Theta Cygni Five, I sent as many agents and starships behind enemy lines looking for you as I could muster.  I nearly lost my admiralty after relieving the Chief of Marine Operations from his post due to the botched defense plan for Theta Cygni.  You have no idea how relieved I was when you were found.”

The admiral looked up to find Leon staring at her in astonishment, and with tears welling in his eyes.

“You . . . you went looking for me?” he said through a raspy throat.

“A promise is a promise, Leon.  I couldn’t let your grandmother down, now could I?”

Silence again permeated the room as the admiral allowed the doctor to digest the information.  Leon usually dealt with change in stride, but this was a bombshell to say the least, and he was searching within himself for memories that contradicted anything she had said.  He was also struggling with the gratitude that another person outside his immediate family had cared enough about his career, indeed his very life, during times he thought no one had.  Could this kindly old woman truly have been his guardian angel all these years?  Deep down in his soul, Leon knew that everything that the admiral had said is true, and his only struggle now was to convince the rest of his mind that it was, and decide on the next step.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”  Leon finally said.  “You were the one behind my reactivation orders.”

“No,” the admiral stated clearly.  “Admiral Janeway reactivated you.  I simply suggested it.”

“Why?” the doctor asked, preparing himself for yet another bombshell.

Krockover sighed heavily and leaned back in her chair.  She seemed to be thinking of the right words, fumbling with her fingers and gently swiveling her chair back and forth.

“Leon, the reasons are . . . complicated,” she said, struggling to find the words.  “After your return from being a POW, I wanted to make sure that you were never put in that position again.  I ensured that your request to be released from your Starfleet contract was approved, and was happy to see that you chose to return to education and life science research.”

“But?” Leon persisted.

“But, we needed you.”

“Who?” the doctor demanded.  “Who is ‘we’?”

Again, the admiral sighed, and decided to take a different approach.

“Leon,” she started.  “I know that Captain Marshall talked to you about the struggle between Admiral Fowler and Admiral Kostya.  Do remember what he said?”

“He said something about a conspiracy in the fleet,” he recalled.  “A power play between two opposing sides, and the Republic was caught in the middle.”

“That was partially true,” continued Admiral Krockover.  “But it wasn’t the whole truth, and it wasn’t because Fowler was replaced by a Kreltan infiltrator.  There WAS a power play between Fowler and Kostya, even before Fowler was abducted.  However it wasn’t between two opposing sides.  It was WITHIN one of the two sides.”

“What ‘sides’ are we talking about here?” Leon asked, confused as ever.

“That’s the simple part,” she replied.  “It’s the classic political struggle between the hawks and the doves, and Fowler and Kostya belong to the hawks.”

“What exactly are you getting at?” the doctor continued with irritation creeping into his voice.  “Surely all Starfleet wants is peace?  At least that’s what’s been advertised.”

“Ever since the Cardassian border conflict two decades ago, and the subsequent formation of the Marquee, there’s been a growing movement within Starfleet.  This movement consists of people who believe that Starfleet should shed the yoke of purely exploration and non-interference and embrace a proactive military policy that allows us to act preemptively if we feel we are threatened by outside forces.  This movement existed then both in the higher levels of Starfleet and the lower ranks.  Unfortunately, the lower ranks tended to desert and join the marquee, leaving the higher ranking hawks in their position to look the other way.  When the Dominion War happened, the marquee, of course, were wiped out, leaving the high-brass hawks to stew quietly while the war raged on.  Towards the middle of the war, when it seemed that Starfleet might lose, the doves in Starfleet were beginning to consider the unthinkable: negotiation of the terms for surrender.  The hawks fiercely opposed this, citing that billions of Federation lives would have been lost for nothing.

“Eventually, we gained the Klingons and Romulans as allies, and the war was won.  Unfortunately, there was a price to be paid by the doves.  The hawks cited that if the doves had gotten their way, the entire alpha and beta quadrants would be under Dominion rule, and us as their slaves.  Worse yet, they used the Dominion War as a reason to push their proactive military policy.  The result has been that the hawk movement has grown over the past five years, and this most recent Kreltan conflict has catalyzed their rise to power in the Federation Council and Starfleet Command.”

As Leon had suspected, the second bombshell had arrived.  Again, he sat there in silence as Krockover allowed him to digest the information.

“What does this have to do with me?” he finally asked.

“The hawks, now in control of the Federation Council, have been clandestinely reorganizing Starfleet by placing their people in charge of key starships and starbases, or in positions of authority aboard ones they couldn’t oust the incumbent commander.  Fortunately, there are some untouchable ships, like the Enterprise and the Titan with dovish commanders and senior staff firmly in control.  However, the hawks have been hard at work at other vessels that control entire sectors, one of which, is the Republic stationed at Delphi station.

“Your reactivation orders were implemented in lieu of a Lieutenant Commander Mortland, a staunchly hawkish medical doctor, from being posted in a senior position aboard the Republic.”

“Surely you could have found someone else?” Leon asked.

“No,” Krockover stated flatly.  “They had already succeeded in placing a green, easily-controlled captain in charge of the Republic, and if we didn’t act quickly, the ship would have been solid hawks, wall-to-wall.”

“What about my orders?” the doctor persisted.  “Why was my record altered to look like I had never been discharged from Starfleet after the Dominion War?”

“The hawks,” Krockover explained.  “Were already onto us.  They were about to trace your orders back to Admiral Janeway, and we had to do something to make it look like your reactivation orders were actually only a standard reassignment.  Therefore, a slight change in your service record was made, and the reasons highly classified.  It put a quick and effective end to the tracing of your reactivation orders.”

“But why?” Leon asked, at the edge of his seat.  “Why me?  Why couldn’t you have just left me alone aboard the Bremerton to finish my Daystrom grant?”

“There’s no simple answer to that, Leon,” admitted the admiral.  “I took the chance that you might eventually understand what is going on, and want to help.  In fact, hearing that you signed up to take the bridge officer’s course gave me a lot of hope.”

The doctor was feeling as if his life was being manipulated the day he received those orders to report to the Republic.  He had felt insulted that his life was yet again prone to the whims of Starfleet Command, and he had little control over it.  Leon was all but convinced that someone in the higher ranks of Starfleet was out for revenge by altering his records, but never in his life had he expected to find that these orders were issued for the greater good of the Federation.  It was almost laughable if it were not such a serious situation.

“We’re losing ground, Leon,” the admiral pleaded.  “The doves are far and few between these days, and we fear that infighting, possibly even civil war, may soon grip the Federation.  If that happens, the hawks will have a distinct upper hand if they control most of the Starfleet.  We’re doing everything we can to stop that.  What I need to know now is, can we trust you?”

Although he felt he was being put on the spot, if the admiral’s story was true, the Federation was in desperate need for people to wanted to give peace a chance.  The question now was what could he actually do as a humble medical doctor.

 “What do I need to do?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

The admiral smiled again, extremely relieved that her hunch to trust her distantly-related grand nephew was well placed.  “Same thing you’ve been doing,” she replied.  “Openly question strange orders, acting as a moral confidant to your superiors, and making friends of those who matter most to the cause of the Federation.  Above all, uphold and affirm the true reason of why Starfleet exists: peaceful exploration.”

“So, does this make me some sort of secret agent now?” the doctor asked with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’ll warn you I’m not very good at intelligence operations.”

The chuckle from the admiral indicated her amusement at the thought. “No, no.  There are no black ops here.  Although I advise against talking about this to others, I trust you to use your judgment.  Just be yourself, and if any strange orders or activity come your way, be sure to let me know.  Remember that you’re considered a placeholder.  You’re assigned to a position to keep a hawk from entering it and abusing the authority in their favor.”

“What about the Republic?” asked Leon.

“You’ll be assigned back aboard as soon as the Cestus Three situation is resolved.”

“What about that?  How’s it going?  Is my . . . is OUR family okay?  What was that all about when Lieutenant Chase said that my father is a terrorist?”

“Yes,” she confessed.  “Your father’s actions on Cestus Three have been controversial, but understandable.  The whole reason the Gorns attacked was due to the hawks in Starfleet.  They violated the Metron treaty by establishing a listening post in the system.  Believe me, I tried to get your mother, father and sister to leave the planet when I found out, but your father was so distrustful of Starfleet at that he locked out my transmission ID from his com center.  In hindsight, had I received information that the Gorns were about to attack, I would have gone there myself to extract them.  As it stands now, the system is blockaded by the Gorns, and there’s little I can do until the Republic reports back.  Until then, it’s best you remain here.  Not necessarily for protection, but to prevent the hawks from using you as an excuse of why the Gorns attacked.  Having them cite that the son of a known terrorist is serving aboard the ship of the Federation’s peace envoy would be just the thing that they could use against us.”

Leon nodded his head slowly, more out of frustration that there’s nothing he can do to help his family or the Republic right now.  The admiral had shown trust in him over the years, as well as at this very moment by revealing the Federation power struggle.  To seemed only fitting that he trust her now.

“So what do I do until I’m sent back to the Republic?”

“I’m glad you asked,” the admiral smiled before pressing the intercom button on her desk.  “S’kak, you can come in now.”  A moment later, the young Vulcan ensign that seemed to be looking Leon over prior to coming into the office returned with a PADD in hand.  “For the time being, you’ll be a guest physician at Starfleet Medical under Captain Renowski.  In addition,” Krockover smiled again, “I believe you have some coursework to continue at the academy.”  S’kak handed Leon the PADD.  “Ensign, will you take Doctor Cromwell in hand and show him to his quarters?”

“Certainly, sir,” she replied looking at Leon with the same emotionless eyes that the doctor perceived the same impression that she was somehow scrutinizing.

Since Leon had already gone through a surreal situation with the admiral, he no longer wished to maintain an air of mystery surrounding anything.  Therefore, he resolved to figure out why the ensign seemed to be sizing him up.

“Ensign, do I somehow know you as well?” he asked sarcastically, figuring that the ensign was well aware of the distant family relationship between the admiral and himself.  “Don’t tell me you’re my long lost baby sister or something.”

The question drew a laugh from the admiral, but the logical ensign simply looked at Leon and replied, “there is no family relation between us, doctor.  But your intuition about knowing me is partially correct.  My brother, Doctor Y’lair, served under you for a short time before his death.”  S’kak then led the way out of the office door.

Leon’s jaw hit the floor as the third bombshell of the day struck him.

“You’ve been the talk of the office, Leon,” the admiral replied with amusement.  Leon only stared at her with speechless incredulity as followed after the ensign.

As the doors closed, the Admiral’s smile slowly faded as she turned her attention to the computer screen on her desk.  It was good to see her grand nephew again after all these years, but there were much more pressing matters at hand.  She was putting it lightly when she said Leon’s father was considered a terrorist as his most recent exploits spelled out across her monitor.  The text uplink to Republic’s logs had been very handy in this recent crisis, but the information was not very reassuring, and her position in Starfleet allowed her to do little else than to watch the events unfold at Cestus Three.

Unfortunately, the newest message was even more troubling.  Captain Marshall had apparently agreed to some sort of conflict resolution with the Gorns via personal combat.  With Carter and Forrest busy on the planet’s surface, command was handed over to next in the chain of command, Lieutenant Commander Virtus.  There were countless Gorn battle cruisers bearing down on the lone Starfleet vessel, and her senior crew was spread out over the entire system.  In Krockover’s mind, the stage was set for disaster.

<location: main sickbay, deck 12, U.S.S. Republic>

The tingling sensation of the transporter should have faded after beaming back to the ship for James Marshall.  It didn’t.  Like thousands of dull pin-pricks, the loss of sensitivity spread outwards from the gaping wound in his shoulder like a quick spreading frostbite.  His mind was in a haze, and as his extremities were the first casualties of the poison, as his perception of reality was quickly becoming the second.  The voices surrounding him were like shallow whispers in the night, dislodging only faint memories of a life quickly slipping before his eyes.

“. . . begin a system-wide neurological scan . . .”

Doctor Yezbeck’s words reached his ears, but held little meaning.  Even the face of the Gorn first officer who dealt him the tainted wound had long vanished from the captain’s recollection.  In their place, shadows from the past manifested themselves as if offering either support or absolution.  Although none spoke, their thoughts were straightforward, and echoed in Marshall’s mind.

‘You should have trusted me, captain.’  John Carter sat in the executive officer’s chair, and looked at Jim with an air of frustration and antipathy.  ‘Why did you walk out on us when we needed you most?’

“. . . unknown substance exhibiting asynchronous isomerism.  I need a toxicology report, stat! . . .”

The sound of rushing air and labored breathing lingered in the background.  White haze revealed another face, that of Leon Cromwell.  He looked at Jim with fatherly concern.  ‘You need to trust your people.  Only then can they learn to trust you.’

“. . . do we have a stasis option? . . .”

“. . . Negative.  Isomerism is too random . . .”

The soft, slowing beat of his heart pounded within the captain’s ears.  The fragmented moments within space and time merged as if nothing held them together at all.  A fleeting image of Rachael Blake faded into Jim’s mind.

“Rachael!” he spouted on the exam table.  The medical crew rushing to save his life dismissed the exclamation as the non-lucid hallucination of a dying man.

‘Jim, why didn’t you let go?’ Rachael’s eyes were transfixed on him.  She was a formidable woman, resourceful captain, possessing beauty without bounds.  ‘The Republic would have been fine.’  Her thoughts floated into his mind, revealing the deep feelings she had hidden from him.   ‘We could have been together.  You and me.  On Risa.  Would that have been so bad?’

“. . . administer 500 cc’s of quadrantropine . . .”

Sawyer had removed her combadge again, and the penetrating gaze of the black haired half-Vulcan/half-Betazed engineer looked right into his soul.  ‘I did what you wanted, captain.  Everything is up to specs.  I went out on a limb.’  She was nervous, and unknowing of his commitment to her or the crew.  ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’

“. . . we have cardiac failure.  Initiate full life-support protocols . . .“

‘My knight.’  The melodious words rolled into Jim’s mind like the sudden scent of a pleasant flower.  ‘My sweet knight.’  Lana Taylor sat staring at Jim with a warm glow and a grateful smile.  ‘Those 4th years were just bullies.  But you . . . your so different.  Thank you for stopping them for me.’  Her eyes blinked with the flutter of a beguiled teenager.  ‘My baby and me thank you.’

“. . . no response from the antitoxin . . . systemic organ shutdown imminent . . .”

‘Jimmy!’  Normally, he hated that name.  But instead of the upper classmen from Starfleet academy taunting him, it was the innocent calling of Grandma Marshall.  ‘Jimmy Marshall!  Where are you?’  The gratifying smell of Friday night supper wafted into his nostrils.  Corned beef and cabbage was his favorite, with boiled potatoes to boot.  ‘Stop playing and come in for dinner!  It’s only going to get cold!’

“. . . increase cordical stimulators to 800 faradays . . .”

Up and down.  Jim bounced up and down on his father’s knee.  It was fun.  ‘See that picture, son?’  Little Jimmy was watching as daddy pointed to the unmoving, framed figure on the wall.  The short brown hair and green eyes sported a quaint, old-fashioned suit and tie.  ‘That’s President James Marshall.  The fifty-seventh president of the former United States of America . . . the most powerful nation state on Earth before planetary unification.  You’ll be like him someday, Jimmy.  Someday . . .‘

“. . . we have a steady redline on the synaptic monitor . . .”

Cold or hot was irrelevant, as there was no longer any sensation of environmental extremes.  Jim knew the feeling of bliss, and this was it.  The warmth of the womb was a solitude all unto it’s own, and a steady feeling of contentedness washed over him.  Nothing could hurt him here.

“. . . no sign of activity in the prefrontal cortex or hippocampus . . .”

Although his eyes did not hurt, the light was blinding nonetheless.  The intensity of the white haze increased exponentially, causing his thoughts to rise and converge into a single thread of consciousness.  Like the heart of supernova, the light exploded into brilliant colors, filling Jim’s mind with a plethora of momentary lucidity that slowly faded with the expulsion of a single breath.

“. . . confirm cessation of all neurological functions . . .”

Only space could be so black . . . so empty.  Even the stars refused to shine. The peaceful solitude of timelessness was infinite as entropy came to a standstill.  Quietly, a blanket of emptiness shrouded Jim’s mind, leaving behind nothing more than what oblivion itself could offer. 

“. . . make a note in the medical log . . . what’s the current ship-time? . . .”

 

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

Tense moments passed as Vic sat silently in the command chair.  McTaggart’s voice from the transporter room was shaky, indicating that the situation was grave.  There were very few things in the universe that could bring the assistant tactical chief to the verge of panic.  One was jeopardizing the safety of the ship’s captain; the other was anything that may block his unwavering dedication to duty.  Since both were now becoming an alarming possibility, Victor Virtus assumed the worst was yet to come.

=/\= “Sickbay to bridge.” =/\=

Virtus looked to Shannon Harris seated next to him.  Although the counselor wasn’t telepathic, it didn’t take a Betazoid to know what was on Vic’s mind.  They each exchanged a glance of impending disaster as the acting commander pressed the intercom button on the armrest.

“This is the bridge.  Go ahead, Doctor Yezbeck.”

=/\= “Captain Marshall is dead.” =/\=

Silence took hold as the shock of the news rippled through the bridge crew.  At the tactical console, Jason McClintock’s jaw stiffened.  Of all the bad outcomes that could have transpired, this one was the worst.  Not so much due to of the loss of the captain, but because of what his death forces the tactical chief to do.  A tense glance towards Kristen Tyler, the science chief, ended with a slight nod, as if confirming a course of action that neither of them were looking forward to executing.  Jason had to work quickly, since McTaggart, his tactical assistant, was due back to the bridge any moment.  With a quick dance of his fingers across the console, a computer program he had designed prior to boarding the Republic was activated.  Tyler did the same at her science station, and nervously rolled her eyes back towards McClintock, confirming that she had completed her task.

“Mister Snyder,” Virtus called out to the helm station.  “Bring us into a lower orbit for a closer scan of the planet.  I want to see if it’s possible to locate Commander Carter’s away team.”

With a negative warble sounding from the navigation console, a frown developed on the assistant helm officer’s face.  “The helm’s not responding, sir.”

“Run a diagnostic,” came the cool, calm voice of the chief engineer.  As he stood up from the command chair, he took a few strides closer to the helm station.  “See if you can locate what’s wrong.”

“I think I can answer that, commander,” Lieutenant McClintock coolly spoke from the tactical station.

Virtus turned around to face the tac chief.  “Explain,” he stated straightforwardly. 

“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid I’ve had to lock out all command functions.”

“Lieutenant,” Virtus continued his calm, direct demeanor despite the rising tension on the bridge.  “There are one thousand and four lives aboard this ship that are depending on our ability to act freely with those command codes intact.  You will explain your actions immediately.”

“Again, I apologize sir.  But our orders were to secure the ship from station-keeping and hold her in position in the event of Captain Marshall becoming incapacitated.”

“OUR orders?” asked Vic.

Kristen Tyler took position alongside McClintock as he explained.

“When we first came aboard at Starbase 23, Captain Marshall instituted a standing order with myself, Lieutenant Tyler and, several of the crew with the endorsement of Admiral Kostya.”

“Continue,” Virtus peacefully urged.

“Should anything happen to Captain Marshall on this upcoming mission, we were to immediately secure the ship, and prevent any change of command until told otherwise by Admiral Kostya at Starfleet Command.”

“That is a violation of Starfleet regulations, Lieutenant.”

“Those are our orders, sir.”

Unblinking, Lieutenant Commander Victor Virtus locked stares with McClintock.  “What you are doing,” he concluded, “is tantamount to mutiny.”

“Sir, I can’t express how sorry I am, but we have our orders.”

At that moment, the port-aft turbolift doors parted, and two enlisted security officers marched out and took station at either corner of the bridge’s aft section.

“Chief,” Virtus ordered the ranking guard.  “Place Lieutenant McClintock and Lieutenant Tyler under arrest.”

The chief petty officer looked at McClintock with a concerned expression that was reciprocated.  Glancing briefly back towards the lieutenant commander, the guard returned to an alert standing position, ignoring Virtus’ order.

“Please sir,” McClintock pleaded with polite respect.  “Don’t make me confine you to quarters.  If you’ll be patient and wait for orders from Admiral Kostya, it will make our job much easier.”

Virtus shot a glance at Harris who, while facing away from McClintock, shifted her eyes clandestinely towards the control panel to her left.  She looked calmly back to Vic, giving a very slight nod as if saying ‘I’ll take care of things here.’

“Unfortunately, I have a job too,” Virtus reminded McClintock.  “And it’s to safeguard this crew and carry out our mission.”

In a flash, the chief engineer dropped to the ground and did shoulder roll to his rear right.  The guards pulled out their phasors and took snapshots at him as he disappeared into the emergency turbolift.  To Vic’s relief, the shots that landed very near to him did not combust, indicating that they were set to stun.  ‘At least they’re not trying to kill me,’ he thought as the doors closed in front of him.

“McClintock to Hamilton,” the tac chief tapped his combadge.  “Virtus is resisting and escaped in the emergency turbolift.  He’s on his way to the battle bridge.  Have a security contingent meet him there and place him under arrest.  Try not to harm him.  We’re under orders to secure the ship, not to put anyone in sickbay.”

=/\= “Acknowledged.” =/\=

<location: McCallum province, Cestus III>

As Forrest checked his tricorder, he spoke to Commander Carter. "We're lucky the settlements are pretty far apart. Shouldn't make it too hard to find whoever it is we're looking for."

Carter nodded. "Mmm Hmm. Well if Leon's dad anything like him, he shouldn't be too hard to find."

Carter's words had barely trailed off when the ground was rocked by an explosion. Vibrations shot through the ground, causing Carter and the rest of the landing party to lose their footing. To the southeast, a pillar of billowing white smoke rose from the centre of what Carter had assumed to be the nearest population center.

"Jesus Christ!" Nat Hawk yelled as he was knocked to the dirt.

The Hazard Team immediately unslung their weapons, scanning the horizon for another incoming volley. Falling back on years of Starfleet training, Doug Forrest hit the ground and rolled with the impact to make getting to his feet just a bit easier. Nat Hawk was already back on his feet as John Carter looked toward the signs of destruction. "Let me guess..." Carter brushed the dust off of his uniform and brushed the hair out of his eyes. "We go that way."

Two hours later, the away team crossed the border of McCallum province into the Cornucopia settlement proper.  The eerie silence of a city that should be bustling with people was putting them all on edge.  All that could be seen among the vacant skyscrapers were occasional blast marks and a few small buildings hollowed out and blackened by unchecked fires.  The only sound that Carter and his comrades could hear were the crunching of their footsteps through the debris littered the streets.  In the distant sky, a few pillars of black smoke remained from the overnight Gorn invasion, but one large pillar of white gas floating gently upward was the destination of the team.

"Well if it wasn't an energy charge or a photon grenade, what the hell was it?" John Carter asked. He was running at a fair clip along with Hawk, Forrest, and the six members of Republic's Hazard Team. In response to Carter's question, Forrest checked his tri-corder's readings.

"It was a big conventional explosion. Real big." Forrest and the rest of the away team stopped short as they neared the smoke-filled edge of the settlement. Forrest immediately turned is head and covered his eyes. "Good GOD!"

Next to the two bridge officers, Nat Hawk bent over. It took all of his concentration to keep from retching. "Gah! That's worse than a Klingon kitchen after the G'akh spoils!" In the distance, Hawk could hear the screams of wounded and dying Gorn soldiers and continued to smell rotting and melting reptile flesh. "Whadda ya s'pose did this?"

"Someone with a mad-on for the snakes," Mendoza commented.

"That's right enough." Carter offered. He stepped ahead of the assembled away team and looked into the chaotic streets of the settlement. "Okay. My guess is that whoever did this is going to be close by to watch their handiwork." Carter looked again toward the mountains surrounding the colony. "But from where?"

"Don't look at me." Forrest added, almost as an after thought. "Intel didn't plan anything like this. Not for any reason."

"But the Black Shirts are here right?"

"I can neither confirm or deny."

"I'll take that as a yes." Carter quipped, letting an edge of frustration into his voice.

***

 Watching from the transit platform, Wey blinked and let his sensor scopes drop from his face. "Aww crap!" he cursed. "Artie, Skip, we got a problem. A big shiny warp-powered problem."

"What?" Arthur Cromwell braced himself against the transit stop's railing. "Where? Who?"

Wey brought his scope back to his eyes, then pointed to Carter's newly arrived away team. "Nine of `em." he explained. "Three look like Fleet officers. The other six...Hell, they walk like Marines, but I don't know WHAT they are."

"Any blue coats?" Cromwell asked.

"No." Wey answered. He turned his head to look at the ersatz leader of Shadow Force. "Why would you need a doctor? Having prostate trouble again?"

"No reason." Cromwell said. "It doesn't matter now anyway. We have to get out of here before the Rex's beam down the shocktroops."

Wey checked the scope again. "Too late," he said grimly.

The members of Shadow Force watched as swirls of purple transporter energy appeared near the ruins of the water treatment plant. Squads of armed Gorn shocktroops quickly formed a perimeter around the carnage that Shadow Force had caused. Wey, Skip and Cromwell moved down the steps of the transit platform toward the safety of the sewers they used to move about undetected. They were greeted at the bottom of the steps by a very displeased Lindsey Davenport. "Arthur," she said firmly, "you are not leaving those boys to die!"

"Not now Lins," Cromwell answered, "we are very short on time."

"They're Federation citizens Arthur, we can't just ..."

"They're FLEET!" Cromwell shouted angrily. "And I've lost too much to them already to risk any of you."

The look in Cromwell's eyes told the woman that he wouldn't bend, but she also knew that, at this moment, she didn't care about Arthur Cromwell's approval. She looked on in disbelief as Cromwell and the rest of her fellow Shadow Force members made their way into the sewers. "Well if you won't..." Davenport took off at a modest run, headed toward the Federation away team.

Dried spots of blood littered the floor.  As Leon pried open his eyes, he could see the tiny dots of maroon spattering the ground below him.  The pain of the metal wires suspending him from the ceiling through folds of flesh in his back had subsided hours ago, as did the throbbing welts from electric prods all over his body.  However, the tooth sockets from missing teeth were excruciating with each breath he took, and the sadistic laughter of his Vorta torturer sent a chill down his spine.

“It’s really a simple request, doctor.”

Four Jem H’dar soldiers stood at each corner of the dark, gloomy chamber, staying at a distance as their sovereign strode closer to Leon.  The iridescent glow of the Vorta’s eyes hid his malevolent demeanor as he looked at the doctor with false sympathy.

“You said yourself you were stationed out of Starbase 72,” the Vorta stated soothingly.  “With that, you should know the approach protocols for the minefield.”

“I told you . . .” sputtered Leon through dried blood moistened by saliva.  Searing pain tore through his mouth with each spoken word.  “. . . I’m a doctor . . . I don’t know.”

The Vorta closed his eyes, shaking his head in pity.  “I do wish you would discontinue this ruse.”

The sound of the soldiers closing in from the corners caused Leon to tense up.  Although it was a natural response, the pain of the suspension wires tugging on his flesh flared up again, and he clenched his jaw at what was about to ensue.

Flickers from electrical sparks lit the room up like a strobe light, and the crackle of arcing electrodes from the prodding mechanisms resonated with a high-pitched whine.  Again and again the torture devices were impaled into the doctor’s body, causing him to writhe in agony on the suspension wires.  The incessant whine from the prods continued as Leon caught a glimpse of a Jem H’dar reaching towards him with a tooth extractor to remove yet another one of his incisors.  The bliss of unconsciousness soon washed over him as the high-pitched whine of the prods echoed through his mind.

 

<location: officer’s quarters, residential complex 327, Starfleet Headquarters>

Again and again, the whine of the communications console sounded throughout the room.  The uninterrupted darkness confused Leon as he was roused from his sleep.  Slowly, he sat up from the bed, rubbed his eyes, and looked at the wall-mounted chronometer.  It read 0343.

“A little early for a wake-up call,” he grumbled.  “It better be damn important.”

Standing up, Leon tightened the sash on his bathrobe and shuffled over to the communications station at his desk.  Clumsily flopping into the chair, he quickly tapped the ‘answer’ button to silence the annoying warble.  As he did so, the aged and gray-haired face of Admiral Krockover appeared on the screen.

“Admiral,” Leon greeted her.

=/\= “Sorry to wake you, Leon.” =/\=

“S’alright,” he replied rubbing his eyes.  “What’s going on?”

=/\= “I have some bad news from the Republic,” =/\=

“What is it?”

=/\= “Captain Marshall is dead.” =/\=

“What?”  Leon shouted.  He was quite awake now.  “What happened?”

=/\= “I’m not completely certain about the details, but he beamed away from the ship to face the Gorn commander in some sort of duel, and the officer who went with him called for an emergency beam-out shortly afterwards.  The last log message indicated the captain passed away in sickbay at 2348 hours.” =/\=

“Damn it!” Leon stormed, standing up and pacing the room.  “Why did you pull me away from the Republic?  I might have been able to save him!”

=/\= “Leon, you and I both know that pulling you out of there when we did was the best thing for both of us.  As for saving Captain Marshall, Doctor Yezbeck is an expert in emergency medicine.  If he couldn’t have saved the captain, then it’s highly unlikely that you could have.” =/\=

Leon was visibly distressed, with a furrow forming on his forehead.  He paced the room a few more times in silence before regaining his composure and sitting back down at the desk.

“Can you give me anymore specifics?  Surely the medical logs have been transmitted by now . . .”

=/\= “Unfortunately, no.  That’s the other part of the bad news.  The Republic went to silent running just after Captain Marshall died.  My text download of the logbook was discontinued, and I have no idea what’s going on now.” =/\=

“What?” Leon was confused.  “That doesn’t make any sense.  Was the ship attacked?”

=/\= “No.  Long-range sensor buoys show that the Republic is intact and at station holding.  The only reason the ship would have gone to silent running is if the command codes were locked out somehow.” =/\=

“Locked out?  How?  By who?”

=/\= “I don’t know, but I can make an educated guess.  Just before she went silent, the Republic transmitted a secure subspace message that was sent here to Starfleet Headquarters.  I put a trace on the message, and it was routed to Admiral Kostya’s terminal.” =/\=

“You think the Admiral might have had something to do with the Republic going silent?”

=/\= “It’s not something I would put beyond him.  During the Dominion War, Kostya was known for ‘interposition orders’ if a ship captain or other senior officer became incapacitated.” =/\=

“What exactly are interposition orders?”

=/\= “Basically, if strategists here at headquarters want an extra layer of defense against a ship being taken over by changelings, operatives onboard the ship in question can lock out the command codes if there’s an interruption in the chain of command.” =/\=

“That’s crazy!  What if the ship is in the middle of combat?”

=/\= “Better a ship be destroyed than fall in enemy hands.  In practice, the orders were not used for front line ships, but on larger control cruisers in command of entire task forces.” =/\=

“Sort of like the Republic?”

=/\= “Exactly like the Republic.  In fact, some believe it was an interposition order that caused the Republic to be lost five years ago near Cardassian space.  Although the crew was never found and the computer core was wiped clean, so we could never confirm the suspicion.” =/\=

“Why would Kostya use an order like that now?  We’re not at war!  Isn’t there something illegal about this?”

=/\= “Yes, it’s true that there may be some legality issues, but it was never fully explored because we were at war at the time.  It’s very odd that Kostya would go to these lengths to maintain control of the Republic, especially since the ship is in a hazardous situation.  There must be more at stake here than just having the hawks in charge.” =/\=

“That,” offered Leon.  “Or maybe Kostya feels that there are enough hawks in the council to treat interposition orders as a non-issue.”

=/\= “Maybe, but the doves aren’t going to let this one slide quietly in the council.  Even during the war, interposition orders were a very rare thing.” =/\=

“So what do we do from here?”

=/\= “Nothing yet.  Kostya’s likely to move fast and try to put another hawkish captain in charge of the Republic.  If that’s the case, we’ll be sending you back home sooner than expected.” =/\=

“Wait a minute.  You’re an admiral.  Don’t you have any pull in who gets assigned as captain of the Republic?”

=/\= “Please, Leon.  I’m only a rear admiral.  Kostya has the upper hand here.  I’ll check with Admiral Janeway and see if we can cut him off at the pass.  Krockover out.” =/\=

Leon stared at the blank console for more than a minute after the Federation ‘end transmission’ logo had ceased.  The universe was changing at a rapid pace, and he could only sit by and wait for a distantly-related admiral to tell him what to do.   He knew that she meant well, and that it was best for him to stay away from the Republic while it was on this current mission.  But the thought of him standing idly by while his friends and family were in danger twisted his stomach in knots.  Now, with the revelation that his captain was dead, it seemed his worst fears were coming true.

“What the hell is going on down there?” he whispered.

 

<location: Cestus III, somewhere in the Gordonia Mountains>

Granite and basalt were the basic components of the Cestus Three crust.  Although there were a few commodity ores, the system wasn’t renown for it’s mineral riches.  In fact, if it were not for the Class-M biosphere, there would likely be no interest in Cestus for human colonization.  However, of the ores that did exist, many were found in sporadic veins beneath the Gordonia Mountains.  Osmium, diburnium, and magnesium were relatively abundant, as was lead and iron.  Together, these metals formed the innermost layers of the uplift zone which formed the base of the mountain range.  Geologists found it a difficult area to study, and the various metals tended to scatter most active sensor scans, and the extinct magma tubes that allowed subterranean exploration were exceedingly difficult to negotiate let alone find altogether.

However, as a place to hide from the prying eyes of overhead vessels, the Gordonian Mountains offered no better haven on the planet.  In addition to the debris-covered magma tunnels, the range extended over half the planet, giving any possible ground search an insurmountable task should they choose to search the mountains.  It was in the heart of this remote wilderness that the remains of Cestus Three’s government chose their refuge.

The hollowed out bunker was composed of several rooms laid out around a central cavern known as ‘the hub’.  The controllers who manned the monitoring stations throughout the cavern shuffled about their duties which included constant ground, air, and orbital observations as well as communications and satellite tracking.  It was a self-sufficient outpost, built years ago with discrete government funds, and designed to maintain all functions of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in the event of a planet-wide catastrophe.  And of course, if an alien invasion did not constitute such an emergency, then there was very little else that did.

“Governor Clarke?”  A young, curly-black haired man with dark skin wore a communications headset and sat at a computer station situated in front of a large, translucent tactical board.  He beckoned to an elderly man in an anti-grav chair several seats away.

The ancient pursed his lips several times through squinted, wrinkled eyes, and as he smoothed a small crop of white hair with a shaky, age-spotted hand, he manipulated the controls of his ambulatory device and floated towards the twenty-something controller.

“Yes?” the gravelly voice came forth from the governor.

“You asked me to update you when the Gorn recovery operation in Cornucopia was complete.”

“What’s it look like?” the governor asked.

“The medical skiffs stayed for only about thirty minutes,” the controller reported.  “It doesn’t look like they had much to recover.  They’ve cordoned off the area, and most of the troops have vacated.”

“What do you make of the heat-exchange complex?”

“From what I’m hearing on Gorn com intercepts, it’s a complete loss, sir.  Whatever happened, it took everything into the belowground retention pond.  Liquid sodium included.”

“Was it an accident?’”

“Not from the sound of it.”  The young man shook his head.  “It was a clean break in the street all around where the retention pond was.  The Gorn investigation team is guessing that it was probably shaped nitrate charges.”

“Then it couldn’t have been Shadowforce?”

“Not unless they stockpiled Class-1R explosives.  Only Starfleet Commandos would have that kind of firepower.”

“Harmph,” grunted the governor.  “It’s their fault we’re in this mess in the first place . . .”  He pursed his lips a few more times before continuing.  “Have the Gorns found Fleet Intel’s duck-blind?”

“Luckily, no.  In fact, Intel’s been rather quiet except for the retention pond explosion.  But we can’t absolutely confirm that it was them.”

“They’re SUPPOSED to be just observing,” the governor said with a grouchy overtone.  “If they’ve actually started to take military action, we might as well give up any hope of getting the colony back.  The Gorns must’ve found out about the in-system monitoring station by now.”

The old man hovered behind the control operator for a moment, watching him sift through various screens of data.

“How many Gorns do you estimate are on the ground now?” the elderly man asked after a moment.  The young technician typed quickly across his control panel.

“There’s about ten assault ships in orbit supported by a dozen battleships. Recent intelligence about the Gorn naval fleet indicate a standard assault ship holds about two to three thousand battle troops.  Since all eight settlements across the planet have fallen to the Gorns, I’d say the assault ships have probably unloaded most, if not all of their troops.”

“Hmmmm,” Governor Clarke acknowledged.  “With more inbound.”

“Quite likely, sir.”

“And Starfleet?”

“Other than the intelligence personnel, only that lone Galaxy Class is hovering above us.”

“Why in Sam Hill would they send one lousy ship?” the old man muttered.  “There should be an entire fleet in orbit!”

“I don’t know sir, but the outlook doesn’t look good.”

“Agreed,” the governor replied somberly.  “Put the evacuation protocol on standby.  I’ll give Fleet a little longer, but we won’t hold out forever.”

“Yes sir,” the controlled acknowledged.

Governor Clarke made his way down the isle, pausing behind other operators every now and then within the dark cavern.  His aged, wrinkled face was becoming more frustrated at each passing station.  By the time he reached the end of the isle, he was shaking his head.

“I hope to hell Fleet knows what they’re doing . . .”

<location: corridor, deck 5, USS Republic>

Vic knew that taking the emergency turbolift would make McClintock assume he was headed to the battle bridge.  After all, that’s the only possible destination for the provisional elevator, since it was meant to move the bridge staff quickly to the stardrive control center in combat situations.  However, as a ruse, it was effective, and adding to it the universal decoy of removing one’s communicator and placing it where the sensors would expect to locate a biosign also assists in confusing the situation.  The diversion lasted long enough for Vic to exit the lift through the top hatch and find his way to the deck 12 Jeffries tube.  From there, he was able to reverse course back upwards through the saucer section to the deck 5 science laboratories.

As the door to the geophysics lab slid open, it startled Lieutenant Junior Grade Maria Pakita.  Seeing her former science chief walk through the door brought a welcome smile to her face until she noticed his combadge was missing.

“What happened?  I thought you were on the bridge?”

“I was, but unfortunately, Lieutenants McClintock and Tyler had conflicting orders when Captain Marshall passed away at 2348 hours.”

“It’s true then?” she gulped.  “The captain IS dead?”

“Yes,” replied Virtus.  “And it appears that it initiated an unknown standing order to block the usual chain-of-command protocols.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means Captain Marshall and Admiral Kostya had plans to keep Carter from taking over command during this mission.”

“Why?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vic sighed as he opened up a nearby drawer.  Producing a handful of white armbands with attached electronic devices, he placed one on his own arm and activated it.  A pulse of blue light outlined Virtus’ body for an instant before dissipating.

“Why are you using the bio-dampers?” Pakita asked.  “Are you expecting a Borg attack?”

“No,” answered Vic.  “I don’t want the bridge to track me.”  He handed half the bands to Pakita saying “Maria, I’m making you our new science chief.  I need you to get a crew together and reroute the computer nodes on deck 10 to the stardrive’s backup computer core.”

“Where are you going?” she asked with bewilderment.

“Since the battle bridge was automatically cut off when the command codes were locked out, I’m going to find McTaggart and some engineering crew to try and set up an alternate bridge in an empty deuterium storage tank on deck 27.  By completely bypassing the ships main computer core, we should be able to get back control of the ship.”

“A deuterium tank?  Why there?”

“The storage tank’s magnetic field can be modified to set up a transporter shield to prevent beaming.  Also, since McClintock seems unwilling to harm anyone to carry out his orders, I’m betting he won’t be using phasor fire to incapacitate us and risk blowing up the neighboring deuterium tanks.”

“Good luck, sir,” Pakita offered.

“You too,” Vic replied as he exited the room.

 

<location: main bridge, USS Republic>

“What do you mean he wasn’t on the battle bridge?”

Lieutenant McClintock’s voice was stern bordering on aggravated as he addressed Sean McTaggart, the assistant tactical chief.

“Like I said, sir,” the subordinate answered.  “Per your orders, we dispatched a team to apprehend the commander, but found no trace of him except the combadge he left in the emergency turbolift.”

“What do internal sensors show?” McClintock turned to Lieutenant Tyler at science station one.

“Indeterminate,” she replied.  “However, I’m reading only nine-hundred and eighty-nine lifeforms aboard the Republic at the moment.”

McClintock looked visibly confused.

“What?  You’re telling me fifteen of our crew just up and left the ship without using transporters, shuttlecraft, or EVA hatches?”

Tyler looked hurt, but not shaken.  “No, sir.  I’m saying that sensors may have been tampered with.”

“Can they do that?” McClintock turned to McTaggart.

“If they gained access to the computer core,” the assistant tactical answered.  “Yes sir, they can.”

McClintock was now quite perturbed.

“Well you do something to get them the hell out of there!” he shouted at McTaggart.  For his part, the young assistant blinked momentarily before heading to the port-aft turbolift without further response.  As he did so, Doctor Harris spoke from the counselor’s chair.

“Lieutenant,” she addressed McClintock. “Might I suggest you attempt some sort of action to contact Commander Carter and party on the surface? She felt that it couldn’t hurt to remind the lieutenant that there were still people in a dangerous situation on the planet below.

“Your concern for the commander,” responded McClintock.  “Is duly noted, counselor.  However, I’d suggest you put your personal feelings aside for the moment.  This ship is not to take any further action without Admiral Kostya’s intervention.”

“For your sake, lieutenant,” Harris shot back coldly.  “That better be soon.”

<location: Streets of Cornucopia Settlement, Cestus III>

 Mendoza and the Hazard Team instinctively took up firing positions as they heard the swish of Gorn transporters. Quickly, Doug Forrest, Nat Hawk, and John Carter moved into the ruins of what had once been a café, before it was set on fire by something, or someone.

As the away team manned the windows of their makeshift home, Nat Hawk spat his displeasure. "We're gonna die." he opined. "There's gotta be hundreds a'them damned things down here by now. Even I can't fight `em all off," he said with an easy smile.

Forrest gave John a nervous look as he checked his tri-corder's display. It showed that 30 heavily armed Gorn soldiers were fanning out from the accident site. "He might have a point Commander." Forrest said grimly.

"Well I'm not going out alone." Mendoza offered as he primed his compressor rifle. He smiled as the other Hazard Team members followed suit.

"You’re not alone." Came an easy alto voice from the café's doorway. The heads of the away team snapped in the direction of the voice. John Carter dropped into a low stance, and pulled his phaser from it's place on his battle harness. "Who the devil are you?" Carter asked.

"I'm your only chance to get out of here alive." answered Lindsey Davenport. "This way."

There wasn’t much left for Carter to say.  As the mysterious woman disappeared towards the back of the gutted café, John looked to Forrest with a silent, yet amazed glance as if asking ‘should we?’  The intel officer only shrugged his shoulders drawing a frustrated, perturbed face from the XO.  As Hawk and the rest of the hazard team were caught between confusion and consternation regarding the approach of two squads of Gorn battletroops, Carter had to make a decision.

“Let’s roll.”  Moving towards the direction of where the woman came from, he added, “keep your head low.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Mendoza replied, following up the rear of the group retreating into the shadows.

Unfortunately, their movement was caught on the hand scanners of the converging reptilians, and their speed and dexterity were superior to the crew from the Republic.  Not only did their natural bioelectric signature give away their presence on the sensors, but the keen senses of the troops could easily pick up the smell and heat of the warmbloods.  In seconds, the Gorns were in the café, hot on the trail of Carter’s away team.

It was not easy for the Starfleet group to engage terrain that they had never traversed before.  Through back alleys littered with debris to collapsed buildings gutted from fires, the team scurried a quickly as they could through the tangling maelstrom of the abandoned city.  At the head, Carter was more worried over losing sight of their guide than he was of getting too far ahead of the team.  Every so often, he had to stop and check that the rest of the team was keeping up.

Suddenly, the sound of phaser fire behind at the end of the column indicated that the team was being overrun.  John Carter’s pulse tripled as purple blaster bolts whizzed by his head, and the hissing overtones of Gorn troops shouting orders echoed in the distance.  ‘Is this it?’ he thought.  ‘Is this how it’s going to end?’  With adrenaline pumping through his veins, Carter’s eyes grew wild with a frantic glaze, stopping to ensure his team was still following.  Glancing away for only a second, John’s stomach dropped to his feet as he realized he had just lost sight of the woman who coaxed them out from the café.  He was about to shout out to her when a whisper drew his attention.

“Down here!”

Carter looked to see the woman waving from a recessed nook situated behind a concrete retention wall.  Above the wall, an embankment of cultured trees had been planted to beautify the skyscraper around which it was built. The wall was littered with gaping holes, several of which, topsoil had leached out, creating piles of dirt near the base.  The woman was hiding in one of the holes without soil, and as Carter and his team reached the breach, they filed inside, following the woman into the nook.  To the commander’s dismay, the nook was a dead end, and his heart began racing.

“What are you doing?” he shouted at a loud whisper.  “This is no escape!”

“Shhh!” she insisted, motioning for everyone to hunker down and be quiet.  Outside, the relentless Gorns had caught up to the group, and were scanning the area with their sensors.  Confused hissing and growling filled the air, causing tension among many members of the hidden Starfleet group.  Carter could sense the troops were just on the other side of the wall, pacing the area in a concerted effort to find them.  As quickly as they came, the sounds died away, and the mysterious woman slowly peeked out of the breach in the wall.

Carter opened his mouth to speak, but before words came out, the woman spoke first.

“Come on!” she whispered loudly.

They were off again, this time in the opposite direction in which they came.  More twists and turns throughout the maze of gutted and intact buildings laid ahead, and John couldn’t remember which ones he had seen before, and which were new.  Finally, they all came to a dead-end alley, and as Carter and his team turned the corner, he saw the woman pulling on a large metal crate.  As she strained to move the parcel, John could see that it was going nowhere unless he had some help.  Adding to the effort, he pushed on the rear end of the crate, and with a slow, metallic scraping sound, the container moved aside to reveal a storm grate on the ground.

Losing no time, the mysterious woman grabbed a nearby length of metal refuse that she used as a pry-bar to lift the grate out of its recessed frame. As the grate was pulled aside, she climbed down the hole whispering the words, “let’s go!”

Carter, who decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth, motioned his people past him, and directed them down the hole.  Forrest led first, followed by the hazard team, and soon, only Carter and Lieutenant Hawk remained aboveground.

“Are you going?” John asked insistently.  The dubious lieutenant stared questioningly at the open hole in the ground, cringing his nose slightly.

“I ain't goin’ down there!  It smells like cr . . .”

“Get down there!” Carter hissed.  “I don’t care what you smell!  It’s either that hole or the Gorns!”  The commander grabbed the young man’s wrist and nearly pushed him down the hole.  Taking one last nervous glance down the alley, the commander quickly climbed down the storm drain, and replaced the cover above him.

For the next ten minutes the away team, led by Lindsey Davenport, continued to work their way to the lower levels of the storm sewers.  Each member of the team activated their wrist lights to highlight the path ahead.  To Hawks disgust, there were numerous encounters with vermin, including three large rats, a cockroach nest, and a sandwing which left it’s plume of nasty-smelling intruder repellant in the wake of a narrow escape from the humans.  Finally, the group arrived at a fissure in the smooth, cement wall of the lowest level of the drainage system.

“You mind telling me where we’re going?” Carter asked Lins insistently.

“Out of the range of Gorn sensors,” she replied laconically before disappearing into the fissure.  Carter rolled his eyes with a ‘here we go again’ expression, and motioned to his team to follow the woman into the breach.

Downward further they progressed, past the manmade precipices of the storm drain system, and into the natural bedrock below Cornucopia settlement.  They followed a trickle of water below their feet through a narrow, jutted, naturally carved passageway that showed marked signs of continued erosion.  Carter knew in his stomach that he would not want to be in this crevasse during the stormy season.

They finally emerged into what appeared to be a huge cavernous tunnel replete with crumbling walls and littered with gravelly debris.  One by one, the team walked out of the large, vertical crack in the wall, and climbed down a rocky pile of concrete to the base.  The wrist lights danced off the jagged surfaces of the decaying tunnel, highlighting the eroding condition of the ancient, abandoned sewer system from the first Cestus Three settlement.

“What do we do now?” John asked as Lindsey took a seat on a boulder.

“We wait,” she replied mysteriously.  The lack on information was unnerving for Carter, yet it was plain to see that something else was on the woman’s mind.

“For what?” he asked again, hoping to get a clear answer.

“For the rest of the team to get here.”

“Team?” John asked, clearly confused.  “You mean you’re not by yourself?”

“What did you take me for?” Lins asked with a slight twinge of rebellious mirth in her voice.  “Some poor lady who lost her way?”

“Certainly not lost,” Carter rebutted to the forty-something woman.  “Not the way you guided us through the city.  Thank you, by the way.”

For the first time in a while, Lins found herself smiling.  “You’re welcome.  My name’s Lins.  Lins Davenport.”

The two shook hands.  “Carter,” he replied.  “John Carter, of the Starship Republic.”

As the two spoke, there was a distant flicker of light down the tunnel, other than that of the away team’s wrist lights.  As they drew closer, three distinct lights could be made out, and the bobbed up and down in the rhythm of a steady walk.  Carter motioned for the team to take up defensive positions, and as the team responded by turning out their wrist lights, Lins said, “don’t bother.  They’re human, and they already know we’re here.”

“Lins!” came an extremely agitated voice that echoed off the walls.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing!”

With her smile turning to that of frustration and defensiveness, John finally realized what the woman’s mind was dwelling upon.

“Doing what you refused to do,” she responded.  “Saving the lives of fellow human beings.”

As the three lights approached, the men’s faces came into view.  The ages of the two towards the rear were somewhere in their fifties, with one sporting a bald head and the other a head of graying red with a beard.  They were both looking with uncertainty at the leader, a sixty-something gruff-faced man with hair of black and gray, and who was glaring with fuming anger at Lins.

“I TOLD you!” he bellowed.  “They’re FLEET!  They’re the ones who got us into this mess in the first place!”

“Now hold on there!” Carter responded with a sense of knightly gratitude to Lins.  But before he could explain himself, the man shouted back at him with such force and animosity that John had to stop and think why someone he never met would be so angry with him.

“You stay OUT of this, petticoat!” the man said.

‘Petticoat?’ thought Carter.  He then realized that the current voice that talked down to him now was very similar to a friend of his who had recently been whisked away to Earth in a runabout.  As the expression of recognition splayed across his face, John felt a burning anger of his own welling within him.  This was none other than Arthur Cromwell, Leon’s father and proclaimed terrorist.

“I most certainly will NOT!” John rebuffed, with an equally stern and commanding voice.

As the two began an intense exchange of diatribes, the other men walked over to Lins with relieved expressions on their faces.  “Good to see you again, Lins,” said the balding man.  “I was a little worried when you left us like that.”

The shouting match between Carter and Arthur Cromwell continued as Forrest, Hawk, and the hazard team walked over to Lins and the two men.

“. . . and ANOTHER thing!” Cromwell’s voice invaded the cavern, the argument gaining speed.

“Doug Forrest,” the intel officer extended his hand to the balding man.

“Chester Mannfield,” he responded accepting Forrest’s handshake.  “People call me Skip.  This is Weyland Hirsch,” he pointed to the obese man with a gray-red beard.

“You can call me Wey.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Forrest replied.

“. . . you slobbering piece of . . .” Carter’s voice bellowed, followed by Cromwell’s “ . . . yellow-streaked peacocks! . . .”

“You’ve already met Lindsey,” Skip continued.

“Of course,” Forrest replied with a slight bow.  “We owe her a lot.  This is Lieutenant Hawk,” he continued the introductions by pointing to Nat, and then to the other six members of the hazard team. “That’s Abrahams, Mendoza, Bradley, Sherman, Hemet, and Towe.”

“You can call me Deuce,” Towe added.

“Pleased to meet you all,” Skip said diplomatically.

“. . . jack-ass!  I’ll tear you limb from limb! . . .”

“Uh oh,” Lins ominously interrupted at hearing Cromwell’s words.  Before anyone knew it, the gruff old man in his sixties was attempting a fistfight with the young Commander Carter, who defended with a simple marshal-arts block that left Arthur Cromwell flat on his back.  It knocked the wind out of the old man, and instead of standing up to continue the combat, decided it was better to stay on the ground until he caught his breath.

“Are you done?” Carter shouted to Arthur, who could only gasp an answer.  “You can hate us all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Gorns are here, and you people need our help!”

“Not to steal your fire,” Wey said.  “But I think we’re doing just fine by ourselves.”

Doug Forrest gave his XO a look. "I don't know that that's the case either Wey."

"What do you mean?" Wey asked.

"Forrest may be right," Lins commented. "There's a lot more Rex's up there than I've ever seen."

Deuce, of Republic's Hazard Team took that as a cue. "Tricorder read at least three-hundred fifty before we headed underground."

The faces of Shadow Force went ashen. "Three-hundred fifty? But, that'd mean what..." Wey paused and did the math, "A dozen ships in orbit?"

John Carter looked down at Arthur Cromwell, who had just gotten his wind back. The Martian Lieutenant Commander extended his hand to the elder colonist, hoping that Cromwell wouldn't take the chance to get in a cheap shot. "Twenty," Carter said as he helped Arthur up.

"Twenty ships eh?" the elder Cromwell added, "guess you petticoats don't fool around. How many ships in your task force?"

 Carter gave Arthur Cromwell a stern look. "One's all I've ever needed." John quipped, "and don't call me petticoat . . . Mister Cromwell." The sour look on Carter's face betrayed just how much his dislike for this man he'd just met."

"Well where's your rendezvous point?" Lins Davenport asked. "We can probably get you close enough to get a signal to your ship without the Rexes finding out."

Nat Hawk fidgeted nervously as the uneasy allies all formed a circle in the sub-terranian space. The gambler in him didn't trust strangers, and despite the events of the last few minutes, he still wasn't sure what to make of his Republic shipmates. Next to Hawk, Carter surveyed the crowd.

"I'm afraid it's not that simple folks," he offered, slipping easily back into 'command voice'. "We've still got a job to do. Our original mission was to get in touch with other . . . assets near the border."

Wey rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Ah well, you might as well forget it. The Border was the first area the Rexes locked down when they went all agro. Hell," Wey's face lightened with a smile that wasn't too forced, "You'd have better luck getting a state welcome on Romulus."

John Carter rolled his eyes "I'll let you know."

Standing across from Carter in the circle, Arthur Cromwell spoke up. "All this is a waste of time," he thundered. "The Gorn have declared war on us, and Starfleet sends one ship? What more proof do you need? I told you 'Fleet would let us rot."

"No one's letting anyone rot, Mister Cromwell." Carter explained. "We came here investigating the communications failure. Doc was calling his sister, so..."

"Doc?" Lindsey Davenport looked nervously at Arthur Cromwell. The older man returned her worried expression.

"That's right," John continued. "My ship's surgeon is Leon Cromwell."

Arthur's face reddened almost immediately. "I knew it! All those noble words he spouted and he didn't mean a lick of it. I knew he'd go running back to you blood-thirsty, turtle-necked fascists!"

John Carter whirled around to face his CMO's father. "That's ENOUGH!" Carter took two cautious steps forward, looking Arthur Cromwell dead in the eyes. "You can say what you want about me and about 'Fleet. As far as I'm concerned, that'd make you just another voice in the mob."

"Aww, cram it up yer..."

"But I will not, I absolutely WILL NOT have you speak badly of a man who's saved my life at least twice, and who, by the way, you seem to have done a real number on. Grozit! No wonder he left!" Cromwell remained strangely silent. "And before you go calling me blood- thirsty, seems to me that you've racked up one hell of a body count all on your own."

"What're you gonna do, flyboy? Arrest me?"

"One thing at a time, Mister Cromwell."

Lindsey Davenport stepped into the center of the circle. "If you two will settle down," she chided, "I would really like to know what the Federation plans to do about our situation."

Doug Forrest spoke up while John Carter calmed down. "Once we return with our report, Starfleet Command will weigh it's options."

"What about the Diplomatic Corps?"

Forrest nodded. "Yes, we're...pursuing that front as well," he answered. "Our Captain’s on that as we speak."

<location: dispatch office, Waste Transfer Depot Gamma XII, Altair Sector>

“Will there be anything else, sir?”  A lieutenant commander in operations gold stood in front of a small desk in a dark, dingy room.  He had a head of brown hair slicked back to reveal a widow’s peak on the upper forehead, and a pair of dark green eyes.  Waiting for a response from the occupant of the office, he quietly placed his hands behind his back in a relaxed manner.

Behind the desk, a woman with shoulder-length black curly hair sported a command-red under-tunic with the three pips of a Starfleet commander.  Her gray officer’s jacked had the standard red piping on the sleeves, and after she pressed a few buttons on a hand-held PADD, she looked up to the officer with a pair of fatigued brown eyes.

“No Gentry,” she replied.  “That’s all.  Have a good night.”

“Thank you, sir,” he replied before departing the office.  As the doors slid shut, the silence in the room was broken only by a forceful sigh from the commander.  She dropped the PADD on the desk with such apathy that if it were a piece of refuse, she might have been more interested in it.  Folding her arms, the forty-something woman sat back in her chair and surveyed the room with detachment. 

It was a plain office with no windows to speak of, and only a small bookshelf against the wall to the right of the desk.  To the left, a colorful painting of a Nebula-Class cruiser among a backdrop of stars was situated on the wall above a glass aquarium.  The aquarium itself radiated a dull, pale light that was directed downward onto a substrate of sand, rock, and various small desert plants that resembled cacti.  A hollowed out piece of wood sat among the various terrestrial accoutrements, and contained a small brown rodent-like animal that resembled a miniature kangaroo with long ears which ended in erect, bushy tips.  The tail was similar to the ears in that it sported the same hairy apex, but it was the eyes that drew the attention of those who viewed the critter.  Like an opossum, the circular irises were reflective disks of bluish white, and the pupils glowed a soft red.  The two colored apertures intertwined to create a unique collage natural beauty within the visual organs.  As the animal sat on its hind legs cleaning itself, the commander stood up from the desk and walked over to the aquarium.  The unusual creature looked up with the jerky motion of a mouse, flittered a pair of whiskers, and crawled out of the wooden hole to greet the officer with repetitive wisps of it’s tail.

For her part, the commander stood in front of the aquarium looking up at the picture.  She stared at the starship with a look of yearning and regret in her eyes, recalling both the pain and joy of her service during the Dominion war.  Reaching out to the metallic nameplate at the top of the frame, she stroked it gently as she read the inscription:

U.S.S. Thundercrest -- NCC-71339

After allowing a brief moment of nostalgia conjured by the nameplate, she looked down to the dedication inscription etched into a similar gold plate on the bottom of the frame:

To Captain Kimberly Roth -- For loyalty and dedicated service

Like the nameplate, she stroked the gold etching with remembrance, and maintained a penetrating, distant stare as she recalled the day that her crew presented her this memoir.  It was not all that long ago that this woman was the captain of the vessel represented in the painting.  The Thundercrest was in fact a starship that saw an unusually large amount of combat during the Federation’s struggle against the Dominion. Roth had been field-promoted to captain shortly after her reassignment to the Thundercrest as her captain had died during the first days of the war.  For the next several years she had led the vessel through many battles, losing numerous crew, and almost forced to self-destruct the ship at one point.  Still, they endured.  The surviving crew became war-hardened veterans as well a close family of officers.  Until that fateful day . . .

Starfleet Intelligence achieved a breakthrough in its reconnaissance division.  A team of field agents intercepted information regarding a new Dominion weapon developed by the Breen as well as an upcoming attack plan on the Federation that would herald the weapon’s deployment.  The information was transmitted to a military information node near the Cardassian border, and was standing by for retrieval.  Such information was so sensitive and highly classified that standard subspace communication was too risky, and so Fleet Intel relied instead on deep space buoys to collect vital information from field operatives across the war zone.  Thundercrest’s mission was to travel at high warp to intercept and retrieve the information about the new Breen weapon.

Unfortunately, the Thundercrest was not the only ship in the sector that day with a mission to retrieve the buoy.  A Cardassian attack fleet on a direct intercept course to the information node came into sensor range during the mission.  Roth knew that if the Dominion captured the information node, they would not only deprive the Federation of the intelligence information, but they would learn the location of every other information node in the war zone as well as the names and whereabouts field agents who relied upon them.  The Thundercrest was in critical a race for time, and thousands, perhaps millions, of Federation lives hung in the balance.  It was a race doomed to be lost.

The two opposing sides arrived at the information node at the same time, despite Roth pushing the engines of the Thundercrest beyond design limits.  With a damaged warp drive, the Nebula-Class starship fought valiantly to ward off the Cardassian invaders, but to no avail.  As the warships circled the Thundercrest and information node like buzzards waiting for a prey to die, Roth, in a final desperate act to prevent strategic intelligence data from falling into enemy hands, destroyed the information node.  As the warp drive was repaired, the Thundercrest escaped and limped home to report what had happened.  It was only upon their return did Roth realize just how important the information node had been.

As the Breen began to deploy their new energy-depriving weapon, Starfleet was nearly paralyzed.  When her superiors had discovered that she had destroyed the Federation’s only intelligence regarding this new weapon, the retribution against Roth was staggering.  After a full court marshal, Captain Roth was demoted to the rank of commander, and sentenced to three years in the stockade.  During her confinement, she lost nearly everything that was dear to her.  Roth’s fiancé had called the marriage off and stopped communicating.  Her family had disowned her, and every friend she had ever made in Starfleet or otherwise had renounced and abandoned her.  If it were not for the memories of her service aboard the Thundercrest, she surely would have left Starfleet altogether.  The picture that hung in this office wall was the only memory Roth had of good times long gone.

A soft chattering sound roused Roth from her day-trance.  She looked down to see the small animal in its aquarium looking up at her with an excited expression.  It whipped its tail a few times and blinked twice before the commander smiled meekly and knelt down to retrieve the creature from the cage.  As she did so, it happily hopped into her hands and skittered up her arm to find a perch on her shoulder.  It paused and chattered again as if asking for something.  Without another thought, Roth plucked a snack pellet from a nearby dispenser and handed it to her pet.  In response, it stood on its hind legs and busily devoured the small morsel.  She watched the little animal for a brief moment before returning to the picture.

“How did it end up like this, Smoke?” she whispered to her companion.  “I’m probably the most decorated waste-transfer foreman in the Alpha Quadrant.”

Roth was referring to the only position in Starfleet she could get after serving out her sentence.  It was difficult to find an operational branch that would have her, and she was barred from ever serving as a starship commander again.  It was here, at a radioactive waste disposal depot, that she found a place in the fleet that overlooked her career reprimand, and whose staff didn’t refuse to work with her.

When the small animal had finished eating, Roth gave it a few strokes behind its left ear before placing it back into the aquarium.  Satisfied that its owner had provided some food and attention for a time, it curled back up in the wooden burrow and went to sleep.  The commander was about to sign off on her shift schedule and go back to her quarters when the door chime rang.  With a quizzical appearance, she looked to the door and thought ‘what does Gentry want now?’

“Come,” she announced.  As the door slid open, it was obvious that the visitor was not her second-in-command, as the red tunic and black belt of a Starfleet admiral strolled into the office.  Surprised, Kimberly immediately came to the position of attention.

“It’s okay, commander,” the middle-aged admiral said with a wave of his hand.  His peppery black and gray hair was well groomed with a part down the middle, and he smiled at Roth with a clean-shaven face and blue-green eyes.  “I’m not on an inspection tour.”

Still caught off guard by the sudden appearance of an admiral in her office, Kim found it very hard to relax.  She stammered slightly as she greeted him.

“Um, admiral . . . I wasn’t informed that you’d be arriving.  Have my staff found you everything you need?”

“Yes, yes,” the older man replied with detachment as he walked into the center of the room.  “Your staff was more than amiable.  I asked them to keep quiet about my visit as I didn’t want to disturb their routine.”

“Well . . .” Roth looked around the office to make sure everything was in order.  “In that case . . . welcome to Waste Transfer Depot Gamma Twelve.”  She extended a hand in greeting trying to hide her bewilderment at the man’s sudden appearance.  “I’m Commander Roth.”

“Admiral Kostya,” the older officer replied grasping her hand.  “And might I say, it is truly and honor to finally meet you, commander.”

Kim went from surprised to stunned and suspicious.  ‘You’ve GOT to be kidding,’ she thought as she shook his hand with a look of disbelief.

“Um . . . yes,” she replied, dumbfounded at Kostya’s remark.  “Thank you.”

For his part, the admiral looked around the room, not paying attention to the rising tension on Roth’s part.  Finally, she could bare the silence no more.

“Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

Kostya reviewed the collection of books on the bookshelf before looking back at Roth with eyes of approval and confidence.  He appeared to be a man who was looking at his son’s college dorm room for the first time.

“Actually commander, I was wondering if there’s something I could do for you . . .”

Roth was now highly suspicious.  The only time a flag officer would come strolling into an unknown subordinate’s office was if they wanted something from them.  Alarms were ringing throughout every inch of Kim’s mind.

“I . . . don’t understand,” she replied shaking her head.

“How long have you been stationed here?” the admiral promptly asked.

“Three years, seven months, sir.”

The admiral smiled, catching something in Roth’s reply.

“That’s a long time to be in such an unremarkable position in Starfleet.  I get the impression by your keen remembrance of your tenure that you don’t exactly enjoy this posting?”

“What makes you say that, sir?”

“Come now,” Kostya remarked with slight amusement.  He strolled across the room to look at the painting of the Thundercrest.  “You and I both know your record, what you’ve been through, and how you got stationed here.  A waste transfer depot is not exactly a place where a war hero belongs.”

“Hero?” she blurted out with vexation and bafflement.  “With all due respect, sir.  Three years in the stockade is not exactly the background for a stereotypical hero.”

“Agreed,” he looked back to her with a smile.  “But then, I wouldn’t want to insult you by calling you a typical hero.”

“Frankly sir,” she continued. “No one, not even my family, would EVER consider me a hero.  Especially not in Starfleet.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, commander,” the admiral interjected, losing his smile and replacing it with a sobering gaze.  “Not everyone in Starfleet feels you did the wrong thing aboard the Thundercrest.”

“Do you?”

“My personal feelings are irrelevant,” Kostya said smartly.  “The point is that some feel you did the right thing, and others feel it’s time to give you another chance.”

Kim could feel her heart pounding in her chest.  Her stomach was tied in knots, and about to fall through the floor.  She suspected that she knew what the admiral was getting at, but the suspense was killing her.

“What do you mean?” she was finally able to ask with dry throat and pale face.

“I’ve come to ask if you’d be interested in sitting in the captain’s chair again.”

The impact of Kostya’s words hit Roth squarely in the chest.  It seemed like reality was falling apart around her and that she was entering some sort of dream world.  The blood rushed to her head, and a slight sense of vertigo washed over her.  Kim was barely able to think at this moment, let alone speak.

“There’s an upcoming mission in Tholian space,” the admiral continued.  “And I need someone with your expertise and experience to command it.  Everyone in Starfleet operations is in agreement that you’re the right person for this, and they’ve pre-approved your transfer if you choose to go on this mission.”

Kostya could tell that Roth was speechless, which was precisely the result he wanted.

“Of course,” he added.  “I can’t promote you to captain until we’re in the field, so if you want a chance to reverse what happened on the Thundercrest, this is your opportunity.”

“Only if I go on this mission?” she managed to ask.

“Yes,” Kostya replied.  “Only if you go.”

It didn’t take a function of her higher consciousness for her to reply to the admiral.  In fact, it seemed more like a reflex action that started from her ears, and immediately went to her vocal cords, bypassing her brain completely.  With unfettered enthusiasm, the words she spoke were clear and to the point.

<location: saucer section armory, deck 5, USS Republic>

On Galaxy Class starships, the main security offices are located on deck 38 in the secondary hull.  However, as the ship class evolved over the years, there came a need for smaller localized security stations spaced throughout the ship.  Eventually, the two armories, located on deck 26 in the secondary hull and deck 5 in the saucer, became the default locales where security officers could base their operations other than the brig area.

For precautionary reasons, the ships armories are located separately from the security offices to prevent rogue inmates from obtaining access to the plethora of weaponry available aboard ship.  The rooms themselves are heavily compartmentalized and situated towards the center of the hull.  Multiple security measures are required to access the armories, which include voice, retinal, and genetic scans, as well as a level three security code.

The deck 5 saucer section armory is a medium-sized compartment, replete with rows of weapon storage racks, repair stations, and phaser pack recharge outlets.  Four large centrally-located floor-to-ceiling lockers contain larger ordinance intended for only the most grave security situations, and a one-way emergency floor hatch offers access the transporter complex one deck below.  Towards the front of the room, a half-circle island workstation composed the watch desk, where a duty officer is permanently stationed to take care of any saucer-section related security situations.

It was Ensign Depach Narundi’s turn at the watch desk during the Republic’s chain-of-command crisis following Captain Marshall’s death.  His gold operations uniform was a stark contrast to his straight, jet-black hair and rusty-brown skin color.  The smooth skin and lack of facial hair indicated an eastern oriental ancestry, but the high cheek bones and full inset eyes betrayed his Native American origin.  As one of the original members of the Republic’s crew when she left drydock several months ago, Narundi has seen his share of action.  However, the current situation left him slightly nervous, especially since his captain was dead and the assistant tactical chief, Lieutenant Sean McTaggart, had given him orders to disregard any orders coming from the bridge.  As he waited silently at the watch desk praying for further information, his hopes were raised as McTaggart quickly walked into the armory and greeted him.

“How’s things going down here, Depach?” the lieutenant asked calmly.

The young ensign stood up, folding his arms behind his back.

“A little tense, sir,” he responded.  “I’m getting the impression that we’re in a bit of a bind.  Am I right?”

Sean smiled.  One of his sly yet cautious grins that indicated a dubious situation was occurring.

“Can’t get anything by you, can I?”  McTaggart offered.  “Okay, I’ll tell you what I know.  Our new tac chief, Lieutenant McClintock, seems to have taken control of the ship under orders from some Starfleet admiral.  Commander Virtus wasn’t willing to accept that and has disappeared into a turboshaft.”

“Disappeared?” Narundi asked with confusion.  “How’s that possible?”

“Virtus is an engineer,” the lieutenant said with amusement.  “Who knows how he does these things?  At any rate, I’m following a bit of a hunch.  McClintock has ordered me to find Virtus, and frankly, I’m a bit suspicious of these orders.  I’m going to go have a talk with our engineer, but I need you to make sure that whatever orders come from the bridge are somehow . . . delayed in getting to the rest of the security crew.  Can you do this?”

“Well sure,” Narundi replied with certainty indicating that his loyalties lie with the ship and crew.  “But what’s the motive for these orders that McClintock’s following?”

“I don’t know,” McTaggart said matter-of-factly as he obtained a hand phaser from the charging bin.

“And Lieutenant Commander Virtus?” Narundi continued.  “What’s he up to?  Is he trying to regain control of the ship?”

“I don’t know,” came the same response, this time with a shake of his head.

“And what about Commander Carter?” the ensign maintained his line of questioning.  The entire tactical department, minus those who were added during their recent stopover at Starbase 23 (which included McClintock), were still very loyal to the executive officer.  “Is there something we can do to rescue him from the surface?”

McTaggart was starting towards the door as he gave the same vague reply.

“I don’t know.”

Narundi sat back down at the watch desk with a look of irritation and disgust.  The lieutenant picked up on the young officer’s dismay, and offered a bit of advice in a fatherly tone.

“Don’t worry, Depach.”  Sean added with reassurance.  “Just keep the bridge on hold and keep your head low.  You still owe me two bars of latinum from that chess match last week, and I won’t let anything happen to you.”  McTaggart was about to leave when he looked back at the ensign.  “By the way . . . when were you planning on paying me?”

The ensign looked up to his superior with a surprised expression at the audacity of the question, then shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” Depach replied before returning his attention back to the watch desk.  McTaggart smiled and left the room.

***

Nat was not the type to complain when something bothered him.  Normally, anything that bothered him was either violently assaulted or drowned in the contents of a liquor bottle.  Even on the rare occasion neither solution presented itself, he still wasn't the type of guy to bitch and moan about this or that.  It didn't do an iota of good, and usually just made things worse for somebody else.  As he stood in the cramped, foul-smelling cavern below the surface of the sand heap known as Cestus III, sweat dripping from every pour listening to Carter argue with some old coot, he had to admit: he was tempted to voice his rather crude and blatant opinion of there current circumstances.

'Why tha frinx did ya volunteer fer this, ya idiot?' he asked himself.  As if his mind was attempting to justify his present situation, he found himself remembering the adrenaline that had gone through his system as he'd done one of the riskiest maneuvers in existence and come out of it without a scratch - for the second time in his life.  This recollection brought a silly little sly grin to his face, the same type he normally only got when recalling one of his numerous female 'conquests' over the years.

Though he knew it would do him no good and likely a fraction of harm in the long run, Nat felt for his flask concealed behind the top jacket of his uniform.  Retrieving the sterling silver antique from over his heart, he unscrewed the small cap and endured the burn of whatever the hell he'd filled this thing with earlier that morning.  As he finished he caught nearly the entire Hazard Team watching him, half in shock the other with disrespect showing plainly on their faces.  As the minuscule amount of liquor flooded his blood stream though, he quickly found he not only didn't give a rats ass what some hot-shot little twerps thought about him, but that he was still thirsty.

As he put the flask to his lips once more, he was startled by a high-pitched squeal that emanated from fairly close to him.  Not just fairly close, but actually on his person.  The attention of most everyone in the cavern fell upon him as he re-sealed his flask and removed his communicator, staring at it as if it was a two-headed Malgorian.

"What'n tha name a'Rigels wrong with this thing?" he queried, holding the communicator away from himself as if in fear of it exploding.  The sudden realization that indeed it could be an explosive device entered his head and before rational thought could returned he'd thrown the thing 20 meters across the cavern and dove to the dirt, covering his head and grimacing as he landed on his flask.

"Everybody down!" shouted Carter, having put two-and-two together only a second slower than Hawk.  After all he hadn't been living with Hawk's situation very long and it wasn't a forerunner on his train of thought like it was on Hawk's.  Promptly, everyone else in the cavern dove to the ground and took similar protective positions.  Almost everyone that is. 

A few feet next to Carter, Lieutenant Command Doug Forrest stood his ground.  Before anyone could say anything to him, he walked quickly over to the communicator and picked it up.  Removing the casing, he accessed the circuit housing and the squeal soon diminished to an occasional chirp.

"What the hell is going on here?!" bellowed the elder Cromwell.

"I'm not sure of that myself," Carter admitted, looking to Hawk first for explanation and upon finding none, turning to Forrest.  "Commander?" Carter queried.

Forrest hesitated in such a way that Hawk knew it was something he didn't really want to talk about.  He knew that look on any Intelligence Officer's face, anywhere, any species.  The 'It's sort of classified and/or illegal and though you need to know, I shouldn't tell you' look.  "It's a covert signal." Forrest finally said.

"Covert?  Damn thing was louder'an a wounded targ." Hawk replied.

"What kind of a covert signal?" Carter queried, bypassing Hawk's statement of the obvious.

"To find that out, I'll need some sort of computer access." Forrest replied.

"Will this do?" asked Lindsey Davenport, holding a civilian PADD.

"It might." Forrest replied, accepting the device and attaching Hawk's communicator to it through the input/output port on the anterior of the device.  It took less than a minute for him to decipher whatever message the signal had contained.  The look on his face quickly shifted - but only to the trained eye of someone who'd dealt with Intelligence Officers since before he fathomed what they where.  Something was wrong.

"What's it say?" Carter asked, sounding inquisitive and authorative at once - not an easy thing to do.

"It says: 'Program Trojan Centurion Activated.  Your Primary Location has been Compromised.  Extradite yourself by Whatever Means Necessary.'" Forrest read aloud.  It didn't exactly clear up everyone's questions.  In fact, it just gave everyone more.

"What tha hells that mean?" Hawk asked before anyone else could.

"It means... that the Command Codes aboard the Republic have been altered." Forrest said.  "I only know of two ways that happens."

"Just what the hell is going on?  Are we in danger here?  Did those things track us through you?" Cromwell accused, agitated.

"No." Forrest replied.  "This is about our ship, not what's going on here."

"Well what's going on aboard your damned ship then?" Cromwell asked.

"There are only two ways the command codes of a starship can be changed.  Through an officially authorized change of command, or if the Captain of a vessel... dies." Carter explained, realizing which of the two scenarios they where likely facing.

"Wait a minute, how did that signal even reach us?  Can't the Gorn track it?" one of the Hazard Team asked.

"No, Ensign.  It's not called a covert signal without reason.  It uses a narrow beam sub-space tunneling method to get it's signal out.  It can penetrate most interference patterns and is nearly undetectable." Forrest explained.

"What about this program, Trojan Centurion?  What is that?" Carter asked, knowing he didn't have time to dwell on the Captain's likely demise.

"That's where things get... complicated." Forrest said, sounding like the black-shirt he truly was.  "You see... the program is... well, like it sounds, a Trojan Horse program.  Designed to disguise itself as something harmless.  A replicator file or personal letter.  The Centurion portion of the program title refers to it's specific purpose... of keeping a watchful eye key things.  Like the command codes of a ship being changed." Forrest explained.

"How'd this program get into our Computer system?" one of the Hazard team asked.

"Well..." Forrest began, trying to find the right words.

"Harrumph," Hawk snorted.  "It didn't get inta our system.  It was built inta our system.  Prolly built inta every computer this side'a Rigel Seven." Hawk extrapolated.  Most people wouldn't have been as paranoid or suspicious to think of such a thing, but when it came to Intelligence matters, he had a way about him.

"That's not important right now.  We've got a complex situation here that just got more complicated.  If Captain Marshall is dead, that means he fought the Gorn captain and lost.  Which means the Gorn now have claim to Cestus III and everyone on it."

"What!?" Cromwell bellowed, infuriated.  "Who the hell do you people think you are, betting our home on some glorified fist fight!?"

"Mister Cromwell-!" Carter began to reply.  He was cut off by the thunderous rumble of a weapons impact above them.  The vibration caused loose dirt to fall from the ceiling of the cavern.  Promptly, more impacts could be heard at various distances.  Orbital bombardment.  They where firing blind.

"We've got to get out of these caverns, they won't take much more stress like this!" Lindsey Davenport shouted.

"Agreed!" Carter replied.

"I am not surrendering my home because your Captain made some half-assed deal with the devil." the senior Cromwell said vehemently.

"We can sort that out later!" Lindsey Davenport argued.

"There's nothing to sort out!  That's how it is!" he shouted, before moving off down the cavern after the others who'd begun to evacuate.

"What about the Republic?" Forrest asked.  "If they're firing on the planet, they might be firing on her as well.  Or worse, she could've been destroyed or captured.  Maybe that's how the Command codes where changed.  Maybe Marshall isn't dead."

"Right now, we've got to worry about our current situation and completing our mission.  Lets keep the speculation to a minimum for now." Carter said.  "Hazard team, move out, secure the area ahead of those colonists." he ordered before moving to follow them.

With a sigh, Nat moved off in pursuit of Carter, asking himself again 'Why tha hell did ya volunteer fer this?'

 

<location: outskirts of Cornucopia Settlement, Cestus III>

It had been a hellish morning for A'nathon since he awoke for his duty shift.  Commander Gerard intercepted him at breakfast asking about the missing ordinance packs he had dropped off for the colonists yesterday.  The Andorian ensign tried to explain that he was forced to ditch them to escape a Gorn patrol, but he didn’t buy it.  Then the commander handed him the PADD with the report about the heat-exchange/retention pond demolition operation.  Unfortunately for A'nathon, his superior caught the half-smile that he displayed for a brief moment as he read over the report.

So, he had scouting duty for the second day in a row, this time by himself.  He preferred it that way, especially since Davis and Bitterstaff were dead, and he had no time to grieve. Orders this time were to investigate a tight-beam Starfleet com signal that was transmitted from an orbiting starship.  Just what he needed.  A non-intel Fleet unit on the ground to complicate things even more.  He should have guessed this would happen, especially since the cloaked tracking satellite picked up a small suborbital craft with Fleet signatures landing on the outskirts of Cornucopia yesterday.  But intercepted Gorn transmissions yielded no indication of where they were . . . until now.

The iridescent purple lances of precision energy weaponry poured down from the sky and pounded a rocky outcropping a few kilometers away.  They landed with a soft, distant thud, shaking the ground as they impacted. A'nathon immediately pulled out his macroscope and focused on the area.  There was nothing substantial about the area being hit.  No building, no roads.  Not even a Fleet Intel receiving station.  Only singed boulders and wisps of smoke and sand billowed up from the impact crater.  Yet, the orbital bombardment continued.

“What are they shooting at?” he mumbled softly to himself.  “Something underground?”

As if on cue, A'nathon’s tricorder sounded a proximity alarm.  It was a quiet, smooth chirp, indicating that the lifeforms were still some distance away.  As he rechecked the coordinates of the newcomers, he pivoted his macroscope to zoom in on the new readings about three-fourths of a kilometer away.  As the tricorder had promised, a little over a dozen humanoid figures were emerging from a small cliff-side fissure just above a flood canal leading away from Cornucopia.  They were warm-blooded according to the thermal sensors, and loading with all sorts of energy-producing devices to include phasor rifles.

“Bingo,” A'nathon muttered, an expression he learned from Davis over the past year.  As the Andorian ensign zoomed closer to reveal the individual faces of the refugees, he focused on one in particular; Commander John Carter.

“Inconceivable . . .” he whispered to himself with both surprise and vexation.

***

Kilometres away, Carter, and the rest of Republic's away team tried their best to duck and weave through the Gorn orbital bombardment of their former position. As Carter looked around to confirm the condition of both his men and the members of Shadow Force, he sprinted toward Nat Hawk, who was running along the civilians along with Doug Forrest.

"I swear to God Hawk," Carter spat, " this is the LAST time I take you anywhere!"

"Whaddid Ah do?"

"You brought half the Gorn navy down on our heads, that's what!" Arthur Cromwell yelled out as he looked to the western horizon.

In unison both Carter and Hawk shot the elder Cromwell hard glances. "Shut up!" they both yelled. Then the two officers looked at each other. Hawk seemed genuinely surprised, and John noted that this might have been the first time he and Hawk agreed on anything. "We have to find shelter!" Carter yelled over the unbelievably deep booming of the Gorn plasma bolts. He looked toward Lindsey Davenport. "Where are the rest of your people?"

"They're in the Western Divide!" she answered back, coughing from all the dust the Gorn assault had churned into the air. She turned west and motioned toward the foothills.

"Then that's where we go!" Carter broke into a run, hoping that the older members of Shadow Force could keep up. As he sprinted forward, he glanced to his left, where Doug Forrest was helping Wey keep pace. "Is it true?" Carter asked. "Did they lock onto the Intel signal that found Hawk?"

Forrest nodded grimly. "Most likely. Though the gear we're carrying isn't helping much either. We might as well power down. Try to run silent for as long as we can, now that the Gorn know to look for us."

What Forrest proposed bothered John Carter, almost on principal alone. The idea of powering down weapons and leaving the landing party defenseless went against everything Carter had been taught. On the other hand, Forrest had a point. Shutting down any and all EM sources would make the landing party nearly impossible to find from orbit. Without a known position to triangulate on, the team would be safe from orbital attack as well as the Gorn soldiers. Additionally, once the away team had melted into the mountains, they could likely power back up if a Gorn patrol happened upon them. John nodded at Forrest and the Intel. Officer powered down his phaser. Carter proceeded to work his way through the marching order whispering instructions to the team. One by one, each of the Starfleet soldiers gave their First Officer some manner of quizzical glance, but complied with his order. Then Carter once again found himself next to Nat Hawk.

"Power down your weapon Nat." Carter ordered softly.

"Like HELL!" the helmsman answered back. "An let them dern lizards skin me alive? No thanks!"

The two officers walked along as Carter tried to explain. "Hawk, the Gorn ships are tracking us by the energy output from our weapons. Now power down before you get a plasma torp shot down your throat!"

"Well," Nat smiled innocently at his commanding officer, "Since y'all but it that way." Hawk keyed the control to power down his phaser. Carter followed suit and powered down his weapon, tucking it neatly into it's pocket on his tac vest.

The away team and the members of Shadow Force hurried toward the remnants of the Cornucopia settlement hall, the once shining centerpiece of the community. After weeks of Gorn occupation however, it was little more than a ruin. As the hurried humans ducked into the shelter, Carter again looked at Lindsey Davenport, then at Arthur Cromwell. "Okay," Carter began, "Here's what we're going to do. I want you folks," Carter waved his hand to indicate the members of Shadow Force, "to stay out of sight. Deuce and Mendoza will stay with you while Forrest, Hawk and I try to contact the Starfleet assets near the Gorn border."

"Now hold on a second there, petticoat!" Arthur Cromwell bellowed.

"Arthur, please..." Lindsey Davenport settled in next to Cromwell, trying to keep her friend calm while Carter told the others his thoughts.

"What assets?" Cromwell questioned. "There isn't even an armory here. No fleet presence at all, until you lot showed up, that is."

Before Carter could answer, there was a rustling of dust and debris behind the assembled group. Instinctively, the battle-hardened members of Shadow Force dropped and brought their de-powered weapons to firing position. Likewise, the members of Republic's Hazard Team, spun toward the noise and moved to take up defensive positions around the enclosure.

As John Carter whirled to face the noise, his eyes came upon the unmistakable blue skin of an Andorian. His normally white hair was dingy with dirt, sweat, and smoke, and the curved antennae on his head were lying almost flat against his head, indicating that he was agitated. It was a posture that John knew all too well.

The Andorian stepped forward with hands raised, surveying the assembled troops with a practiced gaze. He held his gaze a bit longer on Doug Forrest, nodding slightly to the Intel Officer. Then looked Carter dead in the eyes. "Actually," he said calmly, that's not entirely true. We've been here for the better part of a year."

"Who's we?" Carter asked.

"I think you know, Carter, or at least you've suspected for some time." The Andorian cocked his head and seemed a bit more at ease as he saw confusion in John Carter's face. "Finally made Commander did you?" The Andorian stepped forward, bringing himself into the circle of officers and freedom fighters. "Who did you have to stab in the back to get that far, Hmmm?"

Recognition hit John Carter like a fist. In front of him was an officer who he'd had to face down as a matter of honor and protocol years ago. Of all the beings John Carter had thought he would see on Cestus III, this was not one of them. "A'nathon . . ." Carter hissed.

"So nice to see you again, Commander."

“Coffee.  Black, hot.”  The gravely female voice waited patiently as the computer sounded a compliant chirp, and the soft surge of matter/energy conversion produced a steaming mug of black elixir on the replicator pad.  A spindly hand with colored nails reached out to retrieve the vessel, and as it was raised to head height, Admiral Kathryn Janeway took a quiet sip before returning to her work desk.

Her red hair contained streaks of gray, the combined result of her time in the Delta Quadrant, pressures of being a flag officer, and regular aging.  A few faint wrinkles were already etched into her smooth face, but they did not detract from her penetrating blue eyes that scanned the computer monitor.  In fact, they added to the seasoned, commanding disposition of the admiral, accentuating her hardened, intimidating demeanor which she was so famous for throughout Starfleet Command.

“Computer,” she beckoned to the ever-obedient console.  “Get me Admiral Krockover.”

In seconds, the gray-haired, elderly rear-admiral splayed across Janeway’s screen, and her warm, soft smile added to the calm atmosphere that always surrounded her when company was present.

=/\= “What can I do for you, admiral?”  =/\=

“Sorry to bother you at this late hour, Pam,” Janeway consoled.  “The Federation Council is scheduling a closed-door session to discuss the Cestus situation at 0900.  The hawks have been successful in persuading a majority of the members to maintain the media blackout.”

=/\= “What’s the cover-story?” =/\=

“The public is being told that heightened solar activity has temporarily disrupted the Cestus communications array, and that commercial vessels will be diverted away from the system until the ion disturbances have dissipated.”

=/\= “They can’t keep this covered up for much longer.” =/\=

“Agreed,” Janeway promptly said.  “My guess is that they’re frantically working to try and blame this on the doves.  It’s a good thing we got Cromwell off the Republic when we did.  That gives them one less tool to use.”

=/\= “Unfortunately, Marshall’s death will complicate matters.  If they succeed in blaming the Cestus situation on us, it will only strengthen their position.” =/\=

“We have to be very careful now, Pam,” the admiral said ominously.  “With the Republic under an interposition order, all hell could break loose and many more Starfleet officers could die.  We have to make sure that that intelligence operation is exposed at the right time.  If we don’t, all fingers will point to us instead of the hawks.”

=/\= “With all due respect, admiral, a lot of lives have already been lost.  We’re completely blind about what’s happening on the surface, and only the hawks know what’s going on down there now that Republic has gone silent.” =/\=

“I’m really sorry about your family, Pam.  But we had no way to know how quickly the Gorns would respond, and an evacuation of Cestus before any attack would have been impossible.”

=/\= “I’m not blaming you, admiral.  I just wish there was more we could do.” =/\=

“I’ve already ordered the 512th Colonization Fleet to take an extended shore leave at Bellatrix Four.  They just finished a colonization operation in the Pleiades cluster, so their transport ships will be mostly empty.  If there’s a breakthrough at the council meeting or on the ground at Cestus, we can either load them up with supplies for a relief operation, or send them in to evacuate the colony.  Let’s just hope the latter won’t be necessary.”

=/\= “What about Kostya?” =/\=

“He’s dropped off the radar screen at the moment,” Janeway replied with a hint of frustration in her voice.  She sat back in her chair and placed a finger on her chin.  “I wish I knew what he was up to.  I’ve put a sentry program in the PERSCOM net, so if he tries to reassign anyone in the fleet with the rank of captain, we’ll know about it.  He’ll have to pull something really smooth out of his hat to get by us.  Is the doctor ready to go back?”

=/\= “He’s been informed that he’s on standby for return to the Republic.” =/\=

“Good,” the admiral replied.  “I’ll let you know what comes up in the council meeting.  Janeway out.”

 

<location: catwalk 26-G, deck 28, USS Republic>

The maintenance platform on the deuterium tank level was intended for engineering personnel only, but McTaggart, in his official capacity to hunt down Lieutenant Commander Virtus, was able to enter the restricted area without escort.  Little did they know his goal was not to arrest Virtus, but to meet up with him as requested in the discrete text message sent to his PADD.  Although McTaggart’s security indoctrination was nagging at his conscience to follow orders, he could not dismiss the feeling that McClintock was in the wrong, and that Commander Carter was in trouble.  At the moment, there only seemed to be one person in the position to do something about both situations, and motivated to do so.

“Thanks for coming, lieutenant,” a calm voice echoed off the walls.  The dark passageway was lit only by the magnetic field generators affixed to the multi-deck deuterium tanks at regular intervals above and below the platform.  Although the catwalk was designed to give access to these generators, thus forcing it to be installed between the ship’s outer bulkhead and the tanks themselves, the dim light only outlined the shape of another humanoid further down the plank.  McTaggart could only assume that it was Virtus.

“I’m taking a real risk here, sir,” McTaggart replied, his voice, like Vic’s, bouncing off the walls around him.

“I know,” Vic said walking towards the lieutenant.  “And I appreciate that.  I was hoping that you wouldn’t be completely blind to McClintock’s little mutiny.”

“With all due respect sir,” the assistant security chief started.  “The only reason that I’m here talking to you and not arresting you is that you’re the trusted friend of a man who saved my life.”

“Yes, I know that too.  Which means that we both have something in common.”

McTaggart quirked an eyebrow.  “Say again, sir?”

“Carter saved my life as well, and I don’t plan on allowing him to perish while the Republic is held hostage to some bureaucrats order to stand by and wait.”

The lieutenant felt less tense, realizing that Virtus was, as he suspected, looking out for the crew and not himself. Still, there was an ethical dilemma here that he could not ignore.

“What about McClintock and Tyler?”  McTaggart asked.  “I read the orders myself.  An Admiral Kostya has authorized them to lock out the command codes should anything happen to Captain Marshall.  Now that he’s dead, it seems to have validated those orders.”  There was a slight hint of regret in his voice that Vic picked up.

“Don’t blame yourself, Sean,” the engineer offered with absolution.  “The captain was intent on making a name for himself.  There was nothing you could have done to change his mind about fighting that Gorn.”

“Don’t like losing a commanding officer on my watch.”

“It wasn’t your watch.  It was McClintock’s.”

Virtus had a point, and McTaggart knew it.  The only reason he challenged the captain about going down to the moon to fight the Gorn was out of loyalty and duty.  If McClintock was as duty bound as himself, he should have been the first to stop Captain Marshall.  As it was, he remained silent forcing McTaggart to say something.

“So what do we do about him?” the lieutenant asked.  “It wouldn’t do any good to storm the bridge and arrest him when he’s locked out he command codes.  It doesn’t get us the ship back.”

“Leave that to me,” Virtus said confidentially.  “What I need to know now is can I trust you?”

The two men stared at one another, trying to look past each others’ conversational defenses to get a feeling if trust was warranted.  Perhaps the most important connection they had was that they both were worried about John Carter and the away team.  It was difficult for Sean to trust people he didn’t know, but his concern for the executive officer was too great to hold back his loyalty.  It was time to take a chance.

“Yes,” he replied to Vic’s question.

“Good,” the much-relieved engineer said.  “This is what I need you to do . . .”

***

A'Nathon looked at Carter as the rest of the Republic away team looked at their Executive Officer. John glanced at the Andorian, then turned his attention to Forrest. "Okay," Carter said as he looked back at A'Nathon. "The secrets stop here. The less I know now, the more dead we get."

"Really Commander Carter, " the Andorian offered coolly, "you should control your temper. It leads to... rash decisions."

Carter felt his temper slip, but he didn't care. For all he knew, his captain was dead, Republic was likely burning in space, and he was starring down over five thousand Gorn troops. John's training called for assessing the situation and making a rational decision to keep both himself and his team alive, but that wasn't what John was thinking about. "You want to see rash, A'Nathon?" Carter questioned. "What's to stop me from pulling the plug on this whole black shirt fiasco right now?" Carter stood defiantly, but it was clear from A'Nathon's reaction that the Andorian wasn't falling for it.

"You can't do that Commander." the Andorian said. "For one thing," A'Nathon looked squarely at Forrest as he spoke. "I'm the least of your problems. And for another, `This whole Blackshirt fiasco' as you so rightly call it, is likely your only chance to get out of here alive."

Silence hung in the air as the rhythmic pounding of the Gorn bombardment stopped. "Uh oh," Carter hissed. Doug Forrest instinctively tapped his comm. badge.

 =/\="Forrest to Republic, come in. Request immediate evac."=/\=

Forrest shook his head grimly as the line gave no response. "Nothing upstairs Commander."

Carter and A'Nathon exchanged hard glances, as a new sound filled their ears. This time, it was a sound Carter knew very well: the high-pitched whine of counter-gravity landing craft. Carter broke his glance at A'Nathon to look at the members of the Hazard Team. As Carter himself had suspected, it looked as though the rest of the away team were expecting an invasion. Deuce and Mendoza each shrugged their shoulders and flexed their fingers around the barrels of their de-powered phaser rifles. Clearly, the two combat specialists expected to be overrun by Gorn troops any minute.

"Everyone just calm down for a second," Carter said, trying his best to sound re-assuring. Before he could speak again, another new sound was introduced to the mix.

"Attention citizens of Cestus III". The voice was vaguely synthesized and mechanical. From the Doppler shift of the speech, Carter guessed that what he was hearing was being broadcast from the passing craft they had heard previously.

"This is Pack Leader G'Meth, of the Gorn Sss'thak Reclamation Fleet. As of one hour ago, in accordance with the treaty of Metron, the Federation representative was beaten in trial by combat."

`Son of a Bitch!', Carter thought to himself, knowing for certain now what had caused the lock down of the U.S.S. Republic.

"We have tried to keep you safe in the camps as we surveyed this planet." G'Meth continued.

"Safe my ass! You scale-faced butchers!" Arthur Cromwell yelled. His face was a picture of fury. "Those monsters invaded! They took our homes!"

"Did they kill anyone?" A'Nathon asked, his antennae perking forward as he waited for an answer.

"What?"

"Did they kill anyone? Destroy any homes?"

"Of course they did you damned Blackshirt!" Cromwell threw his hands up. "Look around you."

"Think carefully...did they draw first blood?" There was an edge to A'Nathon's voice that implied that he already knew the answer.

"They drove us from our homes you fascist!"

"But did they kill anyone?"

"They damned well WOULD have!" Cromwell shot back, and before he realized what he'd admitted to, Lindsey Davenport placed a reassuring hand on Arthur Cromwell's shoulder. Slowly, the ersatz freedom fighter shook off her reassurance. Arthur stepped to one of the battered walls of the municipal building that made the groups refuge at the moment. The other members of Shadow Force gathered around him as they listened.

High above, G'Meth's voice continued. "Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, a handful of terrorists have repaid our kindness with the shedding of Gorn blood. Our traditions demand that such behavior be repaid in kind."

"That seems predictable enough." A'Nathon commented, drawing a twisted look from Doug Forrest.

As far as the Gorn are concerned, you brought this on yourselves."

Their was an eerie silence as the away team waited for what would happen next. The faces of the members of Shadow Force seemed oddly re-assured as the distant pounding of the Gorn orbital bombardment continued, but this time it was more distant and muffled.

"Ah'll be damned Commander," Nat Hawk commented, "Ah figgered we were done for. What gives?"

"I'm not sure Hawk, but..."

Carter's train of thought was disrupted by the scramble of footfalls from above. Mendoza had found a perch near the structure's bombed-out roof, and was climbing down while stowing a pair of Fleet issue Macroscopes. "We got problems sir." Mendoza quipped.

"Give it to me straight."

Mendoza looked briefly at the huddled members of Shadow Force, then back at the Republic's XO. "It's the Gordonia mountain range, off to the west sir."

Almost as one, the members of Shadow Force turned their heads in Mendoza's direction.

"That's where the resistance camps are, all the people the Gorn couldn't get to . . ."

 "The mountains are gone Commander," Mendoza looked down and shook his head. "Just gone."

<location: deuterium tank 6, deck 29, USS Republic>

With an engineering crew of twenty, it didn’t take long to assemble a starship control center in the heart of an empty deuterium tank.  Spare parts and optical cabling were readily available in engineering sections of the ship, and before long, the inside of the tank turned from a vacant, empty hydrogen fuel cell to something reminiscent of a 24-century version of a Doctor Frankenstein laboratory with acceleration chairs.  As Vic had suspected, adjusting the tank’s magnetic field to block transporter locks and scatter active sensor scans was not a difficult task, and as the main computer itself was carefully and strategically disconnected from the ship’s main systems, the skilled technicians ensured that computer signals to the main bridge were uninterrupted by using a proxy signal generator that mimicked the Republic’s main isolinear network.  The major task remaining was to bring the stardrive’s backup computer core online without anyone else knowing about it, and integrating it with the disconnected computer interface nodes for the ship’s main systems.

Beneath a newly-installed computer console, an engineer in operations gold worked with his back to the floor.  In addition to his engineer’s jumpsuit, he wore a white armband with an attached bio-damper that helped to hide his bio-signs from the ship’s internal sensors.  It was none other than Lieutenant Junior Grade Sven Butenhoff, a former life-sciences head who switched to engineering almost a month ago after assisting the chief engineer in a quest to save the life of the executive officer.  Sven was the friend of Lieutenant Nat Hawk, the cheeky yet talented chief helmsman who accompanied Carter and the others to the surface of Cestus Three.  Although Butenhoff, in his steadfast loyalty to Carter and Virtus, needed no inspiration to disobey McClintock’s station-holding orders from Admiral Kostya, as he had an additional motivation to ensure the safety of his friend Lieutenant Hawk.  So, it was no surprise when he accepted the chief engineer’s clandestine request for help to build the makeshift bridge.

Among the plethora of hastily installed equipment and group of enlisted technicians, the German-accented engineer found himself cursing at the complexity of the computer re-routing operation as another individual began climbing down the ladder from the top hatch of the tank.  Clad in sciences blue, Lieutenant Junior Grade Maria Pakita jumped from the last rung of the ladder and landed with a thud near Butenhoff, causing him to jerk and hit his head on the bottom-side of the control console. The black-haired South American geophysicist looked down innocently at the engineer who had found another excuse to swear.

“Sorry, Sven.”

Butenhoff rubbed his head sulkily, and shot Pakita a sour look.

“Where have you been?” he asked her.

“Rerouting the computer nodes on deck ten,” she said proudly.  “No one on the bridge even knew I was there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Fairly sure,” Pakita responded.  “No security personnel came to arrest me.”

“Well, now that you’re here, I could use your help with the backup computer interface.  We can’t get it to communicate with our main control multiplexer.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, taking a seat at the new sciences station and accessing the computer status monitor.  “It should be perfectly compatible with our new systems.”

“I know.”  Butenhoff stood up and walked over to Pakita, watching her monitor as she ran a diagnostic.  “That’s what’s confusing.  The backup computer is acting like our control systems are of a different processor configuration.  I thought it was a malfunction in the interface node, but I just checked, and it’s working perfectly.”

“That’s odd,” Pakita remarked with a frown.  “It shouldn’t do that.”

About that time, another clamor sounded from above as Lieutenant Commander Virtus climbed down the access ladder.  As he landed, the engineer walked over to both Butenhoff and Pakita.

“How’s it going?”

“We can’t bring the backup computer online, sir,” Pakita reported.  “It’s not recognizing our control systems and Butenhoff confirms it’s not a hardware problem.”

“Do a processor diagnostic,” Virtus said.  “Maybe we missed something on the self-test.”

“Acknowledged.”

Moments later, the results splayed across the screen offering no clue as to the problem.  Butenhoff and Pakita both shook their heads as Virtus squinted quizzically at the screen.

“It shouldn’t do that,” Vic whispered.  “Open the binary programming matrix,” he ordered.  “Let’s take a look at what the computer is actually seeing when it looks at our control multiplexer.”

As Pakita manipulated the controls, the basic programming language of the backup computer scrolled down the screen.  She and Butenhoff continued to shake their heads.

“It all looks fine,” the German technician remarked.  “Both systems are sending and receiving the correct commands, but they’re just not recognizing one another.”

“Wait a minute,” Virtus said, pressing a few buttons on Pakita’s console.  “Back up there.”  Pakita typed a few commands that caused the scrolling to pause and momentarily scroll in the opposite direction.

“There,” Virtus exclaimed, and Pakita paused the image.  Vic pointed out a series of numbers embedded in the binary readout.  “That’s wrong.”

“What?” Pakita remarked with perplexity.  “It’s the prefix cipher.  It’s what the computer uses to identify ship’s main systems with.  It’s completely normal.”

“No,” Virtus replied with emphasis.  “It’s NOT.  That’s not the Republic’s prefix.”

With a frown, Pakita typed a few more commands into the console. She configured it to display both the prefix cipher of the makeshift bridge’s control systems, and that of the stardrive’s backup computer core.  Although the numbers were very similar, the one for the backup core was a few digits off.

“You’re right,” Pakita said with surprise.  “The core’s using the wrong prefix algorithm.  The boys at Utopia Planitia must have made a mistake in programming the backup computer when they sent us this new stardrive section a month ago.”

“No,” Virtus said flatly.  “The backup core was blank when we got the stardrive section.  We had the Republic’s A.I. do the programming after we linked up at Delphi Station.”

“That’s not possible,” Butenhoff chimed in.  “That means the Republic’s main computer made the error.  It would NEVER make such a simple binary error like this.”

“Normally, I would agree with you, lieutenant,” Virtus explained.  “But since we’re not in a position to do a full investigation right now, we’ll have to put this mystery on hold until the current situation is resolved.”  He looked back to the rest of the enlisted technicians in the room.  “Alright everyone, we have a quick-fix we need to do.  I need you to reprogram all the control systems in here with THIS prefix cipher in the main interface application.”  Vic pointed to the non-Republic line of code that the backup computer dictated as necessary to control the ship.

Everyone nodded his or her head responding with “aye.”  Minutes later, all the control consoles were reprogrammed, and the stardrive’s backup computer interface blinked with the stand-by ready indicator signifying it’s readiness to link up with the new control systems on the makeshift bridge.

“All systems ready, sir,” Pakita announced to Victor Virtus.  “The backup computer is ready to take control of the ship’s main systems.  Standing by for your order to transfer.”

Victor nodded his head as Pakita dialed the final activation sequence.  The newly installed bridge lights in the deuterium tank flickered briefly, as did the various control consoles throughout the chamber.  The humming of the fusion batteries that powered all the systems went from a low drumming to a higher-pitched pulsating hum.  The forward viewscreen activated, revealing the rotating planetary body of Cestus Three hanging in the backdrop of space.

=/\=  “U.S.S. Saratoga is now under the command of Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus.” =/\=

Everyone in the room paused at the sounding of the computer voice.

“Saratoga?” one of the enlisted technicians exclaimed after a moment of silence.  “Why in blazes does the backup computer think this is the Saratoga?”

For his part, Vic was just as confused as everyone else on the bridge.  Pakita looked at him with puzzlement, as did Butenhoff.  This time, it was Vic who shook his head.

“I’d really like to get to the bottom of this people,” he said to the gawking crew.  “But unfortunately, Commander Carter doesn’t have that luxury right now.  Pakita,” he beckoned to the science officer.  “Take the tactical station.  Butenhoff, you’re on helm.”  Vic sat himself in the command chair, and gave his first order.

“Helm, set two-seven-zero.  Z-minus twelve thousand kilometers.  Tactical, begin scanning Cornucopia settlement for the away team’s communicators.”  Pressing a button on the armrest of his chair, Vic opened an intercom channel.  “Mister McTaggart, what’s your status?”

=/\= “Security team standing by in transporter room six.  Awaiting your co-ordinates, sir.” =/\=

“Very good, lieutenant.”

 

<location:  main bridge, USS Republic>

“We’re WHAT?” McClintock yelled from the tactical station.

“I said,” replied Lieutenant Snyder at the helm.  “The Republic is breaking her current orbit and moving closer to the planet.  Navigation systems aren’t responding to my commands.”

“Are we losing engine power, lieutenant?”  Doctor Harris sat calmly in the counselor’s chair as she asked the question.

“Negative,” came the reply from Snyder.  “All systems are functional, but we’re cut off from thruster control.”

“That’s impossible!” McClintock exclaimed with anger.  “I’ve locked out the command codes!  We shouldn’t be going anywhere!”

“Apparently,” Harris remarked with sarcasm, “Anywhere seems to be a relative term at the moment.”  She couldn’t help but allow a smile creep across her lips.  As Snyder turned to look at the counselor, he returned the grin as they both knew what must have taken place.  The counter-mutiny had begun.

“Tyler,” the tactical chief called out.  “What’s causing the systems malfunction?”

“Attempting to trace the error now, sir,” the auburn-haired science officer replied, typing commands into her station at the rear of the bridge.  “But I’m not getting a response from the computer.”

“Computer!” he summoned.  “Locate source of navigational malfunction!”

=/\=  “Command not recognized. U.S.S. Saratoga is now under the command of Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus.” =/\=

Although the computer’s odd behavior coaxed a bewildered expression from most on the bridge, McClintock and Tyler were each wide-eyed with rage and panic respectively.  For those two officers, the ‘Saratoga’ name invoked less of an impact than did the sentence containing ‘now under the command of Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus.’  In a heated moment, McClintock marched down the starboard side of the command pit and placed himself in the command chair.

“Computer!  Override command lock-out!  Authorization McClintock eight-seven-omicron-beta!”

=/\=  “Command not recognized. U.S.S. Saratoga is now under the command of Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus.” =/\=

“What the hell is happening?” the lieutenant shouted.  He slapped the communications system hard, opening an intercom channel.  “Bridge to McTaggart!  What’s your status?  Did you find Virtus?”

A few seconds of silence passed where McClintock was about to call again, but was interrupted by Ensign Depach Narundi’s voice.

=/\=  “I’m sorry sir, but Lieutenant McTaggart went to sickbay with a case of gastrointestinal distress.  Is there something I can do for you?” =/\=

“Yes, damn it!” McClintock shouted while Tyler got up from the science station and headed for the portside-aft turbolift.  “Send a security team to engineering!  Secure thruster control!  Do you hear me?”

Lieutenant Tyler stopped dead in her tracks in front of the turbolift doors as they failed to open.  Several times she stepped towards them, each time failing to activate the door mechanism.

“Elevators are out, too!” she exclaimed with alarm as Narundi’s voice came back over the com system in response to McClintock’s orders.

=/\=  “I’m sorry sir.  All security teams are currently busy.  But I’m sure one will free up as soon as you’re ready to be polite.”  =/\=

Flabbergasted, McClintock could only sputter his reply.  “What?” he hissed through gritted teeth.  “What did you say to me?”

“I think at this point,” Doctor Harris interjected calmly.  “You can consider yourself, Lieutenant Tyler, and anyone still following your commands as under arrest.”  She looked at the stunned lieutenant with a cold gleam.  “With the charges of disobeying orders of a superior officer and placing fellow officers in mortal danger.”

<location: Cornucopia settlement, Cestus III>

There are moments in time beyond understanding and explanation.  Moments in which time and the universe seem to grind to a resounding halt.  Moments which can feel either eternal or all too brief dependant upon circumstances.  This was one of those moments for every last member of the throng of Federation citizens standing in the ruined shell of a building on the surface of Cestus III.   Kilometers distant from them, only a thick plum of sand and dirt that stretched to the clouds remained of the Gordonia mountains.  It was at once a sobering, impressive, and frightening sight to lay eyes upon.  It was also one none of them would ever forget.

"How many...?" Hawk managed to utter, not really sure if he wanted an answer to his half-asked question.

"At least...a thousand." someone managed to reply after a brief delay. 

Hawk didn't recognize the voice, but at the moment it didn't matter that he know their identity.  What he did know was that whomever had answered him was likely a resident of this world, and has just seen a thousand of his friends, neighbors, perhaps even relatives... obliterated.

"Those... bastards..." Doctor Cromwell's father muttered, choking on his own emotions.  "...god damn... lizard bastards." he struggled to utter as he fell to his knees, clutching his chest. 

"Arthur!" Lindsey Davenport shouted in concern as she rushed to the elder man, now lying on his side and struggling to breath.

"He's having a heart attack," stated one of the Hazard Team, his voice abnormally calm.  More than likely the young man was in shock at there entire situation.

"We need a Doctor!" Davenport cried out.

"I'm a Medic," said one of the hazard team, stepping forward and removing a tricorder from her belt.  "Cardiac arrest," she confirmed after a moments scan.  Reaching to her shoulders, she unclipped the straps of her back-pack and removed it, splaying it open on the ground.  Removing a hypo-spray, she worked quicker than Hawk had ever seen a physician moved, and injected him.  "20 CCs Hyperzine, it should stabilize him."  Switching back to her tricorder, she ran a second scan as the elder Cromwell began to breath more easily.  Frowning, she turned to Commander Jonathan Carter.

"Report, Lieutenant." Carter said.

"I've stabilized him for now, but he needs real medical attention.  We've got to get him to the Republic within the next hour, or it could happen again, and the Hyperzine won't work next time." she reported.

"We don't even know if the Republic is still up there." one of the Hazard team pointed out.

"Not to mention how to get there, if the Trojan Centurion's been activated." Forrest inserted.

"We can't just let him die!" Davenport shouted, outraged at the comments.

"No one said we would." Carter replied, somehow sounding calm and re-assuring.

"So," Hawk began, "Just how'n tha hell'r we s'posed ta get off this rock?"

 

<location: Deuterium-Tank 'Bridge', U.S.S. Republic>

His palms sweaty and his fingers jittery, Sven Buttenhoff input the proper commands to maneuver the mammoth Galaxy-Class starship lower into the planets upper atmosphere, all the while whispering something to himself in a barely audible tone.

"We aren't going to crash, we aren't going to crash, we aren't going to crash," he repeated, hoping the mantra would make itself true.  He'd almost objected when Virtus had placed him at the Conn, but the situation was so desperate and time so scarce, he hadn't bothered.  Now he wished he had.

'I wonder if I should tell him I flunked basic piloting skills three times at the academy?' he asked himself, trying to block out the vivid memories of his multiple near-fatal crashes.  It had taken all of his friend Nat's skill and patience to get Buttenhoff through the basic piloting requirement on the fourth - and final - try at the Academy.  Technically no one ever got a 'fourth' chance, washing out after the third.  Hawk had some pull with the Piloting professor though, and had used it all to help his friend.

"Sir!" shouted Pakita, "The Gorn are resuming fire on the planets surface, they're targeting a mountain range." she reported.

"McTaggart to Virtus," said the ship's Deputy Chief of Security through the comm-system.  "I've got a lock on the away team, but I'm picking up numerous other human life forms in their immediate area as well.  Orders?" he asked.

"Stand by, Lieutenant." Virtus replied. "Pakita, try hailing them." he ordered the make shift Tactical Officer.

Shaking her head in doubt, the younger woman entered a series of commands before sighing in frustration.  "It's no good sir." she replied.  "Commander..." she said a second later, her voice laced with concern.  "The Gorn have totally obliterated a local mountain range sir," she informed him.  "...sensors also indicate... my god..." she uttered.

"What is it?" Virtus queried, calmly.

"...I've lost over twelve-hundred life signs on the planet, sir."

The make-shift bridge fell quiet as the realization that over a thousand Federation citizens had just been murdered flooded everyone's minds.  Virtus remained calm though, despite the increasingly dire situation.

"Virtus to McTaggart," said the Engineer from his unorthodox command chair - one of those normally found in Ten Forward.  "Beam them all up, everyone you can find.  Every last life sign." he ordered.

"Acknowledged..." replied McTaggart...

***

"I'm open to suggestions." Carter announced, looking amidst not only his officers, but the civilians gathered around.  Before anyone could answer, the shrill whine of a Starfleet transporter became audible, just as the familiar wash of energy and light engulfed a number of people, including the Republic senior officers.

In the next instant, a new reality fell into place around them - that of a Transporter room.  At the controls was a familiar Security Officer whose name Nat couldn't recall.

"McTaggart to Virtus, I've got the Away Team, continuing with transports." he said into the comm-system.

"Report." Carter ordered, stepping off the platform as a Technician took the transporter controls and continued beaming people up from the surface of Cestus III. 

"We've got a real mess on our hands, Commander." McTaggart said.  "Come on, I'll fill you in on the way." he said, moving to the door. 

"Crewmen," Carter said, not following McTaggart at first, "one of the civilians suffered a heart attack, an elderly man.  Beam him directly to Sickbay." Carter commanded before moving into the corridor with McTaggart, Forrest and Hawk.  The quartet of officers moved off down the corridor at a jog, time of the essence...

<location:  Corridor 28C, U.S.S. 'Saratoga'>

"He did what?!"

"All he said was it was the most efficient way to…"

John Carter's conversation with Sean McTaggart was cut short as bulkhead doors slid open, admitting the two officers to the deuterium tank the served as the makeshift bridge for the newly reclaimed `Saratoga'. Carter felt a smile creep across his face as he regarded the Engineering staff's inspired, if confusing work. Lights danced across jury-rigged panels, and bundles of wire jutted from scattered locations all over the interior of the deuterium tank. Two acceleration couches, no doubt from shuttlecraft surplus, served as the Conn and Ops stations, and sitting in a chair that looked like it belonged in the Captain's Ready Room, Victor Virtus presided over the chaos like a proud father watching his children.  John cleared his throat. "Permission to come aboard Lieutenant

 Commander?"

"Granted John," Victor commented as the officers stepped closer. "Sorry we had to bring you up with the cargo transporters, but we weren't expecting guests."

"No worries Vic," Carter said with ease. "I see you found the Saratoga."

"Indeed. Fleet seems to be getting very sloppy these days."

"I suppose that's one way to put it." John looked quickly at the status board and viewscreen that Victor had managed to fabricate. "Are the Gorn attacking?"

"Not yet," Victor answered, absent-mindedly stroking his moustache. "I've left the shields down on purpose. Hoping not to provoke them I suppose."

"Good call, we're still outnumbered 20 to 1."

"You don't like those odds?"

"Not today, no."

"I see your point." Victor turned and regarded his friend, noting the dirt and blood that now marked John's face. "John, we saw what happened to Captain Marshall."

Carter's expression hardened, as if he now remembered how bad his situation still was. "Do we have the data?"

"Of course. Sensors recorded the whole affair, but . . ."

"Where's the body?"

"McTaggart had us beam him to sickbay, but Doctor Yezbeck couldn't do anything for him."

"Well, at least that's over with."

"John!" Victor's shock was visible on his face, as was the surprise that the XO would speak so ill of the dead.

"Oh come on Vic," Carter thundered back. "He was dangerously unstable. Especially after the whole Bombay mess, and the Blackshirts are all over whatever happened on Cestus III." Carter stepped toward the door. "I've got a hunch that something very illegal went very wrong here."

The pressure door to the deuterium tank opened again. Heads turned as Doug Forrest walked in with A'Nathon and the rest of the Hazard Team in tow.

"Illegal and ill-advised I’d say", the Andorian hissed.

"You said you had a trump card A'Nathon." Carter stepped forward to look the Andorian officer in the eye. "Tell me what happened down there."

"Or what?"

"Excuse me? Do I have to make that an order?"

"An order which I'd have no business following. I answer to my Section Commander, Sir. Not you."

Next to A'Nathon, Doug Forrest looked at his Intelligence comrade. "Don't bluff this man," he cautioned. "Not now."

"It's all right Mister Forrest," Carter offered. "Can you still get to the duckblind?"

A'Nathon's healthy blue complexion paled.

"It . . . shouldn't be a problem, Commander."

"Ludicrous!" A'Nathon shouted. "It was the first thing the Gorn destroyed! There's nothing…" The Andorian stopped short he saw Carter's tell-tale smirk return. `That damned look!' A'Nathon cursed silently.

Since his dismissal from the U.S.S. Discovery some years ago, when a then Lieutenant John Carter had spit on thousands of years of tradition, A'Nathon remembered that smirk; the look of unbridled arrogance that the Andorian soon learned to see in all humans. Despite all his accomplishments for his line and his clan, one day in an artificial, holographically created desert had ruined it all. Now, it was happening again. A'Nathon had spent years recalling how that same look on John Carter's face was the last thing he saw as consciousness left him in desert heat. Apparently, that same look of cocky triumph was inescapable. A'Nathon's head dropped, and his antennae drooped forward against his dingy white hair.

"Thank you Mister A'Nathon." Carter said simply. "Mendoza, Deuce? You guys want to find our friend A'Nathon a place to stay for a little while?"

"I know just the place XO." Mendoza answered. He and Deuce took up flanking positions on A'Nathon and led the Andorian away.

"Ok Vic, where do we stand?"

Victor Virtus settled back into what served for his center seat and explained. "With the back-up core re-initiated, the saucer's cut off. Right now, McClintock has the bridge, but the entire bridge crew saw what happened to the Captain, so I'm sure they're just respecting the chain of command."

"That didn't stop them from relieving you of command Vic." Carter interjected.

"True John, but I'm also confident that your appearance changes things a bit. Tactically speaking, everyone on the bridge is cut off."

"Well that's something at least."

"Counselor Harris is keeping them in line."

"You're damned right she is." Carter chuckled a bit, then turned to look at Sean McTaggart "What about tactical? How many people does McClintock have in his camp?"

Sean rubbed his temples as he thought out the situation. "Hard to say sir," he finally offered. "He hasn't done anything to alienate the department, but he also hasn't been here all that long."

"So if push came to shove?"

"We'd follow you into Hell Commander."

John let an easy smile cross his face again. "That's good to hear, McTaggart. And…thanks." Carter put his hand on the junior officer's shoulder.

"No problem sir."

John looked back at Victor Virtus. "Ok, here's the plan. Forrest?" Carter said, looking back at the Intelligence Officer. "Do you guys have a back up data core?"

"Yes Sir. The main communications nexus is underneath the Cornucopia elementary school."

"Charming." Carter quipped. "Get down there and get me a copies of everything the duckblind recorded. Then cover your tracks."

"On it, Commander." Forrest said simply, then he left the tank and headed back to the cargo transporters.

"Vic, do we have communications?"

"Outgoing only, and only for the Saratoga. Republic is little more than a paperweight right now."

"Good enough. Ready a copy of the Captain's fight with the Gorn for broadcast to the Federation news net. Keep it in the buffer for three hours." Carter spun as he heard the doors to the `bridge' open again. It was Nat Hawk who, despite the stress of the last few hours maintained his easy stride."

"Y'all can relax. I just heard from sickbay. Yezbeck says that Doc's dad is gonna pull through. Rest `a the civvies are refusin' ta budge though. Won't leave the old man's side."

"I can live with that." Carter said, genuinely relieved to not have another death on his conscience. He cocked his head as Nat Hawk stood easy in the circle of officers that had formed in the tank. "How well do you know McClintock, Nat?"

"Bettern' his mom. Whatcha got in mind?"

"I want you to talk to him. See if he's really committed to these orders, or if we can solve this simply . . . for once."

"Uh not to pry Commander," Virtus intoned. "But what will you be doing?"

"Who me?" The Martian questioned mockingly. "Once Forrest gets back, I'm going to beam over to the Gorn flagship and surrender."

<location: deck 10, forward, U.S.S. Republic>

Sitting comfortably at his table in the cavernous and desolate crew lounge, his dirt-covered boots perched atop the tables illuminated surface with one leg crossed over the other, Nat savored a mouthful of Altarian Ale.  Echoing forth from every micro-speaker embedded throughout the walls was a piece of old earth music from a known as rock'n roll, a style Nat favored specifically above all others.  Though many argued it was 'chaotic' and 'primitive' compared to various other styles, Nat had never let that dissuade him from enjoying it - or from vocally and vehemently disagreeing with them.  If there was one thing he loved, it was a good fight, with or without fists.  He especially liked a good fight when he knew he could win, and he usually did when it came to the topic of rock'n roll.  After all, if it was good enough for a creative visionary like Zefram Cochrane, it can't be all that bad.

"Program complete." said the flat-toned voice of the ship's computer through the music playing.

"'Bout damn time," Nat replied.  "Computer, activate program." he ordered.  The program in question was not one typically put into use while in the ship's lounge enjoying a drink, but desperate times called for desperate measures.  So Nat had taken it upon himself to utilize an Intelligence-designed cipher program to provide him access to the ship's site-to-site transporters.

To that end, a dozen paces away - near the bar - the shimmering effect of a transport beam appeared, preceded by the familiar whine.  It was followed quickly by a moderately confused Starfleet Security Officer, who glanced around to gauge his location.  After a second, he spotted Hawk, and fired off a modestly annoyed glare at the pilot before vocally objecting to his 'abduction'.

"Nat?  What the hell is going on?" McClintock asked.  His tone was lacking in hostility due to their friendship, but it had a trace of something in it that Nat didn't like: attitude.  Not just any attitude either, but the smug and superior attitude typically laced deep into the vocal chords of nine out of ten Starfleet Intelligence Officers.

"Funny, I was 'bout ta ask ya the same question." Nat replied, taking another swig of his ale.

"How did you..?" McClintock began to ask, but then stopped before he'd finished his own question.

"Get on up from the surface, or get ya here ta ten forward?" Nat shot back, offering the two most likely questions on McClintock's mind.

"The latter." McClintock responded, his body language shifting as his irritation grew.

"Oh, well that was tha easy part.  Ya see, when ya go ta work fer those no good black-shirts, ya pick up a'couple'a tricks.  Like cipher programs that'll give ya site-ta-site transporter access." Nat replied, half lying.  In truth, Forrest had provided him with the program in question, as unlike authorization codes, you couldn't very well memorize a sophisticated computer algorithm.

McClintock snorted, crossing his arms and taking a step towards Nat.  "Let me guess," he said as he walked slowly, "Your on their side."

"Didn't know we'd dun drawn up 'sides' a Starfleet." Hawk replied like the smartass he was.

"If you think abducting me like this is going to change anything, your mistaken.  I would have thought you knew me better than that." McClintock replied, ignoring the remark.

"Abductin'?" Hawk replied, "Just thought I'd buy ya a drink s'all." Nat said, knocking the bottle of Altarian Ale on the table top over with one of his boots.

"Nat," McClintock said, dropping his arms to his side as he moved closer to Hawk, his attitude shifting quickly to a more friendly one, "There are things going on here, not just on the Republic but in all of Starfleet, that you don't know a thing about.  Things that are bigger than just this ship or this crew."

"Oh?  Like what?" Hawk asked, taking another gulp.

"It's... complicated." McClintock replied, hesitantly, as he sat down in the chair across from Nat.  Hawk in turn removed his boots from the table to the floor, noticing a coating of dirt sprinkled across the table as he did.

"Everthin's complicated, Jace.  Not a damned thing in this 'verse is un-complicated." said Hawk in response.

"Your right, but...this is too complicated to explain in any detail right now.  What I can tell you, and will tell you, is that I'm operating on orders from a higher authority.  Now I know that doesn't mean a whole lot to you, but like I said, this is beyond us or this ship, and I could really use your help here." McClintock said.

"Oh really?  What a coinky-dink, cause I was 'bout ta ask you for a hand with somethin'." Hawk answered.

"Alright," McClintock replied, "Lets see if we can't help each other out then, like friends should."

"Okey dokey.  Here's what I need," Hawk said, stopping to take a drink, "I need ya ta use whatever fancy-pants code ya got up yer sleeve ta unlock tha Command Codes."

"Alright, I might be able to do that.  I'll need to know why though." McClintock replied.

"Well duh, do I gotta spell it out for ya?" Hawk asked mockingly, "You ain't the cap'n.  Fer the moment, that'd be Carter."

McClintock's tone and attitude shifted quickly back to his more irate self of earlier.  "I can't do that.  No, wait, I can do that, but I won't do that."

"Well why the frinx not?" Hawk asked.

"Because Commander Carter isn't... he's not... he can't be trusted." McClintock finally uttered.

"Says who?" Hawk queried.

"Admiral Kostya of Starfleet Command." McClintock replied honestly.

"Hrm.  Names familiar, dunno how though.  Anywho, no concern a'mine.  Those codes are though." Nat said.

"Nat... I realize you've been here for a little while longer than I have, and you might have developed some sort of... loyalty or even friendship for some of these people, but... we've known each other a hell of a lot longer, and you should know that what I'm doing here is right.  I could really use someone like you at my side during all of this.  You know, like the old days?  During the war?" McClintock said.

"Heh, yeah, tha war." Hawk replied, grinning at the rush of nostalgia.  McClintock smiled as well.  "Yeah, tha one ya died in so ya could go off workin' fer those pricks at Intelligence.  Yeah, that was great, wasn't it?  Fakin' yer death while yer buds are stickin' their necks on the line, literally, life and death, day and night.  That was so much fun." Nat retorted.

"What do you want?" McClintock asked, bluntly.  The game of 'run around the issue' obviously over in his mind.

"I told ya.  Those Command Codes." Hawk replied, his tone serious - for him anyway.

"Out of the question." McClintock replied, pushing back from the table and standing up.

"I wasn't askin' ya." Hawk replied, lifting his right hand from his lap, a type-II phaser in his grasp.

McClintock snorted again, "Fine, go ahead, shoot me.  It won't get you those command codes any quicker."  For a few moments, Nat neither did nor said anything, glancing away from McClintock and through the massive viewports.  The Gorn armada could be seen in the distance, and beneath them, the harsh world of Cestus III.  The sight of a darker than normal area on the planets surface - the billowing cloud of dirt that had been the Gordonia mountain range - made Nat's choice for him.

"OK." He said simply.  Then he fired the phaser.

A golden-orange beam of phased energy shot forward from the phaser, slicing through the air at speeds somewhere below that of sound.  The beam also sliced through Lieutenant Jace McClintock's uniform and flesh on the edge of his left bicep.  The hot sting of a phaser set on a narrow beam was obviously brutal, and almost too much for McClintock to handle, as he stumbled back, his hand clutching the wound as hints of smoke smoldered from the burnt fabric.

"I'm gonna ask ya 'gain.  Release tha command codes." Hawk stated.

"What the hell's wrong with you?" Jace replied, astonished, struggling to speak through the certain agony pulsating through him.  A phaser on a narrow beam, typically reserved for cutting away rock or metal, was literally one of the top ten most painful experiences to endure from a weapon of any kind.  Not only did it cut deeper, faster, and with a sharper edge than anything in existence, but it had the added 'bonus' of burning like the surface of a sun as well.  "You've lost your mind... or your too drunk to know what your doing!" McClintock shouted.

Nat didn't say anything.  He simply stared at McClintock, his gaze unreadable - as passive as a Vulcans.  Without a seconds notice, he fired the phaser once again, this time sliding through the edge of his right thigh.  This time, McClintock fell to the ground and cried out in pain as he did, his hands both going to the newest wound, leaving the one on his left arm untended.  From his vantage point, Nat could see the sizeable drops of blood splattered on the carpet around McClintock.

"Ya remember that one time, Cap'n Sisko a'DS9 was 'board the Honshu when we where takin' Dukat to 621?  Ya know, right b'fore she got blown ta bits?" Hawk queried the wounded former friend and colleague.  "Found 'em in the holodeck on our reserved time playin' that ole game a his?  Baseball, was it?" Hawk asked.  "What's that rule 'bout three strikes n'yer out?"

Now Hawk stood up, and moved a few steps closer to the injured Security Officer, stopping and leveling the phaser at the mans chest.  Thumbing the controls, a few high-pitched beeps emanated from the phaser as it's setting was changed. 

“. . . You wouldn't.  I know you too well . . . your not that crazy, Nat.  Shooting me is one thing.  But you won't kill me." McClintock said, assuredly.

"You sure 'bout that?" Nat asked him.  "I mean, think 'bout it.  You die and the internal sensors'll pick it up.  They'll give those command codes ta somebody else, somebody maybe not so devoted 'er stubborn 'er stupid s'you."

McClintock looked around hastily, his eyes filled with panic.  Grimacing with pain, he pulled his hand from his wounded leg and tapped his communicator with a bloodied, shaking hand.  "McClintock to Security!" he called out.  When no response came, he tried again.  "McClintock to Bridge!" he shouted.

"D'ya think so lil of me that I wouldn't take yer comm-badge off-line?  Easy ta disable in transport." Hawk pointed out.

"You kill me, and you'll go to prison!  You can't survive in prison, Nat!  Your too much of a free spirit!" McClintock argued.

"Did I forget ta mention I'm the star witness fer the Federation against the Orion Syndicate?  I've got enough to take the entire bunch of 'em down." Nat said with a laugh.  "I think that, plus the ole self defense argument, prolly buy me a free pass on one itty bitty lil murder." Nat replied. 

"Your insane . . ." McClintock replied.

"Gimme the codes, Jace.  Last chance." Hawk said.

McClintock hesitated, his eyes shifting from the phaser to Hawk's face.  "No." he said finally.

"Wrong answer." Hawk replied with a sigh. 

Then he fired.

 

<location: Deuterium Tank 'Bridge', U.S.S. Republic>

"Commander Virtus," said the interim Tactical Officer, Pakita, from her make-shift station behind the Command Chair.  "I'm getting something from the main computer . . ." she said.  "The command codes, sir, they've been released to Commander Carter!" she exclaimed in surprise.

"Virtus to McTaggart," said the ever-collected Engineer, "Escort a Security Team to the Main Bridge and secure it.  Mister Buttenhoff will join you once you've completed that task." Virtus ordered. 

"Acknowledged." replied McTaggart from the Comm.

"Lieutenant, I want you to run a level one diagnostic on the command processors.  Ensure this isn't an attempt at subversion and that command control can, in fact, be restored to Commander Carter." Virtus ordered.

"Aye sir," replied Buttenhoff, leaving the Conn and glad to be off the hook.  "At least I didn't crash," he said to himself.

"Excuse me, Lieutenant?" Virtus queried.

"Nothing sir," Buttenhoff replied, exiting into the corridor.

Virtus then furrowed his brow slightly, something troubling him. "Ms. Pakita, how where the Command Codes restored?" he queried.

"Uh," replied the Lieutenant, looking over her console.  "I'm not sure sir.  It doesn't say." she replied finally.

"Hm." Virtus mused.  "Computer, explain transfer of command." he requested.

"Command codes where transferred upon the death of the current commanding officer." the Computer replied.

"What about Lieutenant McClintock?" Pakita asked of Virtus, "I thought he stole the command codes somehow?"

"Lieutenant Jace McClintock's life signs terminated at 17:01 hours." the Computer replied.

"What?" Virtus asked, standing up from the Command Chair.

"Lieutenant Jace McClintock's life signs terminated at 17:01 hours." the Computer replied.

"Computer, time?" Virtus asked.

"The time is 17:03 hours." the Computer replied.

Before anything else could be said or done, the doors to the make-shift bridge opened to admit Lieutenant Nathan Hawk.  Placing a phaser on the make-shift tactical console, he moved to Virtus' position.

"So how 'bout them command codes?" Hawk asked jovially of Virtus.

"Lieutenant?  What happened?  The Computer's just informed us Lieutenant McClintock's dead." Virtus said.

Hawk chuckled, "Computers, gotta love 'em." he said.  "Those damned things ain't to swift, ya know?" he said.

"Not really." Virtus replied, confused.

"Well, I tried it the Commander's way.  Talkin' an all that.  Jace is Jace though, stubborn n'stupid.  So I had ta kill 'em." Hawk replied.

"You murdered him?" Pakita asked in horror.

"Noooo!" Hawk replied with a laugh.  He then withdrew a hypo-spray from his pocket.  "Wounded 'em pretty bad, not ta mention stunned 'em, but I ain't a murderer." he said, holding up the hypo-spray.  "Neural Paralyzer." Hawk explained.  "Stops the heart and lungs, simulates death.  Standard stimulant brings 'em outta it.  Though he's gonna have a whopper of a headache from that phaser."

"You could have informed us of your plan in the first place, Lieutenant." Virtus said.

"Where's the fun in that?" Hawk asked, laughing once more.  Though he couldn't say for sure, Nat thought he saw the hint of a grin on Virtus' lips as well.

"Buttenhoff to Virtus," came Sven's voice through the comm.

"Go ahead, Lieutenant." Virtus replied.

"The bridge is secured sir.  Primary control can be restored at your command.  Everything checks out." said the German engineer.

"Very well.  We're on our way.  See to it that Alpha Shift reports to their duty stations immediately." Virtus ordered.

"Acknowledged." came Sven's brief reply.

"You know," Virtus said as he lead the way from the make-shift bridge, "we could have simply injected the Lieutenant by force.  There was no need to phaser him, repeatedly." Virtus pointed out.

"Maybe.  But hot damn, I just can't wait ta see the look on McClintock's face when the sonuvabitch wakes up!  He really thought I was gonna kill him for real!" Hawk said, laughing hysterically as the group entered the turbolift.

<Transporter Room, Deck 20. U.S.S. Republic>

John Carter paced back and forth in front of the transporter pad for what seemed to be the hundredth time. He stepped over to the console to conform the coordinates…again. Controls were set to send Carter to meet with Pack Leader G'Meth on the Gorn flagship. In the meantime, Carter had to wait.

Doug Forrest had been gone for 27 minutes. In that time, the crew had rallied around the command staff, and through a chain of events that Carter wasn't entirely sure of, Jace McClintock was dead; and yet not, and the Saratoga, which had been lost was found; and yet not. This was the part of command that John hated the most. The waiting. More specifically, the waiting for things to happen that he himself couldn't control to happen however they did so that John could in turn do something amazingly ill advised.

John turned to continue another circuit in front of the pad when the transporter whined to life. In seconds, the form of Commander Douglas Forrest appeared, and in his hand he held a small isolinear data module.

"Is that it?" Carter asked.

"Yep. Every scrap of sensor and log data the duck blind collected for the last six months." Forrest stepped forward to hand his XO the module.

Carter backed away slowly. "No, no." He said holding up both hands. "Right now I don't know WHAT's on that."

Forrest cocked his head. "And if you touch it, suddenly you'll know?"

"No, but having my prints on the thing makes it a lot harder to deny it's existence to the press, which I will have to do to save my career."

"Press?" Forrest felt his eyes widen. "No, Commander…John, you can't!" The Intel Officer tucked the data module into a pocket of his tunic. "I mean, copy it, destroy it, threaten to destroy whoever with it, but for GOD'S SAKE, you CANNOT go public with this."

"I disagree. It's really the only way out of this."

"How do you figure that?"

"Not playing straight with the Gorn is what got us into this mess in the first place. That's a mistake I mean to rectify. I'm not going to release the data to the public, but I am going to level that scales." Carter stepped toward the transporter pad.

"Need I remind you Commander that the Gorn just killed twelve hundred innocent people, and that grandstanding like this is what got Captain Marshall killed?"

"Believe me Forrest, I haven't forgotten. Just have that data ready to send to the Gorn ship when I call for it."

"But what about the colonists? Where's their justice if you simply surrender?"

It was a valid question, and as much as Carter wanted to explain his plan to his Intel Officer, John had to remember that whatever else he was, Forrest was still a Blackshirt, and therefore, not completely trustworthy. Carter cleared his throat and gave his fellow officer a hard determined stare. "I'm surrendering the planet in person because that's what the Treaty of Metron calls for." Carter shifted his weight slightly, hoping that Forrest would understand how set the XO was on this course.

"You can't be serious! Who negotiated that thing anyway?"

Even as Forrest was speaking, microscopic processors in his cerebellum were sifting through gigaquads of data, searching for the text of the Metron treaty. Many members of Starfleet suspected that the intelligence corps were extensively cyber-equipped, but only a very few knew how much, or indeed, how much data a `Blackshirt' had access to. Forrest's protests were the perfect cover as he reviewed the text in question, and concurred, surprisingly; Forrest had to admit, with Carter's analysis.

"Besides, if I don't make it back, you'll at least give Republic a fighting chance to get out of the system."

"True," Forrest said as his subconscious fugue state ceased. "But it may not be as one-sided as you think."

"Oh?"

"I checked the outgoing comm. logs, along with everything else…"

Carter crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Of course you did." He quipped.

"And just before the Gorn obliterated the mountain range, as the fire was coming down in fact, a coded distress signal went by subspace to Starfleet asking for emergency evacuation."

Carter felt his expression lighten. "So that means…"

"That since this area of space was hot before we even got here, there's probably a sizable force not far away."

"How close?"

"I'm not sure," Forrest admitted truthfully, "Could be days, most likely hours. So really, no one has t see this." Forrest said as he padded the pocket where the recovered data rested.

Carter remained resolute, though now more hopeful than he had been. "Actually, they do."

"Why!" Forrest questioned again.

"Because it's the right thing to do, damnit!"

"So's turning the Gorn to so much plasma!"

Carter felt his familiar smirk return. "Don't worry Forrest," Carter assured the officer. "I said I was going to level the playing field. I didn't say it was going to stay that way." Carter stepped back and checked his position on the pad. "Energize."

Forrest stepped to the controls, and in a swirl of light and sound,

John Carter was gone. Doug Forrest tipped an imaginary hat to the vacant transporter system. "Be seeing you . . . I hope."

***

In the interior of Fierce Claw, G'Meth and the First Sword sat contentedly. With fingers steepled before his eyes, the Pack Leader regarded his second in command, who had so cunningly dispatched the foolish human Captain. Finally, after nearly 100 years, Cestus III was wholly Gorn territory, and G'Meth had some measure of revenge on a man who had died long ago. Next to him, G'Meth saw that the First Sword was swaying. It was, for Gorn, a nervous gesture. "Patience First Sword," the elder saurian intoned, "You've already killed one human today. Perhaps there may ye be another."

"Perhaps, Pack Leader." The conversation seemed to calm the younger Gorn slightly.

 "If this Carter is as rash as his captain, then he too will know the Way of the Serpent."

"Indeed, Pack Leader." A hungry leer crept across the First Sword's lips as he spoke.

The triumph of the moment was disturbed as the Gorn comm. system beeped to life.

=\/= "Pack Leader, the human officer is on board." =\/=

"Excellent." G'Meth rasped confidently. "Show him every courtesy, and see that he is unharmed."

 =\/= "Yes Pack Leader” =\/=

Long minutes passed before the door to the Gorn meeting room opened with a mechanical whir. John Carter entered, flanked by two towering Gorn escorts. G'Meth, and the First Sword rose to greet him.

"Greetings human." G'Meth hissed. "You are Carter?"

John came to attention. "Commander John Thelonius Carter, acting captain of the U.S.S. Republic." Carter's face was nearly stone. He made sure to meet the Gorn commander's unblinking stare with his own. "In accordance with the treaty of Metron, and as a duly appointed representative of the United Federation of Planets, I hereby formally cede control of the Planet Cestus III to the Gorn Hierarchy, as is it's right through trial by combat."

The speech was formal and succinct, and not even close to the fiery words Carter wanted to use.

"You practiced that for a long time, didn't you mammal?" G'Meth said mockingly.

"I had a few minutes while the sensor crews tallied the dead on the surface."

The First Sword hissed and fingered his claws, but G'Meth raised a hand to stop his charge. "You hold your temper well for a warm-blood." The Gorn observed. "But tell me, Carter. What's to stop me from killing you here and now and atomizing your lone ship?"

"Honor." Carter answered simply.

"Bah!" The First Sword spat, "What do mammals know of honor?"

Carter stood unmoving, sizing up the power and strength of his foes. `I'll say this for Jim Marshall,' he thought silently. `He was no coward, that's for damned sure.' After a few seconds John spoke aloud. "I know that our word to you was broken, and that you have acted within your laws," Carter explained, though he had to choke back bile as he thought of the smoldering ruins of the Gordonian mountain range that had once been on the planet below.

"In exchange for safe passage out of this system, and time to evacuate of all Federation citizens willing to leave this system, I am offering to let you know what we know."

G'Meth was surprised at how steady the human's voice was. He could not help the question that came next. "And that is?" he asked.

 `Gotcha!' Carter thought again. The Martian cleared his throat. "I have in my possession all the information that Starfleet illegally collected during the last six months."

"And you would give it to us? Betray your own people?"

"Pha! Just like a mammal!" First Sword added.

"It's not betrayal when trust was broken by others first." Carter explained. "I call this…an equitable solution."

G'Meth paused, intrigued by Carter's offer. He regarded the First Sword, then looked at the human again. "Your solution is inventive human, I'll give you that." G'Meth slowly stroked a spot in the center of his chest, suddenly reminded of a decades old wound. "A trait I believe common in your species."

Carter nodded. "I take it then that you agree?"

"You are bold human," G'Meth offered, "but not rash or emotional. I approve." G'Meth said with condescension. "Contact your ship. Send me this…equitable solution."

Carter nodded and tapped his comm. badge. "Carter to Forrest."

=/\= "Standing by, Sir."=/\=

"Please send the Gorn flagship the peace offering we discussed."

Seconds later, a message came from the Gorn bridge confirming the presence of the Federation data.

***

Tense minutes ticked by as John Carter sat in the center seat on the bridge of the U.S.S. Republic, watching rainbow-flecked stars streak by on the viewer. "Report please, Mister Hawk."

Nat looked down at his own helm plot and watched as a green icon representing his ship crossed a virtual barrier. "Sensors confirm we're in `Fed space and well outta Lizard weapon range, XO."

Carter let out a sigh of relief, then tapped a stud on the arm of the command chair. "How many did we get Doctor Yezbeck?"

=/\= “Two hundred and six, bridge. They're pretty shaken up, but most are ok . . . physically at least." =/\=

"It'll have to do for now Doctor. Thank you."

"Sir!" The loud shout came form Sean McTaggart who occupied the tactical station on the highest point of the bridge. "Sensors show two Ambassador cruisers, four Payne destroyers and four Exodus class transports bearing dead ahead."

"Thank you Tac," Carter said calmly. "They're expected. How far out are they?"

"Twenty-two minutes, present speed." The relief in McTaggart's voice was palpable.

Next to Carter, Shannon Harris sat, giving the XO a stern look. "You knew they were coming, and you didn't tell us?" she whispered to John.

"Hell," he answered, "I didn't even know if I was still going to be breathing by now . . . "

"Don't remind me," she chided, in a small attempt at humor more than rebuke.

"But I was . . . hopeful." John waited a few seconds. "How long's it been Vic?" he asked.

The engineering sub-station on the bridge had a chronometer linked to the latest data from Starfleet command, who in turn calibrated with one-thousand, fifty-seven multi-spectrum sensor arrays that analyzed local celestial drift, gravimetric eddies, and corward spin. The clocks were unfailingly accurate.

Victor Virtus never needed them. "One hour, 15 minutes, 27 seconds . . . mark."

"Ok Vic, we're about to have some admirals over for a little chat, so we better air the dirty laundry before they get here. Send it out."

The com system chirped an affirmative.

As the crew looked on, puzzled, all John Carter could do was sit back, and wait for all hell to break loose.

<location: Federation Council Chamber, San Francisco, Sol III>

Over the years, member states of the United Federation of Planets have sent their respective ambassadors to Earth for representation in council.  Managing the legislative affairs of a vast interstellar alliance is a daunting task to say the least, and as the Federation grew over the years, so did the number of seats on the ruling body.  This has created a need for multiple remodels of the main chamber.  Although it has retained its bare, smooth metallic look (a deliberate design meant to assist delegates in keeping their discussions focused on the main issues and not be distracted by décor) the council seats now numbered in the hundreds with every planet represented as well as a Starfleet contingency.  Both sides of the room boasted the two houses of the council, the upper and lower house, and each were composed of ten rows of fifty seats allowing each member planet two representatives for each house.  The entrance side of the chamber contained two, freestanding light sconces on both sides of the main door.  A three-story viewscreen remained affixed to the far wall of the room, with the speaker podium and presidential entourage located to either side.

Now, at the commencement of a closed-door council meeting, the screen displayed the wreathed symbol of the Federation as the representatives engaged in dialog regarding the Cestus Three situation.  The president himself, a balding Andorian named Wolack D’lara, stood at the podium with the standard presidential robes and hovered over the text manifest and notepad assembled by his staff.

“The question, Senator Groth,” the president addressed the Zakdorn delegate in the upper house.  “Is not whether we should respond to the Gorn aggression, but whether the aggression was warranted at all.”

“Our approach is a mistake,” came the higher pitched, raspy response from the senator.  “The correct tactical answer would be to bring Starfleet to red alert and divert every vessel in the sector, as well as adjacent sectors, to the system.”

In the front row of the upper house, four white-uniformed Starfleet admirals; three with the collar insignia of full admiral and one with that of the fleet admiral, Johan Morozov, sat silently while they listened to the politicians debate.  From the rear of the house seating arrangement, another officer in a white class-A uniform made their way forward to the officers in the front row.  It was Vice Admiral Katherine Janeway, the lowest ranking of the fleet admiral’s staff.  She quietly and unobtrusively slipped into the empty seat next to the highest-ranking admiral in Starfleet, also known as the "C-in-C", or commander-in-chief.

"You're late," the gray-haired fleet admiral whispered to Janeway without looking at her. It was a cold whisper, almost mocking, leaving no doubt of his disapproval or lack of surprise at her belated arrival.

"I was delayed," she addressed the C-in-C with an equally cool, non-apologetic manner. It was clear that the two regarded one another with something less than that of a colleague. Indeed, the intercourse seemed more like a stern teacher scolding an unruly student than that of a smooth-working professional staff. As the other three admirals slid Janeway a stoic glance, the triplicate set of icy eyes communicated a scornful, almost belligerent overtone.

Looking around quizzically, Janeway scowled in puzzlement.

"Where's Admiral Kostya?" she asked Morozov, as she was used to seeing her professional opponent along with the rest of the fleet admiral's staff.

"On a classified assignment," he whispered back.

"That being?" she continued the line of questioning.

"Classified," the Morozov replied shooting her a snobbish look. Although he knew perfectly well that Janeway was cleared to know the whereabouts of the rest of the staff, the fleet admiral took the motto of "need-to-know" when dealing with classified affairs -- especially in regards to Kathryn. It appeared she was left out of the loop yet again.

This was a normal working day in the life of Admiral Janeway. As the most junior on the C-in-C staff, she was often on the receiving end of the rookie jokes. However, as they tested her loyalties, and discovered her personal moral to embrace peace above all else, the rest of the admiralty in the normally close-knit entourage grew cold to her. Soon, she found herself an outsider among this group of people, and it was this realization than led her to the dark discovery of the hawks versus dove movement within Starfleet. Needless to say, she was the only dove on the C-in-C staff.

Yes, it would have been easy to quit. In fact, she seriously considered it after being promoted to this post by the Starfleet Services Committee of the Federation Council. Kathryn got the job by being more of a celebrity than an efficient bureaucrat, as her time in the Delta Quadrant had made her a living legend among the council as well as the common citizen. It was this pop idol status that forced the fleet admiral to keep her on his staff despite his opposition to her dovish views. Still, it didn't keep him from making Janeway's life hell.

From her point of view, Kathryn was the only dove in Starfleet that could get this close to the hawk's inner circle. She was a diamond in the rough, and she knew it. It was her stubborn side that refused to allow her to resign from the C-in-C staff.

"Our situation," a smooth Vulcan voice commented through the loudspeakers from the lower house stand. "Is the result of miscommunication with the Gorns. Since our long-range sensor network indicates that Gorn battleships have opened fire on Cestus, and the Starship Republic has gone silent shortly after Captain Marshall's reported death, the most logical outcome would be that our peace envoy has failed. I must concur with Senator Groth that the time to hold back a retaliatory strike has passed. We must take action."

From the upper house, a bald-headed Deltan stood up and addressed the assembly. "Mister President, if I may?"

"The floor recognizes Senator Jilara from Delta Four," the aged Andorian president announced.

"I would like to call for a vote to authorize Starfleet to respond to the unwarranted aggression."

"So noted," the president responded. In the upper house stand, Fleet Admiral Morozov allowed a slight smile to creep across his lips while the rest of his staff, except Admiral Janeway, relaxed their positions and looked to one another in anticipation.

"Federation Council Decree number 1342, the authorization to use military force against the Gorn Hegemony has been brought to the floor for a vote.  We ask that all members of the council enter their vote at this -- "

The front doors to the chamber flew open, cutting off the president in mid-sentence. A white-robed human followed by three others in formal gray-suited apparel, rushed into the council chamber. It was Viceroy Haakanson, the president's public-relations attaché. Whispers of surprise murmured among the conglomeration of delegates.

"What's the meaning of this intrusion, viceroy?" the president asked the newcomer. "This council is convened in a critical vote! Explain yourself immediately!"

"Many apologies, mister president," the gray-haired official replied, his voice echoing off the chamber walls. "This couldn't wait for dissemination through your staff. There's a situation occurring at this time that is directly related to the council's deliberations. May I have the council's permission to present the information?"

Whispers were shared among the crowd as the president slammed his gavel on the podium. "Order!" he bellowed. "Viceroy, you have exactly thirty seconds before I have the guards escort you out of the chamber. Proceed."

The viceroy quietly consulted one of his gray-suited escorts who punched several commands into a handheld PADD. Almost immediately, the olive-wreathed symbol of the Federation on the viewscreen disappeared and was replaced by a rocky terrain where a Gorn and Starfleet captain were standing.  They appeared to be engaged in combat as the two held aloft swords of alien design.

"We have breaking news at this hour at our beta-quadrant network affiliate," came a gruff Tellarite announcer over the loudspeaker. "Sources in the Cestus system, a border colony near Gorn space, have revealed that a reported communications blackout that has been plaguing the sector for the past week has in fact been caused by a pre-emptive attack by the Gorn Hegemony. Previous reports on this situation have indicated the blackout was caused by heightened ionic disturbances in the area triggering a commercial travel restriction by the Federation Trade Commission. However, it is now confirmed that approximately twenty Gorn battleships have taken up orbit around the Cestus Three colony and initiated a so-called "reclamation" operation in attempts to annex that part of Federation space. The number of Federation casualties are uncertain, but it is known that the lone Starfleet vessel in the system, The U.S.S. Republic, has in fact lost their captain during a hand-to-hand fight with a member of the Gorn fleet as seen in this footage.  Captain James Marshall was reported dead at 2348 hours yesterday evening by the ship surgeons. Although the Marshall family could not be reached for comment, we have learned that the Federation Council has convened a closed-door emergency session at this hour to discuss the situation.  Reporters are standing by outside the council chambers and will transmit more information on the Cestus Three invasion as it becomes available . . ."

The crowd of senators, which was once quietly whispering among themselves, erupted into a frenzy of words and shouting matches as the surprised and shocked politicians reacted to the news leak. At least sixty seconds of chaos ensued where members of the Starfleet contingency looked at one another with calm resolve.

Kathryn Janeway, on the other hand, appeared much more disturbed than before. She knew that if the public was aware about the invasion, outrage would soon follow, and the council would be forced to vote for military action.  Since they didn't yet know about the intelligence post, the council would be playing right into the hawk's hands. If the doves tried to reveal the intelligence outpost now, without proof from a ground observer, it would completely undermine their position. Now, with the Republic not responding to hails, there was no way to confirm what was going on down on the ground.

A furrow developed in her forehead, and she placed a finger to her chin as her mind raced as to what to do. Kathryn was about to call her aide camp, Ensign S'kak, when she caught sight of the young female Vulcan making her way through the crowd and over to the admiral's position in the upper house.

"Order!" shouted the Andorian Federation president. "Order! We MUST have order in this chamber!" Although the crowd of astonished delegates slowly calmed down at several more impacts of the president's gavel, Admiral Janeway was becoming wide-eyed with anticipation as she looked back at the ensign.

"Are you sure?" she replied to her Vulcan assistant who whispered something in her ear. The other admirals seated next to her to look at the two quizzically.

"If everyone would please re-take their seats!" the president attempted to calm the crowd. There were still loud whispers and a few vocal conversations being shared among the council body as Janeway whispered something back to Ensign S'kak, and the young aid quickly made her way to the back of the chamber.

"I think at this point," the president continued. "This council should immediately resume the vote for military action, since Viceroy Haakanson's disclosure brings an even stronger sense of urgency to the floor -- "

"Mister president!" another, higher-pitched yet commanding voiced echoed off the walls of the chamber.

"Kate!" yelped Fleet Admiral Morozov. "What the hell are you doing?" It was Vice Admiral Janeway who was standing now, beckoning the president's attention.

"Mister president! I believe that the course of these proceedings may be affected by yet another disclosure of information!"

"Kate! Sit back down immediately! That's an order!" Morozov was now yelling at Janeway.

"As you were, Admiral Morozov," the president sternly reprimanded the C-in-C. "If Vice Admiral Janeway wishes to present information to this council, she is authorized to do so."

"Mister president" gasped Morozov. "She did not consult me on this information! She needs to follow the chain-of-command!"

"Considering the urgency of the situation," the Andorian politician explained.  "I don't believe another layer of bureaucracy would benefit us at the moment.  Please continue, Admiral Janeway."

Apparently, being a celebrity had its benefits occasionally.

"Thank you, mister president," Kathryn calmly replied with dagger-filled eyes emanating from the Fleet Admiral. "Starfleet Material Command and the Office of Colonization have confirmed that the 512th Colonization Fleet received a priority one distress call from the Cestus Three colony."

"From the colony itself?" the president asked.

"Yes, sir. As of ten minutes ago, the frequencies that were jamming the Cestus communications network were lifted, and the entire sector automatically went to priority one alert. The 512th Colonization Fleet was the closest Starfleet contingent and responded immediately. We have a live report from Captain Livingston. If I may, sir?"

Janeway pointed to the screen that was broadcasting the now silent news footage of Captain Marshall and the Gorn first officer fighting on the Cestus moon. The president nodded, and S'kak, who had made her way to the communications console, switched the viewscreen to an image of the bridge of an Ambassador Class cruiser where a black, curly-haired Captain rose to his feet.

=/\= "Greetings, Admiral Janeway." =/\=

"Hello Captain Livingston," Janeway called out. "I'm sorry to put you on the spot like this, but the situation is so critical that the Federation Council itself needs to hear your report."

=/\= "I understand, admiral. We've just arrived at the Cestus system, and we're engaged in a full evacuation of Federation citizens with permission from the Gorn government. We rendezvoused with the Republic, and as I'm sure you know, they're having communications difficulty. However, they've confirmed that the Gorn attack was prompted by a violation of the Metron Treaty." =/\=

Again, whispers of surprise and shock rippled through the council chamber. A few heated arguments started, but were quickly subdued by the pounding of the president's gavel and the anticipating crowd whose thirst for information was not yet quenched.

"What violations are we talking about, Captain Livingston?" the president calmly asked.

=/\= "Sir, the Republic has discovered an illegal Starfleet intelligence outpost operating in the system. They confirmed it by capturing one of their operatives, and acquired the data they've accumulated over the last two years. By that violation, the treaty clearly dictates that the colony now falls under Gorn sovereignty." =/\=

Just as when the news footage was released, the chambers again burst into a chorus of arguments and counter arguments that barely allowed for Janeway to signal S'kak to close the subspace channel. The shouting was fierce, with many outraged at the annexing of Federation territory, and others just as upset about the confirmed treaty violation. Perhaps the only people who were silent among the infuriated delegates were Fleet Admiral Morozov and Vice Admiral Janeway, whose cold working relationship just reached a new level of abhorrence for one another. As the two locked stares, only the repeated slamming of President D'lara's gavel in his attempts to regain order interrupted the turmoil surrounding them.

Several minutes passed before order was restored, and as the delegates took their seats once again, the president spoke with a voice of carefully restrained emotion. Nevertheless, it was clear he was quite disturbed.

"Admiral Morozov," he addressed the C-in-C.

"Yes sir," the now very nervous admiral replied, working diligently to maintain his composure.

"I want a full investigation into the existence of this outpost, and why it never reached the floor of this chamber."

"Right away, sir."

"In the meantime," the president continued. "We should proceed with the vote on military action against the Gorn Hegemony."

"Sir," Janeway spoke up again, drawing yet another flabbergasted expression from Morozov. "I believe that any motion to authorize retaliation against the Cestus invasion would be a mistake at this point."

"Admiral Janeway, are you suggesting we just hand Cestus over to the Gorns?"

"Mister President, it's either that or we go to war. If we go to war, we'll be in violation of the Articles of Interstellar Law. The entire Alpha and Beta quadrants will plunge into chaos as other civilizations consider their treaties with the Federation as shallow and meaningless."

"That's preposterous!" shouted Fleet Admiral Morozov. "Non-Federation worlds wouldn't dare challenge our word! Do you honestly think that they would nullify their accords with us over a simple treaty misinterpretation by a backwards, bloodthirsty reptilian culture?"

"Anyway we choose to put spin on it, Mister President," Janeway continued, completely ignoring Morozov. "The Metron Treaty was broken . . . by us.  Now, we can either live up to our mistake and save lives by handing over the colony, or we can embrace the lie that we're blameless and cause the deaths of millions."

An unusual moment of silence passed in the chamber.

"I concur that position, mister president," a voice finally called out from the Betazed delegation.

"As do I, mister president," the Benzite ambassador agreed.

A few more voices of support chimed in following the first two, with little resistance by any opposed. It appeared that, in the light of a flagrant treaty violation, anyone who wished the Cestus colony to remain as Federation territory was forced to remain silent.

"So noted," the president replied. "Federation Council Decree number 1342 is hereby rescinded on the grounds that it would violate article thirty-four of interstellar law."

The council meeting lasted another hour where final arrangements were made for an official investigation into the Cestus intelligence operation as well as some carefully worded response statements for the press. Although Admiral Janeway was alone as the only dove on the Fleet Admiral's staff, she knew that he wouldn't dare fire her now. The hawks had just received a devastating blow, and Kathryn couldn't wait to thank the people who provided her the ammunition for that breakthrough. Although she took no joy in knowing that her job at Starfleet Headquarters had just become more difficult in the coming days, with the entire C-in-C staff giving her the cold shoulder, Kate would relish this moment as the chamber doors opened, and the Hawks would cook in the stew of the media spotlight. For the first time in a very long time, she felt her job was worthwhile.

     
 

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